Love and Loathing in Las Vegas

joy

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lynn Marie Houston

If you want to expound on love,

take your intellect out and let it lie down

in the mud. It’s no help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it really hard, milking a goat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big S frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s playing?”

“Wolfmother.”

“They’re pretty good,” he smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vegas feels like paralysis,” Simon said.

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

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

“I am,” said Catherine.

“I am,” said Simon.

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

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

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

He nodded.

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

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

•••

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

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

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

•••

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

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

alive

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jessica Handler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

Final Accounting

Courtesy Jane Hammons

Courtesy Jane Hammons

By Jane Hammons

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

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

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

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

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

Nowhere.

No flowers?

No service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A floating wreath. Put candles on it.

He directs the service.

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

Sprinkle ashes upon the wreath.

Place it in the waves.

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

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

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

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

No wreath arrives. We fly kites.

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am here because she is not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

Ex Parte: forms give the appearance of conclusion.

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

•••

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

Killing the Magic

santa

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kate Haas

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

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

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

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

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

1. Santa Claus exists.

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

3. Santa alone fills the stockings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

My own kids, I vowed, would be something.

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yup.”

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

And just like that, we were all Jews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Neither is Santa Claus!”

I gave her a pointed look.

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

•••

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

Love and Death at the Gas Station: A French Suicide

gas station

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Cindy Price

Hey, hey, I saved the world today. And everybody’s happy now the bad thing’s gone away.

—The Eurythmics

I was in no way thinking along the lines of a proposal. I boarded the plane to Paris with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song in hand; earlier, I’d had my boyfriend run an X-Acto blade through the thousand-page tome, dividing it into three cartable sections. “Who brings such a depressing book to the south of France?” he’d asked, shaking his head and pressing the knife deeper into the bind. I watched the sinew flex in his forearm and shrugged.

“Don’t be silly,” I’d countered. “The entire country is depressed.”

He asked me to marry him a week into our trip, kneeling down on a grassy hill in Bourgogne. I had to hug myself to keep the wind from whipping up under my jacket, and the sun had dipped so low it was hard to see. “Yes,” I blurted out of custom, and then demurred. “Can I think about it?”

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to commit—we’d lived together faithfully for five years and I wanted kids with him. I’d just always been vocal about the fact that I thought a marriage certificate was irrelevant—not to mention a possible death warrant for romance—and this was the first I was hearing that he did not. In retrospect, my position seems facile: what did I know about an institution that I’d never been a part of? That night, we dined in a hideaway restaurant with a huge brick oven that warmed the entire room. “If I say no, will you still grow old with me?” I asked, the wine drowning out my anxiety.

“Of course,” he said without hesitation, and I knew he meant it.

When I ask him now where the suicide happened in the span of that trip, he never says, After I proposed to you and you said maybe. He says, “After Arles and before Collioure.” He cannot tell me how he felt about it or if he was frightened that day, but seven years later he can tell me the exact gas station where it happened. “Here it is,” he says, pulling it up on Google maps. “Just outside of Montpellier.”

I remember thinking that the rest area felt almost comically American in scope—a football field–sized scrape out of the French countryside with a long row of gas pumps and two convenience areas flanking each end of the asphalt. The bird’s eye view of us, a young couple on a road trip pulling into it, dragged to mind the pivotal scene from The Vanishing—not the original Dutch version, but the American remake with Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock. “She disappears into a gas station,” I explained, shoving the middle section of The Executioner’s Song into the floorboard and pulling on my sandals. “And then Kiefer Sutherland can’t find her and becomes obsessed and then when he finally finds out what happened—well, it’s the worst possible thing.”

“You and your macabre stories,” he joked, parking outside of the smaller convenience store.

“I don’t like them because they’re macabre,” I said defensively. “I read them to be prepared. In case something bad happens.” I walked across the asphalt lot alone to the bigger convenience plaza, looking for food. In the Mailer book I was reading, people also met terrible fates at the gas station. Gary Gilmore killed a gas station attendant, Max Jensen, for no practical reason. I had told my boyfriend that these stories gave me a sense of control—that if I studied them, I might know how to save people. But Jensen had done exactly what Gilmore asked—given him the money, lain down face first on the floor—and Gilmore had executed him anyway. Now I realized that there was something more important they were cautioning me against: taking people for granted. The people we love, nothing more than a cluster of atoms, too easily destroyed. The narratives implored me to hold tight.

Returning, I cut through a line of cars flanking the side of the store where we’d parked. As I approached the driver’s side window of a small sedan, I saw the back of a man’s head propped against his window. Asleep, I thought, and then had the unmistakable feeling that I should look closer. My eyes shifted downward to his door, which was ajar by maybe a centimeter, and through the tiny sliver I could see his arm slack by his side and a steady line of drool trickling down his chin.

I looked around for help. In the car to my left, a middle-aged French couple sat talking and languidly smoking cigarettes in the afternoon sun. I waved my arms, and when the woman in the passenger seat turned I motioned to his window, flipping my palms heavenward.

She shook her head at me and mouthed, “Non,” then shut her eyes and put her head to the back of her hands to mimic sleeping. Then she turned back to the driver and started talking again.

My face flushed—the cliché of the unflappable French blowing off the overdramatic American—but I steeled myself and tapped the couple’s window again. “No dormir, no dormir,” I mouthed, hating my terrible French. Wearily, she got out of the car, stubbed out her cigarette and tapped his window. When he didn’t respond, she narrowed her eyes at me and cautiously walked around to the passenger side. She opened it and pulled out a note: A Dieu, pour tout ce que tu m’as fait.

To God, for all that you have done to me.

I ran into the gas station. My boyfriend stood at the espresso vending machine, a tiny paper cup in front of him. “Come,” I croaked, “a man is trying to kill himself. Can you tell the attendant to call 911 in French?”

Outside, a small group formed around the man in the car: the smoking couple, a pretty teenaged girl and her mother, the gas station attendant, and us. The six of us looked like stock characters in a canned farce, frozen in indecision until the mother announced she was a registered nurse. Under her direction, we slipped into action—grateful to stay busy until the ambulance arrived.

Combing through his backseat, someone unearthed sleeping pills and an empty six-pack of Heineken. With the car doors open, I could see dozens of small stuffed animals, some with the word Grandpa stitched across them. My stomach knotted: somebody else’s irreplaceable cluster of atoms. My eyes passed over the driver’s legs, which were small and atrophied. He was disabled. To God, for all that you have done to me.

When the paramedics finally arrived, they sauntered out of their vehicle slowly, like tourists stretching their legs at a vista. Even facing calamity, the French took their time. My boyfriend and the man from the smoking couple helped the male paramedic bring him into a tiny back room inside the station, while the female paramedic asked me questions and the nurse translated. After a while, they carried him to the back of the ambulance and my boyfriend returned with a smile.

“They think he’s going to be okay. They’re taking him to the hospital now, but they’re almost positive he’s going to make it.” I smiled, relieved, and he smiled back. “You saved him,” he said, his eyes uncharacteristically big with adrenaline. “You helped save his life.”

I nodded slowly, unsure how to process it. “But what if it isn’t okay with him?” I whispered. The man had wanted to die, and I had intervened. I was instinctually proud, sure that I had done the right thing—but a small part of me still felt uncomfortable altering another man’s life course. I could never know the extent of his suffering. I looked at him. “He was clearly in pain,” I said. “Maybe he needed peace.”

Walking back to the espresso vending machine, he picked up his cup. It had sat there for well over an hour, and nobody had touched it. Only in France, I thought. “If he doesn’t like it,” my boyfriend said, taking a sip, “he can always try again.”

The next year, I married him.

•••

CINDY PRICE (www.cindyprice.net) has written for the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Weekly, Hemispheres, and The New Leader. Her food and travel writing has appeared in three New York Times anthologies and the American Michelin guides, and she has taught classes for the New York Times Knowledge Network, Mediabistro, and Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Born, raised, and educated in the South, she now lives in Maplewood, NJ, with her husband and two sons. Follow her on Twitter @cindyeprice.

Running Commentary

running

By Ludo Rouchy/ Flickr

By Carol Paik

Yesterday, I ran twenty miles. It seemed like a lot of miles, particularly at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. But when I got home, I was able to check off on my training schedule that I had completed another long run. And then, I had a doughnut.

The checkmark plus the doughnut more than made up for the aubergine toenail that was revealed when I removed my right shoe. Especially since it didn’t hurt. If the toenail had hurt, or if it had fallen off, or somehow been more disgusting, then the equation would have been different.

•••

My running partner, Anne, and I get a lot of positive, reinforcing attention for our running. As we set off on our run yesterday, we came across a group of acquaintances, wrapped wimpily in scarves and coats, who asked us how many miles we were doing that day.

“Oh, like twenty,” we said nonchalantly.

“Twenty??” they said. “In this cold?”

“I can barely make it to the gym!” one said.

“Are you guys training for the marathon?” said another.

“Well, yeah,” said Anne. “Do you think we would run twenty miles if we didn’t have to?”

“But, wait,” I said. “Actually, we don’t have to.”

And then I felt confused.

•••

People have asked me how I feel, physically. Do you feel really strong or do you feel really worn out? The answer is yes. At any given moment, I feel either really strong or really worn out, and sometimes I feel both things simultaneously. Strong and worn out are not opposites.

•••

People seem to think that running a marathon is difficult. In fact, at least at my level, it is merely time-consuming. What is involved, in terms of skill, is minimal. One foot goes in front of the other, and then the other in front of that, and so on. Once, out of curiosity, I took a running class that was being offered by the Road Runners Club. I thought that I knew how to run since I’ve been doing it since I was a child, but since they offered the class I assumed that meant there existed some special knowledge about running that I’d been lacking all these years. But—one foot in front of the other, they said. They did provide one useful tip, though: that one should try to spend the majority of one’s energy moving forward instead of up and down, or side to side.

•••

Last night, I dreamed that at the very start of the marathon, as we were waiting for the starting blast, a race official came pushing through the crowd, leading a horse. “Here,” he said, pointing at me and then handing me the reins. “You get to go on horseback.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just got on the horse. Clearly I had been singled out for this privilege and it was obviously going to make this race a lot easier and I would almost definitely do a personal best. But as I was sitting on the horse I realized that now all those twenty-mile runs had been complete wastes of time. There had been a point to them, or so I had thought, and now it eluded me.

•••

I made it through the marathon without any real injuries. The only ill effect was a large purple sore on my thigh which had been caused by four hours and twenty minutes of being rubbed against by the Ziploc bag of jelly beans I carried in my pocket. I had not foreseen a jelly bean injury. This reminded me of how, after my son was born, I examined my body in the mirror. Giving birth had been the most exhausting and painful experience that I had ever been through and it seemed to me it should have left some physical evidence, but the only visible marks on my body were my husband’s thumbprints from when the doctors told him to hold my shoulders while I had my epidural.

You never know what’s going to leave marks.

•••

CAROL PAIK lives in New York City with her husband and two kids.  Her writing has appeared in the journals Brain, Child, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literal Latte, among others; and the anthologies The Best Plays from the Strawberry One-Act Festival, vol. 6, and Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, fifth ed.  More of her writing is at www.carolpaik.com.

Surrogate Daughter

ghostly

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

When the dead visit my mother in dreams, they always come bearing information, like a character in an Isabelle Allende novel. Her older brother, who died of liver failure when she was eighteen, made only one visit over the decades to reassure her he was at peace, and then not again until long after both their parents had passed. My grandmother made a similar walk-on appearance. These ghostly visitations in the realm of slumber are often a sign of peace or acceptance for my mother. But not with Gayle, my mother’s best friend of forty years, also my godmother, who passed away September 2013, slipped off the edge of our knowing, her end a question.

“I dreamt she was a prisoner upstairs in that bedroom crying for help and mercy and not able to get to the bathroom,” my mom texted me this week. “She even called out my name and said she was in such pain.”

The dream repeated on an exhausting loop all night, she said. The same loop that works its way through my brain every day. Like a badly written mystery novel, pieces keep falling into place since we learned, six months after the fact, of Gayle’s death.

Learned after the fact, long after the chance to say goodbye, because her husband, too, ghosted away, line disconnected, house sold, a man still flesh becoming phantom.

Our facts have been gleaned from those practitioners of health and death—the doctor, the dentist, the mortuary attendant.

Denied the chance to attend a funeral, my mother and I arranged a memorial, just a handful of Gayle’s oldest friends, clustered around the coffee table. After I’d gone, Mary Lou, with short-cropped hair, a self-professed “psychic” to whom my mother had not spoken in over thirty years, told her: “Gayle was here, I felt her. She said her greatest regret is what happened between Jordan and Jeff.”

There’s no way that Mary Lou could have known about the falling out between me and my godfather.

•••

Children give love the way the sun gives light—without reserve, daily, radiant. Unless it’s beaten or broken or shamed out of them. Children see the world with awe and love. Sometimes in the midst of a grumpy rushing morning, my six-year-old son will stop and notice a simple thing—a puddle looks like a frog or the cloud like an anvil, and my heart will tumble downhill at how much beauty I fail to see. I saw it once, too, though; I remember the dust motes streaming through slivers of light in my godparents’ New York apartment when I was about his age. Only, I didn’t think of it as dust, but particles of separate universes escaped from the books they stacked nearly to the ceilings, a tower where Rapunzel would never have been bored, with reading material for ages and Chinese food delivered at any hour.

Can I really remember such specifics from these early years? But I do—wooden floors that shined with a rare light. A red velvet couch, decorative buttons bulging off the taut fabric like the teats of a nursing bitch. Magazine pages, glossy and spilling open their stinky perfumed pages with half dead models in painful contortions that equaled beauty.

My godparents were mythical creatures—Gayle commanding us from her perch in the chair, or on the book-laden bed—small as a child, with an old cancerous bite scooped from her side, but a Goddess in her power. “Bring me those Malomars,” she’d command Jeff. “I’m hungry.” And he’d scurry off on his sinewy calves, a man-servant to do her bidding. Sometimes I imagined her holding a scepter of snakes entwining, a tiny clay urn of poison hidden around her neck. And Jeff, his mind a hoarded library of facts and verses, his super power in memory, recitation and detail, Shakespeare and Elliott, Baldwin and Foster Wallace, a shield woven of words to keep him safe from the world.

When I visited, I was the lone child, Eloise in my freedom to roam their rooms, while clouds of pot smoke filled the air. They’d let me sink my loosening little girl teeth into oily, creamy cannoli, tri-color marzipan cookies from Vignero’s bakery around the corner, greasy, fragrant NY pizza, cool cups of bubbling soda.

My godfather crooned stories to me, his accent musical, his eyes always slightly glazed. Soft brown bangs fell in his face—thin and fine like mine. John Lennon glasses. Skinny calves always thrusting out of long shorts.

When the New York apartment gave way to a bright San Diego condo for Gayle’s new job, I missed the luminous magic of that urban pad, even though the view was traded from back alley to blue ocean. The people here were surfer tan instead of poet pale. But the stacks of books were just as high. Jeff gave me strange and captivating books full of broken men and eccentric women. William T. Vollman and Burroughs, Steven Milhauser and R. Crumb.

I was a product of stories, those I read and those I wrote, mimicking the worlds of my reading. An only child until fourteen, I fancied myself a lonely orphan, my divorced but friendly parents preoccupied by their addictive monkeys and bare survival, making a living, making a score, making it through the night.

Did I love him simply because he was there, appointed by the guardians of my care in the interim between their own availability? Or did I love him the way that we accept the gravity that holds us to the earth? I took his presence as a sign that he must love me, too. After all, he didn’t have to spend a week entertaining a barely-teen girl every spring break. The kind of girl who alternated between scribbling in her journals in a fury and brooding over blasted MTV music videos, roaming the condo like a rangy young beast in search of snacks.

My instincts, even as a child, were sharply honed. Once, at the age of seven, a stoned friend of our downstairs neighbor found me playing alone outside and told me that he had “a little dragon friend” who was cute, but “not as cute as you.” Somehow, I knew this man for what he was. I stood up and shouted, “You can’t talk to me like that, I’m just a little girl.”

Perhaps I loved my godfather because I had known him all my life, the mythical man who could quell my bellowing baby howls with opera played full bore. Maybe I loved him because he came attached to the warm, sweet, often laughing, dirty-joke–cracking presence of my godmother. But I never trusted him. He always kept a mug beside him, retreating often to the kitchen to refill it. By the time I was fourteen, and visiting for spring break, my own mother having already gone to drug and alcohol rehab, I no longer wondered about the origins of that potent sweet-chemical scent; further, his slurring, babbling, suddenly-sitting-too-close told me that he was drunk.

•••

I knew that Jeff had a daughter: the mysterious “Beth” who lived in the same South that had carved his own verbal cadence, tight and twangy. She was older than me, and I pictured her like wild Mary of The Secret Garden, unkempt and blonde and inconsolably unhappy because her parents had abandoned her. Well, unlike Mary, only Beth’s father had left, however, and now he was mine, on loan, a fatherish figure who kept me company because he did not have to work. I don’t know whose not-quite-whispered whispers suggested that Beth despised me, usurper child who had stolen what was rightfully hers by my loving him.

This is also a story about selfishness, how a child wants what she wants and takes what she can get. Pocketfuls of stolen change scooped from her father’s drawers, or candy from 7-11 shelves snatched right behind a clerk’s turned back. This is a story of how one little girl never thought to wonder why her godfather had a faraway daughter, a child of imagined swamps with a sweet drawl, who never came to visit, or why he rarely went to visit her. Not until the faraway daughter had a child of her own, then two, did pictures appear of the then twenty-something daughter and her gleaming, golden-haired babes.

•••

Only those you have loved can break your heart. It doesn’t matter if they ever loved you back. The adult forms like a stone shell around the seed crystal of the child.

Life moved in tidal ways. Ebbs of happiness and dark depths, followed by riptides pulled into fissures where I pressed facedown, spitting out sand and bottom dwellers. As my godfather shifted his loyalties toward the clear liquor that he loves more than daughters or wives or having a job or reading or the genius IQ chipped away by years, the crystal of girl that I was responded in pain. She said hateful things and wrote them down. She aimed them with lethal precision.

Children give love like the sun gives light.

Adults transmute light into pain.

•••

One month after the one-year anniversary of Gayle’s death, after several unsuccessful attempts to contact Jeff, suddenly I found a friend request on my Facebook account from the faraway daughter herself, Beth. For a moment I could not swallow. Was she coming to take me to task for pushing him away? For taking what wasn’t mine?

And yet she was my only possible connection to the answers that my mom and I have been seeking for nearly eight months. Hands at tremble, I accepted, unsure of what was true: would she turn out to be the harpy full of hatred who I’d been warned about, who disliked me on principle for being the surrogate?

Her message to me suggested otherwise, breaking open a bloom of relief. She had not seen her father in over a month, though he’d been living in a house provided by her and her husband for the year since Gayle had passed. When Gayle’s life insurance came in, a sum roughly four times the amount my husband makes at his job every year, Jeff, she said, quite literally took the money and disappeared without a word, ran with the widow of one of Gayle’s cousins.

Beth bore witness to the aftermath of Gayle’s end. The feces dried upon the floor of her bedroom. Death by infection of the bowel. A pitiful end. Neglect or fear, shame or hate, I do not know. He was relieved not to hear her shrieking his name in the end, shrieking for help to the toilet. Calling to be rescued from the insult of her body, from the ravages of its unwanted pain.

“What I really need now,” Jeff said to Beth in the hours after Gayle was buried, “Is a wife.”

•••

When the wannabe orphan and the faraway daughter, both grown women, spoke to each other at last, voices slinking across state lines, there wasn’t any hate, only understanding.

Mendacious Synecdoche, he had once called me. Liar, stupid girlDon’t humor yourself. And to the faraway daughter: Drunken cunt.

Between us daughters, only sharp-edged clarity about loss, about leaving, about the gnawing ache left behind in the hearts of daughters, no matter their prefix: born or borrowed.

And in the end, through each other, we found pockets of leftover love, crystallized, untarnished, that through it all, remain uncorrupt.

•••

JORDAN E. ROSENFELD is author of the novels Forged in Grace and Night Oracle, and two writing guides. She is Managing Editor at Sweatpants & Coffee.com and her writing has appeared in Medium’s Human Parts, Modern Loss, the New York Times (Motherlode), Ozy, ReWire Me, Role/Reboot, The Rumpus, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post and more. Her website is www.jordanrosenfeld.net. And on twitter: @JordanRosenfeld

The Curious Thing about Doubt and Faith

man in street

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Shuly Cawood

In the early mornings of the spring that I turned twenty-nine, I drove on a stretch of Ohio’s Route 68 to work. I liked it best when the road showed up for me alone, when I could steer in a kind of solitary silence from village into county, from Epic Books and Ha Ha Pizza to the stoplight on Cemetery Road, then past pastures and swaths of farmland and the occasional framed house onto which the sunlight warmed the lives of families rising into day. I had known the road so long—not just the yawn of corn and soybean fields, but also Young’s Jersey Dairy with its red barn and white fence; Ebenezer Cemetery with its crumbling cement wall; the turnoffs for Sparrow, Collier, and Cottingham roads; even Walt’s, the junkyard where the highway doglegged—yet that spring I studied each moment of the way as if remembering it well meant that I could somehow keep it.

Back then, I wanted to believe in beginnings, but I can see now that I held onto the ends.

•••

Corazón: the Spanish word for heart. The admissions receptionist, Joann, had scrawled the international student’s name—Miguel Corazón—next to mine on the interview sheet for later that May morning.

“With me?” I asked Joann.

“He said he was from Torreón, Mexico,” she said. “He asked for you.”

“Because I know Spanish?” (I’m half-Mexican. My relatives live in Torreón.) “Does he know my family?” Another Wittenberg University admissions officer typically handled foreign applicants.

Joann shrugged.

“Well,” I said, “then I’d better get ready.” I plucked brochures and an international application from the shelves and settled in at my desk, right off the lobby.

I had worked in this very office from my freshman year until graduation then returned years later to my alma mater for full-time work. But in three months, I would be giving up this job, my home state, the places where I belonged, to move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My fiancé, Bill, refused to stay in Ohio, where he had come only to earn his master’s degree, and I had acquiesced to leaving, even though my chest tightened when I thought about it. When I was twenty-nine, I believed that surrendering what I wanted for the sake of someone else was the cost of love, and that I should bear it.

•••

Through my office wall, I could hear Joann’s muffled voice mingled with a deep one. Apparently, Miguel Corazón had shown up early. I was sitting at my desk, talking on the phone, my back to my door when I heard it open, and Joann say, “You can sit down, she’ll just be a minute.” Always, I met prospective students out in the lobby, but I hurried off my call and only after hanging up did I then swing my chair around and rise to meet—

I froze. The words I’d begun to say hung mid-air.

From his chair, Michael rose, too, like an apparition ascending from memory.

* * *

For the appointment, as a ruse, and to back up his false claim of hailing from Mexico, Michael had used the Spanish version of his first name, and Corazón in place of his last.

Five years earlier, Michael and I had fallen in love. After only a few months, I wanted to marry him, move across the country for him, never be apart. I spent much of the first part of our relationship longing for not just a ring, but to come before the stack of priorities standing between me and first place: his research, post-graduate school goals, his solo life plan that only vaguely—perhaps later—included me. Eventually, I had fled to Mexico to teach, and when this propelled him to propose, I turned away entirely, no longer sure of who I was or what I wanted. It was easier for me, by then a mere twenty-five years old, to move on alone than to figure all that out with him.

In the years that followed, when I was twenty-six and twenty-seven and back in Ohio, Michael had shown up. One time he drove eight hours from DC through a snowstorm to see me; another time, when I was lonely and depressed, he drove two hours from his hometown in Indiana, where he was staying for the summer, to take me salsa dancing. He wrote me letters, even when we had just talked or seen each other. Over the years, he’d given me a book of Neruda love poems, a picture frame with blue flowers pressed beneath glass, a bird feeder. His biggest gift, though, was a sacrifice: Michael put off a semester of his Ph.D. program in Nebraska to live closer to me. He had gone to great lengths to show me that I came first, but I had told myself, repeatedly and with admonition, only foolish girls believe a man will change.

Until he showed up in my office on that warm and clear May day.

* * *

Michael stood before me and grinned, clearly proud of having flown in from Nebraska and surprised me. We had been in contact, but eighteen months had passed from the time that we’d last seen each other to the moment Joann led him to me. My hands trembled because I was happy to see him—and aware I shouldn’t be. He knew about my engagement. This fact stood between us, arms folded across its chest, and shook its head.

The best that I could blurt out was, “What are you doing here?”

He laughed. “I wanted to see you.”

A few moments later, I said, “If you’re here to change my mind, I won’t.”

He didn’t hesitate or blanch. His impeccable posture alerted you that this man held few, if any, doubts about anything he set his mind to. He looked me straight in the eye. “I only want to see what’s possible,” he said. Then he asked me to lunch.

We walked across campus in the brightness of the late morning light to the student center cafe and found a table by a wall of windows. We laughed and lingered as if we were undergraduates and had all the time in the world for big choices and hard lines, as if none of those things mattered now. Later, we rambled around Wittenberg, eventually settling on a bench overlooking Myers Hollow, near the slope I had slipped down after an ice storm my freshman year before smacking into a tree.

For a minute, we stared out onto the hollow.

Ever fearless, he broke the silence. “Marry me,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the same ring he had, four years earlier, offered me. Except now, instead of a diamond in the setting, a green stone the size and color of a pea perched on top.

As he looked at me, I studied him: his blue eyes I remembered squinting at me in the dim morning light before he would reach for his glasses; his freckles that faded, forgotten in winter, but that would sprinkle across his nose and cheeks when flushed out by summer sun; his bushy brown hair, unruly after sleep, that could be tamed with water and a comb.

Finally, I said, “I can’t.”

“I don’t believe you,” he whispered, almost to himself.

“I won’t,” I said. The words tasted metallic.

We sat in silence and let the sun break against us on our bench and let the gap—between now and his flight back to Nebraska, between now and my future husband and married life in North Carolina—get a little narrower.

Then we ambled, taking the long way back along the hollow’s edge toward the place he had parked. We descended via a tree-lined path veiling us in shadow and emerged into the glare of sun and asphalt. When we embraced goodbye, I held onto him longer than he held onto me, and when I stepped away from him and toward Recitation Hall, toward my office and the life I knew, I had to force myself to do so, to train my eye on the glass door, push the metal bar that spanned it, and go through and not look back.

He left me the little gold ring with its pea stone, and it burrowed into my pocket, planting itself deep: a seed of doubt that would grow and grow.

•••

Three and half years later, in late and cold November, my marriage disintegrated into the fifty percent statistic I had sworn that I’d never belong in. It would be a lie to say that I’d been in love with my ex-boyfriend during my marriage because I had not, but his big love, big gestures had become the ruler against which I—however unfairly—had measured every disagreement with Bill, every incident in which I felt not loved enough. I mourned not just my impending divorce but what might have been, had I only chosen differently.

A few months earlier, Michael had moved from Nebraska to North Carolina, but I had found this out only weeks before the divorce decision. I’d discovered through a mutual acquaintance that he lived a mere twenty-five minutes away.

In late November, I wanted to go right to him, but the grief of my marriage ending clouded and rumbled in my chest. I knew, too, that grief passes, that it is only weather in the vast sky of the heart.

In early January, I asked Michael to come over. He showed up with a loaf of bread that he’d kneaded and baked for me, with all the ingredients he still remembered I loved: whole grains, seeds and nuts, and plump, black raisins. Just as he had years earlier, he took me to a salsa club that night, and I clung to his hand as he twirled me, as if we could wind back to where we had stopped and start again. Just as before, he gave me gifts as the weeks passed: a white cotton top with three-quarter sleeves and a buttonhole neckline; the fragrance of gardenias, a bouquet on my front stoop; a white colander; a brown umbrella with faces of dalmatians and cocker spaniels splashed across the fabric. But unlike before, he had become born again, and now he threaded Bible verses into emails and letters and tried to stitch me back together with Jesus’s words.

Although my spirituality was private and quiet and rested in a God who favored heart over creed, I didn’t say no when Michael asked to pray out loud with me; I didn’t say stop when he offered biblical passages as balms.

Without the physical intimacies and commitment of real couples—because of his religion and because I was still emotionally reeling from the divorce—we became, still, devoted to each other. I drove him to Lasik surgery and nervously thumbed through magazines in the waiting room. I helped haul his truckload of furniture into his new house, and together we painted a clean coat on each wall. It was he who steered the car through hordes of I-95 traffic to whisk me to DC for a weekend and to point out landmarks and pick restaurants. It was he who rubbed my back the day I officially divorced, when I wept face down on the bed, boring into a pillow. And it was he who sat beside me as the mortgage broker shuffled refinance papers across the desk for me to sign, the pages stacked like a book that I could not bear to read alone.

God, I loved him. He resurrected me.

But our differences sank into my belly. At night I felt them, cold and hard and unmoving. I thought the world was too big for only one religion, so we argued about how many paths led to God and about interpreting the Bible literally. I also conjured up hypothetical questions to test how he would prioritize his beliefs in relation to me; I know now that I was really testing his love. I asked inane questions like, “If you and I were married, and you believed God wanted you to go live in Africa, even if it meant leaving me behind, would you go?”

In the end, Michael always said he would have no choice but to do whatever he thought God or Jesus wanted him to do, but that God would not ask him to do something that would harm our relationship.

You’re stirring up trouble, I chided myself, and for a while I stopped peppering him with questions I didn’t want to know his answers to.

Then one night over the phone, I prodded more about his beliefs, poking a fire I knew that I could not contain if the flames leapt. I thought about all of my gay and lesbian friends, and I jabbed the topic open. He told me that homosexuality was a sin, and I asked him how he could make such a judgment. He said that he was not making that judgment: God was.

Suddenly, I wanted to dampen all of it, and I flooded him with questions until I found a concocted safe and middle ground: yes, he loved all people, straight or gay, and though he did not think gay couples should be able to get married or adopt, yes, he thought all people were equals.

Though I cried when we hung up the phone and lost my appetite for a day and a half, I clung to the word “equals.” I reminded myself he had always been nothing short of welcoming and warm to all of my friends, and I convinced myself that the place where he stood and where I stood were not so far apart, that if we both leaned toward each other, we could still touch.

It was spring by then, the season of possibility.

•••

This was not the first time our views had clashed, that we’d tried to convince each other of our rightness, of the other’s implied wrongness.

Over the years, Michael and I had argued about little things—the safety of microwaves, whether eating organic fruits and vegetables was really better for you—and big things: whether we should get married, whether we should break up, and (after we had finally ended our relationship, back when I was twenty-five) whether we should get back together. This last disagreement endured more years than it should have. Sometimes we had talked about it; other times, I had avoided the talking, and in doing so, I must have hurt him more by what I did not say.

If you have ever not felt loved for exactly who you are—by someone who professes to—then that love is the one thing you will seek. After my divorce, I craved it as if my life depended on it. But he must have, too—not after my divorce, but in all the times he had shown up in my life and asked me to try again, long before I married or had even met my ex-husband, in all the times we had both been so young, so free to choose each other.

One time he had called to check on me and rescue me from loneliness when I was twenty-seven and living in Oxford, Ohio. He was spending the summer just two hours away in his hometown in Indiana, and he felt like a lifeline.

“Come on, Shuly. We’re going dancing,” he’d said when I picked up the phone. A statement, an urging, not a question—so rarely a question from him—something I both loved and resented.

I had given in. It was so easy to give in then. I changed from shorts and t-shirt to blouse and skirt, and when he arrived at my door, I followed him out of my apartment, down the narrow hallway and stairs and out to the parking lot. I got into his car. He could have driven me anywhere that night; I would have gone.

I let the air blow onto my face through the half-down window as he drove, as he stole me from Oxford. How I wanted to be stolen. He steered and gunned the engine toward highway and Cincinnati and city lights, away from small town, small apartment, what felt like such a small life. I do not remember where exactly we went salsa dancing, but if I close my eyes, I can feel the weight of his hand in mine on the dance floor, and his touch on my back as he led me in turns. I can taste the sweetness of the vanilla frozen yogurt he bought me afterward, something he had done dozens of times when we had been dating and had strolled along the gritty sidewalks on Ohio’s summer nights.

I remember that I laughed and laughed next to him in the car, and for those hours I forgot everything that hurt in my life. The sadness lifted and floated from my body like a bad and broken spirit only he could command away.

For that evening, I leaned into him. I had always been able to because he exuded confidence—his wiry frame buzzed with energy and a can-do attitude. An extrovert, with a near-constant smile on his face, he uplifted me. The summer we had fallen in love, and then that summer when I lived in Oxford, he shone: like a sun, like a full moon, like a star that could lead me home.

He drove me back to Oxford on highways then two-lanes and pulled off South College Avenue and idled in my parking lot as I got out. I walked to my building’s entrance, toward the glass door which led to a dark stairwell and to my apartment where loneliness clung like webs to the corners.

Before I went in, I looked back.

I did not want to go inside, and I did not want him to drive away, but I did not stop him when he did. I waved goodbye.

In all those years before my marriage, I had let him go each time. I had said no until it hurt, until he hurt, until I could not say it anymore. I had said no until the word became its own kind of religion that I did not question anymore.

And now, after my marriage and its implosion, I wanted to believe in yes so badly, I prayed for it.

•••

In late summer—that time of year in North Carolina when the heat feels more like rage, when stems and leaves go limp in reply—Michael wrote me a letter, as he sometimes did.

I had always loved his script because I knew it so well: small loops in perfectly straight lines across the page, as if he were sewing sentences on white fabric. I could nearly feel their softness if I ran my hand across the words.

He started the letter by calling me precious. On page three, he told me my heart was beautiful, and then that Jesus wanted all of it. “Choosing Him is the most important prayer I have for you,” he wrote. “Please commit your heart to Him fully.”

He wrote that he knew it would not be easy. “Turning from your past, and breaking from the pressure of family and culture can be difficult.” What he meant was that I needed to steer away from how my parents—the most generous-hearted people I knew—had raised me religiously, a blend of world faiths.

On the hardest days, their beliefs, now mine, buoyed me: that everything happens for a reason I might not understand yet; that life is a series of lessons I can get right or repeat; and that kindness and respect matter more than doctrine.

He was asking me, in essence, to take it all back: relinquish what I had known, abandon what had come before.

But what I wanted to take back was not my faith, or my God, or my version of the Truth. I wanted to take back that night in Oxford—not the whole of it, just the moment when I had pulled at the door handle, stepped outside his car, and moved away from him and toward the building’s entrance. If I could have taken it back, I would have let the car idle with me still in it, let the exhaust drift from the tailpipe like grey plumes into the darkness, let the humidity crawl in through the window and around us. I would have said to him, “Don’t go.”

But Oxford lay 534 miles northwest of Chapel Hill. In another state. Six years too late.

And in the end, if I had taken it back, what then? Would that have severed the storms from our story? We might have never saved ourselves from the rest of it.

Maybe in Oxford, I had let him drive away because I’d had the kind of faith in myself that I thought only other people had in other things. The kind of faith that pushed you past your failures, made you rise up from the pain; the kind of faith that waned and nearly broke in two, but if you kept it, it kept you.

•••

We have not spoken in a decade, but I remember him. Now, I use the dog umbrella, but only during light, un-slanted rains, as it’s small. I wear the top with the buttonhole neckline, but only when the seasons shift, as it’s made for neither hot nor freezing weather.

I still have the ring, although I don’t wear it or keep it in my jewelry box. Instead, the ring with the round stone drifts like a vagrant around the bottom of a purse. I move it from handbag to handbag but without any reason I can find logic in now.

Sometimes many months pass before I happen upon the ring again, and when I do, I am surprised by the little gold band, and how shiny it is, and the smooth stone that looks like a green eye staring up at me from the pit of the purse, and how fine and slight the ring is for how large a promise it once held, how big its memory.

•••

SHULY CAWOOD is a writer and editor who is currently in the MFA creative writing program at Queens University. Her creative writing has appeared in publications such as Red Earth Review, Naugatuck River Review, Camel Saloon, Rathalla Review, and Under the Sun. Shuly has work forthcoming in Ray’s Road Review, Fiction Southeast, and Two Cities Review. Her website is www.shulycawood.com.

Like this? Want thirty more FGP essays in honest-to-Betsy book form? Order here! (Awesome holiday gift. Just saying.)

How to Build a Fence

fence

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Melissa Duclos

In the early stages of my parents’ divorce, we started talking a lot about boundaries. Growing up we had none. My parents had been young when they had kids: twenty-four, then twenty-five, twenty-seven. At that age, I was still learning about the proper nurturing of hangovers. (A tablespoon of honey before bed, Advil and water in the middle of the night.) But my parents spent their mid-twenties raising babies. By the time my brother, sister, and I made it through college, my parents seemed relieved that we were all finally adults; now we could all hang out.

Even before the divorce, I knew more about my parents’ sex life than I did about most of my close friends’. At some point during my sister’s stint in therapy (all three of us had them), she started talking about boundaries, and it became a thing we’d sigh and roll our eyes about, comparing stories we never should have heard. It was nice to have a name for the thing we’d lacked. But we laughed about it too, treating missing boundaries like an annoying but fundamental aspect of our family, like our deep reverence for our Christmas traditions.

During the divorce, it stopped being funny. When my dad’s anger—at my mother, my brother, my sister—overtook him and had nowhere to go but into my ears, into my heart, I started thinking about walls and fences. About the differences between them.

“I can’t take this anymore,” I said to him during one conversation that had started with a list of ground rules that I attempted to present to him for our talks and ended with him screaming at me.

“Oh, you can,” he said. “You’re strong. You’re not going to die tomorrow.”

There was a small and fucked-up part of me that took that as a compliment.

But then I remembered that I was tired of being strong; I wanted to be protected.

•••

In some ways walls are easier. You can build them by yourself. Gather the stones: roundish but flatish, their shades of gray and their heft a reflection of your heart. Stack them carefully and pour cement between the cracks. You will sweat and you will curse, but eventually the person on the other side of your wall will disappear from view.

I thought about building a wall against my father. My father, who could not contain his anger or respect my ground rules. But he was also my father who flew across the country and stayed for three weeks when my daughter arrived a month early and my husband and I were barely holding our young family together; my father who would rock my fierce and jaundiced baby from eight until ten every night while my husband and I slept, steeling ourselves for the night ahead; who mounted shelves in our mudroom—anchored, he showed me, those suckers never coming out—even after he loaded them with mason jars, dinners that would last us for months. I thought about boundaries and pictured the wall I could build, and then I heard my son asking to call Grampa, to Skype with Grampa, to go and visit Grampa and maybe this time go fishing and the wall in my mind crumbled, an impossibility.

It would have to be a fence. Forget about white picket. We were long past that. I pictured split rail instead, the wood rough and splintery, already bleaching in the sun. Not a week after I erected it in my mind, my father simply climbed right over.

“Listen, I need you to ask your mother something for me. If you’re comfortable doing it. It’s a simple yes or no question.”

My mother has a wall: a new address and phone number that my father doesn’t know and  filters on her email to keep his messages from ever touching her eyes. Her wall is guarded by lawyers, but not against me. Of course my father knew this.

“Okay,” I answered hesitantly. I was standing in a corner of a crowded Hertz office at the San Francisco airport, surrounded by a pile of bags and car seats. As my children ran in circles around me, pausing occasionally to eat trail mix off the carpet, and my husband stood behind seventy-five other people in line to get our car, I cursed myself for returning my dad’s call. But I’d wanted to get it over with, whatever he wanted.

“I need you to just ask her if she is willing to start paying me for half the mortgage. Just yes or no. I need to know right away for the bank.”

“That seems like a question for the lawyers,” I answered.

He launched into a much longer explanation that I didn’t follow then and still don’t understand now, the point being that it was a simple thing really. He’d been prepared to pay her for half, and now she would just be paying him. Simple.

The question of what to do with the mortgage and who gets to keep the house is, of course, one of the central questions of the divorce, hanging in the air until a judge decides how to divide up thirty-nine years of my parents’ lives. My dad talked fast, and the noise from the rental office was deafening. My children screamed and jumped around and my daughter started licking my thigh, passing her tongue fully up and down over my jeans until they began to soak through, and I really had no idea what he was asking. I briefly imagined a world in which divorces were settled via messages passed through middle children. I refused to ask her. For a moment, I thought my fence might hold.

It didn’t hold. After I called my mother and fumblingly asked her a question that I didn’t fully understand but still knew was ridiculous, I felt like a failure. I wondered if I would spend the rest of my life caving in to other people’s demands of me, bullied and unprotected.

Metaphors can explain, and they can also absolve. Imagining that split rail fence—the awkward weight of the wood in my hands, difficult to hold, nearly impossible to nail into place by myself—made the setback easier to take. I hadn’t failed; I just really didn’t know how to build a fence.

•••

What seems to have saved my father and me were conversations that didn’t require fences. Conversations important enough to drown out the divorce: my disappointing news from the mortgage lenders first, then the drastic and inexplicable degeneration of his vision, the subsequent eye exams, diabetes tests, MRIs. I live across the country from my father but I was his emergency contact, the only family member at the time without a wall. His MRI was scheduled for eight in the morning, East Coast time. “I know it will be early for you,” he told me, “but can you leave your phone on, just in case?” I left my phone on and tried to imagine what a tumor in my father’s brain would do to my fence.

He doesn’t have a brain tumor. After a barrage of tests, his doctors could find no explanation for his loss of vision. He saw a new ophthalmologist, a better one, who gave him a new prescription and told him to come back in a couple months for another check. Wait and see. During the weeks that this unfolded, the pressure I felt from my father—to absorb his anger or deliver his messages—subsided. Maybe he came to understand the boundary I needed, or maybe my mother simply faded from his view as he was forced to navigate his first health crisis without her. Either way, he has left me alone since then, just me and my fence.

•••

I don’t know any more of the details of the divorce—the date of the hearing or who is asking for what, who is stalling or refusing to compromise. I don’t know how my parents spend their evenings, my father in the house I grew up in, my mother in her apartment; don’t know what my father eats for dinner, if he eats it at all; don’t know any longer the shape of his anger, of my mother’s sadness.

While ignorance has turned out to be an important rail in my fence, it’s a difficult one for me to maintain. In the vernacular of my family, “keep me posted” means I love you. We amass each other’s disappointments and anxieties as a way to show we care, and then we trade them, like currency. A middle child, I was always rich in other people’s problems. I am trying to equate ignorance with freedom, but right now it just feels like poverty. I built the fence, though, and now I have to stay behind it. It’s lonely here, but I tell myself that I will get used to the terrain.

•••

MELISSA DUCLOS received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and now works as a freelance writer and editor, and writing instructor. She is a regular contributor to BookTrib, Bustle, and Mommyish, and the founder of The Clovers Project, which provides mentoring for writers at various stages in their careers. Her fiction has appeared in Pound of Flash, Blue Skirt Productions, Scéal, and Bodega Magazine (forthcoming) and her non-fiction in Salon, Electric Literature, Cleaver Magazine, Fiction Advocate, and English Kills Review. Her first novel, Besotted, is a work of literary fiction set in Shanghai, for which she is seeking representation. She tweets at @MelissaDuclos.

A Little Help from FGP Friends

I’ve taken the week off to catch up on reading submissions and to do a little book promotion. I’ve been getting some messages from many of you (okay, like, seven people), wondering how they can help with Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume One. I’m extremely grateful for the offer (because, like a toddler, I’m weirdly averse to asking for help), and I brainstormed a few ways.

As I think I’ve said before, it’s still a little experiment for me to see if this is a viable business model. Full Grown People is a little more than halfway sold out of the first edition of the first anthology. I hope to come out with another anthology, tentatively titled Soul Mate 101 and Other True Tales of Love and Sex, next spring. It’ll include both work from the site and new essays.

If you’ve ever read anything on FGP that made you think, Boy howdy, I’m glad I read that essay, or love the site, or want to see the next book come to fruition, maybe you want to help. Here are some ways:

Buy the book. If not for yourself, as a gift. You know those times when you’re never quite sure if someone’s going to give you a present over the holidays or not? Buy a small stack, stuff them into gift bags, and, boom, insta-gift. If it doesn’t happen, hey, birthday presents! Teacher gift! Raffle giveaway! (The book is a beauty to behold, thanks to the design work of Anne Hilton and the photography of Gina Easley.)

• If you’re a Goodreads participant, consider reviewing the book. It’s hard out there for indie publishers to get a rep, and I’d be ever so grateful.

• Tell your friends. Good taste runs in flocks.

• Ask your library to stock it and give your librarian our website. Librarians are some of the smartest cookies around.

And if all you’re equipped to do is wish FGP well, I’ll take that, too! Thanks to all of you wonderful people who have supported us so far by reading, sharing the word, buying the book, and generally being awesome members of this community. It means a lot to me.

xo,

Jennifer