Washing dishes in the kitchen, I hear the click-clack of our dog’s claws approaching. Half border collie and half Jack Russell, he’s always on the move, forced to herd humans indoors when sheep and the outdoors were unavailable. The floors throughout our small house are hardwood, so Scooter’s whereabouts are constantly audible. At first his clacking drove us crazy, but as the months wore on we grew accustomed to it, and it became a comfort, a manifestation of a happy family idyll.
Turning from the sink to Scooter, I notice a thin, shockingly red trail lead from under his furry body out into the living room. Is he bleeding? He wags his tail and gazes at me placidly from his shiny black eyes, unfazed. Dogs are usually unfazed, which is why people have them.
Directly under his belly I spot a bundle of thick vermillion embroidery thread, which he must have dropped. Scooter isn’t wounded—he’s gotten into my things again. The scamp! He’s six, yet still lapses into puppy-like urges to destroy, and narcissistically prefers soft, small, fuzzy targets.
I follow the thread’s scarlet trail into the living room and then find its terminus in my office, where I also keep my sewing things. I realize Scooter poked his muzzle into a paper grocery sack full of notions I’d picked up at a craft swap the day before. Unraveled, the thread seems impossibly long, as if it stretches out to a hidden dimension, an implication of a path whose visibility would soon dissolve. I’m more upset with Scooter’s impishness than the loss of the thread itself, which I nabbed simply because it was free and maybe someday I’d use it for something.
For socks. That’s what is used it for. Our friend Matt had asked me to embroider socks for him to wear to the airport. Matt is a thinker but also an incurable stirrer-upper. He got a quickie Universal Life Church online ordination to officiate our wedding—he did an excellent job—and in his opening remarks he predictably cited Nietzsche. Shortly after that my husband and I moved to another state, and we carried on our friendship with Matt via emails and a thing we call mail art, which is us sending each other lumpy envelopes stuffed with amusingly bizarre odds and ends (or, more truthfully, garbage).
His sock concept was thus: as he went through security, his shoes in a plastic bin being x-rayed, he wanted the toes of his stocking feet to read
It was an unwise decision to enable this scheme of Matt’s. I hated to think of the socks causing a ruckus. This was at the tail end of the George W. Bush era, and the often arbitrary-seeming protocols of the Transportation Safety Administration were still freshly stinging to both civil liberties and personal convenience. Matt would be flying to his hometown with his young son to visit his family, his first trip back east since his wife had divorced him six months earlier. It was an acrimonious split. Always eccentric, Matt’s actions had taken an erratic, wounded bent since.
But in the quiet of my office I stared at the thread, Scooter laying by my side, and it called to me. I cut it into three knotty segments and wound it into three balls. Scooter whined; he wanted attention, or the thread, or both. He was still new to us at the time. My husband and I found him at the Humane Society, where, technically, he was on sale because his first adoptive family had returned him after two days. He was lovable and gentle but hampered with serious abandonment issues, and he demonstrated his resentment at being ignored by peeing or chewing on absorbent, valuable items. When we first spotted him, he had a tennis ball lodged in his mouth, like the apple in the jaws of a roast suckling pig.
Scooter’s fur was immanently touchable, soft and silky and peltlike. His insistence on being near me at all times struck a chord with my vanity, too. If I read on the sofa and Scooter sidled up next to me, his tiny, warm body lounging right against mine, I had to occasionally put the book down, so overcome was I with waves of contentment.
About thirty blocks from our house was a lovely, large park on an extinct volcano. I’d suit Scooter in his blue nylon harness and jaunt past the drug dealers next door, then past the used car dealerships and the broad-daylight sex workers on the corner. We crossed over to the nice side of the neighborhood, where the yards had well-tended flower beds and wooden play structures and elaborate handcrafted lawn ornaments. Then we’d go up the hundreds of steps to the top of the expired volcano and be above everything.
Sometimes at night, I walked Scooter a few short blocks after dark. His white fur glowed with an icy blue tint under the streetlights and his black leash melted against the backdrop of the asphalt, and he appeared to swim into the darkness, moving forward unceasingly into space, into oblivion.
Sometimes on walks my mind melded with Scooter’s and we journeyed together aware of nothing but what was around us at that moment. Usually I mulled over silly things, though, like the challenge of how to embroider letters on tube socks. It was very gratifying when I had a breakthrough, enough so that I ignored my instincts to refuse the project. My brainstorm was to embroider POLICE and STATE on two while felt patches, which Matt could Velcro or glue to the socks himself.
I had plenty of important things to do—get my Oregon driver’s license, complete my music column, write a card to my best friend to welcome her new baby into the world, look for a better job.
I didn’t do those things. I seized the red thread. I sewed the stitches and sealed the deal.
Scooter was our baby. We needed him to fill the holes in our American dreams. I yearned to raise intelligent, sensitive children who would someday be soldiers of reason in this pre-Apocalyptic world of ours. Periodically, searing waves of resentment befouled my mood then retreated into a sea of resigned acceptance. I had crappy insurance, and no coverage through work. I had no sick leave, either. We couldn’t function without two incomes, but my income was dwarfed by what solid child care would cost.
We did it anyway. We had the child. It was selfish, really; there was no way we could afford to raise a kid in the middle-class manner we assumed was our birthright. “We’ll make it work!” I’d insisted. We named her Frances. She eclipsed Scooter.
He did not take it well, and he chewed up two quilts, a handmade Winnie-the-Pooh, and various other lovingly crafted baby shower gifts. Every day after work when she was young, I buckled Frances into the stroller and clipped Scooter’s leash to it with a carabiner, and we went on a million aimless walks through our neighborhood, up the volcano and down again. Scooter stopped to poop and I collected his petite turds in narrow blue bags that the newspaper was delivered in. It gives me a strange satisfaction to imagine those turds preserved in a landfill for thousands of years, nestled right next to Frances’s pee-saturated disposable diapers. I hated having to buy them, but was proud of myself for finding the ones that cost the least per unit. They were called Cuddle-Ups, and were the store brand at the twenty-four-hour grocery outlet where I obsessively compared prices on bulk products and produce sales. I liked Cuddle-Ups for not having cartoon characters on them and not smelling like a baby powder explosion. I always got unscented baby things because I adored Frances’s default baby smell, the one she came with. Every case of Cuddle-Ups gave me dozens more opportunities to bury sodden time capsules of my daughter.
I still like the way Frances smells. She often wakes up in the middle of the night and staggers robotically to our big bed and slides in next to me, and when I wake up I nuzzle the top of her head and I take in the nice plain smell of her little girl hair. Another parent might be doing the exact same thing as their house gets bombed. Another parent might miss the smell of her little girl’s hair because her daughter was killed or taken away by an evil that’s steadily creeping its way to us. Another parent might have no comfort but the notion of his child’s pee in a diaper in a landfill outlasting life on earth.
Frances has been peeing in toilets for ages, and her current contribution to landfills is the plastic packaging of the plastic crap all kids in America seem to accumulate against the wishes of their parents, even though usually it’s us parents who buy it for them. Scooter is sixteen now, we think. He’s slower but continues to shadow me all over the house. There’s no way he could make it up the volcano these days, and he can’t rally the enthusiasm to chew anything but his food. I carry him up the stairs and am thankful for his compact size.
Nothing bad happened when Matt bared his embellished socks in the airport security line. That happened later, and gradually. Matt now has two ex-wives, and he’s not allowed to see his kids. The reason isn’t as awful as you might imagine, but the preposterousness of the situation is beyond imaginable and thus incredibly awful. Essentially, he did a bunch of little things demonstrating poor judgment, amounting to a pile of POLICE STATE socks that were used against his favor.
But I am equally guilty of lapses in judgement. I embroidered those socks; I lavish more attention on our dog than I do on the man I am married to; I scowl at people who buy bottled water while I myself get those cans of fruit-flavored fizzy water; I tap on icons on my phone and dive into digital wormholes while the entire natural world churns on, hobbled from my gas emissions and industrial runoff, without me noticing or caring. I board airplanes as a white, American-born woman and don’t have to consider if my nationality or skin color might lead to my forced removal from an overbooked flight or the denial of my reentry to the country. “We’ll make it work!” I still insist. I choose to be ignorant because I am arrogant.
The bed Frances crawls into is a king-size bed, the epitome of living large. My husband and I are slender people, and there’s no decent reason for us to have such an upgrade, but my sleeping patterns have improved slightly since we bought the thing. Even so, I get nudged awake by Scooter or Frances in the middle of the night and find myself unable to slip back into slumber. Unresolvable blockades in my mind force themselves to the center of my thoughts, things that are ultimately of little consequence: overdue bills, overdue writing assignments, teaching appearances, or roller derby bouts I have coming up. The stillness of the evening turns menacing, and even as I remind myself the world will not end if I don’t turn my cookbook manuscript in on time, I suspect the cookbook or the overdue bill is an innocent front for a universal menace. Why did we have a kid when I sincerely believe human existence will be vastly, miserably altered in our lifetimes? Why do we spend so much emotion and energy—so much—on this one goofy dog, when around the world, societies collapse? Why does it feel like no big deal as our society collapses?
In the midst of these episodes, I consider the peace of having Joe and Frances and Scooter so close to me, and how perhaps experiencing that is as good a reason as any to have been alive for even a minute. Our king-size bed is a chunk of pack ice breaking off from a polar ice shelf, the penultimate level of an epic video game, and every night we will it to float us into the abyss of our destiny, the frigid ocean waters as black and sleek as obsidian. And we are together and it’s kind of okay.
I step outside of our lives and see us sliding deeper into the ocean lurking in our unassuming house. The vermillion thread winds a path all through the rooms and up the stairs, unspooling as Scooter trots ahead into the shapeless distance with an inexhaustible wad in his mouth, leading us to a land with no exit. We reach out and grasp the thread and yieldingly follow it where it takes us, into the closet down a rabbit hole to the end of the world, and the thing that I mind the most is that we don’t seem to mind much at all.
SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Her first cookbook, Tasting Ohio, comes out in 2018. Currently she is working on a cookbook about foraged fruit.
The writer Janet Burroway once famously said that “in literature, only trouble is interesting,” and it’s become a truism in the world of writing. Well, I recently gave a reading where, afterward, I argued that trouble isn’t the only interesting thing in literature. (Honestly, I don’t even think Janet Burroway meant her quote the way we hear it.) And I guess I sounded like a dangerously well-adjusted person for a minute there, because the moderator followed up by asking me how I have anything to write about if I’m not troubled myself. “Doesn’t all literature come out of being miserable?” he said.
Let’s just get this out of the way:
Bupropion, three 150mg tablets once per day, prescribed for dysthymic disorder—that’s depression—usually taken with my breakfast-time glass of cold water.
Though sometimes it’s a glass of seltzer. Because who doesn’t like bubbles?
When my first collection of short stories came out (Between Camelots), a lot of readers asked me the same question:
“But why is your book so sad?”
And I had answers. (In my experience, when you ask authors about their work, we usually do have answers, but we are pretty much guessing, or offering the provisional as fact, or wishing.) My typical answer was that literature in general and short stories in particular are supposed to be sad. After all, per the Burroway quote again, only trouble is interesting. And short stories are long enough to get their characters into trouble, but not long enough to get them out of trouble again.
(This claim of mine is very obviously not true, of course. I can think of a whole lot of good stories where characters end up getting out of trouble. I can even think of a couple of good stories, off the top of my head, where there isn’t any trouble in the first place.)
And then the person would usually go on to ask me this question:
“But why is your book so sad?”
This is the place where I give you the etymology of the word dysthymia. But I haven’t looked up the etymology of the word dysthymia, so I’m going to make it up. Dys probably comes from the Greek for “not” or “can’t” or “against,” or something like that. And thymia, I’m going to say, comes from the Greek word that means “the understanding that good things, lovely things, are also possible in life.”
One thing I know is that there are two worlds: the real world and the writable world. The real world is the real world, every complicated bit of it. The writable world, on the other hand, is what the writer notices and values and sees as material.
The writable world is only a subset of the real world, of course.
In some cases—in some mental states—it’s a very small subset.
Or maybe Dysthymia comes from a single Greek work that describes something big.
I’m talking about an interior howling, a howling that starts up whenever the world reveals a little flaw or problem. You’re out walking and you see a dent in a car door, an abandoned lot, paint peeling from the side of a house, two people arguing, a stray dress shoe lost along the curb, a flush of shame crossing a person’s face. Anything. The size of the flaw doesn’t matter here. Regardless: Howling inside. A howling wind, rising to the chest, a desperate keening, in the throat, cold in the gut.
Maybe this howling—this one voice, consuming but incomplete—is your whole writable world.
But writers worry:
If I do something about my depression…
If I get a therapist, or (even more) if I take pills…
Will it kill the writing?
This can be a very scary question. For a lot of us, sitting down to write is the only thing that ever managed to quiet the howling. Not completely, and not for very long, but still—some relief there.
What if I lose the writing?
Mental illness is the worst kind of illness, it seems to me, because it’s the only kind that produces excuses and lies to protect itself. When you get the flu or break a leg or have a heart attack, you never think, “Oh I should just work through this on my own.” You never think, “Well, this is just my artistic temperament.” You never think, “But I need this problem, for my work.”
Asthma means “You should do something about this.”
Diabetes means “You should do something about this.”
Cystic Fibrosis means “You should do something about this.”
And Dysthymia means…?
You worry that writing is going to leave you.
In fact, you are so committed to writing that you’re willing to neglect your mental health just in case mental health is a threat to your work.
(Does that sound like a person who’s ever going to stop writing, with or without pills?)
Does all literature come out of being miserable?
I’d like to answer that question with a different question: What about all the literature that never arrived because of being miserable?
What would Virginia Woolf have gone on to write if depression hadn’t killed her at the age of fifty-nine? What would Anne Sexton have written? David Foster Wallace? Sylvia Plath? Ernest Hemingway?
First there were the pills that didn’t work or caused other problems—side-effects and whatnot. It took a little while to find the right ones. But now I’ve been on the right ones for something like nine or ten years.
Life is better. And I don’t just mean that I feel better, though I certainly do. I mean that I look at life and see that it is a more complicated, better thing than I used to believe.
The howling has quieted.
And it turns out I still need to write as much as I used to. Or maybe more.
I mean, it’s been a busy nine or ten years, these years of medication:
In the three-and-a-half decades before the pills, one short story collection—my book Between Camelots—was published.
In the one decade since, three more books of fiction got published—including a new story collection and a first novel this year—plus a poetry chapbook, a full-length book of poetry, and a non-fiction guide to the creative process.
This is not the story of a person who’s lost his writing.
Meanwhile, my writable world has gotten a lot bigger. I still write about the sad things, because sadness is part of the world’s truth, but it’s only part of it, so I also write about the ridiculous things, the electric things, the absurdity, the quiet beauty and the louder beauty of things.
A writer who believes that things are only sad is a writer somewhat out of touch with reality.
It’s as if I had been working for many years in a tiny room, staring at a tiny few things to write about, and now I’m working in a great big room—or, in fact, out in the open world—staring at everything, seeing things I’ve never been able to see before, seeing it all.
This also means seeing things—even stuff I’d already been in the habit of noticing—in their full complexity. It’s a bummer that the car has a dent in it, sure, but it’s still a car; it can still take people places. The house with the paint peeling is still a house; people can take shelter there. The two people argue and the other person’s face flushes because those people care about something.
Now, I’m not saying pills work for everyone. I’m not saying therapy works for everyone. (Though I think there are a lot of folks who would benefit from both.) I’m not even saying that pills and therapy solve everything. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I still need to write is that, when I don’t, I do get a bit sad again. Not as sad as before, but a bit. In other words, writing still supports me. It’s just that now it has help.
What I’m really saying is I no longer believe that only trouble is interesting.
What if your writing had more than one voice? What if it had the whole world to draw on?
After I get done with another morning of writing, I come out of my office and pour myself a glass of water (or seltzer) and start a bagel toasting, and then I open the little prescription bottle.
Bupropion pills are tiny and white and round and smooth. Even taking three at once, even in the same swallow as a B-12 vitamin, they go down very, very easily.
DAVID EBENBACH is the author of seven books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including, most recently, the novel Miss Portland. His work has been awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, the Patricia Bibby Award, and more. Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.
“Are you related?” a woman at the wedding asks me. When I tell her the father of the bride’s my brother, she says, “You look just like him.” As much as we resemble one another physically—deep-set eyes, crinkly smile, and fair, freckled skin—we couldn’t be more different emotionally.
My only sibling looks like a stranger, his belly protruding over his pants and a once reddish beard now grey. For his twenty-year-old daughter’s wedding, he dresses in black trousers, pressed white shirt, solid tie, and black hat covering short payot, or sidelocks, tucked behind his ears. He wears a long, black, silk robe, reserved for special occasions. This modern-day Jerusalem affair could be a Hollywood movie set of a seventeenth-century Polish shtetl.
I observe my brother at the bedecken ceremony where my niece sits like a queen in a special chair, her upper body pitching forward and back, as she feverishly mumbles words to God and awaits her groom’s arrival. The couple hasn’t seen one another for a week. In their Ultra-Orthodox community, where males and females eat, dance, and celebrate separately, divided by a makeshift wall, men escort the groom into the women’s section so he can verify the bride is the correct woman then lower her veil, a tradition of Jewish males since Jacob wed a veiled Leah in error.
Mike identifies as Haredi: an Orthodox Jewish sect characterized by strict adherence to Jewish law and rejection of modern secular culture and the state of Israel. I’m secular. Tonight, dressed demurely in a long-sleeved dress that hugs my hips and hits my knees, considered sexy and off-limits in his world, I decline to wear a hat for modesty.
We are two California-born Jews living in Israel, but the chasm between us is wider than the Red Sea. Often, over the past thirty years, I’ve wondered how siblings with the same DNA can be so different. How, after being raised Reform, which emphasizes ethics and behavior over belief, can a brother and sister end up embracing such opposite lifestyles?
Growing up, I’d beseeched my parents for a baby—someone younger to cuddle and carry, to play dolls and draw with, to love me unconditionally. “Please, I want a little sister!” I pleaded throughout grade school. My brother, three years older, had never sufficed.
Sometimes he and I skied off-trail at Northstar or played Battleship in the basement. Mostly, we occupied our own orbits: me with Barbies and coloring books, him with his rock and comic collections. My friends and I devised dance routines to Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” while he and his friends fled to the backyard treehouse. I yearned for heart-to-heart conversations and emotional closeness. He communicated through sarcasm and jibes.
In middle school, after reading Judy Blume’s Forever, my mother delivered the verdict: “My tubes are tied. Our family’s complete.” Then why, I wanted to scream, did I feel so incomplete?
Mike left for college during my sophomore year. The quiet house hurt my ears. My father worked long hours at his law firm, while my mother’s graphic design business dominated her time. They proposed we host a female American Field Service student for a year perhaps to assuage their guilt.
The following August, Lee, a seventeen-year-old South African Jew, arrived. Every night, we stayed up late, analyzing our siblings’ deficiencies and confiding our latest infatuations. We shared tee-shirts and sundresses. We had spit fights while brushing teeth in the bathroom sink. We fought about emptying the dishwasher or folding the laundry. We introduced one another as sister. By Thanksgiving, she called my parents Mom and Dad.
I no longer missed my brother or ached for his attention.
The following year, when Lee returned to Cape Town and Mike spent junior year abroad in Jerusalem, I busied myself with college applications, youth group, and a new boyfriend.
“Have you called Mike lately?” my father sometimes asked. His sister lived in New York, my mother’s brother in Los Angeles, and while they’d been distant as kids, they became closer as adults, reinforcing their friendship with visits, especially on milestone birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs.
During my freshman year in college, Mike’s senior, I flew from Chicago to Manhattan to see him. He introduced me to friends, showed me the Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Met, and took me to Gus’s Pickles on the Lower East Side. Later, he visited me at Northwestern, where we ate Giordano’s deep-dish pizza with friends and strolled through Lincoln Park Zoo. Still, our conversations remained superficial.
That summer, Mike packed his worldly possessions into two large suitcases, boarded a one-way flight to Israel, and immigrated. I cried during our farewell parting outside our parents’ house, my eyes red and swollen with sadness. I felt distraught, like I’d run out of chances to be friends with my brother, losing my only sibling to a far-away land.
The following winter, during my junior year in Paris, my parents and I met in Jerusalem. Mike greeted us at the airport in his khaki green army uniform, an Uzi over his shoulder, a scraggly beard and a colorful, knitted kippah on his head. I admired his decision to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces, but since when had he become a God-fearing Jew? We’d grown up in a culturally rich Jewish family as staunch Israel supporters, but God, his commandments, and ancient customs had never been the focus.
Throughout our visit, my brother mentioned studying the basic tenets of Judaism—the laws of Shabbat and kashrut—with an American rabbi. Mike began talking in should and should nots, coulds and could nots, Rabbi Eddy said this, Rabbi Eddy said that. His holier-than-thou attitude made me cringe.
A year later, I flew home from Chicago over winter break for my father’s fiftieth birthday. I donned my best Parisian blacks—mini skirt, leather bomber jacket, pointy flats, and a paisley scarf. My mother tinkered in the kitchen. My father and I listened to Suzanne Vega’s latest album in the living room. The bell rang. We glided to the front door.
“Surprise,” boomed a familiar voice. “Surprise,” he said again.
My brother stepped into the foyer. My mother snapped a picture of my expression, a mixture of disappointment and resignation. With Mike around, our family’s easygoing time together exercising, eating sushi, and watching movies would be overshadowed by his newly acquired religious restrictions.
That night we met my grandparents for dinner at an upscale French-Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco. I hadn’t seen them since leaving for school in September. All attention was focused on Mike. “Oy gevalt,” Boba shrieked when she saw my brother. Zeida embraced his eldest grandson, the Zionist, with pride.
Dressed in one of my father’s blazers, a button-down shirt, tie, and trousers, my brother resembled a college professor. In addition to his thick, wavy, reddish head of hair, he sported a moustache and beard. His large, round glasses reminded me of Elton John’s. But this time he wore a kippah under his hat. He couldn’t show the beanie publicly, he said, lest a religious Jew see him and think the restaurant kosher. I’d never seen him wear a kippah in America.
As soon as we were seated, Mike said, “I really don’t want to eat here. It’s not kosher.” He’d already harangued us during the car ride over the Bay Bridge. Didn’t he understand he was the party crasher? “I need to go to the bathroom.”
Once out of earshot, my mother hissed. “I wish he’d take that hat off inside.”
A new family dynamic was emerging: Mike said or did something inconsiderate or insolent, my mother overreacted, and my father sided with his son, so my mother spewed her anger toward me, her safest ally. Her disdain for Mike’s new lifestyle fueled my rage and resentment. He didn’t appear to care how we felt, but I digested every word.
Mike returned. One waiter filled our water glasses, then uncorked a bottle of wine. Another delivered a warm, freshly sliced baguette. My father approved the wine. Zeida reached for the bread. My brother, still standing, bent his elbows and flapped his arms like an injured bird trying to fly. My mother and I looked at one another and back at him. Why the pantomiming? Mike sat, snorted, jabbed his finger in the air, furrowed his brow and grunted so loud diners nearby turned.
“What do you want? The bread?” I asked. He nodded. He took the baguette, muttering something under his breath, words I couldn’t decipher, then bit it.
“Finally. Thank you,” he said. “But it’s a problem the bread’s been warmed in a non-kosher oven.”
Mike explained he’d gone to the bathroom to wash his hands and wasn’t permitted to talk until he’d recited the prayer and bitten the bread. If he’d explained that beforehand then maybe we would have understood. Or maybe not. His new ways were alien to all of us. Even to my Eastern European grandparents.
As my brother plunged into Ultra-Orthodoxy, my parents’ friends offered backhanded condolences: “At least it’s Judaism and not some weird sect. Imagine if he’d become a Hare Krishna or joined a crazy cult.” I wanted to say, “But he did join a crazy cult.”
My brother asked for the chef to discuss his order. Was it okay if they wrapped the salmon in aluminum foil before putting it in the oven? Silver cutlery or plastic? China or paper? They spoke quietly, nodding their heads. My mother elbowed me under the table. I heard her snicker.
I thought about how much Mike had changed since he’d left his American life. Now, he refused to eat from my parents’ plates in their non-kosher kitchen. He checked the labels on every food item in the pantry for a kosher symbol. He was loud, judgmental, and disrespectful. His extreme fanaticism had become the focal point of our family gatherings, causing me to retreat inside, wishing he’d never come.
Upon his return to Israel, Mike probed deeper into the texts, laws, and interpretations of rabbis, scholars, and God. He began sentences with “Baruch Hashem” (Thank God). Every day he recited countless prayers and blessings upon waking up; when putting on a tallit, a poncho-like garment with a hole for the head and special twined and knotted macramé-like fringes known as tzitzit attached to its four corners; when inspecting the tzitzit; after wrapping the tallit around the body; while laying tefillin—a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah—on the arm, on the head, and around the middle finger. He recited blessings during the ritual washing of the hands upon rising in the morning and again before eating bread, before eating grain products, before drinking grape juice or wine, before eating fruit, before eating non-fruit produce, before eating other foods, and after every meal.
Oftentimes, when asked food- or family-related questions, he said, “I have to ask my rabbi.” His rabbi, I was convinced, paid no heed to the fifth commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. Because if he had, the communication about my brother’s needs and chosen lifestyle would have been better, perhaps reducing the tension between him and our mother, maybe even him and me.
Despite the emotional strain and geographical distances, my parents, particularly my father, continued to attempt family togetherness. For my mother’s fiftieth birthday the following year, he invited us to meet them in Manhattan, to surprise her. Since I was living in Paris, my brother stopped en route to visit. When he called about logistics, I assured him I lived down the street from several kosher restaurants and near a handful of synagogues. He could eat anywhere, pray any time of day, and sightsee.
I agreed to host my brother but felt ill-prepared to face him. I worked as a bilingual assistant for a Jewish non-governmental organization. Since relocating to Europe, my world had opened in unexpected ways. I befriended people from different backgrounds because of my hard-earned fluency. Mike’s world had shrunk, making him more close-minded. I fretted about his reaction to my French boyfriend.
On Mike’s second day, I broached the conversation. “So I wanted to tell you I’m seeing someone. And he’s coming to Manhattan.” We faced each other in my sun-drenched studio.
“Okay. Is he Jewish?”
My mouth opened in shock except I wasn’t shocked at all. I’d anticipated this question and mustered up my strength to stand up to him. “No, Christophe’s Catholic.”
He sputtered. “What did Mom and Dad say?”
His forehead creased as if trying to solve a calculus problem, his favorite subject in high school. My floor slanted, and I felt its unevenness.
“They don’t know yet. It’s still new, not so serious.”
“If it’s not so serious then why is he—this goy—coming? It’s Mom’s birthday!” He turned his back to me. We fell silent. He spun around and bore his eyes into mine. “I have no intention of meeting whatever his name is, and if you try to introduce me, I won’t look him in the eye or shake his hand.”
How dare my brother spurn my boyfriend without knowing anything about him? His refusal to acknowledge another human being because he didn’t share our religion incensed me. No wonder countries and cultures still fought religious wars in Israel, Ireland, Iraq, and elsewhere. No wonder Eastern and Western Europe remained separate and so unequal. No wonder my brother and I had never been close.
“And what would you say if I really were serious with Christophe, or some other non-Jew? What if we decided to get married?”
“You know you’ll never even be able to marry a Cohen if you sleep with a goy.”
“I couldn’t care less if I ever marry a Cohen, or any Jew for that matter!”
The next day, we took separate trains to the airport. Once stateside, Mike refused to be in Christophe’s presence. My folks blamed me for making them choose sides. Sensing the pressure, Christophe packed his bags, broke up, and bolted. I worried that my brother and I had ruined my mother’s birthday, and she might never forgive us. But, perhaps still immature and self-centered, I felt less remorse toward her than rage toward him. I struggled with anger and found forgiveness difficult. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever forget Mike’s behavior.
For the next two decades, Mike and his shtick dominated our get-togethers. Until, one Thanksgiving weekend, I snapped.
In my early forties, married and a mother now, I stormed out of a three-generation reunion in Manhattan, not far from our house in White Plains. Every year, we divvied up the planning; everyone pitched in except Mike since, he decided, his family lived abroad. My duties involved organizing one field trip and two Shabbat meals—ordering, paying, and coordinating food delivery long before Friday sundown. After extensive research, Mike nixed Saturday’s lunch from a kosher restaurant, claiming it no longer met his standards, forcing me to cancel last minute. Then, he arrived an hour late to Sunday brunch because of services.
“Why is it okay for Mike to do whatever he wants?” I yelled. “Dad, why are you so silent? Are you afraid to stand up to him, to put him in his place?” My relatives stared, stunned by my outburst; usually I behaved as the accepting, younger child.
“It’s okay, honey—we understand why you’re upset,” said my aunt, a social worker. I left.
I may have sounded like a spoiled, second child clamoring for attention, but what I sought was ease during our inherently tense family gatherings. I despised kowtowing to Mike, eating at ultra-kosher establishments and prohibiting TV in his children’s presence. I especially loathed my family of origin’s chain reaction. Following my tantrum, I wrote him and my parents a letter proposing we each start therapy and, when visiting one another, we attend together.
Before parting ways, Mike initiated a meeting. We rendezvoused, a week after our Thanksgiving debacle, at a suburban Starbucks, where, according to his rabbi, the tea was kosher. We barely spoke as the baristas concocted our drinks. We carried our tea to a table in the back corner.
“You start,” I said. I had one hour before carpool.
“Okay, I know you’re angry with me. And I’ve been thinking about how we grew up. I think Mom and Dad paid more attention to me. Maybe you felt slighted. I think Boba and Zeida did the same with Dad, making Auntie Mona feel second best. It’s like a family trend.” I wrapped my hands around my cup and inhaled the faint smell of bergamot.
“Sorry, but that’s not it,” I said. “When someone tells me something that’s hard to admit, I get teary. But what you’re saying doesn’t make me emotional. I don’t question or doubt Mom and Dad’s love or my relationship with them.” I sipped my Earl Grey. “I’m angry because your laws and adopted religious lifestyle make you difficult to deal with. You hide behind Judaism and other arbitrary rules. You use them as excuses, why you can’t spend Shabbat somewhere or eat something. I’m sick of dealing with you.”
Mike remained silent, pensive. He nodded. He listened. He didn’t defend himself or cut me down with his usual sarcastic comebacks.
I pointed out our flawed family dynamic. How my mother had pressured us to attend his eldest son’s bar mitzvah in Israel, making my eldest miss the first ten days of middle school and my youngest, kindergarten. How, a decade earlier, for our firstborn son’s bris on Rosh Hashanah, Mike didn’t attend due to logistics like finding a shul and food for the long holiday in Haifa. My parents never intervened.
“I didn’t know Mom pressured you. I would have told her to stop. It’s your decision, not hers. She’s doing that to make Dad happy. If she does it again, tell me. I’ll tell her to back off.”
When our hour ended, I faced a difficult truth. One I couldn’t admit aloud. While I felt bound to my brother because of our shared gene pool, I didn’t like him as a person. I wouldn’t want to be trapped alone with him on an island. I wouldn’t choose him as my friend. How could I tell him I’d contemplated cutting off our relationship to preserve myself? Each time the thought had crossed my mind, I dismissed it because breaking ties takes just as much energy as maintaining them. I’d also considered my kids. He’s their uncle, his children their first cousins. Despite Mike and me, their bonds are strong.
My brother and I bundled up in our winter coats. I accompanied him to the train station. He hugged me.
“I love you,” he said, turning my face toward his. “Don’t ever forget that. I’m on your side.” It reminded me of our curbside goodbye in California when he left for Israel twenty years earlier.
Over winter vacation, my family flew to San Francisco to see my parents. I accompanied my folks to the therapist they’d started seeing upon my suggestion. During a ninety-minute session, we spent seventy-five discussing my brother. After endless conversations starting with “When Mike this” or “Mike that,” the therapist interrupted.
“Hold on, please. Mike isn’t in this room. Jennifer is. Look at Jennifer and talk to her.” It took my parents several tries before they addressed me, without mentioning my brother.
At the end of the session, the therapist drew an unforgettable conclusion. “No one in any one family should have so much power. Mike shouldn’t hold this much power,” he paused. “And you,” he said, looking at my parents, “you gave it to him.”
I felt affirmed, validated. As if this man gave me words I hadn’t possessed and my parents an opinion they could no longer ignore. But the question became how, forty-five years later, do you reclaim this power?
Maybe Mike and I had never been chummy due to a clash in personality or communication style, and his fervent Judaism only made matters worse, widening our rift. But, I realized during that session, my parents played their part, especially my mother. She hadn’t just started whispering in my ear when Mike found Hashem, Hebrew for God, in Jerusalem’s Old City, immersing himself in the religion of our ancestors. Whenever our sibling strife had struck—whether I was ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years old—she always said, “Your brother reminds me of mine. And we were never friends.”
In that room, I faced my mother. “Please, I beg of you. Stop talking to me about my brother, behind his back. My relationship with him is hard enough.”
My brother approaches his daughter, and I attempt to catch his movements and expressions on camera, to try to understand his need for all-encompassing rules and pre-ordained boundaries. Does he cling to Hashem to avoid making decisions? Does he cleave to the laws because he felt unmoored as a boy, with too many freedoms? My mother remembers feeling challenged by his wit, as if he outsmarted her, while my father stood on the sidelines, only fueling her indignation.
Mike folds his hands on his stomach. He maintains distance from his second-born as he whispers in her ear. Is he allowed to touch the bride? To kiss her? Or does that aspect of their relationship, in their Haredi circle, disappear as soon as a young girl menstruates or announces her impending marriage? Did he consult his rabbi or did he know the answer?
My niece stops rocking to listen to him. Is he gushing over how beautiful she looks, telling her how proud he is, or how much he loves her? Or is he quoting some scholar’s words on marriage, some Jewish proverb about love, or the weekly Torah portion, passing down other people’s knowledge to avoid expressing his own emotions?
I stare at my brother’s face through my lens and recall the familiar words of friends, telling me he might never change and to stop expecting it. “The only thing that can change is the way you react,” they say. One friend whose husband has a huge extended clan shared her trick to surviving family get-togethers: look for the good in each person.
Mike is a devoted father, an uncle who emails my kids jokes and asks about their army service, which his children avoid as Haredi. Would his children think the same of me? Am I a caring, involved aunt or unapproachable, detached? I fear the latter. He might not be the brother I always dreamed of, but I’m probably not his ideal sister either. I remain aloof, removed from him and his offspring. I harshly judge them, their lifestyle, and their decision not to eat in my home. I find them intolerant, but, in fact, I’m equally so.
Yet no matter how challenged I am by our relationship, he remains steadfast—the first to call after recent surgery and on every birthday. He is and will always be the only other person who’ll remember and reminisce about our parents’ foibles and follies and the household in which we were raised.
Mike knows I write about him, about us. Whenever I ask questions, he answers reluctantly, saying, “I don’t want to know why you’re asking.” He doesn’t like digging up the past. I cannot imagine him willingly reading my words, but, if he did, he might surprise me and say, “I’m sorry you feel this way. Because I love you. Remember, I’m on your side.” Like he did nine Thanksgivings ago in the New York train station parking lot.
JENNIFER LANG’s essays have been published in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Honors include a Pushcart Prize and a Best American Essays nomination and finalist in the Crab Orchard Review’s 2017 Literary Contest. Currently, she serves as CNF Editor for the Flexible Persona literary magazine. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she’s been obsessing over every word in her first memoir. Look for her in Raanana, Israel, where she teaches writing at http://israelwritersalon.com/.
For privacy reasons, Jennifer’s brother’s name was changed. —ed.
“How big should I make it?” I asked my tattoo artist, a fashionably underfed hipster in a tiny, spotless shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was probably ten years younger than he looked—the image I was hoping for with my first tattoo. I had just graduated from college and was living on Avenue C in the late ’90s. I was still far too baby-faced to look the part I thought I was playing. I wanted to look like I had experience, like I had a story.
He said, “Big enough so the people at the other end of the bar can see it when you lift up your shirt to show it off.”
It was good advice for a twenty-two-year-old. Now, almost two decades later, I’m more apt to wonder how it looks as I wade into the YMCA family pool, following my two-year-old daughter and my five-year-old son, where I’m less inclined to show off my body than submerge it from sight. Like most of the fathers in my company, my body is succumbing to the undertow of the parenting years: a slack at the chest, a collection at the waistline—story that I’d rather lose. My tattoos now show not the look of experience, but of inexperience, of youth.
I’ve gotten three tattoos while being only a son, and one as both a son and a father. As a son—which is to say, as someone who has tumbled into the world and seeks his place in it—I still like my tattoos. Getting them has felt as essential as the body they’re inked on. My tattoos have stamped something permanent onto my life, which has otherwise confirmed itself to be uncontrollable—even unknowable. It’s an exhilarating power, and, I believe, the primary allure of getting tattoos. In the face of so much mystery I can say, with this ink on this skin, I know this much—I am this much—at least.
The image itself doesn’t so much matter, which is why so many tattoos appear to be so meaningless. I have a heart with an arrow through it on my arm, and a star on my shoulder: why do I have them, instead of not have them? It is assertion, and assertion alone, in response to some other questions I often ask: why do I have to be so white? Why male? Why such average height, why this mop of hair? I don’t know, but I can say that one day, at the foot of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a young man wore a surgeon’s face mask and, holding my arm, inked perfectly straight lines and acute angles on my shoulder. The tattoo is both the most meaningless and precise thing about me.
Incidentally, it also gets the most attention at the YMCA from the swim-diaper set. Every so often I feel a poke on my shoulder and turn to find a toddler saying, “Star!”
“That’s right,” I say, and smile. The parent glides over to fetch his or her child, and gives a smile to say “sorry.” I smile back to say “no problem.”
We’re all smiles, and mine is the most awkward. When I became a father I felt as though I had re-entered the world—tumbling still, and now holding a newborn. Even now, I don’t know my place in the world, but I know my purpose—fatherhood—and to this purpose, my tattoos are all dreadfully embarrassing. I’m embarrassed for all of us, bobbing into the YMCA family pool with our marks of youthful inexperience, images that look more to the taste of our kids than to the parents we’ve become: dragons, fire, dice, swirly lettering, abstractions in black, and yes, stars. Why have them instead of not have them indeed. Now I often think of the question my own dad asked me when I pulled up my shirt to show him my first tattoo.
“It comes off?” he said.
“No, Dad, it’s a tattoo.”
“But it’s not real.”
“Well…” My stepmom searched for her words. “You’re… expressing yourself.”
My dad said to himself, aloud, “And on Father’s Day.”
So it was. We had all met at the beach for a June family reunion. Instead of letting people notice and say something (or more awkwardly for me, not say something), I thought I’d just make the announcement about my new tattoo.
My parents have been less than enthusiastic about my tattoos, which I can understand, now as a parent myself. A decision like this must look like guaranteed regret. When I showed them my fourth and final tattoo, the only one I have gotten as a father, my stepmom said, “Well, I… I liked your arm the way it was.”
“An illustrated man,” my dad declared, again keeping his distance from voicing an opinion.
Oh, well. You learn to live without approval from your parents. I had hoped that this was a tattoo they might have liked, however, as it involves our family. My sister, an artist, drew it as part of the wedding invitations she made for my wife and me. There is a single-story pagoda-like structure in black, at the edge of water, whose currents are shown by dark grey swirls. Above it, in teal, are tiny check marks, Xs, circles, diamonds, and a crescent moon all appearing to be in motion—a kind of swirling cosmos that corresponds to the water below it. In this swirl there are three small rowboats in black, their oars set in their locks but hanging slack. One rowboat is gliding toward the house, one is at the house, one is headed upward and away, at the edge of the cosmos.
The pagoda to me is home, and the boats show the three stages of a cycle that was apparent to me on our wedding day, held at the farmhouse where my wife grew up, and continues to be apparent as I have become a father: it’s a return home to leave it again, and it’s a departure from home, even as far as the edge of the universe, that foretells a return.
“You can never go home again”—yes, but also true is that I never really left, not in any permanent sense. In raising children, I constantly reflect on my own childhood. In being a parent, I constantly recall my own. Having my own kids has also brought me back to the family I came from because there’s a new relationship I’m now obliged to foster—that of the grandparent and grandchild. My parents want to feel like they “know” my kids, and, being grandparents who spoil them rotten—by which I mean give them junky little plastic toys, dubious gummy treats, and unrestrained joy and affection—our kids want to know more of them.
In our wedding ceremony, the minister gave a “blessing to the parents” in which she said, “They are of you, and now they move beyond you.” What I have learned in the years since is that “moving beyond” doesn’t mean I’m no longer “of.” In fact, being “of” my parents has only intensified in having supposedly “moved beyond” in marriage and parenthood. My past, my upbringing, my youth, my sense of inexperience has all become more vibrant in adulthood, in contrast to the tattoos that represent them, whose colors have begun to fade.
“I want a tattoo,” my son says, looking at the one my sister drew. A part of me is happy to hear it. I’ve learned to live without the approval of my parents, at least as it pertains to my appearance, but now I’m struck by how much I want the approval of my kids. Another part of me, the protective father, is, well … concerned. I don’t want my son to do something he regrets.
“Okay,” I say, “but not until you’re a grown-up.” He’ll be of me and not beyond me for many years to come. “You can get a temporary tattoo. One that comes off.”
My two-year-old daughter hasn’t said much, but in the YMCA family locker room recently, as I wiggled her into her swimsuit, she touched my chest and said, “Daddy, you have a name.”
I smiled. On my left pectoral muscle, just above the heart, where a name tag is sewn on a shirt, in Times New Roman typeface, black, all lower-case, about 40-point font, is my first tattoo, a word that described me then and, sometimes in spite of my most sincere wishes, describes me now: tender.
As a young man on Avenue C I wanted something to show great virtue and great fault, something that shows conflict, and the conflict I have now, eighteen years later, is to determine whether it was an act of virtue or fault to get it. I was—and am—sympathetic, gentle, impressionable: tenderhearted. I also was and am perpetually unprepared for the world, especially in parenthood, as each new phase highlights my embarrassing inexperience with it. I’m not so baby-faced anymore, but I’m as tender-footed as my kids are. As a twenty-two-year-old I was attracted to the irony—what kind of man has “tender” tattooed on his chest? I knew it would be a provocation to my future self, and, duly, as a father I am provoked.
Does all this spell “regret”? Yes, and no, and not simply either. I would never get this tattoo now; my taste for this kind of daring irony has since far softened. Yet, it suits me perfectly, then as now, and I’m glad my former self had the temerity to mark me. As a friend of mine said, “People regret tattoos because they once thought they looked cool but no longer do. This is a tattoo you know you should regret. So you probably won’t.”
“Yes, I do have a name,” I said to my daughter, in that chirpy parenting tone, proud of a toddler’s perception. But I said it under my breath, as I hoped not to explain it further, not while I fussed with the diaper, socks, pants, shoes, shirts, towels, goggles, lock, and the bags, and not with all these other people around.
BRIAN GOEDDE teaches writing and literature at the Community College of Philadelphia.
Dad believed that the countless objects he amassed held value, and he took great pride in that. My parents had both come from families of working poor and weren’t familiar with terms like 401K; my dad played keno as part of a financial plan. Being able to pay their bills in full and on time was a Herculean feat. When my dad died, there were no life insurance policies or inheritance to claim. There was only his stuff.
I was raised in the countryside of Oregon, but my mom often recounted a story of when we once lived in town. I was still a baby then. She and I were home alone together. Holding me on her hip, she answered a knock at the door and was surprised to see a policeman. He told her this was a city and there were ordinances. She was going to need to clean up her yard, or he’d have to fine her. With the pride she took in her appearance and her impeccable housekeeping skills, she choked up with embarrassment. She didn’t mention my dad, that the mess was his. She spent the afternoon with a neighbor woman feverishly cleaning up the small yard and garage. When my dad came home, he was enraged. He screamed at her, red-faced, for touching his things, accusing her of trying to get rid of him. My dad was over six feet tall and barrel-chested. When angered, he was a charging bull.
Mom had a decision to make; either leave him or accept this craziness as the life she had married into. She was a young mother, seeking stability for herself and her family in whatever form she could find. She wanted us to stay together. She looked for a way to make it work. Within a week, she found a house for sale in the country, and they moved every last item away from the judgmental gaze of city life. Mom always wanted to move back to town, but Dad’s stuff kept them rooted until the day he died.
When I was growing up, we would constantly find new things strewn about the yard: battered oxygen tanks or a discarded boat motor, pieces of sheet metal twenty feet long and wine distilling equipment. How he got some of those things home single-handedly remains a mystery. He had an idea in mind for all of it; he would cultivate a vineyard or engineer a new type of sea-going vessel. Not one of the plans ever came to fruition, but he refused to part with a single thing.
There were rare occasions when mom spotted the latest addition out in the yard and couldn’t contain herself. “What is that? What’s that metal for?” she’d demand.
“I’m going to build a two-person passenger plane,” he replied. ”I can fly you to Chicago to visit your sister when it’s done. Think of the money we’ll save on airfare.”
Out in the countryside of the Willamette Valley, my dad was free to accumulate to his heart’s content. The wooden skeleton of his barn sagged with rot, unable to contain the vastness of his imagined treasures. The contents piled up to the rafters and cascaded out, covering the yard and becoming entangled with the rampant, wild vegetation. There was no system to any of it. Wherever he put something down last, that’s where it would stay, and he heaped new things on top of old as he brought them in.
When he passed away, my husband and I began working to help my mom prepare the house for sale. As I looked out over their property, I realized I would have to touch every relic of our lives from the past four decades. I would have to revisit each painful moment; and ultimately, I would have to grieve that his entire lifetime of ambitions amounted only to the worthless piles stretched out in front of me.
Dad always bragged about his vintage coin collection, his prized guns, and his classic cars. For safekeeping, the coin collection was stored in a locked briefcase shoved under the bed. The combination had long since been forgotten. We pried it open to find a sea of wheat pennies and US state quarters encased in plastic. We found two-dollar bills squirreled away in his sock drawer. A coin collector assessed nothing we brought in was worth more than face value, including the plastic-enshrined quarters. At work, an older colleague of mine had also recently lost a parent and he would say things like, “I’m going to be out tomorrow; I need to tend to my parent’s estate.” I thought about this phrase as I slammed plastic-enshrined quarters against the kitchen floor to break them free of their casings: “I am tending to my parent’s estate.”
Dad had left his two-dozen assorted guns and boxes of ammunition lying haphazardly in a pile on the garage floor. We were too frightened to touch any of them, not knowing whether any remained cocked or loaded. My uncle, who we had not seen in years, showed up to claim them all. That would be the last time we heard from him.
Dad’s automobile collection consisted of nine vehicles in states of mild to severe decay. He constantly talked about his intention to resuscitate each of them to the glorious condition of their heydays, and the amazing fortune he would reap. The best car of the lot was the one pick-up that still ran. The driver’s seat was broken into a permanent position of recline and the rearview mirror dangled by a thread. Most perplexing of the bunch was the 1972 Chrysler Crown Imperial.
Even in my earliest memories, the Chrysler never ran. I never saw it driven, never saw anyone start it up, never even saw anyone open the driver’s side door and sit on one of the plastic bench seats to reminisce.
In the early years the Chrysler sat adjacent to the driveway. After a decade without improvement it was decided—I’m not sure exactly who decided—to move it to the back of the house, near the barn. In Dad’s mind, this probably equated to progress. The car needed to be near his tools if he was going to repair it. In my mom’s mind, I’m certain she just wanted to get the eyesore out of sight from the general passerby.
In Oregon, the elements of nature are subtle. There are no bone-rattling earthquakes, the complete and sudden devastation of hurricanes, or the intensity of a Midwest blizzard. There is only the rain, the omnipresent dampness. It seeps in quietly, seemingly harmless. But left unchecked over time, that ubiquitous moisture is power.
Over the years the two-ton Chrysler turned from dusty rose to a bleached mauve to forest green, covered in moss. The sodden earth began to consume the car—the tires buried up to the rims. And out of nowhere, the descent of Himalayan Blackberry, vegetation that seemed like science fiction.
When my aunt came to visit a few years back, she looked out the family room window onto the overgrown backyard and asked, “What’s that red thing sticking out of that bush?”
Sheepishly, my mom murmured, “That’s a tail light.”
Brambles had grown up and around the Chrysler, devouring all of it except one final piece of tail light. They grew twelve feet tall, surpassing the height and width of the barn, engulfing not just the car, but the expanse between the car and the barn, using both as makeshift trellises.
After Dad passed away, I wasn’t sure my husband and I were up to the challenge of unearthing the car from the grips of the brambles. But my wiry husband assured me we could do it. Not knowing where or how to start, we each simply bought a new pair of work gloves and hedge clippers.
On a crisp winter morning, the smell of wood smoke permeating the air, we embarked on our odyssey. I began clinically, like a novice surgeon taking the first cautious snip. The weed was covered in stickers, shooting out in catawampus directions like an army of angry penknives. It clawed at us with vicious tentacles, pulling at our arms and legs. We emerged from the bushes with scratches everywhere, on our backs and faces, blood dripping down our forearms.
Soon I was hacking and lunging with unquenchable hostility. Questions cascaded through me. What other daughter had to engage in an activity like this in the wake of her father’s death? Why did he leave this mess for us to clean up? Why didn’t he take better care of things? Why didn’t he take better care of us?
After several days of relentless toil we stood smugly over the decimated thicket and beheld the Chrysler in full exposure. The initial victory was sweet; we felt like laborers excavating the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Once we turned our attention to the car, our spirits sank. The windshield looked like a kaleidoscope. The interior seats were brittle and splintered, the ceiling upholstery torn and dislodged; where the passenger side floorboard once existed there was now an irreparable hole. After waiting for decades to be restored to its former glory, the car was unceremoniously sold in an estate sale, purchased by an anonymous buyer for the paltry sum it could fetch as scrap.
I looked up the number for Molalla garbage service online.
“I’d like to arrange for delivery of a drop box.” I used terms I found on their website and hoped I could translate my needs into their language.
“What size do you need?”
Barn-size? “What are the options?”
“Our smallest is twenty yards. That’s 7’5” by 16’ by 4’7” and the largest is forty yards. 7’5” by 22’ by 6’8”.” She rattled the numbers off with quick efficiency and I hurried to jot them down.
I shoved the figures imploringly in front of my husband with a “???” and a helpless look on my face.
“The biggest,” he mouthed back to me.
“The biggest one,” I responded. I feared the woman on the other end would question me. What does a well-spoken young lady like you need with a dumpster that large? I thought she would doubt me. That’s really large, honey. Are you sure you need something so big?
But she did no such thing. She merely asked when I wanted it delivered.
I responded without hesitation, “As soon as possible.”
For over two decades, with joy and fear I’d envisioned the day I would walk into the barn and clean it up. In my imagination, I’d be wearing knee high rubber boots and would have somehow gotten my hands on a Hazmat suit. In reality, I wore a grey Army t-shirt (Dad’s) and my mom’s jeans with an elastic waistband. The clothes were foreign to me, which fit the foreignness of the experience. It is hard to remember what my gloved hands touched first, but once started, I was transfixed. We had always been forbidden from touching his stuff. This would never have occurred in his lifetime.
On our first pass, we filled the forty-yard industrial dumpster in less than three days. It was so full, I’d end up owing over-tonnage fees. We’d only scratched the surface, though; we decided the rest would need to be addressed in stages and subsequent visits to the dump.
As we loaded the bed of my father’s truck with memories from my childhood, I was mystified to find decomposing rolls of shag carpet Dad had removed from the house when I was eight years old. My mom made plans for its disposal back in 1986. But Dad demanded to keep it; he planned to repurpose it. How did he think he was going to repurpose used 1970s Granny Smith apple–green shag carpet?
The hundreds of pairs of identical, fringe-beaded earrings intrigued my husband. The summer before I started high school, my dad was fired from his job. I don’t know if he looked for other work and couldn’t get anything, or if he became enticed by a pyramid scheme before he ever got that far. He sent money in to some unknown destination, and in return, he received a set of beads and string. He simply had to construct them into earrings and make five times the profit on his money. Except, of course, his beaded constructions were never purchased, leaving us with hundreds of sets of identical earrings and a hole in the bank account. When my childhood friends asked what my dad did for a living, it was hard to explain.
My mom hadn’t had reason to visit the dump in ages, but she thought she remembered the way. She was mistaken. Neither of us had any idea where it was. Unbelievably, in the year 2013, neither of us owned a smart phone or GPS. My mom’s idea was to roam through the Wal-Mart and ask for directions.
Upon entering the store, Mom instructed me, “Look for someone who looks like they’d know where the dump is.”
“What would someone who knows where the dump is look like?”
Without missing a beat, she said, “Someone like us.”
I gazed over at my mom, a reflection of myself, in her messy flannel shirt, muddy boots, and stocking cap pulled tight over her ears. We burst into raucous laughter at the absurdity of it all. Silently, I also prayed this would not be the instant I run into someone I knew from high school.
Once we found our way to the facility, I stood at the edge of the platform and tossed our mold-infested memories into the dump. It is hard to throw away a life.
In the next round, we rented a metal “drop box”, another forty-yard container we’d fill to brimming and sell the contents for scrap. I was determined to get all the riding lawnmowers in there. Dad bought a new one every few years on credit. Whenever he mowed for the last time in the fall, the lawnmower would stay put right there on whatever the last patch of grass had been, uncovered all winter, until the next spring. After several cycles of this, the machines would rust into disrepair, the wheels would lock up, and he’d buy a new one. On the day he died, there would be four riding lawnmowers scattered around the yard, immobile.
My mom, husband, and I groaned collectively under six hundred pounds of riding lawnmower. In perfect synchronicity, we exhaled and lifted on the count of three. We progressed across the backyard in inches. There was a point where I looked down and saw I had gashed my leg. Blood ran into my shoe. I felt nothing. I was a robot-o-tron with one thought: Metal in the bin. Not metal to the dump. Surprisingly, many things had morphed to a point where it was impossible to tell what their origins were.
Mom begged me to come inside the house and spend time with her.
“Mel, why don’t you take a break? We can visit.”
“What do you mean? You can take break. I want to keep working.” Throughout my life I’d been merciless with my own belongings, throwing things out without a hint of sentimentality. With all that was in front of us, how could she think of stopping with so much still to get done?
“It’d just be nice—to visit for a while.”
“We can talk while we work. I came to work.” At my response, her shoulders slumped with a heaviness I didn’t understand. I was oblivious to the loneliness of my recently widowed mother. I felt nothing except a driving desire to finish this. I had to finish this.
Among the ruins, I found a handicap bar, the kind attached in restroom stalls. When I was ten years old, my dad worked security at a rehab facility and brought the bar home. I had begged for a ballet barre in my bedroom. The stolen handicap bar was his solution to purchasing a real one. When he showed it to me, it didn’t look sleek and pretty like a real barre, but it would be mine nonetheless, and I was excited in the way only a child could be. The bar sat on the floor of my bedroom, awaiting installation, until I left for college. Seventeen years later, I threw this symbol of my dashed childhood hopes into the dump.
And then there were the papers.
Stashed into dozens of file cabinets, boxes, nooks and crannies, we uncovered every “official” piece of paper that had ever entered our home. Every phone bill, bank statement, tax return and department store receipt since 1974.
Some of it was just plain odd—prescriptions my mom had received for conditions long since forgotten; the pay stubs I’d received from my first job at age fifteen.
Some of it inspired a spark of pride—a commendation memo Dad had received for some task he’d completed in the Army Reserve.
Much of it told something deeper.
The court summons addressed to Dad for stealing from his employer (items which were likely still sitting out in the barn at the time he passed away.)
Business cards that had women’s names and phone numbers scrawled on the back, which my mom pulled angrily from my hands.
Written warnings Dad received for being too aggressive with his co-workers.
A lay-off notice addressed to Dad when the cannery shut down.
Records from a financial consultant when my parents filed for bankruptcy.
Notices from the IRS regarding the lien they had had on the house.
Through these papers, the story of our family was told.
We burned all of it.
After many months, we were coming to the end. We’d worked our way across the yard, to the outer reaches of the barn and into its depths. Only the “wine distillery,” a slapped together addition at the back of the barn, remained. Dad fermented cherries into a putrid concoction he generously called “wine” and then boasted of his plans to sell to major distributors once he’d produced enough jugs. After all we had dealt with, this final hut would be simple. The structure and everything in it were completely dilapidated. I just needed a stash of garbage bags and a bit more endurance.
The space was more disgusting than I had anticipated; it smelled like the walls were doused in cherry wine. It was nauseating. I hastily started to sweep whole shelves into a sack. But the stuff—a conglomeration of rags, plastic tubing, cardboard boxes—was molten and disintegrated under my touch. I discovered glass beakers that still had a deep burgundy substance in them, solidifying. I stepped in something far too squishy and found myself gagging reflexively.
Before I knew what was happening, I was doubled over, convulsing, tears soaking my face. I cried until I felt empty. I crumpled onto the waterlogged plywood serving as a floor.
In that moment, I finally understood. I was not cleaning up my dad’s selfish mess; I was cleaning up the remnants of a disease. This yard, this barn, were not merely the objects of a careless man who brought home too many bicycles. He had a psychological condition. I was only able to recognize this after he passed away, after spending countless hours cleaning out his things. I had spent my life feeling so much anger toward him and so much shame about the turmoil we were forced to live in. But I could not hold on to that resentment. Just like I would not feel irritation at a stroke victim for slurred speech, I could not continue this animosity towards my dad for a mess he couldn’t stop himself from making.
I saw now he was not collecting garbage—he was collecting possibilities. The possibility of a gleaming classic car, the possibility of success and accomplishment. He wasn’t a perfect man and didn’t follow through with his plans, but he was able to believe in the impossible. And there was beauty in that.
Out there in the space that had been the source of so much shame and humiliation, I was able to find my own form of forgiveness.
MELISSENT ZUMWALT is an artist, advocate, and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. She learned the art of story telling from her mother, a woman who has an uncanny ability to recount the most ridiculous and tragic moments of life with beauty and humor.
Rowing: using oars to propel a boat. When you row, everything is backwards. You face away from your destination. Your right oar is to port, the boat’s left side. Your left oar is to starboard, the boat’s right side.
Maneuvering feels strange at first, but with practice, your brain adjusts. As it does to so many things.
It’s mid-August, and I’m visiting my parents, retired professors, at our family property on Lake Superior. We’re at the larger of our two camps (what are called “cottages” outside of Northwestern Ontario), washing the supper dishes, when my mother starts in, her voice anxious.
“Oh-oh, it’s getting late. It’s ten, twenty past … past two.” She compares her watch to the clock on the mantel.
My father sighs audibly.
I resist shooting him a look. He’s been with her all day, I remind myself. Meanwhile, I had precious alone time all afternoon, before coming over to fix supper. I say, “Mom, it’s still early. Just twenty past seven, that’s all.”
Her voice is doubtful. “Now, my watch says, twenty, nearly half-past seven.”
I muster bright energy. “Yes, and look how much of the evening is left! Let’s sit by this nice fire you’ve got going.”
They don’t need the fire—the late-summer sun still warms the room—but tending it gives Mom something to do, and its crackle adds cheer.
“Well….” Mom’s dubious.
I hand her the knitting needles holding the half-finished square she’s been working on. “Here— you can do this while Dad reads a chapter from our book.”
Mollified but still suspicious, she plops down in her rocking chair.
“I suppose I could do a few more on this guy.” She adds under her breath, “Let’s see, one, two, three, then one, two,” as she counts different-coloured rows. I try not to remember how intricate patterns once delighted her mathematical mind.
As Dad reads, I relax a little.
My father’s voice always lulled me to sleep at camp. My childhood dreams were full of stories from the Old Testament, Narnia, and Middle Earth.
When we kids—my four siblings and I—grew up, we stopped reading aloud, in part because my brothers, as adults, brought their own family traditions. And although I don’t have other family demands, my vacation always feels too short. I’d rather spend the evenings rowing or otherwise near the water at the smaller camp at the point, not cooped up with my parents in the larger camp around the bay.
This summer has been different, for many reasons. Mom’s increased forgetfulness this spring, fifteen months after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, meant I had extra tasks, all done long-distance, to get her here. Her neurologist didn’t understand why I felt so strongly about her visit. I’ve wondered about it myself—first as I nixed my father’s blithe plan to “drive up as usual” over three days from their home in Oklahoma. Instead, they flew—still a long day’s travel for a couple in their early eighties—and rented a car for their stay. I wondered again as I flew to Canada from my Colorado home to open the place and fill the freezer. And I wondered yet again as I used vacation time and money I didn’t have for this second trip up to support my father.
The hardest task of all has been pushing past my fears: What if everything goes up in flames? What if a bear gets Mom and Dad? What if something else terrible happens? I’ve tried to rein in my imagination to foresee and prevent actual problems.
So far, I’m glad I persevered. Mom enjoys being here, where she’s spent at least part of almost every summer since her childhood.
And I’m glad to be with them, most of the time. It’s hard to handle the fearful, fretful woman who replaced my brilliant, dynamic mother. My father, a short-tempered devotee of routine and predictability, has welcomed my presence, even as he’s successfully adjusted to her needs in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Like reading aloud in the evenings again—this year, a murder mystery by one of Mom’s favorite writers.
Earlier this summer, I’d noticed that Mom didn’t read for pleasure anymore. I wonder if she consciously decided to stop, frustrated by her inability to understand or remember what she read. I hope not; I hope she just put down her book one day and never thought to pick it up again.
That evening in front of the fire, I peek at Mom. She seems to feel my eyes and looks up from her work to smile. I smile back but look away quickly, so she’s not tempted to interrupt. Soon I’m drawn into the story, its plot a puzzle that can be solved.
Dad looks up at the clock without losing his place, and then flicks a glance at my mother. She’s quiet, so he moves smoothly into the next chapter.
I look toward Mom, too. From his angle, Dad can’t see her trying to catch my eye. She shakes her head at me, lips drawn together. I quickly turn back to Dad. I see from the corner of my eye that Mom’s knitting sits idly in her lap, and the fingers of her left hand pull at her lower lip, a sure sign of her worry. She sighs and gets up. I tense, but she only adds a log to the fire, then sits back down and picks up her knitting again.
Dad reads a little longer, then looks at the clock. It’s been an hour, the upper limit of Mom’s attention span. At the next stopping place, he puts in the bookmark.
“Could the daughter have done it?” I ask.
Dad thinks for a minute. “Not from what we know so far.”
Mom breaks in. “We have a one here,” she points to the long cot in the corner strewn with knitted squares and yarn, “and more upstairs.” She continues knitting, watching me.
I smile but raise a finger to say, “Just a sec while I finish this thought with Dad.”
As I chat more with Dad, I watch Mom try to wait. She finishes out the row of knitting and then leans forward in her chair. At the next break in our conversation, she says, “Because of course we have that one,” and points to the cot, “and at least one other one.”
My smile is polite, if a bit tight. “Yes, thank you.”
She heads to the bathroom. As she comes back into the living room, she fiddles with her watch. She waits for one of us to take a breath and points at the cot. “So, would you rather this one, or I suppose you could use that one…”
I take a deep breath and say, “Thanks, Mom, but I’m not staying here tonight. I’m staying at the little camp, over at the point.”
She looks at me in dismay, her black eyebrows drawn together. “Oh, no, surely not.”
“Of course.” I try to keep the irritation out of my voice. This is the fourth night in a row we’ve had this conversation, and I can answer her objections before she voices them. “It’s perfectly safe. I know where everything is.”
“But I just … wouldn’t you rather stay here? We have a place here, and another upstairs.”
“Thanks, Mom, but no. Look, it’s early yet. Wouldn’t you like to sit down and talk with us?”
“Well, yes,” she says, not moving. “I’d like it if you stayed here. Are you sure you want to go?”
“Yes, Mom. I love sleeping over there. I get to see you during the day.”
She sighs. “Well, I suppose….” She wanders near the window before planting herself behind my chair.
I try to pick up the conversation with Dad. Mom breaks in to say, “You know, we have one here…”
I talk over her—rudely, firmly. “Mom. I’m staying at the other place.”
She says, “But I worry about you there.”
I attempt reassurance. “I’ve stayed over there by myself a lot. Look, it’s still very light. I’ll be fine. I promise.”
“Well, if you really want to, I suppose he and I could take you over, in the, the…” she points outside.
“I have my own car. See the blue one? I’ll drive myself when it’s time.” I try to tease. “You know, I’m starting to think you want to get rid of me.”
She doesn’t see the joke. “No, I’m not. I want you to stay here.” She checks her watch, then sighs again. She takes a couple of steps toward the cot. As her eyes fall on it, she says, “You know, we have this one….”
Dad closes his eyes and inhales deeply, then exhales.
I give up. “I guess it’s time to go.” I pick up my purse. Mom watches unhappily, pulling at her lower lip. I give Dad a brief hug and then go to hug her.
She reaches up to put her hands on my shoulders, and says, “Why, you’re awfully tall! When did you get so tall?”
I laugh. “Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager.” I kiss her cheek.
She puts her arms around me, saying, “I just worry about you so.”
I hug her and say it yet again. “I know, Mom, but I’ll be fine.”
I try not to shout. “Yes. Good night!”
Once down the steps, I turn to wave. They wave back, Dad’s arm around Mom, comforting her. I hurry to the car. Maybe she’ll stop worrying when I’m out of sight.
But I’m annoyed. Worse, her worries have stirred up the voices I’ve been working to keep at bay: You’re not doing it right. You’re not competent. You’re failing.
Rowing: A sport, with defined rules and roles. A culture.
When Mom was a child and the small camp at the point was the only one, her family always had a motorboat—a wooden hull powered by a tiny engine my grandfather assembled from spare parts. He’d taught my mother to treat the lake with respect, and she repeated his lesson to us often: “Storms can blow up giant waves out of nowhere.”
When my parents were first married, my grandparents built the second camp about a kilometer away. Every summer, Mom and Dad brought their growing family to play at the little camp. When I was very young, my grandparents died. Without my grandfather, no one had the skill to keep a motorboat, so my parents didn’t replace it. We had a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat for a few years, but by the time I was ten, it leaked too much to caulk, and Mom decreed its day over. After that, we had a small canoe, and although my mother allowed my then-teenaged brothers to take all-day excursions, she watched the water with what she called “a weather eye” until they were safely back home.
When I was in my mid-twenties, my parents began thinking of retirement. Mom bought a twelve-foot aluminum rowboat and fitted it with the oarlocks and oars her father had made. In the prow, she added a long heavy chain and a keyed padlock.
For this rowboat, she dictated strict rules. Unless we were out on the water, we must wrap the chain around a tree and lock the padlock. If we weren’t on the beach watching, the boat must be pulled completely off the beach to keep it safe from sudden storms. The oars were to be stowed in the camp’s breezeway to make it even harder for someone to steal it.
Although my siblings and I were in our twenties and thirties by this time, we rolled our eyes like teenagers, flouting some rules and obeying others only when she was around to inspect.
In spite of our behaviour, we had learned the lesson. On vacation, my sister and I often stayed out in the rowboat for hours, circling islands and exploring reefs—but always keeping an eye on waves and weather.
That night after supper, back at the smaller camp, I turn on the gas light and lay a fire in the fireplace. Then I walk the few yards to the beach. The water is too choppy to take the rowboat out, so I just swat mosquitoes and watch darkness settle over the water.
When it’s time for bed, I first light the fire for my own portion of cheer. As I settle into my sleeping bag, I listen to the fire crackle, its whispers as comforting as my father’s voice.
The next night after supper, Mom frowns intently at her knitting while Dad reads aloud. That afternoon she’d dropped a stitch, and fixing it has required her full concentration. She’s been focused and absorbed all evening.
At the end of the chapter, I say to Dad, “Well, now it sounds like the son did it.”
Dad shakes his head. “He couldn’t have been the mugger, and that’s what led to the murder.”
“Hmm, you’re right.” I glance at Mom. “How’s the knitting coming?”
“Oh, fine,” she says. She holds it up to show me, pointing to an uneven spot. “This doesn’t look too good, but I guess it will do.”
I lean forward to pick up the end. “You did a good job of fixing it. If you don’t say anything, nobody will notice.”
“Well, it’s not too, too much or anything, but I enjoy it. Say, it’s nearly, nine. Nine o’clock? Can that be right?”
I look up. “Yes, it is. I’d better get home.”
“You’re going home?” Mom is surprised.
“Well, to the other place, at the point. I’m staying there this week.”
“Oh, you are.” Her busy fingers finish her row. “And you’re not scared to stay alone?”
I smile. “Not at all. I know where everything is there, and I feel very safe.”
She sighs. “Well, if you’re sure….”
“I am, Mom.” I gather my purse and jacket.
Mom puts down her knitting and gets up to say goodnight. As I hug her, she says, “Would you like us…we could go in the….”
She seems so tiny. “Thanks, Mom, but I have my own car. See you tomorrow!”
I hug and kiss Dad. As I drive off, they wave from the window. I say aloud, “So much more pleasant! See how unnecessary all that worry is?”
But back at the point, I’m restless and discontented. I rinse my coffee mug and take out the garbage. I pick up my book and put it down. Finally, I head outdoors to collect sticks for the fireplace. The sunset behind the camp trails reddish-orange fire across the water to an island in the bay.
In just a few minutes, I’m rowing through the majestic evening, following the sunset’s path. Automatically adjusting my stroke for the greater strength in my right arm, I skim across the water, trying to outdistance my agitation and unhappiness.
The big lake is nearly calm. Even when the sun itself disappears beyond the trees, the evening sky dazzles my eyes and turns the water around me an opaque platinum. A breeze ruffles the water’s surface, shooting lilac and iridescent highlights along the tops of the ripples. With each stroke, my dripping oars create new patterns of pink-rimmed circles that grow, overlap, and fade.
Time slows. So does my pace. So does my anxious heart.
Finally, I rest my oars and sit quietly. A slight swell moves the water beneath me. I inhale and exhale, matching the lake’s breath.
Rowing: A pastime. An activity. A way to get from here to there. Except you can’t see where you’re going. Only where you’ve been.
When my parents finally retired completely, they stayed at the bigger place my grandparents had built around the curve of the bay, out of sight of the small camp. Mom’s disease has transformed her respect for the lake into fear. Earlier this summer, I took her out for a row once or twice, but she fretted and complained. Another loss, like her lost pleasure in mathematical patterns and in reading, but somehow deeper and more painful for the rest of us.
Ripples murmur against the rowboat’s hull as the lake and I breathe together. The sky darkens. I look over my shoulder at the island’s black silhouette. It’s time to turn around. As I row in, I watch new stars pierce the indigo sky.
I’m no longer restless, but discontent still lies along my shoulders, feather-light but impossible to ignore.
Back at the beach, I pull the boat up, far beyond the recent high-water mark, though not as far as Mom would demand. I wrap the boat’s chain around a tree, ignoring the padlock. She’d be furious if she knew I haven’t used the lock in several years. I lean the oars against the house, feeling momentary guilt at not bringing them into the breezeway.
Indoors, I light the usual fire and zip myself into my sleeping bag, but I’m not sleepy. Instead, I watch the sky through the bank of windows and wait for the moon to rise. I can still feel the movement of the boat in my bones.
The thought surfaces: She sure worries about that boat. And then it clicks.
She wasn’t as worried about me tonight. That’s what felt wrong—backwards, opposite, contrary. When she worries about me, I feel insulted. But when she doesn’t, it feels as if she doesn’t care.
As the fire chatters away, I mull over Mom’s illness, our worries, our desire to keep each other safe. As always, I wish I could heal her. But maybe navigating these waters with her is enough. In any case, it’s all I know to do.
MARION AGNEW’s fiction and creative nonfiction have received support from the Ontario Arts Council. Her work has appeared in journals in the U.S. and Canada and online, including The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Room, Compose, and Gravel, as well as anthologies such as Best Canadian Essays (2012 and 2014). Her office, in a house that sits between the two camps described in this essay, looks out over Lake Superior, and on calm evenings, she takes her late mother’s boat out for a row. More about her is at www.marionagnew.ca.
I knew that he’d emphasized our similarity so that he could disarm me.
“We are both Igbo,” he’d said, through a forced smile.
My thought response: So what.
Despite our shared heritage, he and I were still adversarial strangers because he had gone back on his word. This “brother” of mine was one of the people responsible for my extended confinement to the psychiatric ward. I was not in the mood to extend any form of good will.
I positioned my wheelchair so that I was directly in front of him, and I slowly looked upward until my eyes met his. Arrogance wafted off of him like the heat from my rusted bedroom radiator.
I made ready to make my demand.
“What did I do to make you think that I should spend more time in this place?”
I waited for his answer, radiating irrational anger. I was still under acute influence of my disease, and I was still in denial of this truth.
I lost my patience when he failed to respond, which precipitated the relinquishment of my remaining composure. I bellowed up at him, “You told me that I would only have to stay here for a period of two days. That is what you said to me, right? Now you are telling me that I will have to stay here for two weeks! Two weeks?! Why are you unable to keep your word?!”
He pursed his lips. Then he folded his arms without speaking a word. Was that going to be the extent of his response to my question?
I slammed my right hand down on the wheel of my chair and said, “Promises were made to me and I should expect that you would make sure that these promises will be kept!”
I knew that arguing with the doctor was probably useless, but I needed to say my piece. One of the only positive offshoots of my disease was that I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind. I was standing up for myself in a way that I never had before. Why had I suddenly become so outspoken and brave? Because I was more than certain that I was in mortal danger.
The doctor looked as if he was staring down at a cockroach. He made ready to squash the unpleasant thing that was waiting him to answer.
“Your condition has been deemed more severe than we first thought. And we need more time to observe you,” he said. His accent was thick, more pronounced than the one my father spoke with.
“But I don’t want to have to stay here any longer. I’ve already spent two weeks at this hospital. I need to go.”
“You have been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a very serious psychological condition. We have to treat you and see how you respond. You will be released when we are confident that you are showing progress.”
My heart sank.
While still within the psychiatrist’s purview, I conducted a quick reconnaissance of the dreary, monochrome, and cramped ward. It was divided into two corridors, with the nursing station acting as the point of demarcation. A half dozen uniformed police officers roamed the two corridors and manned the exits. Any attempts to cross the established border that linked the two sides would be dissuaded by the officer who acted as the border’s sentry. The police officers were obviously there to assist the clinical staff with maintaining some semblance of order, but seeing so many armed members of law enforcement cobbled together in such a constrained location rankled my nerves.
The hospital’s inmates walked among these officers, most of whom had spent almost the entirety of their lives existing on society’s edges; a portion of them had spent some time in the New York City prison system. There was a charge that ran through this place. And it could be ignited by anyone here, and at any time.
Prison stints and extended stays in hospitals had not been a part of my past. Why transfer me to this place? If the hospital would have performed some research they would have discovered that I was a graduate of the Boston University School of Business, a trained professional actor, and came from a good family. Every member of my family had either graduated from college or was planning on matriculating into a university. I knew that I didn’t belong in this place, but the gatekeepers who held the keys to freedom obviously thought differently.
“Whatever,” I said, shaking my head.
Now he was looking at me as if he was ashamed. I wanted to dig my fingernails into his sand-colored face and add a few more divots to the hundreds that had already ruined it. I steered my wheelchair away from the doctor in a huff instead, making sure to hold my breath as I passed by the open door of the room that stank of urine and cigarettes.
When it was time for sleep, I lay awake on my hospital bed instead, my diagnosis bouncing around my head.
To his credit, the psychiatrist had tried to take away some of the sting of this life-long sentence when putting forth his diagnosis, saying that I was susceptible to periods of mood instability and mania, and that I was not the only one who was suffering from that particular disease. That explanation was lost on me though, for all I could focus on was the word “schizoaffective” and all of the horrific images that my mind was associating with the term.
Momma had always said that I was the special man in her life. I’d thought that I was special too, believing at one time that I was gifted with a special insight into the whims of others. The psychiatrist had taken the wind out of that sail by handing down the life sentence. If I were to believe the doctor’s words, then it would mean that my extra-sensitive perspicacity was a stain instead of a gift. This fact alone had a shattering effect on my confidence. The diagnosis, in addition to the fact that I was the only person on the unit who was sporting a cast around a recently repaired broken leg, made me feel very vulnerable. When the pain from this realization became too much I stopped resisting the pill, and downed the twenty milligram Zyprexa for the first time.
I awoke later than usual the next day, unable to raise my head from the pillow. I attempted to move my limbs but was unable to because it felt as if the muscles and bones had been filleted from the inside of my skin. My mind was covered in a fog. After a few minutes I was on the verge of tears, thinking that I was going through the first stages of my death.
By early afternoon I realized that I’d overreacted in the morning. My condition was improving slightly with the passage of each subsequent hour. By late afternoon I was sure that I was going to live, though I would remain mired in a Zyprexa-induced stupor for the rest of the day. I went to bed on an empty stomach in the early evening—I’d been too tired to eat anything during that day—vowing never again to ingest another Zyprexa pill before closing my heavy eyelids.
I was myself again the next morning, although still a bit groggy from the day before. My roommate, who stood at an imposing six feet three inches and weighed two hundred fifty pounds, was still soundly asleep in his bed. He had been a docile fellow during the time I’d known him, a fact for which I was extremely grateful.
I exhaled a breath before I sat up and swung my legs from the bed onto the hospital floor, an action that required an inordinate amount of exertion. I encircled the circumference of my wrist with my hand and gasped in surprise—my wrist was replete with bony protrusions. Distraught from my extreme weight loss, I slid down from my bed until my butt hit the floor, then got down on all fours and started some push-ups. I maxed out after ten repetitions and stayed on the floor for few minutes, exhaling deeply. After catching my breath, I pushed myself off from the floor and got to my feet and used my good leg to hop on over to the foot of my bed, where my wheelchair was waiting for me. The light from the corridor was spilling into the open doorway. I steered the wheelchair towards it.
Mental illness is defined by its abnormalities and vicissitudes; the functioning of the mind and body is thrown into complete disarray. One clinician’s proffered reason for this instability was an ongoing “disconnection” between brain cells. His words felt abrasive and accusatory. It was “you” are this and “you” are that. I bristled at the explanation. He had basically asserted that I was the only one responsible for my condition. He’d made no mention nor alluded to other factors that may have been contributed to my behavioral inconsistencies.
When allowed to thrive, the mental illness makes it almost impossible for the afflicted person to establish and adhere to a routine. The people who ran the psych ward made establishing a routine a vital component of the patient’s recovery. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served at the same times every single day—my favorite times of the day. Psychotropic medications were distributed at the same time in the mornings and evenings. There was an activity room where the groups were held, although I preferred to watch movies on cable instead of talking about my issues.
Fearful that I could add even more time to my original sentence, I set out to be the good patient, going out of my way to prove that I was quiet, affable, and well behaved. I adhered to all of the standardized rules that had been set, except for the ingestion of the psychotropic medications. I’d hide the pills below the base of my tongue before making sure they met their ultimate fate at the end of each evening: circling down the drain of the bathroom sink.
I was the only patient who roamed around that wing of the hospital in a wheelchair. So I strove to avoid getting into any type of confrontation with the other denizens of this crazy place. My leg always drew attention to me though—the entire bottom half of it was encircled by a neon green cast. The others couldn’t help but be curious about what happened.
When the other patients asked what had happened to my leg I responded to their questions with most of the truth, one that was in direct contradiction to the story that I’d relayed to my care team. I’d told my care team that I’d tried to kill myself because I thought it was what they wanted to hear, and because I was trying to escape being branded with a more severe diagnosis.
Killing myself hadn’t been an option because I was afraid of the consequences. Although I wasn’t a devout Catholic, I was cognizant of the fact that taking my life would result in my being transported to hell for an eternity. And for a man who had been walking along the path that God had created for him, suicide was not a viable option.
What were the actual events that had led to my hospitalization?
I’d locked myself in my room during the last few days of December, 2003, my brain on fire with delusions of persecution and conspiracy. I would try to douse the fire by spending time alone in the darkness, removed from everything and everyone. But the conflagration in my mind would only become more incensed.
My bedroom became a dark cave. The air in the room became stale, but I was content to breathe it in. During those two days I hardly shifted positions while supine in my disheveled bed, staring up into the darkness, while the paranoia, anger, and sadness gripped me. My bedroom, a shambolic mess, was the embodiment of disorganized thoughts.
Mom, Dad, and other family members kept on calling. Their calls brought short stints of reprieve from the loneliness and isolation and provided me with a temporary reminder of who I was. I wouldn’t return their phone calls though. I’d ignore my roommate’s entreaties about my health and eschewed the phone calls of the friends I’d made. I suspected everyone that I knew was working for my enemies.
After I decided that it would become untenable for me to remain in my room for perpetuity, I devised a plan—it was emblematic of my desperation. I jumped up from the bed to dress and gather everything that I could carry, then entwined three sets of sheets together, creating a makeshift rope. I tied one end of the rope to the radiator, parted the curtains, and opened the window. I adjusted my eyes to the sun and threw the makeshift rope through the open window.
I looked down the length of the sheet as it swung to and fro and against the brick wall of the four story apartment building. There were three stories separating me from the concrete floor below, the makeshift rope spanning the length of about two of those stories. No problem. I would scale down the first twenty feet of rope before attempting to jump the last ten.
I was still three stories above the ground when the rope snapped, leaving me to fall the rest of the way. When I crashed down on the cement street that had been made harder and colder by the sub-freezing temperatures, the wind escaped from my lungs. I couldn’t make a sound, but my entire body was screaming from the pain.
When I regained my wind from the fall and the wracking pain had morphed into dull and persistent throbbing, I took inventory of my current situation. The paraphernalia that I’d been hauling on my back was strewn all across the alley way, but my body seemed to be intact at first glance.
My mind was still feverish, and I desperately needed to get away. I thought I could miraculously walk away from this catastrophic fall; I started the process of gathering my things together when I noticed that my right leg was bent back awkwardly. There was also a rip in my jeans, from which escaped the calcified bone of my knee. Blood was upwelling through the hole that had been made by the exposed knee bone, and spilling down the sides of my jeans.
I burst out crying at the sight of my new deformity before desperately flagging down a startled passerby.
“Can you please help me?” I said, sobbing. “Please, please help me.”
I told the story of how I arrived at the facility in Daniel’s room. Daniel, a bearded and excitable young man who had spent a significant amount of time in hospitals, rolled his eyes after I had completed my tale of woe.
“Come on, man,” he said. “That’s nothing. One time I got fucked up so bad that I had to spend four months in a hospital bed.”
Geoffrey, a large man with two missing front teeth, was sitting next to me. Like my roommate, he was a gentle and calm; a smile came easily to him. His wide grin and kindness were gifts of welcome respite from a continuous flood of despair. If you were to run into Geoffrey on the street, you would never have guessed that he was a schizophrenic who had spent six years in a real New York City prison facility.
Geoffrey was with me when my father arrived for his visitation. Dad’s wide eyes revealed his absolute shock at my appearance: I’d sustained a nasty shiner in addition to the broken leg and weight loss. His reaction upon first seeing me in the hospital distressed me, though it wasn’t a surprise. Nothing could have prepared him for the sight of his first-born being confined to a wheelchair, body broken and spirit twisted by demons both real and imagined.
My father’s visit proved to be my saving grace. His presence provided a temporary uplift for my spirit and acted as a precipitating event. A few of the ward’s employees had developed a fondness for me during my confinement; their eyes practically lit up at the sight of the family reunion. The hospital staff knew that my father—dressed in a plaid jacket and carrying a briefcase—would act as my responsible guardian, which placated their concerns about my well-being when I was eventually released from the hospital. There was an up-swelling of hope within me that felt foreign, which contributed to the ward feeling a lot less dreary and depressing on that day.
Dad’s visit had the opposite effect on Geoffrey, though. We were hanging together, watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie—the best of the five—in the activity room when he let out a sigh and said, “That’s cool that your dad came out all this way to see you. My family lives right here in the city and ain’t none of them came out to see me.” I could only respond to my friend Geoffrey with silence because I was too absorbed in my thoughts and situation to really consider what he was saying.
A week and a half had passed without my having been involved in some major incident on the floor, another fact for which I was extremely grateful. And I was actually starting to get used to life on the ward. I had settled into the prescribed ward routines and had made a few friends/acquaintances. With only a few days remaining until my release, I was thinking that I might escape this place without accruing any additional scars.
And then my roommate lost his shit one night.
He took offense to something that was said by a visiting nurse, cursed her out, and then spat at her face from a supine position on his bed. One of the officers on duty rushed to the aid of the nurse who’d just been assaulted. I was thankful that the roommate seemed to calm as the dreadlocked and bulky cop firmly established himself at the nurse’s right flank. As I watched the situation quickly unfold, I felt as if I’d experienced whiplash. What would possess a usually docile and gentle man to assault someone in a manner that was vile, and in a place where immediate repercussions would be meted out?
The incident with my roommate, the loss of my job and girlfriend, and other things weighed on my mind when I went before the clinical team/parole board to discuss my progress as a patient. My fellow Igbo man had been given a seat at table. His inclusion in that group would have made me clam up a few days ago. I became a puddle a tears and snot on that day, though, oblivious to the judgments and affirmations of the people who watched me in that room.
It wasn’t until I was given access to my clothes and phone again that I became truly secure in the fact that I was finally leaving the hospital that had been my home for the past month. I found Geoffrey in his room so that I could say goodbye. When I reached up to shake his hand, he said, “I don’t ever want to hear that you have come back to this place.”
I responded firmly. “I promise that I won’t.”
Thirteen years have passed since I left the hospital. I remain a healthy, contributing member of society, who seems to have discovered the perfect formula for managing a chronic precondition—lower doses of psychotropic medicines are an important part of this formula. I’ve secured a master’s degree in health administration, and I’m up for a promotion with the employer with whom I have enjoyed my longest tenure. Those dark days from thirteen years ago have faded to the rearview of my life’s journey, but I still think about Geoffrey every single day.
I hope that he has been able to carve out a life for himself, though I am not optimistic that he has. He and I may have been two mentally ill individuals who’d gotten to know each other for two weeks in the same psychiatric ward, but I was blessed with certain advantages that would make it easier for me to regain the life that I’d nearly lost. Education, a loving family, and the absence of a criminal record all worked in my favor. Geoffrey would have to make his way in the world absent of the advantages that I had. And given the fact that he was a black man, which is a state of being that diminishes one’s prospects for success in society even when you are educated and healthy, his situation is very precarious.
I wish that there were some way to find out that he is all right.
EZE IHENETU is a hospital worker and freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. Once a teacher and an actor, Eze is confident that writing will be the last stop on his long professional journey. He is currently working on a memoir about his time as an elementary school teacher. You can reach him on twitter at @Eihenetu.
“Can you believe I drive a friggin’ Volvo?” I text one of my oldest friends. We trade shorthand code, the sort developed with those who have seen you through many decades and phases—the well-scrubbed-coed-ordering-amaretto-sours-without-irony phase, the hairy-armpits-and-knockoff-Birkenstocks-with-wool-socks phase, the slaggy-handkerchief-halter-top-and-bumps-in-the-bathroom-with-the-drummer-or-was-it-the-bassist-from-Metallica phase, the can-you-believe-I’m-still-bartending phase, the can-you-believe-I’m-in-rehab-and/or- jail phase, and now this, the can-you-believe-I’m-driving-a-Volvo-and-Googling-perimenopause phase.
“You in a Volvo station wagon is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of,” my friend fires back.
Now in my forties and out of the feigning street cred game, I seem by most external measures happy and stable—rooted even. I have something akin to that common domestic dream which Zorba the Greek lamented in the 1964 film: “wife, children, house, everything, the full catastrophe.” I have a devoted husband, an accountant who is also the town fire chief, a bric-a-brac of teaching and editing gigs that passes for a career, three mature lilac bushes, and 2.2 dogs. (I refuse to call them my “fur children.”) Keith and I joke that our three-year-old boxer, George, whose name is loosely derivative of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, counts as 1.2 dogs, the extra two tenths owing to his extra alpha-dog-bro-ness. This exterior sketch of my life on paper isn’t false, just thin. Anthropologists and other social scientists favor a “thick description” of human behavior, one that renders a fuller picture and which explains not only the behavior itself, but also its larger context. A thick description of my life, for example, might include a study of regional linguistics and attitudes, a family tree of mental illness, a personal history of addiction and trauma, and even what it feels like to be a sexual assault survivor during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, Groper-in-Chief. What I suppose I mean by the thick description is that the human condition is a motherfucker.
Beyond our Fisher Price town with its steepled square and mix of Colonial and Victorian storefronts winds the small river that hugs our country road. Between this river and road, farms nestle—some ramshackle, some picturesque—in the furry, coniferous hills of central Vermont. If you scrub past the rosy patina of Norman Rockwell Americana, you find ordinary America too, or perhaps ’Murrica, as some of my local students like to declare proudly: blue tarps and Gadsen flags, guns, black tar heroin, snowmobiles, high rates of domestic and sexual violence, and other assorted clichés of rural poverty and dis-ease.
Down this road a few miles sits the 1830s farmhouse that Keith and I bought last summer, flanked on one side by hay fields and on the other by the not-so-mighty, but lovely, First Branch of the White River. Because we lived in Arizona when I was a child, and swimming pools were ubiquitous, Mom plunked me in a toddler swim class at two, and I’ve been a water lover ever since. Given a chance to swim, especially in the wildness of an ocean, lake, or river, I will stay submerged for hours—until my skin is pruned. Here, in the town that we now call home of just over a thousand souls, I watch and listen to the river daily from our back deck. If the weather is warm and the river high enough, I head down to the water for a dip or to sit on a giant granite boulder, deposited as glacial moraine during the last ice age, and marvel at my luck. Calling this place, any place, home does a number on my psyche, yet here, I’m making peace with the full catastrophe. Something I can’t yet name washes over me here, or perhaps that something is finally washing away.
Nearly fifteen years ago, and six thousand miles from my apartment in San Francisco where I lived in my twenties, I sat nervously in a cold, stone office in the bowels of the stazione policia, on Via Zara in Florence, Italy. I was twenty-five and on my first trip abroad. The night before, I shared dinner with friends on the Piazza Della Repubblica, fifteen minutes by foot from the police station. The night before, I wore an outfit I bought special for the trip: tight red pedal pushers and a tight red blouse, heeled sandals, and a purple head scarf. We chatted gaily with our waiter, who joined us for Fernet Branca and Prosecco after his shift. He spoke little English, and I little Italian, but in broken Spanish and flirty eye contact, we managed well enough. My friends and I and the waiter walked over the Ponte Vecchio, but at some point while browsing the trinket shops and smoking cigarettes with our arms draped through the stone portholes over the Arno, he and I drifted from the group. At another point, I figured they’d gone back to our hotel, and he offered a “corto trayecto” on his moped. Still drunk and sun-baked from the day, intoxicated by the wafting lilac and street disinfectant, and dizzy from the ridges of terracotta rooflines undulating by, the ride exhilarated me in those first moments. But after twisting down more dusty lanes and bumping over cobblestones and emerging onto a faster, wider boulevard, my giddiness evaporated. I began to feel sick and to spin, adrift from my friends and our hotel and the center of town. He slowed the moped to a stop, hopped it onto a sidewalk in front of an apartment building, and with his strange, sweaty hand, the nice-seeming waiter led me up a flight of steps and into his small apartment.
We got here as soon as we could, my husband and I like to say—both in a literal and metaphorical sense—about our arrival in Vermont, about how we are late bloomers, about how long it’s taken to arrive at some place we might call home. We came to Vermont nine years ago, fleeing Houston, Texas, in a little hatchback packed with everything we owned. We drove past the Texas refineries and Louisiana swamps, then into the lush hills of Mississippi and Alabama, and on through the Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. When we reached the Maryland panhandle, I knew the Mason-Dixon Line was close, and once over that arbitrary boundary, my body flooded with relief, as if I had been safely extracted from behind enemy lines.
I say that we fled because at the time we felt that we had to get out of Texas if we wanted to make it. A few months before I met Keith, I got drunk and crashed my jeep into three other cars at a major city intersection. Miraculously, and despite epic vehicle wreckage, no one was killed, and only one person was hurt. After my initial arrest for drunk driving, I was charged with a felony that carried a five- to ten-year prison sentence, and the ensuing, protracted legal ordeal loomed over everything, including our budding romance. Dating tips don’t cover how to handle the “I’m under felony indictment” conversation on the first date, but Keith stayed, even as life became a two-year blur of court hearings, AA meetings, endless chauffeuring and bus rides, sporadic paychecks from temp agencies that would overlook my circumstances, pre-trial supervision, and finally, a five-day felony trial. I was more fortunate than most who get devoured by the Harris County Criminal Court system, convicted ultimately of a misdemeanor and sentenced to just 121 days in the fearsome Harris County Jail. With good time, I served sixty.
My lawyer’s early admonishment about the Texas criminal justice system proved prophetic: “You might beat the rap, but you won’t beat the ride.” While on the ride, Keith and I talked about “going home” once everything was over. Despite early years out West, I had spent much of my youth in New Hampshire, and on visits to New England Keith became enamored of the beauty, history, and landscape. He grew up in Texas, but as someone who is naturally taciturn, who loves flannel, snow, and early mornings, I suspect he was a New Englander in a past life. While in jail, and with a firm end date and real second chance in hand, we finally began to make plans in earnest. Even though it was considered contraband, I kept a photograph stuck to my bunk with the adhesive strips from a stamp book, so that I could remember what waited for me on the outside. It was a picture of Keith and me, from the trip we made to Vermont for my thirtieth birthday, standing outside in an October snow flurry. Vermont had become our new starting line.
Why did I go with the waiter? This was the tortuous refrain that ran through my mind the morning after, as I sat in the police station. I didn’t speak Italian, but I found a sympathetic translator from the American Consulate who escorted me to the station to help me file a report. Why did I go? I thought, as she mouthed the Italian words for the images that stabbed into my mind as if from a knife. The words sounded cheerful when this nice lady spoke them in Italian, the words for oral sex, for finger penetration, for erect penis, for without consent, for kick-start scooter, for champagne headache, for swarthy waiter, for slim build, for a Calabrian driver’s license, for his email address scrawled on a napkin, for No, for a partial apology in Spanish, for a cigarette afterward, for a walk over the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II, for permission to call my father, for the correct change in liras.
A movie about my twenties would begin happily. A young, quirky Ally Sheedy would star, Sofia Coppola would direct, and most of my boyfriends would be played by John Cusack. These early adult years weren’t without bumbling and angst, but for the most part, I had my act together. I lived in San Francisco, my dream city, where I was on track to complete a master’s program in creative writing. I had my own studio apartment on Russian Hill, a tight group of friends, and steady, lucrative work as a cocktail waitress, which helped me save up for my first European adventure. The itinerary dazzled me—Paris, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Italy, Provence, and finally, Spain—but I never made it past Florence. So, despite the auspicious beginning of my fantasy movie, the film would end unhappily, would tumble perilously thereafter across the screen, in a non-linear montage of depression, substance abuse, and suicide attempts, or what one shrink euphemistically called “gestures.” Not even the best film editor could suture these storylines. The jump cut was too rough.
This twist in my story has only recently, all these years later, begun to rise to a place from which I might access and write about it. It’s the story of, and here’s the problem…my rape? Or, my sexual assault? The first term I associate, technically, with penile-vaginal penetration, and the latter with euphemism. None of what happened feels technical or easily categorized, and neither does it seem deserving of euphemism, a language akin to evasion. See how the words still confound me, how the taxonomy remains fraught? I suspect that when the writer becomes a statistic, the language has to be dealt with as much as the event. Is rape what you want to call it? my father said to me in those early days. Of course, he didn’t mean harm. We don’t learn how to talk about such things in our culture, least of all men, least of all middle-aged fathers whose daughters call from payphones halfway around the world to say, Daddy, I’ve been raped. While I understand his quibbling now as an effort to make the thing somehow lesser or more manageable, or perhaps as an effort to attach language to the nightmare that we all could then live with, those words damaged me.
I felt misunderstood and silenced, as if I couldn’t be trusted to name my own experience. Though legal language varies, RAINN—the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network—defines rape as “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Even though, technically, my experience does fit the definition, the truth is that I remain ambivalent about whether to call what happened to me rape.
Not long after the incident, the translator stopped returning my emails. Over time, I got mail from the Italian court that I couldn’t read. One letter came. Then maybe another. This timeline, too, is fuzzy, mired as these months were in heavy drinking and a growing dalliance with cocaine. When I returned from Italy, I holed up in my boyfriend Mike’s nondescript apartment in the Outer Richmond, which in those years was still a working class neighborhood on the northwestern corner of the peninsula. His apartment was closer to my university and far away from my friends who lived downtown. Its location conscribed a small, anonymous circle of the city in which I could limit my travel and social activity. I felt safe only in the darkness of his apartment and zipped into the anesthesia provided by the drinking. But the safety was an illusion, and the alcohol and drugs provided only temporary relief—if anything, they slickened the slippery in-roads of my mind. Previously closed-off territory opened up, as if in a nightmarish version of Chutes and Ladders, wherein I replayed every slutty thing I’d ever done and every unpleasant encounter.
Long buried before, I suddenly remembered another assault, dredged from the depths of my consciousness like a car hauled from a riverbed, mud-caked and slick with algae. I was seventeen that time, and in my first week of college at Rutgers University in central New Jersey. Late in that first week, a junior from my dorm, a fast-talking, animated guy from Jersey City, took an interest. Now, of course, I know I should have been wary of a guy whose opening line to my roommate and me was, “Youse freshmen?”, but then I was charmed. His accent and swagger were so different from the Boston Irish guys I grew up with, and he was not just some immature high school boy, but a college student—a man. Within minutes he was showing me his Don Mattingly swing impression and inviting my roommate and me to his dorm room for movies later that night. We went, of course, and while my roommate made out with his roommate (another beefy guy from Jersey City) beneath the Under-the-Sea phantasmagoria created by a spinning lava lamp, he made a move on me. We kissed for a minute, but a hunger in his movements frightened me, and before long I demurred, asking him to “slow down.” But he was somewhere else, his eyes glazed and fixed on the wall behind me. In fact, he sped up after I said that, as if further aroused, and then rolled on top of me.
“C’mon, baby,” he grunted, grinding his erection into my thigh. I tried to push him off of me, but he wouldn’t give.
“Please stop,” I said shakily, looking over at my friend who seemed oblivious and tangled up with the roommate. I assumed happily so, but I have wondered since if she had been in trouble too. How could I know what I was seeing, having never been taught what to look for? He pulled my shirt up and took my breasts in his mouth, suckled hard and with his teeth, then cupped my crotch over my jeans, rubbing his thumb hard back and forth against the zipper, which is where I imagine that he imagined my clitoris was. Finally, I managed to wiggle free by shimmying up the bed and wriggling out from between his legs. I hopped off the bed, pulled my shirt down, grabbed my bag and shoes, and clutched them to my chest to hide my breasts, which were still loose from the bra that was now pulled around my shoulders like a sash. I hurried to the door with the man panting after me.
“Don’t leave,” he begged. “I promise I’ll be good. You’re just so sexy, baby.” But once I was in the threshold of the door, he turned off the charm like a switch, and snarled after me down the hallway, “Bitch.” It’s probably important to point out that Rutgers, a state school where most students’ hometowns were no more than two hours away, was desolate on the weekends—an additional factor that made my roommate and me, two rubes from out of state, easy prey. As I rounded the corner to the freshman wing of the dorm I heard him holler the charming words that my roommate and I later turned into a kind of revenge refrain: “You can’t just leave me hanging! You gotta jerk me off or sumtin.”
Mike worked long hours as an options trader, but I remember that one night he came home early with takeout. I couldn’t tell you whether this happened six weeks or six months after the rape, nor whether it was meant as a gesture of kindness or normalcy, or even as a gesture at all, but his early return with dinner was unusual. Without much comment, I took a plate heaped with fried rice and egg rolls and my tumbler of White Russian and plunked down on the floor in front of the television in the living room. I had gained maybe fifteen pounds since the assault, and while I was nowhere near fat, neither was I the lithe ingénue he began dating years before. We were on the outs anyway, so what he said to me then—while not untrue—didn’t penetrate my new armor.
I was fortified by then, had taken up residence in my own sad kingdom. Standing in the doorway, his arms crossed, and with a mix of tenderness and perhaps disgust, he said, “Where is my bright, beautiful girl? I don’t recognize you anymore.”
I smiled wryly, raised my cocktail as in a toasting gesture, and said, “That, my love, is exactly the point.”
I spent less and less time at my own apartment, which now seemed a place belonging to another person and time, a “before” shot from the “before and after” portrait of my own life. Through a bartender friend, I had lucked into the cute, cheap, centrally-located rental. No one I knew paid seven hundred dollars for a studio in the heart of the city, let alone one with a private garden patio that teemed with bougainvillea, lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, and the Purple Chinese Houses that looked like ornate, amethyst bib necklaces. The elderly, housebound woman who lived upstairs had cultivated the garden for decades, but since she could no longer enjoy it, the garden became my private Eden—an idyll rich with a bracing cologne of eucalyptus and herbs. But that was before. After, I preferred exile.
No one seemed to want to talk about the assault anyway, or no one knew what to say, but perhaps that characterization isn’t fair—or even accurate. Memorably, someone did say something—just the right thing, in fact. In a hand-written note on delicate ivory stationary, Jenna, a motorcycle-riding, beer-drinking girlfriend originally from Down East Maine, wrote: “You are the purest little rosebud, just beginning to flower. Please don’t let this stop your petals from opening to the sun. Remember, in the end it is harsh pruning and bull shit that makes the rosebush grow strong.” Perhaps I convinced myself that it was easier for everyone else, when I actually meant that it was easier for me, to forget the whole thing. After all, it happened a continent away, in another language even. The more that time passed the fuzzier and more distant the details became. Occasionally I would pull out the Italian paperwork from a file box. Four documents summarize my sexual assault: a report made by my friends; an initial filing made by me at a mobile police unit; a complete report made to the Florence police; and a notification I received from the court many months later, and which as far as I can make out, gave me twenty days to declare a domicile in Italy. I can read Spanish, and the languages are close, but still the documents are hard to decipher. I thought over the years about getting someone to translate them for me, but again it seemed easier to let it lie, to let the words, and therefore the event, remain a kind of secret or mystery that I kept even from myself. In a sense, then, I answered my father’s rhetorical question about what to call it by default, be deciding not to call it anything, to put the whole thing in an unlabeled box, and bury it on some godforsaken alien continent inside me.
Why did I go? I hate that I still ask myself this. I know this what-if game leads only to self-blame and shame, but I play anyway, because this is what sexual assault victims do. Perhaps I shouldn’t have worn red, shouldn’t have flirted, and shouldn’t have asked where we could get some pot. But actually, it was my girlfriend’s boyfriend who asked, and the waiter who said he had some in his apartment. He said his apartment was just around the corner, and we could ride over there on his moped. He seemed so nice, so harmless. I should never have gone, should have said “no” more forcefully, should have kicked his teeth in—something. But what magical thing would I have done? I play this game, as all victims do, because our culture trains us to blame ourselves. Instead of teaching boys and men not to rape, we teach girls and women the dubious art of avoiding rape, and yet when, inevitably, women are raped, they are abandoned, or worse, they are re-victimized by a legal system that reinforces its own bogus mythology. Every case becomes her word against his, despite empirical research that puts false reports as low as with any other violent crime. After mustering the courage to report these crimes in the first place, victims fight again to convince police, prosecutors, judges and juries, when ultimately, ninety-seven percent of rapists receive no punishment at all (this, according to RAINN). The message is clear: victims must bear their own burdens. We must learn how to survive our own rapes.
Though many of the direct memories of my assault remain sealed in drums and buried like radioactive waste or time capsules under hard-pack, I am still not safe from them. Trauma interacts with memory in complex ways, so memories of certain events—flashes—appear to me as non-linear images and sensory details. I am not unique in this. In an article for Time Magazine on December 9, 2014 on the neurobiology of sexual assault, Drs. James Hopper and David Lisak explain why rape and trauma survivors have fragmented and incomplete memories of their traumas:
Inevitably, at some point during a traumatic experience, fear kicks in. When it does, it is no longer the prefrontal cortex running the show, but the brain’s fear circuitry—especially the amygdala. Once the fear circuitry takes over, it—not the prefrontal cortex— controls where attention goes. It could be the sound of incoming mortars or the cold facial expression of a predatory rapist or the grip of his hand on one’s neck. Or, the fear circuitry can direct attention away from the horrible sensations of sexual assault by focusing attention on otherwise meaningless details. Either way, what gets attention tends to be fragmentary sensations, not the many different elements of the unfolding assault. And what gets attention is what is most likely to get encoded into memory.
Not only are my memories fragmented, but because of the nature of trauma, and despite my best efforts to neutralize them, the memories intrude in on my thoughts without warning. One moment I’m sitting by my river at home, and the next I’m back in Florence, holding my friend Bernadette’s hand, then tap-dancing on cobblestone, eating pasta, on the back of a moped. Suddenly, the man’s fingers are inside me. His tongue inside me. I am crying. His penis is in my mouth; is that right? I am crying in his kitchen, asking for a ride to the hotel. Then I’m back with my friends, outside the hotel, in relative safety under some streetlights. Bernadette and I are having a cigarette, and I am racing to tell her before the man gets back on his moped. As I tell her the story, the man is apologizing, inexplicably, to Bernadette’s boyfriend. Where’s my apology? I want to scream. I am still waiting.
Perhaps because I am just now unearthing my sexual assault, it doesn’t occur to me until all these years later, when my husband points it out, that this game, as I’ve always thought of the obsessive event replay, is a textbook hallmark of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One morning not long after moving into the house, we’re out on our deck, drinking coffee and admiring the view of surrounding mountains, meadows, and the river. The lilacs, which light up with pleasure from the same brain circuitry that alights with fear—the amygdala—are still in bloom, and the river is running high. Listening to the rush of the water, I tell Keith about the compulsion I have to replay the night over and over.
“You know what that is, right?” he asks. I shake my head, even as I guess that I do. “It’s PTSD,” he says.
I do it with the car accident too, another trauma. I’d always assumed because in both instances I was drunk, that the replay was more about getting the narrative straight, trying to fill in certain holes. Is the inability to fill in the holes trauma, alcohol, memory, or all of the above? I run the replays automatically, absently, while drifting off to sleep or walking the dogs or washing the dishes. Each starts as a kind of mental video game, with Player 1 (me) flashing on the screen, and then we’re off. Either we’re running the crash scenario in Houston, or we’re running the moped scenario in Florence, each a sort of gauntlet where I imagine I can get points if I can lock certain features in place. Perhaps I can grab a new street name, a new weapon, or a new clue. Invariably, of course, the features of the game blur. So too with the features of memory, which escape me, bringing me once again upon the giant sinkholes that open up and swallow time, matter, memory, me.
“Lex,” Keith says, waving his hand in front of my face the way we do to inquire if the other person is paying attention. And with that I come to, having been belched from the beast of my past, returning to our morning in progress.
“I don’t know what’s worse,” I say. “The sudden jerks into the past, or the fact that I can never seem to stay in the present.” I try then to settle into my chair, my body, my breath.
“Be where your hands are,” my yoga teacher says. I study my hands, my oversized mug, and the lilacs in the yard, so purple they are almost blue. With their heart-shaped leaves and from the way they cluster into crown-like bunches, they remind me of the swim bonnets worn by the elderly women at my fitness center. But the fragrance is so unique, that it reminds me of nothing but itself.
Oh, and that night in Italy.
High on adrenaline and instinct and a lifelong good sense of direction, the morning after my assault, I led the officers back to the man’s apartment, which was not just around the corner as the man had suggested, but rather, some four-plus back-switching miles from the piazza. Since I had the napkin with his name and email address, the officers matched it with one of the occupants listed in their records. “Ben Fatto!” one of the officers shouted and pumped his fist from the front seat of the little police car.
“It means good job,” the translator said.
“I know,” I said. While still parked in front of the apartment, the officer craned around to face me in the back seat. He began talking intently, passionately, and looking back and forth between the translator and me.
“He says he’s very sorry this happened to you, and this is good evidence, but these things are hard to prosecute,” she said. I nodded and thanked him. He turned forward as if to drive off, but twirled back again, this time addressing mainly the translator. I made out the last word, commune: common. I looked at the translator, and she shook her head.
“C’mon, tell me,” I said.
“There’s no precise equivalent in English,” she sighed. “It doesn’t mean quite the same thing, but he says these things happen. They are common.”
When I packed for my flight just hours later, I flattened the words on the police report in the bottom of my suitcase like a freighted souvenir, underneath the red pants and blouse and stacked heels I wore the night before. I realized then that my panties were gone, probably still in the man’s apartment. Once on the plane and headed back to California, my seatmate asked if I was going home, and I nodded, then faltered. “Well, yes, I live there,” I said, thinking home was not a word I understood anymore, not a place on any map.
The night we closed on our house, Keith and I stood in the back yard at dusk with our hands clasped. We have two dogs, a ten-year-old rescue pit bull mix named Jazzy, and George, the boxer tween we got a year after our first boxer died. As a puppy, George, white- and fawn-colored with a comical black and brown eye patch of fur, was predictably mischievous, but it was Jazzy who—upon visiting the house for the first time that evening—had gotten so excited that she arched over in the entry way and took a massive dump. We were still giggling about it as we stood in our new yard, watching George zoom around the acre in obsessive circles, doing his “racetracks.” The river was high and the lilacs in bloom, and the music from the water and the perfume from the flowers washed over us. “This is ours,” Keith said, squeezing my hand a little harder.
“Yep,” I said, squeezing back.
The common purple lilac, or syringa vulgaris, like those in the loamy northwest corner of our own yard, is a flowering woody plant in the olive family. Olives thrive in temperate Mediterranean climates so unlike the harsh, snowy winters and humid summers of Vermont that it surprises me to learn this. I know it’s greedy and provincial, but I’ve always associated lilacs with New England, which somehow made them mine. After all, the common purple lilac is the New Hampshire state flower, which I was forced to memorize in school, along with the state bird (purple finch), state fruit (pumpkin), state gem (smoky quartz), and state insect (the ladybug). But I do remember lilacs in Italy, whose fragrance stood out to me amid the other Florentine scents—amber, tobacco, lavender, cypress—as a kind of olfactory beacon of home. The family name, syringa, comes from the Greek word syrinx, or hollow tube, which refers to the plant’s shoots and their large piths, while the species name, vulgaris, means common or usual. However ubiquitous lilacs may be, nothing about their loveliness seems common to me.
Later that night, while washing dishes and looking out the kitchen window that overlooks a side yard where the previous owners had a sizeable fenced-in garden, I tell Keith about everything I want to plant. I’m excited, and the list grows absurd: star fruit, melons, Christmas trees, cucumbers, potatoes, peonies, roses, bleeding hearts, corn, lilies, bananas, chips and salsa trees, puppy seeds, and book awards. Keith laughs. I’ve never been a gardener, never planted anything other than pain, but here in my fortieth year, I want to plant something finally that can thrive.
We’ve been in the house six months now, and while unpacking the last of the boxes, I find a package marked “FRAGILE” in Keith’s neat handwriting. I can’t think of anything fragile we own—no valuables or heirlooms—but as I peel back the layers of plastic shopping bag used as wrapping, I see a box, about the size of a shoe box, which I recognize immediately as the urn containing the ashes of our first dog, Jimmy. A ninety-pound boxer, with a heart and personality to match his size, Jimmy came with us from Texas and lived here in Vermont until he was thirteen. Losing him was eased by the wonderful staff of our local vet office, who treated the loss as their own. We opted to have him cremated, and when we went to pick up the ashes, they were stored in a pine box with a handwritten card taped to the lid. The card, which had a raised, lumpy paper heart affixed to it, read, “Plant this in loving memory.” The veterinary technician, who emerged from the back to tell us how sorry she was, explained that the heart adornment contained wildflower seeds and that we could plant it. At the time we lived in an apartment and decided to hang onto the card until we found a place of our own. I show Keith the card and read the instructions out loud: “Remove adornment from card, plant in your garden and wildflowers will blossom year after year.” I ask him if he remembers the garden I was talking about our first night in the house. I hold up the card and touch the little heart adornment and say, “We can start with this.”
ALEXIS PAIGE is the author of Not a Place on Any Map, a collection of flash lyric essays about trauma, and winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Her essay, “The Right to Remain,” was a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, and she’s received three Pushcart Prize nominations. Paige’s work appears in The Rumpus,Hippocampus, The Manifest Station, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com.
Like a good citizen, I call my senators at least once a week these days, but their aides are brusque. They tell me that Alexander and Corker support the President’s education agenda/healthcare reform/immigration order or whatever I’m outraged about on that day. In the first few weeks, they’d thank me for my call. Now they simply say, “Your objection is noted,” and hang up as quickly as they can. Once, as if caught off guard, one said, “Are you sure you live in Tennessee?”
I carry my passport with me everywhere these days.
I’ve begun to sort that which is precious and from that which is not. I make a small pile of the things I’d pack in the night, a larger one of the stuff I would leave. Everyone is insisting we’re just one Reichstag Fire away from fascism. On the news, I watch a steady stream of black people murdered by the state for their blackness, and I think it’s more likely that we’ve already had the Anschluss.
When I travel, I wear an inherited diamond I feel silly wearing at home. I remember being told when I was younger that a Jewish woman should always have enough jewelry on her body to bribe her way over a border. At the time it seemed quaint. Now it seems key. For the moment, the diamond ring’s still on my finger. I wonder if there will come a day I’ll need to sew it into the hem of my coat.
Over coffee, my friend Meredith talks about joining the resistance in a way that suggests we’re headed for a war she thinks we can win. I talk about going to ground, about building false walls for hiding people waiting for fake passports and safe transport. We scare ourselves and then laugh at ourselves, but even after the laughing we are still scared.
Meredith wasn’t always Meredith, and there is a passel of bills in our state legislature designed to make it impossible for her to be Meredith now. I tell her I will hide her in my hidden rooms, if it comes to that. She says she won’t be hidden, but she might move to Atlanta.
My coffee these days is chamomile tea. I’m jittery enough as it is.
If we flee, we will go to my husband’s family in Austria. The irony of this is not lost on me; there are Nazis in the family albums. They assure us that we’ll be safe there, should it come to that, and I believe them. They’ve clearly learned lessons that we have not.
My husband has stopped talking about becoming an American citizen and started talking about being an anchor relative.
My friend Jessica is spending all her vacation time in Israel this year, establishing the Right of Return. I’ve stopped questioning the politics of this; refugees go where they can.
This Hanukah, I will give my niece and nephews passports if they don’t already have them. If they do, I will give them whatever they ask for. I’ve lifted my moratorium on war toys. Maybe they should know how to handle a gun.
My closest disabled friends and I swap lists of medications and start to horde the things one or some of us need against the day we lose access to them. We read up on actual expiration versus labeled expiration dates. We refill prescriptions before we need to, just in case.
I have six boxes of Plan B in my closet, even though I’m long past child-bearing years. On campus, I spread rumors about a shadowy network of old women who will help younger women with travel and money for abortions if they can’t get the healthcare they need in their home towns. I call all my old woman friends and build the network. I keep their names and numbers in handwritten lists and hide them away.
I refuse to let my husband put a “Stop Trump” bumper sticker on our car. “That’s just foolish,” I say. I let him keep the Cthulu fish. For now.
A young woman cries in my office, afraid that if she comes out to her parents they will disown her; she’s still dependent on them. I tell her that she doesn’t have to come out to them now, or ever, if she doesn’t feel safe doing so. She looks shocked. It breaks my heart to have been the first to suggest the safety of the closet to her; I wonder what she is coming out of, if it had never occurred to her to remain in.
I’ve stopped going to protests and started going to meetings for which there are no flyers or Facebook event notices. To find them, you have to know someone who already has. We talk there of things I won’t write here. At first, we turned off our phones. Now, we leave them at home.
And yet still, like a good citizen, I call my senators at least once a week. Their aides are brusque. In the first few weeks, they’d thank me for my call. Now they hang up as quickly as they can. I haven’t yet given up on the dream of America, but I’m making contingency plans.
SARAH EINSTEIN teaches Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Ninth Letter, Still, and others journals, and been awarded a Pushcart and a Best of the Net. She is the author of Mot: A Memoir (Univerity of Georgia Press, 2015) and Remnants of Passion (Shebooks, 2014).