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.)

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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

Tell Us About Yourself

kissylips

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Rae Pagliarulo

In the later half of my twenties, I went on upwards of fifty dates, mostly firsts with no encore, thanks to everyone’s favorite exercise in social humiliation: online dating. Of the limitless options, three platforms emerged as major resources. E-Harmony, perfect for serious, generally religious, mid-thirties marriage hunters; Match, for a subset of the same not willing to pay as much because the guy from the bar around the corner might still turn into something; and most often, OK Cupid, the web version of a hipster bar, packed to the gills with tattooed Peter Pans in tight pants just waiting to quote obscure Neutral Milk Hotel lyrics to a knitter/baker/anarchist/novelist with a body like a Victoria’s Secret model and a genuine interest in brewing her own kombucha.

I’ve paid for three-month subscriptions and then renewed. I’ve paid for one-month trials and then cancelled inside of a week. I’ve been honest and succinct; I’ve lied and been verbose. I’ve posted artsy, moody pictures, smiling pictures, and full-body pictures with my hips turned so my belly pooch didn’t show. I’ve left a trail of carefully chosen breadcrumbs behind me with no guarantee that they would lead to who I was.

I’ve met men in bars, in restaurants, in parks, at the movies, and coffee shops. I’ve kissed them full on the mouth before we even decided whether or not to split the check. I’ve faked explosive diarrhea and left before the waiter could take our second drink order. I’ve told darling little lies, like I’m just getting over someone, or You remind me of my ex-fiancé. I’ve told awful truths, like I feel as much chemistry with you as I do a Brill-o pad, or We have so little in common that I’m amazed we made it past the half-hour mark. I’ve been compared to someone’s mother, my hips a mirror to her own childbearing ones (and it was meant as a compliment).

Before almost every single one of my numerous first dates, I have made myself sick. I have doubled over with awful stomach cramps and gone to the bathroom six times in an hour. I’ve eaten, then thrown up, then eaten again so I could drink on the date without passing out plastered on the sidewalk. I’ve taken herbal sedatives, shots of whiskey, and tiny pills etched with Valium Vs. I’ve meditated and done yoga and chanted. Legs up the wall, mind clear. Nothing worked.

Sometimes just getting in front of another person made the anxiety disappear. I could ask questions and focus on the answers instead of the awful ticker tape in my head. “Where did you go to school?” Get out before he realizes you’re so messed up. “Wow, the youngest of six kids?” God, why do you even bother?

Thoughts like that, and worse, have been running through me since childhood. Within the codependent universe of an alcoholic household, I grew up believing that something as insignificant as a drink or two could turn my biggest fan into my worst enemy. In middle school, after years of navigating my father’s volatile but high-functioning alcoholism and its effect on my family, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, a form of anxiety that catapults mere thoughts into inescapable physicality. One troubling feeling can snowball into a full-blown attack in minutes, and once it has landed in the body, reason is a pitiful remedy. Meeting new people was tremendously challenging, and I was relentlessly worried about falling for a duplicitous charmer like Dad. The question was not if every man I met would devastate me—it was when. Better to beat them to the punch.

Sometimes, within minutes, I knew the person I was with wouldn’t be enough to distract me, and the pain and sickness would escalate to the point where the date would end and I’d smile blankly, knowing I hadn’t heard a single word he said. I’ve sent myself home claiming I suffered from migraines, stomach viruses, a sprained ankle, a sore throat, and once or twice, in moments of breathless, sweaty desperation, I’ve admitted to ailing from the only thing I ever actually had: panic attacks.

Sometimes I hurled myself into the next passing cab, only peering out the slammed door to wave apologetically. Sometimes they insisted on walking me home, and I would want to scream, Leave me here! Turn back now! They would lean in near my front step to kiss me, smelling of too much Aqua Velva and a stealthily chewed piece of gum, and if the date had been awful, I’d dodge their eager mouths and hug them, hips held far back, before bolting up the stairs. If it were merely unfortunate or strange, I’d think the kiss could save things, maybe just a little, and I’d make out with a stranger while the neighbors watched from suspiciously parted mini-blinds.

Those kisses never saved anything. They didn’t save the Republican cook who fried tater tots in the back of a topless go-go bar when he lit up a bowl of weed in his living room, never bothering to ask me if I minded. They didn’t save the overzealous and surprisingly effeminate dancer/photographer who placed his hands on my hips and complimented the fashionable details of my dress like a jealous girlfriend on a shopping trip, instead of sending lightning bolts down my thighs. They didn’t save the milquetoast retail worker who had no professional aspirations or genuine taste in music, beer, or movies, or the tattooed music teacher who wrote manifestos on cocktail napkins and was ceaselessly “just about done” his novel, or the sensitive Jewish middle school teacher who harbored badly hidden desires for unprotected sex and hand-jobs given in public.

They didn’t save Jon, a beer brewer who looked more like a pen salesman—mousy and unassuming in his photos, but I was taking my best friend’s advice to heart and giving anyone with half a personality a chance. “Shots on goal,” she’d say to me when I slumped home from another disappointing rendezvous. “Even if you shoot and miss every time, you’re upping your average.” My analytical brain leapt with deranged joy at the chance of standardizing and measuring a process that felt completely unpredictable and random. It became my new mantra, the thing I mumbled when I responded affirmatively to dates I had no interest in attending.

Jon and I met at a whiskey bar, lit low with mason jar candles and old-fashioned yellow-stained pendants. He was nice enough. He looked fine. He made me laugh once or twice, and when he kissed me on a busy street corner at the end of the night, I didn’t stop him. A homeless man told us to get a room, and in response, Jon placed his hand respectfully on my right ass cheek, as carefully as he would on a Bible while taking an oath.

I saw him twice more, simply because I didn’t have a good enough reason to stop. There was nothing wrong with Jon, but nothing quite right, either. Where I looked for sex appeal, magnetism, and a slanted take on the world, I found only politeness, consistency, and a rut right down the middle of the road, where he and his views so comfortably walked. On our third and final date, we had weak drinks, pleasant conversation, an uneventful walk up Walnut Street, and a boring stroll through Rittenhouse Square. We sat on a bench and the moment his arm reached up, over, and around my shoulder, it started.

The sweating, the heart palpitations, and terrible shortness of breath. Suddenly, his arm weighed a ton and I was being pushed under the bench, into the ground. I felt suffocated. “What do you want to do?” he asked courteously.

I want to run, I thought. I want to throw up right here on the ground and then run home. “I dunno,” I mumbled, trying to smile. I hid it for as long as I could, licking my lips, wiping the sweat from the back of my neck. I had all the composure of Tammy Faye Bakker in the last hour of a telethon. Before I knew it, I was yelling something about the stomach flu to him as I ran across 18th Street, ignoring the red light, waving my arm desperately for the five occupied cabs hurling down the lane towards me. I wheezed and shook the whole way home, and ignored his text messages: R U OK? When can I see U again? I knew the answer was never. He couldn’t see me—nobody could.

Those kisses, they didn’t save me, either. Each subscription lapsed, and I dejectedly read each vaguely threatening auto-response email from behind my brick wall. If you don’t act now, we will take down your photo and profile. You will not be able to see your match. He’s out there. We’ve got him right here, in fact. He can’t wait to meet you. Just update your credit card information. That’s how they get us, the hopeful and desperate. This site is the one place we haven’t looked. His profile is the one we haven’t yet clicked on. Signing up for these websites feels like gambling through a losing streak. If you pull the lever enough times, you’re bound to get a cherry or two. The cocktails, the small-talk, the hundred different ways I came up with to describe my favorite foods, my aspirations in life, the places I’d vacation if I had a million dollars—I wonder if it all brought me closer to the final goal, The Guy, or if it just kept me distracted during the inevitable wait.

That’s the thing about fate. Those of us who keep a white-knuckled chokehold on reality want to believe that things happen because we work for them. The idea that it all occurs the way it’s meant to, no matter what we do, is dizzying and takes the ground from under our feet. So whether it’s true or not, whether it’s a lie I tell myself or the God’s honest truth, I’m grateful to E-Harmony, to OK Cupid, to whiskey in dark bars and coffee on Sundays, to panic attacks and stomach cramps, to lies told to strangers and truths admitted over the phone after midnight. I’m thankful I didn’t give up even though I wanted to a million times.

It feels cheap to admit that after all that, it actually worked once—that I met someone on OK Cupid who, for some reason, never made me want to throw up or run away. He was the last person I messaged before I decided to deactivate my profile for the last time, after a particularly rough streak. Feeling an uncharacteristic surge of hope, I took a final shot towards the goal, writing a curt but cute message to him around dinnertime, and issued an unspoken deadline of midnight for a response before I clicked the “Delete My Account” button with an outstretched middle finger. Twenty minutes later, we had made plans to meet. Why did he lock into place so effortlessly when so many others felt around in the dark for a connection? It could have been instinct, his deep-set blue eyes, the cosmos, the wrinkle along his left ear, or maybe my tired, agitated soul felt the same fidgety weariness in him. But I think I’m okay with not knowing for sure. It’s not my job to understand why some things crash and burn while others flourish. It’s my job to tell the story when it all shakes out.

•••

RAE PAGLIARULO is an MFA Creative Writing Candidate at Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in West Chester University’s Daedalus Magazine of the Arts and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is also the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize. She works and lives (and dates) in Philadelphia.

The Grooming

By AfroDad/ Flickr

By AfroDad/ Flickr

By Carolyn Edgar

When I was fourteen, I was what guys now call “thick.” In 1979 terms, though, I was just “fat.” I developed early and had boobs and butt galore, but I also had linebacker arms and thighs to go along with them.

In my family, my sisters were the beauties. My oldest sister Cheryl was fair-skinned with deep green eyes. My second oldest sister Caroletta had naturally wavy hair that required no heat straightening to cascade over her shoulders and down her back. I had neither. My eyes were hazel, more brown than green, and my hair, according to my mother, was “nappy” and had to be pressed. Both my sisters were slimmer than me: my oldest sister was short and curvy, and my second oldest sister was thin and muscular, with a tiny waist and large breasts. With my brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes and thick thighs, I most closely resembled a piece of well-done fried chicken.

Since I wasn’t considered a beauty in my family, I tried to content myself with being the smart girl, the good girl, the girl who never got into trouble, and I told on my siblings who did. When I reached my teens, I didn’t just want to be smart anymore—I wanted to be cute, too. But my weight kept getting in the way.

At Precious Blood, the small Catholic school I attended for eighth grade, the fine boys in my class either ignored me or teased me. It was always good sport to make fun of the fat girl. The only other male attention that I regularly received was the street harassment that I endured nearly every day as I walked home after school. Men would drive slowly alongside me, shouting, “Hey baby, can I talk to you?” I would ignore them and continue walking, acting if I didn’t hear the comments they made about my ass and what they’d like to do with it. Eventually, they would scream, “Fuck you then, you fat bitch!” when I kept my eyes focused ahead and refused to acknowledge them.

All throughout eighth grade, I had watched couples sneak across the parking lot at recess and go behind the nursing home adjacent to Precious Blood to make out. High school, I hoped, would mean a wider variety of boys, some of whom might appreciate my ass like the men who followed me in cars, but hopefully without the “fuck you, fat bitch” part. Unlike all the schools I’d gone to before, my high school—Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s largest and most prestigious high school—was huge. With over five thousand students, the school was filled with good-looking boys everywhere I turned. My second oldest sister, a senior, was friends with all the hot senior guys, but to them, I was just her little freshman sis.

Along with the multitude of hot guys, there were girls at my school who were bona fide glamour queens. Every day, these daughters of doctors, lawyers, and judges came to school with their slim bodies dressed in the latest fashions. I envied their tight Calvin Klein jeans, their fresh-from-the-salon hairstyles, their Fashion Fair and Clinique makeup, and their Coach purses. With so many beautiful girls around, no matter how many boys I had crushes on—and the crushes felt like legion at that point—the guys I wanted to notice me were paying no attention to the shy nerdy fat girl.

A few other boys took notice. There was the senior boy at my school who, one day during swim class, took me down to the deep end of the pool—I couldn’t swim—and stuck his tongue in my mouth and his fingers in my vagina. I hadn’t much cared for either intrusion, but I held onto him for dear life so that I wouldn’t drown. He was a senior, and he was light-skinned with curly hair, so I was even momentarily excited that I’d been singled out to be assaulted by him. One day, I asked Caroletta, as casually as I could, if she knew him.

“Ugh,” she responded. “He’s a creep. How do you know him?”

“He’s on the swim team, and they practice in the deep end during my swim class.”

She frowned in disgust. “Stay away from him. He’s a weirdo.”

Caroletta didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask what that statement meant. But her words forced me to stop thinking of what that guy had done to me in the terms of the romance novels I loved—as a seduction. I began to see what he had done to me as something that was wrong and that shouldn’t have happened. I didn’t tell my sister or anybody else what he had done to me, but I avoided him after that.

There was the boy I met at a football game—a boy from one of our rival schools, King High School. He wasn’t even remotely cute, but he approached me like I was, and convinced me to go over to his house one day after school. As we lay on his sofa that day—him on top of me, his enormous lips completely encircling mine, covering the lower half of my face with spit—I could only think about washing my face and getting home. Fortunately, he was as afraid of his mother as I was of mine, so he hustled me out before his mama got home from work, and I managed to get home early enough to avoid getting in trouble with my own mother. I had no desire to repeat the experience, so although I made the mistake of giving him my phone number, I luckily answered the phone every time he called, and each time, I would hang up like it was a wrong number. Soon afterwards, he took the hint and stopped calling.

And then there was the boy I liked the most at the time, a sophomore who was friends with my best friend Melinda’s boyfriend. He kissed me once during study hall, apparently out of boredom, and then forgot I was alive. Even though my crush ignored me afterwards, I replayed that kiss over and over in my head every day, multiple times each day, each time daydreaming that the kiss led him to realize that I was The One.

Since the boys I liked showed no real interest in me, and the ones who did show interest were creeps, I turned to the worlds of sports and entertainment for fantasy boyfriends. I had crushes on both of the Brothers Johnson, Prince, Paul Newman, Billy Dee Williams, Bjorn Borg, Detroit Tigers right-fielder Ron LeFlore, and NFL quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, just to name a few. I had so many celebrity crushes, I could have founded a fantasy boyfriend league.

I also lived vicariously through the exploits of my best friend Melinda. Melinda was dating the boy of her choice, a cute guy on the football team. Melinda was in love, and her stories of skipping school to spend afternoons at her boyfriend’s house while his mom was at work sounded like true romance to my virgin ears. Since I couldn’t have a boyfriend of my own, I lived for her stories about hers. When Melinda wasn’t skipping class with her boyfriend, we would skip class and walk downtown to Hart Plaza, sit by the Detroit River, and talk about her real love and my imagined ones.

Most of what I knew about boys, men, and sex came from reading my three older brothers’ porn books and magazines, along with Harlequin, Silhouette, Harold Robbins, and Jackie Collins novels. I had been reading my brothers’ porn since I was eight, and racy romance novels since I was ten. From time to time, Planned Parenthood pamphlets would appear, randomly and without explanation, on our dining room table. This was my mother’s way of giving us sex ed information without actually having to talk about sex. I read those, too, under my mother’s watchful, approving eye. Reading about sex was fine, as long as I didn’t ask my mother any questions.

Between the porn and Planned Parenthood, I felt pretty well-informed. But I was still missing the one thing I wanted most—a boyfriend. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend, but that detail didn’t much matter. I’d never had a boy ask me to be his girlfriend. I’d never even had an in-school-only relationship, the kind of boyfriend who was only your boyfriend during school hours because you couldn’t see or talk to him any other time.

So when Melinda told me she knew a boy who liked me, I was excited to hear more.

“My cousin Rob thinks you’re cute,” she said.

Melinda’s cousin Rob was gorgeous. His neatly groomed Afro, velvet-smooth caramel skin, and faint mustache over full, lush lips reminded me of my fantasy celebrity boyfriends, like Prince. I was sure he would know how to kiss a girl without putting her whole face in his mouth.

Melinda’s cousin wasn’t a boy, though. He was twenty-eight.

“He wants me to give him your number,” Melinda told me.

“You know I’m not supposed to have boys calling me,” I told her. “What if he calls and my mother answers the phone?”

Melinda shrugged. “Have him call when you know she’s not going to answer.”

On one level, I knew to avoid older men. There was one teacher at Cass who grossed us all out. He would leer at the attractive girls in his class and tell them he would give them a higher grade if they would set him up with an older sister, cousin, or aunt. To us, he was one step away from being a pedophile, and everyone knew to stay away from him.

But at fourteen, I didn’t put Melinda’s twenty-eight-year-old cousin in that same creeper category. He was about the same age as some of the R&B and sports stars I dreamed about. I’d met him a few times at Melinda’s house and was flattered by the way he talked to us like we were people, not just kids. I had never noticed him paying particular attention to me at all, so to hear that he thought I was cute and wanted my number was both surprising and thrilling. Having a handsome, adult man I knew—not some random dude in a car—ask for my number made me feel attractive, desired and valued.

“I don’t know how I’m going to manage it, but give him my number,” I told Melinda.

We had one house phone—the heavy, indestructible black rotary dial phone that was Ma Bell’s trademark. The phone sat on the buffet that separated our living room and dining rooms, and although my mother eventually relented and allowed us to buy a longer phone cord from Radio Shack, we weren’t allowed to move the phone too far off the buffet. The phone’s location ensured that my mother heard the phone every time it rang, heard one of us answer it, and could detect from our response whether the caller was appropriate or inappropriate.

Melinda acted as the go-between for that first call. I told her exactly what time Rob had to call so that I could be right there to answer when the phone rang. I had to position myself by the phone, yet act as if I wasn’t standing by the phone because I was expecting a call. When the phone rang, I had to move quickly to answer it but not leap to answer on the first ring. My mother saw and picked up on everything, and she would have definitely noticed that. When I answered, I had to move far enough away from her so that she couldn’t hear a male voice coming through the handset, but I had to stay close enough to her that it didn’t look like I was trying to have a conversation that was so private that I couldn’t have it in front of her.

The actual call was even trickier to manage than I’d anticipated. Rob had one of those panty-dropper phone voices, sonorous and bass-filled, the kind of voice that teenage boys, no matter how cute, just don’t have. As he spoke, I imagined his lips brushing my earlobe.

“Who was that?” my mother said when I got off the phone.

“Melinda,” I lied.

“Hmmph. That didn’t sound like no Melinda.”

“She has a cold.”

I told Rob—through Melinda—that calling on school days wouldn’t work because my mother was watching too hard. We settled on Saturday mornings as a good time for us to talk without interruption. My mother slept late, my father would be out grocery shopping, and no one else would be awake, either.

During our conversations, Rob told me I was beautiful. He said I was mature beyond my age. He told me I was too smart and too good for those boys who didn’t want me. He never said, “If only you were eighteen, I’d love to date you.” He said he wanted to take me out—now.

I protested. “I told you: I can’t go out with you. I can’t go out with anybody.”

“We can pick a place to meet.”

“Nope. My mother would never go for that. The only place I can go is to school and over Melinda’s house.”

“Then I’ll come pick you up.”

“You can’t come to my house!”

“What if I shave?”

“Then you’ll look like a grown man without facial hair. You don’t understand, I can’t go out with boys until I’m sixteen. And even if I were sixteen, I couldn’t go out with you, because you would have to pick me up at my front door, and there’s no way my mother would let me leave the house with some man.”

He would laugh and offer up other schemes. He suggested picking me up from school, but I knew Caroletta would eventually get wind of that. I had gotten away once with sneaking off after school with the boy from King, but there was little chance I’d ever get away with that again. I wondered to myself—never suggesting it—why he couldn’t meet me at Melinda’s house. It never occurred to me that his aunt, Melinda’s mom, wouldn’t stand for it if her adult nephew started being too obvious in his attentions towards her teenage daughter’s best friend.

Still, I was pleased with my little secret rebellion. Rob and I had found a sliver of time on Saturday mornings where I could consistently talk to him on the phone without being bothered by anyone. We never used the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” but those phone conversations—even if they were only once weekly—felt special. In my head, he was my boyfriend for fifteen minutes every Saturday morning. Talking to him on the phone was enough for me.

But it wasn’t enough for him.

During one of those Saturday morning conversations, things changed. Rob’s voice acquired more bass than usual, and he became insistent that I find a way for us to meet. He was so determined that I was nearly ready to agree—until he said something that startled me. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was sexual, in tone if not in content; the kind of ridiculous bullshit a man says to clarify that his intentions are not platonic.

I knew something had changed, but in my inexperience, I couldn’t fully process what happened. So I asked:

“What are you doing?”

Rob chuckled. “I’m making love to your mind.”

In one of my brothers’ porn magazines—Penthouse or Hustler, I can’t be certain—there was a cartoon that fascinated and horrified me. It was a drawing of a girl with crossed eyes and a stupid grin. A guy had his penis shoved in her ear, his balls squished against the side of her face. The tip of his penis extended out her other ear and dripped with cum. The caption was equally crude and extremely offensive: “How to Fuck a Retarded Girl.”

When Rob told me he was making love to my mind, I immediately recalled that image. My still-kid brain took the words “making love to your mind” literally. And although, intellectually, I knew he didn’t mean he wanted to stick it in my ear—and that if he did, it wouldn’t penetrate my ear canal and come out the other side—emotionally, I blanched. What I fully understood in that moment was that nice Rob, who said I was smart and pretty and mature for my age, wasn’t my Saturday morning fantasy phone boyfriend. He was a grown, adult man who wanted to fuck fourteen-year-old me.

And just as my sister’s calling the guy on the swim team a creep had stopped me from romanticizing his sexual assault, Rob’s claim that he was “making love to my mind” didn’t feel sexy and romantic, but icky and wrong.

I didn’t know what to say, so I laughed.

“What’s funny?” he said.

“Oh, is that what that was?” I replied, buying myself time.

“Yes. How do you feel?”

I guess this was the point where I was supposed to tell him he was making me wet and I wanted to kiss him and, yes, I would find a way to sneak out of my mother’s house and see him. But I could only think about getting off the phone before anyone caught me, and telling him I couldn’t ever talk to him again.

“I have to go,” I said. “My mom is going to get up soon.” And I hung up.

I don’t remember if I told Melinda to tell Rob he couldn’t call me anymore or if I told him myself. However the message was conveyed, he obliged. And when I saw him at Melinda’s house, he stayed away from me.

Although Melinda and I remained friends throughout high school, Rob showed no further interest in me once I reached the age of consent. He came by Melinda’s house less and less often when I was there. Melinda would casually mention, “Oh, my cousin Rob asked about you,” but with no indication that he wanted any further contact. That was a relief, because I didn’t want any further contact with him, either.

Over the years, I told my story about Rob, to different audiences and for various purposes. In my late teens and early twenties, it was almost a point of honor to show that, like other girls, I’d had grown men chasing after when I was very young, despite my weight. Sometimes, I told the story as part of a longer narrative about the benefits of having strict parents who kept me from doing stupid things I wasn’t smart enough to keep myself from doing.

But it wasn’t until I told the Rob story to one of my law school friends that I understood its true significance.

As I described the compliments Rob bestowed upon me—that I was beautiful, smart, and mature beyond my years—my law school friend shook her head.

“He was grooming you,” she said.

Grooming? Until then, I’d never heard that term. I hadn’t realized that what happened to me was a thing that adults who prey on children do as part of their twisted seduction game. I’d been groomed by a pedophile—and I had no idea. Technically, the term for a man like Rob who desires to have sex with teens is ephebophile, not pedophile—but to me, that’s a distinction without a difference. No matter what term you choose, it means a grown man who wants to have sex with a child—and at fourteen, I was definitely still a child.

Rob had other issues and later wound up in prison for murder. He asked Melinda to ask me to write to him in prison. I told her I would think about it, but I never did write to him, because I had nothing to say to him.

I am thankful for my mother and her strict rules, because they helped prevent me from putting myself into an untenable situation with Rob. But now that I’m a mom, I wish I could have gone to my mother and talked to her about what was happening. I wish I’d had not just rules to keep me safe, but guidance on how to deal with sex and my burgeoning sexuality. If I’d gone to my mother, she would have forbidden me from going to Melinda’s house ever again, and that would have been devastating. I needed an adult to talk to about Rob—and I didn’t have one. My own daughter is now seventeen, which is the age of consent in New York State—but even now, I hope she would come talk to me if she found herself being pressured into a sexual relationship that she wasn’t ready for, something I was unable to do with my own mother.

As I learned from being groomed by Rob, an adult need not be in a position of authority over a child to wield unequal power. Rob preyed on my teenage insecurities, and were it not for that gross porn magazine cartoon, I might have allowed him to “make love” to more than just my mind. I wasn’t mature enough to handle a telephone relationship with a twenty-eight-year-old man that turned overtly sexual only once. I certainly wasn’t mature enough to handle an actual physical relationship with him. While I’m sure exceptional cases do exist, my experience with Rob taught me that the idea of a teenager under the age of seventeen truly consenting to sex with an adult is nothing more than a dangerous illusion. When I think about Rob, those weeks I spent as his Saturday morning telephone girlfriend feels less like a sweet young romance, and more like a near miss. I was lucky to escape unharmed.

A couple of names have been changed. —ed.

•••

CAROLYN EDGAR is an attorney and writer who lives in New York City. She is a regular contributor to Salon and on her own blog, Carolyn Edgar – Notes of a Writer, Lawyer and Single Mom (www.carolynedgar.com).

Love, Luck, and Letters

heart stone

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Glendaliz Camacho

Letters from JR (2012)

On a February night in 2012, there was a knock at my door. When I looked through my door’s peephole, I saw a young man in my hallway. My neighbor’s son from upstairs. I figured that he was going to ask if I had heat or hot water or to borrow something, so when I opened the door and heard him say, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time. Are you seeing anyone?” I put my hand up for him to stop talking and told him I’d get my keys and come out into the hall.

JR stood on the second step of the landing between our floors. He was built like the high-school football player he’d been—thick neck, broad shoulders, muscular legs. By the way his eyes, the color of wet soil, drifted up into a corner of the ceiling like a student remembering what the textbook said, I could tell that he’d rehearsed this in his head until he’d finally built up the nerve to do it. I knew what I should say. Point out our age difference—he was twenty-three, I was thirty-three. Point out how different we were as people—he wore his pants three sizes too big and I’d once heard him have a yelling match in the front of our building with his ex-girlfriend, while I stopped liking guys who wore baggy jeans in ’96 and kicked my previous boyfriend out for being too chaotic.

It would have been easy, too; it would’ve taken me all of a minute to say, This is sweet but no thanks. Instead, I gave him my phone number.

Breaking both cardinal rules I’d laid down the next day in his bedroom—this is not a relationship and discretion was required—JR and I went on dates, he met some of my friends, and we held hands in public. I played Otis Redding songs for him, introduced him to Carlos the Jackal via a mini-series, and read him Thich Nhat Hahn. He’d drive me to work and pick me up almost every day and make me tea in the evenings.

To see myself through his eyes was to witness feats of sorcery. The thrill was in coming up with more and more things to expand and amaze him with. All random things that I was into that he’d never been exposed to or never had the freedom to express interest in because of the street life he was drawn to. If I stopped too long to think about it, I knew I would find my relationship with JR to be unsustainable, but I swatted the thought away in exchange for how good the attention felt.

One evening, detectives knocked on JR’s door. I lied and said he wasn’t in. They left their card, saying they just wanted to ask him a few questions. JR admitted he’d committed a robbery. There was a good possibility it was caught on video. A week later, he decided to turn himself in.

We spent that evening sitting on the steps of the elementary school that we’d attended, across the street from our building. We had started out the same—two kids with cartoon backpacks and fresh pencils. As much as I joked that my School of Making Better Men was closed, I believed that boy could reemerge, the boy that went to the same gifted junior high school I did and earned a college football scholarship. From the corner at the top of the hill our building sat on, I watched him walk away until he disappeared into the precinct. He was sentenced to five years.

We wrote each other almost every week, at first. JR’s first letter began, “I miss and love you so much. I wish and pray I can go home to see, hold, and sleep with you again.” Another letter continued, “I also find myself trying to ascertain how or why you love a monster like myself. I know I haven’t shown you that side of me, but based on my way of living alone, it should’ve kept you at a distance from me.”

In another letter, “I still can’t believe I’m so lucky to have a woman like you on my side. My shrink tells me that I should call it a blessing, but I call it luck, because blessings have nothing to do with love. Luck has everything to do with it. Then he asked me how do I figure that and I explained, love is luck because not everyone in this world will ever know what love is, nor will they ever experience it. It’s like stumbling upon money in the street. That’s not a blessing, you was hit with enough luck to find that money.”

He closed another letter with, “please don’t leave me alone because without you, I’m just the same old monster I’m known to be.”

After a few months, I stopped writing back.

First letter from John (April 2013)

One afternoon, I checked my OK Cupid account to find a message from JLRodriguez. “Had I recognized you for you I never woulda stopped, but I did, and you probably already got a message that I did…so I will play this however you want me to,” it read. I had randomly popped up on his matches, and he didn’t recognize me until he was already in my profile.

I recognized JLRodriguez as John, a poet I met at a reading in the lower east side two years prior. We’d already been connected on social media, but the reading was our first interaction in real life. He leaned in conspiratorially and asked what happened between me and a publisher that caused the short-story anthology I was editing—that included one of John’s stories—to come to an abrupt halt. Wary, I gave John a diplomatic answer, something about my sense of timing with the publisher’s not being compatible. We didn’t speak again until a year later when we were reading at the same event. We were cordial, nothing more.

In his message, John closed with, “I’m looking like you are, and you look good. At any case, I do hope you find whomever you are looking for.”

I got called out on something I thought I’d hidden well. I was looking. I had been tirelessly looking since I was a child: for answers, love, approval, freedom, happiness. When I found some form of these things—in a conversation with my father, in a new love interest, in an acceptance letter—I sought it out in another way—spirituality, a new love interest, an acceptance letter to something else. Contentment is only a plateau, never a permanent state.

I liked that John offered to meet me on this plateau, as a fellow seeker, but with the openness to know that we might not remain there. If, scrolling through online profiles, I would’ve seen and recognized him, I also would’ve passed, but there was some significance to my appearing on his feed. One that was worth exploring.

Love letter from John (June 24, 2013)

On our first date, John and I had lunch at a Mexican restaurant that had a photograph of Marilyn Monroe on the bathroom wall. I told John I had been reading about the siren archetype and Marilyn Monroe, the prime example. I didn’t tell him that I took a photo of the picture thinking it was a good omen. We talked about Mourid Barghouti’s memoir and Rita Moreno’s autobiography in the park across the street from the restaurant. He gave me a tour of the college campus where he taught freshman English composition courses. It was one of the best dates I ever had.

John was the type of guy to listen to me over the phone so intently, I would ask if he was still there. One day, when I was marooned on my couch with a fever, he brought over tea, Gatorade, and croissants. We often spent time wandering through museums or at readings. He’d send me YouTube links to Wu-tang mashups and I’d send him Robi Rosa or Florence and The Machine songs. He introduced me to Vampire Hunter D and Dungeons and Dragons alignments. I was on equal footing with him intellectually and emotionally, standing on that plateau of contentment. If there was a right way to do a relationship, this was the one I’d gotten the most right. JR was the last page of Act I and John was the first page of Act II.

John was also the type of guy who when I ran out of toilet paper or Brillo pads, brought it up constantly as something that should never happen to an adult. In his thirty-nine years, he’d never once let that happen. The first time I made a meal for him—vegetable lasagna—he said that it was almost, but not quite, as good as his mom’s. In social situations, things could go either way: he was sweet and inquisitive or visibly uncomfortable until he was a block of ice. I wrestled with these pros and cons, but the pros still far outweighed cons.

When I was accepted into a week-long writing workshop in Berkeley, John dropped me off at the Airtran at JFK Airport. We hugged and kissed. “It’s just a week. I’ll see you Monday,” he said. A couple of days later I received a letter via email.

My Glendaliz:

We are far now, so very, and I want you to know how wonderful you make everything.

More than that day, when I saw that picture and wondered who was that beautiful woman; more than when I knew who she was; more than the red-cheeked rush of wonderment in writing you; more than reading your acceptance; it was your willing hand in mine.

You made me feel worthy of love. No one else ever has. It was always me dreaming, forcing the clichéd longing of pseudo-romance. You welcomed me and accepted me and for that, more than anything else that I have experienced, I love you.

You make loving so easy. My time, my concern, and even my Gmail password— it comes as no surprise that I share these things with you, that you find me good at sharing, at noticing, and that you are great at reading me, that you understand, and are willing to deal with the strange seeds watered around me.

With all my love,

Your John

I called to tell him he was the absolute best for sending me a love letter. We talked for about an hour. I can’t remember about what exactly, mostly about how things were going for me in the workshop. It was the last time that I ever heard his voice.

When my week in Berkeley was drawing to a close, my instructor pulled me aside during a break from our workshop and told me John was dead. His mother’s body was found earlier in the week, in her apartment, a hammer next to her bed. John was found a couple of days later when he never checked out of a hotel room where he slit his wrists in the bathtub. When I received his letter, he had already killed his mother and I imagine he had already decided he was going to kill himself.

That OK Cupid message, at first so ripe with fate, now seemed like nothing more than a cosmic joke, a lesson sent by a god in a Greek tragedy to humble me. I reread his letters daily. So many things had to align for John and me to meaningfully cross paths: algorithms, previous break-ups, the science behind what we found attractive. I kept regressing down that line of thinking until it seemed possible that even our parents leaving their respective homelands were part of this enormous web that extended further and further into history itself. If this wasn’t an aleph, it was the closest I ever came to a moment where every thing was visible at once, and painfully so. It was overwhelming to grapple with thoughts of chance, fate, and the way time moves more like nesting dolls rather than in any linear fashion, all while crying, making John’s final arrangements, and trying to meet the daily demands of work and parenting.

I did, however, begin to feel that there was still significance in joining John on that little ledge of contentment, beyond notions of good or bad. There is a quote by the sorcerer Don Juan Matus, from Carlos Castaneda’s books, that says, “The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” The challenge for me was to hold on to goodness and mercy, and the world as a place where these things still existed.

Something in John’s letter prodded me. “My time, my concern, and even my Gmail password.” A list of things he’d given me, except for the password. Yet, here he was saying I had it. John was a poet and he had established a rhythm here, then disrupted it. One night, I was up with newly acquired insomnia when I remembered that he’d once asked me for a favor. He’d given me his Submittable password and asked me to send his manuscript to a publisher. I typed that password into his email and it worked.

John had emailed himself a letter and addressed it to me. The subject line was “just in case,” but I think that he knew I would find it because he counted on my looking. He apologized if I was hurting. His use of the word “if” was grating, as if there was any way I couldn’t be hurting. He said his favorite times were with me. The last five lines read:

You.
You made me a believer in love.
You made me believe.
You did that.
You.

Letter to John. (June 24, 2014)

On the morning of the one-year anniversary of John’s death, I wrote to him.

Hey John,

We haven’t spoken in a minute, I know. You’re certainly making up for that. This morning, I hear you everywhere. And I know there are things we still won’t talk about.

I workshopped an essay about you last week. My group critiquing it said they couldn’t see my love for you. They felt distance there. And they were right. It’s because I still feel shame for having loved you. You left me with a lot of shame, John. To be ashamed of good memories is a fucked up thing.

Anyway, it made me think well, how to do I revise this? What were the things that made me feel love for you? And I keep coming back to that morning we wrote together. You, working on that sci-fi novel. Me, on a short story. That morning, I looked over at you and thought this could be a lot of Sunday mornings. Our equivalent of reading the Sunday Times or going to farmer’s markets or whatever couples do on Sundays. It was symbiotic. It wasn’t that aficiamiento where you’re half-crazed over someone, and I think you knew that. It was the sense of partnership, of working, creating, side by side. Harmony. That’s what I didn’t say in my essay. That this part was so stellar that I was more than willing to work with the more jodon parts of you. Yes, jodon.

People ask me if I think we’d still be together. I always say no, without missing a beat. I don’t know whose benefit that is for. I say the critical, unbending parts of you would’ve swelled like a supernova to overshadow everything.

You know, eventually, I don’t want to remember this date. You, of course, I’d like to remember random things and laugh, but this date, no. I won’t mark it forever so maybe I will talk to you next year. Maybe I won’t. In any case, I’ll see you around, John.

-G

Last letter to JR. (September 2014)

I intended to write to JR because I was working on this essay. I didn’t. It’s been about a year since I’ve written to him. I know that the last time was after John died because I have a letter from him that says, “I won’t lie, I’m glad you’re still single but I’m very sorry about your friend.” I didn’t see the point of getting into details.

I save his letters, the first ones still bound with white ribbon as if I would be able to keep everything that neat for the duration of JR’s incarceration. The ones that came after, the ones I had time to read, but never got around to answering, are piled haphazardly on top. Maybe I’ll still receive the sporadic letter from JR, but one day the letters will stop completely because he will be home, a twenty-eight-year-old man who may not see love, or perhaps me, in the same fortuitous light as before.

I used to wonder if JR grasped the nuance between the terms “luck” and “blessing” when I reread his letters, but it was I that had been using them interchangeably, like shrimp and crab in the same chowder, close enough that I couldn’t be bothered to distinguish between them. Blessings elicit gratitude because of their benefit, suggest having taken action to achieve or suffering to earn. Only good people are blessed. Luck, on the other hand is as transitory and undiscerning as love itself. A spin on a wheel. But lucky or unlucky, blessed or cursed, none of those words really seem to be a good fit for the magnitude or complexity of loving or being loved by JR or John. It was both and neither and all.

•••

GLENDALIZ CAMACHO was born and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Her writing has appeared in All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), Southern Pacific Review, and The Acentos Review, among others. She was a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee and is currently working on a short story collection.

A Mild Suspension of Effort

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jamie Passaro

You are always searching for something that is somewhere in your small house: your keys, your cell phone, the other shoe, the cap to the marker, the library book, the salt. You spend so much time guiding your children—to wipe their mouths with napkins and not sleeves, to not write on their foreheads with Sharpies, to wear underwear (We always wear our underwear, you hear yourself saying singsongily)—that you are feeling a bit lost yourself. It is a rare day when you don’t wonder if it was dumb to quit your job.

It turns out, you are not so great at householding. The dust, the cobwebs, the splatters, a losing battle. The canning of summer’s bounty, time consuming and scary. The sewing of buttons and minor repairs to clothes? You are ill-equipped for this, let alone for teaching these skills to your daughters. Wouldn’t you rather read the New Yorker with a late-afternoon glass of wine while they build a fort out of toilet paper?

You have the garden, but more and more it seems a weedy embarrassment. With help from friends and cheered on by Michael Pollan, you and your husband tore up the tiny front yard and put in raised beds. It looked like you knew what you were doing, but you hadn’t much practice, hadn’t grown up the way some people do, these people who seem to have it in their DNA when to prune the blueberries and what to add to the soil to make it less cloddy. That first year, the garden was a beauty. It must have been all that fresh compost, all that weedcloth under the pea gravel surrounding the raised beds; it was all so tidy. The kale grew waist-high and stayed on through the winter. The basil—you couldn’t give enough away. Every year since then, you’ve had diminishing returns. Year five brought tomato plants with fungus, lettuce and kale and chard starts mowed down by snails at every turn. The kale that did grow was gray with aphids. Weeds busted through the weedcloth, more plentiful than anything, so many you could mow them. And it’s all on display, right there in the front yard!

You find a blob of peanut butter on your watchband. You have memorized the bulk food code for lentils at your grocery store. In other situations, words waver on the tip of your tongue. The name of one of your favorite actors? Gone the other day in an ordinary conversation. Later you Google the names of his films to get it back.

The newly scuffed-up back-to-school shoe. The My Little Pony you actually threw in the garbage because you were tired of stepping over it on the front porch. The crescent of blood on your husband’s nose from where he picked at a piece of peeling skin. In the morning rush, you forgot to tell him it was there. The autumn light is so perfect, it puts a little catch in your throat. Your fortieth trip around the sun.

You are a consumer of something that you like to call magic but is really just the suspension of effort. These small, unexpected moments. The conversation with a stranger in the produce department. The cigarette shared with a friend while your children sleep in your minivan at the trailhead to a hike you will not take. Riding your bike across the Ferry Street bridge on the Fourth of July, the warm night air on your bare arms while fireworks crackle in the distance. That was years ago. The magic, it’s getting rarer and rarer, you think. Your therapist says that you are getting in the way. It’s probably true.

Thus is your mood when your mother-in-law comes for a visit during the last week before school starts. Your mother-in-law is a cheerful and sprightly eighty-three, a member of the Tea Party, an attendee of the same Methodist church as Dick Cheney’s sister. She’s an expert knitter and is knitting a prayer scarf to donate to a hospital. Dick Cheney’s sister taught her the technique.

Your mother-in-law’s visits always remind you of how bad you are at talking—small talk or big talk. You are more a listener and a nodder, more of a spend-time-in-your-head-so-you-can-think-about-the-thing-you-said-yesterday kind of person. You are in awe of people who can talk at length about anything. The other day you heard someone give specific directions to a complicated destination, and it actually gave you a shiver.

Your mother-in-law is losing her short-term memory. Your husband’s brother has phoned ahead to let you know. In the first two hours of her visit, you talk about the weather six times. Yes, it’s usually this hot at the end of August in Eugene, you hear yourself saying again and again in the same voice you use with your children. You are exhausted already. And sad.

The plan is that your mother-in-law will move from her home in Boise into an assisted living facility that’s across the street from her church. She seems to be on board with this, and you talk about it many times during your visit. A part of you thinks that it’s heartbreaking to spend the last years of your life with strangers and that it would be much better to have her move in with your family, but another part of you knows that this would be difficult for you. You know you’re going to feel bad either way.

You’re meeting a friend for a coffee date while your kids are at a morning camp. You feel reluctant to leave your mother-in-law alone, but you need time with your friend. As you leave, you tell her that you’ll see her in a few hours and then you have a worry in the back of your head the whole time that she has slipped on a colored pencil and broken her hip. You hurry back home and it’s like you’ve been gone five minutes. How was the drop-off? she asks. It’s so hot outside, she says. Is it always so hot here?

Your daughter has been promised a kitten for her eighth birthday. And so on a Saturday during your mother-in-law’s visit, you all go to the local humane society to pick out the pet. The cat room manager takes one look at you all—ages five, eight, thirty-nine, forty-nine, and eighty-three—and directs you toward a room of energetic but tolerant kittens. Your daughter picks out a black and white four-month-old named Tia, and you receive the half-off senior discount because of your mother-in-law. She keeps referring to the cat as a dog, probably because your family has always had dogs for pets.

You decide to throw a small potluck for a few neighbors for Labor Day. It is something that your mother-in-law will enjoy. News of the potluck spreads and it becomes six-family affair. Your husband moves the grill and the picnic table into the front yard and your next-door neighbor does the same. You put out all of your silverware, all of your plates. You bring out the old crank ice cream maker and then make the same joke to different groups of neighbors: We’ve got a kitten and home-made ice cream; we’re running for the neighborhood association!

The neighbor children parade in the house to meet the kitten, who has already worn a dress, already been given a bath. She lets them cart her around like a baby. She lets them hold her up so she can walk on two legs. Sometimes she lets out a mew, but she never scratches.

There is watermelon and Caprese salad and Caesar salad and artichoke dip and lots of beer and wine. The grills are cranking out sausage and veggies. Everyone is talking happily in the front yard, drinking beer and wine from plastic cups. Your mother-in-law is re-meeting everyone she has already met, asking them where they’re from and where they live and what they do. She looks happy and you bring her a glass of the rosé she likes.

Into the chaos, your daughters appear on the front porch wearing the new roller blades that their aunt bought them recently. They’ve not yet mastered the roller blades, and for a moment you shake your head, No. But something, maybe the wine, lets you let them. Their dad helps them down the porch stairs and they make their way through the crowd to the sidewalk, your five-year-old in a kind of crawl-walk. Everyone is cracking up and saying thank goodness for the kneepads and watch out for the grill. Your next-door neighbor, who’s in law enforcement and is an overcautious dad, is cringing; he actually can’t look at them. His wife jokes that we should give them hot sharp sticks, or maybe the kitten. And you let go and laugh harder than you have in a while.

In the middle of the party, you notice that the doors to the room where you have been keeping the kitten are wide open. The kitten is … gone. You alert your husband and he searches the house, confirms that, yes, the kitten is gone. One by one, the kids find out. Two of them are in tears. The adults start searching, drinks in hand. Your party has turned into a search party, and the neighbors are parting through the weeds in the garden and are inside on their hands and knees shining tiny flashlights into the very dusty areas under the couches and beds. Here, kitty, kitty. Your mother-in-law is wondering if we might hear her bark.

Two neighbors have made their way to the kitchen, where the sink is piled with dishes, the counters cluttered with bottles and miscellaneous bags, caps, and lids. They are doing the dishes and you are grateful. You must continue the search, but you’ve run out of places to look. You walk around with your flashlight and a worried look on your face. She’ll turn up, the neighbors say as they leave in small groups. She’s probably curled up in a ball asleep somewhere. You agree, but you also wonder how you could have allowed this to happen. Maybe not such a great idea to have a party the day after you got a new kitten.

Everyone is gone by ten and the kitten is still not found. Your husband puts the reluctant girls to bed. You remember that the kitten is wearing a bell around its neck. In the quiet, maybe you will be able to hear it tinkle. You sit cross-legged in a patch of weeds in the garden. It’s the most still you have been while awake for as long as you can remember. You hear the snails munching, the crickets chirping, the pea gravel shifting under your weight. Every few minutes, a car roars by on the street and you worry again about the kitten. But you look up at the stars and feel lucky that this is your task tonight.

After ten minutes of your quiet vigil, you start calling again for the kitten. You hear a vague tinkling from the backyard and tiptoe around to the side gate. Kitty? The bell again, in the makeshift wood pile. You shine your flashlight back there behind it and see a flash of green eyes. She tries to squirm away, but you’re able to grab her. At first she wants to get back to the woodpile, get on with her outdoor adventure, but then maybe she realizes you are not one of the mauling children and she stops squirming away. She nestles into you. The two of you sit in the moonlight on the back porch. Her purring is the only sound you hear.

•••

JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews and essays have been published in The Sun, Utne Magazine, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Oregon Quarterly, Forest Magazine, Culinate.com, and NWBookLovers.org, among other places. She’s at work on a collection of essays.

That Smell

woman in bed

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer James

It happens everywhere, in all kinds of situations; I’ll walk up to someone and smell That Smell. The last time it happened to me was the first day of Advent when all the families with young children gathered in our church parish hall to construct Advent wreaths. The smell wasn’t the first thing I noticed. In fact, when I first arrived with my husband and three children, the room smelled of old wood, fresh coffee, and evergreen boughs: genuine magic in the air. The Christmas tree stood in the corner, waiting for its bright lights and colorful ornaments. There were already some jars of peanut butter and Campbell’s soup under the tree for the food pantry. For me, it was the best of the Christmas season.

Then one of my favorite peeps at church, this young, amazing mom, with two little kids, came up and gave me a hug. I smelled the smell. You know it too, and it’s not armpit odor, or old urine, or greasy hair. It’s the smell of human skin trying to metabolize, to slough off, the stench of alcohol. You also probably know that this smell is not emitted (generally speaking) by some emotionally stable person who spent the previous evening nursing a tepid glass of merlot. Nope. This is the smell of poison, the result of one person consuming too much alcohol for his or her body to take. I know about this smell. I used to smell that way, too.

The first time I noticed my own skin generating alcoholic stench was one sunny December morning when I was teaching preschool. My husband’s company Christmas party had taken place the night before and there was lots of wine and beer. Lots of wine for me. Then, lots of chit chat. Chit-chat with my table mates about abortion. My Catholic tablemates. Whoops. Any grace I’d come to the table with had gone down with the third or fourth glass of wine. The next morning, I woke up nauseated and ashamed. This was a significant occasion for me, this one morning.

It would be very nice if I could tell you that I knew I’d been drinking too much, that I needed to stop or cut down. But no. I realized that I needed to do a much better job of hiding my relationship with alcohol. Otherwise, the jig would be up. And I was nowhere near ready to surrender my favorite thing, so no more drinking excessively in public.

There is a book called Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. Not surprisingly, she likens her relationship with alcohol to one with a lover. I like the analogy because, like it or not, most of us have loved someone who or something that is bad for us. Sometimes the loved one is a parent, a lover, a boss, a friend. Sometimes a job or food. But no matter how disastrous the relationship is, there’s always a moment, an episode, an element of deep, searing satisfaction to the whole mess. In an abusive relationship, it might be the part when the abuser begs for forgiveness, swears that his victim is kind and generous beyond belief, that he might cease to exist without her. Shit, that’s heady stuff: who among us doesn’t want to hear that? If only the truth in those promises lasted more than an instant. And eventually, alcohol does something cruel to its lovers: it tries to kill us.

For years, I hated alcohol. My mother was an alcoholic. She was one of the kindest, bravest, most loving people I’ve known, but her relationship with alcohol sucked away a lot of that. She was quietly depressed her whole adult life, so far as I could see. She was never violent or cruel, not short tempered or really angry. She was just irreparably sad and the alcohol made it very hard to hide that. I didn’t want that for myself.

Because I was afraid of becoming as sad as my mom, I didn’t use alcohol in many of the glorious ways that so many miserable adolescents do. I didn’t use it to fit in or to grease social skids. I didn’t use it to feel more confident or brave. Nope. I went through high school as a bona fide misfit. I was pudgy (and this is before the so-called obesity epidemic hit America) and as a child, had been raised in a series of small, international communities. It was no big deal for me to have one classmate who spoke three words of English and another who was fluent in three languages. So when my family returned to the U.S. for good when I was fifteen, I had no idea how to navigate The American High School. When most of my peers were exploring chemical solutions to adolescent angst, I didn’t touch the stuff. In retrospect, this may have been a tactical error: I desperately needed some social lubrication.

Probably, these years of social pariahism helped make my introduction to alcohol so dramatic. Alcoholism is tricky business from a scientific point of view. The current thinking seems to be that some alcoholics are alcoholic from their first sip of alcohol, that their first drink was like a first kiss or something, that the compulsion to drink came with the first rush. Then, there are others who drink themselves into addiction: the folks who start by drinking “a couple“ of drinks a night, and gradually work into “a few” drinks a night, and then somehow start using it to make it through the day as some people use Diet Dr. Pepper or Starbucks. Some people are lucky enough to get some nifty little psychological tic (sometimes not until their thirties or forties) and find that deep breathing and Zoloft are not nearly as effective as a well-timed glass (or tumbler or stadium cup) of Chardonnay. I’ve known people with all these backgrounds. In a way, I am a person with all these backgrounds.

I had a proclivity to anxiety and panic attacks from the start (my psychological tic), started consuming a few drinks about mid-way through college, with little effect. I was waiting for a magical transformation to transpire from the elixir smuggled into dorm fridges via grungy backpacks, and when it didn’t happen, I lost interest. That was probably the point in my drinking experience when I could have stopped. I was well ensconced in the life of a social misfit in college, just as I had been in high school, and I could have muddled through the social challenges unaided by alcohol if I’d been truly aware of how my genetics and experience made me such a likely candidate for alcoholism.

That was the time when I could have stopped. That doesn’t mean I would have. And I remember the night I started drinking with purpose, with an understanding that an alchemy occurred when enough beer was consumed. Some friends from high school had gotten together at someone’s house, the parents conveniently out of town, and rum, beer, god-knows-what beverages running freely. I got drunk. Like, crawling up the stairs, stumbling into things, drunk. And while the hangover hurt like childbirth, I had found some magic in that night: for just a little bit of time, I felt normal. I felt good, even. Pretty, funny, accomplished. Ha.

Alcohol was my first love. It was like a secret passport, giving me license to be a person I never knew I could be. Add beer and I wasn’t afraid of anything. Because I started this chapter of my life in college, I could look to the right and to the left, and always find someone who was drunker than I was. It never occurred to me that I might have a drinking problem: I was having a good time! It wasn’t like I was a diligent student before I discovered alcohol, and drinking didn’t make my schoolwork much worse than it had been previously.

Despite the hangovers and ill-advised hook-ups, I survived college intact. I collected a degree and a boyfriend. The boyfriend, Ed, was an anomaly. Ed was handsome, kind, wise, and funny. He was nice to me. He drank beer right along with me, but I didn’t have to be drunk to be with him. God bless him, he married me. And besides alcohol, Ed was the only thing I’d ever found in my life that made me feel whole.

Shortly after college, my husband and I were struggling professionally and financially, and I was having trouble finding work. I spent a lot of lonely days in our crappy little apartment feeling sorry for myself and watching whatever VHS tapes were available for loan at the local library (my Blockbuster habit was breaking us). I noticed that a beer (or three) around four in the afternoon helped to make the evening more pleasant. And again, alcohol became the only way I knew to feel okay again.

But even alcohol and a kind husband weren’t enough to fix everything that was broken in me. I was a hot mess. By my mid-twenties, I was overcome with weird, irrational fears, and some whiney-flavored depression. I was working at the preschool with young children, whom I loved. I didn’t always love the adults who came with them, however, and frankly, young children in groups bigger than—well, two, being generous—makes me a little panicky. So, I would come home from work at about four and drink a bottle of wine. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the meantime, I was having gruesome nightmares involving faceless vampire-like beings and dead people who inexplicably opened their eyes. I was convinced that I would die very soon. It would be cancer or AIDS that did me in, and I was too petrified to even contemplate going to a doctor to confirm or disprove my insanity. As a result, I would require my poor husband to examine my lumps and bumps and to tell me I wasn’t dying, really. You can imagine that Ed had his hands full. But somehow he managed not to drink a bottle of wine every night. It was a mystery.

Eventually, after one particularly grueling night of drinking and weeping (I had just watched a chick flick about a young woman who died of cancer: surely, I was next), I called a counselor. God bless Eleanor, she talked to me and my inner child, and we all talked about my mom and I actually got better, kind of. Every good alcoholic knows to lie about their alcohol intake unless they’re itching for an intervention, so I never told Eleanor how much I drank. I started taking Prozac and it helped my brain even out some. I wasn’t so worried about dying all the time, and got down to the business of living. I still had wine as an ally, but I was trying to control my drinking now. Only weekends and such.

For me, it wasn’t long before the weekends seeped into Wednesdays and Mondays and who could really blame me for a glass of wine on Tuesday night? A couple of years passed. I left teaching and tried another couple of gigs: travel agent, legal secretary. I settled in as a receptionist at my local veterinary clinic, feeling sorry for myself for my lack of ambition.

By the time I was miserable enough to quit drinking, I was not missing days of work, only occasionally driving drunk, and not closing down the bars. I’d never had a drink in the morning. I’d never cheated on my husband. My life was simply, quietly, a mess. Because alcohol had become the most important part of my life. I loved my husband but only wanted to spend the day with him if the day included alcohol. I loved my newborn nephew but resented the idea of caring for him over a weekend’s time because I knew I’d have to stay relatively sober for the duration.

So I quit. After much consternation and many false starts, some meetings in church basements and coffee shops were involved. Reluctantly, I acknowledged that I couldn’t stop drinking on my own. I went to meetings because I was more afraid not to. I didn’t find them as comforting as many people do, but at least I was in the company of other people who understood what it was like to love a drink more than anything or anyone else in the world. Eighteen years later, I still don’t drink and still go to meetings.

In my experience (and only mine), the twelve-step programs are kind of like church: you can find a fundamentalist church if that’s what floats your boat. If you’re more of a universalist who doesn’t dig creeds or rituals, you can probably find a worship service to accommodate those preferences. As alcoholics go, I’m more of a universalist. I couldn’t have maintained my sobriety or sanity without good therapy and a lifelong relationship with antidepressants. I don’t like it when people make a list of rules that I have to follow if I want to live. That doesn’t feel like hope to me—more like a threat. Still, those famous twelve guidelines and the people who brought them to me were a part of my salvation because they promoted humility, honesty, and kindness. There aren’t many places you can find those attributes in this life.

I stopped drinking because one morning I understood that I couldn’t have a full life if I kept drinking. One of my friends from work had come to visit me the night before. She was a much more advanced drunk than I was. At least that’s what I told myself. We sat around and drank and drank until we could barely stand. We felt sorry for ourselves together. We watched soap operas and god knows what else. When my husband came home from work that night, I am quite sure that he felt that sickness in his chest that all people who live with alcoholics feel when they open the door and find a stranger inhabiting the body of their loved one. My friend and I slurred our greetings to him, giddy with our chemical wisdom and angst, and then my friend got in her car and drove home. Yep. Just like that.

And when I woke up that next morning, it was with That Smell emanating from my pores. That same smell I get when I hug a person in the parish hall at church, when a bank representative leans in to show me where to sign. I know that the person across from me is suffering, not just from processing toxins through their pores but from trading away little bits of their soul, one glass at a time. There are a lot of us out there. You can tell us by the way our eyes light up when someone pours a drink. The way we joke about needing a drink. All the time.

All of us stop drinking at some point. It’s just that for some people, that point is death. When people “die” from alcoholism, it’s often not from cirrhosis or an automobile accident. It can be a fall. Or a fight. It can be a quiet, chemical whisper telling you, “one more pill won’t hurt.” After alcoholism seduces its victims with easy laughter and imaginary confidence, it sets out to spread darkness, like a nasty cancer. You’ll know the darkness when you choose a glass of wine over your child’s cry or a blurred drive home over your personal, legal, and moral safety.

So when I smell That Smell on someone else, I want to hug them. I hope they’ll drink a lot of water and get a nap later in the day. I want them to know that they are not alone, that other people have woken with that same crust on their souls.

For me, kindness made all the difference. I had to understand that I was suffering from a physical, moral, and spiritual disease, and that I had to find a way to live as it was, not as I wished it was. And damn it, life can be a mess sometimes. It can be magical, uncomfortable, frightening, tender, tedious, and exhilarating—sometimes simultaneously—and none of it is in your control. Still, there is a certain freedom in accepting this chaos and in walking through the messiness with your spirit intact.

Weirdly, I found myself enjoying being a sober person. I found that it was okay to be wickedly uncomfortable at social settings, that I didn’t have to punctuate every event, good, bad, or boring, with a drink. Sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life.  But I don’t wake up poisoned anymore, with That Smell on my skin, or in my heart, for that matter.  And that is a reason to celebrate every new morning, whatever the day ahead might hold.

•••

JENNIFER JAMES lives with her husband and three children in rural Virginia. After graduating from William and Mary in 1989, Jennifer moved to Gloucester County, where she found work as a teacher’s assistant and veterinary receptionist until 2000, when her first child was born. After an approximate decade of diapers and interrupted sleep patterns, Jennifer started writing with purpose in 2010 and has been at it since. This is her second essay for Full Grown People. A good story is her favorite thing.

Stranger Interlude

our country

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Terry Barr

I watched this man take off his hat. It was one of those worker’s caps like the one in that old photo of Allen Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, back in the twenties.

Before he took off the cap, the hair sticking out on both sides suggested a younger man. It was rich and lush and very black. But once he doffed it, I could see the dye-line, the gray eking out in the spots that he missed. He was completely bald on top, too. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t make myself look away fast enough.

“Terry?”

His companion. She stared as if affronted that I hadn’t spoken first—that I hadn’t recognized her.

“Who’s that, Daddy?”

I was at supper with my four-year-old daughter, Pari. Her sister had just been born the day before, and I was trying to show Pari that she was still special to me, that she would always be my first love. I had let her order a chocolate milkshake for supper at this upscale Greek diner along with a funny-face waffle, an indulgence that I hoped her mother would never discover.

“Just someone I know from our Amnesty group, sweetie.”

“Oh. What’s her name?”

“Cathy, I think.”

“Oh.” She wisely returned to her waffle.

However, Cathy’s relentless stare kept burning into me, and so unwisely I spoke.

“Hi Cathy. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Terry, this is my friend.”

And maybe she did say his name, and maybe it was Marvin. In any case, Marvin turned to me. He wore heavy, black-rimmed glasses, a yellow Polo shirt, and green hiking shorts. He straddled his chair, his hairy legs protruding from either side. They were the sort of legs one sees on short, but active Jewish men, like my cousin Arnold’s son, Donald: legs that are muscular, compressed, and slightly bowed. Legs used to supporting a thickish frame. Legs that I thought could transport their bearer quickly and with ease in case of trouble.

“So, how do you two know each other?” he asked Cathy, as if there were something between us, something suspicious in the air. Which, of course, there was.

“Oh, Terry and I are members of our local Amnesty International group.”

“Amnesty International?” He turned to me then. “Tell me about that. I’m all ears!”

And he was, though if I stared at his ears, I’d just keep noticing that dye-line: the one separating hair that was too dark from the natural more salt-than-pepper color. Hair highlighted by his pale bronze dome.

“You’ve never heard of Amnesty International?”

I wondered even then why I was about to go on talking to the strange friend of a woman I barely knew, a woman I wanted to know less of. Besides, this was supposed to be a special night with my beloved first daughter who, at this point, was slurping the bottom of her chocolate shake.

“No, I haven’t, so please tell me more. I’m really curious about that name, Amnesty, and what it refers to.”

I explained as briefly as possible about prisoners of conscience; about letter-writing appeals; about volunteers and human rights abuses. Who can say what he heard or didn’t hear; what impacted him or bored him? But what I said next truly did penetrate those ears.

“We work for prisoners all over the world, though by policy, we aren’t allowed to write appeals for prisoners in our own country. That’s because in some countries, the letter writer might then be arrested and thrown into prison or maybe even killed, so we want to ensure that the writer is safe. The only exception to that rule is in death penalty cases; there, you can write about prisoners in your own country. The U.S. has plenty of these cases.”

“Wait a minute. You mean that you aren’t free to protest prisoners in the U.S?”

“Right. As I said, it’s a general rule put in place especially to protect those in other countries who don’t have the same freedoms that we do. Plus, we wouldn’t want to single out a country that has more freedom and make it an exception to the policy.”

I thought I had explained this procedure pretty well. I thought that now I might be able to return to my daughter and our night together. We were heading back to the hospital soon, and visiting hours were growing short. I missed my wife and wanted to see our new baby, Layla.

“Not as free as we are? What makes you think that we’re free?”

I think now of all the things I could have said, “So long, buddy” being foremost. But, of course, feeling the need to defend our nation’s list of Rights and Freedoms, I kept talking: the Right to Free Speech; to Assemble; to keep a Free Press. The Right to eat peacefully in a Greek diner with your daughter without being interrupted by a shady-looking associate and her even shadier-looking partner, a stranger to you.

But this last right was being so easily violated by the pair that it just proved his point.

I looked over at Cathy then, and I remembered what I knew about her, reported to me by my wife who served on one of Amnesty’s subcommittees, the committee on Women’s Rights.

“She’s a member of BirthRight,” my wife said.

“What’s that?”

“A group that works for the rights of ‘the unborn.’”

Cathy had advocated that the subcommittee get BirthRight to endorse their work and be listed as a sponsor for an upcoming event. The subcommittee respectfully declined. Amnesty, despite appearances, refuses all political monikers and manifestos. Being non-political has allowed Amnesty to exist in places that other activist groups can’t. But to be completely honest, virtually everyone in our group was active in other political organizations: the ACLU, the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club. And no one I knew in our group, except Cathy, wanted to work against abortion rights, though if someone were imprisoned simply for speaking out against abortion, we would theoretically work for their release.

To my knowledge, Amnesty doesn’t consider a fetus to be a person. Actually, that’s not exactly true. Amnesty just takes no stand on this issue. But it does question and work against gender-directed abuses around the world—for instance, those who are victims of forced female genital mutilation or of rape and assault by governmental forces. Violations that are not anyone’s choice.

But now Cathy and Marvin were waiting on my response about freedom in our country, and all I could think about was BirthRight. And abortion, and where all of this was leading.

•••

Once, I got a girl pregnant. We hadn’t been dating long, but I knew that she was into me, maybe because once, she confessed that I was “the best thing that ever happened to her” since she’d started her graduate school program the previous fall. So much for what she got out of that Yeats seminar we had.

Of course she wasn’t on the pill. Is it worse that I asked first? That when she said, “No, I’m not,” but then didn’t request that I “be careful,” explosions didn’t erupt in my head?

In other words, we knew what we were doing in that very special way that really means we didn’t.

I didn’t love her; I barely even knew her. In fact, on my way to pick her up for our first date on a clear October night, driving down Kingston Pike, Knoxville’s busiest strip, past the Bearden Bowling Alley and the Half Shell Oyster House, I knew that I didn’t want to be going out on this date. Going out with her. I should have turned around then.

But of course, I didn’t. I have no idea why I asked her out now, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t know then, either. We had sex exactly twice.

Even when her phone call woke me at my parents’ house on a mid-December morning, the first morning of my semester break, I didn’t flinch. Much.

“So, what do you want to do?” I asked.

“I’m getting an abortion. But I need three hundred dollars. Can you help me?”

And so I went to my bank, withdrew the money from my savings account, wondering now what I was going to use to buy Christmas presents for my family, and mailed a money order to her.

Three days later, she had the abortion. She didn’t ask me to be there, and I didn’t offer. Her roommate went with her, I found out later. I saw her once more, when she gave me fifty dollars to help me pay my rent. A few months later, she was dating one of my grad school buddies. I had no regrets about that or how we ended.

For us, the abortion was the right thing to do because our lives together shouldn’t have started or continued with that sort of mistake. I’m sorry we were so stupid. I’m sorry she faced the procedure alone. I’m glad we had the right to do what we did, and I really don’t wonder what our child would have been like.

More than anything, I shudder to think of what would have happened to all of us had we decided to have the baby.

I do feel many emotions as I picture this time of my life, some thirty years ago now. But even after all that time, the feeling that lays strongest inside me is relief.

•••

I’m a little slow about becoming aware of those funny feelings that we all get. Or maybe it’s just that when I get them, I’m too slow to respond.

So as I stared at Marvin’s bald head, fringed with unrealistic hair, I realized that more than his hair was off. I know now that while Pari was finishing her funny face, I should have been calling for our check.

Instead, I looked at this strange fellow and asked, “Don’t you think we have more freedom than, say, people in Uganda, or Iran, or North Korea?”

“Don’t you think,” Marvin sneered, “that our government is watching us all the time, monitoring our phone calls, keeping tabs on what we watch, where we shop? What do you think all those cloudy tracks in the sky are?”

I remembered to breathe just then, and a new truth hit me.

“So, what do you do?”

“You don’t really want to know what I do.”

And in a sense, he was right. Ten minutes earlier, I couldn’t have cared less. Fifteen minutes earlier, he and his crazy legs didn’t exist.

If only we could abort certain scenes.

“Daddy, I’m finished.”

“Okay, sweetie.”

But I couldn’t stop now. It’s funny the challenges we choose to accept.

“No, go ahead and tell me what you do. I’m really interested.”

“Well, while people like you are out playing golf every day, people like me are working for something bigger.”

Now, I had taken two semesters of golf back in college, mainly to keep myself out of activities like tennis that would cause excess sweat and would necessitate a mid-day shower.

“Golf? That’s what you think I do?”

It’s strange what all can get in your way when you should be relating to your daughter, when you should be holding your other newborn daughter. Today, I’d avoid this scene like I would unsafe sex. In fact, just last night when I was sitting on a park bench outside my hotel—the Hyatt Regency—in downtown Louisville, a man scrambled to the bench across from me. He was smoking the butt of a cigarette. I had my IPod in, Wilco singing about “The Ashes of American Flags.” I knew immediately that this guy was off. I had seen him earlier at my lunch break; his eyes had the unfocused look of pure madness. And he was shaking. It was seven in the evening, temperature in the low eighties. I let the song finish, and as casually as I could, I left my bench for safer ground.

But with Marvin?

“No, man. I don’t play golf. I’m a teacher. And you don’t know anything about me,” I said.

“Well, if you must know, I’m part of the Patriot movement. We’re changing this country. Taking it back.”

I stared for a beat. I had heard of such “movements,” mainly from my Southern Poverty Law Center pamphlets like Human Rights Watch. And Klanwatch. Back then, in the mid-nineties, these movements were mainly underground.

What do any of us think of when we hear the word “patriot?” Nathan Hale? Sam Adams? The three-cornered hatted, three-point-stanced character who used to adorn the helmets of the former New England football team when they called themselves the Boston Patriots?

Then, “patriots” were showing up in places like Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, Waco. Two years later, one would set off a bomb at Atlanta’s Centennial Park. Another, or actually the same guy, would bomb a women’s clinic in Birmingham, my hometown.

And in my current home of Greenville, South Carolina, a four-year-old boy would get arrested for blocking the entrance to yet another women’s clinic. He was our neighbor, and now he’d have a criminal record. On the news that night, his mother would refer to him as a “hero…a real patriot.”

I wondered then about our definitions, our stances, the people we meet. This same mother once called me over as my wife and daughter and I were out walking. She wanted us to meet her mother, a grinning gargoyle of an old woman who was climbing out of a minivan and wearing an oversized t-shirt.

On that shirt was the silkscreened image of an aborted fetus, about three times the size it would have been. Below the image, the caption proclaimed, “This one might have been yours.”

We couldn’t escape fast enough.

I hope my daughter doesn’t remember that scene, as I do, although I realize, of course, that now she very well might.

•••

The waitress brought our check. I gathered my little girl up, looked back at Cathy and Marvin, and said, “Nice talking to you.”

I’ve always had such good manners.

I don’t remember what—if anything—they said, and I don’t care. I’m thankful that I never saw either of them again, although every time I get an edition of Klanwatch, I scan it looking for news, for the people I barely know. And I’m even more thankful for the freedom to associate with or to avoid whomever I want.

•••

TERRY BARR’s essays have appeared widely in such publications as Graze, Compose, Under the Sun, Tell As a Story, Sport Literate, Four Ties Lit Review, and Purple Pig Lit. This is his second essay for Full Grown People, a site his creative writing students at Presbyterian College read every week. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and daughters, both of whom are fine, compassionate young women.

Sneak Peek

FGP GH1 coverthumb

The back cover is really cool, too.

So, maybe you’ve seen something announcing the first FGP anthology? (Oh, like the huge purple banner above?) The book is at the printer right now. Thanks to the graphic design of Anne Hilton and the cover photo by Gina Easley, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. And thanks to the writers, it’s an amazing book to read. I’m extremely grateful for all of you who ordered it, and your faith and support. Fingers crossed that this anthology will be the first of many. What follows is my introduction to Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume 1. —Jennifer Niesslein, ed.

The book you’re about to read grew out of the Full Grown People website, which grew out of my own existential crisis. This is something of a professional pattern for me.

When I was in my late twenties, my friend Stephanie Wilkinson and I started a literary magazine about motherhood, in part, because I was freaked out about motherhood culture at the time. (These were the olden days, when magazines aimed at mothers were still the kingdom of professional nags.)

When I was in my thirties, I worried that I wasn’t as happy as I might be. I wrote a book about it.

And the year I was to turn forty, Stephanie and I decided to shut down that literary magazine that had become part of my identity. I realized, after the fact, that I’d done something kind of stupid: I linked my personal life (the new motherhood crisis) to my professional life (the magazine about motherhood). By 2012, I was adrift. My kiddo was beyond the age where he needed me in the intensive way he had when he was younger, and I no longer had a job.

I wasn’t alone. I looked around at my friends, and I saw that so many of them were going through some life-changing stuff. A couple of them were going back to school for new careers. A couple of others were either divorcing or getting into new romances. Plenty of them began shouldering responsibility for their own parents. Others, like my own sister, found themselves wondering what the hell to do now that the children were off on their own.

Perhaps like Chaka Khan before me, I’m every woman. In any case, I yearned for stories about how other people weathered this awkward age. And, boom: this is it.

•••

Full Grown People is about transitional moments in adulthood. You might think that this is a coy way of saying “mid-life crisis,” but it isn’t. I don’t ask the writers how old they are, but I know that some essays on the site have been penned by people twenty years younger than I am, others by people twenty years older, give or take. That’s the thing about awkward ages—they can blow up on you at any time.

And yet. Sometime after the site launched, I was driving my teenage son somewhere—another awkward age, when the boy has so many commitments but no license—and I was listening to a story on the radio. It was about a woman named Pia Farrenkopf, who was found mummified in her Jeep, after dying some years before. No one suspected a thing until the bills that she’d been paying automatically ran her account dry. I’m paraphrasing the soothing voice of the commentator, but he said something like, “It was astounding to find out who she was. You’d think she was elderly, a recluse, but here Farrenkopf was, in the thick of life.” She’d traveled the world; she’d created a career in finance; she was from a big family, although she was often out of the country. When she was found, it was the year she would have turned fifty.

“The thick of life” stuck with me. Because that’s really what those decades between being truly young and truly old are, aren’t they? They’re not the thin broth of youth, waiting for ingredients; yet our lives aren’t solidified, either. We’re getting more acquainted with the hard stuff—the deaths, the limitations, the realizations that we can’t make people be who we want them to be—but we also have the hope, the smarts, and the gumption to take what we’ve created of our lives so far and evolve.

•••

This collection of essays is a sampling from the website, fullgrownpeople.com. (You can sign up for updates at the site that come with little intros that I write.) There are way more gems on the site than I could fit in here, but I have to say that this anthology just straight-up delights me. The writers here bring all the stuff that gets my heart pounding: the funny, the smart, the poignant.

The topics here run the whole gamut: romance, family, health, career, dealing with aging loved ones, and more. But what draws everything together is the sense that we’re all feeling our way along.

And we’ll continue to feel our way along because, hey, that’s life, right? No matter where we are, we’re going to keep encountering stuff that we know, intellectually, others have dealt with already, but it still doesn’t mitigate the feeling that we’re winging it. “Oh, Jenny,” my gram said when we talked last week, “how did I get to be old?” We laughed, but if I had my guess, I’d say the answer is just like this: one new befuddling, challenging, soul-stretching experience at a time.

Sounds good? If you’d like to get your very own, you can order here.