Forever Sports

By rhettallain/ Flickr

By rhettallain/ Flickr

By D’Arcy Fallon

It’s supposed to rain. That’s the prediction. A hurricane sweeping northward, swiping an angry claw at the Midwest. I have a bad feeling as we drive to Forever Sports, the boat outfitter near the freeway overpass, nothing I can pinpoint specifically, just low-grade anxiety. I predict lightning. I predict marital discord. “I can see the newspaper headline now,” I tell my husband as he steers our car, Man O’ War, down the rutted dirt driveway to Forever Sports: “Newcomers zapped by lightning.”

A hot Tuesday morning, muggy and still, as if the world is holding its breath. We’re in the middle of the country, hundreds and hundreds of miles from either coast. We moved here a year ago after I took a tenure-track job teaching writing at a small liberal arts college in Southwest Ohio. Our teen-age son gone, out in Colorado visiting friends, I’m off for the summer, and Rudy has been job-hunting for the past year.

In between sending out resumes and going on interviews, he’s been restoring the old house we bought: stripping, scraping, sanding, painting. The bank repo is slowly evolving from a hopeless bag lady to a well-upholstered matron at a garden party. Renovating the house is hard, sweaty, solitary work. It’s dirty. And lonely. Not having a meaningful job has put Rudy in a deep, deep funk. Sometimes when we drive past Wal-Mart he says he ought to stop by, fill out an application. “Maybe I can be a greeter,” he joshes. But the joke is wearing thin. These days, asking him about his job prospects is like asking a woman trying to get pregnant if she’s ovulated that month. Our marriage is filled with these little bogs and shallow marshes, soft fleshy depressions where it’s easy to get stuck if we don’t watch where we’re going.

The boat place looks closed, although the sign on the door says Open. Rudy tries the door. Locked. He pounds on it. No answer. We’re already way too invested in the canoe trip, swept up in the idea of a sylvan day on the water. We spent the morning making the sandwiches, carefully zippering them into Baggies, filling the cooler with ice and beer and mineral water. I went to the supermarket for Georgia peaches and Cutter Deep Woods Bug Spray; then Rudy had to go for sunscreen. We are more than ready, over-prepared, in fact. I have a pen and my arty little seventeen-dollar black Moleskine notebook favored by famous authors like Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin. They’re dead and I’m not, and who knows, maybe inspiration will strike out on the river. After a walk around the building, we learn the front door to the barn is really the back door; a few quick steps and we’re inside, shaded from the sharp summer sun.

The cavernous barn is dark. Pool tables gather dust under ancient hanging lamps. For what feels like a long time we stand by the counter. Finally a kid in baggy overalls and tousled blond hair emerges out of the fungal gloom. He reminds me of what Dennis the Menace might’ve looked like as a grown up. That is, if Dennis had been raised in a basement by Mr. Wilson and fed through a trap door.

“Can I help you?” Dennis says, wiping his hands on a rag.

“We’re here to go canoeing on the Mad River,” I say. “We called earlier this morning.”

The kid just stares at me. He can’t be older than seventeen.

“We called,” I repeat again. “Someone said we could rent a canoe.”

He looks at me with suspicion. “Where exactly are you headed?” he says, stuffing the rag in his back pocket.

“We thought you were closed,” I say. So much sweat has pooled in my bra, I could wring it out. “The door was locked.”

“A lot of people make that mistake,” the kid says, clucking his tongue. Well, why don’t you put a sign on the door or something and help us all out? I want to say. Instead, I squint at the river map on the wall behind him, with its filaments of wiggly blue lines. There’s an arrow pointing to one of the lines and fuzzy words that say—I think—“You are here.” I can’t really read the map very well without my glasses, but if I put my prescription sunglasses on inside, Dennis will think I’m trying to look cool.

Last semester a student of mine in freshman composition, Kyle, a big goofy football player, wrote about all the Sasquatch sightings along Ohio’s Mad River for his big research paper. Five people in Donnelsville, a small town several miles downriver from Forever Sports, had reported seeing a huge hairy biped that “looked in their window,” according to Kyle. Kyle’s source? A Mad River Sasquatch “study” he found on-line, which included blurry photos of a strapping creature with a muscular, naked backside. During his Power Point presentation to the class, everybody laughed, Kyle especially.

But staring at Dennis standing at the counter with a sullen expression on his face, I wonder if he knows something I don’t. Everything this morning seems to hint at disaster; it’s like watching a science fiction movie where you already know the planet is doomed. The clues are everywhere: razor-cut crop circles, genetically altered locusts, cow mutilations. Woo-woo. Bad mojo. Honestly, I’d just like to call it a day. It is going to rain. The sandwiches are already soggy. But I won’t give Dennis the satisfaction. Wilted seconds tick by. There’s no air conditioning in the barn; the air is as moist as a frog’s belly.

Instead, we pay the kid, surrender our drivers’ licenses and settle into the back of a rusty Ford Econoline van pulling a trailer stacked with dented canoes. Dennis is at the wheel. We’re heading for Champaign County, just north of us, where we’ll put in at Millerstown Crossing. Paddling—or floating—back on the Mad River should take about five hours, the kid says, looking at us point blank in the rear view mirror.

“Yippee,” I mumble, staring at the cowlick on the back of his head.

The clouds are starting to pile up. Sweat streams down my forehead. I glance over at Rudy. He’s gazing out the cornfields, lost in thought.

“Do you think it’s going to rain?” I ask Dennis, just to see if he’s capable of making small talk.

He nods his heads and says, a trifle too gleefully, “Oh, we’re definitely going to get some.”

The Mad River. I like that name. It reminds me of how Lady Caroline Lamb described her lover, Lord Byron: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” That gives this baby-sized river a thrilling frisson, an aura of danger when in truth it’s lazy and safe, a whisper instead of a roar.

“Have you ever canoed the Mad?” Rudy asks.

“Nope,” the kid says, and the word is flat, flat as the ripe green cornfields and the black road before us, flat for as far as the eye can see.

At Millerstown Crossing, Rudy and the kid lift the canoe from its rack while I grab the heavy green cooler from the van and frog march it down to the river. The kid waits as I put on the moldy-smelling orange life vest and fumble with the rusty latches. Then I step clumsily into the boat. It wobbles with my spasmodic movements.

“Careful there,” Rudy says as I flail. “Watch the first step.” I shoot him a dirty look.

The kid lingers on the shore. I feel his eyes boring into our backs. What does he see? Two paunchy fifty-ish geezers out for a suicide run on Ohio’s sleepiest river? Does he see it all—as I do—as the prelude to some terrible accident? Is there something he wants to tell us? Watch out for Sasquatch? But no, he’s one of the Children of the Corn, a slit-eyed zombie in on the secret. Then Rudy steps into the boat. Metal scrapes across the rocks. The boat pops and creaks; it’s like God cracking his knuckles.

There are all kinds of theories about who should sit where in a two-person canoe. The person at the bow is supposed to be on the lookout for danger ahead: branches, rocks, anything that will swamp you. This person must “read” the water. The person at the stern is the one who really steers though, the one who has the muscle and power to set the course. I’ve never been in a canoe but honestly, how hard can it be to navigate one?

“Do you see that V on the surface of the water up there?” says Rudy, who is sitting in the stern. “If it’s facing you that means—”

“Aye, aye, your majesty,” I say, cutting him off. “Anything else I should know?”

He sighs. Five hours is a long time to be in a boat with just one other person, even if it’s someone you love. It can be forever, or at least an exceptionally protracted day. So what are we doing out on an eight-inch river in the middle of scalding July?

On our very first date—at a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Long Beach, California—Rudy earnestly talked about the float trips he’d taken in rural Missouri. Lazy and slow, wild and fast, beer-drenched, sunburned, alone and with friends. Ah! The pull of the river! He talked of stories told around the campfire, friendships forged over sweaty, mosquito-slapping portages. A river trip is a test of character, he said. I looked at him over my coffee and thought, wow, sweet and deep. He was new to California, out visiting a buddy who worked at the same newspaper I did. Missouri had always sounded like Squaresville to me, someplace I’d never wanted to visit, but Rudy painted it with dogwoods and rolling hills and jagged limestone bluffs. As he talked, I saw eagles drifting on the thermals above a wide rippling river and felt the sun on my back. You’ve got to see the Show-Me State, he said and grinned. I smiled into my coffee. I wanted to be shown.

That was years ago, when we were in our thirties. Since then, we’ve lived in San Francisco and Marin County, places so precious, I used to worry about getting pulled over at the Golden Gate Bridge toll booth for not being rich or pretty enough. There’s no border patrol like that in Springfield, Ohio, a small, unpretentious, blue-collar city. I’ll admit I’m still getting to know my way around Springfield, which has a Bob Evans restaurant and a J.C. Penney, but not a Starbucks or a Barnes & Noble. It’s easy to dismiss a town like Springfield until you’ve lived there. Then you need to learn to seek charm and allure with new eyes. Beauty is everywhere if you’re invested enough in finding it.

The river is practically deserted, except for a couple of men in thigh-high waders fishing for brown trout. I’m sitting in the bow, dutifully scanning the river’s surface, on the lookout for rogue rocks and sunken logs. Passing the men with their poles, we wave. The breeze picks up. We drift under a canopy of dappled green. The trees shake, branches flutter, leaves twirl. A crane flaps overhead and lofts gracefully into a tree. A cardinal calls. Cicadas chir. A big catfish swirls past. Summer in Ohio. I take off the stinky lifejacket and ceremoniously toss it in the back with an extra snap of my wrist, as if I’ve just flung off the top of my bathing suit. How’s that for a show-me-state? I tell myself, trying to quell the anxiety bubbling through my veins.

Our son’s absence reminds us of what’s soon to come: his leaving home more or less for good next year. When he leaves for college, it will just be the two of us, somebody steering the boat, somebody scouting what’s just ahead, paddling, reading the current. We’ve come so far since the morning of his birth, when, after thirty-three hours of labor, the doctors cut him out of me. I remember Rudy holding our wailing son and crying, for Joel, for himself, for the father he wanted to be, and for the one he didn’t have. His own father had virtually vanished after Rudy was conceived, forsaking my mother-in-law for another woman. Later, he was hardly a presence, just another guilty dad showing up on Friday night with the child support check. Rudy held Joel as if he was holding his own infant self, vowing to do better, to be a man, to show up, to be there. It seemed like he never let our son go during that first bleary week I spent recovering from the C-section. Birth had hollowed me out; barely sutured together, I moved gingerly, afraid the rawness of my love would rip me open. The scar across my abdomen has morphed into a hard, upraised line, more of a grimace than a smile. Underneath, I still feel vulnerable, and sometimes, barely together.

But on the water, it’s easy to forget those fumbling, foggy parental years, of trying to be selfless and failing miserably, of wanting to set boundaries and then trampling all over them, of yearning to be good or at least, good enough. I tried too hard as a mother and then sometimes I didn’t try at all, escaping into bed with a novel and a plate of cheese and crackers. The boat eases down the river under our gliding paddles. Sun strobes on the water. Stroke, stroke. It is not going to rain after all. In fact, it’s a steam bath. Blue, the sky is blue and stretches into a seamless bolt of turquoise silk. Stroke. I’m getting sunburned. Rudy and I talk about nothing. We don’t talk about the job search, or how heavy and oppressive time can feel when waiting for something big to break. Stroke, drift, stroke. We return to a familiar topic, a novel he wants to write, based on a woman he once knew who went to a party where she met a man. She left with him—and nobody ever heard from her again. Her body was never found. We talk about plot, motivation, and character. Does he know the ending yet? Was this woman murdered or did she just wander away?

Write it, I tell him. Quit talking about it and do it.

Rudy takes a deep breath. “It looks like I’m going to have the time now to write,” he says slowly. And there it is, out in the open. I swallow hard. There are so many things I want to tell him: We’re in this together. I love you. Don’t worry. You’re a good man. I take a breath, prepared to say all those things. Instead, what comes out is “Oh, honey.”

We were married in 1984, which, even in the middle of that crazy year’s unfurling, seemed full of portent. This was the year Michael Jackson’s hair ignited during the filming of a Pepsi commercial, the year scientists finally isolated the virus that causes AIDS, the year of Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as the first female vice presidential candidate. It was also the year I borrowed my sister-in-law’s wedding dress and her backyard for a wedding under the unflinching California sun. This was years before expensive wedding planners came into vogue, before every moment of one’s wedding had to be stylized and burnished and curated to look like a spread in Martha Stewart Weddings. Halfway through the ceremony, our Old English sheepdog casually lifted his leg and urinated on the floral arrangement, which was really just a bouquet of daisies tied to a trellis, and afterwards, the best man’s wife got drunk and changed into a long flannel nightgown and wandered down to the bay. It was a cloudless day at the end of August and the hills were as brown and dry as Shredded Wheat. One woman, a very big woman, stripped down to her leopard-skin bikini and took a dip in the chilly tidal estuary across the street from the house, and my mother-in-law broke down and cried her heart out. I never found out if the two were incidents were related. I was wearing a colander on my head at the time and distracted by cheap champagne and gaiety and I failed to write down all the wedding gifts that had been given, and to this day I know that I have neglected to write all the thank-you notes I should have. I hope I’m forgiven. We were oblivious back then. We felt lucky. We were lighthearted and life lay before us and we were never going to get old or blow it or look back.

The wind has come up on the Mad River. Clouds swallow the sun. It’s going to rain. We’re screwed. Lightning can’t be far behind. We’ll fry on this river. Somehow this foreknowledge doesn’t even register, nor does the sign we pass, a sign that says emphatically, in no certain terms: “Take Out.” Accompanying the sign is an arrow pointing to a path by the shore.

“I wonder what that means,” I say idly.

“It’s probably a place for people who want to get off the river.”

“Or maybe that’s where you go if you want to order Chinese,” I say.

“Ha, ha,” Rudy says.

We float on fifty more yards. For the first time, we hear rushing water. This part of the Mad is a Class One river, a baby river, a moving puddle, so why should there be rapids? Suddenly a distant bell goes off in my mind and I get it. “Take Out” means what it says. Take yourself out of the damn equation. Get off the damn river. Skedaddle. Scoot. My god, we’re going to go over, we’re going to—

“We’re going to capsize!” I shout. Oh god, god, this is like a bad novel, one of those freak newspaper stories. Headline: “Couple drowns in two feet of water.”

“Just go with it,” Rudy says. “It’s too late now.” As if to underscore his point, thunder rumbles in the background as we teeter over on a low head dam.

There’s the rushing of the water and the point of no return, we’re falling, going over, we’re going to fly over that froth. Then there’s the sickening sound of the canoe bottom scraping across metal. We see-saw over the edge. Crunch! The bow noses down as if to nuzzle the river, then rears back like a Praying Mantis. We’re just too heavy to get over the dam. Rudy tries to rock us over the edge and with every motion the boat sways from side to side. I scrabble like a crab, ass-walking down the spine of the boat, trying to find the center of balance.

“Hold still,” my husband says, rocking back and forth. “Don’t move.”

In other circumstances, those words can be the passenger pigeons of desire, carrying an erotic promise: hold still, don’t move. But now they’re infuriating. Don’t move? My coccyx is gravel and you’re telling me, don’t move?

“We’re stuck!” I shout over the bawling of this shrunken little river. ”Stuck, stuck, stuck!” The word flies back at me, reminding me of the scene in the movie A Christmas Story, when nine-year-old Flick puts his tongue on the flag pole, and it freezes. We’re stuck like that, glued in the eternal now, teeter-tottering between oh no! and holy fuck!

Rudy rocks once more time and we spit over the dam. Bloop! All at once we’re in the water, sputtering and blinking and flailing. And it’s cold and all our stuff is sailing down the river. There goes my virgin Moleskine notebook and the bug spray and the sunscreen, there goes the Budweiser out of the cooler. One can, two, three. Bottled water. Beach towels. A dozen velveteen peaches lovingly packed just two hours before are now released, fuzzy goslings learning how to swim. There go those cheap-ass mildewy life jackets.

“The paddle! Grab the paddle!” I shout.

“Good thing I packed that towel,” my husband says, spying it swirl away in the current like a drunken manatee.

“Let’s just hope the beer floats,” I retort. I lunge for my backpack and slip on a slimy, moss-covered rock. The river is much deeper and swifter than I’d figured. I’m completely under, baptized in the Mad. Coming up for air, I stagger towards Rudy. And laugh. We’re both punchy. We turn and stare at the overhead dam we just went over. No, it’s not Niagara Falls, but it is quite a drop. These dams, we’ll later learn, are called “drowning machines” because of the way the re-circulating currents can trap people and boats, but in the ebullience of the moment, we’re carefree. Yes, there’s a dam. Get over it. There is nothing to do but clamber back into the boat and try to beat the storm.

Downriver, we retrieve a life vest snagged on a tree branch, pluck the sunscreen from the water, and recover the beer. The wind comes up again, hard this time, stinging and stabbing and strangely invigorating. Go home, it says. Hurry. Rudy paddles on the left, I on the right.

Rain pocks the Mad’s surface, just a drop or two, then the sky opens and it’s a Biblical deluge, straight out of the book of Genesis. Should we stop and take shelter? We’re already drenched, soaked to the skin, mad, bad and dangerous to know. We’ve come this far already; there’s nothing to do but float. Still, I learn forward, eager for once to read the current and see what’s below. But I can’t discern anything except the rain. It plashes and patters on the surface, it zings and sings and stings. The river is running away from us, running with us, stretching and flowing and rearranging itself in a buoyant, irreversible sheet. There are no questions or answers, just silver water, tumbling over and under, cold and fast. Chilled and wet, miles from home, we put up our paddles and let it take us, forever sports.

•••

D’ARCY FALLON teaches creative writing, English composition, and journalism at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. She is the author of a memoir, So Late, So Soon, about living in a remote Christian fundamentalist commune in the early seventies. Before turning to teaching, she was an award-winning journalist, working for such newspapers as the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Colorado Springs Gazette.

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BabyShusher

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Natalie Singer-Velush

To become a parent in a hospital in a city somewhere in the United States you hear: Beeping machines, the institutional whir of apparatus such as a metal birthing bar that automatically lowers from the ceiling with the click of a switch, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on linoleum sheen, the medical snap of a glove pulled on, the growl and roar of a woman who you are later surprised to learn is yourself, the knuckled clenching of her hands on the metal bar, a pause of silent fear, the bleat of an up-to-the-minute new, miniscule person.

To raise an infant you understand that you must become the owners of mountains of items, gear, devices, such required equipment as strollers (newborn carriage; upright jogger; portable umbrella stroller; add-on car-seat click tray with SafeAssure™ technology), vibrating bouncy seats, bottle warmers, feeding timers, car-seat adapters, and automatic milk pumps. This gear helps you transport, feed, comfort, but it also must be parented in turn—assembled, folded, stored, charged, disinfected, adjusted. You have a whole catalogue of new children now, littered around the house.

You hear: The din of advice from family, advice from friends, advice from co-workers, advice from your husband’s boss, advice from mommy bloggers, advice from elected representatives, advice from newscasters, from grocery clerks, from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the hated Pinterest, advice to slow down to rock her to sing louder sing more softly to bathe once a week at maximum to vaccinate right away to wait to let her cry try gluten free soy free dairy free to switch detergents, but whatever they say you infer what they all really mean is, never let anyone see your nipples.

As you learn a new, completely clock-worked dance with your partner, there sounds the tinkle of a very old tune, perhaps a Scottish fiddle song, to which couples have been swirling for centuries and the days roll into nights that collapse into days that become nights and you realize at some point that you are not really sleeping or even touching each other at all because she eats and cries a lot and life while beautiful is not really a Scottish fiddle tune but now more of a platonic Metallica marathon.

Someone advises you buy a white noise machine. You learn this is a lunchbox-sized device, available at all baby superstores, takes four AAA batteries. On one end of the cloud-colored box is a speaker, on the other end is a dial that adjusts to the settings: BIRDS, OCEAN, WIND, RAIN, HEARTBEAT. That night after swaddling the baby in the style passed down to you by the ancient tribes, you lay her in her bassinet and your partner switches on the white noise machine, which he is calling the noise maker (this would be funny to you—he never gets the names of things quite right—except that you are too exhausted for funny). He moves the device to the loudest setting and the baby’s crepe paper eyelids leaf down obediently.

In your own bed you lay flat on your back like the mummies, arms by your sides, and you hear the white noise of the noise maker floating down the hallway and into your airspace, sidling up to your ear, rolling in, an auditory fog that lulls you quickly into your own twilight sleep. Next to each other, holding your breaths, your pinkies brush.

It works. Your daughter is approaching a trimester old now, and she can get her frequency turned up pretty good (colic, they say, or reflux). The magical combination, you have finally discovered, is to turn the bath tap on as soon as the fall sun sets. You sit on the edge of the tub with your tiny person and your sore, flappy body parts, listening to the rush of the bath filling. Her face is out of this world, from another place you’ve never heard of. Her eyes are open more often these days; she looks like an endearing alien, all shock and pucker. In the tub, you cradle her sideways and latch her onto your breast. The tap is still gushing, baby gulps drowned out. It must sound to her like she is eating inside Niagara Falls, or somewhere more familiar, her former planet.

After the bath meal, drying off, the laying of hands, lotioning, swaddling, rocking, shushing, she is placed in her cradle with the noise maker on high. You have become loyal to the OCEAN setting. It works every night, despite the creeping feeling that this enchanted solution could in fact fail any minute, leaving you back in Metallicaland. You and your husband steal into your own bed down the hall. The synthetic, looped surf pipes in through the crackling baby monitor, which has a transmitter in the baby nursery and a receiver placed three inches from you on the bedside table. A fake ocean filtered through a transmitter carried by invisible radio waves, pushed through a plastic speaker into your ear, soothing you all, with a manufactured quiet, into the natural state of sleep.

One night at the end of that first trimester of parenting, you lie in the bed and think suddenly it must be time to give your body back to your partner, to yourself. You hear the faint remembering of a previous system of connection, long slow sessions of fusion,   swift slam of thirst-slaking, rustle     knock     tear     knead     soft moan     all that fucking. As the battery-powered waves roll onto their radio beach you reach for each other, sift around, try to be the way you’ve been before. But your body is an alien, come from a place as out of this world as your daughter. It is in its inchoate state, too, a nautilus. The lull of the ocean of rest is so loud that you cannot hear your foreign body at all. You return to your arrangement as mummies, bound together, and drift off.

More weeks pass. The baby settles in, acts more and more like she might stay around. You hear everyone tell you how to navigate—buy this brand of sippy cup, ask these questions when interviewing day cares, lay her down at this angle to prevent unexpected crib death. A turbulence. But quiet, too, is terrifying. Alone at home with the baby all day, you use as many devices as you can. The TV is turned up. The Internet always there. Tea kettle, radio, coffee pot, the toaster’s glowing coils and companionable ding. A swing that oscillates. Tesellating mobiles.

The energy of the earth is a circuit from pole to pole, you realize: zings and jolts supplying the system, sometimes knocking things out, towers and wires strung over the hills, in and out of houses, of hearts, of tiny pink mouths, an electrocuting love.

One night sleeping to the looped white noise of OCEAN, you dream a memory of the real ocean. You are a girl, about eight, visiting your grandparents in Florida. You have your own bedroom facing the Atlantic, which is about 150 feet from your windowed wall. You lie in bed at night, the giant breath of the sea inhaling, then crashing, in the black just outside. This, the ocean’s waves, its body, shushing, thunders over you, three-dimensional sound, wet and gaping. You remember.

Your daughter a couple of months older now. The world is still talking at you about how to be her mother. The strollers and wipe-warmers have made room, too, for toys―blocks that play “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and baby dolls that go “waaaah.” It is getting busy in the house. You pack a box, items you feel you should let go of, to make room for other items, board books, doorway bouncer, something called a play mat (monographed)—the catalogue children helping you to raise the organic one. You place the noise maker on the top of the storage box.

That night the three of you lie in the mysterious new quiet. The sheet bunches. The baby whistles unconsciously down the hall. A neighborhood dog howls. You hear the zzzzzzt of desire click on, like the buzz of conductivity when a wire in the dark canister of a device brushes against its charged opposite, the sound of a current in a bedroom somewhere in the United States in a house in the suburbs.

•••

NATALIE SINGER-VELUSH is a journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post; Brain, Mother, the blog of Brain, Child magazine; Literary Mama; Alligator Juniper; Clamor; This Great Society; Huffington Post; and the 2015 anthology Love and Profanity. Natalie is the editor of ParentMap magazine, where she also writes about parenting issues. She is earning her MFA in creative writing and poetics from University of Washington and lives in Seattle with her husband and two children. She can be found @Natalie_Writes.

The Ex-Husband in My Basement

basement

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Stephanie Rosenfeld

“You would have hated me if you’d known me back then,” my husband would say, telling me stories of his drug-using days, and I’d agree: You’re lucky I didn’t meet that guy—I wouldn’t have looked at him twice.

But that wasn’t the guy I’d met. Luciano’s past was behind him: He was five years clean and proud of his sobriety. Like many former drug users, he was working in the field of substance-use and addiction, using his experiences to help people. He was magnetic and funny and interesting and full of life. We fell in love, became a couple, then a family. We’d sit at the dinner table, planning our future together. We’d both suffered setbacks in our pasts and failed to jump onto conventional paths, but together, we were going to create something good. We were counting on being late-bloomers.

Over time, though, our marriage began to fray, as Luciano’s undiagnosed, then misdiagnosed bi-polar disorder got worse, exacerbated by the international travel that had become a bigger part of his job. Our life together became a cycle of stressful overseas phone calls, resentful homecomings, deferred fixes. Still, at the end of every day, we’d sit down over dinner and talk about art, and writing, and drug policy, and sexual politics, and stupid things people did that pissed us off, and our cats, and TV shows, and a hundred other things. Even on the worst days, we could make our way back to each other this way.

Finally, though, things reached the breaking point, and we decided: Our marriage was important to us and we needed to find a way to save it. We made a plan to figure out how we were going to do that, as soon as he came home from an extended work trip to Thailand.

When he returned, though, something wasn’t right. One day, sitting across from him at the dinner table, I noticed that his tongue was twisting upside down in his mouth when he talked. Also, his mood was strangely amped up, but without the usual underlay of good spirits. There’d been other signs, too: While he was in Thailand, I’d started to notice that his emails were being sent at odd times of day—three-thirty, four, five in the morning, his time. On the phone, small things would trigger a full-blown rage—he’d end up bellowing and ranting, hanging up, calling back, hanging up again. And when he did return, the jet lag this time seemed intractable; after a week home, he was still sleeping till three or four in the afternoon.

A dedicated observer of my husband’s micro-moods, I suspected it had something to do with substances—he was relying increasingly on a mix of prescribed sleep aids, anti-anxiety medication, and anti-depressants to cobble himself together, especially when he traveled. I questioned him about his dosages, asked if he’d taken anything over the counter, maybe done something recreationally—some weird street drug—in Thailand. My inquiries were met with a blast-furnace rage and an unprecedented physical assault—he threw a portable hard-drive across the room at me, hitting me in the head. Later, I rooted through his briefcase and found a meth pipe and a lighter—arrogantly just there, not even hidden—in the open inside pocket.

When I confronted him, he told me it was no big deal: He was only using meth occasionally. And besides, the danger of meth was over-hyped by the media. It was basically no different than Adderall—which he had a prescription for. He liked meth—it helped him work, made him focused, and gave him energy. Besides, his history had proven than he could kick any drug, so addiction wouldn’t be a problem.

I argued with him. It really didn’t seem like a good idea to me.

He argued back, then abruptly changed tacks. He’d stop doing it, if it really upset me so much. I was so relieved, I almost forgot to think about the fact that the decision to do such a risky thing, and to lie about it, was completely and bafflingly outside the bounds of the way we conducted our marriage. The old Luciano might have done that but not the guy I’d chosen to be with.

Still uneasy, I looked in his bag again the next day. I found a lighter in the same pocket I’d cleaned out the day before. I took it. The next day, there was another one. I confronted Luciano again. Why was he carrying around lighters if he wasn’t using meth? He erupted in rage. How dare I go through his bag?

I mounted a bigger search, found bags of meth in his bathroom, in coat pockets, in the little space in the wall next to the basement crawl space.

We played this cat-and-mouse game for about a month. My heart would break every time I found another stash. Each time I’d confront him, he’d alternately admit, deny, or downplay the problem.

“Yes, Stephanie! I’m addicted!” he’d roar one day; “No, I’m not addicted!” the next. “My only ‘problem’ with meth is that you don’t want me to do it!” he screamed at me, one day. Every day was going to be his last day using.

•••

I lived these days in a state of constant, adrenalized emergency. I spent my work hours poring over online articles and forums and videos about methamphetamine, researching rehabs and treatment models, trying to figure out at what point I was going to have to kick him out, looking at ads for one-bedroom rentals in our area, making up budgets for how we’d support two households till we got him through this emergency and he could move back home.

The friends who knew what was going on didn’t understand why I didn’t kick him out. But I didn’t experience the decision as simple. A hallmark of Luciano’s bipolar illness was that life for him was a constant string of emergencies, and I was acclimated to the dysfunction. Reacting to and compensating for Luciano’s emergencies had become like an endurance sport for me. Though I was furious at him, and terrified, in this crisis as in all the others, I’d be the strong, sane one, the one who’d hold things together until we figured out what to do.

The other reason I didn’t kick him out was, simply, that he lied. He lied long and hard and deep, and up one side and down the other, and every which way from Sunday; and it took me too long to understand that I didn’t have the right information and was making bad decisions because of that.

•••

I went to a few Al Anon meetings, but I didn’t like their one-size-fits-all message about “detaching.” I didn’t feel it applied to me; I wasn’t ready to give up on Luciano. We’d only just started down this road. We might possibly still turn back without too much damage.

I started going to Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings, instead. The people were nice to me there, thanked me for coming. They told me it was good to be reminded—in the form of my presence—of the cost of their actions, the collateral damage. Everyone told me how sorry they were—which alarmed me. One guy took me aside and said, “However bad it is now, six months from now, you’ll be looking back, thinking these were the good old days.” Uniformly, people said that going to jail was the only thing that forced them to stop using.

A month later, Luciano moved out so that he could do meth full-time, unharassed by me. By “moved out” I mean: One day, in the middle of a rage, he sprang from his yelling-chair, as I had named it, thundered down to his room and threw some clothes in a bag, grabbed his computer, and slammed out the door. Six hours later, he called to tell me he wasn’t coming home. When I asked where he was, he said he was staying at “a cheap motel in the neighborhood.” I actually spent hours, that night, walking the streets of our residential neighborhood in the dark, panicking and in tears, looking for a cheap motel or rooming house that I knew wasn’t there. The memory of that’s a little scary.

•••

The next year and a half unfolded just the way you hear about. Luciano lived across town in a seedy hotel—I didn’t know where. He stopped paying our joint bills and the mortgage, defaulted on his credit cards, ruined his eighty-five-year-old father’s credit, lost his health insurance, life insurance, car, job. He spent his retirement funds on meth. Ashamed, he stopped talking to our daughter. When I found out about the infidelity, boggling in scope—lots of sex with strangers, exchanged for money and drugs—it was just another item to put on the list.

•••

I have a blank spot in my brain where the “higher power” thing is supposed to go. Consciousness is my only god. I used to believe that by being strong and present and brave, using communication and the power of my own brain as my only tools, I could hold the people I love close to me, figure out how to fix anything; protect my family and make it last. Having a bi-polar mate definitely gave that belief a workout. The awesome force of a meth addiction did it in completely.

•••

Eventually, with the assurance to myself that I had done everything I could, everything I was willing to, I accepted the fact that I had no power to make things turn out differently, and I began to let go.

I spent eight hundred days alone, grieving, writing a new book. I took comfort in the company of my dog. I wondered if you could actually die from crying. I’d wake up every morning and go to the mirror to see if my hair had turned gray overnight.

The part that killed me the most was the empty space across from me at the dinner table each night. I’d cry as I ate, sometimes, feeling the magnitude of my loss, thinking I would never heal.

•••

When people who I haven’t seen in a while ask how I’m doing, I say, “It’s been a hard couple of years.” I tell them about my new book, what my daughter’s been up to. “We lost Luciano to meth use, unfortunately,” I say, to those who don’t know. If they look alarmed, I add, “He’s still alive. Just, not with us anymore.” To the people I can’t lie to, I say, “Actually, he’s living in my basement.”

In a culmination of his run of terrible decision-making, Luciano moved to Cambodia, where he finally reached the end: He was living on the streets, out of money; he’d pawned his phone and computer; lost everything but his passport and the clothes he was wearing. One of his few remaining friends bought him a ticket back to the States, where he landed penniless and homeless in Berkeley—scarier than the streets of Phnom Penh, he said—and decided he wanted to live. His father bought him a train ticket to New Jersey.

He asked if he could come home for a few days on the way. Just to see me.

Not home anymore, I told him. But I said yes.

It had been a year and a half since we’d seen each other. Among other things, meth had ended our marriage without discussion. My story of what had happened was this: He’d become a meth addict, and meth had destroyed our life together, and that was tragic and stupid. If he had any different way of telling it, I wanted to know.

When he arrived, it quickly became evident that he was completely out of his mind—ranting, raving, paranoid, psychotic. He wasn’t using meth, anymore, but it hardly mattered. He was in a hole so deep it was hard to imagine how he could possibly climb out. I listened to his delusional plan to live with his parents, stay clean, find work in the City—nothing under seventy-thousand, an executive directorship, he was thinking. I watched as he rummaged through the storage room for Plan B—his tent and sleeping bag—and I changed the terms of my offer. I told him he could stay in my basement for a month, two if he needed, that he could share my food, and—if it was what he wanted—I’d help him not to die.

He’s been here for over a year. I laid down conditions, helped him think through some steps. He reconnected with a generous ex-colleague who got him access to good free mental health care at the drug treatment center where Luciano used to send his clients. After many months of looking, he finally got a job: low-paying, part-time—he was ecstatic. With his first paycheck, he bought me an enormous TV to show his gratitude, carried it home on the bus—then carried it back when I told him maybe he wasn’t thinking completely clearly, yet.

Properly diagnosed and medicated for his bi-polar disease for the first time in his life, and under the care of two good mental healthcare practitioners, he’s a different person. Or else he’s himself—he says he’s not sure. It’s hard for both of us to think about the ways so many things might have been different, if he, if we, had figured it out sooner. With his brain recovering from the damage meth did to it, he can finally think clearly again. He hasn’t raged in over half a year. He is full of regret, and he admits that doing meth was a terrible decision; that meth is a terrible drug and that the damage he did to our family was devastating and real.

And probably lasting. We’re not what we once were, to each other. We’re not a couple, anymore—though we think we’re probably some kind of family.

One night, a few weeks after he came back, we cautiously sat down at the dinner table together again. It was hard at first, but it’s gotten easier, as we’ve worked through some of the most painful pieces. Sometimes, we even laugh. But without a future to plan for, the conversations aren’t like they used to be.

He says I saved his life, and it’s probably true. Crisis averted, it’s probably time, now, to save my own.

•••

STEPHANIE ROSENFELD lives in Salt Lake City, where she writes fiction and works as a non-profit grant writer. She is the author of a collection of short stories, What About the Love Part? and a novel, Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu. Stories of hers have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Missouri Review, Bellingham Review, Northwest Review, Cream City Review, and Other Voices. She recently finished a young adult novel, and is currently at work on a graphic memoir, written in collaboration with her ex-husband, about the effect of his methamphetamine addiction on their family.

Ambivalence About Having Kids Has Pushed Me Down an Existential Rabbit Hole

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By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Joelle Renstrom

“When are you going to have kids?” my younger sister asks at our family holiday dinner after her third glass of wine. Her drunk voice has a resonant timbre no one at the table can ignore. My aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, mom, and brother all look at me.

“I don’t plan on having kids,” I say. Maybe it would be easier if I got a tee-shirt announcing this, or if I tattooed it on my forehead. A face tattoo is what I’ve always likened to having kids, anyway—you better be sure you want it because it’ll be front and center your whole life.

“That’s so sad,” she says. “I want more nieces.”

That’s when my oldest niece, who’s currently a sophomore in college and identifies as a feminist, jumps in. “It’s not about you,” she says. “And it’s not sad.”

I let the two of them go at it, grateful that my niece has the energy to take up this conversation. I’ve had some version of it with friends, my boyfriend, and myself, more times than I can count.

But I understand where my sister is coming from. Our family is shrinking. My dad died a few years ago, and my aunt died shortly after Christmas; my other aunt and uncle are over eighty. My brother’s kids are fifteen and eighteen. During the holidays, there’s a distinct lack of youthful energy—no one’s too excited to sleep on Christmas Eve, no one believes in Santa, no squeals echo through the house. I’d love to have some kids running around—I just don’t know that I want them to be mine.

As my sister and niece squabble about cultural expectations, my cousin turns to me and says, “That’s one of the upsides of getting older. People eventually stop asking.” She’s fifty and childless, in part for health reasons. I secretly envy that having a baby has always been a nonstarter for her.

I, on the other hand, make a habit of lying awake at night wondering whether I’ll wake up one day in my fifties and regret not having kids. Wondering what not wanting to have a baby means about me.

As much as I want to be present for this family dinner, I descend into the place in my brain reserved for my baby ambivalence—the place that has perfected various ways to beat myself up for my indecision.

•••

On paper, the arguments against having kids are straightforward and compelling.

No more travelling—at least, not the way I like to do it, backpacking for weeks with half-formed plans doing things that would terrify my mother if she knew. I stay in hostels and show up at bus stations ready to decide where I might go next based on departure times, ticket costs, or the sound of a destination name. This freedom changes me by pushing me into a new paradigm—in my home life, I’m not nearly so flexible, and traveling reminds me of my own soundness and strength.

A kid could eventually travel with me, albeit with some logistical alterations. My wanderlust was born during a family Christmas in London when I was twelve. I walked around agape, never noticing the drizzle, not even caring about the walking cast on my right foot. My dad, who socked away money in his desk drawer for family vacations, got as much pleasure from watching me respond to the trip as he did from taking in the sights himself. The travel bug is one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me, and I can imagine how fulfilling it would be to pass it on. But that experience exists only in a parallel universe somewhere, light-years away from here.

It’s the freedom I fear I can’t live without. No more spur-of-the-moment drinks after work, no more eleven at night electronica shows on a Tuesday, no more spontaneous thirty-mile bike rides. No more locking myself away writing all day—at least, not for a long time and probably not without guilt. Even though the absence of these possibilities might be relatively temporary, and even though I might start making other choices even if I don’t have kids, being stripped of the freedom would likely send me spiraling. I don’t do well when I feel trapped, even if the situation is of my own making.

But sometimes I ask myself, even when I’m gathered around a table on a Friday night with friends, whether this is what my life will be like forever. What would be wrong with that? The question itself implies there’s something in undesirable about that scenario. Sameness scares me—what if, despite my freedom, I get bored? Or what if I forget how to use that freedom, or get too old to take advantage of it? One aspect of having kids that both appeals to me and terrifies me is the structure that they impart on the foreseeable future, the parental phases that parallel the phases of their kids. Nothing about life stays the same—that’s one of the few guarantees with kids, for better or for worse. There’s almost always an answer to the question “what’s next?” But if there’s always a relatively proscribed next step, then we’re back to that lack of freedom problem again.

The freedom conundrum is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s the money (or lack thereof), my fear of being pregnant and giving birth, my chronically tenuous job situation, and my anxiety about what raising a child and will do to me and to my relationship with my boyfriend. In the bigger picture, my worries about the possibility of a future technological dystopia make me question how I could help a kid navigate the future and whether I even want to do that to a child. (I teach a seminar on artificial intelligence, so I find myself going down that path fairly frequently). Aside from technology, there’s overpopulation and resource depletion. Even though my mom says I’m the type of person who “should” reproduce—a somewhat troubling concept in itself—the world doesn’t need more people, even if they’re mine.

While these reasons are all obvious and legitimate, the ones revolving around the future of the planet are the only ones that aren’t inherently selfish. As serious as dwindling resources might be, or as terrifying as it is to think about raising a child in an Orwellian world, my recitation of those reasons ultimately becomes selfish too, since I’m using them to support such a personal decision. If I’m so concerned about those factors, shouldn’t I just built a yurt and go off the grid? It sometimes feels like a cop out to recruit big-picture justifications for not reproducing.

Perhaps the Pope is right that not having kids is selfish. Every parent makes sacrifices, including mine.  Every childless adult does too, to some extent, yet I can’t—or don’t want to—imagine my life without all the pleasurable activities and adventures I’d have to give up if I had kids. But isn’t the experience of having a child arguably the grandest adventure there is? I want to try everything, so how can I leave this life without having a child? The truth is that I’m more interested in continuing to what I want to do than I am in the adventure of parenthood, which makes me feel like a shallow hedonist. My boyfriend, who has a nine-year-old son, says the selfish thing would be to have a child if I don’t really want one.

My boyfriend is ambivalent about our having kids too, but it’s different for him. He already has a kid, which certainly takes the edge off, and he’s male. I wish gender didn’t matter so much, but it does. If I could be a father rather than a mother, I’d be more likely to have kids. Such a statement is rife with cultural expectations I’d like to ignore or buck, but the role of a father is much more appealing to me. My own relationship with my dad contributes to this view, as does physiology—I’d rather my partner get pregnant, give birth, breast feed, etc. Regardless of how illogical or fraught with gender norms and nostalgia my vision is, if I had to be a parent, I’d want to be a father to a little girl. That’s not particularly helpful when it comes to making my decision.

Most of my current circle of friends used to belong to the “not going to have kids” club. It was liberating to express this preference in like company. In staking our claim to all the good times of untethered adults, we sealed an implicit pact not to succumb to cultural expectations and norms and to chart a course free of diapers, feedings, puberty, and all the rest. Most of my other friends were far more adamant than I in their unwavering desire to remain childless. It’s kind of like the difference between being agnostic and being an atheist—the latter suggests a certainty I don’t have. But I admire those who are more outspoken and certain than I am, especially if they’re women. I feel relieved and legitimized—either nothing’s wrong with me after all, or whatever’s wrong with me is also wrong with them, which at least puts me in good company. People I respect, and people I don’t regard as selfish are making the decision I’m making. Or at least, they were.

Most of these friends, no matter how resolute they once were, have either recently had kids or are about to. What changed? They shrug, as though sheepish that all those people over the years who said, “Trust me, you’ll change your mind,” were right after all. I envy their change of heart because it frees them of ambivalence. I envy their new sense of purpose, which suddenly feels far bigger than scouting airline ticket prices and deciding whether bungee jumping or paragliding will be the next big adventure.

My closest friends apologized when they told me they were pregnant, as though they had violated our friendship. They assured me it wasn’t planned, as though that mattered, and tried too hard to explain how shocked they were and why this ultimately was a good thing. One of them said something about not living the rest of their lives “like overgrown teenagers.” Is that what I’m doing, I wondered? I work, I pay my bills, I participate in the grown-up world, even though I also drink like a fish, stay up too late and can’t refuse a dare. What’s wrong with living like an overgrown teenager? And if there is something wrong with it, why is having a kid the remedy?

I envy people who unexpectedly get pregnant and are suddenly thrust out of indecision. At many points in my life, I’ve said, “I’ll let the universe decide what happens next,” accepting my lack of control and acknowledging that generally, life plays out as it should. But the universe may not decide this for me, and if I wait too long, I will have made a default decision anyway—perhaps ambivalence is a timid no. I can remain uncertain for the rest of my child-bearing years, but if the associated anguish compares to what I’ve felt for the past couple years, that could be the worst outcome. Since I have no plans to get my tubes tied, it seems the only remedy for my ambivalence is to take the plunge. But just as a coin flip can reveal one’s true feelings, this line of reasoning gives me the cold sweats.

My sister’s comment irritates me in the same way I’m annoyed by all the people who assure me I’ll eventually have kids. They suggest this is something I should want, that not wanting to have kids would be unnatural. I’m thirty-seven. Tick tock, they say. The whole concept of a biological clock bothers me, more because of its cultural implications than anything else. Yes, there’s a physiological timeline when it comes to pregnancy (though that window has gotten bigger and bigger), but the idea that a woman should be possessed by this urge and get pregnant—probably after finding a husband—bothers me, as though she’s not a real woman if she doesn’t have this desire. Maybe I could get away with it if I was a movie star. When I was twenty-five and living in New York City, I felt disconcerted about rounding the corner on thirty, but also overjoyed that I still had a decade before I had to decide about kids. That decade was supposed to bring the realization that I wanted them. I’m still waiting.

Here’s the rub: I want to be someone who wants kids. I can’t seem to get past that. If I could take a pill to induce the desire to reproduce, I would.

•••

After we got home from dinner, my mom and I went back to her house, the house where I grew up. Later, I sat on the back deck and watched the effortless way that stars light up the Midwestern sky. I could see the light in the kitchen—the same light I saw flick on at five in the morning on the first truly epic night of my life when the boy I’d been in love with all summer finally kissed me while we sat at the picnic table.

Back when I was growing up, I never really thought about whether I wanted kids. Like everything else about adulthood, it felt too far off to warrant consideration. Yet it’s in the house where I spent my childhood that I am most challenged by the reality that I may never want or have kids. When I come back to visit, I stay in the room that was mine as a kid. My dad built the dresser and the shelves. The bulletin board on the wall has relics tacked to it—a picture of me meeting Hillary Clinton in high school, awards, hockey ticket stubs, a flag from the golf course my dad took me to for an unbeatable view of a meteor shower.

After I went to college, he used my room as an office, adding his stuff to mine. Our keepsakes belong together. I think about how satisfying it must have been to see me grow into a person who enjoyed so many of the same things he did, how much fun it would be to watch your child’s brain develop. I remember the first time my niece followed multi-step directions. She wanted a puzzle, which my brother told her was on the second shelf of the closet in his office. She listened with her eyes closed, visualizing what she needed to do to get the puzzle, and then she did it. I saw the gears turn—perhaps the only more exciting moment for me was when she learned to rhyme.

In the bottom dresser drawer I recently found a little book I made in 1989, when I was eleven years old. It’s called “My Life in 2014,” and it illustrates what I imagined my life would look like in twenty-five years. I envisioned myself as a marine biologist who worked closely with dolphins and whales (a recent trip to Sea World had made quite an impression). The book doesn’t mention a husband or kids. I have no memories from childhood of wanting children, and if I could go back to that state now, I would. I liked dolls for a short time (I grew up in the Cabbage Patch Kid era), but never pretended they were my babies. I had a thing for animals, and still do—my cat appeals to me far more than a kid does. I dote on her and worry about her, but she doesn’t mind too much when I travel or go to the bar after work—after all, she poops in a plastic container.

Over Christmas, I found in the closet a shoebox full of sentimental bits from Dad’s childhood—rocks he’d collected, buttons, a little picture of a deer he’d made from hammered tin. I had seen all of these keepsakes before, but this time was different. I imagined my dad as a boy, his little fingers picking up rocks and depositing them in his pocket. Him working with a mini hammer, making something as innocent as a deer. He was a little kid once, which isn’t a revelation, but picturing him as a kid, as the creature I don’t think I want, stops me short. I wouldn’t be here if not for that little kid and who he became. The photos of my dad as a baby have new resonance; I’m glad his parents weren’t ambivalent.

When my dad was dying, there was one particularly horrific night in the hospital during which the cancer in his lungs made it difficult for him to breathe. Every forty-five minutes or so he’d struggle so much that he’d induce a panic attack, which made it even harder to get his breath. He’d grasp at the sheets and look around frantically, gasping. My brother, sister and I held his hands as the attacks came on. We locked eyes with him and we breathed with him, long and slow until his breath returned and his heart rate slowed to normal. Sitting there with him, it occurred to me that this is the point of having kids. To be able to look at someone and think, I helped make you. I helped bring you into the world, and you’re helping me leave.

When my dad died, I realized how much of my identity revolved around being his daughter. My brother has a different biological father, though he never had another dad; my sister is adopted. I’m the only one with my dad’s blood, the only one with his genetic legacy. If the Renstrom blood line is to continue, I have to have kids. This isn’t a good enough reason by itself to justify having children, but I return to this thought again and again. I’m a big part of what my dad—my hero—made in the world. What if I could make someone who would be a hero to someone else? What if I could make someone who found meaning in holding my hand when I die?

I have no answer to those questions. I don’t know what it would feel like to have an answer, and I don’t know what it would feel like to accept that I’ll never know. All I do know is that the only person I want to talk to about this is my dad. I want him to tell me I don’t need to have kids to be a legacy he’s proud of leaving. I want him to look at me the way he did when I was twelve years old and hobbling across the London Bridge—like the world was my oyster, that I should see as much of it as possible. Yet at the same time, as I look through my dad’s old photos and keepsakes, I think about how no one had any idea about me back then. No one knew that every piece of art, every rock collected, every baseball card filed away, was bringing him one tiny step closer to me. And I wonder who will look through my shoebox, my photos, and my keepsakes and think the same?

•••

JOELLE RENSTROM’s essay collection, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, explores the intersection of life and literature. She also maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen?, which examines the relationship between science and science fiction. Joelle teaches writing and research with a focus on space, artificial intelligence, and science fiction at Boston University. Links to her work and book can be found at www.joellerenstrom.com/

Careful Intimacies

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By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sarah M. Wells

I wear my tall brown boots and short white dress and walk with you like we haven’t been married over a decade and don’t have three children. They are at your parents’ house, baking ginger cookies and picking daffodils and dandelions, for me, because they’re sweet.

We will not talk about the kids tonight, not because we do not love them, but precisely because we love them.

“Just imagine, in four years,” you say, “we could tell Lydia we’ll be back in a few hours and just… leave.” I try to imagine it and can’t.

We talk about anything except upcoming coach-pitch practice, Cub Scouts, and gymnastics. We order two sides and a couple of drinks at The Lockview. It’s our kind of crowd, our kind of bar, hipster, and you secretly love hipster-ish things.

“I can’t pull off hipster,” you say.

“Yeah, skinny jeans don’t work for you,” I say.

“No way, but if big-ass-baggy-short-white-guy jeans were popular, I’d be in.”

“We could market that,” I say, “It has a nice ring to it.” We drink and people-watch. That guy diagonal from us, he could be my grandpa’s cousin. “Maybe he is my grandpa’s cousin,” I say.

Grandpa’s been dead for over seven years. Our middle son, Elvis, was four months old when I sat alone next to Grandpa’s hospice bed and prayed for him to give up his spirit while Mom and Grandma rested, my skin prickling as he sighed one last time and I half-spoke and whispered, “Brandon? I think he’s gone.” You came in quick with Elvis in your arms, our tiny cranky infant who nearly died just four months earlier because he couldn’t breathe as he exited my interior, capillaries sticky and stubborn.

But we’re not talking about them now, because the sun is shining and it’s just us this evening, just us and your Old Fashioned, my Lemon Ice martini. I am determined to take as many selfies with you as you do with the guys when you’re on the road for work. I tag it on Facebook, “Bold and the Beautiful?” and you say, “You mean baold and the beautiful,” because it’s been almost twelve years since we married and you feel bald and old, though you are neither. It doesn’t matter because you feel it, my Mr. Smooth who walks slow sometimes, suave through his back pain, knee pain, elbow pain. Mr. Smooth’s hairline is receding but come on, husband, I don’t notice. You grew out your goatee again, and I love you with a goatee, its bristles against my chin when we kiss.

This is the second time we’re seeing Lyle Lovett and the third for John Hiatt. You raise your drink and toast, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” these tickets a gift from me to you. One Valentine’s Day, we saw a Christian rock group and the next we spent in the hospital for a follow-up miscarriage procedure. It’s April 26 and the second time we’ve been out together this month, with so many road trips and conferences, gymnastics and softball practices.

I have my hand on your thigh and your hand covers mine. Our knees are touching in orchestra row J, seats three and four, and we are keeping time to the beat with our touching knees. John Hiatt finishes singing, “Marlene, Marlene, my love for you’s obscene,” and Lyle Lovett says something to John Hiatt about his songwriting, how he knows Mrs. Hiatt and Mrs. Hiatt’s name isn’t Marlene. Hiatt has been married twenty-nine years, and I squeeze Brandon’s hand. I try to imagine life in another seventeen years.

The guy in front of us is passed out and hasn’t moved for at least an hour. You lean in close and whisper-yell how that happened to you once at a Merle Haggard concert, back when you were dating Devin, maybe? We call that “BS,” before Sarah. The guy in front of us will have a crick in his neck when he wakes up. He still isn’t waking up, even as Lyle Lovett sings, “Some things, my baby don’t tolerate from me.”

•••

Twenty-four hours ago, you asked, “Do you mind if I go play golf with Jerry?”

I stuffed one sock inside the other as I folded laundry and said, “No problem. Do you know when you’ll be back?”

You smiled with your golf gear in your arms and said, “I don’t know.” I grabbed a shirt and folded it the way my mom taught me.

“Well, are you going to play nine holes or eighteen, are you going to eat dinner together? Do you think you’ll go to sing karaoke after?” I replied, the way my mom never replied, and you laughed, “I just don’t know, okay?”

I dropped a pair of Henry’s underwear into the stack of minion-printed briefs, the way you prefer because it’s stupid to fold boys’ underwear. It’s underwear, you say.

“Well,” I said, “I think it’s only fair to give some clue as to when you will be home—it’s not that I care, I don’t,” I lied, trying to negotiate the same space as usual, quality time and childcare and your priorities and my neediness. “I just want to know so I know whether to be excited you’ll be home soon at eight or to settle into an evening of reading, knowing you’ll be back after I’m in bed. Either way is fine. I just want to know.”

“I don’t like these kinds of restraints,” you said, and I started to say, “Then maybe you shouldn’t have gotten married.”

As the words fell out, I remembered our confessions just a week earlier, my blubbering, “Why can’t you just say you think I’m pretty?” at the most intimate moment, when things weren’t working in harmony, in that fragile space. You rolled off of me and sobbed, “You make me feel like such a failure!” How we held each other, how we apologized, how we touched each other’s faces and whispered all our truths into old wounds.

I remember this as the words drip, maybe you shouldn’t have gotten married.

When we hit an impasse, you angry and calling off your golfing, me angry and finishing folding laundry, I carried our daughter’s clothes back to her bedroom to find her with her friend tucked behind the door. “What are you doing?” I asked, reading their guilt.

“Nothing,” they said, “You can leave those on my bed, I’ll put them away,” Lydia said and left. I wondered what she overheard, what she was listening for in between our living room remarks. I thought back to my own ear against the door eavesdropping on my parents as my dad yelled his frustration in the dark of night. “You never…” he said, my ears too young to hear or know what she never did but old enough to know my mom was crying and lying in bed, my dad standing somewhere in the dark bedroom. I wondered if they might divorce, maybe even cried into my pillow and prayed before drifting off to sleep.

“She said they weren’t listening to us,” you told me when I returned to the living room, “‘We didn’t hear one word you said,’ she said.” We rolled our eyes and smiled thin lines. You went out to the front of the house and I went out to the back of the house. Later, we would lean close into each other in our bedroom and forget, but until then, you shot hoops and I cut shrubs all afternoon, one of each of our children by our sides, separate.

•••

But we’re not talking about them now, or that. Like love keeps no record of wrongs, it took me a long time to remember exactly what it was Lydia and her friend might have overheard, and now that I have I’ve remembered, too, a long list of other wrongs dealt and received. I flinch a little because now John Hiatt is singing, “I’ve been loving you for such a long time, girl, expecting nothing in return, just for you to have a little faith in me,” and your fingers are interlaced with mine. This is the song you burned onto that CD you made me a month after we met, along with a dozen others I remember.

I remember it all again in a moment, it’s all here, Grandpa and my parents and your parents and our exes, our vices, our joys, John Hiatt singing, “Have a little faith in me,” all of it is here between us now, held in between our interlaced fingers.

Okay, so our love keeps record of wrongs, but also mercies. After all, we are here. We hold our wrongs and mercies together in careful intimacy. I run my fingernails across the grooves in your big-ass-baggy-short-white-guy jeans and you put your hand on my knee, just below my dress’s white hemline.

At any moment, I think John Hiatt’s voice might splinter and that’ll be it, but he just keeps hanging on to those notes, he just keeps singing, Won’t you have a little bit a, a little bit a, please! Please! Please, now baby! Ohh, won’t you have a little faith in me? By the time the concert is over, the drunk man in front of us is up and clapping. It’s only 9:16—you guessed 9:15 and I guessed 9:30, so you win. We want them to play more, longer, but they are finished.

We slip out the side exit, your fingers grazing the small of my back as we walk through the sheep-shuffle concertgoers. “Want to get a drink and a bite in the Valley?” you ask, even though it’s Sunday and I have to get up for work tomorrow, you have to take our children to school. We are not tired, and our children might not even be asleep yet.

Let’s stay away a little while longer, darling.

•••

SARAH M. WELLS is the author of a nonfiction e-book, The Valley of Achor, a collection of poems, Pruning Burning Bushes, and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce. Her essays have been listed as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays 2012, 2013, and 2014. She recently completed a memoir-in-essay collection about love and attention, marriage, parenting, and desire titled American Honey. Sarah serves as the Managing Editor for the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and as Associate Editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.

Read more FGP essays by Sarah M. Wells.

Intro to Soul Mate 101

petals hi-res

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Niesslein

I’m an unlikely editor for this anthology about love and sex among people well into adulthood. The only adult love and sex I’ve been wrapped up in started twenty-four years ago when two drunk nineteen-year-olds hooked up at a fraternity house. (If there are any younger readers here, a word of advice: We are what you call a statistical anomaly.)

So, outside of my own marriage, I live adult romance vicariously. I’ve edited many a Match profile, once saving my youngest sister from the possibility of suggesting that she’s all about the back door, if you catch my meaning. I’ve engaged in some Facebook-spying to catch evidence of a friend’s husband’s affair, my screen saves entered into their real-life divorce proceedings. I’ve read Biblical verse at my cousin’s wedding, winking at my own beloved sitting in the pew with our son.

And I’m a sucker for a love story because every love story is a story of risk, the plot already built in. The stakes are high, as they always are when you invite someone into your heart. You hope she’ll take her shoes off. You hope he’ll be mindful that some of the furniture is rickety—the End Table of Body Image with its one wobbly leg, the Curtains of Trust held up by a rod that someone else bent long ago, the Armchair of Hope slightly worn, but still pretty damned comfortable. You hope that she won’t care that it’s a little messy in there; hey, the music is still good.

When you look at your lover and growl, I want you inside of me, this is what you mean, this metaphor made into flesh. Well, that and an orgasm.

•••

The risk doesn’t go away. Brandon and I got married in our early twenties, much earlier than any of our friends. We’d been together four-and-a-half years at that point, and we’d already become linked to each other, which is what happens when you meet when you’re still forming your identities. We literally wouldn’t be the same people without each other, then or now.

Like everyone else, I didn’t know, on our wedding day, a lot about what could happen. I couldn’t have known then that someday, a few of my friends’ marriages would break under the weight of infertility. I didn’t know that, years from this day, my own brother-in-law would be dead at forty-two, leaving my sister with an implosion in her heart. I didn’t know that some marriages are subject to a gazillion paper cuts of resentment or that “for worse” includes some unimaginable shit. I didn’t know if we’d escape these and a thousand other fates.

But, as someone who lived through her parents’ divorce, I knew that people change. As two pragmatic romantics, Brandon and I chose Elizabeth Bishop’s “It Is Marvellous to Wake Up Together” as the reading on our clear, spring wedding day. Brandon stood there up front in his finery, our grandfathers both alive and healthy and beaming from the front row, my dad marching me down the aisle before the song even began. We looked into each other’s eyes as our friend read the poem that ends:

The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

•••

Why do we do it? Risk all this vulnerability and potential heartache? I think you already know what the answer is for you.

This anthology is the answer to why other people do it, whether they’re single, married, divorced, or widowed. The answers are universal and varied. Maybe you’ll see yourself in some of them. I didn’t arrange the essays by whether the relationships depicted therein worked out or not because it’s just not how life works.

I have to say that I’m blown away at how each writer depicts love-and-sex and all that it entails. These are some majorly talented people giving their takes on a subject that’s been tackled since time began. I hope it’s as good for you as it was for me. Hand me my water glass, would you, baby?

•••

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

This is the introduction to Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex.

Reasons you probably want to pre-order it:

• It’s a fantastic read. Click on the link above to see the feedback from the likes of Jill Talbot and Sue William Silverman, and see who the writers are. I was damn lucky to get them for this book.

It’s a great way to support Full Grown People. I don’t have any institutional support in the way of a university or a corporation or grants, so this and the tip jar are it, bebbies.

• Over half of the essays are brand-new. If you’re a sucker for work about truck-stop loving (Deesha Philyaw), a break-up and a brain injury (Louise Sloan), snapshots of people who seem indispensable to one’s life (Elissa Wald), or the allure of redheads and the mixed emotions it raises in a Black woman (Dionne Ford)—just to name a few—this is a book for you.

The Toll Bridge

razor wire

By Kate Ter Haar/ Flickr

By Bonnie S. Hirst

It should be simple, purchasing a toll bridge pass. I cry when I consider it. My daughter lives on the other side of that toll bridge. In prison.

Several times I have attempted to purchase a pass online. I searched the Department of Transportation website, selected the toll bridge, but I couldn’t convince myself to click the purchase button. Buying a pass for future trips across that bridge would mean I had given up hope that she might win one of her appeals and be released.

My husband and I could have depleted four toll bridge passes by now. That would equate to twenty-four visits. Instead, we pull into the toll plaza each time and idle our SUV in the long line of brake lights. Vehicles with pre-purchased passes whiz by us, their toll fare deducted from their account by remote sensors.

In our rural county, on the opposite side of the state, we have no toll bridges. No need for multi-passes.

To visit our thirty-nine-year-old daughter, we drive six hundred miles round-trip. Those kind of distance and time constraints limit our visits to every few months. In the wintertime, our visits are further apart, with two mountain passes and treacherous snowy roads at higher elevations.

She has been there four years. Even with better weather, our visits are becoming less frequent. Visits are a double-edged sword: a reminder each time we pass through the clanging of the metal gates with the razor wire curled the length of the fencing, that this is now our daughter’s life. Visiting her in prison has become a part of our life.

My silent prayers prior to her conviction were, Dear Lord, may the highest good come from this situation. Please touch her heart with your loving goodness and keep her safe.

When she was arrested, and during the eighteen months she was out on bail, my faith in God’s goodness never wavered. I believed he would watch over her. I believed he would answer my prayers.

My belief in His goodness was answered when my daughter purchased a soft-bound red leather Bible. I was overjoyed when she showed it to me. From the amount of scriptures highlighted in yellow and bookmarked with torn scraps of paper, I could see she had been on her own journey to accept Him.

When she was convicted and sent to prison, I felt God had betrayed her and me. I questioned how I could continue to believe in his goodness when he had not answered my prayers for her safety. How could this be the highest good? I wondered if our daughter would be in prison if I had shared my beliefs vocally. If she had accepted Christ earlier, as I had as a child, would we be in this predicament now?

After receiving her sentence, she worried that our visits would lapse, and our letters would dwindle. I promised her that we wouldn’t forget her. I told her we’d visit often. I told her to not give up hope. I told her God would hear my prayers. I told her He would hear her prayers. During the past four years, I have doubted if he listened.

Time has eroded my faith in His powers. Hope is all I have left.

Visiting a few days after Christmas, my husband and I and our daughter’s daughter were waiting inside the prison lobby to check in. Behind us, a buxom Italian woman in a white peasant blouse chatted and extended kind words with everyone in her vicinity. I admire women like her who aren’t afraid to reach out to other people. Her dark hair tumbled in soft, bouncy waves to her shoulders, and her perfectly applied crimson lipstick enhanced her vibrant smile.

I used to have that type of enthusiasm for life. Since our daughter’s incarceration, I have become more and more emotionally closed in. More doubtful. More protective of my space. I prefer to observe quietly and stay under the radar when in public. I smiled at something the Italian woman said, but kept my body turned away from the conversation.

Our fourteen-year-old granddaughter stepped in front of my husband, and the top of her long brown ponytail grazed his salt and pepper beard. He tugged gently on the dangling portion and was rewarded with a smirk barely wide enough to see her braces. I placed my hand on his muscled arm as we stood in line.

When it was our turn to step up to the desk and present our IDs, I felt my usual trepidation. Would something appear on my clean record that would preclude me from visiting? Or would there be a new guard who wouldn’t recognize me? The picture on my driver’s license was three years old and barely resembled the tired sixty-year-old I was that day. My gray roots showed, and my brunette hair was chin-length and wavy instead of short and neatly wedged like when I renewed my license so long ago.

It seems a lifetime has passed since my daughter was sent to prison. I yearn for the days before her arrest, when I never questioned my faith in God’s steadfast love.

The normal guard with the kind smile was behind the desk.

The Italian woman’s presence had changed the atmosphere in the lobby; even I felt a lightness. She radiated kindness and warmth and brought smiles to the large group of holiday visitors. The lobby had the feel of friends reuniting after a long absence instead of a docile line of strangers.

We were assigned a table number for our visit and a key to a locker to leave our belongings in. We proceeded to the next station to remove our shoes and pass through the metal detector. When cleared, our hands were stamped with invisible ink, and we joined other visitors waiting at the third barricade. The guards released us, and we traversed outside to the next blockade.

Between buildings, a gentle mist of rain fell on our group as we gathered at the steel gate. It buzzed open. We moved like cattle into the next enclosure. The gate we passed through must clang shut before we were allowed passage to the next station. Shiny razor wire coiled in ringlets on the ground and double coiled on top of the fence that surrounded us.

The razor wire overwhelmed me. It’s as if my mind pretended my daughter was away at college. The razor wire jolted me back to reality.

The next double set of doors brought us closer to the visiting area. It had no razor wire. We wedged into the tight enclosure, the guards in their raised station behind tinted glass waited as the exit door behind us closed. In front of us a heavy steel door slid mechanically open. We formed another line and gave the guard our inmate’s name. Our assigned table had the number carved deeply into the top of the table, similar to the old-time school desks with the deep groove for pencils.

Our daughter is in CCU (Closed Custody Unit), the politically correct term for Maximum Security. Her unit is often the last of the groups of inmates to arrive at the visiting room. We watched as other visitors reunited with their daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers.

The Italian woman was assigned the table next to ours. When she saw her daughter, she stood and bounced with joy on her toes anxiously awaiting her daughter to clear the guard station. She rushed towards her excitedly and enveloped her with motherly hugs and happy tears.

Our daughter appeared and gave us a slight wave of greeting before she checked in with the guards. We nodded and smiled and waited. Her five-foot-four frame appeared thinner than the last time we visited. When she joined us, our quiet hugs seemed feeble compared to the Italian woman’s. I wondered if the other visitors felt the same.

Our visits follow the same routine. My husband and I sit on the opposite side of the four person table so our daughter can sit next to her daughter or her almost-adult son when he comes with us.

We asked about her new roommate. She asked, “What’s new at home?” We tried to remember something new to tell her. Our conversation felt stilted compared to the laughter and reminiscing that transpired at the Italian woman’s table.

Some days, our scheduled three-hour visits fly by. Other days, we play Yahtzee to pass the time and keep the conversation light. This was a Yahtzee day. Visits near the holidays are emotionally difficult. At home, I have tried to keep our daughter’s traditions alive; like baking and decorating Christmas sugar cookies with her daughter or preparing her kids favorite foods for their birthdays.

Her two children live with us. We celebrate milestones in their lives without her.

The guard at the raised station announced that visiting was over. We took turns hugging our daughter and joined other visitors in the exit line. Our daughter sat with the other inmates, all matching in their gray shirts and sweatpants. They would be searched before they returned to their units.

The heavy steel door opened slowly. We crowded into the tight enclosure. The Italian woman stood next to me and shared with everyone how good it was to see her daughter; that she hadn’t seen her for seven months. She dissolved into gasping sobs and tears streaked down her face.

I uncharacteristically wrapped my arm around her shoulder and leaned my head into hers and said “It’s difficult, the leaving, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “She doesn’t get out for another two years. Does it get any easier?”

I told her, “Some days are better than others.”

She smiled and with a trembling voice said, “I miss her so much.”

I tightened my hug, then released her. I prayed our conversation was over. I didn’t want her to ask the inevitable next question. Our conversation was not over.

She asked, “How long is your daughter in for?”

The agony of the answer contorted my face, and I began to cry. “Life,” I said.

Speechless, the Italian woman, wrapped me into her full bosom. The door buzzed open. She released me. Side by side, we walked towards the enclosure with the razor wire. Our group was silent as we passed through each buzzing, clanging gate. When we arrived at the original lobby, we swept our stamped hands under the black light. The invisible stamp magically appeared. We were cleared to leave.

I entered the single restroom and locked the door behind me. I splashed water on my haggard face to clear my smudged mascara. I lingered. I prayed the Italian woman had left. During previous visits, I had observed an unspoken code of ethics; no one asked about other inmate’s convictions. I was grateful it was taboo. I certainly didn’t want to talk about that, either.

My husband, our granddaughter, and I were in the parking lot walking towards our car when the Italian woman, from several cars away, waved and called out to me, “What’s your first name?”

I was stunned by her question. I preferred anonymity, but she asked with such urgency.

“Bonnie,” I yelled back and watched as my granddaughter disappeared into our car. I wanted to do the same.

The woman bellowed back, “Bonnie, I will pray for you and your daughter. I will have my prayer chain pray for you too. Never give up hope!”

Her kindness buoyed me. “Thank you.” I managed to squeak through the emotion that constricted my throat.

Maybe I have been wrong in doubting God. Maybe He had heard my prayers. Maybe the Italian woman was a sign from Him to keep my faith strong. Maybe I won’t be needing that toll bridge pass.

•••

BONNIE S. HIRST is currently working on a book-length memoir. After a thirty-five year hiatus from writing (being a mom and grandma), she is enjoying connecting with other writers. She loves feel-good movies and stories with happy endings. When life tries to shorten her stride, she prays, cries, reads self-help books, and writes. She can often be found kayaking on a calm mountain lake. Connect with her: https://www.facebook.com/BonnieSHirst and https://www.icantquotescripture.com.

Another Life

marblehead

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Adrienne Pilon

“I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say how long for that is to place it in time.” —T.S. Eliot

A friend once confided to me that her difficult and complex relationship with her mother was a product of their long, shared history.

“Sure,” I agreed. “Mothers and daughters.”

“Actually,” she informed me, “we’ve already spent several lifetimes together, beginning in Ancient Egypt. I was a princess and my mother was a handmaiden. She was very close to me.”

A psychic had told them all this.

“So it’s very complicated,” she added.

I tried to clamp my gaping jaw shut. I think I said, “Wow!” or “How did you find that out?” I did not, to my credit, say, “Are you a fucking lunatic?”

At a party one night, another friend mentioned that he had lived as an Indian chief on the Great Plains. He’d discovered this through a series of shamanic journeys. I wanted to be polite, so I reserved the eye-rolling. I stumbled through a neutral comment, something like, “Wow, how interesting!” or, “How amazing to possess that knowledge.” Something supportive. Someone else at the party chimed in about his shamanic journey, and how he, too, had been a Native American of great prominence in the eighteenth century. My drink suddenly needed a refill.

How is it that so many people happen to be royalty in their past lives? Where the hell are all the peasants?

Secretly, part of me wants to believe it—all of it. Reserved in my depths is a little bit of hope that just maybe there’s something more when this life is over, and that some of it is spectacular. Reincarnation? Heaven? That would be fantastic. Yet I believe in facing reality. My rational self knows that I will be rendered to dust and a random collection of atoms at death, end of story. There is no other life but this.

Then I think of Borys.

It was a midnight train on a cold October night more than two decades ago and I was traveling west through Poland. I stood looking out the window. Castles and farmhouses that are picturesque by the light of day become strange and mysterious and exotic in the moonlight.

I noticed a man at the end of the car. He, too, was looking out the window. When I looked at him our eyes briefly met. A shock of recognition hummed through me. To say “shock” is perhaps inaccurate. It was the surety of the recognition that was shocking, and not the recognition itself, for though I was sure I knew this man, I had never seen him before. I looked up again and we locked eyes. Again, that confirmed sense of recognition flashed between us. He tilted his head slightly towards me, as if to say, “Yes.” Again and again our eyes met as we gradually moved towards one another, a dance of approach, a few steps at a time, until we were standing side by side at the windows.

I want to be clear: this was not a case of mutual attraction. This man was not strange or mysterious or exotic to me. I was overwhelmed, rather, with a sense of familiarity, of the known and the comfortable. Middle-aged, well over twenty years my senior, the man was short, bald and a bit stocky—roundish. He had a small gap between his front teeth. He was old enough to be my father; he did not look at me with desire.

“Dzien dobry,” I said.

“Hallo,” he said with an accent.

I tried Czech, since I had a few phrases. “Dobry den”.

“Dzien dobry,” he said. “Polish”.

“Dzien dobry,” I said. I had exhausted my Polish. “I don’t speak Polish.”

Neither my Spanish nor his Russian did us any good. We soon determined that he had a little English, and we began to speak as best we could.

I asked, “Do I know you?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

“I know you,” I said, pointing from myself to him. No question this time. He nodded his agreement back. We laughed.

Soon thereafter the train route terminated near Katowice and everyone got off. We stepped onto the platform and hesitated. With a few words and gestures we made our way to the train café and sat down together. We communicated our travel plans to one another: I was taking the next train over the border to Prague; he was heading on a different train to his village in Poland. As we sat together in that café and talked of our lives, we missed those trains. Over the next hours, in the middle of the night in the middle of Eastern Europe, we talked, we didn’t talk. We smiled. A lot. We wrote notes on pieces of paper torn from a little notebook I carried.

We kept saying, “I know you” to one another and it was true. Yet Borys had never been to the United States. This was my first trip to Eastern Europe. We traced our movements over the last year, two years, ten, twenty—more than two-thirds of my lifetime. Our paths had not intersected anywhere, anytime. I had no ancestors from that part of the world; his had been rooted in place for generations.

This was the feeling: Like many train stations in Eastern Europe, it was charmless, with hard plastic chairs and harsh overhead lights. Yet I was not uncomfortable in my chair. I had, in fact, never been so comfortable in my life. I felt a sense of contentment, a quiet joy that made me happy to sit in that shitty plastic chair for as long as possible. I had spent the weeks preceding this moment on the move; I felt a need to keep going and moving, a restlessness that wasn’t wanderlust but just unsettled. I had traveled with others and traveled alone. Now, for the first time in weeks, I felt no desire to get up and move on. I didn’t think I needed to be anywhere else. I was quiet and unmoving, inside and out. A deep contentment radiated from Boris to me and back again. I felt safe. I felt—and this is strange in retrospect, but felt utterly natural at the time—loved.

I found out that Borys, or Boris—he wrote it out for me both ways—was a Pole of Russian descent. He liked beer, and we drank one together. He was a baker. He had lived in his village his entire life. He was fifty-two and married with four children, the youngest of whom was a girl of fourteen. One child had died. Even before he told me, I knew this, somehow. I could feel a grief long worn. I could feel his love for his family. I could almost see his sons, one who towered over his father. I could envision the chair Borys sat in every evening.

I told him how I had just finished graduate school, just ended a long relationship, and was traveling in hopes of seeing the world and avoiding familiar people and places.

Though I was avoiding the familiar, I felt a deep well of familiarity in Borys’s presence. I told him things I’d never expressed to another living soul. Why? To meet and know and love instantaneously—and this person could feel this too? How?

Trains came and Borys and I said farewell and went our separate ways, never to cross paths again. I continued with my travel and lost most of those fragments of paper we wrote on. I had no way to contact him; I didn’t even know his last name.

As a skeptic, I tell myself that this encounter can be explained or understood. There must be some biological process that we’ve not yet discovered, some scrambling of the neurons that fired in a particular way, in this particular place, with this particular man. A scent I could not detect, perhaps? A misplaced memory that we somehow shared? Perhaps the night and the drama of the eastern European landscape had affected me. Or perhaps it was a function of traveling too lonely for too long.

Whatever alchemy created that moment, I now reserve my internal scoffing when confronted by stories of reincarnation or life after death. For I believe wholeheartedly that Borys was known to me, and I to him. Both of us felt it thoroughly and completely. How, though? How did I know this man? Did Borys and I have another life?

More than twenty years later all I have are those unanswered questions, the memory of that night, and a torn piece of lined paper with “Boris-Borys” written in a man’s heavy block script: a small and crumpled scrap I hold like a jewel in the palm of my hand.

•••

ADRIENNE PILON is a writer, teacher, and traveler. She lives with her family in North Carolina.

Less Than One Percent

womaninmansshirt

By Lindsay/ Flickr

By Breawna Power Eaton

January 2012: Staring back at my husband’s pixilated face, I purse my lips and remain silent on my end of our Skype conversation. His sadness, shaved head, and obnoxious mustache (trimmed to fit perfectly along his upper lip, but no further than a quarter inch, according to Navy regulations) make my husband sound and look so different; they make him seem that much further away.

I don’t know, Tom finally says.

I’m a pretty good rambler, one who’ll blabber on about anything to avoid awkward silence, but it’s times like this when I too have nothing to say. So instead, I question.

We can’t just get up and leave. Can we?

Again he has no answer or at least not one I can write here. There’s a lot he cannot tell me, and then there’s what he can tell me but has asked me not to say. Instead of giving a concrete answer, he lays out the pros and cons, going back and forth, back and forth, just like the commentators on NPR. Everyone seems to be asking the same question: after over ten years of war, shouldn’t we, as Americans, know exactly why 89,000 American troops are still in Afghanistan?

Tom cradles his clean-shaven cheeks in his hands, then rubs his palms over closed eyes, pulling the lids sideways as they move across his temples and finally rest behind his ears.

Can we talk about something else?

The desperation in his voice surprises me, a flip from the excited reaction he had after the big phone call—the one when he pulled to the side of the road and Sir, yes, Sir’ed that he was ready to deploy, while my heartbeat matched the cadence of the cars I watched whizz by.

I think I’m going to head to bed, Tom says.

No, not yet! I say, but I struggle to find anything new to talk about, something interesting enough to keep him on the line.

He sighs, rubs his eyes again.

You look so tired, Love.

Barely a month into his deployment and already his sense of adventure is flickering. Deep lines I’ve never seen before have etched into his forehead. I resist asking if his skin is still painfully dry, if he’s using the face and hand moisturizers I sent. Neither do I ask about the dark circles under his eyes. I know. He’s been working sixteen-plus hour days. Every day. I don’t know how to respond when he wonders aloud whether all this work will have any lasting consequence.

I know what you should do, Love.

What? he asks flatly.

You should just come home right now! I say with a big, epiphanous smile, like a child egging him on to join her world of make believe. But my goofy grin goes unreturned, save for a slight rise in one corner of his lips. The same half-smile I’ll earn every time I try this line, like the half-answers I reap in response to my perpetual questions: Why are we still at war? What more can we accomplish? Change how a society has been functioning for thousands of years? … Can’t you just come home?

•••

People keep asking me about the war as if my recent connection to it through Tom’s deployment makes me somehow privy to the untidy details—the how and why, when I’m still fuzzy about the other four Ws. I’m tired of answering, “I don’t know.” Tired of feeling stupid. Ignorant, really, which feels more worthy of blame.

Since the ten-year anniversary of the war passed in October 2011, I’ve been re-asking the same questions as everyone else, all umbrellaed under one question—how’d we get to where we are?

And since Tom deployed last November, I’ve only become more confused. Each time I listen to or read the news, there are too many answers, too many variables, too many voices for me to fully understand why we are still at war, much less why we ever went. I thought I knew—retaliation for the 9/11 attack, right?—but if I’m honest with myself, I have not religiously followed the news about the war in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq. I’ve kept up with the world outside my microcosm via NPR snippets on my drive to and from work. When the war took over most of the programming again in connection to the ten-year anniversary, I was taken aback. Had it really been that long?

As a high school English teacher, over the years I’d taught lessons linked to the Middle East and Afghanistan, and during those times, I dug a little deeper, but soon after we pressed on to the next unit, my brain tucked the specifics along with other dusty facts, like when to use semi-colons rather than commas in a serial list. I feel a bit guilty every time I have to consult Strunk & White. I majored in literature and took linguistics classes. Grammar rules are what I know. Or should know. And now that people are asking me about the war, this similar guilt rises. Our country is at war and has been for a third of my life. As an American citizen, especially one married to a Naval officer, especially one currently deployed in Afghanistan, shouldn’t I know why?

But like the guilt of having to source the nuances of semi-colon usage, the guilt of having basic, watered-down answers to this question has always been easily pushed aside by more pressing things, like grading papers, planning lessons, buying groceries, and avoiding laundry, until my Tom received that phone call. Now, I want answers.

But this new craving has only sparked another question—would I be hungry for this information if Tom had never gone to war?

I wish I could answer, “I don’t know” to this question too, but I do know, and it’s this guilt that motivates me to search. Late one night, alone in our bed, I start browsing headlines on newspaper archives online. Search September 12, 2001, and find our nation’s first reactions to the Twin Towers attack. See again our confusion, anger, sadness, and fear shout in capital letters on front pages across the nation and around the globe. Shudder at the sight of New York City’s skyline swallowed in a cloud of smoke, ash, and dust. WAR, TERROR, DARKEST DAY repeat headline after headline.

“America’s Bloodiest Day: ‘This is the Second Pearl Harbor’” (The Honolulu Advertiser)

“FREEDOM UNDER SIEGE: World Trade Center Collapses, Pentagon hit Bush vows retaliation for ‘cowardly actions’ Thousands feared dead beneath the rubble” (Times Union)

That catastrophic day, there was no way to know what else could possibly happen the next second—planes flying into buildings? on American soil?—much less how our next steps would lead to our next steps would lead to where we are, fighting a War on Terror without end.

How was I to know that the curious draw I felt toward this lip-pierced, spiky-haired guy I met two days after the attack would lead to love and marriage, and that this person I exchanged vows with would not pursue real estate investment or music production or working for a law firm, that he’d instead trade in his lip ring for a uniform that he’d wear in a warzone while I try to live my life as close to normal as possible?

There was some comfort, I realize now, in knowing that Tom had raised his hand, on multiple occasions, to deploy. As if his desire to go somehow made it more like an adventure, not a duty. But I’ve realized I was wrong, about a lot of things.

•••

More research: Back in December 2009, when President Obama refocused the war effort in Afghanistan, he ordered a surge of 30,000 more troops, aiming to defeat the resurgence of al Qaeda (now scheming from safe-havens along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border), reverse the Taliban’s regrowth in Afghanistan, and train the Afghan military to defend its country on its own. During his controversial Afghanistan strategy speech at West Point, Obama promised that 33,000 troops (3,000 more than the surge he ordered) will return home by the end of 2012, and that troops would continue returning until all combat operations are completely pulled out in 2014.

For Tom these dwindling numbers had translated into dwindling opportunities. A history major with an interest in Middle Eastern studies, he saw serving in Afghanistan as not just a career enhancing opportunity, but a meaningful life experience that he’d like to have. It just seemed crazy to me. Even crazier was his hope to work with the SEALs or the Marine Corps. To be honest, I was glad when he was assigned detainee operations. He’d be behind the “wire,” protected on base, doing legal work with Taliban or al Qaeda or terrorist suspects that were captured and held in the detention center on Bagram Air Base.

But on base is exactly where Tom did not want to be. If sent to Afghanistan, he wanted to actually experience the country and be in the villages amongst the people, not in some high security office. In my mind, his work with the accused insurgents, providing some sense of due process, seemed less dangerous, more useful; less violent, more peace-driven. Less like war.

But I had it all wrong.

He isn’t working with Afghan judges and lawyers establishing a stable justice system. Neither representing the Afghan detainees nor the American government, Tom is what they call a neutral recorder. He compiles and presents evidence collected about each prisoner to a board of American senior military officers who then decide if the detainee actually meets the criteria for remaining detained—not as a prisoner of war, but as what the Bush administration called an “unlawful enemy combatant” and what President Obama’s administration now calls “unprivileged enemy belligerents.” In other words, people accused of participating in or aiding the Taliban or al Qaeda or other enemy forces.

When it’s been a while since we’ve talked, Tom visits me instead in my daydreams. I imagine him in the prison preparing for a board and watch as he walks into a plain room then stands in front of board members dressed in beige camo. I turn to look at the prisoner accused of being an enemy combatant and do a double take, then try to shake off the image of Osama bin Laden’s face and the faces of his cronies, their long beards, white robes. These TV images are all I know to imagine.

What do the prisoners look like? I ask Tom one day on the phone.

Not prisoners, detainees.

Okay. What do the detainees look like?

Like people.

Well, how old are they?

Some are young, but they all look old. The conditions in Afghanistan are harsh. Their beards and weathered skin make them all look older than they are. But very few of them actually know their own age—they often don’t know what year they were born.

I imagine blowing out candles as a child, the white and rainbow confetti cake my mom baked for all of our birthdays, how despite having the same flavor cake as my three siblings and the same song, when I blew out those candles, I knew that moment was mine alone.

So why are they there? I ask, though I already know his response —

I can’t say.

During trials, do the detainees ever look at you?

Boards. Some stare me down.

Yeeesh. Are you ever afraid?

Maybe a little intimidated at first, I guess, but never afraid, he says.

He has no real interaction with the detainees: he never speaks with them directly, only through translators. As a writer and reader, I believe in the power of words—of true dialogue—to wage peace, but sometimes words take longer, especially when passed on through a multi-lingual game of Telephone.

•••

January 9, 2012: We’re fortunate (I’ve been told repeatedly by spouses who didn’t hear from their partners for months, if at all, while they were deployed) that Tom and I are able to stay connected through emails, phone calls, even face-to-face on Skype, GChat, or FaceTime. Sometimes Tom’s voice is too distorted to understand; sometimes I see his face for over an hour. Don’t take this for granted, I remind myself whenever my phone or computer wakes me up or rings right when I finally start the work I’ve been avoiding all morning.

I’m finally getting into a groove when, with impeccably bad timing, Tom’s face — miniaturized in the Skype icon — appears on my computer screen, accompanied by a techno style ring, all upbeat and cheery.

Again? I groan. My shoulders drop. Then, realizing, my stomach follows suit: how could I be bummed he’s calling?

I click the green video icon, wait for my husband’s grainy smile to appear, and get excited when it does, despite his creepy facial hair.

Seriously, Tom. The mustache?

It’s fun! he says, eating up my mustache-hate.

Can’t you find another type of fun?

Unfortunately, there’s not much of that around here, he says. Winning.

Tom smiles again playfully and rests his head on the dinosaur pillowcase from his childhood that his mom gave me to send him. He’s wearing his headlamp, completing the image I prefer in my mind: a boy at play, on an expedition, a fossil hunt.

Thinking about my to-do list again, I hesitantly continue.

Love, you know I want to talk to you and see you whenever I can, but … is there any way you can try me right when you get off work?

I did just get off work.

Wince. Though mid-morning here, the sun set long ago there.

And you complained when I called early and woke you up.

I wasn’t complai…whatever. You just keep magically catching me right when my fingers hit the keyboard. It’s just really hard to start up again —

My voice fades, begins to shake.

His face blurs momentarily: a shaved head, hazel eyes, and mustache in pixilated lines.

What? he asks, not hearing what I said.

I shake my head. I can’t repeat what I already feel guilty about saying aloud. I’m getting so good at forgetting where he actually is, but sometimes I accidentally let myself remember, let it sink in. The shaved head. The dinosaurs. The goofy mustachioed grin. All I want is to touch his face, to feel the curve of his smile in my hand.

Bre, are you okay?

I shake my head again. Like a weather goddess, I command a drought, but my eyes don’t dry that easily, nor does the bulge in my throat unknot. I don’t want him to add worry about me to what he’s already going through.

The timing, I manage, while still shaking my head, trying to signal I’m changing the subject. Don’t worry about it, okay? Don’t turn it into a water chestnut thing.

But you don’t like water chestnuts, Tom says with a mischievous smile, and I can’t help but laugh, relieved by the comfort of an inside joke. He always stole those white, crunchy morsels from my plate our first few years of dating. No, not water chestnuts, I hate bamboo! I’d say and slap his fork away with my own. Each time he’d get embarrassed, only to forget and steal them again the next time. While Tom’s effort to take away anything I dislike is charming, sometimes he misconstrues things or takes chivalry too far. I knew I shouldn’t have said anything. Now I’m afraid he won’t call at all.

I know it’s hard, he says, his face shifting to serious.

All day I want to talk to you, but I can’t call you. I still have to live while you’re away. Just can’t wait by the phone. What am I saying? I think, then backpedal. I mean, I will, if that’s how it has to be… Forget everything I’ve said. I like your calls. I hate bamboo.

But you don’t like water chestnuts, he says, attempting a confused expression that breaks into a burst of laughter that I join in on. Soon our shoulder-shaking guffaws subside into a ripe silence, filled with only what our eyes say as we stare back at each other and share a smile.

Call me anytime, I say. Call me anytime, okay?

•••

More research: President Obama’s proposed plan—to pull our troops out by 2014—seems implausible. A month after our invasion, a UN-led meeting of Afghan leaders created a five-year road map to rebuild the country, devastated and disorganized after decades of corruption and war. At first, according to a Gallup poll, “eight out of ten Americans support[ed the] ground war in Afghanistan.” Now, a decade later, according to CNN, just over a third of Americans still support the war effort, an all time low.

If polled I would struggle to bubble just one answer. Though I didn’t want Tom to join the military much less go to war, I still cling to the hope that his work will help build a secure justice system in Afghanistan. But the process of forming a democracy will take much more than another two years. That is, if all our troops actually pull out in 2014. The two-year plan could double like the initial five-year plan. Two years, then four years, then … Will we ever leave?

(President Obama announced the formal “end of the combat mission in Afghanistan” on December 28, 2014. Yet troops linger, training and supporting the Afghan security force and working on counter-terrorism efforts. Already the initial withdrawal plan has slowed. In late March, 2015, President Obama announced that 9,800 troops will remain until the end of the year. “We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed so we don’t have to go back,” the President explained. Considering the rise of ISIS in Iraq, I understand that military withdrawal is more complex than simply asking should we stay or should we go.)

But who will pay the price if we stay? An All Things Considered article reported, “Just one-half of one percent of the American population has served on active duty during the last decade.” I remember Tom mentioning a similar statistic before he deployed, one of the many conversations we had that summer and fall on our back patio after dinner, watching the flames dance in our fire pit as we danced around the pain of his imminent departure, failing to convince the other that his career was the right or wrong direction for our lives.

I hear Tom’s argument echoed in the words of the military ethics interviewee who said, “It becomes much more easy to deploy U.S. forces in tough environments for long periods of time because the vast majority of Americans don’t feel they have any skin in the game”: exactly why Tom decided to join the Navy. He’d never mentioned this sense of duty before that night.

When Tom first talked about applying to the JAG Corps, we were a few years into our marriage. I thought this Navy idea was just another phase he’d get through like his former blue hair and piercings, like his knack for doubling whatever dares his friends concocted, the last stunt ending in a broken ankle, his foot flipped sideways. Tom was never one to follow orders. I figured he would complete his Navy internship, graduate from law school, then work for a firm or maybe a nonprofit.

In hindsight, I guess he had revealed the military tradition of his family, but I never thought anything of it in connection to our own lives. Before applying, Tom touted the prestige of the Navy JAG Corps, how difficult it would be for him to even get in. We were fresh out of college when we married; underlying our vows was an unspoken agreement to encourage each other to pursue our dreams. He’d supported my summer spent doing a teacher exchange in Uganda, hadn’t he? And, with the odds stacked against him, I figured why not let him at least apply? Again. And again.

But then he got in. And thrilled he was for the life change I never thought we’d actually have to make. For four years I’d dedicated my life (and soul, he protested) to teaching. Four years, now, he’d serve.

Tom never mentioned this moral dilemma until after he’d joined. In resolving his own, he sparked mine. Love, grace, and peace are the values I aim to live by; non-violence naturally falls into my paradigm. Now, whenever I allow it to sink in that my life is funded by the military, I cringe: my very comfortable life is funded by the antithesis of who I say I am.

Yet Tom felt he had to join, asking if more of us were involved, would our country be as willing to go war? I’d never thought about it this way before. That night by the fire, my moral dilemma doubled. Simultaneously I felt guilty for being connected to the military and for not.

•••

More research: I pause and then reread a New York Times editorial written by Abdul Matin Bek, an Afghan whose father Mutalib Bek—an Afghan Parliament member and former Mujahedeen fighter—was assassinated by a suicide bomber. Bek says he feels the need to speak up: “The line between a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan and absolute chaos is thin,” he warns. “The nature of its political climate will have ramifications for the whole world, as has been shown in the past, yet the multiplicity of Afghan voices has been lost in the fog of this war.”

•••

January 28, 2012: “Obama’s Bagram Problem How Afghanistan’s Prisons Complicate U.S. Withdrawal” (Foreign Affairs).

I’m confused, I tell Tom on the phone after reading the article about the detainee review boards he’s doing. I thought the boards gave the detainees some sort of due process. I don’t get why the article critiques them. Aren’t they like trials?

They’re hearings, not trials.

But the article says a lot of information remains classified. Do the detainees really not know why they’re being held in prison?

It’s not something I can talk about.

Ugh. Okay. But I just don’t understand why they can’t see all of the evidence used against them. Is it like the identities of witnesses? You’re afraid the witnesses will be killed?

Bre, it’s not something I can talk about.

My stomach tightens. Forehead wrinkles. I imagine Winston’s hideaway. The secret police, secret cameras, everywhere. We’re Big Brother?

I want to trust my husband, our government, and the Enduring Freedom part of the Operation’s name. I want to trust that there is a reason why the information remains classified, that revealing this information would endanger our national security so heavily that we have no other choice, but the article makes a strong case: the board is a façade of due process if the accused can’t defend himself against evidence he knows nothing about. I imagine Lady Justice struggling to under the weight of imbalance.

It’s like people forget we’re at war, Tom finally says, passion fueling his voice for the first time in a while. In World War II, when German POWs were captured, we never stopped to hold trials to figure out if they were actually Nazis. What we’re doing has never been done before. We are fighting an enemy that wears no uniform, that simply shoots then blends into the civilian population.

A piece of American history, he is living. A piece too abstract and convoluted at present for us to fully understand. History others will make obvious sense of in future books. Complex issues summarized, spelled out in neat straight lines. I’ve tried to understand, yet I still can’t decide what is right. Though I’ve always thought of myself as one who would’ve run part of the Underground Railroad, paraded with the suffragists, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., I live as a beneficiary of others’ picketing signs. Besides these words I write, the only action that speak my beliefs is riding the fence. I remain absorbed in my work and creative writing studies, asking questions when deep down I know the only answer I truly want is for my husband to come home.

•••

March 11, 2012: I’m driving to the commissary supermarket on base in Newport when I hear the BBC Newshour report on the radio. Before dawn, an American soldier snuck alone off base and murdered sixteen Afghan villagers as they slept. Nine of the victims were children.

No! I scream, then slap the steering wheel. No, no, no, I yell and slap and slap and slap in time with the march of my pleas.

My jaw remains dropped as the translator relays the victims’ neighbor’s trembling account: “It was 2 a.m. We heard the gunfire and dog barking—they shot the dog dead and entered the house and opened fire on the children and making martyrs of them. … After they killed them they set fire to the bodies. Is a two-year old baby a Taliban?”

Chills run up my spine.

“I swear to god we have not seen a Taliban in five months!”

My sight too overcast to clearly see, I have to park. How could we let this happen? As I sit and listen to the report, the woman’s desperate question echoes in my mind.

Fear she had for the Taliban she now has equally for us? I look around the base parking lot, longing to be anywhere but here, but I can’t drive away. I can’t do anything but sit and listen.

Since Tom left, whenever I hear news of our service members losing their lives, I feel more than ever before the need to pause, to honor their loss, to honor the family mourning the loss I pray I never have to feel. The same guilt and sadness swirls in my stomach as the report continues. An Afghan official says they’ve lost all trust in us.

The innocent have no one to trust? But with no way to know, especially at a glance, who’s an insurgent and who’s not, our service members likewise don’t know who to trust. And this changes hour-to-hour, day-to-day. Distrust breeds distrust, violence breeds violence. Again my mind is clouded with questions, a multiplicity of voices lost in the fog of war: Is the two-year-old a Taliban? Should we stay or should we go? And if we leave will we return? A war on terror without end? Can’t you please just come home?

•••

Tom returned home safely in July 2012. This essay is an excerpt from a book project in which BREAWNA POWER EATON wrestles with the question: how did we—as a nation and a couple—wind up tangled in our country’s longest war? For more of her travel stories, features, and essays visit Breawna.com .

Read more FGP essays by Breawna Power Eaton.

Burden of Love

lifelovehope

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Maggie Thach

It was 2:12 a.m. I woke up to what sounded like a stick being ripped across a wooden fence over and over again. My muscles tensed but soon settled when the familiar sound sunk in. I looked over at Mike sleeping next to me. My brother’s croaking hadn’t woken him yet.

Ghandy was wide awake, and the cacophony emanating from him proved it: his open palm driving his bottom row of teeth to collide with the top, his teeth clicking in rapid succession, his knee slamming against the hollow wood floor. All these tics had the paradoxical quality of making him feel comfortable in a new setting.

My mom and brother slept on an air mattress in the living room ten feet away from our bedroom. My dad was on the couch. In my hundred-year-old apartment with no proper doors to separate the two rooms, a typical scene played out between my parents. Since Ghandy was born with brain damage twenty-seven years ago, they have always argued about how to take care of him.

“Don’t force him to go back to sleep,” my mom said. “Just leave him alone.”

“He was too hot,” my dad said. “You should have taken off his long-sleeve shirt before he went to sleep.”

“He’s awake because he had a wet diaper. You gave him too much water before bed.”

“Godammit.”

My family was in town visiting. And like a good Vietnamese daughter, I invited them to stay at the apartment I shared with my boyfriend.

The noises didn’t bother me. I had learned to sleep through them a long time ago. But a pulsating feeling filled my stomach, like my heart had slid out of its proper place to a spot right behind my belly button. Even though I was in my bed in my own home, I had the feeling that my family and I were being stared at and judged. Ghandy waking up in the middle of the night was nothing new for my family, but having Mike there caused a tension that I didn’t know how to quell. When it comes to Ghandy, my parents’ attitude is that Ghandy comes first, and everyone else can adjust. I felt like my family had just become a huge imposition on not only Mike, but our upstairs neighbor, who I was convinced could hear all the commotion as well as we could.

This made me feel like a helpless little girl again. When people used to ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, I replied with what I thought they wanted to hear. “I want to be a doctor or a lawyer.” But what I really wanted to say was, “I want to be normal.” Growing up, my family was different. We were the only immigrant family on our street. We were also the family with the retarded brother. People looked at Ghandy like he was an animal.

Ghandy’s noises grew louder. Mike was now awake. He wrapped a pillow around his head, though it was useless.

“What’s wrong with your brother, Maggie? Can we do anything?”

“He just woke up. I don’t think he’s going back to sleep.”

“I didn’t realize how loud he could be.”

“I know.”

“I just feel bad for our neighbor upstairs.”

I didn’t reply, just turned my back to him and pulled my knees up to my chest. In that moment, what I had feared for the entirety of my adult life was impossible to ignore. My parents will pass away one day, and Ghandy will need someone to take care of him. As the oldest, I knew this responsibility would most likely be my inheritance. I had promised my parents that Ghandy would never end up in an institution or a home. But it was scary to think about what this responsibility would hold me back from. Would it keep me from traveling? From having my own family? Would Mike be willing to take on this burden with me? Would anyone?

•••

My brother was named after Mahatma Gandhi. Just like mine and my sister’s before him, Ghandy’s namesake was a world leader whom my father admired. I was named after Margaret Thatcher and my sister after Golda Meir. Ghandy is a name that my brother has never been able to say himself, a name that holds significance he will never understand. Throughout my childhood, my parents referred to Ghandy as sick. I only came to the term “cerebral palsy” after accompanying my parents to numerous doctor appointments.

As the oldest sibling, my instinct to protect Ghandy was especially strong. My dad took us to the doctor once, and records showed that Ghandy and I needed some vaccinations. I wanted to be brave and go first. Still, I was scared. I had the urge to pull up my legs, which hung lifelessly a foot above the ground, and make myself into a tight ball. The nurse lowered the needle to the taut flesh pinched between her fingers. My breathing quickened, and I had to look away as the needle punctured my skin.

“See, that wasn’t so bad.”

“That kinda hurt,” I said. “I think my brother’s gonna cry a lot.”

I looked at Ghandy, took his hand and caressed it. He had the cutest hands—soft skin, portly fingers, chubby palms; the only blemish was a wart by the knuckle above his left-hand middle finger. The wart bothered me. I picked at it, hoping it would fall off. Ghandy reacted as he usually did, looking around the room like voices from different directions were calling his name. I stopped obsessing about the wart and started to sing his favorite Vietnamese nursery rhyme. He smiled and laughed.

“There. All done,” the nurse said.

“All done?”

I learned something in that moment. What worries me doesn’t matter to Ghandy. The beautiful thing about him is that he doesn’t know fear. He only knows what it is to be loved. Since he was born, he has been the center of my family. It is an unspoken truth that my brother will always be taken care of.

This truth has been too heavy to bear at times. It feels like an impending sentence, ominously lurking somewhere in my future. I never know when it will happen, only that it will. To soothe this anxiety, the only remedy that I’ve come up with is to avoid what is inevitable. But as I get older, I know I can’t keep putting off this reality. Ultimately, this is the thing I’m scared to face: that when I become Ghandy’s sole caretaker, his life will eclipse mine, and whatever I have done or accomplished in my life will mean nothing.

I want to be a wife. I want to be a mother. I want to be a writer. I want my own life. Having a brother like mine, does wanting these things make me selfish?

This was the question that circled my brain since Ghandy woke up. As morning approached, Ghandy’s croaking turned into cooing. Still, it was enough to keep Mike up. Around five a.m., Mike got out of bed, put on some headphones, and did some work. I didn’t know if he was mad or not. I was afraid to ask.

My brother was able to sleep well for the rest of the trip, although that first night had planted a seed of dread that grew for the remainder of my family’s visit. After they left, I knew I had to talk to Mike.

“Mike, can I tell you something?”

“Yeah. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but I know I’m probably going to have to take care of Ghandy one day. I’m really scared because I don’t know if I can do it alone.”

My eyes fell to the ground. There was a possibility Mike would give me the look that said, This is a big responsibility. This is asking a lot. I wanted to avoid that look if possible. I didn’t expect the next thing to come out of his mouth.

“Maggie, you’re not going to have to do it alone. Me, you, your sister, and her husband—between the four of us, we’ll figure it out.”

After all that time wondering what would happen if Ghandy were to hijack my life, this was all Mike needed to say to make me feel that this fear was conquerable, that he would help me find a way to make it work. That I wouldn’t be alone.

•••

On a typical Wednesday morning, Mike and I woke up the way we always did. I was barely cognizant of his alarm going off. He threaded his arms through mine and buried his face into my neck. We always say how this is our favorite time of the day. We’re not watching TV, or eating, or doing something else. We’re just together. I told him everything that had been on my mind that I was too exhausted to tell him the night before.

“There was this article I read yesterday about how little women know about their fertility,” I said, half-awake. “At thirty, your fertility is affected. At thirty-two, it goes down significantly and then at forty, it can be pretty hard to get pregnant. I mean, I have a couple years, but it’s just a lot of pressure.”

“Then let’s get married soon.”

“Okay. Sounds good.”

“No, really. Will you marry me?”

“Yeah, of course,” I reflexively mumbled. I forced my eyes open when I realized what he was actually asking. I turned around to look at him. “Wait, seriously. Are you proposing to me right now?”

“Yeah. I don’t have a ring or anything, but, yes, will you marry me?”

“Yes. I would marry you a thousand times.”

After we kissed, I pressed my face into his chest and took a deep breath. I was overwhelmed. He rested his chin on my head and held me while I cried.

Since then, some people have asked me about his proposal, anticipating some kind of get-down-on-one-knee, ring-hidden-in-a-fancy-meal story. Sometimes I feel bad that I can’t deliver the story they want. When you get engaged, you feel there are certain expectations you need to meet. I’ve learned things don’t always go as expected, though. The life I will eventually have won’t be what I envisioned when I was younger, but acknowledging all the obstacles that might lie ahead makes them easier to face.

When I go home, I am in awe of how my aging parents take care of Ghandy. They change his diapers, apply lotion on his face, feed him every meal. And yet they never complain. My dad hauls Ghandy in and out of the shower and shaves the small patch of hair on the left side of his chin. My mom pats Ghandy’s back before he goes to sleep and gets him ready for school in the morning. This is the easy stuff.

What’s harder for me to deal with are the stares that Ghandy attracts in public. The same protective instinct that drummed through me as a little girl is still as strong today. This sets off a perpetual preoccupied state of mind. I get angry, I get defensive, I feel shame. And then I just want to disappear. I can’t be in the moment because these feelings are cycling through my head. But Mike often reminds me that this is family, and you can’t change your family; you can only accept it.

I know taking care of Ghandy will feel like a burden at times. I might revert to that self-pitying mindset that engulfed me when I was younger: looking at people who I think have perfect lives and wondering why I was given the heavy load. But just as my parents have had each other to lean on in caring for my brother, I, too, will have someone to help carry the load when it seems insurmountable. Mike has lifted that looming dread that has afflicted me for so long. In its place has come acceptance and the reassuring knowledge that Mike will be there to help me, no matter what our future holds.

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MAGGIE THACH is a writing and literature teacher living in San Diego. Before she received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the low-residency program at UC Riverside Palm Desert, she was an award-winning sports journalist at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was recently selected as a 2015 Peace Writer for the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. In this position, she will be paired with a female human rights advocate from around the world and document the advocate’s story of living in conflict and building peace in her community and nation.