I was twelve when my grandfather told me not to date any Puerto Rican boys. We were sitting across from one another in the Brooklawn Diner in South Jersey, in a big green leather booth in the non-smoking section, which he loudly and distinctly requested each time we walked in.
This was in contrast to the smoking section, where he sat the other six days of the week, when I wasn’t with him. The owner would give him a pronounced nod, and say, “Right this way, sir,” but the waitresses would sometimes blow his cover and ask, “What are you doing over on this side, hun?” He hid his smoking from his family, which was something we had in common for a brief period later on. Fifteen years later, when I was twenty-seven and he was very close to the end of his life, I can remember sneaking out the back door of his house after giving him his medication and getting him to sleep. I sat crying and smoking on his patio, the moon reflecting off of the overgrown ivy leaves in glints like a disco ball. I thought about waking him to come outside with me, but I didn’t.
We almost certainly ordered pancakes and eggs that morning, with a coffee for him and a very large chocolate milk for me, dark and thick from too much syrup. Although it’s possible we were talking about the boy band Menudo, my best guess at how we got onto the subject is that I mentioned Marco, a boy at school who wore very cool black-and-white checkered shorts. Either way, it was 1990, and I was talking to my then-sixty-five-year-old grandfather about Puerto Ricans.
And out of nowhere, he said: “If you dated a Puerto Rican guy, I wouldn’t really come around anymore.”
I don’t recall how I responded outwardly, but I felt like I had been pushed, hard, in the back. My grandfather was, at that time, my best friend. And I wasn’t dating Marco (even in the adorable way that twelve-year-olds could hold hands or pass notes and call it dating), but I did occasionally crank call him with my friend Karla on Friday night sleepovers. Because I liked him.
I’m four months out from my wedding. My fiancé, who has been my partner for more than five years, is not Puerto Rican, but his Indian skin is, in fact, similarly dark and gorgeous and Marco-like. Our Hindu-American mash-up wedding has been the source of much family unrest. My partner and I find ourselves walking around in a state of near-constant upset, working all angles of negotiation, throwing emotional and logical appeals at our otherwise delightful parents weekly in an effort to show them what we see as the beauty of two families, two cultures, blending, evolving.
My grandfather’s wife, my grandmother, had passed away when I was nine, three years before we found ourselves sitting at that diner. When she was alive, I didn’t have a whole lot of access to my grandfather. I saw him often, but my grandparents were of the generation where the men rode up front and the ladies in the back on a double-date, and spending time with their grandchildren wasn’t too different. My brother, older than me by six years, spent time with Pop at the arcade, while my grandmother and I would go off on our own to the Ben Franklin to look for doll clothes. We’d reconvene for dinner somewhere in the mall food court, but ultimately, our time was mostly split along gender lines.
And so I didn’t know my grandfather very well until he was a widower in his mid-sixties, which was also around the time that he retired and sold his printing shop, and that my brother, at fifteen, aged out of spending Friday nights riding shotgun in my grandfather’s Baltic Blue Cadillac. At nine years old, though, there was nothing I’d have rather done at the end of a long week of fourth grade than to hit up the Olive Garden and then spend two hours at Waldenbooks in the Deptford Mall, and that happened to be my grandfather’s idea of a good time, too.
He said to my mother, “I never thought I’d find another lady to spend time with, but I have.” He was talking about me.
He evolved after my grandmother died, and in odd, delightful ways. He took up baking, and, to sustain the habit, we sometimes went blueberry picking over in Ocean County. He made fudge and went on trips. He dated. Before my grandmother died, I had what would have perhaps been the chapter headings of his biography—Childhood During the Depression and World War II Soldier and Sunday School Teacher and Active Lions’ Club Member—but after her death, when we began spending time alone together, I learned the more nuanced—and infinitely more interesting—stories.
During Prohibition, while his father made extra money running moonshine, my grandfather had sat on top of the blanket-covered barrels in the back of the car. I heard about his time in Okinawa and Oahu during the war, never stories about combat or death, but about the time he had his head shaved on the beach and his discomfort with the way the women in Japan had walked a few paces behind him. Although my grandparents didn’t have a great relationship, I learned that they had gone dancing every Saturday night of their married lives, even when they hadn’t said a word to each other in days.
I thought about what my grandfather had said in the diner all that afternoon while we walked up and back along the Ocean City boardwalk, stopping for ice cream and to stare at the circling sea gulls. I thought about it all night in my purple bedroom, and the next day at school. When I got home that afternoon, I called him.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said yesterday, that if I ever dated—“
“I was thinking about that, too,” he interrupted, “and I don’t know why I said that. That’s not true.”
“It wouldn’t matter?” I was stunned and pleased.
“Nothing would keep me from coming to see you. I’m sorry. Can we forget I said that?”
Relieved, I said we could. But, of course, I didn’t. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that even if we forgive, we seldom actually forget. Words, especially those that are strikingly out of character, stay with us long after reparations are made. The apology-command, “Forget I said that,” is fruitless. It’s something more like a metaphor. At best, “Forget I said that” means, “Let’s please act, please pretend, as if I never said that.”
I’m surprised by how often I wonder what he would make of this wedding. He would attend—our phone conversation twenty-four years ago assures me of that. But I can’t quite imagine his facial expression as I enter the hall wearing my ornate saree, heavy bangles lining my arms, a gold piece hanging from the part of my hair onto my forehead. I try to picture him dancing amid a sea of darker faces, my future husband’s family, in his stiff late-seventies suit. Would he try the samosas? What would he make of the Ganesh statue, or the fire we’ll circle during the ceremony?
He’d love my future husband; I am sure of that. They are both spiritual but notably private about it. A perfect night in both of their minds is a book and a fire and a Manhattan. They both laugh a lot and tell really good stories, in which they are never the hero, despite often being one in life. They both, I think, see or saw themselves as a character open to change.
The version of my grandfather who was a little boy swimming in South Jersey creeks and riding on the moonshine barrels had to evolve into a uncompromising soldier, eating eggs on the beach in Japan. And that man turned into a husband, and then the father of a little boy, and then the father of a man, and then a father-in-law. He became a grandfather who built elaborate dollhouses for his granddaughter and attempted to skateboard with her on the back patio. When she gave them to him, he read books like Breakfast of Champions and Love in the Time of Cholera.
From 1925 to 2007, he was many different people, and so it is with mostly honesty that I imagine him joyful at my wedding, open to the unfamiliar, thrilled by the love between my partner and I, and dancing in celebration of everything that can happen, everything that can change.
JESSICA MCCAUGHEY’s writing has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Best American Travel Essays, Gulf Coast, and a variety of other literary magazines. Jessica teaches academic and professional writing at George Washington University, and she lives in Virginia with her husband.
We had reached that routine-but-often-dramatic juncture in testimony when the victim is asked to point to his assailant and describe what the perpetrator is wearing.
It shouldn’t have been difficult.
Richard Ackerman—gaunt, pockmarked, in his mid-thirties—had finished telling how he was beaten and robbed by two men. One suspect had eluded police but today the other, a blond, sneering youth in a navy-blue jail jumpsuit, sat at the defense table with his lawyer. “He’s right there,” Ackerman said. “He’s got red hair and he’s wearing a black cape.”
On this slow courthouse afternoon in 1981, a nutty, disruptive event taking shape in what should have been an ordinary string-up for a standard-issue mugger could turn into column inches. Journalist me, in the public section, leaned forward. After a pause, the prosecutor sighed. Fists on hips, he regarded Ackerman: a problem. And a problem not for the first time in Rockford, Illinois.
“Let’s start over,” he said. “Can you point to the person who did this to you, and describe what he’s wearing?”
Ackerman’s deep-set eyes darted at three people in the benches with me: a young woman (probably the defendant’s girlfriend); a retiree picking his teeth with his fingernail (he was a courthouse regular); and me, in my red plaid shirt, sniffing out a possible story.
“There,” Ackerman decided. “He has brown hair and he’s wearing a red plaid shirt.”
I doubt Ackerman remembered me. More likely he panicked and, believing he had done the wrong thing, sought to fix his blooper—may it please the court —by the quickest available means. But I won’t forget Ackerman.
Nine years old, summer, I trudge across the Whitman Street Bridge, aimed for the Burpee Museum of Natural History, where I will traipse the creaky floors—alone but for the stout curator, who checks me sideways—amid the stuffed birds and the glassed-in replicas of dinosaurs. Visit to visit, they stay the same, which pleases me and lets me down. A fatherless boy, I become an appreciator of artifacts.
I don’t notice Ackerman until he is beside me, and says hello.
A teenager with bombed-France acne scars, he wears an East High School jacket (cloth vest, fake leather arms) despite the heat. I’m already scared because of the bridge—height, water—and now this. His eerie solemnity and a slow manner, like a spider about to strike. Apropos of nothing he volunteers that he owns one hundred pairs of Levi’s jeans and sleeps at night in a coffin. Do I want to see the jeans, the coffin?
I run like a kid in flames.
In the following weeks, Ackerman pops everywhere in my neighborhood. The other boys, I discover, know all about him. “Has he showed you his dick yet?” Mickey Lindell wants to know. Everybody laughs. Ackerman, they say, is always talking about his denims and casket, and asking boys to visit his house. (Nobody does). And, at every opportunity, Ackerman is showing his dick.
Later I find out his first name and miss the pun. He terrifies me. All the grown men of our households have abandoned us—because of me, somehow, I believe. My father leaves my mother who sends me for raising to my grandmother, whose husband abandons her for another woman the year after I arrive. I am bad luck for grown-ups, goes my mantra, bad luck. Later, twice divorced, I will become bad luck for myself. But today this Ackerman apparently wants to be my big brother. When I tell my slightly-older-than-me uncle about Ackerman, he says, “I’ll bust his face!” but he’s laughing, too, and plainly useless.
Thanks to the ever-present jacket and his distinctive posture—rigid, soldier-like—I can spy Ackerman a block away, make detours. For the rest of my years in grade school, I manage to evade him. Other boys, I hear, are less fortunate.
My mother remarries and we relocate a few miles west of town. High school comes and goes. I suffer college briefly, and drop out for my first job in journalism, covering cops and courts.
Again, still, Richard is everywhere.
He keeps getting busted on misdemeanors—disorderly conduct and, of course, indecent exposure. At this point I’m equipped to see the humor in his escapades, which I chronicle for the newspaper with quiet glee. What an embarrassment to his family, Ackerman! Especially his older brother, a cop who ends up taking Richard into custody on his most serious offense, car burglary.
Officer Ackerman must have included in his narrative the make and model of the vehicle his brother pried into with the crowbar. Later I wished I’d had the sense to track this information down. Didn’t seem important at the time, but it would later.
“There,” Richard said, and pointed at me in court. “He has brown hair and he’s wearing a red plaid shirt.”
The prosecutor shook his head, the judge grinned into the sleeve of his robe, and the public defender leaned back in his chair, half-smiling as if Ackerman’s horse had crossed the finish line first but would shortly be disqualified.
“Fifteen-minute recess,” the judge said.
The trial ended with a guilty verdict for Ackerman’s attacker. Over the years, Ackerman continually found for himself more low-grade trouble. Free on bail, Richard he misbehaved again.
He joined an open-casket funeral where he didn’t belong. Until someone singled out this odd stranger, Ackerman spent long minutes gazing at the body—almost meditatively, a mourner told me later. Officers had to drag him away. In another incident, Ackerman complimented the ass of a sign painter downtown, who didn’t see the humor, and gave chase. “You’re cute when you’re mad!” the fleet-footed Richard yelled over his shoulder, according to the police report. Repeatedly, incorrigibly, Richard showed his dick.
After the car burglary, the state made a move to revoke Ackerman’s probation and send Ackerman to prison for a while. (This clownish freak!) I flipped through the weighty file. A manila envelope slid into my lap: the pre-sentence report, a confidential document that clerks are instructed to remove before handing over any paperwork. Secret because it contains hearsay—interviews by officials with family, friends, and associates, material used by the judge to decide whether to give the probationer another chance or lock him up. I opened it.
Although, in my published account of the matter in re: Ackerman, I couldn’t quote from material that I was never supposed to see, but I’m at liberty to tell you here. Richard is beyond harm. He died in 1998.
His mother said in the report that Ackerman had not been normal since he was a lad—not since about the age I was when I met him, not since the day he tapped his pale father on the shoulder, shook him gently, and opened the car door wider to let the cold body fall sideways onto the garage floor. Tailpipe smoke must have floated around them, boy and man. His mother found him running in circles and screaming. The report does not disclose if the car is a Ford or Chevy or Oldsmobile. I wonder if things might match up.
Match up, like two images of him that persist for me. Ackerman in frantic motion, dizzy from the carbon monoxide and from whatever this loss had begun to mean for his soul, never fully known or understood, maybe, by him. Surely not by me.
And then Ackerman on the witness stand, trying to make right his wrong. His finger extends at me, the plaid-shirted one, an ill portent—the damned boy who makes the men run away. As if I am again and forever accused.
RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
I am the straight leg of a capital D: leaning towards the curved window and wall of an airplane, insistent, staring at the arc of the horizon. I’m in between deep space and blue sky and white clouds and brown earth. I have to tell myself to stop holding my breath. The sun keeps setting faster as I fly east, towards the hospital where you, my niece, are about to be born. It’s getting darker and darker.
Last week your uncle Josh called me, walking to his bus stop in Seattle after work. He was on his way back to Tacoma, where we live. His voice was uncharacteristically high and tight, and he was slightly out of breath. “My grandpa died,” he said.
“Oh, hon,” I said. Exhaled. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he said, but he hesitated.
I took a deep breath, too. From the first time I met him some twenty years ago, Grandpa Dave greeted me with an exclamation point, every time, every year: “Hey, Tamiko!” he’d say, and give me a big hug.
What it has meant for me to live in this space where death and birth follow each other so closely? It has felt like both parts of a capital D: the straight rigid line, the soft curving out, both lines working together to create an open space. Something like a mouth. Something like the halves of an ancient chapel door. Something sacred.
I’m flying from Washington State, where I live with my family: your uncle Josh, your cousins, who are my daughters. All of us can’t wait to meet you for the first time. I’ve had your first picture, a fuzzy ultrasound, on my desk in our kitchen. I’m flying down the West Coast to the Bay Area, where your mother and father went to school. From there I’ll take a different plane that travels south over Monterey, where your parents were married, then make a left and head farther south and east into Texas. I’ll return to Seattle after that. The round trip looks like a D on the map. D for death? I think and quickly push the thought away.
The day before my flight, I was on a freeway ramp, racing back from a meeting to pick up your cousins from school. I got a series of texts from your mother. She was going to the hospital to be induced, she said, because a number of risk factors indicated the increased possibility of stillbirth. My anxiety skyrocketed. I started to make myself breathe deeply, calling on every single mind-trick that I knew from yoga to calm myself down.
Maternal deaths in childbirth are much less frequent these days, but somehow I can’t help but project into the very worst-case scenario. Your mother and I already lived through some of the worst together, when our father died so many years ago. She was six years old, and I was ten. If I am facing the prospect of your death or your mother’s, it is because your mother and I met death intimately as children. The worst and unthinkable has already happened to us, and so death never feels very far from me.
During the first part of the trip, I can’t think about very much else but you. I don’t know just when you’ll arrive, but I know you’re really on your way now. On the plane ride I sip plastic cups of ginger ale, refuse the snack mixes. I’ve just turned to a chapter in the book I’m reading. Believe it or not, the chapter is called “It’s A Girl!” But as it turns out, the child in the book is stillborn. I breathe out. I close the book, put it in the seat pocket in front of me. D is for daughter.
I don’t want anything like stillbirth hovering close to your arrival. But the word’s been mentioned by doctors often enough that the specter’s there anyway. Until now I haven’t known that kind of haunting, the specific terror that your uncle Josh felt during both of my pregnancies: the terror of something bad happening to mother or child or both. He hid it well. I was too focused inward to notice, towards growing and welcoming life.
On the plane I’m thinking about a character from a TV show that your mama and I both adore: Downton Abbey. In one episode, a much-loved sister dies of complications from her daughter’s birth. In my mind I am watching that episode, watching a loop of that endless minute, watching that character shudder through a violent seizure and die.
Our grandfathers died before your mother and I were born. Adoptive grandfathers were special to us. So Grandpa Dave was one of the only grandpas I knew, even though he was really your uncle Josh’s grandfather. At ninety-two, Grandpa had lived a beautifully long life. He retired some thirty-five years ago, spent most of his retirement at his own house and at his daughter’s house in the very last few years. He lived to see many grandchildren and even several of his great-grandchildren.
Grandpa Dave and I connected very early after we met, most often through food. Cooking food with him and for him—he loved to watch me cook with Josh, together—was one of the greatest pleasures of our trips home. He cured his own olives, grew and harvested his own avocados. His daughters and grandchildren used to call him every Christmas morning to talk about how many raviolis they’d made together at their houses. Grandpa Dave loved trying sukiyaki and egg rolls from our family’s New Year’s gatherings and he loved my family’s recipe for teriyaki sauce. Food was central to his life as it has been in mine, good simple food. He grew up with very little, but savored so much.
Caught one plane, about to catch another, I am still tense. I don’t watch the news on the TV screens. Only later do I find out about the attacks in Paris and Beirut. Instead, I walk miles in the airports so I can walk through some of that tight energy. I am taut like a bow before it’s released the arrow, I am the arrow flying towards you. Are you here yet?
At the end, Grandpa didn’t have any prolonged suffering or hospital stays. He woke up one morning feeling badly. He had difficulty breathing. He just didn’t come back from the emergency room that day. And in the grand scale of deaths, his was as good a death as might be wished.
For the holidays we will go to California to visit our families, as we do every year. But I can’t believe I’m not going to be able to hug Grandpa in his flannel shirt, watch him take off his glasses, see him rub his forehead, hear the exclamation point in his voice.
In storytelling rules, this is where I should probably talk about your mama—my little sister—and how much I love her. I can tell you about her first cries, all the way from the delivery room and in the elevator and into the nursery. I was four years old. I can tell you where I was sitting on the couch in our childhood house when I held her for the first time.
I should tell you more about what and who is at stake if she dies. But I can barely write those last three words. There are not enough words to tell you about my love for my little sister. This is where my words leave me.
I am talking about Grandpa’s death as a “good death,” as if I can manage my grief away by talking about his loss as something good. And there’s a part of me that thinks I’m a terrible aunt for mentioning his death in a letter to you. Death and a newborn baby? As if any mention of the two in the same pages, much less the same paragraph or sentence, will tarnish this new life for you. The hard truth is that they’re not so far apart, after all.
Once I had to say goodbye to a yoga teacher, a teacher that I really loved, without her knowing I was saying goodbye. I hadn’t realized just how much I loved those classes until I knew I wouldn’t see her anymore. I knew she was leaving before anyone else in the class. In fact, I don’t even think she knew I knew. But yoga is one of the best places to hold space, and this teacher was so good at creating and holding space for her students to feel deeply. She talked about the strength it takes to let go. So I sat, allowing myself to feel a deep sadness for an hour and a half. Not trying to escape it, not trying to fix it or numb it.
That hour might have been the first time I welcomed grief. Now I can think back to that class, that teacher, that shadowed room with its pale yellow walls, and I am grateful. I wonder how many are able to hold space for the hard questions. How do we say goodbye to a life? How do we welcome a new life? To keep the heart open enough and long enough to do these things with love? I think part of the answer’s in the breath.
It’s early evening and I’ve left the sunset far behind on the West Coast. I’m here at the Austin airport, texting, trying to find out where you and your mother are. I check Facebook, and somehow, there’s a green dot, saying that your mama is online. “Oh,” your mama writes. “You’re here early. Baby’s not here yet.”
These last couple of weeks have felt like living among the raw edges of death and birth. But maybe this is how we all live, so many of us unaware most of the time.
When you choose to feel your emotions, a wise woman has said, you can’t just choose to feel the good ones. You have to feel the good ones and the bad ones. I am learning how to un-numb myself, then, even as I write this sentence to you. Feeling a deep grief at Grandpa Dave’s death, I can feel that kind of deep joy over you. They are all tangled up together, my grief and joy. I wish you could have met him. He would have welcomed you, too.
It’s Saturday morning, the day after I’ve landed in Texas. Several hours in the waiting room, a couple of hundred feet from where you are. Other fathers are coming out from behind double doors, being greeted by family members with balloons and flowers. Your grandmother and I are still waiting, jumping every time those double doors open.
At last, a picture appears on my phone from your daddy. And there you are, little one. You are all soft curves, sleeping. To see your face: the faces of my babies. A few hours later, holding you, I see your mama’s face: my baby sister’s face when she was a baby. How incredible just to watch you breathe.
On your first day, I am finally bending after so many waiting hours of sitting straight. I am curving towards you. We are breathing together and I am whispering to you: this is life, this is life, this is life.
TAMIKO NIMURA is a freelance writer living in Tacoma, Washington. She is a contributing writer for Discover Nikkei, the International Examiner, and the Seattle Star. Recent writing has appeared in HYPHEN, The Rumpus, and Full Grown People. Find more of her writing at tamikonimura.net.
It was May 22 when Alan died last year. Everyone around me was amazed by how well I managed, but that’s because they didn’t know the whole truth. By June, a little man had set up shop inside my chest. To be clear, the little man doesn’t live in my chest—he doesn’t have groceries in the refrigerator or put his feet up on the coffee table at the end of the day. To say he works there would be more accurate. The most surprising part of it all is when I look in the mirror: My husband is gone, my body harbors an invader, and I hardly look any different for it. I can see why people might think I’m fine.
I have never heard the little man say anything, not even a sigh, but I feel him. He’s the busiest when I miss Alan the most. I don’t know what his full job description states, but I have a good idea. His job is to ensure I feel everything I can’t show: the homesickness for a place I can never return, the crushing weight underlying the finality of it all. To get his point across, he launches intermittent campaigns throughout the day—“grief attacks,” I call them. Sometimes the attacks are big and violent, forcing me to crumple onto my couch, blinded by tears. Sometimes they are small, squeezing all the air out of my lungs. At first, living with the little man frightened me, but over the past nine months, we’ve learned how to co-exist. When he wages his attacks, I can only let him.
I alluded to the little man in the very beginning, back when people were still dropping off casserole dinners. They nodded with their mouths turned upside down and tried to imagine what it must be like. But after a while, everyone went back to their normal lives. I couldn’t blame them. I tried to, too, but nothing felt normal anymore. People stopped asking about the little man wreaking havoc in my chest. They wanted to know about my vacation plans, work, my new haircut. I brought him up less and less until I eventually stopped talking about him.
This morning, the little man is very busy, making it hard to get out of bed. My body feels twice as heavy as normal, as if long, lead bars now occupy space in each of my limbs. The bars don’t take up all the space in my arms and legs, but they don’t rattle around either. They’re heavy, after all. The little man shields his eyes with his hand, looks up, and frowns. Dark clouds are in the forecast, threatening rain. They’ve been brewing in my head over the last couple of days. I roll over onto my side, summoning the energy to get ready for work, and feel the lead weights follow a second later.
I work at a mid-size tech company in Mountain View, California, where I do B2B marketing. Mostly that means putting together PowerPoint presentations that the sales team use to pitch solutions to clients. It sounds straightforward enough, but somehow my days are full of back-and-forth email exchanges, meetings, and rough drafts. Everything takes longer and involves more people to complete than you’d imagine. For instance, this morning I am in a meeting with eight people to discuss logo designs and venue possibilities for an upcoming event. Two people present in the meeting, one person makes the decisions, and the rest of us are just along for the ride. The meeting eats up an entire hour of everyone’s day. Normally, I would get antsy thinking about the other things I could be doing in that hour, but it’s hard to care with the little man going on as he is.
It’s strange being at work in the middle of one of his violent attacks. All my Alan memories, the sad ones reserved for when I’m alone at night, bubble up dangerously close to the surface. I look around the room in a slight panic, but no one is paying any attention to me. All eyes are focused on the screen at the front of the room. I sit back in my chair and try to focus on the presenter’s explanation of this particular logo’s type treatment.
After the meeting, I go back to my desk, and, in an attempt to keep the grief attack at bay, I scroll through the endless emails that have poured in over the weekend. I delete the ones that are spam, ignore ones that require nothing of me, and flag the rest to respond to later. Some emails are marked with an exclamation mark to denote the urgency of their contents, but after reviewing them again, I decide they can wait and begin making my list. Every day I make a to-do list. First, I write down each task that I need to complete. Then I go back through the list, writing a number next to each item according to its deemed priority. Priority assignment is based on the project requester, the deadline, and the number of people depending on it. These are just loose guidelines, though. Sometimes I’ll assign a task a higher priority just because I feel like working on it at the time. It’s funny because they’re just numbered items on a piece of paper, but as soon as I finish making it, I can focus. Without it, the fear that I’m overlooking something else more important that I should be working on creeps in and paralyzes me.
I have only prioritized about half of my tasks when I can feel my resolve crumbling at the edges. I catch myself slipping and hope the little man doesn’t notice. The little man, however, doesn’t miss a beat and seizes the opportunity to make inroads on his attack. He pulls me in, and I am helpless to stop it.
I am back in our living room on that last day. Alan is lying in his hospital bed, next to the fireplace. He’s moving his arms and muttering words under his breath, as he has been for the past week. This morning his lips are the slightest shade of blue, his breathing has changed, and his knees are purple. Everyone else had missed it when they’d left for my sister’s college graduation that morning. But I saw it. I knew everything was about to be different.
I call hospice and talk to the nurse manager, explaining the changes in his condition. When I mention his purple knees, she pauses. Purple knees, I learn, are a sign that your time together is almost up. I ask the million-dollar question we’ve been asking ever since he was first diagnosed: How long? The nurse manager tells me she’ll send someone who’ll be able to assess the situation and give me a better timeframe. I hang up the phone. I don’t know what to do, so for the moment, I do absolutely nothing. I have never known Alan’s knees to be so telling.
After I gather myself, I break apart again, crying in the chair next to Alan’s bed. I’d been preparing for this moment, but I’m not ready. I don’t even know if now is the right moment. If he has hours left, I should say goodbye now, but if he has days left, shouldn’t I wait? The silence settles over us like a heavy layer of dust. I decide to say goodbye now, just in case, but everything that comes out sounds stupid. My voice isn’t my own.
Finally, I lean into his ear and whisper. It sounds better when I don’t have to hear that voice that isn’t mine. I tell him how much I love him, that I’ll be okay, that he can go if he needs to. I read in one of the booklets hospice gave me that it’s important to “grant permission” for your loved one to let go. I don’t believe myself when I tell him I’ll be okay, but I hope they might be the magic words to bring him comfort. I sit back down and stare into his face, convinced I’ll see something register. But if it does, I can’t tell. His expression is unchanged, his arms still moving—
A steady stream of people walk by my desk. I look at the clock in the corner of my computer screen. Lunch is fifteen minutes late. It’s normally served at eleven-thirty, and if it’s not served within ten minutes of that, people go crazy. That’s a slight exaggeration but not by much. Fearful that we might never eat again, people begin lining up in the cafeteria as if somehow that might help. I check the lunch calendar I keep pinned to my wall. Today we are having lunch from a restaurant named Pizza?. There is an actual question mark in the name.
The food finally arrives, and I can hear the soft roar in the cafeteria from my desk. After enough people walk past me with salad and pizza slices piled high on their plates, I walk to the kitchen to see what’s left. I place two slices of veggie pizza on a paper plate, fill a cup with water, and head to the lunch table where I usually eat with the rest of my team. At the last second, I think better of it and make a beeline for my desk. I don’t have the energy to make conversation today.
It makes people uncomfortable when you just sit and listen. Most people need to fill the empty space with some kind of noise. In my experience, it’s only a matter of time before people run out of things to talk about. They start asking questions they already know the answer to or bringing up inconsequential topics. I find myself repeating things I already said or feigning interest. Short of wearing a tee-shirt that says “I don’t feel like talking, but I like sitting with you,” the only thing I can do is watch more movies. Whole worlds unfold in front of me, and I don’t have to say a word. And sometimes, though not always, movies can make me forget the little man’s even there.
My favorite movie genre is science fiction, especially those of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic variety. People think it’s somewhat strange, but when your husband dies at thirty-one, the idea of everyone else dying en masse, holds a romantic allure. Almost every night, I watch a movie—sometimes even two or three. A part of me wonders if I’m abusing them, like an illicit substance. I’m sure a psychologist would ask if my movie-watching negatively affects my everyday life. I suppose it doesn’t really, except it irritates me to participate in conversations when I would much rather have them play out in front of me like on a movie screen. That might be one negative impact. But you never hear about movies ruining someone’s life, do you?
If I could only watch a movie right now, it might help me deal with the little man. But, being alone at my desk with only my veggie pizza to occupy me, I know he won’t let me off easy. As I chew, he taps around my right lung like he’s testing the quality of a cantaloupe. When he hears a sound that pleases him, he uses one hand to mark the spot and, with his other hand, removes a tiny straw from his back pocket. He raises it high above his head, then swiftly brings it down, puncturing a hole in my lung. I let out a small gasp. It’s a small straw, but I can feel the air escaping through it.
I wonder if this is how it feels to have a collapsed lung. I know two people whose lungs collapsed: my friend Sue and a co-worker’s boyfriend. Neither of them even knew it had happened. Sue found out during a check-up the day after getting a lung mass the size of a golf ball biopsied. She says she didn’t feel a thing. The co-worker’s boyfriend was in college at the time, partying at a hotel in Mexico. He fell off the third-floor balcony and, if you can believe it, was picked up and carried back to his hotel room where his friends tucked him into bed for the rest of the night. It was only the next morning, after he’d been taken to an American hospital by medevac, that his collapsed lung was discovered and a steel rod was placed through his body. Still, I think the average individual would feel something if his lung collapsed. Shortness of breath to say the least. So maybe it’s like this: You feel a collapsed lung, unless you have bigger things to worry about. Like the possibility of lung cancer or a broken back.
Speaking of bigger things, the little man has finished with the straw, content with its placement, and is walking around with an Allen wrench. I’m impressed by how much he’s able to store in those tiny pockets of his. I watch him scramble around, kneeling down to tighten screws in three separate places, knitting my ribs closer and closer together. When he is satisfied, he slips the wrench into his back pocket where it disappears with the rest of his toolbox contents. He wipes the sweat off his brow and admires his handiwork. The tightness in my chest is even more pronounced now. I swallow my last bite of pizza and it settles like a lump in the back of my throat. The combination of the straw in my lung and the bolts in my chest makes it incredibly hard to sit up. I want to writhe around, to shake the little man loose. Or at the very least, I’d like to lie down.
Maybe I will just keel over and die. You hear about that, don’t you? It happens all the time with older couples: After years of marriage together, one dies and the other, perfectly healthy, save for the usual creaks and aches that old age brings, follows shortly after. I used to think maybe I could be so lucky. I’m sure my friends and family worried for a while that I might do something stupid to harm myself, but I’m afraid of pain and suffering. I’ve seen enough of that. However, if I could somehow relay the message to my heart to just stop beating one day, that wouldn’t be such a bad deal. Nice and neat. To pull off such a feat must require a tremendous amount of trust and coordination between organs, the kind that only comes after spending a lifetime together. That’s the only way I can explain why only older people die of a broken heart. Young people just aren’t there yet with their anatomy. Even if they tell their hearts to stop beating, there’s no way for their hearts to know how serious they are.
Sitting at my desk, I can’t move around too much or lie down, but I need to do something or else I might implode. I could cry. I’ve cried at my desk before, the kind of tears that are hot and silent. But I don’t trust the character of these tears today. I feel them swell inside me, a water balloon the little man has filled too full. It threatens to burst at any minute. I throw the rest of my lunch in the trash and try to get it together.
“Sobrina?” My boss Lisa calls me from two desks away.
“Yeah?” I look up. The little man pauses.
“Can you come take a look at this?” Lisa asks.
I get up and walk towards her. Because I don’t know what else to do with it, I bring the water balloon with me, gingerly carrying it in my hands.
She whips around and smiles at me. I nearly drop it.
“I thought that meeting went well today. Do you?” Lisa asks.
“Yeah, I thought it went well, too,” I say.
The water balloon is shaking. I look down and realize my hands are trembling. I want to tell her everything—that I can hardly breathe today, that the water balloon might pop at any minute. I open my mouth, but before I can get a word out, she turns back around to face her computer screen.
“I’m just recapping the discussion in an email to the group. Am I missing any next steps here?” Lisa asks.
I swallow hard. The water balloon in my hands creates a space between us so I lean in closer to read her screen.
“I think you got it all,” I say.
“Thanks.” She smiles warmly and goes back to finishing her email.
I have one more meeting before the day is over. This one is with my marketing communications team, a sub-group within the larger marketing department. We meet once a week, usually on a Monday, to provide status updates on our projects. Sometimes we’ll show each other what we’re working on. We go in a circle, one by one. I try to focus on what my teammates are saying, but it’s hopeless. I sit quietly, taking shallow breaths in an attempt to keep everything inside.
“And how about you, Sobrina? What are you working on?” Lisa asks, pulling my attention back into the room.
A lump rises in the back of my throat.
“This week…” I trail off. I look down at the to-do list I’ve been working on all day. Just read off the list, I tell myself. “I’m working on the positioning for the new media product.”
Lisa nods and jots it down in purple ink on her clipboard.
I shift in my seat.
“And I’m working with the design team to finalize the retail brochure,” I say.
The water balloon has stopped quivering quite as much. I place it on the table next to my notebook so I can read through my list faster. I’m surprised that it stays put and doesn’t roll off the edge.
“I was hoping to share our editorial ideas with the PR team this week. Did you get a chance to review those?” I ask Lisa.
“I’ll make sure I look at those,” Lisa says, circling a note to herself.
“And that’s it,” I lie. I need to get out of the room. I can feel the little man boring holes in my chest, and I’m certain everyone can see my discomfort. When I look up from my list, though, everyone is buried deep in their laptops. Lisa retracts her pen and places it back down on the table, concluding the meeting.
Nobody can see the little man like they would a scar on my forehead. But he’s there in my chest all the time. So it’s just me and him. Me and him and the lonely thought that Alan would know but will never know. He would understand in the same way that he understood when we watched the movie about the retired couple visiting Paris. They go away together in the hopes of sparking romance in their tired marriage. It’s just a movie, of course, but watching them wandering through the cobblestone streets, arm in arm, made me feel a terrible pinch inside. I wanted to be in the middle of all those lights, walking on those streets, feeling Alan’s arm wrapped around me. I wanted all of those things I thought we would have. I hated the old couple.
I looked at Alan asleep next to me, his face and body a shadow of what it used to be. He looked so peaceful, even though I knew seething pain waited for him just around the corner. The tumors in his pelvis ate away at his sacral bones, and physical activity as simple as shifting his weight had become a burden. It hit me that we would never adventure to a new city again, at least not in this life. Bitter tears rolled down my cheeks in disciplined silence. I was Alan’s cheerleader, his eternal optimist—that was my job. He could never know about my fears and doubts.
As I cried, hating that old couple—hating all old couples—Alan’s hand reached out for mine. I turned, surprised he’d woken up, to see his blue eyes fixed on me. I tried to stop crying, but I couldn’t. He held onto my hand, patiently waiting.
After a minute, I told him, “I just always wanted to go with you.”
“I know,” he said softly.
SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.
2015 should go down in history as the Year of the Shark. The Atlantic was eerily vacant of swimmers last summer because of all the shark attacks—even in North Carolina, where our family has vacationed every year since 1963, the year my little sister, Laura, was born.
“Are we going to swim this year?” I asked Laura in June as we planned for our August week at the beach.
“Linda, we’ve got to!”
In July I told her what my boss said when he called from his vacation at Baldhead Island. “It’s weird.” I imitated his soft southern accent and the way he emphasized certain words. “You look up and down the beach and there is not a soul in the water, as far as the eye can see.” Baldhead is not far from Kure Beach, where we go.
There are always sharks, my sister reminded me. But last year, the predators seemed to be a bit more aggressive. In fact, the number of attacks at North Carolina beaches in 2015 set a state record.
They bit surfers, of course, but ordinary swimmers, too. Even waders. They bit the arms off two teenagers.
And not just in North Carolina. Shark attacks made headlines in Florida, South Carolina, Malibu, Hawaii, Australia, and South Africa. Great whites were sighted off New York beaches. Cape Cod, too—the setting for Jaws, a book I first read on the beach at Kure when I was in high school. A great read, yes, but it did not keep me out of the water. It was fiction, after all.
In the newspaper and on radio and TV, experts cited theories on why the sharks were so bitey:
Climate change was making it hotter, so more people were spending more time in the ocean, upping their odds of getting bitten.
The sharks’ normal food was in short supply, so they were changing up the menu.
Low rainfall was making the near-coastal seawater saltier, which the sharks just loved.
I believed that the sharks were pissed off. That this was their well-coordinated revenge for all the fishermen who caught them, sliced off their fins, and threw them back in the ocean to die. One hundred million sharks a year are killed for their meat and/or fins, according to recent estimates. So many that shark populations are taking a dive. If the same number of people were getting killed each year, America would send in troops or provide air support to rebels.
The conspiracy theory made sense to me because what else can sharks do? They can’t make bombs. They can’t take hostages. If this is the reason, it serves our species right, I said. My sister seemed doubtful.
August rolled around, and Laura and her gang made the annual trek on I-95 from Virginia over to Wilmington and down to the beach. I joined them a day later. By the time I arrived, everyone had been swimming, and no one had been attacked. I raced in, too, and the sharks did not bite me.
We floated, splashed each other, and frolicked in the temperate, briny goodness that is the ocean at Kure. But mostly we waited for just the right wave, then swam like hell to catch it the moment before it crested—our bodies stiff fleshy spears, shooting forward as the water surged landward.
At last we tired and, one by one, each of us rode one final wave back to the beach. Except me. I wasn’t ready to go up yet, so I treaded water alone and gazed out toward the vast horizon. A pelican hovered in the sky above me. I watched as it locked in on a target and folded its wings, then plummeted headfirst into the water and disappeared. Rising to the surface, it pointed its long beak toward heaven and gulped down a luckless fish. Just me, the pelican, and the distant horizon. And all that lurked beneath us.
I was not afraid. Or maybe I was a little, but the odds of a shark attack were miniscule compared to the wonder of bobbing in the ocean, salt on my lips as pelicans and gulls swooped and dived overhead.
Without the exertion of bodysurfing, I was soon covered with goose bumps, so I caught a wave in to shore. I dried off with my beach towel and plopped down in a canvas chair next to my sister. When she asked if it was scary out there all by myself, it occurred to me that she was watching me the whole time—once a lifeguard, always a lifeguard. Not really, I told her. It wasn’t that bad.
Laura was a certified lifeguard—the real deal—and this was how she made money summers during her college years. Even though I only took Junior Lifesaving, I’ve always considered myself to be a lifeguard, too, particularly where she is concerned.
Maybe because my big brother ran out in front of car when he was eleven (he lived to tell about it), or because my little brother got shocked when he stuck his finger in the electrical outlet in the hall (he’s fine too—sort of), but I was always afraid that something dire was going to happen to my beloved sister, the baby of our family. And because a neighborhood kid was profoundly disabled by a hit and run car when their family was on vacation in Florida, I was especially nervous about our annual trips to the beach. How awful would it be for Laura—for the whole family—if she were maimed or killed while we were all enjoying ourselves?
A hard time would seem even harder if it happened on vacation, the same way it was worse if someone died on Christmas day. A tragedy must be avoided at all costs, and in my mind, it fell to me to keep Laura safe.
At age seven, my options were somewhat limited. I attended Sunday school and church, so I prayed that God would preempt any harm that might come to her. But our mother had told us of another neighborhood kid who had been killed when his bike slid under a steamroller, even though his mother had perfect attendance at First Methodist. To me this meant one thing: God might have his eye on the sparrow. He might be all knowing and all-powerful, but he was not to be trusted when it came to little kids.
As luck would have it, I was superstitious. Certain things had to be done each day without fail. Once Laura was big enough, I taught her how to leap onto the mattress from a foot away, so the cannibals who lived beneath our bed could not eat our feet. And how to shut the closet door at night so the man with the axe could not sneak out and chop our heads off.
The dangers of vacation required different strategies that I shared with no one. As the first week in August drew near, I would be especially careful not to step on a crack, drop a mirror, spill salt, or do any of the things that might bring bad luck. For additional protection, I developed a system where each night after I slipped beneath the covers, I’d select a number at random, then I would softly kiss my sleeping sister that many times. If she woke up, I’d have to wait for her to fall back to sleep, then start all over.
All of this, I believed, would weave a cloak of safety around Laura, providing that extra something which, along with my vigilance, would keep her from harm.
Obviously, it worked.
For fifty years, at least. But now sharks were biting people like their lives depended on it, and I needed a new strategy.
It seemed disingenuous to pray for something when I no longer went to church. And I couldn’t very well sneak into my sister and her husband’s bedroom to kiss Laura a random number of times. Even if the thought wasn’t Manson-family creepy, I was too old for such superstitions.
Instead I armed myself with the various ways to avoid shark attacks, according to the experts.
Don’t swim after dark when sharks are most likely to feed. We used to sneak out late at night and swim in the ocean, so it was a wonder we’d survived to adulthood.
Schools of baitfish or pods of dolphins (which, like sharks, eat the baitfish) could be a sign that sharks are in the area, so stay out of the water if you see them. I wondered if the same were true of fishing pelicans.
Don’t swim near fishing piers, or near people who are surf fishing. We’d always obeyed this commonsensical rule, mostly to avoid getting hooked.
Stay out of the ocean if you’re bleeding. No duh.
I knew the rules. I also knew that, while extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures, there was no way the Lundquist clan was going to stay out of the water.
Once Lifeguard Laura took note that I survived my solo swim, we basked in the sun and relaxed into our read/doze ritual of vacation at the beach.
“I see one!”
Everyone sat up, eyes trained on the area just beyond the breakers. Erin, one of our gang, had spotted a shark. Or so she said.
Are you sure it was a shark? Not a porpoise? Not a dolphin? Erin assured us she knew what they looked like. Other families on nearby beach blankets shaded their eyes with their hands and looked seaward. Some swimmers got out of the water. I glanced toward the lifeguard stand, but the lifeguard had that devil-may-care affect that came with his certification card.
The shark was spotted once more before it vanished into the murky depths. Thankfully, it was late afternoon—time to head to the cottage to help with dinner preparations and line up for showers.
That night, we all walked up the beach to the Kure pier. We purchased ice cream cones and cotton candy and strolled down the weathered planks spotted with fish scales that gleamed under the lights. The air was redolent with saltwater, guts, and the occasional waft of cigarette smoke. We stood at the very end as we always did, and I felt the faint rocking of the pylons from the push and pull of the wind and waves. When we turned back, a crowd was gathered at the rail. We joined them to watch the phosphorescent glow of the breakers below and, just beyond, a large shark patrolled back and forth like a white ghost beneath the water.
We stared, fascinated. It wasn’t that far from where we swim.
“My God,” I said.
“There are always sharks,” my sister reminded me.
The next day, the whole gang headed back to the surf, making sure to arrive just as the tide turned and the waves started rolling in. Here comes the one that sunk the Poseidon! We all stampeded into the water and did the turn/swim-like-hell/catch the wave routine we’ve been perfecting since childhood. An hour later, the crowd thinned out as tired bodies migrated back to the sand. And then it was just the pelicans, Laura, and me.
The years have rolled by like so many summer waves. My sister tied the knot and had three kids a full ten years before I met my husband. As I navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of family life, it’s Laura I turn to for advice. I showed her how to avoid cannibals. She shows me how to be happily married.
While we floated up and down on the lazy swells, we caught up on hometown gossip, dissected our kids’ lives, and enjoyed easy silences.
Until I had to go the bathroom.
I ran up to the cottage. It was cold in the air conditioning, and my bathing suit was wet. I figured I was done with swimming for the day, so I changed into a dry suit before I headed back. It was so wonderful to be out of that damp suit, I could hardly stand it. I ran down the boardwalk to the beach and there was Laura—still in the ocean—looking out to sea all by herself. Just my little sister and the sharks.
I was warm and dry. She was a grown woman in her fifties, for God’s sake. With adult children. She was an excellent swimmer. There was a lifeguard, such as he was. I really didn’t need to look after her anymore. No one expected it. Least of all her.
I raced through the breakers before the sharks could get her. If nothing else, I could help fend them off. I feigned nonchalance when I finally made it out to her. “I didn’t think you were coming back,” she said, with a sidelong glance.
“Yeah, well…” Oh, what the hell—I might as well just say it. “I’m responsible for you.”
Laura just grinned and turned back toward the horizon. She knew that I knew that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. But after a lifetime of my holding her hand when we were out in the world and keeping the man with the axe out of our bedroom, this was nothing new.
Ever since the movie Jaws came out, my sister does this thing where she acts like she’s being attacked by a shark. She doesn’t scream, she just jerks like she’s been hit really hard under water, like in the film. With each lurch backward, her expression transitions from what the … to stunned terror. She does a perfect imitation and it never fails to crack us up. “I hope a shark does bite you,” our mother would say when she was still alive. “Then we’ll see how hard you laugh.”
We talked about doing it now while it was just the two of us, then decided against it. There had been so many actual attacks this year, we might start a mass panic. Not to mention the embarrassment we’d suffer if the lifeguard dashed in after us, as if Mr. Cool would notice. It pained us, but we decided to bag the routine for now. There’s always another summer. And we’ll be back.
Because of their lifelong fascination with the Gordon Lightfoot song, LINDA L. CROWE and her sister have chosen the memorial to the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald as the destination for their annual sister trip this year. Michigan or bust! Linda lives in Nelson County, Virginia. Her most recent work may be read in Studio Potter magazine; she’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
The panic attacks almost always happened deep in the night, their after-effects rippling through my life like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The first happened the summer before my junior year of college. I was sure that my heart would explode. But my heart didn’t blow up. Instead, its rapid, loud, insistent beat filled my head, and I rocked back and forth in bed until the sun came up.
Panicking, I quickly learned, was exhausting. Anticipating the next attack was grueling.
Panic afflicted my gaunt sepia ancestors; it has walked with us hand-in-hand for generations. We are a people who open doors to empty rooms, expecting to see our worst fears incarnated. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly those fears are. Some of them can be as nebulous as the panic and depression that have smothered the Latina and Jewish women in my family.
No one in my family talked about the forced cold showers, the electroshock therapy involved in keeping my paternal grandmother’s anxiety in check. No one said a word about my other grandmother’s body odor, greasy hair, and catatonic states. When I was a child, no one acknowledged that my mother masked her phobias, her phases of panic with bullying, narcissism, and half-hearted suicide attempts.
I suspect that the ghosts of panic that frightened my grandmothers and drove my mother to the brink of insanity have haunted me since the moment I was conceived. And when panic first happened to me, the machinations it planted in my mind threw me into a future I imagined so catastrophic that I saw myself completely incapacitated. What if, What if, What if, went around and around in my brain like ticker tape.
Dread and wonder coursed through my body the day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. How could I be a mother, let alone a decent one? When the panic strangled me in my sleep, I was terrified it would cut off oxygen to my baby. My heart revved up until its beating migrated to my head. I had never taken medication for panic. And now that I was pregnant, I wouldn’t even take a Tylenol.
Throughout my pregnancy I struggled to decipher arguments about nature versus nurture, biology versus psychology. I intuited that between these polarities lay a multitude of explanations for how behaviors developed and persisted not only within a single individual, but also across generations. Would my baby imbibe anxiety and depression through my milk? Would I model it to her? Would she inevitably flinch at my shaky touch?
The baby was beautiful and terrifying. What if, what if, what if? I filled in the hot white blanks with pure disaster. What if I stopped functioning and couldn’t care for the baby? What if I panicked with her in the supermarket? And most chilling of all—what if I had passed down my chipped, inferior genes to her?
“Stop torturing yourself,” said my gentle husband who, at the time, was working on the Human Genome Project. How I prayed that the genes that triggered my anxiety and depression would combine with my husband’s pristine genes, losing their power to hurt my daughter. I fantasized about him hard at work hunting down the gene for what ailed my ancestors, what ailed me. My husband was clearly on the side of nurture and promised me that our daughter would grow up secure and loved.
Nevertheless, I found articles that claimed phobias and panic disorder could very well be inherited. “Genetic switches,” I, practically panting, recited to my husband, “can get tripped and set off chemical changes that occur in a fetus’s DNA, thereby imprinting familial trauma on them.”
My husband shook his head. “It won’t happen to our baby,” he said.
“And why not?” I asked.
“Because we’ll know how to treat her right,” said my husband the geneticist.
“But what about bad luck—that’s always a factor that could wire our baby for anxiety and depression.” As I spoke, I thought about an observation my therapist made that there are some people who never panic under any condition. The first time I heard him say that, I pictured a flurry of Magritte’s topcoat-wearing men raining down on me. Cradling my newborn daughter, I knew that I could never share the Magritte image with her.
My mother, her long black hair falling out of its bun, frequently pleaded with my father to send her away. “Please,” she begged, gulping for air, “I need to go. Now.”
Over the years, I periodically asked my therapist to commit me too. “You’re just tired,” he said.
What I most remember about therapy with him was that I refused to acknowledge panic in my world. I was twenty-seven, eight years out from my first panic attack. I lived in terror that my world would shrink to the point that I couldn’t leave my apartment. The word “phobia” scared me so much that I asked my therapist to remove a book he had on his shelf with the word on the spine. “I am not that person,” I told him all the while living in fear that I would panic in public without a way to get home.
At the height of my panics, Prozac had just come on the market, and it was touted as the miracle drug for the anxious and depressed. I read testimonials in which people swore the drug gave them their life back. They were newly confident, newly capable, and most importantly, newly happy. The words “brain chemistry” bubbled to the surface in these articles. But I was sure my brain was beyond fixing. And more to the point, taking medication was one of my phobias. Would my memory slip away? Would I feel numb? Would my future children have birth defects? And worse yet, would the pills not work and leave me forever hopeless?
That last question scared me enough to keep me just on the other side of trying Prozac. I could tough it out. My people were scared to death of taking medication. “Do you want to be in La La Land?” my mother taunted me that first summer of panic. “I have two other children to take care of,” she screamed. “”I’ll send you to the Institute for Living,” she said threatening to institutionalize me. Her face was so close to mine I could see her large pores. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express that I could feel the weight of her mental illness imprinted on my cells.
I had been flirting with the idea of taking medication after I finished having children. A girl and a boy, perfect bookends, a friend said to me. Perfect bookends with an imperfect mother. But I hesitated to take medication. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to beat this thing on my own. But with whom was I waging war? Panic? Myself?
The night I wanted to commit suicide, I had been caught up in a loop of panic for weeks. My two small children slept peacefully as my husband rubbed my back. “It’s time,” he said. By that I knew he meant that I needed to call the psychiatrist I had consulted with for a prescription of Klonopin that I had not filled.
In the coming weeks I took the Klonopin with Lexapro, an anti-depressant. I didn’t feel relief exactly. Instead, I detected emotions coursing through my body, a circulatory buzzing of activity that the medication tamped down. The first side effect I experienced was how hard it was to cry. But the panic drained out of me until it was a bearable, hum of anxiety. And then one day I suddenly realized I was happy. The revelation happened in the car on one of my daily drives to and from my daughter’s school. I had settled into a routine. “You’re a caballo de circo,” my mother chided me when I was a child comforting myself with repetition. Maybe I was a circus horse driving the same route over and over. But on that day I picked up as many of my daughter’s friends as could fit in my SUV. Their chatter delighted me. Their energy soothed me.
I’d proved that anxiety was not an accurate predictor of a situation. This was what I told my daughter when she called me from camp. Just sixteen, she said the world had gone very sad on her. “It’s like there’s a curtain of gauze suffocating me,” she cried. My God, had my genes taken the best of her? As I listened to my girl on the phone, I knew that she was trapped in her thoughts. “What if I freak out in front of people? What if I die?” she said breathlessly. There it was again: What if? What if? Another generation struggling to fill in that sharp, menacing blank. But I also remembered my husband’s wise words—we’ll know how to help her.
My daughter is now twenty-one and also stable on Lexapro. She studies psychology. Her choice of major makes me believe that she wants to cure herself, even cure me. My daughter also knows that hiding is dangerous—even futile—and so she decides to tell the world about her condition with a one-word story literally written across her face. In the photograph, the word “Lexapro” starts across her forehead, goes down to the bridge of her nose, and finishes at her left cheek. “I am not my anxiety,” my girl declares. Her face, her struggle, is her contribution to the “What I Be Project” founded by a photographer who describes it as social experiment. In word and picture, a subject boldly declares that he or she is not solely defined by societal reactions to her life story.
With my daughter’s picture out in the world, I pray that the Lexapro will continue to quell her panic. I pray that the doubts, the worries, the blame will continue to diminish for both of us. I pray that the night will never again be a long tunnel of fear and hopelessness. And I pray that Magritte’s men will simply float away.
JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared on the New York Times opinion page, the Boston Globe, Cognoscenti, The Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, Brevity, Salon, and other venues. Judy has completed a memoir called The Ninety Day Wonder, in which she tries to get closer to her remote father through saying the Kaddish—the Mourner’s Prayer—only to uncover her father’s secret past.
My dishwasher broke. So I’m standing at my sink, hand-washing all of the dirty dishes I’d rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher the day before, plus the rest of what had accumulated since. Doing the dishes always means looking out the kitchen window. In the warm weather, with the window open, I can hear the bullfrogs and waterbirds from down in the creek. Today I’m washing and watching, my rubber-gloved hands warm in the soapy water, Joe’s work-gloved hands lifting broken cinder blocks and chunks of concrete off of the back lawn and onto the trailer, which is hitched to the back of the John Deere.
His arms still bear bruises from the beating he took changing the John Deere’s blades the week before. His shins are scratched from mushroom hunting in shorts deep in the woods, and his right knee is scabbed over from where the guardrail on the bridge gouged him impressively as he tried to climb over it. Last week, he took a weedy thorn to the front of his nose, and it bled and bled and bled, but he said he wasn’t hurt. Now he’s outside my kitchen window, in the fenced-in part of the back yard, bending over and righting himself, lifting and moving one jagged hunk at a time. His black gloves say CAT in big yellow letters. After he has removed the blocks, he mows inside the fence. I go upstairs to get some work done on my laptop, the push mower sputtering in the background. After a while it’s quiet, and he comes in to ask for a burger. I’ve learned to keep ground beef, Swiss cheese, and buns on hand at all times.
I head back to the kitchen and open the fridge, hunting and gathering, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, provolone, that brown mustard that he likes, butter for the cast iron skillet and to toast the buns. I look out the window to see the shorn lawn out back, and Joe in reverse motion now, heaving new cinderblocks off the trailer into a tidy little octagon in the grass, his yellow-lettered CAT hands swinging with each heavy hoist. I quickly pat the beef into concave disks and set them on a smear of butter in the pan. For nearly two decades I was a vegan, but today the sound and smell of sizzling fat and flesh make my mouth water without compunction. Outside, Joe stands back to admire his work: We have a sweet new fire pit in the back yard now. He comes in, washes up, and sits down to his burger and a Gatorade. Purple, low-calorie. His favorite.
There are always a million repair projects around my property. Or maintenance. Sometimes I lose track of the difference. And there are upgrades too. Things that work perfectly well but are ugly or old or otherwise undesirable. I don’t expect Joe to take on everything all on his own. I make calls, set appointments, take care of the household business. I need to have the heating vents cleaned. And several stumps ground out of the front yard to make it easier for Joe to get the mowing done. It’s a part time job, the mowing. A few hours a day, a few days a week, in season, to keep everything sensible around here.
And I had a painter come out the other day to give me a quote on several smallish jobs: My kitchen ceiling has that horrible popcorn texture on it and it’s impossible to clean, so it has this greasy little beard on it right over the stove. Twenty-three years of the detritus of cooking here, ten of them mine. My son’s bedroom needs painting too, and then there’s the trim on the inside.
It used to be that I would come home from work in the late evening to find the house a wreck, my husband and son still in their pajamas, homework incomplete, no dinner or bath or bedtime stories in progress. Upstairs in the master bedroom, my husband would proudly show me the fruits of his day of labor: tiny, elaborate, repeating patterns of flowers and leaves and berries that he had painstakingly painted on the wooden trim around the windows and doors and the crown molding framing the room. He would spend the hours I was at work on a stepladder in the bedroom, choosing and mixing paints and delicate brushes, dabbing dots of gold and silver highlights on his acrylic flora, all the while neglecting the real plants on our small farm and the real boy pinging off the walls downstairs wondering what would ever be for dinner.
The kitchen ceiling and the boy’s room are easy enough problems to solve. The trim is another story. “You could sand it and prime it and paint it,” explained the man through his fuzzy gray beard, “but you’d still be able to see it.” I nodded. “Some days the light will hit it just right, and even with a few coats of paint, those patterns will make themselves known to you again.”
I could imagine exactly what he meant, and there was no way I was going to pay someone to do all that work only to still see those flowers in relief just refusing to die in the afternoon light.
“Call Kevin,” he suggested. “He’ll come in and redo that trim for you, and it’ll be much nicer than what you have now. Get those corners right with a miter saw.”
I think to myself, Joe’s such a real man to be able to lie with me in my big marital bed with that shitty trim and the painted ramblings of an unbalanced mind insistently outlining the bedroom.
My first divorce hearing was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2014. We were still living together, but my husband had moved himself to the guest room in the basement. The night before the hearing, the tension in the house was horrific. There was screaming and wailing and it was so, so dark. It finally simmered down to a wretched and tearful talk in the kitchen, just outside my son’s bedroom door. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, wanted to be out of my son’s earshot, for crying out loud. I excused myself from further conversation. My husband responded sorely, “I hope you sleep well in the bedroom I made beautiful for you.”
Like my divorce, all these repair projects always cost more than I think they will, and at this point it’s all money I don’t have. In the nineteen months since the sheriff removed my husband from the house, I’ve had to put in a new water treatment system and a new barn door. I bought a new used car on credit—appropriately enough, a Ford Escape. Bought a new doghouse and a new compost bin too.
I put in a security system after my husband broke in. I guess that’s an upgrade, though, not really a repair. I’ve had to replace siding and remove birds’ nests and repair both garage door openers after a bad windstorm. Fixed the refrigerator once and the dishwasher twice; now it’s not working again. I should’ve just replaced it the last time. Sometimes things aren’t worth repairing; it’s cheaper to get a newer, more efficient model than it is to keep sinking money into something that just doesn’t work. I know, I know, that’s how our landfills get full: planned obsolescence. Things don’t always last like they should.
Once Joe moves in, money will be a lot less tight. It’ll be different having a second income in the house after all these years of family breadwinning by myself. He’s not afraid of work. He brings in good money and he’s handy. Strong, incisive, good at figuring out how everything works: people, machines, plants, animals, electronics, toys.
I’ve never once heard him holler at things that get in his way, not even the stump that took out the blades on the John Deere. “There’s no point,” he says. “You can’t reason with inanimate objects.” This property has long felt to me like just a lot of work, but Joe says he’s always wanted to take care of a place like this. I can see that it satisfies him. I hope it stays that way. I’m trying everything I know to make sure that he feels like it’s his home too, even though it’s technically my house. I call it Our House, in the Middle of Our Street. I ask him to help me pick out area rugs and bedding. I’ve made space literally and figuratively: cleaning out closets and dressers, and learning to stop hosting him when he’s here because then he feels like a guest. But nothing that I do or don’t do is really key, because the thing that makes him feel most at home here is working on the place. He likes that John Deere. He was proud of those bruises.
I’ve been known to tell people that owning a home is a lot like being in love: At the outset, it’s all spacious and bright and airy. It looks and feels perfect and seems worth all the sacrifices you had to make to get it. But then you move in and you start to fill it with your crap and you notice its flaws. Spaces fill up. Cracks start to show. New things get old. The dust settles, and one day you look around your place and realize that it’s not only not perfect, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Everything needs repair or maintenance or replacement. So you sand and you prime and you paint, and one day the light hits things just right and those old patterns just make themselves known all over again. An adult lifetime of monthly payments starts to seem a lot longer than it once did.
I also tell people that this home is a dream home, but it was someone else’s dream. I’m a city girl, a third-generation Angeleno. I lived in Paris and Chicago before I married, and I thrived. I never really even imagined myself paying a mortgage, let alone paying for a stump grinder or a John Deere or a barn door. I never dreamed of this place: a big pine-log home with a pitched metal roof and skylights, perched atop hilly green acreage in the rural Midwest. This winding road runs between two small central Illinois towns, and all my neighboring farmers—real farmers—have gone organic.
This place is beautiful, no question, when I take a longer view, when I can see past the claustrophobia of repairs and projects and dust. Out front, I have a porch swing and a healthy ecosystem and a pretty good sunset almost every night. There is no time of year that the view out my bedroom window is not breathtaking, if I look beyond the framework of florid trim. When it’s winter and the air is frozen clean, the early twilight colors the snow on the ground periwinkle blue. It happens every year. I’ve spent a decade in this house all told, long enough to see the patterns emerge.
My husband had two favorite lies, and he told them louder and more frequently the closer I got to divorcing him: One was “you’ll never be able to take care of this place without me,” and the other was “no one else will ever love you.” I’m in my seventh season on my own here now; soon Joe will move in and that will change. It’s a good change, I think. The light is hitting everything just right, and from my perspective, it all seems to be in good repair.
GINA COOKE is a linguist working toward her second graduate degree, a pursuit that has spanned half of her adult life. She lives and works on a small farm in the rural Midwest with her son and her dog. She typically writes about spelling: word histories, word structure, and word relatives. This is her first foray into the personal.
Jim and I were on the phone, discussing his recent love-gone-wrong, and, boy, did he feel like shit. He wondered if it’d be possible to have a do-over for that threesome. Get it right.
And I wondered if it was possible for the sex to go wrong. Or is it always the relationships that go wrong and cause the sex to falter? I mean, barring force, coercion, infection or… can sex go wrong? Or is it the relationships?
The do-over would be reparative, Jim explained. They’d invite that guy back again for another threesome. Jim had it worked out in his head. They could fuck him like this, or like that. Make eye contact with each other at just the right moment. Get everyone in the groove.
I listened. Unconvinced. Even Jim was not convinced as he made the argument.
“But sometimes there’s such ecstasy in a threesome,” said Jim. “I mean, when it’s great, it’s great. And when it’s not?”
My mind answered the question: There’s emotional turmoil and feelings of inadequacy, or disrespect, or abandonment and you think about it for days, weeks, months. Had it been a year since their first go of it? He added, “The problem wasn’t the threesome.”
I nodded silently, on the phone, when he said it.
Really? Jim met Mr. Threesome for drinks just to get his take on the situation, even after Jim and his partner had parted ways. From the invited guest’s point of view, everything was great. Mr. Threesome is involved in his own drama with his husband divorcing him to move to Brazil with a younger man, though. What does he know? No, definitely, everything was great.
It’s sort of a miracle when two people make enough of the same story of their interactions, their looks, their words, and alliances in order to have a good experience, settle down and enjoy some time. Definitely a miracle to make it last.
During the lengthy catch-up with Jim, I have also begun thinking about the most recent person I dated. Just a week, then friendship. “Flirtatious friendship,” she said.
“What are you getting out of that?” I grumped.
Something went wrong. Or maybe it went right. How could I know which?
About a year ago, I overheard a conversation that has stayed with me. I was in a gallery where a woman’s art was being shown, and someone smiled and marveled at her domestic feat—she and her husband: forty years together this year! Her husband said, “Yeah, no trick really. If you’re lucky to meet someone when you’re both young enough, you grow up together. All of your likes and dislikes develop together. How you handle things. You know what the other person means. That makes it easy. We get along. ” They both smiled and nodded, like a postcard image from the land of happy relationships.
Maybe it’s lucky that I still have some growing up to do.
See how I did that? Went straight to optimism rather than saying, god, you’re screwed really, if you try to partner up as an adult, an older adult, an adult with your own ways of coping and finding beauty in the world, thank you very much. Don’t harsh my mellow, babe. I already know how things work. One could see it like that instead. I’m always so fucking optimistic.
“Doesn’t there have to be some kind of effortless frisson in a good threesome?” I said to Jim. “Or some kind of arduous planning? I mean, as soon as you’re trying to make it go well, it’s already not going well. So, the do-over would never work. The two of you with the plan would be maneuvering the third in order to get it right. And then that third guy— that guy who’s not part of your relationship, that guy who’s really great and really hot and carrying around his own drama—that guy’s just a prop.
“I don’t relate to sex like that,” I said to Jim.
But, of course, sometimes I do. I’m always telling some kind of story in my head—I think everyone does that. I am also feeling the body. And perceiving the other person. It’s not like we respond to one another based on animal musk alone. We have interconnected stories. Sometimes our stories rub each other the wrong way, though there can be attraction in that too. And what about emotions? Always a river of emotion just beneath the skin. A grip that leaves bruising can mean pleasure and the most tender touch, pain. An embrace soothes one day, stifles the next. The lexicon is unstable. It’s amazing we ever understand each other at all. Perhaps the range of human stories is smaller than I’m willing to admit.
“You showed me tenderness,” my date said.
And I learned that was a bad thing. Only not bad, because, wow, who would call that bad? I didn’t even know what I’d done that could be interpreted as tender. I’m just being… human, I thought. But yeah, that can look a lot of ways. Tenderness caused distance, which wasn’t what I was hoping for. It wasn’t what she wanted either, at least not at first. She was so interested in me at first—and remains so, though in an oddly constructed sort of way. I pouted and pondered. Then I laughed at myself. Always back to compassion and amusement, still a little weird and nervous; hopeful me.
Even with two. Even with one. We are telling ourselves our stories. My body and mind don’t always know each other. Emotions spring from both, make a wet mess or a happy puddle. How can it feel so good to sleep in the wet, metal, acid, musty funk of sex, body truly relaxed? Body rent, spent, heavy with sleep, still whole. Is “good sex” even about knowing someone, or just imagining what we mean to each other, what we ourselves have become, with the other?
I’ve felt alone in a loved one’s embrace too.
“I have issues with trust.” My date said. And I was listening and trying to understand, but I didn’t understand. Why would a person let that shit win? Yeah, so what? That’s my story. Maybe I was not listening well enough. Try again. Stop. Don’t try too hard to understand. I could just listen. Just. Be a good. Was I listening or telling my own story? I couldn’t tell.
Here’s a story about a threesome that went wrong. Jim keeps talking about the sex-gone-wrong like it’s the important part. And my mind is traveling.
This was a long time ago so I have nothing but perspective, which is all I ever really had even when it was happening: mine. I am just one person after all. We were three one people. Two of us, long-term lovers, thinking that we already knew each other. We didn’t know ourselves in that situation. I’m not sure I know us now, so I’m grateful that the past is pliable and lets me re-mold it according to my current understanding. This is the story that came to mind when Jim was saying, “What if we could just have a do-over? Maybe then it would all turn out okay.” Maybe then Jim wouldn’t be meeting his former partner in the park, for a walk, rather than wasting another meal he couldn’t eat after those kinds of awful conversations they have now.
My lover was an angry, jealous sort. And wow, that can take up a lot of time and supplant ease and many of the good feelings people have for one another. She perceived an interloper, interested in my affections. I rolled my eyes. Tedious. “So what if she’s hot for me?” I said about the interloper. “I can’t do anything about that.” I said. “I’m totally not into her or I’d have already done something about it!” I made a bold statement. I wouldn’t let her think she was bullying me. I’d have had sex with the interloper if I wanted to. I didn’t want to.
(My eleven-year-old son laid it down for me once, after an evening we spent with this same interloper: “You’re stupid if you don’t know she likes you.”
I replied, “I know she likes me, but what can I do about that?”
He answered with the buggy eyes of a kid who had to tolerate adult stupidity. “You could stop encouraging her!”)
So, my lover and I were on a road trip and I was starting to get pouty about the whole trip blown to hell because of her jealousy and nonsense and soon she’d go stoic and not even speak to me. But then something different happened. She said, “Okay, what if I do something else with this feeling? What if I embrace it? What if I see it for what it is: someone thinks you’re hot. Why wouldn’t she? I think you’re hot!” I brightened a bit. Could this be? She continued. “Yeah, she and I are alike enough that I could totally even see what she’s into about you. Yeah, I like her! I mean, I do actually like her. It’s not like I’m mad at her about anything. I get it. You are hot.”
Mobility was one of the things I loved about her, the ability to come up out of something tricky and think about it, move to see it another way. It had just never happened before on this theme. I was nodding, not minding at all being thought of favorably now by both of these women—the interloper and my lover, with whom I was not going to have a bad weekend after all. Then she said, “Yeah, I’m totally getting into the idea of watching her fuck you.”
“Hang on. Are you serious?” I was stunned that she’d gone straight from angry and jealous to this. She’d gone straight to watching us fuck from giving me side-eye and saying, “Never a minute’s peace with you. Every butch dyke within four hours of here comes sniffing around your porch wondering if you neeeeed anything.” That old saw exhausted me, of course, and I whined about how they never meant anything by it, but I was not sure her new turn would be an improvement.
It’s not that I’m against threesomes. I’m just not a fan. If the moment seemed right, my optimism would likely kick in again, though I’d doubt my competence. In theory, great. It seems like communication is all it takes, but meh. I’d sort of relegated threesomes to youthful experimentation. I’d experimented. I prefer connection and depth with one person, with myself, and, well, whether or not I always get those things has nothing to do with the thrill of a third person.
“But what if something amazing can be enhanced?” Jim said.
“What if it can?” I countered. “At what risk to some greater, longer-lasting peace?”
But, hey, it was fun to see her so animated about something that normally installed a rain cloud over her head. And then it was fun to speculate, with my lover, about the desires and propensities of this third person, to review the small things the lovely interloper said that were evidence of what she would think or want or like or do. And my lover and I had a good time on that trip, and good sex, and ease. That’s what I want really. Ease. Just let there be ease, kindness, affection. Of course I want good sex. Maybe I want more than I realize.
Just before our fourth date in one week, the woman with trust issues asked me whether I enjoy affection, somewhat public affection. We both noted the small thrill of our legs leaning together on a previous date, in the theatre, and I was thinking about how a small thrill can take up residence and exude a larger loveliness than expected. And about how much I loved the clarity of a direct question like, “Do you enjoy public affection?” And we would be in that theatre again that very evening. I am not often one to make bold gestures, but I think, good. I have made space for her simple gestures, bold gestures. I was receptive and looking forward to affection. Quite so. I was possessed of a small thrill, just in the talking. The talking, indeed, was what had happened between us, nothing else. Yet the loveliness was large. But that night, something was off. She didn’t touch me all evening, even after asking to earlier in the day. Not even her leg leaning into mine.
By the second day of our road trip, after the swimming and strolling, during the long and scenic drive toward home, my lover and I were planning to ask the interloper (who had then become the third party, or even the sweet friend) if she wanted to… you know. How will we ask her and what mood will be made of this? The planning was a small thrill, growing larger, and we were fairly sure she’d say yes. She’d been doing some work on the house and that’s why my lover became fixated on her in the first place. The two of them worked all morning on the house and I worked inside and then made lunch and the three of us ate and then they got back to work. Every evening when we were alone, my lover fixated on how the interloper looked at me and flirted. And I said, no, that kind of flirting didn’t mean anything. It was just appreciation, recognition. And my lover curled her lip in disgust.
We were planning the threesome, so sure we knew what was coming, but how on earth could we have known each other, our own minds—let alone her? We were just happy for the relief of jealousy and anger. Well, I was, and perhaps that relief made me extra hopeful, because usually I’m a think-and-talk-things-through kind of gal. And I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the interloper, our sweet friend, to be uncomfortable in any way.
I phoned while we were on the road and left a coquettish message saying how we’d been keeping company so much lately, what with the home improvements and all, and that my lover and I had been thinking about her and could we talk soon?
It’s not the who’s-doing-what in bed, it seems to me as Jim talks. It’s who’s looking at whom and how. The flow of the eye contact; the flow of connection. Who feels important and why. It’s the wanting and fulfillment of desire for something that’s not just physical. I’ll accept that some people are better at these encounters than others and it seems that, for Jim, it’s gone well numerous, numerous times. He’s a directive sort, after all, and I’m sure he steers well around tight corners, maneuvers out of a cul de sac with ease. Maybe it’d be easier with three strangers, I muse, during our conversation. “No,” he says, “it’s particularly sweet when two of the people really care for each other.” I realize that I’ve never been “the third” in a threesome. I’ve always been one of the two partnered people. At some point, I’ve always thought, Why are we doing this? even if the whole thing was… nice.
The interloper did indeed agree, said she felt like suddenly it was Christmas. I felt my first heart-clench of overwrought expectation.
We had a simple candlelit dinner and my lover was suave, sexy, and a bit removed. She had already turned voyeuristic. We had discussed nothing of our fantasies with our invited guest. Truth is, I’m not even sure I had my own specific fantasies. Which was strange for us. Usually I was the one steering the romance, though she was driving the sex. I smiled, winked, and beckoned with one painted fingernail; I tapped my shiny lower lip, raised an eyebrow and she leaned in for a kiss.
This was so different—her imagining and discussing the unfolding event, during our road trip. I was excited hearing all of the set up she envisioned, all of the anticipation she’d mustered. She had really talked it through and that was the thrill for me. I recalled how, when we were first together, it took her a while to get good at phone sex. I give good talk; she was more action than language.
I’d already had what I wanted. The ease. The talk. The twosome.
Did I mention I wasn’t into this woman? I wasn’t lying. That was the truth. And as soon as she was kissing me, I panicked. What the fuck kind of stupid idea was this?! And then she was kissing my lover and I swear to god my lover was having the same thought because, you know, who invited that kiss? Not me. Not her. I’ve been with women who turn into giant homophobes about the thought of a butch-on-butch kiss. That wasn’t it exactly, but what was it? And what was happening to my lover and her assertiveness? As we moved to the bed, as if on a conveyor belt, I was already thinking how to maneuver into the driver’s seat. We were careening out of control. I didn’t know how weird things had gotten for my lover until she looked at me, stricken, with the interloper kissing down her back, and mouthed, “Help.”
Oh, this is good, I thought. And then I started noticing the interloper’s energy and how she would turn to me ravenous, then back to my lover, perfunctory, and I said, “Hey, let me just put words on the dynamic here. I’m not sure there’s a charge happening between the two of you in the same way that both of you have a charge for me.” And it was like I’d just given two magnets permission to fly apart—but when they both instantly attached onto me with a powerful zeal, I thought, lord help me, what have I done? And who were these sniveling cowards I was in bed with anyway? Neither one of them had any voice of her own.
“I just didn’t want you to feel left out,” said the interloper to my lover and they practically shook hands, all forgiven.
It’s also true that I felt a sweet protective feeling toward my lover. And that’s not totally hot. And then there they were, like a hundred hands and mouths and, okay, she didn’t know me, but Jesus, do not bite my nipples. Too much was happening at once.
And maybe it’s this: Nothing they were doing was about me. It was about them, only not really that either. It was about some idea of each other, and some idea of me and some idea I had about ease. And they’d have just carried on, only I’m not keen to be the vessel for something in which I’m not really participating, and so I sat up and said, “I’m very sorry, but this isn’t working for me.” And I stood up and started putting on a bit of clothing, just enough to be clear, polite. I was apologizing and my lover sat back to watch me do my thing. She knew me and respected my voice, my sexual intuition, and my sense of things. She often took my lead because she trusted it.
We went back to the table and I served dessert and what could we say? Our interloper was apologizing and re-strategizing and trying to get us all back to bed. And I was done. My lover had gone back to her stoic observer role, waiting for me to find the kind and comfortable way out of all this. She was definitely still in her sexuality, but like a vacuum-packed container of her sexual self—no scent of anything, nothing in the package to be affected by the outside air. I knew we’d be doin’ it when the interloper left, and the trouble was, the interloper knew it too. She was hurt and felt excluded because she had been. And not just by me.
I’m not sure what happened between the two of them, but they remained friends in the coming months, became closer even, as they sat on the porch and drank beer, my lover affectionate toward me, the interloper a bit chilly to me when she’d say hello or goodbye. It took years before the interloper and I were on truly good terms.
I’ve learned this lesson before, in childhood, and how many times since? The person who finds the voice stands to lose the relationships. And I’m always trying to grow up enough to find the kindness in the voice. I still stand to lose, even as I soften so my voice doesn’t sound like, “Well, fuck you, at least I’m still standing.”
My date said those trust issues weren’t about me and that was some small relief, but she didn’t want to keep dating me either. Those issues influenced how close I could be to her. I’m still drawn to her, and yet I cannot come near. What use is the attraction? There’s some meaning in that word, isn’t there? Attraction. Something magnetic, like metal, wood, blood, the scent of sex or purpose. Does purpose have a scent? Does sex have a scent before it happens? Everything contains its opposite too: repulsion. I read once that organically occurring perfumes, like those containing wood or flowers, will always be more compelling to humans than synthetic scents. Synthetic scents are all good-smell. The natural ones also contain feces and decay.
“I’m definitely attracted you. This is all new territory for me,” my date said. “I enjoy/adore you and for whatever reason…” She didn’t remain compelled. Or maybe it was that she felt more compelled to withdraw. Not my business to know.
Something was in decay; stillborn. And I was suspiciously eyeing her. Her inability to remain true to a simple attraction made her seem untrustworthy, and somehow, more interesting. Is that even true? Maybe it’s more trustworthy to actually see a person’s errant whims and fears, rather than them being hidden. Such strange start-stop inconsistencies and fear-pleasure combinations. I was noting the inconsistencies—in her and in me too. Single. Separate. Still interested. Irritated. Accepting. Still engaged and observing.
Scent triggers memory. Who am I to her and she to me? And what do I care if some stranger doesn’t want to date me any more? The body wants complexity, not just the good. I am attracted to sweet-clear-something-not-quite-right-complexity, already waking up in the warm puddle of it, though alone.
My life is good. I am alone. In the hammock, I’m listening with interest to Jim’s story about his recent loss of love. “We didn’t communicate enough,” he said.
And I said, “It sounds like you communicated all the time; you just didn’t want the same things.”
He disagreed, and we carried on discussing the terrain of speaking and listening and sometimes deciding to do what doesn’t feel right, or what feels right in the moment but you know it won’t be later.
Jim said, “He knew it would hurt me to leave with the guy from the threesome, and he did it anyway. He even acknowledged it later. He knew he could’ve simply stopped and connected with me and then called that guy afterward if he was going to do that. That would’ve been unpleasant, but not the same as leaving with him, barely a goodbye to me.”
I sighed at the pain of this. “It wasn’t the lack of communication.” I said. “It was the follow-through.”
Now my date and I only communicate via email. All this speaking and listening and writing and reading, and my erotic body doesn’t understand why it’s been left out of the conversation. The body is how I know things, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this odd bit of dating, my mind shouldn’t be in charge. It’s too unstable and is far too fond of its own notions. If I’d been Jim, I would’ve wanted a kiss, touch, and fondness, too, before my lover left the house. That scenario makes me want to cry. More zeal for a stranger than kindness for an intimate. More desire to stay separate from someone significant than to risk being close. Even knowing what made sense, Jim’s lover couldn’t do it. Even with so much spark and talk and enthusiasm, my date decided that even kissing me once, just to find out what attraction was there, would be too much.
Whether it’s three, two, or just one person, we learn the shifting terrain of love and sex slowly with a combination of fear and pleasure. Never the same river twice. New bodies and stories bring new meaning.
But the mind can maintain the same river, step into it the same way, again and again. The mind can make pleasure or fear, depending on what it expects, creates, endures.
I told a friend about the dates gone wrong and she said, “Don’t push the river.”
“I’m impatient.” I replied. “I want to know what’s possible; what’s not.”
I also know this: Love listens and is patient. Fear wants speedy resolution and will get all up in someone’s business to find relief. I have trust issues. But why would a person let that shit win?
I pose no threat. I am more thoughtful and communicative than most. I know the importance of sex. Consistency and tenderness help me overcome fear. That’s my story. Jim is also kind and thoughtful and yet, when he said, “no more,” his partner was wrecked and angry, devoured by loss. We inhabit a shifting terrain and come to know it intimately, no matter whom we keep at arm’s length. Distance just placates the mind and keeps pleasure at bay. Managing a bit of hunger can seem better than feeling sated and vulnerable. And why not? It’s all just a story.
I know what I want, and there’s risk in it but not too much. I will almost always choose the risk of two, probably not three or more. I am fairly content with one. Jim and I are talking about communication, and that means memory and longing and whether what we want can match up with our abilities to achieve it. When I’m confused, the body tells me when to hang on, when to let go, when to stand up and put my clothes on. That’s my story. I trust that wanting means I’m alive. It’s good to be alive. I rely on the beauty of being able to stand up again after feeling broken. So far, that’s what’s always happened.
There’s wisdom in optimism. That’s my story.
KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.
The rhythmic clicking is so far in the background that I think, how bad can this be?
Country, top 40, ’80s rock…
I wait for the technician to list a station I like, classical or maybe jazz.
…hip hop, jazz?
The right earphone lands a little too far south. It cuffs my upper cheek and skims my ear. It will have to be close enough for the next half hour or so because I don’t speak up in time. As she motors me into the tube, the technician drops a soft cloth on my face. It’s still bright behind my shut eyes. I open them and peek beneath the cloth’s bottom edge at the glossy, spiraling cavern. I shut my eyes again fast. Later, my husband Mat will ask me, How close was your face to the ceiling?, and I’ll say, I don’t know.
The technician tucks a buzzer button beneath my left hand. In case of emergency, she says.
I squeeze it without meaning to. It buzzes.
Are you okay?
The first test will last one minute. Hold real still.
My feet are taped together as if I’m in a hostage situation. I try not to think of it that way, like I’m enclosed in a thick plastic tunnel, strapped down with my feet taped together. Only one person could hear me scream, if I screamed, and I just met her. I don’t even know her name. She’s wearing false eyelashes and a wig, as if in disguise. I’m here to diagnose and regain control of my left hip and my life, the very same life a stranger now controls. Now that’s irony. For the moment, the only option is trust.
Are you okay?
The next test will take about three and a half minutes.
The sound patterns change. Grinding happens, and then the noise my printer makes when it spits out pages. It’s not exactly pleasant, but it’s fine. I wonder if she’s selected the correct station because the song sounds more like swing than jazz. The machine gnashes and moans, while a smooth, clear, female voice sings up-tempo about something wonderful. That’s the honest-to-God lyric: something wonderful. More irony. Every time I want to fidget, I bite my tongue hard to yank me back to the top of my body, the part that can will my toes not to shift position.
Are you okay?
The next two tests will take about four and a half minutes each.
I want to ask about the tests. What exactly are they testing for four and a half minutes? Then what different thing are they testing for the following four and a half minutes? But I also want to get this done, and she’s chatty, this technician. Her children are both grown, the boy is married and works nearby, loves his job, and the girl lives farther away but has provided grandbabies who compensate for the distance. I know all this from limping in socks and a hospital gown from the waiting area to the room I’m in now—about twenty-five steps, maybe less. If I ask about the tests, she will want to be clear, explain every detail, and I appreciate that, but I want this done more than I want to know what’s being done to me. I want information about this stoppage in my joints, so I can walk properly again and go through with my daughter Hannah’s high school graduation trip. I splurged on plane tickets to Italy for one last family hurrah and the promise of daily gelato before college tuition payments begin. I’ll never be forgiven if I cancel it. I’ll ruin it if I go and can’t walk. A bad diagnosis is lose-lose. Still, I want to know.
Are you okay?
It’s the correct station after all. The instrumental jazz I’d hoped for plays, but I can barely hear the saxophone above the machine’s jackhammering. I was a New Yorker for a while, so the noise is no big deal. Over time, we adjusted. The baby slept through it, but not Hannah, my sensitive toddler. She approached my side of the bed in her pink princess nightgown, a curl stuck to her forehead glistening with sweat and sleep. Frowsy and blowsy, Mat called it when the kids awakened disheveled, warm, and pink like that. At eighteen, Hannah’s pincurls have softened into waves but remain the same brown and blond and red. The sun still tracks freckles across her nose. I still see that frowsy and blowsy child in the pink princess nightgown every time Hannah the young woman barrels through the door after a run, ponytail swaying. When she was little, I wanted her to stay curled into me forever beneath the cocoon of sheets, yet I itched for her to return to her own bed, where her twitching and breathing wouldn’t keep me awake. Now it’s differently the same. When she’s home, sometimes I can’t sleep, thinking about her leaving for college in just a few months. I can’t sleep when she’s not home either, worried she’ll pile into a car driven by some drunk teenager, even though I’ve told her a thousand times to call me if there’s ever a situation like that. No questions asked; just call.
Are you okay?
The next three tests will last about four minutes each.
The pole towers over a deep, bottomless ravine, swinging wildly from wind, and I balance in a chair on top like a character from the Doctor Seuss book Daddy read to me before bed. Lurching awake saves me, though the nightmare pounds inside. I’m frowsy and blowsy, and lace ruffles down the front of my flannel nightgown. The gold wall-to-wall carpeting stretches down the hallway into my parents’ bedroom. Mom’s beehive hair, flattened on the side from sleep, is either real or lifted from pictures I’ve seen, but the warm, safe smell of her perfume leftover from the day is real. The curving ivory edges of my parents’ monumental headboard remind me of animal tusks. I never liked that headboard. (Mom tried to give it to me during a cleaning spree and told me how expensive it was as a selling point, but I didn’t take it.) Mom lifts the edge of the sheet, and I curl into her and listen to her breathe. In and out. And then I listen to my own child’s breathing, in and out, while she cuddles into me and jackhammers attack the street outside the apartment window.
How are you doing?
You moved during one of the tests, so we’ll have to do it again.
What did I move? I didn’t think I moved anything. I sound defensive. I don’t mean to; defensive is just the way it comes out.
The monitor tells me you moved something, but it doesn’t say what. It could be that you rearranged your hand, or a toe.
It was my toe. I must not have bitten my tongue in time. I’ll try to do better.
You’re doing great. It will only be three and a half minutes.
Why always a half? What can they possibly tell from that extra half a minute that they can’t detect from the first three? I bite my tongue, so my toe won’t move. I try to go back to the safe spaces, with nightgowns and mothers and deeply sleeping, trusting little girls. I open my eyes and shut them again, but I can’t seem to return to my childhood home or our old apartment where my entire little girl fit into the pocket of my body curving around her. I’m alone and powerless inside a plastic tunnel, strapped down with my feet taped together. When my girl leaves for college in the fall, I can’t drown out the jackhammers or conquer the nightmares for her.
That’s it. You are done. I’m coming to get you out of there.
The original rhythmic sounds re-emerge. The saxophone, the bass, the brush against cymbals abruptly stop, and the platform moves like a forklift delivering rubble onto a pile. The technician removes the tape from my feet. I’m free. My hip is stiff, my mother is old, my child has grown, and we mostly wear pajamas instead of nightgowns now—except for Mom. Her light cotton nightgowns with pleated fronts must be forty years old, and they’re still her staple. My daughter has switched to 100% pajamas. She told me once the pink princess nightgown is in her room somewhere. She’ll probably leave it behind when she moves away for college. Moving forward, always forward, and here I was going backward for some reason, when I should’ve been moving forward too.
I’m afraid you owe $150.00, the receptionist tells me. These tests used to be free, but now the insurance. The receptionist is nice about it.
I limp out of the hospital and drive home with my good leg pressing the pedal then I pump the brake when the car begins moving too fast. I wish my hip would heal already, so I can walk properly. We will take that graduation trip. Hannah will leave. I’ll grow old like my mother, but I’ll wear pajamas. Maybe I should’ve taken that giant, ugly, valuable headboard when Mom offered it. Maybe I should search for the little pink nightgown folded in the closet of Hannah’s vacated room when she’s gone. I’ll keep moving forward, but sometimes it feels too fast, with no button to press in case of emergency, no break to pump.
Mat asks, How did it go?
Is it weird that I almost enjoyed my MRI? For forty and a half minutes, my only responsibility was to hold still while voices sang something wonderful and asked Are you okay? My mother protected me. I protected my daughter. Then the machine shut off, and the world started up again, the world where my daughter will leave, as children do.
JILL MARGARET SHULMAN is a freelance writer, parent of teenagers, college essay coach, and works seasonally in college admissions. Some of her recent essays have appeared in The New York Times, Family Fun, Good Housekeeping, Parents.com and O the Oprah Magazine. Visit her website at http://www.otherwords.us/ for college essay coaching inquiries and links to more of her writing.
I take my first shaky step and see my eight-year-old son standing on the same thin rope one hundred feet above the ground as he takes a step in my direction. “Raphael! Are you okay?” I ask, panic edging my voice.
Raphael looks directly at me from what seems like an insurmountable distance across the tight rope. He stands still for a moment, balanced. “Mom, I’m okay. You need to just think about yourself now,” he says.
I see my son’s intent gaze, long eyelashes, café-au-lait–colored skin, the face of my father, the face I know better then my own. I am barely holding steady and realize that in order for me to make it across and hug him briefly, as instructed, for this trust-building exercise, every last part of me needs to be focused. I need to let go and be in my own moment in order to reach Raphael.
We are on a challenge ropes course at Camp Tawonga, near Yosemite, at a special family camp weekend for multi-racial, Jewish, inter-faith families. I’ve tried a couple different family camps and it’s hard to find one that fits our family: LGBT, “Keshet” (rainbow), inter-faith, biracial, single parent. I’m hoping for “spiritual renewal,” to find kinship, perhaps some answers, by connecting to similar families, or maybe just some rest, when Raphael spends time with his father or other kids. But much of the time Raphael is clingy, not wanting me to be far away, often not wanting to participate in the camp activities. So when he enthusiastically demands we do the ropes course, I know I have to go.
We have on harnesses, but for me, it’s still terrifying. I’ve only stepped up because Raphael asked it of me, knowing that this exercise is not something his dad would ever participate in—the heights, the tightrope. His dad and I have been separated since Raphael was eight months old, but he agreed, warily, to travel with us for this family camp weekend. It’s still a time in our lives that we sometimes attempt to be a family, though not together as a couple. Perhaps he too is hoping to find examples of families like ours to look to for a model to co-parent together. He is down below, looking up at us, standing alone.
Raphael and I walk towards each other. I am utterly present; to do otherwise, I’d fall. My worries slip away—financial, mother-son tug of wars, ongoing tension with his dad. The still uncut umbilical cord propels us closer, step by step. With one big step, we meet, hug, and somehow find the coordination to move as if in one graceful motion as we edge past each other to the opposite side, and then go down to the ground. We hug again, longer. “I love you,” we say to each other.
It’s October 9, 2015, about eleven years later after the ropes course we did at Camp Tawonga. In the near future, Raphael will move out of the recovery house that he will have been in for almost two years, since January 2014, when he was just short of eighteen years old. During that time, he’s graduated from a local high school, found his first real job, gotten sober, and managed to turn his life around; he’s excited, following the plan of moving out to an apartment with two other graduates of the recovery program.
I’m suddenly terrified. The scaffolding of the young man’s recovery house, the “New Life House” will still exist as a place to go for support, but in reality it’s time for him to go out and live his life. He’s only nineteen, soon to be twenty, and I’m fucking scared.
I have spent the last three weeks spinning out of control myself, worried perhaps I won’t graduate from school, the long awaited book and MFA maybe not completed. Perhaps I won’t be able to support myself in the world as I get older. Perhaps I’ll lose my mind like my mom. Seeing my mom as we knew her vanish adds to my sense of shakiness, utter lack of control, as I prepare for Raphael to go out in the world.
My mom talks about fairies that might come rescue her from the assisted living residence she calls prison and take her home to the Bronx where she hasn’t lived for more than sixty years. Recently she was questioned by a social worker to determine if she still had dementia and qualified for her long term care plan: “I can’t tell you how old I am. But I can tell this—I do exist,” she said.
Five years ago, when I was fifty-one, I decided that I needed to make a visible statement and get a tattoo. Hineni: I am here. I had the Hebrew words tattooed on me. My brother in his Mr. Spockian way said, “I am here? Is this a map?” (Like “you are here.”) I have a Hamsa (to ward off the evil eye) on my back and Hineni in Hebrew letters is inscribed below. Very tiny Hebrew letters, because after all, I don’t want to be a target.
For years I contemplated a tattoo and went over what I’d want and where. I researched the rules on Jews and tattoos and found out that it’s urban legend about the ban on tattoos, and in fact, in Israel, some very high percentage of people, ages, say, nineteen to forty, have tattoos. And you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I went to a tattoo artist who turned out to know me and my son from a co-op preschool that our kids went to in Sierra Madre many years ago.
The place I went to get my tattoo was called Shangri-La, and it looked like that, vines of bright scarlet, purple, and orange bougainvillea intertwined with Province Blue Morning Glory, and sweet-smelling jasmine. The studio was in the backyard of the tattoo artist, and I felt as if I were walking into another dimension. After I approved a mock up of the tattoo based on my ideas, she started her work, turning her needle buzzing quietly into my skin, while she explained that the natural endorphins would kick in after a bit of pain.
At first I did feel intense jabs of pain. (I’d asked a woman getting a tattoo in Old Pasadena which hurt more—getting waxed or getting a tattoo—and she had said waxing for sure.) But the pain was sharp enough that I gasped and I asked the tattoo artist to tell me a story about herself and how she decided on her profession. Her dad, a biker and also a rocket scientist, suggested it to her as a way of making a living; she’d been trained as an artist and illustrator.
And then miraculously those endorphins did kick in as she was asking me about myself. I told her all about me, about the recent episode getting my nose broken by a sheriff’s deputy when I couldn’t immediately find my metro ticket, and about losing everything because of my marriage break up and unblended family. (I didn’t yet know what more I might lose or have the potential to lose because of addiction). But at that point I’d decided I had survived. By the time, I got to the point in my story where I was saying that I was now okay, “and that’s what happened,” she’d put the finishing touches on my tattoo.
In the last three weeks, I thought that now I had the freedom to go off the deep end myself because my son seemed to be doing beyond well and my step-daughter had stopped talking to me and everyone else for a bit. So I felt free to obsess, agitate, and generally neglect my own wellbeing. I’ve thought about using heroin—for real—and for the first time. I’ve “self-harmed.” I dug a hole in my leg with my fingernails as I tried to feel, to give a face to the pain that wracked me following an argument with my girlfriend. My first cutting like incident at age fifty-six. Is there a support group for older onset cutters?
I’m glad the black and blue mark, the jagged scar/scab, remains so I can remember. I did that. I went there. I knew I was bleeding inside and I wanted the red, the injury, to be visible. Then perhaps the pain would stop: I would be seen. But perhaps I’m only seen as insane. I’ve also contacted my old ex—“mi Chiquita”—via text, and I’ve cut it off, seemingly for good. She’s my heroin and I’ve had to stop.
I started looking at violent Internet porn, something I’ve got control over, unlike my dreams. Throughout my life, I’ve often dreamt of being raped and I have an orgasm while still resisting. It reflects the real-life complications of my sexuality, how many times I have been aroused in my life by what seems to be something, somebody so wrong, and yet some kind of twisted sexual friction is created, a Pavlovian response that I imagine began when I was around eleven or twelve and was sexually abused by my piano teacher back in the woods where the Jewish Temple was being built.
We’d recently moved to the hated suburbs outside of Seattle—Bellevue—from the inner city where I had been a tough tomboy: “Sammy Boy.” Now we were outcasts in the WASPish land of what we called ultra-suburbanite snobs. In those days we stayed out all afternoon and evening playing increasingly complicated games with the local kids where I tried to teach them about spying, starting a gang which was a cross between my “West Side Story” (which I had memorized in entirety) and my old rough playground.
I went back to the woods with another piano student, a girl from the neighborhood who was developing already, popular with the sleazy guys for her breasts and willingness. We walked into the woods with our nineteen-year-old piano teacher, who was crater-faced with bright, inflamed pimples. I can’t remember how we first began these walks out to the woods, the same woods where the older kids would sneak out late at night to play spin-the-bottle and smoke pot. Did we think it odd that our piano teacher wanted to go back into the woods alone with him; did we do this after our piano lessons? We walked through the path in the woods and it was probably already dusk. It gets dark early in the winter in Washington and we must have walked back there, the trail behind our neighbors’ house in the fading light, surrounded by moist, lightly rained upon ground and trees. The hammers of the workman who were building a Jewish Temple could be heard in the distance, but they would soon cut out for the day. Did we take a flashlight?
I remember once out there sitting down with him and perhaps one of us asked him about what was the lump in his pants—or did he guide one of our hands to it? Or did he just start talking about “his handkerchief” as he moved our hands and we felt it through his pants first? I began to get a funny sick feeling in my stomach. “Touch it, it’s soft,” he told us. He moved our hands on his pants where the crotch went from being soft and full to feeling much harder after he moved our hands back forth and then he pulled it out—a big wide fleshy penis; it seemed enormous and swollen, the color reddish purple, not exactly like the large pimples that covered his neck and face. I imagined he touched us too because I remember starting to wonder, to even be curious to see what it would be like to have that penis inside me. “It would bust you wide open, so we have to wait,” our piano teacher told us.” Some days we stayed out there kind of late, almost dark, dinnertime, but I always made it back before my dad would come looking for me.
I can’t remember what happened exactly that last time, only the sound of my dad entering the woods, his flashlight, annoyance in his voice as he called out for me, and the sudden rush of shame and fear as the three of us stood up and walked quickly out of the woods.
I’m guessing I was sexually aroused because I sense that was when those dreams and those feelings started. And thinking about the possibility of having been aroused as a child, when I was being sexually abused—a memory which makes my stomach churn, now even as I picture the bright blistery pimples on his face—offers a clue as to why I might turn to something completely wrong, like the violent porn I had begun watching for the first time.
Until someone more knowledgeable than me said, “Stop—it’s an extremely difficult addiction to break.” After the post-menopausal drought of libido, and the despair I had been feeling but not understanding, my body was beginning to respond to the rough, sometimes even brutal sexual images, almost like a drug. All my past years of being sexual with the wrong” person, getting driven by those intense pulsating hormones and endorphins that immediately turned to shame after an orgasm and resulted in so many twisted, dangerous, near-rape and actual-rape experiences. This was coupled with my inability to keep feeling sexual with someone who felt safe. My feelings changed so quickly to shame and inertia that I’d rather just sit and watch videos, eat, ruminate, or anything else other than try to rouse my shut-down body.
The thing that has held solid for me now for so many years is writing, and I finally thought I’d made the space to concentrate on it. But I found myself focusing on everything else but the writing. I was yanked away by the rip currents of my mom leaving us as the mom we knew. Moving her close to her children in Southern California from where she had lived more than forty-five years in Washington, propelled her into a much more advanced state of dementia. Now we have to wipe her butt, try to get her to take her medication, and leave her as painfully as leaving a pleading toddler.
I’ve just simply been thrashing about. I still long for something that I don’t believe I have—complete freedom to write and the belief I’ll be okay. In reality I could decide to believe that I have that kind of choice and abundance. Then again, I might never write another intelligent word or decent story that anyone will read. Over the years, I’ve painstakingly eked out some writing here and there while attending to the more urgent needs of others: son, step-daughter, work, aging parents. After witnessing how fragile life could be, watching my mom start to lose her mind and my son almost lose his life, I decided I couldn’t put off seizing my time to write. But it’s hard, this business of focusing on and believing in oneself.
For many years, I held an image of sitting in the woods, head leaning against a long-haired woman. She was comforting me, perhaps stroking my hair and singing and our child was in my lap.
I held onto this image as I lost baby after baby and endured rage after rage and suffered my own rages and bouts of craziness flailing about in my desperation to “be seen.” (And what the hell does that mean anyway?) What was that urgent despair that demanded I be a mother, I carry a baby, I create this safe haven, this nurturing and nurtured family? That I didn’t actually create—or rather what I did create was so distorted, it didn’t look like that safe home in nature. But I did create something, something solid, a strength my kids know exists. They know I’m there day after day; my family and my friends know that in my so-very-imperfect mode of being in the world—messy, interrupting, inconsistent at times—I’m a person who loves unsinkably, solidly loyal. Now it’s time to look that love in the mirror.
I’ve felt secure enough in my son’s recovery, his sobriety, to believe that I was free to go back to my old ways, the self-torture, rumination, all the anxiety I was raised with by my family, in particular my dad. Instead I discover I must be vigilant. Lack of gratitude will cause life to simply slap the shit out of me. If I don’t enjoy or at least appreciate every moment I have on the earth with a living, vibrant life-loving son out in the world, well, I’ll get kicked in the butt. Even if I can’t always sing with gratitude, I need to stop this genetically ingrained journey to the hellhole of regret and worry. And when I remember Raphael staggering about with his eyes rolled back of his head, saying he didn’t have much more time, then I need to remember how lucky I am that he does exist, that he’s found a spirituality, a core of inner strength, and support system that I alone could not create for him.
I want there to be some kind of “letting go” ceremony. “It all happened too quickly,” one friends says, lamenting the absence of her two sons finally gone off to live their lives, university and beyond. I remember my son saying to me so long ago on the tightrope walking that rope’s course we did together, “Mom, I’m okay, I will be all right. Worry about yourself now.” I’m not so sure I’m ready to let go. I’m not so sure I’m ready to worry only about myself.
CARLA SAMETH is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several anthologies and has appeared in online and print publications including Mutha Magazine, Narratively, Pasadena Weekly, Tikkun, La Bloga and forthcoming in Brain, Child. Her story “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which originally appeared in Narratively, was also selected for Longreads, “Five Stories on Addiction.” Carla was awarded a merit scholarship from the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program in 2014, and is currently an MFA candidate with the Queens University of Charlotte in Latin America. She has helped others tell their stories as co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project, through her business, iMinds PR, and as a writing instructor/mentor with WriteGirl working with incarcerated youth. Carla is working on a memoir of her non-traditional journey as a single mother to two children, born four months apart, now twenty years old.