Less Than One Percent

womaninmansshirt

By Lindsay/ Flickr

By Breawna Power Eaton

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

I don’t know, Tom finally says.

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

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

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

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

Can we talk about something else?

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

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

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

He sighs, rubs his eyes again.

You look so tired, Love.

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

I know what you should do, Love.

What? he asks flatly.

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

But I had it all wrong.

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

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

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

Not prisoners, detainees.

Okay. What do the detainees look like?

Like people.

Well, how old are they?

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

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

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

I can’t say.

During trials, do the detainees ever look at you?

Boards. Some stare me down.

Yeeesh. Are you ever afraid?

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

Seriously, Tom. The mustache?

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

Can’t you find another type of fun?

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

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

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

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

I did just get off work.

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

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

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

My voice fades, begins to shake.

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

What? he asks, not hearing what I said.

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

Bre, are you okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

•••

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

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

They’re hearings, not trials.

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

It’s not something I can talk about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

Chills run up my spine.

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

Read more FGP essays by Breawna Power Eaton.

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Burden of Love

lifelovehope

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Maggie Thach

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Godammit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

“I just feel bad for our neighbor upstairs.”

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

•••

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

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

“See, that wasn’t so bad.”

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

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

“There. All done,” the nurse said.

“All done?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mike, can I tell you something?”

“Yeah. What’s going on?”

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

“Then let’s get married soon.”

“Okay. Sounds good.”

“No, really. Will you marry me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

Sepia

flower

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Cora Schenberg

August 8, 2012. When I get scared, I lose my senses. I know that the walls of the clinic are acid green, but my eyes take in sepia.

“I’m glad you came in,” the doctor says. “Post-menopausal bleeding is never normal.”

Two weeks ago, my husband, son, and I were at the beach. I went into the bathroom to put on my bathing suit and found a spot of blood. I tried to ignore it. I figured the bleeding would stop by itself. When we got home and it hadn’t stopped, I called the clinic. The receptionist said my doctor was on vacation. Would I see Dr. A instead?

So here I am, bare-bottomed on crinkly paper.

“What do you think is wrong?” I ask the doctor.

“Unfortunately, I can’t tell anything from your exam. You’ll need to see a gynecologist. But I wouldn’t worry. It’s usually polyps or fibroids, which are benign.”

I had fibroids twenty years ago. Getting rid of them took major surgery and a six-week recovery. I don’t have time for this. I teach in the German Department at University of Virginia, and the semester starts in a few weeks.

Driving home from the clinic, I fall into a fantasy, where instead of undergoing a messy medical procedure, I can make time unspool, so the bleeding simply un-happens. I wouldn’t mind going back to April of this year, when our youngest nephew became bar mitzvah. The whole family was present and well. My husband Wade and I led the congregation in a favorite hymn. In a picture Wade’s sister sent, Wade, our son Gabriel, and I stand grouped around the bar mitzvah boy. Why can’t we step back into that picture?

But is that picture really where I want to end up? Gabriel, at seventeen, looks great, dwarfing all of us by at least a head and a half, his thick brown hair tousled, grin full of snark and confidence. But what about Gabriel’s parents? Mom’s got crow’s feet. Dad’s soft blue eyes show exhaustion; his once ginger hair has gone brown-grey. If we’re travelling in time, why not go back to when Wade and I met, in 1979? Or would it be better to return to October 16, 1983, when we said our vows before a rabbi? I remember how my hand turned radiant after Wade placed the ring on it. But then we didn’t have Gabriel. I wouldn’t want to live without him.

During my musing, I’ve been driving, and have now arrived at our house. I’m telling myself fantasizing won’t solve anything—besides, un-happen isn’t a word—when my teenager runs out, barefoot, to say that our friends the Smiths just called. “They’re coming for Shabbat dinner. Can you make lemon-ginger chicken?”

•••

Following Dr. A’s recommendation, I set up an appointment with my gynecologist. After examining me, Dr. B says, “I didn’t see any red flags in the exam, but let’s get you an ultrasound, to make sure you’re okay.”

A week later, she calls to say that the ultrasound tech “didn’t do a very good job,” so the picture is fuzzy. “However, it did show some fluid in the cul-de-sac between your uterus and rectum.”

“I’ve got a cul-de-sac? Like a dead-end street?”

The doctor laughs with me. But when I ask what caused the fluid, I hit a true dead end.

“I don’t know. But I’ve made you an appointment with a specialist, Dr. C. He’ll do the ultrasound himself, so there won’t be any problems.”

She gives me the date for Dr. C’s ultrasound: A month from now.

•••

The semester starts in a week. I feel exhausted all the time, and the bleeding is getting worse. I call Dr. D, my family doctor, to see if I’m anemic.

“Oh, I doubt dribbling for a month would make you lose much blood,” Dr. D says. “But sure, I’ll test your hemoglobin.” And a few minutes later, she reports, “Just as I thought—everything’s fine. And I see you’ve got an appointment with Dr. C. He’s the best.”

“But I have to wait another three weeks to see him.”

She smiles. “If he’s making you wait, it’s because he thinks your problem’s not serious.”

I’m fifty-five years old, but at this moment, I might as well be three. At the thought of contradicting the doctor, I picture myself as a pathetic, whining kid: but it hurts!

•••

The specialist, Dr. C, tells me I’m fine. “You’ve got a few fibroids, maybe a slight hormonal imbalance. But that’s not what’s making you bleed.”

“What is making me bleed, then?”

“We have to find out. I’m sure it’s nothing serious.”

Those words again. The doctor recommends a dilation and curettage, or D&C. “Very simple, a routine procedure.”

What planet have I landed on, where it’s “simple and routine” to be placed under total anesthesia while a doctor opens up and scrapes my uterus?

“My colleague, Dr. E, can do it,” Dr. C says.

•••

Sept. 16, 2012, a.k.a. Rosh Hashana, beginning of Jewish New Year 5773. At services, I stand between Wade and Gabriel. “Avinu Malkhenu, shema kolenu,” we chant. Our Father, our King, hear our prayer. A Hasidic legend tells us that on this day, the earth rises to the level of heaven. I imagine standing on tiptoes, whispering in God’s ear: “My doctors say I’m fine, but I don’t feel fine.” My belly aches and pulses. The holiday forces me to remember there’s no playing with time. We all petition God to inscribe us in the Book of Life for the coming year. But looking around, I see empty places where friends once sat. I wrap my prayer shawl around my shoulders and sink into the baritone voices of my husband and son.

•••

Dr. E’s office calls to say they’ve scheduled my dilation and curettage for September 26. I look at the calendar, see that day is Yom Kippur, and start to ask for a different date. But then I realize that since the surgery’s not until afternoon, I can attend most of the morning’s services. I write to the rabbi, explaining my situation. He writes back, promising prayers. And the Ritual Committee offers me an Aliyah—the chance to bless the Torah before the cantor reads from the scroll.

On Yom Kippur, I wake refreshed and energized, ready to pray the old melodies with lightness and joy that I’ve not felt in a long time. After the Torah reading, my family and I wave good-bye to the rabbi as we leave the sanctuary.

•••

Dr. E reports that my dilation and curettage was unusually difficult: “Your cervix was so tight, I hardly got any tissue at all. The good news is I’m pretty sure you don’t have cancer. But I’d like to do an endometrial biopsy to be certain.”

I agree to the biopsy; Dr. E. calls a week later.

“The tissue I got looks fine. You don’t have cancer.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive. Malignant cells are very prominent. When I biopsy someone with cancer, all this brown stuff comes tumbling out.”

I shudder at the complacency with which she paints this horrid picture.

“What about the bleeding?” I ask.

“That’s a mystery. Honestly, Cora, we might never find out why you’re bleeding. Let me think about your case and get back to you.”

•••

As much as I like to play with time, I make an effort not to wish my life away. In college, we tended to live from one break to the next. We’d just gotten back from winter vacation when my freshman roommate Diana said, “It’s only two months till spring break!”

I did not tell her my thoughts: following spring break, it was only six weeks till summer, and from there, just four years till graduation, forty till retirement, and just a little while before we get to die.

Now, with the pain and bleeding, I can’t help wishing away work days. Teaching exhausts me. The only part of the day I enjoy is my bedtime ritual. It starts with a bath. The warm water uncramps my gut, washes away the blood. After the bath, I plug in my heating pad and lie down beside Wade. We hold each other and watch something innocuous on TV. Often, Gabriel joins us. I’ve gotten to love the Home and Garden Channel. People choose and buy houses. Sometimes they fix the houses up. No one is sick or in pain. Often, the houses are located in lovely places, like Hawaii.

•••

A week after my biopsy, Dr. E phones. “I’ve thought about your case. You have two options.”

Option 1 is a second D&C, this time using a camera called a hysteroscope, so the doctor can pinpoint the exact location of my problem and remove the cause.

“Option 2 is an ablation,” Dr. E tells me. “It means removing the lining of the uterus. Take a few days to decide which you prefer.”

I research the web and talk to Wade. In the end, I tell the doctor I choose the D&C, the less aggressive procedure. Why rip apart my uterus when I don’t know what’s causing the problem?

“But a D&C isn’t one of your choices,” the doctor says. “It didn’t work last time!”

“But you said you’d use a camera—”

“I don’t think so,” says Dr. E. “Your options are an ablation or a hysterectomy.”

My breath stops. Could I have gotten this wrong? Yet surely I’d remember if she’d said hysterectomy. The word sends a chill through my body. How can this doctor suggest removing my uterus or its lining without knowing what my problem is? And how can I trust her with my body if I can’t trust her to remember her own words?

I have no idea what to do next. But the bleeding and cramping keep getting worse. I’ve got to do something.

•••

I hear about a therapist offering a workshop for people with chronic and/or terminal diseases. I figure three months qualifies my problem as chronic and sign up.

“You are in charge of your healing,” James, the therapist, tells us. He does not say to distrust doctors or medicine, but rather that each of us should stand vigil over our health professionals, since we are the experts on our bodies.

“Get a second, third, and fourth opinion,” James advises. “Use different types of healing. When my wife had cancer, she worked with Western doctors but also consulted an acupuncturist.”

I tell James I don’t have the strength to do what he suggests. He says that’s the hard part—no one with a chronic disease has energy. “But have your current doctors helped you?”

“Not really.”

“Then you need to fight.”

•••

I go back to Dr. D and ask her to recommend another gynecologist, and she refers me to Dr. F. I send Dr. F my chart, now two inches thick, along with a note detailing the past four months.

“How terrible!” Dr. F tells me during our consultation. “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

I heave a sigh of relief, hold back tears of gratitude. She’s the first of my doctors to express empathy.

After looking at my record, Dr. F asks two questions: “When Dr. C performed your ultrasound, why didn’t he use a contrast dye? And when Dr. E did the endometrial biopsy and D&C, she got no tissue, or as good as none. How can she say you don’t have cancer?”

“Do you think I have it?”

I remember the day I learned about this disease, in seventh-grade science.

“When a person gets cancer, some of their cells go bad and start to kill the good cells,” Mr. Ringel, the science teacher, told us. “More and more cells turn cancerous. The process doesn’t stop until the host is dead.”

Host? A host welcomes guests. How can we use the same word for a body invaded by rogue cells? And am I now harboring this illness that killed my grandparents and later struck my mother and her siblings?

“You’re probably okay,” the doctor says. “But if you were my patient and I had such little data, I would not feel safe assuming you didn’t have it.”

The doctor recommends another D&C. Since she no longer performs surgery, she refers me to her colleague, Dr. G.

Dr. G can’t see me until December 19—a month away. When he finally examines me, he concurs that my uterus is enlarged and a second D&C is warranted.

“Good. Can we do it this week?”

“Unfortunately, my schedule is packed, and with the holidays, we’re short-staffed through New Year’s. I can schedule you for January 9.”

I bristle at his banalities: schedule packed, holidays.

•••

Dec. 22. A bunch of us are grouped around the breakfast bar at friend’s Christmas party. A skinny, bespectacled guy, a friend of the hosts, says, “Did I ever tell you how I killed my first patient?”

We all prick up our ears.

“So, anyway,” Dr. Skinny-Bespectacled says, “I’m twenty-five, I’m a resident, and I’m a real idiot, you know? They’ve got me paired up with this other newbie, Fred. They send us in to—I dunno, do something to the oxygen tube on this guy—the guy was thirty years old and dying of cancer, right? A real tragedy. So anyway, no one tells us how to do this thing, we’re both falling over ourselves, then all of a sudden, Fred says, ‘I think he stopped breathing.’ It was awful. Now you’ve gotta bear in mind that this guy probably wouldn’t have lived much longer, anyway—”

In my head, something kills the volume on the conversation. All I hear are doctors’ voices: Cora Schenberg’s death was a terrible tragedy. But of course, she’d have died anyway.

•••

If offered a wish now, I’d ask for time to speed up. I want the surgery done. But time has slowed to a standstill. It creeps toward Christmas, fa-la-bleeping-la. My family and I hide away from the stores, the hysteria. Wade and I are too tired to throw our usual Hanukah party. On Dec. 31, we’re all asleep before midnight.

•••

January 8, 2013. The night before surgery, the cramping increases. It feels as if something is fighting to get out of my belly. In the morning, I’m filled with relief as we drive to the hospital.

Wade is waiting when they bring me back from the OR.

“The doctor just left. He wasn’t able to complete the surgery.”

“What?”

“He said he got in there and nothing looked like in the ultrasound. He was afraid he’d punctured your uterus and gone into a false channel.”

I don’t know whether to cry or curse. False channel. Cul-de-sac. My body is not a road!

“So what’s next?” I ask Wade.

“The doctor’s going to consult with some colleagues and call you on Monday morning.”

Dr. G does not call on Monday morning. That afternoon, I ring his office. The receptionist tells me he’s out of town. Which words to choose so that this woman will hear me and make sure the doctor gets my message?

“I was in menopause for four years,” I say. “Six months ago, I started bleeding. It keeps getting heavier, and I’m in constant pain.”

“That’s awful!”

“It would really help me to know the doctor’s plans.”

Tuesday morning, Dr. G is still out of town. I leave another message.

By Wednesday morning, I’m desperate. I’ve had to buy yet another family-size box of feminine hygiene product. I know it will just make things worse if I call and yell at the receptionist.

The phone rings; it’s Dr. G. After apologizing for his long silence, he says, “I just got your report back from the pathology lab, and I’m afraid the news isn’t the best.”

Wade steps into the room just as I repeat the doctor’s next word: malignancy.

“You’re saying it’s cancer. What kind? What stage?”

“We don’t know. It’s in your uterus or your cervix, maybe your ovaries. I was surprised there was enough tissue for them to find anything. We’re sending you to the cancer center at the University Hospital. They’ll take care of you from now on.”

I hang up the phone, run into Wade’s arms. I try to feel the warmth of his body, but I’m frozen in panic. I think of all the months wasted, going from doctor to doctor. I remember my friend Mary, who developed symptoms like mine years ago. Mary’s doctor diagnosed her with fibroids, prescribed a painkiller, and said to come back every six months for monitoring. One day, a mutual friend called to say Mary had cancer. Rather than presenting, Mary’s cancer had slunk in silently and set up camp. Free from a doctor’s intervention, the twisted cells multiplied until they pushed past the walls of her uterus and laid claim to Mary’s lungs, heart, and back. She was dead six months later.

“I hope those doctors haven’t killed me,” I say, into Wade’s shoulder. I suddenly remember a cartoon the New Yorker ran just after Mary died. It showed a doctor in a lab coat, doing a silly dance. The caption showed what the patient on the exam table was saying: “Sounds like dance? No, dancer! Cancer! I’ve got cancer!” At the time, I wondered if Mary would find this cartoon funny or think it the most tasteless thing in the world. Since I wasn’t that patient, I thought it wasn’t up to me to say. But now I am that patient, and I hope Mary laughed, because I think that cartoon’s funny as hell. I hold Wade, laughing and crying, until it’s time to leave for work.

•••

February 5, 2013. The instant I meet my oncologist, Dr. Cantrell, time speeds up. Dr. Cantrell looks no older than twenty-five. A slender woman with a brown ponytail and a big, toothy grin, she shakes my hand with a strong grip. After hearing my story, she says, “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. Sometimes even very good docs miss these things. Now, the first thing we need for you is an MRI.”

“When?” I ask, expecting the usual wait.

“When do you get done teaching this afternoon?”

“At two.”

Dr. Cantrell turns to her nurse, Peggy. “Schedule Ms. Schenberg for an MRI after 2:30 today.”

Noticing my expression of disbelief, she grins. “You’ll find things move pretty fast around here.”

A week later, Dr. Cantrell calls with my results.

“Your ovaries and cervix are fine; the cancer’s in your uterus. I recommend a hysterectomy. Can you clear your schedule for surgery on Tuesday?”

“I’ll call my boss now. How much bed rest will I need?”

“Most people go back to work in a few days.”

“How–”

“In most cases, I make a couple of tiny incisions, about a quarter-inch long, then I can remove the uterus vaginally. It comes out like a baby.”

No! I want to protest. Not like a baby. My baby filled me with awe. My baby did not try to kill me.

“Now, sometimes,” Dr. Cantrell continues, “the uterus gets enlarged from inflammation. If it’s too large to remove vaginally, I’ll have to make an incision. That recovery can take four-to-six weeks.”

I say nothing to this, my head still swimming

Before hanging up, Dr. Cantrell teaches me three new words: Endometrioid. FIGO. Clear cell.

After surgery, she’ll order a pathology report. If I have endomitrioid, FIGO grade 1 or 2, my tumor will be classified as slow-growing and non-aggressive, and require no treatment beyond the hysterectomy. However, if clear cell cancer—grade 3—is present, I’ll need chemo and radiation, too.

“Clear cell,” I repeat. These words sound so innocuous. But on second thought, clear cells would be the undetectable kind that sneaks up on an unsuspecting host.

•••

Gabriel joins Wade and me in our bedroom as we watch television.

“Mom,” he says, “I know you don’t want to make this cancer thing public. But is it okay if I talk to my really good friends?”

“Of course,” I tell him. “I’m taken care of. You and Dad need all the support you can get.”

•••

February 12, 2013. The orderly wheels my stretcher into the operating room, where Dr. Cantrell, already wearing her mask, greets me with a hug. Waiting for the anesthesia to work, I place my hands on my lower belly, murmur a silent good-bye to my womb.

I wake to whispers. Someone repeats one word several times before I realize it’s my name and look toward the speaker.

“Your surgery went well,” Dr. Cantrell says. “It looks like stage 1—no sign that the cancer spread. I’ll get your pathology report back in a week or so.”

“It hurts.”

“Unfortunately, I had to make an incision. It’ll take a bit longer to heal, but you’re in great shape. You’ll be fine.”

Flowers, care packages, and cards are waiting when Wade brings me home from the hospital. Gabriel hands me a stuffed penguin he and Wade got me at the hospital gift shop. Friends from the synagogue tell me I’m on the prayer list and ask when they can come by. My sister Kathy arrives to visit and shop and cook for us.

A week later, Dr. Cantrell phones.

“Cora, I’ve got your report.”

“Good news, Doctor?”

“Remember I told you about those three kinds of tumors? I’m afraid you’ve got clear cell–a grade-three.”

The room turns sepia. I struggle to find my voice. “What happens next?”

“We’ll give you time to heal, then, if you agree to it, we’ll start chemo and radiation.”

“How come I need both?”

“This is all based on studies. The latest ones show that when the cancer returns, it usually comes back to the same site. So we radiate that area, to kill any cancer cells the surgery might have missed.”

“And the chemo?”

“The chemo will get any cancer that might have spread into your system. I know I’ve given you a lot to think about. Take a few days to decide what you want to do. Call if you’ve got questions. I’ll support any decision you make.”

Wade, Gabriel, and I sit around the table, not speaking. I try and fail to feel the warmth of their presence or register the soft light from the lamp above the table.

•••

Dr. Cantrell teaches me more new words. The radiation she prescribes is called brachytherapy–placing the radiating source near the former site of my tumor. She explains that with the radiation confined to a small area, I shouldn’t expect side-effects. Yet what I hear in the sound of “brachy” is “break” and “broken.”

I have to train my mouth to get around the words Carboplatin and Paclitaxel, the chemo drugs Dr. Cantrell would use. Their syllables feel arbitrarily thrown together, like bad architecture. Dr. Cantrell does not hide the fact that chemo is poison. While it kills cancer, it also attacks other fast-growing cells, like those in the stomach lining and hair follicles. It wipes out both red and white blood cells, disabling the immune system. I’m reminded of generals who hire mercenaries—thuggish louts who wreak havoc, but get the job done. I sign off on both the chemo and radiation.

•••

February 25, 2013. I’m off from work for at least another month. The chemo and radiation won’t start till April. Meanwhile, healing takes place in the silence that fills our house when Wade and Gabriel leave for work and school. I depend on my body to tell me when to eat, sleep, poke my nose outside for air, and sleep again. From my rocking chair in the living room, I take in butter-yellow walls, a glass-fronted bookshelf holding our favorites, and three cats asleep on the sofa.

I don’t yet know that in September, when my family and I join the congregation for Rosh Hashanah, I will be pain-free, my scar a faint line. That Dr. Cantrell will call me her star patient and say to come back in four months instead of three, since everything looks so good. For the moment, I’m content not to know this. To let time to do what it does, without expanding or contracting, speeding up or slowing down. I’m grateful to rock in my chair, as the winter sun strengthens.

Note: Some names and physical characteristics have been changed to protect privacy.

•••

CORA SCHENBERG’s work has appeared in Brain,Child, Utne Reader, the Delmarva Review, C-ville Weekly, and The Hook; she has also read essays on WVTF radio (NPR Roanoke) and had three plays produced in Charlottesville’s Live Arts Theater (Summer Shorts Festival). She holds a Ph.D. in German literature from the University of Virginia, where she currently teaches.

I Am Billion-Year-Old Carbon

By A Horse With No Name Photography/ Flickr

By A Horse With No Name Photography/ Flickr

By Lad Tobin

My decision to pitch my tent in the most remote campsite at Berkfest was carefully calculated: as the oldest camper at the whole festival, I was worried that I would stand out as, well, the oldest camper at the whole festival. I was worried, too, that I’d stand out as the only person attending this three-day, Woodstock-like event all by himself. (Berkfest hadn’t passed a single question on my wife’s litmus test for music events: “Will everyone else be twenty years old? Will there be any seating or is this one of those things where you have to stand up and jump around the whole time? Will there be any real bathrooms or just port-a-potties?”) So, feeling conspicuously out of place, I had decided to lug my stuff into the woods as far away as possible from the sunny meadow that was now quickly filling up with Phishheads and white Rastas.

There was another reason besides my age that I wanted to lay low: I was not at all confident that I’d be able to get my tent pitched since it was fresh off the shelf at REI and I’d only had time for one stressful practice run in my backyard. The last thing I needed was a bunch of twenty-year-olds gawking at me while I sweated over—and swore at—the enigmatic relationship between tent pole A, grommet B, and side flap CC. So it was with huge relief and a little pathetic pride that I had managed in just forty-five minutes to construct something that approximated the look of a proper tent (even if I did still have two unused poles left in the fluorescent blue nylon bag). And so without another tent or camper within twenty yards, I headed off happily to find the music, checking in my pocket every twenty seconds or so to make sure that I still had the elaborately detailed, minute-by-minute chart I had compiled of what groups I planned to see for how long on what stages. First up on the Big Meadow Stage: Fuzz & the Gratuitous Sextet.

I managed to see eleven different bands that first day by scurrying back and forth, nonstop, between the different stages. Immersed in the driving, percussive music—slowly progressing from shuffling to the beat to hopping around to, finally, full-out jumping up and down—I felt mercifully freed from the self consciousness that too often weighs me down. In fact, I felt exactly the way I hoped I’d feel when I talked myself into coming to the festival.

Of course, there were still a few moments when my all-too-familiar self-consciousness surfaced. The most excruciating moment happened in the middle of the blazing-heat of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s afternoon set: a twenty-something couple asked if they could sit with me for a while on my blanket in the shade of my huge beach umbrella (turns out I had brought a lot more stuff than most people bring to a rock festival). In return, the young man asked, “Want a hit of our weed?” and handed me a small, symmetrical metal cylinder and a Bic Lighter. Unacquainted with this particular delivery system (I’d grown up with hookahs and hash pipes that made it clear which end was which), I just took a guess, popped one end into my mouth, and sucked a burning bud of marijuana right into my mouth.

Looked horrified and sympathetic, the young man reached over, gently removed the pipe and lighter from my hand, and said, “Whoa, sorry, dude. My bad. Here, let me help you with that.” He then repacked the pipe, turned it around before handing me the right end, and held the Bic up for me to lean into (hey, who says that gallantry is dead?). Once the effect of the drug kicked in, I was able to get beyond the absurdity of it all and to really begin to enjoy myself. It didn’t hurt that the music we were listening to—MM&W were followed by Robert Randolph & His Family Band’s gospel–inflected R&B—kept building and building to one joyous crescendo after another. The feeling was exhilarating.

Unfortunately, it was also short-lived: when I returned that night to the now pitch-black camping area, I discovered in horror that I could not find my tent. The signposts I had carefully noted when I arrived—the rainbow flag hanging from a branch at the point in the path where I was to turn right, the row of evergreens where I was supposed to turn back to the left, the bright orange tent about twenty yards before I would get to mine—were now completely buried by darkness or by other tents and flags. In fact, as far as I could see, every inch of previously open space was now filled with thousands of college-aged kids and their gear. As I calculated the long odds of ever finding my little, blue nylon tent in this huge and ever-growing city of identical-looking, blue, nylon tents, I sank in despair.

For forty-five frantic minutes, I tried to re-trace my original steps from the parking lot, tried not to completely panic, tried to imagine what I’d do and where I’d sleep if I never found my tent, tried unsuccessfully to not act as if this were the grimmest part of a Grimm Fairy Tale. Suddenly, I spotted it, surrounded by three other tents and just a few yards away from several card tables and blankets where some people seemed to be setting up a makeshift vending area. Exhausted, relieved, and covered in sweat, I hustled into my tent and, mercifully, fell asleep.

Only a couple of hours later I was awakened by cries from the next-door neighbors: apparently those card tables were the epicenter of the festival’s unofficial “marketplace” and at 2:00 a.m., the vendors were opening for business:

“Weed! Some tasty buds. Get yer weed.”

“Mushrooms! I’ve got mushrooms.”

“Jell-O shots. Just a dollar each.”

“Ganja cookies here. Fresh baked!”

“I got nitrous oxide balloons right here. Two bucks a hit!”

Stumbling out of my tent, I was suddenly face to face with long lines of customers seemingly looking for just about anything to smoke, swallow, or suck. Two things were immediately clear to me: first, all those warnings on the festival’s website—“Due to heightened security concerns, all patrons and their possessions are subject to search”—that had convinced me to bring nothing stronger than red wine, had had apparently no effect on my fellow festival-goers. Second, as surprised I was to see these kids, they seemed even more alarmed to see me. I suppose if I were a teenager who had just arrived at a rock festival with a bunch of friends, had hiked deep into the woods, had pitched a tent, and upon settling down with a beer or a bong, had glanced over to see a guy step out of the tent next door who looked like an undercover cop or, even worse, like someone’s dad, I’d be spooked, too.

I just knew that it would be a bad idea for me to spend that whole night in the middle of the marketplace, but I also knew there was no way I could take apart and then re-assemble my tent in the middle of the night and middle of the crowd. It was then that I remembered that the instructions claimed it was possible, once you de-staked the tent, to carry it by the pole in the top. So after quickly stuffing as much of my stuff as I could into my stuffsack, I picked up everything else, along with the A-frame tent, and began wending my way back towards the meadow through the maze of card tables, tents, tarps, and incredulous-looking teenagers.

For someone trying so hard to be inconspicuous, making myself into a walking tent was a pretty conspicuous thing to do. It’s not as if I thought I was successfully blending in, doing one of those “carrying the woods to camouflage my numbers” things from Macbeth. In fact, at the time, all I could think was “Yes, of course, I look like a total idiot now and there is almost nothing I’d less rather be doing than carrying this tent and searching for a new campsite at 2:00 a.m.”—except, that is, for remaining in the middle of the now bustling-with-business marketplace where I was certain I’d never fall back asleep.

After twenty minutes of frantic wandering around in the crowded dark, I came across a sign with an arrow: “Family Camping Area: Just Ahead.” Though I was on my own, I decided that if you took “family camping” as a figure of speech meaning “Not Looking to Get Hooked Up with Heroin or a Random Partner,” I qualified. Apparently, though, the young hippie couple who woke up to discover that I was their new neighbor, were not so sure: every time one of their tie-dyed wearing toddlers wandered even a step or two in my direction, the mother called him right back (“Come here, Garcia” or “Berkeley, stay over here with us”) in a tone that suggested they were in immediate danger of getting snatched up by Fagan or Aqualung.

What I wanted to tell her was that it wasn’t that long ago when my wife and I were the hip, young alternative parents with our own little tie-dyed kids; that I had seen Dylan and Janis Joplin and Sly Stone live and that, in fact, I was younger than Dylan and Janis Joplin and Sly Stone; that just because I wasn’t as young as I used to be didn’t mean that I wasn’t still cool. But I knew none of that would have made any difference to her (did anyone even use the word “cool,” anymore?). For a second, I thought of just packing it in and heading back home to my age-appropriate life.

But then I remembered how exhilarated I had felt the night before while I was jumping around to the beat during Galactic’s infectious, funk-fueled set. Some of that good feeling was undoubtedly the effect of all that afternoon weed-smoking, but it was more than that. It was the discovery—or the rediscovery—of a pocket in time in which I wasn’t thinking about sciatic back pain, an overdue home repair, a dreary work task, or any of the other reminders and demands of late middle age.

And so with my elaborately detailed, minute-by-minute chart still in my pocket, I hustled off to get a good spot at the Hillside stage for the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. After all, unlike Berkeley and Garcia, who were now enthusiastically returning my friendly wave, I had no time to lose.

•••

LAD TOBIN has published personal essays in The Sun, The Rumpus, Utne Reader, and Fourth Genre and two books of narrative nonfiction about teaching narrative nonfiction: Writing Relationships and Reading Student Writing: Confessions, Meditations, and Rants. He has recently completed a collection of essays about his surprising mid-life rediscovery of his teenage hobbies, memories, and attitudes. He lives in Kittery Point, Maine, and teaches at Boston College. Connect with him on Facebook (lad.tobin) or twitter (@ladtobin).

The Right Profile

By Joe Lodge/ Flickr

By Joe Lodge/ Flickr

By Reyna Eisenstark

My old friend George liked to say that there were only three types of men: dogs, priests, and liars. “The worst are the liars who think they’re priests,” he warned me. For a while, I classified the men I knew this way: dog, dog, liar, dog, etc. George delighted in describing himself as a dog, but he turned out to be a liar. I should have seen that coming.

As for me, I liked to divide up human beings this way: the bullied, the bullies, or the ones that said, “Guys, come on, stop it! That’s totally not right.” This last one was the one I most admired, the one I most aspired to be as an adult. In truth, I have been all of those things in my life. Probably everyone has. I do tend to lean toward the third category more and more these days, which I suspect has something to do with confidence. Or wisdom. People are either wise or they’re not wise. That one’s easy.

“When you hit forty, you realize that you’ve met or seen every kind of person there is,” Bert Cooper told Don Draper on Mad Men, and I could not stop thinking about this for a long time. I once asked my father why he thought people tended to get more conservative as they got older (something which has not happened to him, I should note). “As you get older,” he said, “you just want a shorthand for things. You just want everything to fit into a specific category.”

Even though I’m aware of this, I tend to do it too (dog, dog, liar, dog, etc.) and even with my children (what kind of music do your friends like?), but sometimes it’s simply that I like to make lists for the fun of it.

My younger daughter once told me that she no longer liked the new girl in her class. She had hoped that maybe this new girl would be her kind of weird, which is what she’s always been looking for. But she was sadly disappointed. “She’s such a rule follower,” she declared. I knew exactly what she meant. And even though I felt her disappointment, my heart swelled with pride. Because the people I tend to dislike are the ones I call “rule followers,” though I have never actually expressed this thought to my children. At least, not overtly. What I mean by rule followers (and what my daughter clearly meant as well) are those people who lack creativity, who follow rules without questioning them, who cannot make decisions for themselves. I am not suggesting that people should be reckless. I am not even suggesting that my daughter rebel against her teachers. I just think it’s important that she question everything, even if it’s only to herself. I asked questions constantly as a child. I thought by asking as many questions as possible I could finally get to what I wanted to know, which was everything. Questions, I thought, might somehow help me to figure out exactly what category a person might fit into. If I had to, you know, make a list. I still ask questions, and I’ve only gotten a little bit closer to knowing.

Many years ago, when my children were so young that the greatest thrill of all our lives was to go to a local church that, on Wednesday mornings, had a little playgroup, I one day wandered away from the snack table (tiny pieces of cheese with crackers! Cups of apple juice!) because I heard something that sounded like crying coming from nearby. There was a little supply closet not too far from the snack table and as I approached it, the crying grew louder. The door was slightly open and I looked inside and saw a little girl sobbing. “What are you doing in there?” I asked her, immediately horrified.

She choked out the words, “My mother told me to…stay in here!”

Something in me snapped (“Guys, come on, stop it! That’s totally not right”), and I stormed over to the girl’s mother. She was a woman I barely knew but I had seen her enough times to recognize her as the child’s mother. “Do you seriously think it is a good idea to put a child in a closet?” I demanded.

She looked taken aback. “I didn’t put her in the closet,” she said calmly. And then explained that her daughter needed a time out and she had given her daughter a choice of places to go. “She chose the closet,” she told me.

“But do you think,” I said, my voice rising, aware that I was making a bit of a scene, “that a closet is an appropriate place for a child?”

She continued to defend herself, explaining that she knew where her daughter was, that it was a place for her to calm down, that she would be coming to get her in a minute. And I could see that as we talked, as everyone turned to watch us, as I stormed off, that I was no longer that third highly admired category, but that I was turning into kind of a bully.

The next time I saw that woman at the playgroup, I apologized for my outburst the last time, and she was very gracious about it, and we spent a little while making small talk about our children, and then we never spoke to each other again. My intentions had been good, I think, but I had a hard time coming down from my righteous high. Perhaps I had singled her out as a rule follower. I’m still not sure she was one.

Once I mentioned to my older daughter that I thought one of her friends was a much better artist than another friend who had won an art prize at school. “I don’t want to talk about my friends like that!” she said, which also made my heart swell with pride. It turns out that she doesn’t put people into categories all that often. Now that I think about it, perhaps that is really the job of rule followers. Perhaps we are all, in our own extremely complicated and misunderstood ways, dogs, priests, and liars. Perhaps we should just spend the rest of our lives not really knowing. At a certain point, you realize that there are questions that will never be answered, categories and lists that will never be completed. But when you hit forty, the relief of knowing this can feel something like delight.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her writing at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.

Read more FGP essays by Reyna Eisenstark.

Must Love Horses, Must Love Dogs

playgroundhorses

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lisa Romeo

The first thing I remember about Nancy is her laugh—full throated, companionable, frequent, wise. Nancy was about thirty-three then; I was nineteen, in college studying journalism. With her, I felt secure and mature, understood and supported. We met at a competitive hunter-jumper show stable in upstate New York, where we both boarded horses, hers bought with a husband’s money, mine with a father’s funds. Nancy encouraged me to be more serious about my riding goals and slightly less serious about school, to have more fun, because if I wasn’t at the stables, I did little but study. Nancy was confident, capable, and spontaneous. She had grit, and what my father used to call gusto.

Nancy’s interest in me felt palpable, and it seemed I could tell her everything, if I wanted. I watched her keep confidences and protect others in the often snipey, political world of horse showing, and I saw that she was loyal. I knew a secret sent her way was sealed. And so I told her mine. That I was secretly in love with a black stable manager back home in New Jersey, that I was occasionally and of course also secretly seeing a married horse show manager, and that despite the horses and ribbons and Dean’s List and my father’s polyester money, I’d always felt like an outsider.

But here’s the funny thing about a friendship rooted in a shared and specialized activity: two people can spend a lot of time together—in riding lessons, on the trail, in the stalls, setting jumps, sitting up overnight when the other’s horse is sick, driving to look at horses to buy—and know everything about how the other rides and what she can and can’t do in the saddle, and what she dreams about in that narrow arena of equestrian longing, and still know little of that person’s life outside, in the world. It’s shocking then, and a bit sad, to find that the person you already counted as your closest friend (or maybe that’s closest horse friend), has another life away from you, and that it is also wide, satisfying, and absorbing.

Slowly, I realized that what I knew of Nancy was only what she chose to reveal to other horse people. It wasn’t until six months after we became close that I realized in many ways I did not yet know her at all. I knew she was married, but not to an erudite, urbane man twenty-one years older than she. I knew she was a part-time stepmother, but not to an out-of-control teenage girl who routinely told her to fuck off, and to a twenty-two-year-old money-sucking manchild. I knew the horses came via her husband’s money, but not that he was the founding partner of a prominent local law firm. I didn’t know she’d first met Mark when he was on a business trip and that it broke up his marriage and that his first wife went a little crazy over it and once tried to hurt some people she loved. I didn’t yet know that Nancy had started out in a lower middle class family and floundered after college, but that by the time I met her she could stage a charity gala, do the New York Times Sunday crossword fast and in ink, or that while she loved having time and resources to ride, she secretly speculated about doing something else entirely.

I learned all of this almost all at once the first few times Nancy invited me for dinner at her house, which was about midway between the stable and campus. I’d unknowingly driven past it almost daily. I quickly became a regular, eating, watching movies, playing Scrabble, settling in. I loved having a family to hang out with, a house to feel at home in, where I could walk in the back door without knocking. We three spent many nights, for many months, then for years, around their kitchen table, me trying to figure out so much, including what I should do about the married horseman and how much of my post-college life to spend on the show circuit. Because I took college courses over the summers, Nancy and I grew closer, and because the twenty-mile drive between campus and stable worried my father, I moved into a condominium steps from Nancy’s house.

•••

I was five when my only sister left home in New Jersey for college in New England; the void seemed unfillable, but soon Laura and her family moved in next door. She was two years older; our connection was immediate and intense, and until midway through high school, we were often mistaken for sisters. We liked being called “Lucy and Ethel” for the hijinks we got into, especially when she traveled with my parents and me. Though Laura temporarily abandoned me for a boy, her future husband, I forgave her because I abandoned her, too, when my father’s business profits spiked, bringing me the horses I’d yearned to own.

Once I started riding—late, at age fourteen—I always also had a “best horse friend,” though typically not another spoiled teenager. I drifted instead toward young women who were older than me and either could afford only mediocre horses or whose parents managed a promising horse but not the monthly board and show fees—riders who were “working off” expenses by mucking stalls, resetting fences, cleaning tack, packing the horse van. I liked their workmanlike demeanor and pragmatic approach, because though I never needed to work to whittle expenses (at one point I owned three horses at a time or, I should say, my father did), I also had parents who didn’t brook entitlement.

Laura, a runner, had no interest in horses, and I had no interest in training for a marathon; she had a steady boyfriend, and I had a steady need to spend every moment with my horse. While this might have broken up other teenage girls who had been friends since preschool, it didn’t break us.

•••

Mark and Nancy were good neighbors, and I burrowed further into their family. It was Nancy who found a handyman (before Mark came home) to fix the garage door that I backed into. It was Nancy who folded me in her arms and poured me a scotch and talked me over the unfamiliar grief when the married guy was killed in an accident. It was Nancy who kept me fed when I was too busy studying and too nervous about finals to shop or cook.

When I graduated, it was Mark who gave me a generous check and conducted mock job interviews, and helped me weigh unpaid internships and low wage journalism starter jobs against my father’s offer to fund a few years on the horse show circuit while I tried to make it as a freelance writer—and didn’t criticize my inevitable decision to light out for the West Coast horse show circuit, typewriter in tow.

And when, after eighteen months in California, I moved my horses back to New York and the East Coast circuit, it was Nancy and Mark who gave me their guest room while I apartment-shopped and healed from another break-up, and Nancy who performed a mini-makeover when I plunged into a depression about my big-boned, brown-haired, Italian-girl appearance, fueled by constant exposure to California girls, horse show princesses, and the hopeful actors who had lived in my Los Angeles apartment complex.

Nancy wasn’t classically pretty – she had a long nose, big teeth, kinky hair, freckles, chunky calves—and I liked that about her because I had a wide nose, a broken (and not very elegantly fixed) front tooth, frizzy hair, and thick thighs. But Nancy knew how to buy cosmetics and use them, what expensive clothes could do for a soft figure, the wisdom of paying for a great haircut, and how to use the right blow dryer and brush. She knew, in the early 1980s, about teeth-whitening, juice cleanses, all natural facials, the tonic of a weekly pedicure (manicures were a waste for riders), and what not to wear. She suggested, I nodded. She selected, I agreed. And though I could have paid, she treated.

I’m not sure what I did for Nancy, what I offered or gave her. Perhaps I was the stepdaughter she didn’t get—guileless, rule-bound, happy to hug and hang around the dinner table, who valued her counsel. Maybe I felt like family, when her own was hours away and disapproving, and her husband was consumed with work, and all around town she kept running into people loyal to Mark’s ex-wife. Though she was friendly with other riders, I was the only one whose reach extended beyond the stable driveway. Maybe there was no other reason except, as I’ve always believed, we just clicked.

•••

What I knew about friendship by then was only this: you stuck, until the other person peeled away. And then, you stuck still; things might change. During college Laura was consumed with pre-med studies and her future husband; me with horses and writing, but we reconnected on college breaks and pretended to still understand one another’s lives. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding a few weeks after I graduated; she helped pack when my parents moved to Las Vegas; we loaned each other shoes.

After college, while I was riding on the West Coast circuit and writing for equestrian magazines, Nancy and I kept in touch with phone calls and letters. But her letters grew shorter, clipped, the calls abbreviated. I often reached her answering machine, and I wondered if she was standing in her kitchen listening, as I’d seen her do many times when someone she didn’t care much for phoned with some request. Soon, the letters and calls were mostly about why Nancy and her horses were leaving the fancy equestrian center for a smaller, less competitive stable when she grew more interested in the slow dance of dressage and the science of horse breeding—and in dogs.

When I moved back and settled in an apartment near her house, I returned to our old stable and trainer, but Nancy never visited me there, though I spent chunks of days at the barn where she’d moved her horses.

One chilled spring night she and I met a plane at the nearest major airport, where a flight attendant passed us a sealed medical bucket, a tube of high-priced semen from a champion dressage horse inside. We drove an hour back to Nancy’s stable, freezing because we blasted the air conditioning to keep the sperm active, and when we arrived, I held her mare’s tail aside as Nancy inserted the baster-like syringe. Eleven months later, we slept on horse blankets tossed over hay bales, taking turns to check on that mare every twenty minutes, and I was the one who first spotted the steaming foal in the straw.

Perhaps experiences like this seduced me into thinking we might stay bound, for a long time, forever. When my three-year post-graduate “parentship” of riding and writing ended, I left for a regular job in Manhattan and an apartment back home in New Jersey. There, I found a place at Laura and her husband’s kitchen table, where I also eventually found someone special, someone appropriate and available. I’d still occasionally make the four-hour drive north to visit Nancy and Mark, and one weekend I brought Frank. By then they were living on twenty acres in a stunning Danish modern house they’d designed together. Nancy, by then, had her own barn, but owned more canines than equines and was considering becoming a dog trainer.

•••

For someone who, for thirteen years, had been spending much of each day in a stable and at horse show grounds, where dogs of all kinds and sizes were always in residence, I was surprisingly intolerant of the animal. I found many dogs cute and sometimes admired their loyalty and how their humans loved them, but I did not love dogs. I detested being licked, and I was always tamping down blades of fear that rose whenever any dog, large or small, got too close: as a child, I was once charged by my grandmother’s huge Collie, who lived, wild and wolf-like, on acres of his own.

I wanted to be good-friend-enthusiastic about Nancy’s dog plans, and I thought I was, but that weekend I sensed that she wanted more from me, wanted me to be invested in her three dogs and bigger dog dreams, to be physical with them, and to want to know everything about them, as we once wanted to know everything about one another’s horses. These were Australian Shepherds, energetic, and to my mind, frenetic, aggressive dogs, and I couldn’t get beyond an obligatory pat. The time I’d hoped we’d spend with her horses while Frank and Mark watched a tennis match, we instead spent in an open field, Nancy showing off her dogs’ natural and learned skills. I watched, muttered faint praise, but I was bored and at moments, frightened. I know it showed.

Years later, I would come to think of this as the reason our friendship fractured, but at the time it was clouded by something else that seemed more threatening. On Sunday morning when Frank was in the shower and the three of us were around the kitchen table, I asked what they thought of my boyfriend. Oh, he’s nice, they said, a really great guy—but. But he has no college education. But he’s kind of unsophisticated. But we always pictured you with someone older, someone with money.

I laughed it off, tried to lighten the moment: Ha! I know! Opposites attract, right? But the kitchen air felt heavy and no one was laughing.

I had valued Nancy’s opinions and Mark’s, too, for years, maybe too much. I wanted to remind Nancy that, years before, her friends had warned her off Mark (too old, too married, two kids). I also wanted to say that they were not the only people to think this, that what they were saying I had even said to myself a few times, but that my heart pulled me. But no words formed in my mouth. The subject changed.

A year or so later, I married him.

Since the weekend visit, Nancy and I had talked by phone, written letters. In those conversations, on those pages, everything seemed the same and also different. Though I still had a horse, my equestrian life was winding down, my career and home life expanding. Nancy was selling off her horses, immersing herself in the dog world.

Years later, re-reading those letters, it seemed clear that she was losing interest in what had tied us together, the horses and stables, and maybe more in the idea of keeping up a long distance friendship with someone whose life and interests now no longer matched hers. All I knew then was that so much was left unsaid, unexamined, so unlike in our previous friendship, the one we’d forged in person, on horseback and around a kitchen table.

•••

Frank and I were getting married on Mother’s Day, and several people had replied “regretfully cannot attend,” citing mothers or mothers-in-law or stepmothers. Months before, Nancy had laughed off my request that she be my matron of honor (I’m too old. You should ask your sister), and she’d shown little interest in my wedding planning. Still, this didn’t alarm me. She’d always favored the unfussy approach to traditional events. I was confident I’d see Nancy and Mark at our wedding; Mark’s mother was dead, Nancy’s then estranged, and they disliked “Hallmark holidays”.

But they did not come to our wedding.

When no response appeared, I called, left messages (Did you get the invitation? Are you guys okay? Are you coming?). Even if the invitation had not arrived, my letters had all the details. I knew only that they were just 200 miles away, and that someone who they once held dear was getting married, and they did not respond, did not come, did not send a gift, or a card, did not.

In the end, one of those who stood by my side was my old friend Laura, and her husband handed Frank the ring. They had a child by then, were settling in to parenthood, had a sprawling expensive house, and ascending careers. None of that resembled the life Frank and I were then forging. But we’d stuck.

I thought I might try contacting Nancy and Mark again after my honeymoon, thinking that there must have been some major problem. Mutual acquaintances, however, shrugged and said they knew of nothing that might explain their absence. In the months that followed, I cried, but that was all I did. I did not call, did not write, did not.

In the silence of rejection, guilt and regret rose up. Something precious and important to me was ending and there must have been something I’d done.

•••

Eight years later, I saw Nancy one more time.

After several years of infertility, I then had a two-year-old son and had just miscarried another pregnancy. What had always helped me after an emotional setback was a weekend on my own. I drove upstate on a Friday and spent Saturday visiting a beloved college professor and my old stable—people and places that once made me feel strong and confident, back at a time when I was sure so much good was ahead.

I knew Nancy and Mark had moved ninety miles away, and I took a quiet, long, out-of-the-way route home on Sunday, see-sawing in my mind those first eighty-five miles, debating if I’d stop in or not. I didn’t have an address, but I assumed it wouldn’t be hard to locate them or perhaps Mark’s son Alex, now a caterer in the same small town. When I phoned information, Alex’s number was the first offered, and when I called, he immediately realized who I was, his greeting so effusive that I wondered if we had once been friendlier than I remembered. He said he’d call ahead to let his dad and Nancy know I was on my way, that he was certain they’d both be so very pleased to see me after so long.

As I turned off the main road, it was Mark who was already waving, already trotting out the front door and across the porch and down the front steps, Mark who was smiling when he jogged to meet my car in the gravel drive that separated their large home, a converted Dutch colonial barn, from a huge metal pole barn and kennels where, I’d learn, Nancy ran a major dog training, breeding, and boarding business.

It was Mark who said how happy he’d been when Alex called, Mark who hugged me. It was Mark who assured me that Nancy would be thrilled to see me when she got back from the farmer’s market. And so it was Mark who I talked with for an hour over coffee, Mark who took me on a tour and explained how they’d moved the barn to the property and restored it with period materials and furnished it with regional antiques. It was Mark I told about my small struggling child and his developmental issues and the babies I’d lost and how I might not have another, and it was Mark who said how he was never so happy to have been wrong about someone, meaning Frank. As he talked, I realized that for the first time—which even then I knew was ridiculous given how obvious it suddenly seemed and must have been since the first night I’d had dinner with them—how much Mark reminded me of my father.

He said Nancy would show me around the dog operation, would want to tell me everything about her thriving new business, and why she didn’t ride anymore.

But none of that happened. Nancy came home and registered surprise but little other obvious emotion. She scrubbed vegetables while we talked, and the conversation didn’t have that intense compressed quality of reunited old friends who talk over one another’s sentences and are unable to stop grinning. She did not show me the dog buildings, and we did not talk of horses or the show ring gossip I’d heard the day before. Since I had already told Mark my other stories, I glossed over it all, hoping he’d fill her in later (hoping, too, that he would not). I felt the visit slipping from me. Until then, the weekend had done its job, replenishing my depleted energy, balm for my sore heart, reminding me of all that can still lie ahead; now, I was spiraling back in the other direction.

I had to go.

First though, and while Mark was out of the room, I did ask what I had come to say: “I’ve always wondered—why you didn’t come to my wedding? Did I do something?” I chickened out at the last moment from adding, Why did you leave me? Was it me? I missed you so much. You broke my heart.

I was prepared for anything—a secret illness, scandal, a simmering grudge, an argument that I’d forgotten or pretended was trivial when it wasn’t, some slight I’d once dealt and then denied—but mostly I was prepared for something, some reason, any reason.

The answer came, on waves of Nancy’s throaty laugh. She couldn’t remember, she said. It was years ago, she said. There must have been something going on, she said. Maybe that was when Mark’s business collapsed. The time she’d had kidney stones. Or when they were moving. It could have been breeding season. Maybe they were in Europe.

•••

I am now warm friends with several women at least a decade older than me. Occasionally, when I’m having brunch or a glass of wine with one of them, I find myself thinking, this is someone Nancy would like. When I’m keeping in touch with them via text, Twitter, and Facebook, I occasionally think, if only we had so many ways to stay in touch back then, maybe Nancy and I would still be in touch. Maybe.

I thought of Nancy most recently when Frank and I were setting out food for the New Year’s Eve board-game-party we toss together at the last minute every year with Laura and her husband. Over the years, they have gone as far in the opposite directions as possible from us in matters of politics, religion, child-rearing ideas—even sport teams. But we stick, still. That night, in those quiet moments between our laughter, I drifted, as I do sometimes, to new theories about losing Nancy: I was searching for another older sister who, unlike my own, thought horses were important, and later, when my sister and I grew closer, Nancy sensed that I had less need of her. I was the younger sister Nancy always longed for, and then I eventually, naturally, outgrew the role. I took advantage of their hospitality too constantly. I was the child that she’d agreed, when she married Mark, never to have, and once I’d moved on to adulthood, we’d all outgrown those poorly understood roles.

•••

A few years ago, I looked for them both on Facebook. Mark returned my friend request within hours: So glad to reconnect…what nice looking sons you have…I hope you and Frank are well. He was in his late seventies, posting about running road races, new business ventures, fine wines. He looked great, fit and friendly. For a year, I hit Like on many of his posts. Then they all stopped. I was afraid to find out why.

My friend request to Nancy (Hello old friendI’d love to be back in touch…I have so many great memories…) languished, and when finally she approved it, there was no personal reply. Her Facebook page was all about dogs. I had nothing to say about that, and finally, nothing to say at all.

•••

LISA ROMEO is a freelance editor and founding faculty member of Bay Path University’s online MFA program. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Under the Sun, Sweet, Hippocampus, Sport Literate, Under the Gum Tree, and several anthologies. She is seeking a publisher for her memoir, The Father and Daughter Reunion: Every Loss Story is a Love Story. Lisa lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo, or at her blog, where she posts interviews and resources for writers.

Happy Fourth of July

fireworks

By Mike Boening Photography/ Flickr

No new essay today since I bet a lot of you are scurrying around, getting ready for Independence Day, but for the rest of us, stuck inside with allergies or on hugging-the-shivering-dog duty or what have you, I thought I’d make a sort of FGP mixtape from the archives, on this, the summeriest weekend of the summer.

Nicole Walker’s “Persuasion” for those of us about to get our BBQ on.

Kate Haas’s “Out in the Woods, Away Out There” for campers and the people who love them (anyway).

Rebecca Altman’s “The Homes We Drove Past” for those of us feeling a little nostalgic for childhood memories. (For example, that one Fourth when a certain uncle who was in charge of the fireworks got a little, uh, tipsy and said, “This next one is Golden Flowers. Not Golden Showers, kids. Golden Flowers.”)

Zsofi McMullin’s “The Accidental Immigrant” for those of us thinking of immigration and how we, or the particular huddled masses that came before us, got here.

Carol Paik’s “Running Commentary” for those marathon-running folk out there and the rest of us who will be waiting with a watermelon mojito for them at home.

Jamie Passaro’s “A Mild Suspension of Effort” for the neighborhood potluckers and everyone who enjoys the nice quiet of a summer night.

Jenny Poore’s “I Will Put Your Poem on My Wall” for everyone out there who needs a little pick-me-up because this year in the United States, like every year, great things have happened and horrifying things have happened and it’s easy to feel powerless and small, but your actions matter. They really do.

•••

If you haven’t heard about the amazing new FGP anthology Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex, read all about it. Hey, get a little crazy and pre-order it! I won’t stop you!

Fashioning a Life

dollhouse

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Melissa Ballard

Only after you’ve had two glasses of wine, and only in a joking way, can you maybe admit to having graduated from fashion school. But, after all this time, you still wonder why on earth you did it.

Maybe because all your friends and your boyfriend had somehow been accepted to college, but you had never even applied, because you were a confused and mediocre high school student, and nobody in your family had gone to college. And you had to do something, for God’s sake.

So, when you were moping over the photos of Lane hope chests in Seventeen, maybe you also saw an ad that said something about “a career in a year” and promised graduates entrée to a number of jobs, including buyer for a department store. You liked your after-school job at a small clothing and gift shop, so you cut out that ad and begged your parents to pay the tuition, if you promised to use your savings to cover your living expenses. They finally agreed, so you signed up for fashion school. And on September 13, 1970, fresh from the suburbs of Cleveland, the trunk of your dad’s palomino beige sedan crammed with your personal possessions, you arrived in downtown Toledo, Ohio.

Fashion school was seventeen courses, thirty hours each, for a total of 510 hours in the classroom. Plus homework. Principles of Buying, Fashion Sketching, Fashion Writing, Business Economics, Color and Design, classes like that. And while you could certainly argue that it was not the Harvard of the Midwest, maybe you liked those courses, worked hard, and got excellent grades, because it was so much smaller than your high school, just fourteen other girls and you, and your teachers were mostly women who wore lots of make-up, and hats and weirdly dressy clothes for a weekday, but were real-live career women.

Of course, there was that mandatory finishing school component of the curriculum that you overlooked in the fine print. Afternoons, during the first semester, you had to take classes like Visual Poise, Wardrobe Styling, Make-up, and Personality. That part may not have gone as well as the morning classes, because you might have been 5’3” on your tallest day, and less than lithe and, even with your contact lenses, your mother’s nickname for you was “Plain Jane.” Also, you liked to think you already had a personality, even if it was not the correct one. However, you did learn such valuable life skills as how to enter a car like a lady: butt-first.

In the afternoon, there was also a Voice and Drama class, and your teacher assigned a speech from Macbeth, the one that starts with “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, and ends with, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” You were all supposed to memorize it and be ready to recite it in class, but you refused to do it, claiming it was a waste of your time, but really you were terrified that you wouldn’t be able to do it, and there you’d be, standing in front of everyone, with no words coming out of your mouth. Normally, this was not a problem. You were shy, but you had also learned to make fun of yourself before anyone else did it for you. Somehow, you still passed that course and all the others, too, making you, presumably “finished,” not as in “ruined,” but as in “completed.”

And you stayed, even though you were miserable and scared much of the time. Like that Saturday when you and your roommate were the only ones on the floor of the residential hotel that was being converted to offices and that did not, contrary to the school’s ad, provide onsite adult supervision other than the elderly guard who sat at the front desk in the lobby and may or may not have been there 24/7.

You stayed even after you brought your laundry up that day and were folding it and a strange man appeared in your doorway and you froze, but your rural roommate threw the empty clothesbasket and ran at him screaming, “Get out!” and “Go away!” and finally he did.

Maybe one of the students was twenty-one, or knew someone who was, and so, some evenings, you were able to consume as many whiskey and Seven-Ups at one time as you liked. And you learned that those drinks made you calmer, happier; you felt as though you fit in better and were more like other people, until you had one too many and found yourself kneeling on the tiny white hexagon tiles of the bathroom, releasing the contents of your stomach, then sobbing hysterically about how much you missed your boyfriend and how much you hated fashion school.

But, one sunny day in the spring of that school year, you walked into your friend Karen’s room and heard a voice as plain as your own, but on-key, singing, “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue.” You picked up the album cover and studied it: Carole King’s face was as plain as your own, with dishwater brown hair like yours but crazy curly. She wore a loose sweater and jeans, and no shoes. It was the opposite of the dress code you’d been obeying for the past seven months. You weren’t entirely sure about this tapestry business, but it seemed like something worth pursuing, and you suspected it had more to do with the books you were reading on the side than anything you were learning at fashion school. Books like The Art of Loving, The Feminine Mystique, The Chosen, Atlas Shrugged (so much longer and duller than The Fountainhead, but necessary somehow, at least then) and, over and over again, anything by Salinger.

Maybe you graduated with honors, which sounds like a joke, but is true, and you gave a speech about character, both of which you had forgotten about until you were going through your mom’s things a year ago and found the program and, neatly folded inside, a typed copy of your speech, with the key phrases underlined twice, in pencil, so you’d remember to emphasize them.

Maybe you stayed in Toledo and got an apartment with your fashion school roommate. You worked at a newly opened clothing store for Juniors in a newly opened mall, where one of your former teachers was the manager. You did not drive or own a car, and the mall was five and a half miles from your apartment, the bus situation was iffy, and you worked some evenings, so you sometimes got a ride home from work on the back of the assistant manager’s boyfriend’s motorcycle.

In your free time you read, smoked pot, drank, took muscle relaxers and, once, over the counter diet pills. The latter made you really peppy and not at all hungry, until you got stomach pains so bad you doubled over, and after those stopped, you walked across the mall to the bakery, where you ate too many cinnamon rolls and gulped white milk from a small, waxed carton.

You grew tired of spending your work shifts standing in the front of the maroon-carpeted, rough-wood-paneled Juniors’ store, wearing hot pants, and folding and refolding tops, while trying to strike up awkward conversations with people who walked by, so maybe you could lure them inside to buy something.

Once, after the district manager said you weren’t trying hard enough, you marched up to a woman who was browsing the sale rack, guided her to the new rabbit fur jackets, and convinced her she deserved to buy one for herself. You felt your lunch churning in your stomach as you stood behind the counter and watched her slowly pull wrinkled singles from her purse and then the pockets of her jeans, as she tried to qualify for layaway. When she finished, you fought the urge to push the money back to her, pat her hand, and tell her to go buy something practical. Maybe that was when you decided to fashion a life some other way.

Now, you are finally able to bear the thought of going back. The school has closed, but you stand outside the now-historic hotel where you lived forty-three years ago. As you look up at the fourth floor windows, you remember a night when you’d had just enough to drink so you were relaxed but not sick or weepy. You ended up, fully clothed, in a waterless bathtub with several of your classmates. You were all singing, though you’ve forgotten the song. Without a doubt, the cover of The Mamas and the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, an album you had listened to over and over again during high school, inspired you.

You look down the street at the newly built Mud Hens’ stadium, and you remember Mondays, after your classes were over, when you and your roommate walked in that direction to the meat cutting school that has since been torn down, where you carefully chose a pork chop or some thin sheets of veal for your dinner that night. And after you cleaned up a corner of the filthy, shared kitchen with its limp heads of iceberg lettuce, shriveled apples, and cartons of curdled milk, you cooked that meat along with frozen vegetables and Rice-a-Roni, the latter to make you feel as though you were living somewhere more exotic than Toledo, Ohio.

As you turn the corner to check out the front entrance of the hotel, you think of a guy you dated during your “I’ll go out with pretty much anyone who asks me because my boyfriend is 204 miles away and increasingly absent” phase. This date drove a red Corvette he loved too much to leave downtown unattended, so you waited for him on the corner of Superior and Jefferson. You stood alone on a city street, after dark, no phone booth nearby, one of the many chances you took because you did not yet understand the word “mortal.”

And, finally, you remember that you eventually substituted your Glamour subscription for one for the new Ms. magazine, and you proudly wore flannel shirts and faded, patched jeans to your college classes. You got married, earned two degrees, had a baby, and ended up working with children and, later, teaching college students.

Maybe now you can finally give your eighteen-year-old self a break. Accept that, while it might have been a good fit for someone else, fashion school mostly helped you learn what you did not want, but maybe that’s a big deal, especially when you’re young.

•••

MELISSA BALLARD studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before attending college. She has since worked as a speech-language pathologist and a college instructor.  Melissa has written essays for Brevity, Gravel, JMWW, and other publications.

Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex

Soul Mate 101 coverthumbnail

By Jennifer Niesslein

Hi everyone,

I’m working on the new anthology (pictured above, featuring a glorious photo by Gina Easley.) This time, I’m switching things up a bit.

The theme of Soul Mate 101 is love and sex, all done up in the FGP way. About half the essays are brand-spanking new work; the other half are some gems from the site. I’m already so thrilled about it that I can’t imagine the state I’ll be worked up into by the time the book actually is published—I’m shooting for mid-September.

Who are writers in this latest one?

Why, none other than Sara Bir, William Bradley, Gayle Brandeis, Glendaliz Camacho, Carolyn Edgar, Sarah Einstein, Reyna Eisenstark, Dionne Ford, McKel Jensen, Jean Kim, Antonia Malchik, Zsofi McMullin, Catherine Newman, Deesha Philyaw, Browning Porter, Susan Kushner Resnick, Natasha Saje, Tracy Sutton Schorn, Louise Sloan, Megan Stielstra, and Elissa Wald.

I’ll be introducing them in the notifications letter in the coming months. (Some of them have books coming out or out already. Some good, good stuff.)

I hope you’ll preorder now. I’m the only one who has read this whole collection so far, but all of these true tales of love in the time of adulthood have me swooning. I think you’re going to love the book—and, hey, I haven’t steered you wrong before, have I?

xxoo,

Jennifer

The Population of Me

nut

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jody Mace

For most of my life you’ve been the size of walnuts. Nuts and other produce are standard measurements for small bodily organs and glands. The prostate gland is also the size of a walnut, but by the time a man is forty sometimes it’s as big as an apricot. The pituitary gland is the size of a pea. Whereas we measure hail by sports balls. When hail gets to be the size of golf balls that’s when it starts to get serious. Someone’s going to take a picture of that hail.

When I was born, stored inside the two of you, ovaries, was half the genetic material for a million people. That’s about the population of San Jose, California. I’ve never been to San Jose, but I’m imagining it populated solely by those people, the potential humans whose blueprints you harbored. Tall men and short women. Dark-haired, with poor eyesight. If I were thinking of starting a business in that alternate San Jose, it would be an optical shop. There wouldn’t be a lot of audience participation at concerts, as my people don’t like to draw attention to themselves, but the shows would be well attended. The population would have to pay special attention to sunscreen. It would be a snarky San Jose.

But amid all those brown-eyed wallflowers, maybe there would be a few blonde-haired, blue-eyed standouts. They would be the product of long-forgotten recessive genes that give them the ability and inclination to be cheerleaders or to complete layups in a graceful fashion.

Those million people, though? They’re only a fraction of the story. When I was a fetus, you held seven million eggs follicles. That’s the population of New York City, minus the Bronx. But to be brutally honest, most of those potential people didn’t have a lot of, well, potential. So you performed a culling, keeping only the most promising million egg follicles. And of those million, throughout my lifetime, maybe 500 will get even a shot at the big show.

I think of my San Jose with affection, all those ghost people, the artists, the bricklayers, the teachers, the petty thieves, the bureaucrats, the scientists. The odds were against them, were against all of us. But we made it. How can we ever look at another human being without a sense of wonder? Every person who takes a breath has scaled the Kilimanjaro of biology, has won the Powerball and is standing there with that big check and the shit-eating grin, or should be. We should be embracing each other as comrades, as survivors. Just showing up on Earth at all means we’re winners.

I know we can’t always get along. We need to argue about important things like the environment and the economy. We also need to argue about things that don’t matter, like the Oxford Comma and whether leggings are pants, because written into our blueprints are brains that want to make sense of things, that want to nail down the rules. Also written into our blueprints is the desire to have the last word.

But still, every so often I meet someone and I’m struck by the unlikelihood that I exist and that she exists and that we’re in the same place, having a conversation, and we understand the words that the other says. And I feel a connection to her. When I read about a crime, I sometimes think about both the perpetrator and the victim and feel an almost unbearable sadness that there are perpetrators and victims, after all the work that was done behind the scenes, within the warm, dark factory of the human body, to bring them into the world. I think about my ghost San Jose, and all the other ghost San Joses, and about how we’re the ones who made it into the outside world. We should be a little gentler with each other. We should be gentler with ourselves.

But back to you, ovaries. Of those million egg follicles you kept in safe keeping for me, two of them became living, breathing people. There’s no mystery like that of a newborn baby. I never saw my job as molding my children, but more as letting their mysteries unfold. Deep in the genetic makeup of my son were instructions to curl his toes under his feet when he sits, like one of his uncles does. How far back does that go? Maybe five hundred thousand years ago there was a Homo heidelbergensis sitting on a rock in what would eventually be Germany, sharpening a stone point for a spear, with his toes curled under his feet.

Etched somewhere in the DNA of those two well-timed eggs were determination, a love of music, sharp wits, and a great capacity for kindness. Also (between the two of them, not naming names) stubbornness, perfectionism, a habit of telling jokes at the wrong time, and difficulty with time management. You did your part and I’ve tried to do my part. I tried to help them find their paths, but to also do a lot of staying out of their way so that they could become who they actually were and not who I imagined they might be. I didn’t do much, but I think I didn’t mess up your hard work. They’re adult and almost adult, and so far, so good.

I’m grateful that these are the two I got, although I guess that I’d feel the same if I’d ended up with two of the ghost children in San Jose instead. I know I’m anthropomorphizing you way too much, ovaries, but you did a good job and I appreciate it.

Of course, you’re only half the story. Testes are nothing to sneeze at either. They stay busy, cranking out genetic material on an as-needed basis, at an incomprehensible rate, like 1,500 sperm cells a second. It’s survival of the fittest when it comes to sperm, and the culling is even more cut-throat than that of the egg follicles. In heat after heat in the race for life, almost all of them lose. Forget about my San Jose or even my New York City without The Bronx. We’re talking twice the population of the earth every month. You, ovaries, are the students who prepared ahead of time. You read the syllabus and did the assignments the first week of class, and then just waited for the due dates. Testes are the students who goofed off all semester and then crammed the night of the test and still pulled off a pretty good grade. But don’t resent the testes. It takes all kinds.

So, with all this talk of eggs and children I want to point out that I’m much more than a mother. I’m a writer, I understand at least ninety percent of the rules of football, and I’m a highly competent parallel parker. Reproduction is only one of many facets of me. But you, ovaries, are unabashed in your single-mindedness. Everything you do is to advance the cause of extending my genetic legacy. I’m going to tell you something, but I think you know it already, if you’re really honest with yourself: no more eggs will become people. For a while now, you’ve been acting as if nothing has changed, but really you’ve just been going through the motions, like a bookkeeper in an abandoned office. There’s no new business, nobody’s asking for the report, nobody’s reading your emails, but you’ve still been keeping the books month after month.

At some point, though, your job will be done. Remember when you were the size of a walnut? Ligaments strained under the weight of the future generations within you. But eventually you’ll be the size of an almond. I wonder what size nut you are now. A pistachio? Or maybe a cashew?

There’s not too much plot to our story, and that’s a good thing. You haven’t been stricken with any diseases or major dysfunctions, although there’s still time, I guess. Most likely one of my organs will eventually do me in, but sentimentally, I hope it’s not you. You’re my connection to the future and my link to the past. Just about every other part of my body could, theoretically, be swapped out for someone else’s, or replaced by a machine. They just have their jobs to do. My heart pumps blood, my kidneys clean that blood and my lungs supply that blood with oxygen, but they don’t do their job differently from anyone else’s heart, kidneys, or lungs. But you took pieces of me, of my mother, of my grandmother, of my great-grandfather, and offered them as possibilities to the future. You know the secrets of who I am and who I could have been. I’d like you to be with me until the end, like two old friends, side by side in rocking chairs, sitting quietly. They know each other so well that they don’t have to say a word.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Jody Mace.