Her

her
by Sodanie Chea/Flickr

By Jiadai Lin

I never knew my grandmother well but I was told growing up that I had her yan sher, which literally means “eye expression” in Mandarin. I understood it more colloquially as referring to Grandma’s spirit, her aura. My father said this as a compliment. My mother, not so much.

The woman I call Grandma—my paternal grandmother—grew up in the pre–Cultural Revolution Chinese countryside just north of Beijing. She had a clumsy instinct for things like judgment and war and enemy lines. She played with the Japanese kids in the yard who nobody was supposed to play with. She unraveled the bandages wound tightly around her feet and learned to read. She became a wife before she was twenty, and a mother soon after. She birthed seven children from her tiny frame and lost two.

Of course, she wasn’t all good and mighty. Grandma’s fingers were just as clumsy as her instinct to judge, so she could never properly sift the rice hulls from their grains in the fall. The rice patties her kids brought to school for lunch weren’t white and pure as they were supposed to be but speckled with brown. This was considered an embarrassment, but Grandma didn’t lose any sleep over it.

When I was young, I sensed that Grandma wasn’t exactly the model of a woman that I should want to embody. Enemy-befriending, bandage-unraveling, wooden-fingered Grandma wasn’t supposed to be my ideal of feminine perfection. She was wrinkled and weathered by the time she was thirty, and she didn’t know how to smile properly for a picture. Her fingers, unnaturally thick for such a small lady, were dusted charcoal gray no matter which picture I looked at.

And I looked at many. From halfway across the world, from a second-floor apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I flipped through the thin stack of Kodak photos that sometimes came in the mail. The images I remember were all set in winter. Grandma and cousins posed wearing puffy neon jackets in their front yard. The ground wasn’t grass or the concrete sidewalks of Milwaukee, but a worn, packed dirt. Grandma sat on a wooden chair, cousins stood in a row, and the family dog, Little Black, lounged at their feet. Their expressions seemed never whole—never just a smile or a frown—but instead halfway through a sentence or question, as if they weren’t sure when exactly the camera would go off.

These pictures were mostly the same but I studied each one as if it were a unique blueprint for my own identity. Of all the cousins on my family tree, I was the only one to live in America. I was special in that way, but I was also alone.

“You’re like your grandma,” my father would say.

“How?” I’d ask.

“You have that same sarcastic look in your eye. Yan sher.

“What do you mean?”

He never replied directly. The answer came at me slowly, through stories and pictures gathered over years.

•••

Just before I turned two, my parents brought me to visit my father’s family. After the stay, I observed that Grandma didn’t pay much attention to me.

“She’s not an affectionate woman,” my father said.

“That’s right—she’s not!” my mother said.

I don’t remember this early impression of Grandma and clearly, it didn’t do anything to diminish her in my eyes. Maybe Grandma was busy playing poker with the village ladies or preparing dinner with the aunts or walking Little Black instead of cuddling me.

My family moved to America shortly after that visit, and I only saw Grandma a few more times in her life. The last was the August before my senior year of college. On this trip, I noticed that my cousin Hailian had bought gifts for the family—bottles of perfume, silk neck ties, a watch for my father, a jar of L’Oreal face cream for my mother. The girl had manners, my mother noted, and I decided that I should learn a thing or two from Hailian.

During afternoon nap on a particularly hot day, I snuck out to the village convenience shop with my little brother. When we walked in, a bell on the door jingled and a sleepy shopkeeper emerged from behind a shredded plastic curtain. We apologized for waking him and asked in our best Mandarin for a nice woman’s shirt.

“For your grandma?” he guessed right away.

“Yes.”

My brother and I examined the one option shown to us, a button-down shirt made from a flowered pattern. It would do.

Grandma had an afternoon routine. She spent hours hanging out with other neighborhood women on the stone ledges that lined the narrow village streets. I had often seen them perched in the shade waving their bamboo fans and swatting at mosquitos that buzzed by their legs. These women greeted everyone by name—kids returning home from school, men in suits riding bikes to and from work in the next town over, the fat lady with the toothy smile who herded her goats down the village’s most central streets every afternoon.

On this particularly hot afternoon, my brother and I found Grandma on the stone ledges and presented her flowered shirt. Almost immediately, the neighborhood ladies clapped their hands in laughter. Look at those American kids! What funnies! They called us not by our names, but as our father’s children.

Grandma laughed too, then started unbuttoning the shirt she was wearing. Soon she was topless and slipping her arms into the flowered shirt we had bought. I stood there with my eleven-year-old brother, unable to turn away. Grandma was skinny and tan, her breasts small and wilted, gently falling over her ribcage. Her skin was withered as if a layer tissue paper had been glued onto her actual skin beneath. I had noticed that Chinese women, who often showered communally, were generally more comfortable with nudity than American women. But an eighty-something-year-old woman changing out on the street with a group of ladies cheering her on? This was not normal. Afterwards, Grandma sat there on the ledge sporting her new shirt with a beaming smile on her face. This was her way of saying thank you for the gift.

When I recounted this story to my mother, she looked disturbed. I got the message. What Grandma did was not ladylike. It wasn’t something I should emulate. But over the years, I always remembered this story and felt a kinship with Grandma. Maybe she wasn’t refined and full of grace, but she was bold. She was a hoot. She didn’t care what others thought about her. She did what she wanted to do, in that nonchalant way that always had my mother shaking her head.

•••

My mother was a different kind of woman. She wore billowing dresses and strappy sandals and tortoise-shelled sunglasses with lenses the color of tea eggs. She knew how to stand for a picture, arm-in-arm with my father in front of Tiananmen Square the year before I was conceived, a silver flowered clip locked into her wavy hair. After we moved to America, she bought do-it-at-home hair perm kits that came in purple and silver boxes with a blonde lady on the front.

I can still see my mother standing over the sink in our tiny bathroom in Milwaukee, her hair dripping of something that looked like milk and smelling of chemicals. I’d watch her from the bed where we all slept—my mother, father, and me. Every night, my mother would come to this bed and put Lubriderm lotion on her hands, her fingers smooth and long like a ballerina’s legs. And then she would take mine and do the same for me, paying special attention to the dry cuticles that I had a bad habit of chewing off.

•••

For a long time, whenever my mother tried to teach me about being a woman, I felt like she was pulling me away from myself. More times than I can count, my mother would come up behind me, rest her hands on my shoulders and press her thumbs into my spine. “Straighten up,” she’d say.

I’d arch my back to an extreme. “Like this?”

She’d shake her head. “You know what I mean.”

Did I? I don’t remember. What I remember is feeling defiant. Proud of the fact that I didn’t naturally stand up tall or want to sit nicely at holiday parties with the women who gossiped until midnight spooning dessert from the table. I wanted to be the one rolling in the dirt, the one with the scraped knees hanging from the top branch of a tree, the one riding her blue Huffy down the street that ran the length of our apartment complex. Through grade school, I insisted on wearing tee-shirts and cargo pants, the kind that could be unzipped at the knees and transformed into baggy shorts for the summer. In high school, I wore my hair in a messy bun that I had to keep re-doing throughout the day to keep tousled because my thick hair always fell straight.

My mother thought of names for me. Things like kuang tou (basket-head) and bu-nan-bu-nu (not-boy-not-girl, or, as I guessed, tomboy) that she muttered when she saw my getups. I knew these names were not endearing. They were meant to stir me to change. I did change, but in the opposite direction. I messed up my hair even more and slouched defiantly. I wanted to show my mother that this was who I was.

I felt less that I was caught between two cultures and more that I was caught between two women. Except I wasn’t really caught. I knew who I wanted to be, but I was too young to be her yet. I felt a maddening ache to get out of the house and out of our town. Once I grew up, once I moved away, once I had my own place, my own money, my own life, I could be whatever kind of woman I wanted to be.

•••

A month before I started college, my parents and I attended a dinner reception for incoming freshman and their families. We drove into New York City in our green Dodge Caravan and circled the blocks around school several times before finding a parking spot. My mother wore an olive and bronze–colored silk dress with a sash at the waist. She had brought this dress with her from China and kept it in her closet, taking care to replace the moth balls every winter. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know that it had not occurred to me that I was supposed to look nice for this event. I probably wore my uniform at the time: jeans and a tank top, flip flops, and a choker necklace made of plastic sea shells.

There was a woman at the reception who seemed important. I don’t remember what color her hair was or what she wore, but I was alert to her presence. While the families sat at round tables, this woman paced around. She shook hands and made friendly conversation to which families laughed and nodded as if on cue. As this woman circled closer my table, I noticed the muscles in my mother’s neck clench. Her hair was twisted into a bun with a flashy jewel barrette that she saved for special occasions. By the time the woman got to the table next to ours, my heart was pounding hard in my chest. I was suddenly embarrassed at how out of place my family looked. I watched as the woman told her joke, smiled, and then moved straight to the table on our other side.

I ate a piece of my bread and tried to look unfazed. But I was confused. Did the important woman skip us by accident? Would she come back around? I was glad that I was spared an awkward encounter with this woman, but why didn’t she speak to us?

My mother and I never talked about this incident. It occurs to me now that maybe it doesn’t stand out in her memory as an exception to her everyday life. When I was growing up, my mother always reminded me that it wasn’t easy to be an immigrant. “You have to be better to get the same result,” she would say. A better student, a better woman, a better friend.

I’d usually laughed it off. “I don’t feel that way,” I’d respond, “You’re being paranoid.”

But being at that reception, as I sat proud and excited and anxious at the prospect of being alone in the world for the first time, I experienced something that never left me. Only years later did I understand that what I had experienced was how it felt to be an immigrant’s child. That lucky first generation. And all the pride and burden and vengeance that came with it.

•••

I graduated from college and then law school. I got a job at a firm in New York and rented an apartment on the Upper West Side. I worked long hours and indulged in fancy cocktails to justify those long hours. One Monday night in late September, I had come home and had just stripped off my corporate outfit when my mother called me. This was normal, so I took the call and steeped a peppermint tea. Then I put my mother on speakerphone on the kitchen counter and got ready to scrub at the dirty dishes in my sink.

“You should sit down,” my mother said.

I did.

“Your grandmother…” my mother started.

I immediately had a bad feeling in my stomach. My mother never said much about Grandma. Something big or bad had to have happened.

Grandma had died sometime through the night. The night in China that was the day I had just lived. I tried to remember something, anything, that had happened during the day that felt tragic or poignant. A moment I could identify in hindsight as a sign that I knew viscerally my grandmother was gone. I must have felt something. Grandma and I were connected by blood, and something even stronger. We shared yan sher. That had to count for something. But I had nothing. I had been sitting at my computer for most of the day, chatting occasionally with coworkers but mostly working on assignments that barely varied from one day to the next.

After I hung up the phone with my mother, I went to the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror above my sink, next to my blue shower curtain. The pattern on my shower curtain was a map of the United States, and I thought about how my grandmother would never step foot on American soil.

Grandma wasn’t sick. She had been weak through the previous winter but rejected my uncle’s invitation to stay with his family. She liked where she was. She was walking to the market every morning for breakfast buns and soy milk and playing chess on the stone ledges with the ladies in the afternoon. It had been a good summer. She was getting stronger. Of course she would die someday, but I wasn’t prepared for her to die today.

I sat on the bathroom floor against the cold bathtub and cried. I had never lost anybody close to me before, and I hadn’t expected the tears to come so diligently, before I could even fully process my sadness. I was puzzled by my tears because along with vague sadness, I felt something light. I felt the peace of a life ended without great injustice. Grandma had lived long. She had died in her sleep, as she always claimed was the best way to go. Her death had not been big or bad.

That night, I lay in bed staring up at the wooden beams across my ceiling. I thought of my grandmother, who had gone to bed not long ago. Now her small body was cold and empty of life, her brain without consciousness. It was impossible to understand how a person could just be gone like that. And not just any person, but Grandma. The lady with the sarcastic look in her eye. Now there was only one of us in the world.

•••

A few nights later, I left my Midtown office building and walked up Sixth Avenue. I strolled along the southern edge of Central Park, past the row of carriage horses resting in the shade. It was a quiet night, the air cold but comfortable. I settled on the stone fountains facing Columbus Circle and spoke to my father, who had gone home to China.

In my grandmother’s village, funerals were celebratory events. My father described how the whole village had come out. There was a live band and two teenage go-go dancers. At funerals, it was tradition for family members to dedicate songs to the deceased.

“Your uncle selected two songs for you and your brother because you guys couldn’t be there,” my father said, “It was really a nice celebration. Everyone said that your grandmother was a really kind lady.”

I watched as two men in front of me played with neon rockets that could be wound up and shot up into the sky. At the top of their trajectories, the rockets flashed with bright lights, lingered for a moment, and then fell back down. I kept my eye on them. Up and down, over and over again. Something about the simplicity and sureness of their paths was calming.

All this reminded me of Grandma. As long as her life had been, it was never meant to be much more than what she was born into. She would get married and have kids. She would live in the same house through most of this and die there too. Then I thought about own my life. I was born in a hospital in Beijing, to a country-boy scientist father and a Manchurian mother with a graceful edge. Maybe I was not meant to travel far in my life either. But I had. What were the chances that somebody like me would be here sitting in Columbus Circle on this very night?

My grandmother could never have dreamed of this life for me, but she did live to see a glimpse of it. A few months before she died, Grandma found my lawyer profile online. She didn’t mention this until she overheard my uncle talking about my website profile in the other room. “I saw it,” Grandma said.

A clunky old computer had sat idly in the corner of Grandma’s room for months, maybe years. Nobody guessed that she knew how to use it. But there it was, in her browser history. My name, my picture, my degrees.

This last story makes me smile because this was Grandma’s way. Understated but crafty, insulated but modern, modest but full of pride.

•••

I see now that while Grandma could never have dreamed of this life for me, my mother did. And even more, she demanded it of me.

Over the years, I realized that the main difference between my mother and grandmother is how each woman handled judgment. Grandma was fearless. This was the essence of her aura. She was not ashamed. She did not care that her children brought to school rice patties that were not perfectly white. She didn’t often ask, am I good enough? She just was what she was.

But my mother, she never stopped asking that question. My mother didn’t believe in accepting what you were born into. She believed in being better. She believed in learning to sit up straight and breaking bad habits. She believed in going to the salon for a perm, and when she found herself in a new country with little money, she believed in doing it herself. She believed in upkeep. And most of all, perhaps, my mother believed in her kids. While I begrudged my mother’s attempts to mold me when I was growing up, I see now that her intentions were pure. She pushed me because she believed in me.

It is a humbling thing to look back on your younger self and see somebody who cared so much about how you would turn out today. The lesson, I think, is in the effort and intentions. Perhaps the time I spent as a girl searching for the good and bad and admirable allowed me to face the judgments I had of myself. Perhaps being exposed to the wildly different personas of my mother and grandmother instilled at a most basic level the idea that there was no one way a woman could or should be.

I never did find a model of feminine perfection that both satisfied my mother and sat comfortably with me. I was a college grad who sometimes dreamed of being a farmer, a corporate lawyer who changed immediately into sweatpants at home, a tomboy who learned to walk in heels. And while I was becoming these things, I forgot to think about how much I wanted to be like Grandma. I forgot to think about how much I wanted to show my mother exactly who I was. I forgot to try so hard. Without detaching from either woman, I detached myself from the idea of being confined to their qualities. In growing up I became my own woman, and I am still becoming her.

•••

JIADAI LIN lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is working on a novel based on her former life as a lawyer in Manhattan. She can be found on Twitter here: @jiadailin 

 

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One Ball, Two Strikes

bloody
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Mickey Dubrow

My brother-in-law is a big sports fan. Me, not so much. Recently, he asked me, “In baseball, do you know what they call one ball, two strikes? A Mickey Dubrow.” He laughed and then apologized. There was no need. It was a good joke. I had had testicular cancer and one of my testicles had been removed. I was lucky. I had a type of cancer that is highly curable, and once the tumor was taken out, I was cancer free.

I was also lucky to have a damn good doctor. I remember the first time she checked my testicles for lumps. As she pulled on her rubber gloves and sat on the stool in front of my naked lower half, she said, “This is the part we both hate.” In my head—let me repeat that—in my head, I replied, “I don’t know, I kind of like it.” But out loud, I said nothing because she was my doctor and you don’t say stupid shit like that to your doctor.

During a yearly physical, my damn good doctor noticed that one of my testicles was larger than the other. You’d think that would be something I would notice, but it went right by me. She arranged for me to see a urologist. The urologist ordered a scan that showed that the inflation was caused by a tumor. The only way to find out if the tumor was cancerous was to remove it. I asked if there was any other way to find out, because what if they took it out and it was just fine? I didn’t want to lose a ball for nothing. The urologist assured me that there was no other way.

I worried that the surgery would damage my sex drive. I knew that I only needed one testicle to continue having a normal sex life, but sexual desire is as much mental as physical. I was afraid that I would convince myself that the surgery had destroyed my sex life.

My sex life is completely vanilla, but I’m one of those guys who thinks about sex a lot. Like all the damn time. I read stories with lots of sex in them. I write really good sex scenes. One of my life goals as a young man was to be a good lover. Let other men climb mountains. Pleasing my sex partners was my Mount Everest.

Men are supposed to have sex on the brain all the time, except when they’re thinking about sports. Since I’m not into sports, I have extra time to think about sex. I’m not quite Portnoy and I have no complaints, but my sex drive is part of who I am.

How sex obsessed am I? Just about every woman I look at, I imagine what she looks like naked. I don’t include underage girls and the very elderly, but every other female is fair game. In fact, if you’re a woman reading this essay, I’m imagining what you look like naked reading this essay.

I’ve never been ashamed or embarrassed by my obsession with sex. I have never understood the argument that sex was only for procreation. Animals have sex for procreation only. Humans have sex for all kinds of reasons: recreation, expression, stress reduction, revenge, etc. Having sex for fun is what elevates humans from mere animals.

The cancer surgery went well. Afterwards, the urologist met with my wife and me. He told us that the tumor was malignant, but Stage 1A which meant that once the tumor was removed so was the cancer. It was an odd moment, to find out in the same sentence that I had cancer and that I no longer had cancer.

My wife and I waited until I had healed from the surgery before we attempted having sex. We moved slowly. She did most of the work, handling me gently, and with loving kindness. As I approached orgasm, fear gripped me. What if something went wrong? There was nothing to substantiate my fear, but fear is often irrational. The orgasm did happen and I felt tremendous relief. The last time I felt this emotional during sex was the first time I had slept with my wife. I knew that something more than sex had taken place.

Most days I forget that I only have one testicle. I’m not sure why anyone would dwell on it, even someone as sex obsessed as myself. You work with the tools you have.

Before the surgery, I thought of myself as invincible when it came to my health. Even though I was in my mid-fifties, I believed that my body would always bounce back from any disease and from the abuse I’d put my body through with too many drugs, too much alcohol, and generally not taking care of myself.

The surgery didn’t destroy my sex life, but I was convinced that I came out of it with two strikes against me. The first strike was the realization that my body was no longer invincible. The second strike was the realization that my body was aging. As I get older, my body won’t be able to ward off disease as easily and eventually age may dampen my sexual desire. This all sounds terribly depressing, but I’m not worried. In baseball, a batter with one ball and two strikes still has a chance to score.

•••

MICKEY DUBROW has been an award winning television promotions writer/producer for major cable networks for over twenty years. His essays have appeared in Creative Loafing, The Atlanta Jewish Times, Prime Number Magazine, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Under the pen name, Allan Kemp, he is the author of the Black Phoenix urban fantasy series.

My Dead Father Shops at Trader Joe’s

ocean man
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By C. Gregory Thompson

I see my dead father. Not in dreams, but physically, alive, out in the world. He’s always alone. I’ve seen him numerous times. He seems at peace, not lonely or struggling to understand his fate, his new whereabouts. Not laboring to return to the earthly plane. Problems endured alive, resolved; no longer important. On his own, no one else to answer to, to provide for, or support. Children, ex-wife, and wife number two no longer a responsibility or concern. Mistakes made, unmet expectations abandoned and not rectified. Unfulfilled and incomplete duties not complete and not fulfilled. Pain and sorrow, remorse and apology, lifted. A freedom he didn’t know in life. An aura of wonder surrounding him. He died on April 23, 2009, at age seventy-four, his cremains now interred at a cemetery in South San Francisco.

I saw him while on a Caribbean cruise in 2015. The ship docked at St. George’s, Grenada, and we had a half-day to explore the island. Walking back from Grand Anse Beach I noticed a man sitting on a pylon looking out to sea—my father, Ed. At least, it looked exactly like him. The bend of his back, the slope of his shoulders, the side-view of his face, his gray hair, even the clothes—K-Mart Bermuda shorts, a well-worn tee-shirt, brown leather fisherman sandals; his favored outfit. My father, Edward Willis Thompson. I did a double-take. I stopped and stared, studying, wondering, wanting, and needing. I wanted to go to him, but I did not. I wondered if it could actually be him, knowing—in my rational mind—it was not. In my fantastical mind, wishing it to be truth. I needed the healing that didn’t happen when he breathed.

He sat alone; no one else on the beach or near him. The way he gazed out at the water—as if he was there, on that pylon, permanently. Like he’d found his place to rest, to live out his eternity. Possibly, I was meant to pass him, to discover him there, at his final resting place. So I’d know he was okay, now at peace. The sereneness of my vision of him led me to believe this was the case—a communication from his beyond to my within. And it could have been him. Who’s to say it wasn’t? We don’t actually know where the dead go. Maybe “Heaven” is a favored place from life. The beach—any beach, especially a tropical one—Dad’s favorite place in the world.

Before the Caribbean sighting, I’d seen him a handful of times: in a Home Depot parking lot; in a crowd at the mall; on the street in Glendale, California, where we live. Each time I had the same experience, I thought: Jesus, that man looks exactly like my father. After the third sighting, I didn’t question whether it was or was not. For me, it was. Even if it’s as straightforward as me seeing my father’s corporeal doppelgangers, it was still him. This is not something ghostly. It is something else. Ghosts are fine, I like them, I have no problem with them, but these sightings are not phantasms. And it’s okay. I’m not sure I need to understand or label them. They simply are. I find them soothing and calming. Is he reaching out to me? Possibly.

•••

I was never all that close to my father. My parents divorced when I was five. He left the family and wasn’t around much when my sister and I were growing up. We’d see him on summer vacations, spending a week with him staying at a cheap motel in Avila Beach, California. The days filled with sun, sand, and water—and a whole lot of fun. He seemed to enjoy the time we spent together. He spoiled us rotten by buying us everything we wanted: ice cream at all hours; any toy we pleaded for; cash to spend ourselves. Standard absentee father conduct—making up for ever-present guilt. At the end of the week, he’d drop us off at home, our white skin now a dark brown, temporarily happy, father-sated yet sad all the same. We wanted him to park the car and come inside, return to our mother, to the family.

The vacations ceased when I was eight, the moment he married his second wife, Mabel. She wanted as little to do with us as possible. He went along with what she wanted. A strong-willed, opinionated woman married a weak-willed and lazy man. A mama’s boy, he wanted to be taken care of—the way his own mother had spoiled him. Mabel provided a clean, comfortable home, three squares a day, and her body at night. They had an unspoken understanding. He did what she wanted, and, pretty much—sadly too—only what she wanted. From that point on my interaction with him was sporadic at best.

•••

When he was sick and dying of lung cancer, I visited him in the hospital. A shell of the man I once knew, he recognized me despite his dementia; he knew I was there and was happy to see me. Dying in a hospital bed at the VA facility in Palo Alto, California, his six-foot-four frame, legs twisted yet still gangly long, slid down the hospital bed so his feet dangled uncomfortably off the edge. I only spent a couple of days visiting; there was little to do except be in his presence and pull him back up the bed so he didn’t dangle off—over and over. He’d move, or wiggle, or shift his body, and down the bed he slid. Due to dementia, his stage four lung cancer, and the medications he was on, holding a conversation with him was not possible. Expressing my anger and displeasure for the way he treated us—his two children—would not be happening. Instead, I sat close to the bed and held his hand, or helped him eat ice cream or his lunch or dinner, feeling sorry for him in so many ways. I hurt for him and for myself. I did my best to do the prescribed things a person does for another, a relative, a father, who is in the throes of dying. I told him I loved him. I wish I’d done all of it because I truly felt love for him.

And, I can’t say I felt much either when he died. Mostly, I was saddened by what we were unable to achieve: a loving father and son relationship. A seemingly ethereal idea foisted upon me by societal expectations, out of reach, a dream in our family—but something I still desperately wanted. I didn’t mourn his loss in the accepted ways one is supposed to when losing a loved one. My grief was tied to lost possibility, to what would never be, not to losing my “father,” my “Daddy.” I hadn’t spent enough time with the man for the type of familial intimacy to develop that would warrant true and deep feelings of grief over his loss. To add to my confusion and misery, his wife cremated and interred him without telling my sister or me. There was no viewing, no service, and no burial—at least none we were invited to. Even in his death, we were treated the same as when he lived—excluded like we didn’t belong or exist.

•••

A recent sighting took place at our local Trader Joe’s. Dad was putting groceries into the trunk of a car. I found myself thinking, there he is again. Like before, it looked exactly like him—the height, the build, his movements, the clothes, all Ed Thompson, my father. A rote calmness emanating from him—a task as mundane as grocery shopping joyful. Not a care in the world. Similar to the island pylon resting place, I’m left thinking he’s still in that Trader Joe’s parking lot, still loading groceries into his trunk, over and over, on a continuous, never-ending loop, stuck in time and not unhappy about it in the least. A chore no longer a chore but a happy task. A final resting place or action could be malleable, or exist in multiple places, couldn’t it? The world of the dead not curtailed by human, earthly barriers of time and space.

Observing him, I wondered if he was buying groceries for us. Like this father, the version I saw in the present day, might go back in time, and do the right thing. Was he going to bring groceries to help feed my sister and me? To add to our food stamp-supplied coffers? To remove some of the burdens on my overworked mother? To ease her financial strain? He’d bring the groceries when he came to pick us up for a weekend visit. Like a good father and ex-husband, he’d hand the bag of groceries to my mother and then help us with our suitcases. We’d drive off with him to a motel for another spoil-us-rotten weekend, momentarily forgetting how he wasn’t in our lives. Or, would this be one of the numerous occasions when he didn’t show up?

One of those times, my sister and I, dressed, coats zipped up, suitcases ready, waited patiently by the front door. Then, the allotted time passed and no Dad. Hours went by, still no Dad and no phone call. Our mother tried to locate him by making a series of calls. Her anger with him—for us, for herself—palpable. Coats removed, suitcases stashed, she wiped away our tears, and finally, a phone call came days later. He didn’t have money for gas, or his car broke down, or he had to work, or who knows what the fuck else of an excuse he’d come up with. Not once, but over and over this took place. Our childhood a never-ending, continuous loop of disappointment.

•••

How to explain simultaneous love and hate? Or concurrent joy and anger? Recently, since seeing my dead father out and about in the world, I realized how I felt about him: I loved him and hated him; he made me happy and so fucking mad. I now see my entire involvement with him existed on a yo-yo continuum. He could be the most charming man—father—in the entire world one day—bringing us gifts, taking us to the movies, showing us a good, fun, time. Through a child’s filter he loved us, he brought us happiness, and we loved him back. Followed by a long absence, a cancellation or a no-show when he was supposed to take us for the weekend, or some other equally injurious hurt. After one of these, the tears, the anger, and the hatred bubbled to the surface, polluting the prior felt love. This up and down, love to hate, joy to anger went on all through my childhood, into my adulthood, up to his death.

Buddy—the nickname he earned growing up with four siblings outside Oklahoma City—was a jokester and a kidder; a big, overgrown kid. Bighearted too, generous of spirit, he was kind to small children and animals. Without question, I know a gentle soul resided within the man. Social, he loved people, he loved his family; he had Okie and country blood in his veins. He used to sing Merle Haggard’s lyrics “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” over and over. And he meant it. From him, I learned to appreciate my Okie heritage. The salt of the earth, hardscrabble people my relatives were and still are; survivors. People and a place he evolved from.

But, there was another side to the man that didn’t jive with the Okie-identifying, softhearted big kid version. Life kicked him in the teeth over and over, and he took the hits. He didn’t fight back. His divorce from my mother. His unintended abandonment of his children. His failed career—stuck in middle management after earning an MBA. His second marriage to a horribly controlling woman. A woman who cut him off from his siblings, from his children, from his friends. The parts of him I hated were the results of him quitting, giving into life: his confusion about right and wrong when it came to us kids, his passivity, and laziness in not doing the right thing or allowing others to decide what he wanted, or even what he felt, and the selfishness all of this manifested. He ended up a depressed, inadequate, and indolent wimp, and he knew he was. And I hated him for it.

I now see the hatred overrides any love I may have felt. It is the stronger of the two emotions, and I don’t know if it is changeable. I have often wondered if it would have been easier not to have a father, to not know there was a man out there in the world, living and breathing, who was my so-called “father”—the man who gave me life. The mere fact he existed and ignored us feels more problematic, difficult,­ and painful than if he simply didn’t exist or had permanently disappeared. The hurting hurt over and over and over, and it still does. And, once dead, no going back. A door slammed shut, hard, in my face. I’d forever believed there would be enough time to fix it. Then, there was not.

•••

I have a French friend who, when she was a young girl, lost her mother to suicide. She once told me a story of walking along the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan where she lived during her early twenties and passing a woman who looked exactly like her long-dead mother. Her mother she hadn’t seen since childhood. She stopped and turned around to look for her, and when she did, the woman wasn’t there.

I understood why she told me the story. It gave me chills then, it still does now. Was the woman she saw her mother, a ghost, something else? Who can say? It’s not important. For her, it was real. Somehow, the woman who brushed past her and then vanished was her mother. I feel the same about my fatherly sightings. He can be real for me, there in the flesh, if I decide he is. He hasn’t ever come to me in my dreams, not that I remember or am aware of—only in these sightings. Unfinished business, it could be. I suppose we have quite a bit. I wanted something from him he could not give, and I know he was aware of failing my sister and me. I know he felt guilty and remorseful but not enough to fix it. That’s the unfinished business.

No matter the explanation or understanding of the sightings, they bring me comfort. These are unanswerable questions. I accept he might be somehow trying to reach me. Why would I ever not? Why would I cut myself off from that possibility, from any possibility? I wouldn’t and I won’t. After all, who truly knows the truth of what is out there, of how these things work? The dead versus the living. We should all be open, like a conduit, to all of it, to any possibility. Shouldn’t we?

•••

C. GREGORY THOMPSON lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes fiction, nonfiction, plays, and memoir. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offbeat, Printers Row Journal, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Every Writer’s Resource, and 2paragraphs. He was named a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s 2015 Fiction Contest. His short play Cherry won two playwriting awards. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert. He is on Twitter as @cgregthompson.

The Tic

wink
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Elsé Khoury

When I was seven years old, my family moved from Mississauga, Ontario, to Kuwait City. My Palestinian father, who immigrated to Canada in the sixties, joined a wave of Palestinians who at that time had found careers and a home in that small desert country. He left when I was six. We joined him shortly afterward. Kuwait was my first experience of the Middle East, or, more correctly, western Asia. (Middle compared to what? I’ve always wondered.) In the almost-year we lived there, I learned a lot of things, including the fact that my body has a tendency to betray me in my times of need.

Sometime after moving to Kuwait, I started blinking: a lot. It seems obvious now that the twitch was a response to moving to a new country where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language, but at the time my parents didn’t connect the dots. Concerned, they took me to see an ophthalmologist. Once there, we sat in a small sterile room where a large, bearded man explained very calmly to my parents that, if my condition did not improve, he would have no choice but to insert a needle directly into my eyeball. He acted this out with great drama, grabbing my shoulder and pressing down on a fictional syringe pointed directly at my face. He was so convincing that I swore I could feel the phantom dose being forced out of the needle and splashing my cheek. And although the thought of a thin rod of cold steel being forced into my eyeball was terrifying, I pushed my fear down until it was a small, throbbing ball in the pit of my stomach.

At seven, there were few things more terrifying getting a needle. The cold, silver sharpness of the alcohol swab on my arm, the crinkle of plastic yielding to the expert hand of the nurse as the syringe is unwrapped, the gentle clink of the small glass bottles as they are pulled from cabinets: All these things evoked in me a creeping sense of dread that was all-consuming, resulting in a flash of sweaty fear that soaked the back of my school uniform, bunched up and wrinkled from the car ride over. I was well acquainted with the ritual, and over time my fear had calcified, built up like a hard crystal shell.

My parents must have seen the fear in my eyes. They very quickly ushered me out of the doctor’s office and down to the car park. I seem to recall many wide-eyed, meaningful looks passing between them in the elevator. Are you freaking kidding me? I imagine my father secretly muttering. He had a bit of a temper in those days, and in retrospect I wonder if our hasty exit wasn’t just a way of getting him the hell out of there before he had a chance to enlighten the ophthalmologist on twentieth-century medical techniques. I imagine the doctor responding: What? You no longer terrify children into shitting themselves as a means of discouraging involuntary physiological responses to stress? No? You must be kidding with me right now, habibi. You are laughing at me, yes?­

For many children with nervous dispositions, a tic is the body’s way of responding to trauma or stress. It followed, then, that the key to stopping the blinking was to try to settle into my new life. Getting used to my new school and making friends was a good start, but my twitch presented a kind of social catch-22. The tic made me seem weird and off-putting, which decreased my popularity with my classmates. On the other hand, lack of friendship made me feel weird and off-putting, thereby contributing to stress and more blinking.

A young child with a nervous tic provokes strong reactions in people. Especially when the child already has so much working against them, like natural awkwardness and coke-bottle glasses. They become the object of pity or, at best, concern. They bring out the best in people. Strangers give them lollipops. Aunties tsk-tsk them and pat them on the head. Teachers are indulgent and kind.

I once knew a woman whose communist family had very quietly sneaked out of Chile shortly after the infamous dictator Augustus Pinochet had taken power. This would have been sometime in the seventies, and she would have been around four or five years old. After having witnessed countless friends and family members “disappear,” this woman and her family somehow managed to get out of Chile and into Canada. The entire ordeal must have been extremely stressful, because in response to these events she developed what she would describe to me as a “full facial seizure.” She once provided a demonstration: puckering her entire face, eyes closed, frowning, lips pushed out, and then rolled her eyes back in her head while her mouth opened into a large O. It was like an exaggerated, creepy air kiss: MWWAAAH. This she would repeat in rapid succession several times a minute.

While a child with a twitch may evoke empathy, in adults twitches are less likely to be indulged. They tend to make people feel uncomfortable. I experienced this myself many years later, when I worked with someone who had the habit of blinking repeatedly when considering some new piece of information or pondering a response to a question. It gave him an air of skepticism somehow. Like, I hear what you’re telling me, but I’m not buying it. Even innocuous questions like, Hey, Joe, how was the weekend? were met with prolonged fits of blinking which seemed to last an uncomfortable eternity. In the silent seconds that it would take for Joe to consider the question, my confidence would slowly begin to crumble: Did I say something offensive? Did a member of Joe’s family die and the interment was this weekend? Are those tearstains on his collar? Oh God, what have I done?! Just as I was about to mumble an excuse and make my getaway, Joe would blink twice and respond: Fine. How about you?

Eventually, I settled in. I made friends, went to the sea with my family on Fridays, and was deeply comforted by the deep azure of the sky beside the blondeness of the sand dunes. Eventually, my tic went away. I sometimes wonder, though, what would have happened if it hadn’t. What would have become of the likes of my Chilean friend and I if our families had not fretted and worried and protected us from crazy barbarian ophthalmologists and American-sponsored bloodthirsty dictators?

Because some people never grow out of it. You know who I’m talking about: the guy on the subway who can’t stop rubbing his nose; the dry-cleaner whose constant shrugging seems to signal an internalized sense of resignation: You can pick up your jacket on Friday. Or, whatever. Normal people, doing normal things, but with the addition of a particular physical trait that sets them apart.

A few years ago my tic made its triumphant return when I suffered through a particularly bad patch at work. What does it all mean? I would ask myself, sitting awkwardly in meetings, trying to hide the side of my face that was engaged in the electric boogaloo. Ironically though, no one seemed to notice. Not only did I have to suffer through the frustration of crippling facial convulsions, but for all intents and purposes, the problem seemed to be quite literally all in my head.

On a couple of occasions, desperate for some kind of validation, I would mention it to someone: friend, colleague, the guy who picks up garbage on the side of the highway. Each time, they would look at me uncomfortably and hesitate before leaning in really close and muttering:

Oh yeah, there it is.

Yes! I would think, momentarily vindicated by their acknowledgement of my suffering. But my relief was short lived as I watched their faces slowly change from curious to concerned.

She DOES have a twitch. Weird.

Her face is going into spasm. Because of work. Huh.

Pause.

I should probably put these scissors away.

Despite years of effort, I have not yet found a way to control my tic, and I have come to accept that I will never be completely rid of it. It’s both humbling and frustrating to know that the façade that I have constructed, the stories I tell myself in the dark about who I am, can be so quickly undone. For while life moves along quietly, my tic hides buried away in the twisted labyrinth of my nervous system, slumbering peacefully, until like a vulture circling a carcass, it moves in. Its motivation is insignificant and unpredictable: moving across the continent, talking to a boy, almost getting fired. It has its own logic and sense of proportionality. My tic makes its own rules. And at the age of forty-five, I have finally accepted it for the existential consolation prize it is.

Although I may see it as a betrayal, my tic is really my body’s way of keeping me humble. It serves as a reminder that inside, I am still a coke-bottle-glasses-wearing, frizzy-haired kid from Mississauga experiencing culture shock for the first time, whose sense of self can be swiftly undone by a face with a tendency to break into movement like a dancer on Soul Train.

•••

ELSE KHOURY is having a mid-life crisis, only instead of buying a motorcycle or getting a tattoo, she’s writing essays. Elsé lives in Niagara, Canada.

There’s Meth-Heads in the Woods

goat
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Heather Wilson

Michelle takes me up the hill to see the goats.

I’m in Arkansas for Thanksgiving and I haven’t seen my sister Michelle for going on seven years: This is our quiet, incomplete reunion. She lives in the sticks with a construction worker husband who built their house. It’s a beautiful place, but you can see the flaws. Most glaringly, the unfinished set of stairs are nailed in crooked, which Sam explains by popping the tab on a Busch beer—“Turns out I was too many in.” The back yard, too, is somewhere between a calendar pic and a junkyard. Right behind the house, there’s a dried up pond and a collection of household artifacts. An ancient ceramic bathtub riddled with bullet holes, a couple monster truck size wheels, scrapyard metal, discarded wood. But beyond that non-pond roll the wooded hills, goats grazing near a tin-roofed house.

Every couple of mornings Michelle goes out to patrol their property borders. It’s maybe a three-mile parameter, fenced in by a wood and electric wire fence. While our brothers Dan and Jon stay at the house to put back Busch beers, Michelle goes on her patrol. This time I join her. I put on my tennis shoes, a flimsy windbreaker. Michelle wears her usual getup: cut-off cargo shorts over long underwear, high rubber boots, and a Columbia jacket. “It’s the goat-herder’s uniform,” she says, sing-song Arkansas twang in her voice. She doesn’t bring her gun (she’s says she’s still afraid of it) but a little can of Mace. “There’s meth heads out in the woods,” she says, “squatters, drifters.”

I can’t imagine encountering a meth head climbing an electric fence without laughing, but she’s serious.

“Plus,” she adds, “I think our little Chinese neighbor was stealing goats.”

“Stealing goats?”

Her suspicion remains unexplained: I add it to the collection of differences, divergences, as startling to me as the closet full of guns, or her Confederate take on race politics. We head up the hill. As we climb, I keep looking at her, sneaking endless unbelieving double takes. My childhood vision of her keeps surfacing, an insistent holograph from the past. After all, I saw her last in the days before I left Arkansas for good. I was only eleven going on twelve when we moved.

•••

As a child, I knew her slightly. When mom regained custody of Dan and me, Jon and Michelle stayed with our foster parents. At fourteen and sixteen, they were old enough to choose, and the foster home was a safe bet: college, financial security. So I didn’t see her much. Instead of an upbringing together, we had visitations. Jon and Michelle would swing by and pick us up from mom’s apartment. Sometimes we’d go to the mall, and I’d follow Michelle around in the chill air, window-shopping. Sometimes we’d go swimming or take a couple hours at the park. They barely seemed like siblings to me: more like older guardian angels, distant aunts and uncles.

When I got old enough to notice such things, Michelle began to represent a world of grownup-ness I had no access to. Femininity, I might have called it, if I’d had the word for it. She took pains with her appearance. She was thin, and had jet black hair that hung in perfect ringlets. She wore skin-clinging Hollister tops and white-washed jeans. Even though she was only five-foor-two or so, she seemed so tall. I never imagined I could look like that, but I admired her. It occurred to me that if I had to turn into something eventually, it would be her.

Perhaps that was because her visits often included an itinerary of instructions on my coming of age. She “fixed” my hair, brushing out the knots and twisting it into a tight, painful knot at the top of my head. She told me to wear deodorant. Sunscreen, she informed me, would not help me get tan. My pale, sunburn-prone skin perturbed her to no end. As did my prematurely hairy legs and my arsenal of “heathen” clothes. Mom never complained about anything I wore, baggy athletic shorts or a shin-length toga-esque dress. But my outfits often elicited a cascade of scorn from Michelle. Some of the distaste targeted Mom—“I can’t believe mom lets you out the door in such rags”—but as I got older, the buck passed to me. I should have a little discretion, after all: I was ten years old.

•••

Halfway up the hill, the goats circle us in curiosity. One grizzled salt-and-pepper goat, ripe with age, nuzzles Michelle’s hip. “This one’s my baby,” she says. “His name is Coco. When he was born he was about this small.” She cups her palms together. “Sam, he promised me he would die. But I fed him by hand for months, and now he’s fatter than all of them.” She laughs. “He follows me everywhere, probably thinks I’m his mom.”

Coco nuzzles her, leaving a trail of white slobber on her cut-offs, but she doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. She’s not the sister I knew: pulling every strand of my hair into something presentable, searching my face for smudges. Instead, when she looks at me as I shyly extend my hand to the billy goat, she says my name with wonder: “Pilar,” stretching the r to its limit. For a second, the name catches me off-guard. These days everyone calls me Heather, but as a child my family preferred my more poetic middle name. Hearing it now, southern drawl dragging syllables, the name rings with a phantom. I feel rewound.

I say, “What?”

And Michelle shakes her head. “I can’t believe…,” trailing off. Neither of us can complete the sentence: I can’t believe who you are. I remember that other Michelle too well, and vice versa. We are both a little rewound: I can hear the static of cassette tapes slowly reeling backwards, the click of recognition. She rubs her knuckles in the groove of the Coco’s ears, and I try to make out the discrepancy, past and present kaleidoscopically aligning and departing before me. I can’t help but notice how thin she is—still is.

•••

I remember visiting Michelle and Sam’s place out in the woods when I was a kid. Sam was a big guy who called a plate of six tuna sandwiches a snack. The back of his neck was a swatch of desert, sunburned to boiling, and he wore mud-caked construction boots and worked sun-up to sun-down. When Michelle stood next to him she looked diminutive, a shadow. Sam would tease her for her size, calling her chicken-butt, mocking her strange and increasingly strict dietary habits.

Indeed, every time I saw her, the list of forbidden foods racked up: peanut butter, bread, mayo, egg yolk. Everything was too high calorie, even bread. Especially bread. When she did eat? The portions baffled me: one teacup of fruit salad? A sliver of hamburger? A bite of plain oatmeal? In my mind, you just didn’t eat oatmeal that way—you added maple syrup and apples, downed a whole bowl, and asked for more. I ate the way I dressed: like a heathen, mastering a ferocious chew-swallow system that almost matched Sam’s.

“You want some food with that plate?” Sam teased her.

Though Michelle’s eating habits perturbed me, I didn’t know to worry until I began to hear the rest of the family murmuring. Our mom especially—every time she saw Michelle, she made a fuss over feeding her. Or trying to feed her; these attempts usually met a wall of indignation. No, Michelle would not be joining in on a lunch of leftover hamburger helper. No, she did not want a dill pickle. And no, she certainly did not want a cookie—ever.

Sickness, that’s what mom called it when Michelle wasn’t around: “She’s so obsessed with the way, she looks she won’t eat a damn thing and now it’s killing her.” I began to believe that one day while flipping through an old family album I’d found. About a dozen or so photos had been doctored, some unknown figure cut out, leaving behind a ragged absence. My father, I thought at first. I tried to imagine Mom rampaging against his memory, and I couldn’t. Mom never cared much for revisionist history; she was always in the process of debriefing me on her mistake ridden life. No, it was Michelle cutting herself out of photographs. She didn’t like the way she looked, but she especially didn’t like the way she’d looked as a teenager, ten pounds heavier, the shimmer of baby fat clinging to her face.

The idea struck me hard, the way new knowledge always did. That Michelle, who I idolized, could hate her body enough to attempt its erasure, set in motion inside me a whole series of considerations: of self, of body, of borders. Before then, my body seemed a beatable, bruisable playground thing, vessel for hunger. It fluctuated, grew, needed sleep, got sunburned—but never failed. For Michelle, the body did nothing but fail. She perfected her appearance constantly, to no avail. Standing in front of the only full-length mirror in the house, I examined myself in this new light, thinking about the puff of my cheeks, the divot of my belly, how my gangly limbs intersected my torso like mislaid roads. If Michelle was imperfect, I was even more so. After all, she had put in enough time telling me so.

•••

We trudge up a hill so steep I think each new step will send me flying backwards. Michelle’s used to it but I’m sorely out of shape and probably a little anemic—I gather my breath for each burst of chat. And we talk about nothing—or everything: what we’ve been doing for six years, as if we can summarize our new selves. I tell her I do comedy now, write a lot, still read a lot. She tells me she’s been collecting first editions. She buys them on Amazon and sells them on E-bay for five times the price—“to suckers.” She promises to show me her Hemmingway collection. I promise to send her something I’ve written. We come up against the electric fence, the strip of wire that blends into the fallen foliage of silver, and follow it along the slope. I want to talk about bodies and borders, I want to know if she’s happy, if she’s changed. But I can’t. I don’t know how to breach the subject. “I don’t see any meth heads,” I say, and laugh.

•••

There came a point, right before I left Arkansas, that Michelle knew she had gone too far. She’d lost too much weight, looked sickly even to herself. But she still couldn’t eat. Every spoonful felt like a betrayal of some long-gone ideal, an invasion of substance: teeth resisted chewing, throat resisted swallowing, stomach resisted digestion. By the time things got easier for her, by the time she could eat a bowl of eggs, I had already left Arkansas. I never saw her heal, the slow motion of change.

•••

At the end of our walk together, Michelle and I end up where we started, by the shed. The goats come to slobber at our hands like they didn’t see us an hour ago. “We should probably go clear the table,” Michelle says, and I laugh. This isn’t a turn of phrase. Michelle’s kitchen table is an actual mess, covered with painting supplies: cups filled with color-filthy paintbrushes, bottles of acrylic and water paint, half-done portraits resting on their easel beds.

“We have real work to do,” I say, and we trot down the hill to the unfinished house and the cluttered table and the unmade mashed potatoes.

•••

On the way back from Michelle’s, Jon and I stop at a gas station to pick up a snack and cigs. A stick-thin, all-bones burnout of a woman swimming in her clothes pushes in the glass door to the gas station. “Meth head,” Jon says, “or anorexic—can’t really tell the difference around here.” He laughs. It sounds like some kind of sick game show. “Back when Michelle was anorexic I used to say, Michelle what will the neighbors think?”

I laugh too. But it hurts a little bit. “She’s better now, right?”

“Yeah,” he says, “Much better.”

But that walk along an electric perimeter confirmed what I feared—that I was more likely to imagine Michelle than know her, or know how to know her. Meeting her again, I mapped the life I had lived without her on her, stretched her to fit lines I’d drawn in her absence. I want to believe Jon more than anything, want to be able to see her as she is, but cut-up photographs keep swimming up to meet me, and I see only the girl who tried to erase herself, a girl who is as much me as it is her.

•••

HEATHER WILSON is recent graduate of the University of North Carolina’s creative writing program. Her work will be published in Off Assignment, an international online magazine for non-traditional travel literature. In college she performed in an improv and sketch troupe, The False Profits. She now lives in Durham, North Carolina.

 

One She’ll Never Forget

By aphrodite-in-nyc/Flickr
By aphrodite-in-nyc/Flickr

By Desiree Cooper

When I was a teenager, my mother and I were like sisters. If my date arrived more than fifteen minutes late, she would hide me upstairs and tell them I’d already left with someone else. Then we’d eat popcorn and watch movies.

I got married to my law school sweetheart in 1984. I’ll never forget waving good-bye to my family in Virginia and heading for Detroit to start my new life. I was a grown twenty-four-year-old, but I couldn’t imagine life without my mom nearby. I cried for the entire twelve-hour trip.

Over the years, we learned how to stay close despite the miles between us. We yakked on the phone constantly, me updating my mom on my life and the kids, my mom filling me in on her garden and the latest episode of Oprah (which she watched every day at four p.m.). We got together on holidays and family reunions. And, in the days before digital images, I sent her stacks and stacks of actual pictures to thumb through when she felt lonely. Nothing could keep us apart.

Except Alzheimer’s.

When she got the diagnosis in 2006 at the age of seventy-three, I was devastated. Immediately, I felt like I was railing against time. While tomorrow is promised to no one, it’s different when you know the days you have to love someone—and be loved in return—are numbered. We were both powerless in the face of this disease, but I had to do something—anything—to mark the time we had left.

And then it came to me. We’d make a memory that would be so profound, it would be permanently stamped into her DNA! It would be a memory that would even triumph over Alzheimer’s!

I would take my mother to The Oprah Show!

One problem: I had no idea how to get on the show. I started emailing and calling the producers, telling them about my beloved mother, her disease, and her abiding love for Oprah. But I never heard anything back.

I thought about WWOD? (What Would Oprah Do?) and started manifesting my intention. Everywhere. I told everyone I knew that I was going to take my mom to see Oprah, somehow, some way. This went on for months, until one day, a woman in my circle of associates said, “I can make it happen.”

I was ecstatic, but I didn’t tell my mom right away; I wanted everything to be certain first. Then on a Friday in February 2008, I got a call from my friend. “Can you and your mom get to Chicago on Wednesday?”

“YES!” I screamed into the phone. “Absolutely!”

And then I hung up the phone and wondered how the hell I was going to get my mother to The Oprah Show in four days. At the time, I was commuting from Detroit to work in St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother was living in Virginia. The family rallied and we got concurrent (expensive) flights to Detroit, and then a flight together to Chicago. When we sprung the news on my mom, she was shocked. Then came the uncertainty, “I don’t want to fly alone,” she said. “It’s too expensive.” But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were going, and that’s all there was to it.

My plane landed in Detroit an hour before Mom’s. That’s when I finally started to let myself get excited. I posed at the end of the jet way with my camera ready to capture the first glimpse of my euphoric mother running into my arms.

But instead of dashing forward, weeping at the prospect of meeting her lifelong idol, Mom rushed up to me and said, “Des! I want you to meet Maria!” She put her arms around a Philippina who had evidently been her seatmate on the plane. “She’s going on vacation now, but when she comes back, she and I are going to play bingo. Can you take our picture?”

That’s the cruelty of Alzheimer’s. If it were just about memory loss, that would be one thing. But before the memory goes, there’s a slow substitution of one person for another. Instead of being excited about the trip to see Oprah (or even just the tiniest bit excited about being with me), she was oddly focused on the stranger who’d been kind to her on the plane. Maybe she’d been afraid during the flight and mistook the woman’s kindness for friendship. Mom’s focus on the bigger picture was all but lost.

I was crestfallen, but I tried to be patient. I understood that this wasn’t my normal mother. I awkwardly took their purses and bags and snapped photos of mom and her baffled new friend.

My ego significantly bruised, I took a deep breath and schlepped us to our gate. I was annoyed that Mom had dragged along a carry-on; it was enough work to just keep track of her, much less her bags. We arrived at the gate early and were munching on sandwiches when announcement came. Our flight had been cancelled. Fog.

We waited anxiously as flight after flight was canceled. Finally, after about three hours of waiting, we were booked for a flight the next morning. The schedule would be tight, but I was sure that we were going to make it, come hell or high water.

We used a voucher to stay at the airport hotel. By then, I was totally frazzled, consumed with the fear that my plan had been too ambitious. Now that we’d been derailed, my mother began to lose focus again. “Why don’t we just go to your house so that I can see the grandkids?” she kept asking. I ignored her. She could see the kids anytime. This was our once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Oprah.

For moral support, I called the friend who’d gotten us into the show. And just like the voice of Oprah herself, she said, “Oh, no. You will be on that morning flight. It’s already done. It’s in God’s hands. You just show up for it.”

My resolve was bolstered, but it was no match for my mom’s grating mantra: “Let’s just go see the kids.” I was losing it, so I curled on my bed and pretended to sleep. Resisting the urge to smother myself with the pillow, I listened to my mother fumble around the room, zipping and unzipping her carry-on.

All of a sudden, I felt something cover me. I looked up and Mom was holding a pair of Valentine pajamas.

“Here, baby, I brought these for you.”

She even had bought a pair for herself. We put them on, and I curled up in the bed beside her, my arm around her waist. After a long time of listening to her breathe, I fell asleep.

The next morning, the weather was all clear. We were booked for the nine a.m. flight, but my mom was completely off kilter, confused by waking up in a strange place. She needed constant reminding that we were on an adventure. She couldn’t seem to get organized. I helped her, careful not to seem impatient.

When we arrived at security, the line was shambling and tedious. I began to wonder if we were going to miss our plane while standing in the airport. Mom started to complain about everything—the line, the expense of the trip, the temperature. At one point she said, “September 11 screwed up this country. That’s why I don’t like to fly anymore.”

I’d had it. I turned to her and yelled, “You’ve got to stop it! If you keep complaining, I’m going to lose my mind. We’re going to see Oprah, and we’re going to have a good time. You have to be positive from here on out.”

People in the line gawked in horror as the crazy daughter berated her dear, frail mother. But at that point, I didn’t care. After that, my mother, sufficiently cowed, withdrew into silence and followed my every command.

Once we got on the plane, our moods lifted. This was it! We were on our way to The Oprah Show!

We landed in Chicago with just enough time to make it to the taping. As we hopped into a cab, we should have been giving each other high fives. Instead, I pouted while my mom engaged with the Jamaican cab driver in an annoyingly detailed conversation about how he got his cabbie license.

When we arrived at the studio, it was a bland warehouse in an unimpressive part of town—not the Emerald City that both of us had expected. We queued up with about a hundred other members of the studio audience, and the staff stripped us of all cameras, cell phones, even paper and pens. We were not allowed to document The Oprah Show in any way.

The staff sat us thigh-to-thigh in rows of chairs like patients in a crowded doctor’s office and handed out boxed lunches—a sandwich, pasta salad, a cookie, and a soft drink. Then we were herded into the studio where I couldn’t believe our luck. My mom and I were seated right behind Oprah’s chair!

As we waited for the taping to begin, we eyed the studio and the set in front of us. In that moment I realized that perhaps I had ruined the illusion by bringing my mom to the show. The studio was smaller than it appeared on TV. The stage props seemed to be slap dash and temporary, mainly because they were. The pitch black walls made it feel like we were in a coffin. As the audience coordinator came on stage and congratulated us on wearing the requisite “Skittles” colors, I worried that perhaps mom would never love Oprah the same way again.

Then, She came out! Oprah was wearing a flowing top and slimming pants, and, to spare her notoriously bad feet, bedroom slippers. As she made her way through the audience to toward the stage, she stopped only once and that was to turn to my mother in a moment of strange recognition. A genuine smile broke across Oprah’s face. For a second, I thought she was going to speak my mother’s name. Instead, she took my mother’s hand and gave her a warm, “Hello.”

I couldn’t believe it. Out of all the people in the audience, only my mother got to shake Oprah’s hand!

We were still agog as Oprah bent to plop down in her seat. And that’s when we were graced with a peek at the royal plumber’s crack. That was followed by an upfront view of Oprah’s bunions as her staff came to shoehorn her feet into gorgeous pumps.

The next two hours are a blur. As we watched the show from the inside out, it was hard to digest that this was really happening. The show was called “The Secret Behind The Secret,” about the power of positive thinking. How what you intend will manifest. How every day, you create the world you want to live in. If you see life as a battle, then prepare for war. I sank into a contemplative silence; it seemed that the message had been tailor made for me. Maybe I wasn’t at war with time, or with my mother’s disease. Maybe it was time for me to settle down and accept the gift of the time we had left.

After the show, we had no time to process what we’d just witnessed. As a cab zipped us back to the airport, we held hands in tender silence. Aside from platitudes like “It was beautiful,” and “I’m glad I went,” and “Thank you, baby,” I didn’t hear my mother speak about the trip again.

A year later, I was visiting my parents and some friends came over for dinner. We were chatting when my mom piped in: “Did I ever tell you about the time my daughter took me to The Oprah Show?”

The room went silent. I looked at mom expectantly, wondering what she would remember from our great adventure to Chicago. But she only smiled and said, “My daughter is so sweet. She’s my best friend.”

•••

A 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, DESIREE COOPER is the author of Know the Mother, a collection of flash fiction that dives into the intersection of racism and sexism to reveal what it means to be human. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010 and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio Fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers. She lives in metro Detroit.

We’re Done Here

cabin
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Ellen S. Wilson

The smell hits the moment you walk through the back door into the kitchen—damp wood, mildew, and sadness. In just a few minutes, it is possible to acclimate to all three.

My sisters and I have come with my mother to The Mountain House, a sturdy little family vacation home in western North Carolina, built up on a ridge that is said to be haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Heaton. We’re here, as my mother says more than once, to “tear the house apart.”

But first, the ghost story: This ridge was the property of the Heatons years ago, and greatly beloved by Mrs. Heaton. When financial hardship hit, Mr. Heaton, less emotionally wrapped up in the land, wanted to sell. Mrs. Heaton, whose name may or may not have been Loesa Emmalie, resisted. The years went by, the times got tougher, and one day Mr. Heaton made a sneaky trip into town and sold the land without telling his wife. He didn’t have to—by the time he got home, she had hanged herself from a tree, and an enormous white owl sat in the branches above her nodding head, screaming “like a woman,” the storytellers always say.

To placate the ghost of Mrs. Heaton, whose white owl still screams in the night, or perhaps to honor her memory, the inhabitants of the vacation homes that now dot the hillside have representations of owls on their placemats, hand towels, coffee mugs, everywhere. My own mother collected hundreds of tiny owls, and we all abetted her habit because a souvenir owl was a small and convenient gift for her when we traveled or hunted for stocking stuffers. An owl for Mom, from Turkey or Kenya or Lake Tahoe. Bookshelves laden with owls made of stone, glass, crystal, and porcelain are partly why we have come. It’s time, we have decided, to save anything we care about from the encroaching damp. We are rescuing our treasures from the future. If we have learned anything from the mountains, it is that appearances to the contrary, not even they are eternal. We are here to make one last stand against that reality.

The owls belong to my mother, but the ghost of my father sits in every corner of this house, in the barn wood paneling, fine rugs, bird prints, and odd collectibles. We lost him once already, seven years ago, and we dread losing him again to creeping mildew and anonymity.

•••

I’ve been coming to these mountains and tolerating the stomach-churning hopelessness they inspire in me since I was two years old, long before The Mountain House was built. Every summer—every goddam summer—my parents would load my three sisters and me into the car in Louisville, Kentucky, and drive seven hours over the mountain roads while I lurched and puked in the back of the station wagon. The way, way back. This began before there were seatbelts. Once we arrived, there would be warm ginger ale to quiet my heaving guts while we settled into our cabin at the High Hampton Inn and Country Club, a worn, sprawling establishment well over a hundred years old that prizes tradition and simple virtues and has now added a spa and some llamas (llamas being indigenous to the Blue Ridge Mountains).

Our regular cabin was a wooden structure with twin beds, soft, thick linens that never felt completely dry, and a lovely veranda overlooking the lake. The place smelled of boxwood—subtle, sweet and green—and my normally spider-fearing mother loved it so much she suspended all her fears when we arrived. The mountain air reassured her. Not me.

The lake our cabin overlooked was still, small, and—to me—fathoms deep. Potential death lurked in its depths, and there was said to be a dam that you shouldn’t paddle your canoe too close to, although when I found it as an adult I realized the silty pool at its base was hardly lethal. But even now that lake, which I have swum in, and paddled over, and hiked around, can fill me with dread. The memory of my pale legs dyed green by the murky water, my vulnerable white body suspended over god knows what dark threat, and my forcing my teenaged self to dive down and swim out to a tethered float, causes an internal quake when I’m sitting on my own dry porch in Pittsburgh miles away.

During those family trips, my sisters and I were habitually shunted over to the Children’s Program, and since I’m the youngest, I was rarely with any of them. My happiest day was when I cut myself on a rusty nail in the donkey barn and one of my sisters had to rescue me and take me to my mother, once she had finished on the golf course and was available to tend to my wound, and perhaps to worry about me a little. My unhappiest day was the evening hayride (this happened frequently, this unhappiest day) in a wagon filled with prickly bales and noisy children, pulled by a mean woman on a tractor. I remember ghost stories I took very seriously, and kids only a little older than me singing songs I didn’t know. I remember feeling powerless, and suffering the necessity to either pee in the woods or wet my pants, and not knowing which was worse.

There was no reason to have been so miserable. My mother and father were loving and attentive enough. I know now that parenthood means a gentle pushing away, and that the only time one can encourage dependence is during the first months of breastfeeding. Apart from that, it’s all “you can walk across the room unaided, you can survive a morning at preschool without me, you can sleep at a friend’s house, go to college, go to France.” But what did I know, at age four? The mountains made me then, and make me now, feel irresistibly lonely, pressing-on-a-sore-muscle lonely.

Somehow the eternal mountains embodied impermanence and loss. My oldest sister, the one who was my surrogate mother much of the time, was found sleepwalking toward the lake one night when she was fourteen, and the story was presented as a near tragedy. My father caught her just in time, before her pale foot was sucked into the black greeny goop and she was lost to me forever, becoming the next ghost story. The image of her small figure in a white nightie (she would have needed one, if she was to haunt the lakeside), foot extended from the slippery rocks along the shore, rocks alive with snakes and toads, entered our own family lore, those unsettling tales on which the mountains depended to keep you from feeling too comfortable as you sat in a rocker and digested a doughy mountain dinner. The lake was peaceful and silent, we swam in a little fenced off part during the hot humid afternoons, but the grabby mud bottom was never trustworthy.

•••

The summer I was nineteen, my father got me a waitress job at the resort. I don’t remember being given an option about that. The owners couldn’t say no to him, either—he’d been a patron there for years, had bought that piece of property on the ridge they owned that overlooked the resort, and was building himself a house. And perhaps most important, my father was one of those charming, friendly people that strangers took to on first sight and never had reason to change their minds. When he was dying, the mail carrier came in to say goodbye. His funeral was standing room only. Naturally, the president of High Hampton Inn agreed that I could wait tables in the creaking sunlit dining room.

I felt the old lurch of nausea and loss as my father drove away at the beginning of that summer. His natural optimism (along with his desire for me to stop being such a lost puppy) convinced him that I would manage. He had been mostly abandoned by his own father at age five and sent off to live with relatives to save money, and he turned out just fine. He knew I would meet this minor challenge and I did, befriending another summer hire and convincing her to let me share the trailer she had rented—housing was not included in our stingy wages.

And there I was, stuck in a place of fear and loathing, zipped into a gold polyester dress and ferrying glasses of iced tea to guests in my section. It was an easy job, and I managed to pay my rent in tips and send my paycheck home to my sister in Louisville, who put it in the bank for me. By August, I had more than enough to buy the electric typewriter on which I would write my senior thesis in college.

In the meantime, my trailer-mate and I sat on our tiny porch, listened to the radio because there was little else to do, smoked (or I did, again because there was little else to do), and necked (or I did, see above) with the boys across the driveway who were also there for the summer. When we got off work, we grabbed sleeping bags and ran up the various mountains to spend the night, no tents, no food, no supplies. We went into work the next morning needing a shower and a good nap and convinced that we were living much more intensely than the middle-aged people waiting for me to pour their coffee. Being middle-aged myself now, I know that that was true.

•••

My parents came to spend their customary week in the mountains that summer and check on the construction of their new house, and one day during the long afternoon break, I saw my father sitting on the lawn in a shaded Adirondack chair. I invited him to go with me to, as I put it, “see something pretty,” and luckily for us both, he accepted. I drove him to my favorite waterfall, a big one that rushed thirty or forty feet over a cliff, reachable by an easy path from a rough parking lot. Above those falls, I had camped and swam and slid into the pools in a game that terrified the older waitresses at the resort, who knew of people swept to their deaths doing that. I had slept on the flat rocks at the very top, rocks that were surely submerged when the water was high. The waterfall was mine, and I wanted to share it with my father.

This outing led to further discoveries as my parents began to find more in their summer vacation than golf and cocktails. The new house acquired some new dimensions, and the family a veneer of rustication. We hiked in the mountains and provided our own names for favorite spots (Toe-Mash Creek was one). We picked thumb-sized blackberries from the brambles down the hill from the house and made jam and pie. My father bought a small used pickup truck.

High Hampton Inn had its charms, with the grease from its famous fried chicken embedded in the pine walls along with the odor of loneliness, but the mountains themselves acquired characters wholly separate—blooming, gray, and fearsome. People do die there—my own father slipped on moss once, reached for my hand, said later that I had saved him from a fatal fall. I did not remember it that way, but that didn’t help. To love the mountains the way Mrs. Heaton did is to wordlessly accept the inevitability of loss, all kinds of loss.

Years passed. One summer, the wild blackberry brambles were mowed to the ground and never grew back. If we had known they were a temporary pleasure, they would have become too precious and we would have enjoyed them less.

The rough parking lot at my waterfall was paved and a map installed, and I felt it like abandonment, like my old secret lover was openly dating other people. Trails were marked clearly, construction and condos were everywhere, and the hidden pools and perfect little glens were all discovered. Now when you hiked in a place that felt deserted, you came across used tissue and empty Perrier bottles. The town of Cashiers that provided High Hampton with a mailing address grew from a minimal crossroads to a town center with shops devoted to baskets (just baskets) and delis, and cuteness. There was more to offer a nineteen year old—artisanal coffee, for example—but none of it felt relevant anymore.

•••

My family’s own history unfolded at the Mountain House. It wasn’t any messier than most, just the run-of-the-mill ending of marriages, illness, disappointment. And into this soup of memory and history we have come, to tear it all to pieces in a hopeless attempt to rescue the parts we want to save. The Audubon print has mildew behind the glass – it needs to be taken to dryer quarters and re-matted. Is there any way to remove the spots on the silk hanging from China? The big rug in the living room smells musty. Something must be done. So we go round robin in a civil exercise to say what we really want, what we can’t live without, and we try to be generous. “I gave Mother and Daddy that, but I’m so glad you want it.” Of course the thing we want—do we?—is to undo some of that passage of time, to go back to the miseries of childhood, to put the past in a box as though that meant not losing it.

I took my own children when they were small to see the donkeys and feed them carrots and crackers, and if my urban kids recognized the sadness in the donkeys’ faces, they did not let me know. There was no need for a salutary cut on a rusty nail for them—I was right there, and rightly or wrongly I had no plan to send them on any hayrides. They have their own vulnerabilities, their own dark lakes that are not to be found at High Hampton.

At the end of the weekend, I say goodbye to my oldest sister, and tell her I love her, and she looks at me questioningly and I know that we have not said everything there is to say and that we never can. If we sit in a circle in the living room now stripped of the colorful rug and travel mementos, the walls bare of pictures, and we acknowledge what we have done, we will be devastated. We can’t turn and look the sadness in its face, we can’t tell my mother it’s all over, which at ninety-one, she understands well enough. Here in the stoic, silent mountains, it is better not to say.

•••

ELLEN S. WILSON lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Carnegie Magazine, and other local and national publications. She is proud to have her first essay in Full Grown People.

The Uterus Must Go

candies
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofi McMullin

I’ve always had this fantasy that one day I would find a baby. I’d be driving down the road, or walking on the street, and a bundle would catch my eye—nobody else would notice it but me. Maybe there is a small toe sticking out, or an arm, and I know immediately that it’s a baby. I call the police, of course, but they just hand it to me to take home. Finders keepers.

Everywhere I go, especially when I am driving along long stretches of highway with so much trash littering the side of the road, I keep an eye out. Every discarded tee-shirt or tarp or trash bag could potentially hide a baby. I never slow down, or actually check, but I carefully consider whether a certain pile of trash would be big enough to harbor one.

I sort of forget how small babies are.

•••

My last period is a bit dull—I can’t even remember now its start or end date, or how many days it lasted, or whether it was heavy or light. This is a bit disappointing, especially after all of the drama and fanfare it put me through over the past few months.

The most memorable was the time I passed a blood clot the size of my hand during our vacation in Aruba—it just slipped through my fingers as I was taking a shower. It landed with a splat at my feet and I stared at it for long minutes, letting the water run over my back. The clot was the shape of an embryo. You know those science books with the pictures taken inside the woman’s body—the translucent embryo floating in the blackness of the womb? This one would have been at the stage when the arms and legs are just tiny stubs, with a square-ish head and a body. I poked the thing with my toes and it slowly dissolved in the water and slipped down the drain.

I stood there a bit longer, considering whether it actually could have been an embryo. But no, no, there was no way.

•••

I am fascinated by those shows on TV where women think they have food poisoning, go to the hospital, and push out a baby. How do you not know that you are pregnant? How is it possible to not know what’s going on inside your body? My boobs started to ache the day after my doctor injected me with my husband’s semen. It was Mother’s Day. I was getting a pedicure with my mom.

•••

My fibroid feels like a pregnancy. It feels heavy and low in my abdomen and there’s a constant feeling of something—cramps? twinges? contractions?—in my belly. I feel it the most at night, when I am no longer moving around, going about my day. If I lie on my back, I can feel its weight pushing against my bladder, and my lower back aches. “It’s a good size,” my doctor tells me and holds up his closed fist to demonstrate—he has small hands for a man—and he means that as assurance right before he examines me. And anyway, how big is my uterus? It’s hard to know whether something the size of a small man’s fist in my belly is cause for concern.

The thing has to come out. My surgeon is an older man and he looks at me with sad eyes when he says, “But you are so young.”

•••

At forty, I am too old for the following things:

Non-supportive bras.
Non-supportive friends.
TV shows about college and/or single women.
To be noticed by the young men at the pool in Aruba.
Face lotion without SPF.
Tacky jewelry.
Holding grudges.
Bad haircuts.
Artificial sweeteners.
Anything that takes too long.
Cheap clothes.
Cheap shoes.
Cheap makeup.
Cheap wine.

Not having a uterus? Maybe, yes, I am too young for that.

•••

“Are you sure?” the surgeon asks one last time during my pre-op appointment.

How is one ever sure about these things? We do the best we can, with the information we have available at any given time. Right now, it’s this: I am in pain and hemorrhaging every month. I drink iron supplements by the gallon to keep up. Our son is six. My husband has a bad heart. The freaky blood clot ruined my vacation.

I think about all the babies I could have had—with the blond boy I loved with the sparkly smile, with the Palestinian with the olive skin and dark eyes, with the dancer with the smooth hips and long fingers.

At some point, life has to go on. You tally all of the things that could have, should have, would have happened, and you say “fuck,” and then you move on. The uterus must go and let me live my life.

I am sure.

•••

The uterus is not an organ you think about too much. It has one job, really, and once it’s done that, what is there to think about?

Until now, I never thought about mine. I knew from my OB that it was “tilted”— whatever that means—but other than that, I never paid much attention to it. But now I think about it all the time. I think about the space it occupied in my body and wonder what’s in its place now. I think about how my son referred to it as his “hotel” when I was explaining to him where babies come from. I think about it being sliced in half and pulled out of my body. I think about it in the specimen bag as it’s carted over to the pathologist. I think about practical things like where does my vagina end now? And if there’s no uterus and no fallopian tubes, what’s holding up my ovaries? Are they just hanging out there, in the pink sliminess of my insides?

These are things I should really ask my doctor about.

•••

I am vaguely aware of the pain in my vagina when I wake from surgery. But everything hurts, everything is tender and sore, so I don’t pay it much attention.

The doctor mentioned before the surgery that he might take my uterus out through a small cut in my lower belly, or through my vagina. He couldn’t say for certain—it just depended on the size of the fibroid.

As the anesthesia wears off and I drag myself to the bathroom to pee, it definitely feels like I have just given birth to a baby. “Why does it hurt so much down there,” I ask my husband. “Oh,” he says. “The doctor told me he had to give you an episiotomy. Your uterus didn’t fit through your vagina.”

Even in my dopey, drugged-up state, sitting on the hospital toilet, holding on to an IV pole as I try to relocate by bladder, the irony does not escape me: I gave birth to my uterus.

I would laugh.

But it hurts too much.

•••

You can never really be sure that you are done having babies. You can list all of the logical reasons why you “should” be done with babies: your age, the state of your marriage, finances, your love of sleeping through the night, and not having to wipe anyone’s butt anymore. These are all great reasons.

Then you see an announcement on Facebook—or several in a week, as it happened—and it suddenly feels like someone punched you in your non-existent uterus.

Rationally, I know I don’t want another baby. But there is nothing rational about this urge—it was not excised along with the offending organ. I mourn the ability, the possibility, the what-if.

I have never known anyone who found a baby on the side of the road. I don’t even think I’ve ever heard about something like that in the news.

But it’s possible. It could happen.

•••

ZSOFI McMULLIN is a writer living in Maine. Her essays have been published by Motherwell, The Butter, Paste Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and several other publications. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, where her Pushcart-nominated essay “This Body” appeared. You can see all of her work at zsofiwrites.com and find her on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.

 

Read more FGP essays by Zsofi McMullin.

Imagining My Grandfather Eating Samosas at My Wedding

By Claudia Heidelberger/Flickr
By Claudia Heidelberger/Flickr

By Jessica McCaughey

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 EducationThe 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.