Jacket Required

brunch

By Charles Kim/ Flickr

By Jody Mace

At the retirement community where my dad lives, on Sundays at 11:30 a.m., they have a buffet. It’s a special event, more special even than Japanese Food Night or BBQ Outside Afternoon. There’s a dress code. Men have to wear jackets and ladies have to wear a dress, a skirt and a top, or a pants suit.

It was the dress code that led my dad to boycott the Sunday buffet for the first eight months he lived here. Because nobody was going to tell him to put on a jacket. I kept on saying “What’s the big deal? It’s just a jacket,” but it was the principle of the thing.

Then one day he called me and told me every Sunday they have a buffet, and he went to it and it was wonderful. They had prime rib! He said this as if it was the first time I’d heard about it.

He said, “I don’t know why I haven’t been going to this!”

I said, “I know exactly why. It’s because you didn’t want them to tell you to put on a jacket.”

He invited us for the following Sunday, and my husband Stan and I leapt at the chance to go. I put on a skirt and top, not having a pants suit in my closet, and my husband and seventeen-year-old son happily put on jackets. We stopped at my dad’s apartment in the complex to pick him up, and he was wearing a powder blue jacket and looked great.

We got there a few minutes before 11:30 and a line was forming. Stan, our son, and I were thrilled because we love a brunch buffet, plus my dad was paying, but in general the mood was dark. There were several reasons for the discontent:

  • The line was too long.
  • Sometimes they did not open the doors right at 11:30, despite the published start time.
  • Sometimes the wait staff was not as responsive as desired.
  • Undisclosed reasons.

As we stood in line a friendly woman approached me and eyed my dad, husband and son appreciatively.

“Are you with all these men?” she asked.

“I am.”

“They’re all good-looking,” she noted. “And all different ages.”

Then she looked a little bit too long at my son. “Mm, mm, mm.”

Another woman came up to her and asked “Who are you with?” and she nodded at us and said, “I’m with them.”

Meanwhile another woman, noting that it was almost 11:30, tried to cut to the front of the line. She was turned away.

She muttered “JESUS CHRIST!” and stomped off.

When we got to the front of the line, the woman working the desk wrote down my dad’s room number. This took too long for the woman who had been eyeing my men, and she whisper-shouted, “It’s like she’s writing an encycloPEdia!”

Even with the litany of complaints, there was something special about the Sunday brunch buffet. Everyone was dressed up. There were different stations for food. It was like going to dinner on a slightly threadbare cruise ship or an old Victorian-era resort hotel that had hobbled into the twenty-first century. I loved it.

We were told to sit at Table 18. This was a good table because it was near the omelet station. There, two men were making omelets to order, with a wide range of fillings. These guys were pros. They did the thing where they each picked up two omelet pans, one in each hand, and flipped both omelets at the same time. It was a professional operation. Also there was French toast, link sausages, and bacon.

While I was waiting to order my omelet, the two women in front of me lamented about the choir they sing in.

“We need new sopranos,” one said.

“I know!” agreed the other. “I can stand right next to them and I still can’t hear them!”

“What kind of cheese would you like?” the omelet man asked the second woman.

“What?”

Besides the omelet station, there were three other buffet areas. There was a salad bar, a lunch buffet, which included a carving station, chicken, fish, breads, and vegetables, and a dessert table, which included slices of cakes and pies, half of them in a section called “SF,” which I learned meant “sugar free.”

There was a problem at the dessert table. The pecan pie was all gone, leading to a heightened sense of discontent and some raised voices. My dad did snag a slice of sugar free pecan pie but said it was horrible. He went back to try to find some chocolate pie but it was all gone, too. He implored one of the wait staff for help, and, probably familiar with the rate with which the tenor of his complaints have been known to rise, she went into the kitchen to investigate. She emerged with a slice of chocolate cake and that calmed him down a little.

Meanwhile at the salad bar, a man with a walker was despondent. They had bagels and lox, and I’m talking really good-looking lox, no brown patches, and a lot of it. But they had run out of cream cheese, or had failed to replenish it in a timely manner.

“How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?” he asked nobody. “How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?”

The buffet had been a success. We loved it. In a family too often lacking in traditions, I thought this could be one. Every Sunday morning we would put on our finery, drive to my dad’s retirement community, where we’d pick him up at his apartment. He’d be more congenial than usual, or would at least seem that way, wearing his powder-blue blazer. We’d socialize in the lounge area, amidst the grand piano and sofas. Maybe my son would play a little “Rhapsody in Blue” when he learned more of it. We’d get to know the other residents as we reconnected every week. It was totally worth getting dressed up. Even our son didn’t mind putting on a jacket because he liked the bacon.

My own life sometimes seems so complicated. Taxes, college bills, vet appointments, trying to make a living. The seemingly endless demands on my time. People are always saying they don’t want to go into a “home.” If I can afford one like this, sign me up. I liked everything about the retirement community. The weekly schedule of activities. The planned trips to shows and museums. The happy hour. Bingo. And especially the Sunday buffet.

We decided to return the next week, and this time we’d bring our daughter too, because she’d be home from college for spring break. I felt kind of bad that she’d miss the tradition that was about to start. It had started too late. Kind of like when my parents joined a country club the summer after I’d started going to sleep-away camp. (Strangely they stopped after I quit camp.) I still hear all about how much fun the swimming pool was from my sister, who seems to always forget that I missed out on the whole thing.

I texted my daughter:

Me: Let’s go to Grandpa’s Sunday brunch when you’re home. It’s awesome. It’s like brunch-theater. But there’s a dress code. Make sure to bring home a skirt or a pants suit.

Daughter: I’m not wearing a “pants suit.”

Me: That’s just one option.

When we arrived there was some confusion over the change to Daylight Savings Time.

“Why are you here so early?” my dad asked.

“I’m not,” I said. “Daylight Savings time started this morning.”

“They didn’t tell me about Daylight Savings Time!” he protested. “Nobody told me!”

This time he suggested a different approach to check-in. We got to the check-in counter before the crowd. He checked in and got a table assignment, and then we relaxed on the couches in the lounge while the others lined up. When the clock struck 11:30 a.m., we walked right in, right past that line. Suckers.

Those people were pissed off.

Generally, you don’t want to get between old people and the Sunday buffet. They’re hungrier than you are, they’re meaner, and they’ve got nothing to lose.

I heard murmurs rising in volume as the whole line realized that we had played them. But I didn’t care. I was getting into the spirit of things. I might not be elderly yet but I was learning that I had an inner battle-ax.

As we entered the dining hall, I passed on some valuable advice to my daughter.

“When you walk in, stop at the dessert table. Take what you want. You don’t have to eat it right away but if you don’t take it now you’ll end up with sugar-free pecan pie.”

This time instead of bagels and lox there was shrimp cocktail. Big shrimp. And instead of French toast there were blintzes. Blintzes!

There was one old guy who wasn’t wearing a jacket. He was wearing a big slouchy red tee-shirt and I found myself feeling judgmental about him. Didn’t he know this was Sunday brunch? What was he doing on my cruise ship looking like a schlub?

I felt not only that I belonged there, at the retirement community’s Sunday brunch, but that he didn’t. One of the elderly women looked at him, then at me, and shook her head a little. I shook mine back. It was as if crotchetiness was contagious.

God, I loved the Sunday brunch.

The next day my dad called me. “Well, they’re doing away with the Sunday buffet.”

“What? Why?”

“Nobody liked it.”

“What do you mean nobody liked it? It was awesome! They were all fighting to get in! Who didn’t like it?”

“The people who went to the meeting and voted.”

“Well, this sucks,” I said.

Those old people were infuriating. They were living in this beautiful retirement community, being served great food. The omelet guys were flipping made-to-order omelets two at a time! And all they did was complain. They could go to lectures, concerts, poker night. Other people took care of it all for them. They didn’t have to do anything but show up. But their favorite activity, hands-down, was complaining.

“They’ll still have a brunch, just not a buffet,” my dad told me, trying to cheer me up. “It’ll still be nice. They might still have the omelet station. I don’t know. Maybe they’ll still have the bagels and lox.”

“You think?” I asked.

“But I’m going to bring my own bagels,” he said. “Their bagels are hard as rocks.”

•••

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.

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Why We Left

boxes

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

Two years ago, my husband and I moved away from Portland, Oregon, on purpose. We left behind friends, career prospects, and a two-bedroom rental house that cost a mere $875 a month. And we loaded our dog and kid into our Outback and drove as fast as a ’99 Subaru can go all the way to Marietta, Ohio, the town where I grew up.

“We just need to be closer to family,” I told people in the perplexed silences that inevitably followed when they heard our plans to relocate. What illustrious family could possibly woo us away from an artsy Eden on the Willamette?

The family thing was true and untrue. We needed to be closer to them because we were perpetually broke, and the broke-ness had become such that it was time to deploy the emergency move-in-with-my-folks plan.

But there was also an ache that hadn’t gone away despite five years of gamely trying to adore that adorable city where we fit in so well, in so many ways. Portland loved me, and I could not love it back, and I felt like a shithead because of it.

We arrived in Portland in 2007, three mayors and at least two ultra-bougie New Seasons food markets ago. Before that, we lived in New York City, and in comparison Portland seemed preposterously quaint and manageable. Our first months in Oregon, my husband and I would admire the downtown skyline and the conifer-studded hills rising behind it and coo, “Oh, look—it thinks it’s a city!”

The intensity of city life was what we moved to escape, and our new no-name strip of neighborhood between I-205 and the used car lots of Southeast 82nd Avenue struck us as a quiet haven of playgrounds and modest houses, with a few hookers thrown in for color. Two greasy old-school Chinese joints bordered us, Hung Far Low to the south and Chinese Garden to the north. We had a spacious backyard, where I doggedly pruned an overgrown apple tree and hacked away at diseased lilac bushes. We got a dog from the Humane Society. My husband joined a few bands. On heady Portland summer days when the sun cascaded down like a shot of heroin, he haunted a skate spot under the Hawthorne Bridge. Though magazines and newspapers in New York barely gave me the time of day, in Portland I wrote freelance stories for the food section of Portland’s major news daily, eventually worked in their test kitchen, and also taught cooking classes on nights and weekends. My husband had a string of long-term temp assignments in administrative offices. It was almost enough to keep us afloat.

All the while, we looked for better jobs. And looked and looked and looked. There were two main problems we grappled with in Portland: rain and money. Too much of one, and never enough of the other.

•••

Let me tell you about Marietta, Ohio. Founded in 1788, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, which means it’s in spitting distance of West Virginia. It’s an Appalachian Interzone, at once very Midwestern and not Midwestern at all; a generous pinch of twang runs through the local speech. The population is staggeringly white, though there might be about twenty black residents now, and if memory serves, back when I was in high school there were maybe five. So that’s improvement. As for other ethnicities, if you live here and you’re Asian, you’re probably a doctor. There’s one shop that serves decent coffee, but it’s a nutritional supplement store/smoothie bar that doesn’t open until nine in the morning. Vietnamese food? A taqueria? Fat chance.

Portland feels like another universe in comparison. I still struggle to define the charms and drawbacks of each place. Both are defined by the big, dirty rivers that run through them. Portland had innumerable food carts and strip clubs; Marietta has innumerable churches and fracking rigs. You’ll have to wait for hours to score a table at Portland’s Tasty n’ Sons for breakfast on a Sunday, but in Marietta, the Busy Bee Diner offers immediate seating and a waitress who wears her hair in, yes, a beehive. Sure, Portland has scads of idealistic youths engaged in civic activism—but you’d never guess how many grumpy retirees in Marietta volunteer their time for charitable causes. Instead of laptops, they might carry concealed weapons. John Deere pajama bottoms worn as all-purpose outerwear are a common fashion statement, true, but the population overwhelmingly accepts proven science and public health—that is, you don’t see citizens coming together against fluoridated water that way they do in Portland.

Living here is a bit like going back in time. After my high school experience as the resident misfit weirdo, I skipped town with a happy shrug, never suspecting that decades later I’d come to crave Marietta, with its scenic bridges and dozens of historical markers and goofy festivals and rickety, underfunded little museums. It’s an all-American community with a picturesque downtown of antique stores and brick streets. The thrift shops and flea markets are great, because the records and mid-century furniture aren’t all picked over. Baby boomers abound, as do minimum-wage positions in nursing homes. Among the ladies there’s an unfortunately popular haircut, this wedged-in-the-back/spiked-in-the-front chemical-drenched thing with streaky highlights that my husband and I call “crispy hair.”

And I have to be slightly more mindful of what I say in mixed company. In Portland, most people likely lean Democratic, or support reproductive rights. In Marietta, I have friends who vote for Tea Party candidates.

Free from the confines of that infamous Portland bubble, I like walking around and not running into endless clones of myself and my political views. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the rest of America is like, and a window into the goodness of people who don’t think like me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I’d get asked when we first moved back to Marietta. The old guard here clings to a deeply ingrained Midwestern/Appalachian skepticism of outsiders, and they are reluctant to embrace change, even small ones, like installing pedestrian crosswalks on the busiest street downtown.

“I grew up here, actually,” I delight in replying. Not fitting in is my comfort zone. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable in Marietta.

•••

My California-bred husband still wakes up dazed upon realizing that he resides in the ass-end of Appalachia. He loves record stores, ethnic food, post-rock bands, and independent movie theaters. He’s trying to be a good sport.

But once we had our daughter, those things phased out of our Portland lives, anyway. By then I’d veered away from my culinary career, landed job with the county library, and was thoroughly enjoying the best employee benefits of my life.

Which was great, because we needed those funds to cover childcare. It became apparent that raising Frances in Portland would present increasingly complex logistical problems. For our one-car family, Frances’s daycare had to be reasonably close to my library. Both Joe and I worked until six many nights, and nearly all daycare centers closed before then. Through desperate combings of Craigslist we found a few options, but there was precious middle ground between total sketch-fests that reeked of sour milk and tiny palaces of early childhood education where the tuition was higher than my paycheck.

When my husband’s temp gig with a Portland city agency ended, even though he wanted to work, we realized we couldn’t afford it. We reluctantly pulled Frances out of the loving daycare we’d been lucky to find and had him stay home with her, collecting unemployment until he got a job offer high enough for us to clear her monthly fees.

That put us more in touch with the day-to-day struggles of the working class than we were comfortable admitting. We could have chosen housing that was even lower-cost than our moldy house of sadness, where I had to make wiping the backs of our bookcases down with bleach water a weekly task. I developed a ceaseless runny nose that eventually blossomed into massive sneezing attacks, ones that disappeared once I walked out our door, and I realized I was allergic to our own home. We knew we had food, a roof over our heads, and a bank account that was barely ever overdrawn.

The biggest ache was a battle we raged with our privileged identity. We’re educated, liberal, and artsy. People like us are supposed to gentrify neighborhoods, not get pushed out of them. For extra money, I picked up sub shifts at public library branches; eventually, I worked at least once at all eighteen branches in the county system, the grand slam. It was a great way to see the parts of city that the alluring travel features in magazines don’t show you. That was the Portland I ultimately fell in love with, the one that didn’t trump itself up. I saw a lot of meth teeth and smelled the stench of urine wafting from clothes that had not been washed in years, sure, but I also saw people who were more or less…normal. People who needed jobs and barely had any tech literacy, so I’d have to walk them through filling out a resume online as they raced to submit it before their allotted time for the day ran out on the library’s public computer. People who needed referrals for free legal services, or were trying to locate their parent’s birth records, or who just wanted recommendations for a good book.

To a casual observer, I looked like the Portland dream: The librarian-writer! With nerdy glasses! Who used to be a chef! But really, I was one of them, the other Portlanders. The ones who constantly did the utility bill/paycheck triage. The ones whose shady landlord, when asked to take down the 1970s wood paneling because it’s housing a robust colony of mildew, replies “But if I take down the paneling, it’ll expose the hole in the wall!” The ones who shopped at the discount grocer not because thrift is trendy, but because thrift is necessary. A few strokes of massive bad luck and I could have been the urine-reeking patron, or the patron who lived in her car, or the patron who lost visiting privileges with her kid.

We were tearing our hair out, working with a tiny margin of error from month to month, with no bright future in sight. We cobbled together our work schedules for Frances-watching duties, doing that frantic parent-to-parent handoff as one of us headed out the door; I worked every weekend, and we rarely had relaxed family time together. What’s the point of living in an amazing city when you can’t access its best attributes?

“You know that feeling you get when your plane descends to land in Portland, and you look at the city below and think, ‘I’m home’?” A friend posed this question, and I had to confess I’d never once felt that way. It was more like, “Huh. Here we are again.”

The love that Portlanders have for their city borders on romantic. I felt like a third wheel, immune to the giddiness. While tall bikes and food carts made out on the couch, I skulked in the corner of the rec room, alone. I became cantankerous about the stupidest things, hundreds of soggy twigs to fuel the brush fire of animosity shouldering inside me. I think of myself as a person with pluck, a problem-solver who deals with the situation at hand, but I’d somehow let my circumstances neuter that part of me. On I went, pruning the apple tree. Bleaching the furniture. Polishing a turd.

But really, I was angry for us at not getting it together enough to thrive in one of the most livable cities in the country. Portland was often good to us. We had lovely friends, and I adored my library job. Every morning I’d wake up and resolve to bloom where we’d planted ourselves, and then the sad numbness would settle in, and it became impossible to suss out which part of that sadness was Portland’s fault and which was mine.

There’s that TV show. You know the one I’m talking about—it pokes affectionate but absurdist, sketch-comedy fun at Portland and its charming yet maddening idiosyncrasies. It’s big there; it’s very Portland not to get enough of Portland. If you live, or once lived, in Portland, people will inevitably bring up That Show.

Please don’t bring it up with me. I can’t watch it. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s too close. Why watch a parody of something that felt like a parody the first time around, in real life? “Come sit with me,” my husband implored as he sat on the sofa a lifetime later, in Marietta, enjoying That Show. He says it reminds him of bygone times, times when it was unlikely that he would have a co-worker named Delmus who wore a t-shirt that read “Dicky-Doo Champion: My Tummy Stick Out More Than My Dicky Do!”

I recognized all of the spots on That Show that Portland people recognize, the cutesy storefronts and brunch places and busy intersections, and I felt both so glad to be rid of them and so idiotic for my inability to flourish there. That Show is a little like my past punching me in my gut.

We had a big garden in our Portland backyard, which I spent many pleasant hours tending, and we curated a collection of the jagged, dirt-crusted bits of metal and plastic and glass that perpetually worked themselves to the surface of the soil in an ornery dis to gravity. It was not a pretty garden, but it produced enough vegetables that it created a decent dent in our grocery bill during the summer months, and yanking at its prolific weeds was an excellent outlet for the bad juju I carried around. Besides, I love to be outside in the sun. With three dependable months of it, I had to soak up as many Pacific Northwest rays as I could.

One day, Frances, who was out playing with the broken Fischer-Price farm I found for free on someone’s curb, called out, “Mama, look at what Scooter did.” I looked up from my weedy reverie and saw a bloody rat between the parsley and Swiss chard. Our dog looked up at me, beaming over his fresh kill. The rat, I assume, had been nosing around in our compost heap. I dug a shallow hole at the base of our fruitless apple tree to bury the thing, and in the process unearthed two corroded AA batteries. Who knows how long they’d been lurking down there? It was nothing, really, but after that, I was done with Portland. The rat-battery incident was my final straw.

I was poised to score a coveted Library Assistant position at the library, one that would nearly double my pay. But I didn’t have it in me to hold out any longer. I couldn’t be content in a saggy dump of a poorly-insulated house, donning two sweaters indoors to stay warm and buying organic spinach and avocados on our credit card. We aged out of that, but couldn’t get it together to bring in the income for necessary creative-class trappings we saw our friends enjoy: Waldorf preschool, annual beach house rentals, February trips to Hawaii in order to remain sane until mid-June, a compact, tidy home in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of a bar full of synth music and unevenly executed vegan menu options. Portland is a shitty place to be broke, though I guess you could say that of any city.

Still, on most days, Marietta squeaks ahead as a less shitty place to be broke. We lived with my parents until we found a house that does not give me allergy attacks. Its rent matches what they raised the rent to in our old Portland dump after we moved out. To the new tenants of the putty-colored house on SE 89th Avenue with the collapsing back patio: I hope the apple tree’s fruiting now. The flower pot of rusty nails and glass shards you found in the shed are the spoils of my unintentional garden archeology digs. Let me know if you ever accidentally encounter that rat.

Sometimes in Marietta, I look at the lazy bends of the Ohio River’s familiar brown muck, and waves of profound contentment wash over me, a strange mixture of bliss and relief. We came back to Portland in July for a visit, our first since moving to Ohio. I rode busses all over town, savored frequent cups of expertly-brewed coffee, and enjoyed the absence of crispy hairdos. At the tail end, I started getting a twinge of the coolness fatigue I had when we lived there. Boutiques selling tiny terrariums, bars built to resemble libraries, movie theaters selling rosé by the glass. In Marietta, maybe a dozen things are cool, and half of those are cool because they are utterly not cool at all. It’s special to be cool.

When we got back to Ohio, our cherry tomatoes were ready to pick. The first sweet corn of the season hit the farm stands. Vinyl banners advertising dozens of vacation bible schools crinkled in the breeze. My daughter returned to her preschool, where she played with classmates named Kolton and Kaylee instead of Mabel and Forester.

The flight back was uneventful. The plane took off and I looked out the window at the familiar vista below, crisply outlined in the magical Portland summer sun, and I thought, “There it is. That was my city.” Keep on loving it for me, okay?

•••

SARA BIR is the food editor of Paste Magazine and a regular contributor to Full Grown People. “Smelted”, her essay from this site, appeared in Best Food Writing 2014. She lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

Balloons

GohmannDad

Johanna with her father. By Ernesto Rodriguez

By Johanna Gohmann

Nine years ago, I am 27, and I am home in New Albany, Indiana visiting with my family. There is a birthday party for one of my seven siblings, and there are the usual hot dogs, and paper plates, and perspiring cans of soda. My mother has brought in a big bunch of brightly colored helium balloons as decoration.

The morning after the party, I am up in my childhood bedroom, and when I look out the window, I see my Dad standing in the front yard, alone in the quiet of a spring morning. The dewy grass is giving a sheen to his leather shoes, and he is holding the big bunch of balloons in his large hands. I watch as he struggles to carefully separate the strings, then he releases the balloons to the sky one at a time. He stares at each one as it drifts up and away, until it becomes just a tiny pinprick of color.

It is a rather odd sight—this 6”5, grandfatherly figure, clad in impeccable dress slacks and a sport coat, playing with a handful of children’s balloons. Watching him, I feel something inside me twist tightly. I slip on some shoes and go outside to join him. When he sees me, he smiles a distracted smile.

“I like watching these balloons float away, Josey.”

We stand together, and he releases the string on the last balloon. It drifts skyward, joining the other tiny dots of color in the sky. We watch silently as it sails up into the clouds, fading into the blue. It is a rare, quiet bit of togetherness for us, and should be a sweet moment. But watching those balloons drift away fills me with a strange, anxious kind of melancholy. I don’t like watching them go.

When I am 35, my Dad is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis isn’t a surprise. He is 77, and I have seen the shift in him—his confusion with numbers and dates…the way he repeats stories within minutes of each other, sometimes transposing the names of people and places. And yet, when my oldest brother calls me with the news, it still feels improbable. As if my commanding, in charge father never would allow such a thing to happen to his solid, intelligent mind.

For a while, medication seems to slow things down, but then a full year later, it’s undeniable that my Dad is slowly coming uncoiled. It becomes the norm for him to appear wearing a shirt inside out, or sporting two pairs of pajama pants beneath his dress slacks, even in the heat of August. I buy him a beeping gadget to help him locate his constantly misplaced glasses and keys. He loses the gadget.

At 36, I am pregnant with my first child. When I talk on the phone to my Dad, I can feel my baby rolling back and forth in my belly, his strong kicks and punches occasionally making the fabric of my dress hitch and jerk. I listen to my father struggle through the conversation, and I try to float, relaxed and easy, through his tide of tangled words. I rub at the patch of flesh over my flailing baby, and I try to imagine my Dad holding my son as he did his other grandchildren—bouncing him gently on his knee, letting him teethe on his heavy silver wristwatch.

As I watch my Dad slowly lose bits and pieces of himself, I think about those long ago released balloons. I know the bright shades of my father are fading with each passing day. They are drifting further and further away from me. And I can feel myself scrabble to contain them…trying to grip the tangled strings of them tightly in my fists…struggling to somehow make them stay.

He spent his life as a successful insurance salesman. This makes him sound staid and dull, but in reality, he is a big, playful personality. His large blue eyes perch above a smirking mouth, and as a younger man, he bears a striking resemblance to Chevy Chase. As he grows older, his features crack and curl, and he suddenly begins to look and sound like Gene Hackman—the same knowing, smiling eyes—the same gruff voice. Once while watching a movie, I hear Gene Hackman tell someone to “shag ass”, and it’s as though my Dad has been transported to the big screen. Shag ass means “to hurry,” and the only other person I’ve ever heard say this is my father.

He has large, mitt-like hands, and their Shrek-like size renders certain tasks comical, such as when he struggles to use scissors, or when he reaches to pet his tiny terrier that he calls “Princess.” He has a tiny bit of shrapnel from the Korean War imbedded into the thumb of his right hand, and as children we probe this tiny black pellet with wide-eyed fascination.

He is, as my mother says, “full of foolishness.” In one of my favorite photos of him, he is in a Freddy Krueger hat and sweater, brandishing a pair of rubber knives, and giving a hilariously hideous snarl to the camera. As kids, he often tells us about pranks he pulled as a child. When he was a young boy, he and a friend took Limburger cheese (a product whose smell can only be described as fecal) and hid slices in their palms. They went up and down the stairs of their Catholic grade school, quietly greasing the banisters with the stink. When people came down the stairs, they walked away sniffing their hands with disgust.  As a little girl, I am enthralled by this prank, and my friends and I reenact it on our last day of school. The cheese is gooey and the smell makes me gag, but I love feeling mischievous like my father.

He likes teasing us—his children—most of all.  One warm May night we are all gathered watching “The Incredible Hulk”, and my Dad comes into the living room and looks at us with a grave, stricken face. He tells us that he’s just seen a special news report, and he has some terrible news. President Reagan has decided children simply aren’t learning enough, and he is cancelling summer vacation all across the United States. At first we just roll our eyes at him, but he keeps his face so stone cold serious, we become panicked.  We begin pacing the house and shouting. One of us anxiously flips through channels trying to find the “special report.” We groan on like this for almost half an hour, until some of us begin crying and shouting our hatred for stupid President Reagan. My Dad finally breaks down, and admits that he’s only joking. We pile on top of him—half furious, half laughing—and try to punch him with our tiny fists.

When we are young, he is gone a lot. He goes on business trips and golf trips, which are often one in the same. He leaves the house in a dark suit, toting a scuffed leather duffle and a rattling bag of clubs. When I kiss his cheek goodbye, my lips come away lightly greased with his aftershave.

When he is home for long stretches, it is an event, and the house buzzes nervously with his presence. At dinner, my six brothers and my sister and I sit around our large kitchen table passing plates of Shake and Bake pork chops and spilling milk. My Dad shouts out “reports!” Which means we are to share any interesting events from the day. My mind always goes blank at this, and I feel as if I never have anything worthy of reporting.

After dinner he helps my mother bathe us. We call bath time “souping”, because my Dad adores the nonsense words and nicknames that come out of our mouths as toddlers. When a little one refers to bathing as “souping”, he makes it part of our permanent lexicon. The same for “goosing”, which means teeth brushing.  He is forever asking us if we have “goosed our teeth.”

The best part of souping is when my Dad comes in, a giant bath towel in hand, and slings one of us inside the towel, then carries us on his back like a hobo sack. He hauls us to our respective rooms and deposits us on the bed with a bounce. We call this “geeking”, and we all beg to be “geeked.” When it is my turn, he drapes the rough towel beneath my underarms, then throws me over his broad shoulder. I travel down the long hallway bumping damply against his broad back, slick as a seal tucked into a papoose.

After our baths, he comes into my brothers’ bedroom and stretches his long frame out on the carpet. We excitedly cluster around him in footed pajamas, shouting for a story. He tells us made up, ghostly tales that are always designed to teach us a moral. There is the smug “Simon Cigarette”, who chokes to death on cigarette smoke. Or “Reginald Reservoir”, the bratty boy who ignores his parents’ pleas to never go near the deep reservoir, and of course meets a terrible fate. And then, the favorite, “Little Sally Go To Church”, about a little girl who doesn’t want to go to church, and instead wants to stay at home and eat junk food. Sally’s lack of piety is always punished by a visit from the Sunday Monster—a giant beast who jumps out of nowhere with a horrific roar. My Dad roars in his deep baritone, and we all scream with terrified delight, beg him to stop, then quickly beg him to do it again.

When I am small, he calls me “Josey Lamb”, because when I’m around the rowdy swirl of my siblings I appear shy and quiet: gentle as a lamb. He continues to call me this even after I am fully-grown, and have become loud and opinionated, and decidedly less lamb-like. But he does so ironically, with a glint in his eye.

He tears up easily. Which seems funny for a man with such a large, commanding presence.  But certain songs and movies leave his eyes pink-rimmed and glistening, and when I am growing up, I actually see him cry more times than my mother. On my wedding day I select “Someone to Watch Over Me” for our father-daughter dance, because it’s a song I know he likes. But he refuses to slow dance, and just keeps shimmying around the floor, making goofy faces. A few bars in I ask him what exactly is wrong and he says, “Josey! This music is too sad!” Flustered, I go up to the DJ and request that she instead put on Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”, another favorite of my father’s. He is thrilled, and in my wedding photos we are both spinning and laughing, giving high, jubilant kicks.

When I am in my 20s, I chafe at his politics, and what I consider his small-town small-mindedness. He is a staunch republican and extremely conservative, whereas I consider myself very liberal. We have heated arguments at the dinner table that leave us both red-faced and shouting, and make my mother flutter nervously around the kitchen. My other siblings never engage with my father in this way, and they find it hilarious the way we shout at each other about Clinton, and both Bushes.

Sometimes, to gall me, he tapes conservative news articles to the lamp hanging above my place at the table. I come down for breakfast and find Karl Rove’s smiling face torn from the paper, dangling in front of me from a piece of Scotch Tape. I sleepily look to my father, and he smirks at me over his bowl of Raisin Bran.

With the Alzheimer’s, the days of political debates and discussions come to an end. There is no longer any real, lasting talk of the present. My father’s mind becomes stuck in the past, like a wheel that can’t quite push over, and he speaks to me about long ago events, as though he is plucking dusty photos from an album in his mind, and holding them up to me, saying, “Here. See?”

He tells me several times about how his father once gifted him a new baseball glove. He says he loved the glove so much he oiled it every single night.

Or he recounts the time he found a dead body on the golf course. He describes how he and a friend were playing on New Year’s Day, and were the only ones stomping their spiked shoes though the frosted grass, knocking around balls. When my Dad rounded a sand trap, he spied the man—gray-faced and frozen, a bottle of whiskey at his side.

He talks about his time in the Korean War. About how frightened he was lying on the floor of a cargo plane, traveling further from his Indiana home than he’d ever been in his life. One night in camp he polished his army boots white, as a sort of goofy mini-protest, and he was soundly punished for it by the Colonel.

And he talks about Lynne Anne, the oldest child and sister I never knew. She died when she was five of meningitis. He fingers the tattered prayer card that he still, 38 years later, carries in his wallet, and he tells me in a low, quiet voice how delicate and beautiful her hands were. He talks about her golden hair.

I listen to him talk, and feel overwhelmed by how much there is about him that I don’t know, or can’t really fathom. His life stretches behind him full of heartbreaks and triumphs and mysteries that I will never really grasp. And through him, I learn that understanding people, and loving them, sometimes has very little to do with one another.

Now, when I am home visiting, he really likes to give me things. He has always delighted in giving gifts, but now, each time I am there, he gives me funny things—strange bits of odds and ends. He has taken to handing me the smallest of trinkets, the kinds of treasures a small child might hide away in a cigar box.

“Here Josey,” he says.  “You can take that home with you.”

And he hands me an old golf tee, or a tiny, pretty seedpod that he’s spied on the ground. A St. Anthony prayer card. Old fishing hooks. A tattered National Geographic. I save all of it. I bring it back to New York with me, and I tuck it into jewelry boxes and special drawers, hidden away like clues.

Losing someone in this way—this subtle losing, piece by piece—is its own unique kind of sadness. It’s a mean, cruel kind of grief that I feel could drag me under if I let it.  And so I try to focus on the fact that my father is still here with me. He still makes me laugh. He still loves to tell stories. And he still loves to tease. Even now, he still calls me up and holds the phone up to the radio, so that when I get back to my apartment I have a voicemail that is nothing but Rush Limbaugh ranting away. I play back these voicemails, and I picture my Dad huddling in the background, struggling to hold in his laughter. Just like the trinkets, I save these garbled voicemails. And I try to focus on the father I still have…on the bright shades of him that remain.

I can’t ever bring myself to think of when that final dot of color finally fades from sight, completely out of my view. Until then, I steadily train my eye on what I can still see. I take in every last glimpse.

•••

JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for Salon, The Morning News, xoJane, Scratch, Babble, and Curve, among othersShe is a regular contributor to Bust magazine. Her essays have been anthologized in A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the WorldJoan Didion Crosses the StreetThe Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010The Best Sex Writing 2010, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2015. www.JohannaGohmann.com

 

Republished with permission. Johanna Gohmann’s “Balloons” is one of 25 personal essays by women writers writing about their fathers in Every Father’s Daughter, a new anthology edited by Margaret McMullan, including an introduction by Phillip Lopate. Contributors include Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Jayne Anne Phillips, Alexandra Styron, Ann Hood, Bobbie Ann Mason, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others. 

Humming and Whistling

vet mother

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Abbie Gascho Landis

The weekly playdate prompts me to clean, which helps to chase off cockroaches. Here in Alabama, land of robust flora and fauna, the consequences of sloppy housecleaning can be cockroaches nearly the size of mango seeds crossing your living room wall by lamplight. So I clean, wagging my full abdomen behind the vacuum and holding my vacuum-phobic toddler on my hip. Every Wednesday morning, Sam and I welcome a handful of moms—most of us in various stages of pregnancy—and three other toddlers for a couple hours of nonstop play and food and mom talk.

I am the only mom working outside home. This week, as we sit swapping stories about our toddlers’ naps and eating habits, discussing labor and delivery, I feel like I left half my body at the clinic. In the past three days, I worked forty-two hours as an emergency veterinarian. I wonder how other people stitch together their various lives.

Just over twenty-four hours ago, I lost a patient during a surgery to repair his diaphragmatic hernia. Today, the woman cradling a pregnant belly, cross-legged on the floor, jumping up to redirect toddlers or serve tea doesn’t feel like the same woman who orchestrated anesthesia, surgery, and ultimately resuscitation attempts at three in the morning. My hand prying open the elastic to check for a full diaper is the same hand that reached through the hole in the diaphragm, grasped a still heart muscle, and squeezed rhythmically until it began to twitch in my palm, for a moment. My voice singing “The Wheels on the Bus” told a tearful young woman that the gentle three-legged dog who brought her through a painful divorce had been too damaged by the car that hit him to make it through surgery.

Every now and then, one of the other moms asks me about work. One conversation began, “You deal with animals, so you might know what to do. Something died in our ductwork and there’s a horrible smell.”

Another time, someone wondered if people actually bring their pets to the clinic during the middle of the night. I answered honestly—yes—citing an unfortunate recent example involving euthanasia.

“What?”

“I had to euthanize him,” I repeated, prompting a rapid subject change.

Mostly, we just talk about being moms, which is, in fact, my harder job.

•••

At work, we sometimes order food, the way most offices do. Taking an index card around, someone collects orders from the staff and phones China Garden. The anticipation usually beats the real eggroll, which drips oil down my fingers yet remains dry inside, requiring syrupy orange sauce squeezed onto each bite. On the other hand, the crab rangoons are perfectly crisp and creamy inside if I can get to them while they’re hot. Often, just when the food arrives, I’m racing around, aware of the patient family who’s been waiting almost two hours in room three, the pushy woman who’s harassing the receptionist and seems to have no money, and the elderly gentleman in room four who, my staff informs me, is diabetic and needs to get home soon. Also, two critical hospitalized patients, one of whom does not seem to be breathing well at the moment, tug my attention.

I cram a crab rangoon into my mouth while scrutinizing the radiographs of the diabetic man’s dog. With my free hand, I press my aching breasts. Lactation makes me ravenous, and with limited time to eat or pump breast milk, my body distracts me with discomforts. One friend of mine, in her obstetrics and gynecology residency, pumped when and where necessary, putting milk production and comfort over privacy, earning the T-shirt they made for her at graduation with Creamery written across the front. I lack her moxie, and her hands-free breast pump.

I cock my head and stand back, chewing fried dough and deciding about the x-rays. Also, I’m organizing my plan of action. Get that diabetic man home now, check on the hospitalized patient with dicey breathing, examine the pet in room two for potential drop-off, and have a technician triage the pushy woman’s pet and finances while I race to the bathroom to pump. Those x-rays are normal. And go.

•••

At home after working overnight, I wake in the early afternoon. I am molten, a liquefied rock settled into the bed, the long pillow between knees and arms. My head has melted into the pillow during this nap. Some heavy low sound slips from my chest. Sam rattles his crib in the next room, while the baby stretches and jumps in my abdomen. Her movement is like a mild electric shock that twitches an involuntary muscle, the only part of me able to move at all. On my overnight shift, I rested briefly after five a.m. Several critical cases kept my attention all night. One eventually stabilized, with fluids dripping into an elderly canine vein. The other patient quit battling to breathe against the thick fluid around her lungs. A flat-faced Persian cat, she gasped in the oxygen cage for hours, then flung out her legs and died. She left the clinic in the arms of two devastated people, and I felt relief for her. The night removed my bones, leaving me a motionless slug with maternal responsibilities.

More sounds from Sam, with words now: “Up!” I find my limbs individually, sliding them under the blankets. I crawl up out of the well. In Sam’s room, I sit on the floor by the crib, where he grins and hops around, peering at me over the front rail, through the rungs, over the side. I go back and forth like a limp metronome, joining our favorite game, “I See You Over the Top, I See You Over the Side.” I aim his space heater at my lower back and knead my lumbar muscles, laughing with him as he flops into the blankets. Joy is this: my warm back, a radiant boy, electricity of the daughter I contain. Stiffly, I ease sideways, then stand up one foot at a time. I snag Sam under his armpits and hoist him into our afternoon.

•••

Last Sunday we were so busy at the clinic that I added sitting down to pee when calculating minutes off my feet in the past fifteen hours. We were so busy that one large German Shepherd mix stayed for several hours on the floor in the exam room where we’d euthanized her. Her status—recumbent, dehydrated and shocky, with a maggot infestation in her hind end—went from the top of our triage list to the bottom after she was dead. Short-staffed, we kept her in our thoughts but turned towards the living, trying to alter the course of other patients’ lives.

I began that shift with an emergency Cesarean section on an English Bulldog. Four puppies. Two with detached placentas were dead. One with a malformed head and severe cleft palate lived two hours. The fourth puppy rallied and made it home. Bulldogs are seriously impaired when it comes to reproduction. And breathing. I finished the surgery with my pregnant belly soaked in amniotic fluid, but glad to have mama bulldog recovering nicely.

I walked from surgery into the treatment area. All of the exam rooms were full. The long, U-shaped benches in the lobby had people seated shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting to see me, the only veterinarian in the building. I had to pee.

•••

Two nights ago, I thawed and browned some venison—cuts I didn’t recognize because they were a gift from a friend. My plan: fajitas. The pieces looked miserably chewy, and the smell struck me as unappetizing. I set it aside in my crockpot and made veggie fajitas instead, intending to spice the meat and slow cook it. I forgot about it overnight. In the morning, I felt wary of the meat still sitting on the counter. So I ignored it. By noon, I was actively guilty and disgusted by the meat and myself. So I put it in the fridge. This morning I made my move, almost in tears about it, and threw away the perfectly good—though neglected—food. In the trash bag, it totaled only the size of my two fists. But it was food, the flesh of an animal who died to be eaten. Either way, it made me sick.

•••

I learn in a continuing education seminar that hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, are considered hazardous substances. “Beware,” the pharmacists say, reciting regulations guiding the administration and disposal of such pharmaceuticals.

“No wonder,” I think, eyeing the other pregnant veterinarian beside me, and closing my eyes to feel those hazards in my own veins. I have been newly pregnant, then postpartum, then breastfeeding, now pregnant, heading toward postpartum and breastfeeding again. I have worked through both pregnancies and breastfeeding, feeling larger than life. Hazardous. “Don’t mess with the pregnant lady,” I joke to my coworkers.

But I do feel somehow superhuman, more than myself. I love the wide eyes on my clients, watching me enter an exam room belly first. Everyone can see the power that I carry. Little did I know that mothers everywhere carry the weight and strength of their motherhood at all times. Beyond pregnancy, it simply becomes invisible.

Hazardous. There is no end to the changes wrought upon a pregnant body, both during and lingering after gestation. I have learned not to underestimate progesterone and estrogen, and the rough seas when the two trade places in hormone hierarchy. So I grin at the pharmacists and their regulations for such dangers.

•••

I lean between wall and exam room table, transfixed by the woman across from me. It is four in the morning, and her cat is dead on arrival. Nothing I can do, but we stand talking, two women close in age. One year ago, today, her daughter died. And now her cat.

She tells me to take photos, videos, to hold each moment like glass. Her daughter, not quite one year old, was asleep. Something stirred her husband, nudged him to check on the baby. She wasn’t breathing. They acted fast. Her heart still beating. A local hospital. A need for life flight. No helicopters available. A desperate drive. Days on life support. And then it was over.

We are both weeping. Her cat lies between us.

•••

My cat prowls and stretches and climbs onto the shelf of my belly. I’m not settled in for napping yet. She’s ready, though. First I must arrange pillows strategically to support my back, neck, protruding abdomen. I turn off the cell phone. Let the dog in. Set the baby monitor on its charger to avoid low battery beeps. I fold myself around the pillows and begin with a deep breath inward, filling my chest and womb, allowing breath to flow down my curving legs to the soles of my feet. Purring, the cat joins me. I lift the blanket corner. She nestles against a shifting baby. As I focus, my face heavies, sinking against my bones and teeth. My breath, again, washes through me like a wave carrying light foam up the sand, then receding back into the ocean. In labor, these waves of breath will carry us to delivery, transforming wild pain into something I can hold.

Later, consciousness rises back to my eyes when I hear squeaks and murmurs over the monitor. I slept for an hour, pressed by the cat. Lead flows in my veins, holding me into the sofa crevices. I wiggle my toes, stretch, then roll to a stand and prowl back to the bedroom where my small, golden-haired boy grins. “Good nap!”

•••

I open the oven to pull out the chocolate almond biscotti, filling the house with aroma. We’re standing in the kitchen along the countertop’s wide peninsula. Two blonde heads bob up and down as two-year-old boys climb the stepstool to munch banana nut muffins and blueberry cornbread. It’s a typical Wednesday playdate: three pregnant moms and two kids. We’ve just decided to head outside into the sunshine when Jenny, two days past her due date, gasps softly. “My water’s breaking.” She heads for the bathroom, and Rachel and I nearly follow her in there in our excitement. We giggle and our eyes fill. I offer towels and dry pants and assurances that amniotic fluid is the most beautiful thing we’ve ever had on our kitchen floor.

Jenny calls her husband. We settle down a little, finish our snacks, and speculate about Jenny’s next twenty-four hours. Husbands arrive to drive Jenny and the extra vehicle back home. They’re all gone within minutes. A flurry of astonishment and biscotti and well wishes bustles out the door. Sam, perched high in my arms above my own round abdomen, leans his head on my shoulder. We head down the hall. Naptime.

•••

When my daughter is three months old, I discover that I can sing and whistle simultaneously. I’ve never tried that before. If fact, I’m not trying it now. After a full weekend of work and waking nights with Stella, I stumble around the house. A sound escapes me, something between a vocalized sigh and a descending whistle of amazement at how tired I feel. The result mixes my vibrating vocal cords and pursed lips into a warm buzzy feeling in the middle of my mouth. I try a tune. Success.

The next day, I try again but have to muddle through some bizarre, atonal, not-so-nicely-buzzy variations before I find the hummingbird in my mouth again. I zuzz out “Twinkle Twinkle” for Sam.

As I’m parenting two children and being an emergency veterinarian, sometimes I squawk out ineffective days, unable to balance my focus, like losing the melody between my lips and my voice. Sometimes a warm buzz fills me and fills the room. There. I find a balance, and a tune wavers along.

•••

ABBIE GASCHO LANDIS is a veterinarian and writer in rural upstate New York. She is working on a book about her relationship with freshwater mussels, set in Alabama. Her writing appears at www.thedigandflow.com.

We’ll Always Have Frankfurt

clouds w:plane

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofi McMullin

I took the last fortune cookie that came with our bill at the dim sum place near my office. My friends and I were celebrating the end of a long week, and we were all loud and slightly buzzed from our cocktails. The thin slip of paper fell into my lap as I crumbled the cookie between my fingers, and I almost simply tossed it on my plate amongst the small pools of soy sauce. Instead, I wiped my fingers and straightened out the strip. I laughed at a joke half-heartedly, not taking my eyes off the words in front of me.

“An old love will come back to you.”

“Well, you are going to have to be more specific,” I joked after I read my fortune to my friends. But I really only had one old love in mind.

The last time I had seen Peter was thirteen years ago when he flew halfway across the world to show up at my office, unannounced, two months before my wedding to another man. We had lunch, then later that afternoon we met up at my apartment and talked for maybe an hour about … I don’t even know what. Definitely not about our six-year, mostly long-distance relationship—by now more of a friendship rather than a love affair—or what was about to happen to that relationship. I think back and wonder why he was there, why he drank tea with me in my kitchen, why he told me that his girlfriend was looking at wedding magazines. Was he looking for a certain reaction from me? Was he there to change my mind? Or his?

We held each other and he kissed my forehead. Then he walked away.

We stayed in touch through infrequent e-mails and occasional phone calls through this thick, juicy part of life filled with marriage and children and careers. Somehow our friendship deepened over the years despite the distance, and our interactions always buzzed with that faint undercurrent of lovers who fell victim to time, distance, circumstance. We could have been. But we aren’t. And now we never will be.

The good thing about meeting up with an old love after a long time is that there are no expectations. When I first fell in love with Peter, I wanted desperately for him to rescue me. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college, and all I wanted from life was to graduate—although I think I would have given that up for him too—marry him, have his babies, and iron his shirts. Everything else in life seemed too scary, and loving him was very easy. He was irresistible—all blond hair and blue eyes, easy humor, and cool confidence. I fell in love with him the moment I heard his name—one of those pit-of-your-stomach, butterflies-around-your-heart, love-at-first-sight, unexplainable affairs that I believed only happened in very cheesy movies. It sounds ridiculous now, but I remember the feeling clearly—giddy and out of control and all-consuming.

When I saw him a few months ago for the first time after thirteen years, I had no expectations of our time together. A nice dinner, maybe. Pleasant conversation. But that was it. I know now that I don’t need to be rescued. I have a baby. I have shirts to iron. I have love that is giddy but not all-consuming or out of control.

What I didn’t expect was that the moment I saw him, I would constantly have to remind myself that I can’t touch him. I can’t just take his hand in mine. I can’t run my fingers through his hair. I can’t wrap my arms around his waist as we wait to cross the street. But even after all these years, some weird reflex compelled me to reach for him. We used to kiss and caress and grab and now here we are, trying to find this restaurant in the rain and the darkness and I can’t take his arm, so I don’t lose my balance? Seems ridiculous.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” we told each other when we first awkwardly embraced. I know we both said it to break the ice, to acknowledge the absurdity of standing face-to-face after all these years.

But it’s a lie.

We have changed. Maybe not the basics, maybe not the important parts. But we are softer around the edges, maybe a bit tougher on the inside. We’ve seen things and we’ve done things that we never thought would happen to us: dead babies, illness, disappointment, messy relationships. Our bodies are plumper with age, scarred from surgeries, birth, accidents. The hairs are finer, dusted with gray; the eye crinkles are deeper, a bit sad. We have loved and fought and bought cars and houses. We changed diapers and stayed up all night with sick kids. We have savings accounts, retirement funds, houses, employees, vacation time, car-pool duty, in-laws.

We are grown-ups.

We are nineteen.

Sitting across from him at dinner our time apart didn’t feel that long. Then the thought hit me: if we wait another thirteen years, he will be fifty-seven. I will be fifty-one. A lifetime gone, pretty much. How many more thirteen-year chunks do we have left?

Dinner was a blur—catching up after so much time is hard work and it takes concentration. It’s possible that I drank my wine a bit too quickly. My mind had trouble catching up with what my eyes were seeing: HE was sitting right across from me. He had the steak. I had the veal. We took bites of each other’s desserts. Like it was no big deal.

After dinner we walked slowly in the cool, rainy darkness to my hotel. Not yet ready to end the evening, we circled each other once we got to my room, our conversation suddenly faltering. Here he was, amongst my things—my travel-weary suitcase, my patent-leather shoes under the desk, my coat on the back of the chair, my jewelry spilling out of its case, my work notes and business cards in a neat stack on the desk, next to my keys from home.

“You drive a Honda,” he noted, and I laughed and said it was a soccer mom car. He asked “May I?” and rifled through the stack of papers and magazines and the flowery notebooks and postcards I’d bought.

I remember that when I first loved him, I always wanted a piece of him. Something that belonged to him. I would have given anything to be able to stand in his room like he was in mine now, surrounded by the things he touched every day. Once when he visited me in college I hid his white undershirt from the previous day under my pillow. The shirt smelled of him for a couple of days after he left and I hung on to it for years, even after his scent was gone. Another time I stole a pair of his socks—blue, with little teddy bears on it. I don’t know if he ever noticed—I doubt it. But I still have that pair of socks and, now in that hotel room in Germany, I thought I should have brought it with me, given it back to him. But then again, that’s probably the only piece of him I’ll ever have.

The next day we walked the cobblestoned streets of the city together—sometimes arm-in-arm, but mostly not. We talked; he took a couple of work calls and walked away from me as I sat on a bench. It was a Saturday; there were weddings at the town hall and we watched as happy couples took pictures in front of medieval buildings.

We wandered into the church on the main square and in the quiet, musty hall we walked our separate ways. I lit a candle, but it was just an excuse to stand still for a moment and breathe. I knew we’d have to say good-bye in a couple of hours and that the countdown would begin on our next thirteen years. I wandered over to the tomb of a German prince and his wife and felt jealous of their eternal togetherness. I looked around to find him and saw him across the church, writing something on a piece of paper to be pinned on the church’s prayer wall.

I never asked what he prayed for.

Over the candles I prayed for strength and composure, but neither of those things were granted that day.

“We were able to pick up right where we left off a lifetime ago,” he wrote in a text after we said good-bye. And he was right. The slow burn, the thrumming background noise of our past was right there, ready to spill over.

When I got on the plane the next morning to head home to my husband and little boy, I felt suspended between my nineteen-year-old self and my current life. Somewhere over the Atlantic, settled down by the plane’s gentle rocking and the clouds passing outside my window, my twenty-one hours with Peter started to feel otherworldly. My destination on the plane’s map became clear, a fixed point on the horizon, comforting, promising.

I thought about how, in the end, the fortune cookie wasn’t exactly correct. Old loves don’t just “come back.” They visit, they haunt, they poke around in the sensitive flesh right around the heart with their deft, nimble fingers. Old loves are beautiful and tempting and so, so delicious. And for a moment it seems like yes, yes, a comeback is possible. A moment of weakness. A look. A shared memory. But then… life. The real one. The one waiting at the airport.

I stared at the little “x” on the map for a while as the plane flew through some turbulence and thought about how the engines just keep on whirring and pushing forward, no matter what shakes them.

We wait out our thirteen years and then for a couple of hours we lie and pretend that nothing has changed. We keep walking on cobblestones, through crowded streets; stop to eat chocolate, to watch weddings and street performers. We stand under an awning during a quick rain shower and we wind our arms together as one of us peeks out, looking for a small break in the clouds.

[This essay has an equally excellent companion. Read Zsofi's other essay about the old love here. —ed.]

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, and Kveller. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Two Weddings and a Friendship Funeral

wedding

By AfroDad/ Flickr

By Keysha Whitaker

My best friend Justine, in a sleeveless white dress that flared out in ruffles above the knees, descended the steps of a waterfront house in Maryland. The fifty hushed guests gasped on cue. They were here to celebrate the couple’s forever-love; I was paying my final respects to our friendship.

That morning I hadn’t helped blend makeup to match Justine’s honey complexion or calmed her down in a moment of panic, even though we’d been friends for twenty-one years. Instead, I wandered around a nearby mall where I once waited while she went on a first date with a man she met online. This was in the early 2000s when Internet courting was synonymous with Craig’s List Killer. Then, I was her wing woman, but today I wasn’t by her side.

But at least I’d be in attendance, unlike her first wedding seven years ago. Amidst the stress of planning a wedding both families disapproved of, she decided on a four-thousand-dollar per person destination affair, even though I, the maid of honor, was living paycheck to paycheck. We’d already been quarreling about details when she took a new stance.

“Honestly, I don’t care if anybody’s there. I don’t care if my family’s there. It doesn’t matter if you’re there or not,” she’d said in a huff. Hurt, devalued, and financially relieved, I’d bailed on the wedding and the planning of her stateside bridal parties. But seven months later, I’d felt guilty.

“It’s fine,” Justine had said when I’d broken our silence with an apology. “I’m over it.”

But I wasn’t. I’d vowed to prove myself reliable. So a few years later when she—newly divorced—prepared to relocate to New Jersey, I scouted apartments on her behalf and emailed self-made videos. With my help, she picked a Jersey City high-rise with a hypnotizing view of Southern Manhattan, not unlike the one behind her now.

As the bride stepped slowly into frame, I held up my iPhone and counted: one … two … Two was the number of times that I’d spoken to Justine on the phone in the last two years and I didn’t know why. My thumb hovered over the shutter button as I let her walk out the shot and to the trestle where her groom and maid of honor—her college roommate who had replaced me before—waited.

Inclusion on Justine’s wedding guest list but exclusion from her life was the culmination of bewildering behavior that began when she left New Jersey in April 2012. For two months, I left unrequited texts and voicemails. At first I was worried that something happened to her until I saw a Facebook post. She was living; she was just doing it without me.

My phone remained silent until September. “Hey. I’m in the City,” she texted. “I’m gonna be at Penn Station around seven tonight if you want to meet up. If not, that’s fine.”

“Sure,” I said, trying to match her nonchalant-ness. That evening I braved the rush-hour drive over the George Washington Bridge to meet her in Midtown.

We hugged. Then we laughed.

“What the heck happened to you?” I said.

“I guess I did your thirty days of silence and solitude,” she said referencing my sporadic practice to abstain from phone calls to find my true and drama-free self.

“Yours was like three hundred days. And at least I tell people,” I said. “You just disappeared.”

Justine shrugged. “I did think about you. I’m glad to see you’re doing okay.”

Until she boarded her train, we made familiar easy jokes and traded expressive glances that had become like a secret language since our first day in a Connecticut Catholic high school. Drawn to each other by the energy that makes atoms collide, we compensated for our inability to take unsupervised outings (edicts set by mothers we believed were overprotective) by creating our own social world that lived on the landline.

We talked every day for hours. Even after college, we chatted in the mornings until she pulled into the parking garage and her signal dropped. Fifteen minutes later, we reconvened at her desk, yapping about work before getting off to actually do it. One year she called me at seven in the morning. A New York City radio morning show was searching for a female co-host. “You should apply,” Justine yelled excitedly from somewhere on I-95. She knew my dreams of working in entertainment. I auditioned for the job and got it. If it weren’t for her, I never would have heard the ad.

I hoped our train station reunion was the rebirth of us, but my only communications from her the rest of the year were two pictures: one of her in a cat costume on Halloween and another of some balloons on New Year’s Eve. The next summer she texted that she was moving in with a new boyfriend. We joked about telling her mom, and I refrained from asking why she moved on from me.

I suspected fundamental differences in our personalities had finally convinced her we were incompatible. While I had been taking creative risks that led to years of low-paying jobs and episodic unemployment, she was making good on a self-imposed deadline to be a six-figure salary executive at a Fortune 500 company by age thirty. If we were TV shows, she was The Jeffersons, and I was Sanford & Son. I knew she wanted positive change for me, but maybe like a haggard spouse grown tired of waiting, she packed her bags and left.

At the end of the year, I found out that she’d gotten engaged. Another friend saw it on Facebook and phoned me before I received my BFF’s texted pic of the groom on one knee: “He proposed.”

I was truly happy for her. I just pretended to be surprised.

The next month, I actually was astonished when Justine texted a surprise dinner invite at the end of a business trip that had brought her back to town. I agreed.

I picked her up in my SUV, but we may as well have been in Doc’s DeLorean. As we waited for a table, I marveled over the chocolate diamond engagement ring and chuckled at stories of her fiancé. After the food arrived, I asked why she disappeared.

“I didn’t realize that happened … it wasn’t intentional,” she said. “It was a crazy time. It’s funny because he knows exactly who you are. I talk about you all the time.”

Even though unintentional wasn’t in her DNA, I nodded. Two months before the wedding, my phone rang.

“Would you write and read something for the wedding? You know me the best and the longest,” she said. “I was going to wait until you returned your invite, but I figured I’d ask you now.”

The invitation had been sitting on my kitchen table. It wasn’t just the loss of friendship that made me debate my attendance; the costly trek from western North Carolina to the coast of Maryland would obliterate the tiny bit of money I had to live on for the summer.

“I’m surprised you asked,” I said. “I didn’t think that I was in your inner circle anymore.”

“I guess we’re not on the same page,” Justine said. “To me, our friendship is the same even though we don’t talk. I thought about what you said at the restaurant. Maybe I pulled away because I didn’t want to keep asking you to hang out when you couldn’t afford it. I dunno. But if someone asked me, I’d still say you are my best friend.”

“Well, I’m honored that you asked,” I said, blinking quickly to ward off a familiar sting in the corners of my eyes. “Of course, I’ll do it.”

During the ceremony, as the couple made jokes with the officiant and guests, I waited for my cue. When she called my name, I rose from my seat and angled my body toward the couple, reading the poem I’d written.

“Love is patient, ever-present /Love is kind, joy divine/ Never envies, never boasts/ Humbles hearts, comforts souls / Pushes towards the finish line /in the midst of mud and grime.” I paused at the reference to the couple’s participation in a mud-filled obstacle competition and glanced at my old friend. Justine had tears in her eyes.

At the end of the reception, she walked over to me. “Thanks for doing the reading. It was perfect. I hope you weren’t put out of your way with all the traveling …”

I was exhausted but not from the physical distance—from the emotional one.

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it,” I said, glancing only for a minute in eyes that used to say so much before averting my gaze to the blue-black water behind her, almost indistinguishable from the night sky.

“What time does your flight leave? We are having people over for crabs tomorrow at eleven if you want to come.”

“I leave at one.” I gave her a loose hug. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”  She gestured towards remaining wedding business. “I got to go.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

 

["Justine" isn't her real name. —ed.]

•••

KEYSHA WHITAKER has a MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her work has appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward, The Frisky, and the New York Press. She hosts Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers, from a closet in Pennsylvania.

Gone Fishing (for new software)

I’m taking the week off to play catch-up. Replacing ancient versions of software, reading submissions, climbing Mount Laundry—that kind of scintillating stuff.

In the meanwhile, maybe you want to look at some essays that FGP ran earlier? I recommend the stuff from last December (those essays sometimes get overlooked with the holidays and all).

Thanks for being part of the community, peeps. See you next week, with fresh pants.

xo,

Jennifer

The Bridge

covermouth

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

He cuts off my bridge piece by piece and I can feel the spikes in the places where my front teeth used to be and I can’t look him in the eye and we can’t make small talk because I can’t talk but even if I could talk, what could I possibly say? With spikes in the places teeth are supposed to be, a person is not a person anymore. I’m no longer intelligent or self-confident or smart or funny or a professor or a wife or a sister or a friend. I’m someone you couldn’t bear to look at, someone whose eyes you couldn’t bear to meet.

“What happened to the tooth in the first place?” he asks me early in the three-hour session.

“Bad dental care when I was a kid.” I wish I could lie convincingly and say that there’d been an accident. It was my birthday and I’d gotten a brand-new Huffy bike and I was so excited as I was riding it and showing off and waving at my beloved family that I rode right into a parked car and knocked my front tooth out. We’ll never forget that birthday! She was just so excited about her new bike! But no, my story is much more banal and far more heartbreaking. My mother never took me to the dentist and the sugar wore a hole in my front tooth. White fillings could only go so far to cover it up, so eventually a dentist told me that my best move would be to do a bridge.

And so here I am twelve or so years later, age forty-one, having my mouth prepared to get a new bridge inserted. The technology has come a long way, my dentist tells me. There won’t be any more silver backing. All porcelain. Nice and white and shiny and new. “Do you drink a lot of coffee?”

“Some,” I say. “Not sure if you’d call it a lot, but I drink it every day.”

But before that, we’ve got to cut off the current bridge in order to make impressions, and I’ll go home today with a plastic bridge. No corn on the cob for the next two weeks.

My jaw hurts from being held open for so long. I can feel the sweat beads rolling down my back. As the drill is going, water sprays on my face, on my forehead, and it’s dripping down from my mouth onto my neck. Every once in a while he takes a towel and wipes my mouth for me. Oh, the indignity! My hands are clenched, my entire body is tense and he tells me to “turrrrrrrn” toward him. I wonder if he says that in his sleep. Can’t he just tell me to turn toward him? Does he have to stretch out the word like he’s speaking to a three-year-old?

In between drilling and cutting and pulling off pieces of the bridge, he actually does go and talk to children who I imagine can’t be much more than three. He tells them what a good job they’ve done today, asks them about school starting in a few weeks, and gives them a basket from which they can choose a toy. You can choose a ball or a bracelet or a dinosaur. I try not to perform a mental critique of the gendered choices because I’m lying back with spikes instead of teeth. I’m not smart or critical in this position. I’m just a body. I imagine what might happen if the power goes out and I’m stuck with these spikes instead of teeth and there’s nothing he can do for me. He’ll tell me to go home, to eat soft foods, and he’ll call me when the power comes back. I wish I had better control over my thoughts. They’re not helping. Meanwhile, he’s busy cementing positive associations with the dentist for these small children who will never have to lie back in a chair while a dentist cuts off the bridge they’ve worn for twelve years because their natural teeth rotted out of their heads. “Good job, Brynn,” he says. Then I hear him walking back toward me. He knows I’ve heard him over there with the children. But what is there to say? Except “turrrrrrrn toward me.” And I open my mouth again and my jaw still hurts and it wants to crack but I can’t open it wide enough. The water from the sprayer and the rubber from his gloves make things slippery. I close my eyes as his hands come toward me, open them when light seeps through. Close them again when I see the drill in his hand.

“Do you have a pacemaker?” he asks me.

“No.” One thing I can be proud of: my heart hasn’t quit on me yet.

He asks because he’ll be using electricity to solder off pieces of my gums. I want to say something about the smell, how I remember that this is going to bring the smell of death, but I can’t speak because he has his fingers in my mouth and I have spikes instead of teeth.

During one of the breaks I really have to pee, so with my mouth closed and a piece of cotton sticking out of my mouth, I make my way to the bathroom. I try very hard not to look at myself in the mirror. Just the cotton. That’s all I see. When I get back, he asks if I’m okay. Yeah, I mumble. Just had to use the bathroom. “I try to tell people not to look in the mirror during this process.” Finally, something I did right!

“I didn’t,” I say. “All I thaw wasth thisth cotton.”

I gag when he puts the goop in my mouth to make the first impression. He’s put way too much goop on the tray and it’s all over the inside of my mouth and I’m using my finger to swipe some of it out but it’s bad. “You’re a gagger,” he says.

Why, yes I am. I nod.

“Mmmhmmm.” And then I imagine that he’s imagining that I must be no good at blow jobs since I gag so easily and then I’m ashamed to think that I’ve assigned this thought to him and the shame, it threatens to eat me alive and it’s all I can do to close my eyes and try to imagine that I’m someplace else. It’s not working because I have spikes where my teeth are supposed to be. I can feel them with my tongue and I form a mental image and just as quickly try to erase it. We see with our tongues almost as much as we do with our eyes.

He examines the impression. It’s okay, but not perfect. He wants it perfect, so we do it again. This time he’ll put a little less goop because I’m a gagger.

From the back of the office I hear, “Mommy will go first and you can watch. Brendan, you’re so brave!” And I think about my mother with her false teeth. The time we were at the beach. She was in the water, bouncing up and down in the waves and for a minute there it looked like she was going to lose her dentures. But she caught them just in time. Mommy will go first and you can watch.

When it’s time to choose the shade of white for the new bridge, he has me hold up a mirror (the plastic bridge is in place by now). He says he really likes the white of the plastic bridge, that it brightens up my smile and that if it were his mouth, he’d go with that shade. It’s hard to exercise agency in such a situation. I have nothing to do here but trust him. He says we can whiten the bottom teeth to match, but if he were going to err, he’d err on the side of whiteness. I take a deep breath and agree. He asks again if I drink a lot of coffee. This time I just nod.

The visit lasts three hours. During that time at least four different children have had their teeth examined by my dentist in between his cutting and soldering and drilling and asking me if I’m okay. When I get up to stretch, I’m exhausted. “You were a real trooper today. The next visit won’t be nearly as long.”

I muster everything I’ve got so I can perform confidence with this man who has just seen me with spikes instead of teeth. And I think about how he is the only person on this planet allowed to see me that way. Steve wouldn’t love me anymore if he saw me like that. I imagine it’s an image that’s hard to shake. I’m standing and looking the dentist in the eyes and he takes a towel and tries to get some of the goop that has stuck to my chin and neck. His eyes are kind. He eventually stops trying and tells me I can go use the mirror in the bathroom to get it because he doesn’t want to hurt me. I tell him I’ll take care of it in the car.

I imagine him telling his wife about me, about how he felt shame for me as he cut out my teeth. I imagine that a case like mine makes him feel good about himself, that he’s doing good for people, that he helps them. I imagine myself as an object of both his pity and his pride and there are no holes deep enough to bury my head and I honestly can’t think of anything more shameful than bad teeth. Because bad teeth means not that you did something bad but that nobody cared enough about you to love you in the most basic of ways.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University, where her favorite course to teach—the one on the personal essay—garners the most enthusiastic responses from students. She and her husband are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley and one named Essay.

Gangsters, Doctors, Nurses, and The Professor

By Mike Licht/ Flickr

By Mike Licht/ Flickr

By Rebecca Fremo

On a gray January Monday in 2008, Diego Alcazar—back from the dead despite being tossed from Hangman’s Bridge by brooding Jason Morgan—kidnapped slutty, sneaky Samantha McCall and winsome Nurse Elizabeth Weber. Then he gunned the car, drove the women out to the same bridge where he had nearly met his own maker, and smashed through a guardrail. The car dangled over some unnamed river outside Port Charles, New York.

The scene was only made possible, I learned during a special SoapNet exclusive later that evening, due to revolutionary green screen technology, which finally allows soap characters to leave their hospital beds, nurses’ stations, and posh boudoirs and then hit the great outdoors. And I have to admit: the bridge scene was spectacular. Water rushing, car creaking and careening, twisted steel scraping the concrete—I clung to our green faux suede sofa, simply transfixed, right up until the commercial for Yaz, a revolutionary new birth control pill that I am now officially too old to take.

Nurse Elizabeth escaped just before the car, with slutty Sam still locked in the trunk, plunged off the bridge into the water. Holy shit! I yelled to my six-month old son, Cyrus, who, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, was not supposed to be in the presence of television before the age of two. Instead, in its 2001 Policy Statement titled “Children, Adolescents, and Television,” the AAP suggests that parents should “encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.” Fair enough. I decided to go for talking.

They killed Sam! I began our conversation. Cyrus mouthed his orange binky with some disgust before turning back to the task at hand: trying to lick the blue plastic dangle-toy on his exersaucer. I figured it wasn’t my fault if he didn’t want to talk back.

•••

Earlier in the fall, Cyrus was only six weeks old and I was still trying to nurse him, so I couldn’t leave the house without giving the general public a size 42-DD dose of a woman’s right to breastfeed. I was thirty-nine and already into my second marriage. Recently tenured, I had earned my first sabbatical leave from the small liberal arts college where I taught, the kind of college where students are likely to study abroad in exotic places. At least, they seem exotic to me. (I once crossed the Canadian border at the International Peace Garden on a trip to North Dakota.) The resident xenophobe by comparison, I have listened with envy to my students’ stories of intestinal discomfort in Shanghai and New Delhi, quaking at the very idea of such flexibility, such openness to change.[1]

Many of my colleagues, too, travel internationally, finding ways to take their families on sabbatical trips overseas, blithely asking their children to pick up and leave relationships, soccer teams, Play Stations. These colleagues—mostly men, many of whom have stay-at-home partners—view their everyday lives as escapable, as malleable and impermanent. Mortgage payments need to be made, certainly, but houses can always be rented out for a semester or two.

When colleagues learned that I wouldn’t be traveling at all during my sabbatical, they worried that I’d be isolated at home. But I would have all the company I needed: the new baby, his or her preschool-aged brother, and their Pokemon playing idol, the second-grader, who would entertain us daily just as soon as he came home from school. Most importantly, thanks to my friends at General Hospital, I would enjoy genuine camaraderie. I did not share this particular insight with my fellow faculty members.

•••

I only allowed myself to watch GH when my five-year old, Ellet, attended Little Saints Preschool on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when Ellet stayed home with me, I sacrificed my General Hospital time in the name of motherhood. I made that sacrifice from mid-September until Halloween, when Nikolas Cassadine, finally reunited with the love of his life, Emily Quartermaine (now played by gorgeous, dull Natalia Livingston, instead of the fabulous Amber Tamblyn, who originated the role back in 1995 before she became Joan of Arcadia on CBS), announced an impending Black and White Ball, which would take place on Spoon Island, home of the creepy Cassadine mansion. This wasn’t going to be just any black tie soap opera party. I knew that nearly every major character on the show would attend. That’s because General Hospital creates special events to bring the whole cast together twice a year: during the sweeps weeks of October and February.

My beloved ABC friends would drape themselves in the most stunning formal gowns and tuxedos for the Black and White Ball. They’d sparkle with jewels. The spectacle of it, I thought. That October I couldn’t wear anything but the pink and white nursing shirt my friend Tina gave me, which I coordinated with some attractive size 2XX pedal pushers from Target, the same ones that I wore the night my water broke.

I just couldn’t help myself. Preschooler in the room or not, if the party started on a Tuesday, we would watch on a Tuesday. I had to attend the ball.

That’s how my five-year-old found himself a mesmerized guest of the Cassadines at their Black and White Ball. Ellet wore full Batman regalia at the time—he often dressed then either as Batman or Darth Vader—so he fit right in. He plopped his caped crusader self right next to me on the sofa and watched the entire first hour of October sweeps, enchanted by the cloak and dagger drama of it all. “Why are they dressed up? What are they eating? Is it a party? Will they open presents?” I beamed at him.

“Who’s that girl, Mommy?” he asked as Emily first entered the room.

“That’s Emily,” I told him. “Not the real Emily, of course, since Amber Tamblyn left. It’s just Natalia Livingston.” I made sure to respond accurately.

“Oh,” he said.

Unfortunately, this new sweeps plotline revolved around a series of strangulations that took place at the Black and White Ball that first night. My son was delighted. Between the kissing and the killing, he thought that this was a pretty good show.

I’ll admit it. I loved having Ellet beside me that first Tuesday we watched GH together. “You’re such good company,” I told him. I let him watch again on Thursday. But when he stepped off the afternoon preschool bus at 3:10 on Friday, ran to the front porch, threw down his backpack, and asked me what he missed on General Hospital while he was at school, I knew we had a problem.

Let the innocent among you cast the first stone.

My son remained captivated throughout November, as Port Charles citizens tried to identify the crazed maniac who had stalked them on Spoon Island that Halloween. Ellet watched through Christmas and New Year’s as well. But by February, I noticed that Ellet’s baby brother Cyrus—now five months old—was also watching GH.

I tried to get Cyrus to nap from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. each day, but sometimes he just wasn’t sleepy, and so, as the National Academy of Pediatrics suggests, I’d let him play with blocks on my lap, or I’d read him books during the commercials. I hoped we weren’t doing any permanent damage.

•••

I first watched General Hospital as a teenager in the 1980s. Each day I rushed home from my suburban high school at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Standard time. Clad in size 14 Pretty Plus blue jeans from Sears—how I wished I could fit into the Levis that everybody else wore!—and a preppy pink sweater with a whale on it, clutching a full sleeve of Chips Ahoy and a can of Faygo diet root beer, I tuned in, turned on, and checked out. Because I did so, it mattered a little less each day that my sometimes belligerent, occasionally drunk younger brother counted the cookies I ate every afternoon, humiliating me at dinner each night by announcing how many were missing. It mattered a little less that my mother’s still undiagnosed bundle of mental illnesses overpowered us like a tsunami, leaving my brother and me drowning in her unpredictable behaviors, doubting our own instincts, never sure if what we witnessed was real or imagined.

I gratefully escaped to college, where I scheduled my classes whenever possible for the hours prior to 3:00 p.m., the show’s East Coast airtime. When I accepted my first high school teaching job, I sometimes took sick days to catch up on my grading and my viewing. And when I returned to graduate school to earn my masters degree, I watched whenever my class and work schedules allowed.

I completed qualifying exams for the Ph.D. in 1996, and that’s when I tuned in religiously. For two years, as I wrote my dissertation, General Hospital seemed to provide a little bit of comfort while I fought a nasty case of Imposter Syndrome. No matter how many professors complimented my work, I couldn’t shake the certainty that I didn’t belong in a Ph.D. program. There had been a mistake—surely the fellowship I received in my first year was intended for someone else. I wasn’t intellectually strong enough to survive. I couldn’t trust my own instincts as a writer or a researcher; I always sought approval from my professors before I could commit ideas to paper. The prospect of writing a dissertation nearly crippled me.

The worst part about graduate school was the fact that I couldn’t predict where I would end up in the long run. Even if I miraculously finished my dissertation, would I get a job? Soon I spent more time worrying about my future than the present. Only television offered me relief. I wasn’t alone in this habit.  Most of my women friends in graduate school watched an enormous amount of television. The Eighteenth-Century British Literature specialist watched Felicity. A poet raised in an uber-religious household devoured Will and Grace. Creative writers and linguists and medievalists alike adored Ally McBeal. But theirs were weekly diversions. Mine was the only daily devotion. Watching General Hospital became sacrament.

•••

In the fall of 1999, I sent sixty-five job applications, suffered through sixteen humiliating job interviews at the annual Modern Language Association Convention, often sitting on beds in some department chair’s hotel room, and then gratefully accepted the one job offer I received from a small college in southern Minnesota. I quit watching General Hospital cold turkey. Hung up on the idea that real professors didn’t watch soap operas, and stunned by the new demands on my time, I traded afternoon delight with ABC for curriculum committee meetings and conferences with students. But in fall of 2007, I underwent tenure review and applied for my first sabbatical leave, a full year devoted to research, writing, and new course development.

Newly tenured and about to give birth to my third child, I needed the comfort of something familiar and dependable as I faced staying home with the new baby (not to mention a preschooler and a second grader). I had no idea how I’d behave. Would I don an apron and bake cookies? I don’t own an apron. Would I find myself utterly fascinated by my children’s development, and thus inspired to write? Would I feel trapped by my circumstances and lack of mobility? Would I act out? Who would my children become? Who would I become? My whole life felt like a Friday afternoon General Hospital cliffhanger. I figured I might as well tune in and find out.

Contrary to what sociologists might assume, I’ve never turned to daytime television in order to escape to someplace new. New places frighten me. Instead, I use daytime television to return to someplace familiar, a place where people always behave in predictable ways. In Port Charles, New York, doctors always seduce nurses. Nurses always get pregnant out of wedlock before finding true love with good-hearted gangsters (apparently Port Charles has some sort of gangster pipeline from New York City). These gangsters always prove to be twice the men the doctors ever were. Gangster-Nurse weddings always end in fistfights as doctors experience post-break-up regrets.

That fall, surrounded by burp rags, I needed desperately to be able to simply turn on the television and slip back into Port Charles. I figured it would be like returning from hiatus. Once I turned that television on, it wouldn’t really matter how much time had passed since I last watched the show.

But now I lived in Minnesota on Central Time, where the show comes on at 2:00 p.m. and people eat lunch at 11:30 a.m., an hour clearly better suited to blintzes than burgers. It wasn’t quite as easy to slip back in to life in Port Charles as I’d hoped. But I was determined to succeed. I took deep breaths each time a new mouth spoke the words of a beloved character; I didn’t even flinch when characters returned from the dead. I wasn’t bent out of shape when I found that Noah Drake—remember Rick Springfield when he played dreamy Dr. Drake back in the ’80s?—now had a son named Patrick, who was already a grown-up brain surgeon. Patrick was in love with Robin Scorpio, one of my favorite pre-teen characters back in the ’90s; thank god Robin was still played by Kimberly McCullough, who left the show briefly about the same time I went to grad school. Apparently, Robin, who contracted H.I.V. from her true love, Stone, just before his heartbreaking death, and then hooked up with Jason Morgan (the same Jason who threw Alcazar off Hangman’s Bridge), was already an experienced surgeon.

Bobbie Spencer, the prostitute-turned-nurse who once dated Dr. Noah Drake, was now in her late fifties and crammed into her nurse’s uniform in a most unfortunate way. Some new soap hunk played Lucky Spencer, son of Luke and Laura.[2] A posse of new teen characters—Maxie, Georgie, Dylan, all descendents of GH regulars from the 1980s, wiggled their shapely young asses across the screen daily. A new token African American character, a wise, tough-yet-tender woman named Epiphany, now ruled the nurse’s station. Epiphany had a sidekick, an orderly named Cassius, played briefly in cameo by Billy Dee Williams. Yes, that Billy Dee Williams.

No, really. It was mind-boggling, but since I have a Ph.D. I caught on quick.

•••

I knew I could catch my show on SoapNet each night at 9:00 p.m., after Cyrus and Ellet went to sleep, enabling them to retain their innocence just a bit longer. But I have never watched General Hospital at any time of day but the afternoon. I have always wanted—needed—to watch it with the rest of the stay-at-home mothers, the homebound and the elderly, the night shift workers, and the teachers staying home sick. I needed to watch it with the dissertating female graduate students in emotional crisis. I needed to watch it with the overweight high school girls, the ones with snarky brothers and anxiety-ridden mothers and no athletic team practice to keep them late after school. I needed that viewing experience to signify that I am part of something bigger than myself, a community of viewers who also need their worlds to stand still—even if only for an hour—each day.

When I go to Port Charles, I am removed from my own setting and transported to a place where characters behave in blessedly predictable ways, year after year. Time itself doesn’t stand still at General Hospital. But the master narratives remain the same, and those archetypal characters—the winsome nurses, lecherous doctors, and good-hearted gangsters—behave just as they ought to behave, just as I expect them to behave, just as I need them to behave, forever, no matter where ABC’s green screen technology takes them.

We humans learn from both fantasy and imitation. Let’s say a young, unmarried GH nurse discovers her unexpected pregnancy. I can study her response. When that plucky nurse bounces back a few months later (pregnancies are always shortened on GH) as a sexy single mom, I learn that we need not drown in our respective pools of misery, no matter how deep they might seem at first. Watching General Hospital helps me to draw a frame around my own life, to see where its parameters lie. Daytime television shows all of us, thanks in part to that green screen technology, where the edges are in our lives. Just how much philandering is permissible before someone is redefined as a cheater? How many times can a role be recast—how often can a character literally remake her self—before the essence of that character’s identity is lost?

I tune in not because I fear change but because I fear my own unpredictability in the face of change. There’s a difference. Even change can be predictable. It’s predictable that ABC will recast the roles played initially by children, for instance, substituting picture-perfect teenaged actresses for gangly eleven-year old ones. Soap opera children always grow up too fast. But those soap opera children follow well-mapped paths: they will either be doctors or gangsters, nurses or prostitutes, and they will die of car crashes or failed surgeries.

My children don’t yet know what the future holds for them. I don’t know what the future holds for them. And I don’t know how I’ll behave as they begin to make their own choices. I only know that the children of Port Charles will grow up as their beautiful parents fade gracefully into the background; I know that child actors will become featured players, their flawless faces illuminated in the green glow.

•••

REBECCA FREMO teaches English at Gustavus Adolphus College.  Her essays and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, Water~Stone Review, Lake Region Review, Tidal Basin Review, Poetica, Red River Review, and Naugatuck River Review. Her chapbook of poems, Chasing Northern Lights, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012. A Virginia native, she now lives in St. Peter, Minnesota, with her husband and three sons.



[1] As I revise this essay, it is now 2014, and I am on my second sabbatical from the college. Because I am a working mother of three, it’s taken me seven years to move through the revision process on this essay.

[2] That’s because the phenomenally talented Jonathan Jackson, nominated as Outstanding Younger Actor at the Daytime Emmy’s in 1996 and 1997, before winning the award himself in both 1998 and 1999, had moved on to prime time pastures. You can catch Jonathon Jackson now, in 2015, on ABC’s splashy nighttime soap, Nashville, which I watch faithfully each Wednesday night at 9:00 PM.

The Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card

heart pillow

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lynne Nugent

“Syncope and sudden death are the same thing, except in one you wake up.”

—Dr. B. J. Carey, Irish Medical Journal, June 2003

No dainty wilting violet, he. His whole body thunks to the floor. He can’t see. He can’t hear. He can’t speak. He can’t think. And here I am, new to the scene, with my notions gleaned from Victorian novels: fainting couches and smelling salts and fluttery ladies caught by dashing gentleman at the most romantically opportune moment. Not he. He throws everything into it, or rather is thrown, flung. From wherever I am in the house, I’m jerked into the room by the sound of the crash. I kneel down, take his hand. He stares through me, unblinking, as I hover above him, trying to catch his eye like a schoolgirl with a crush. I repeat his name into the void, love unrequited. I pat a stiff, clammy hand that is no longer his hand. For five seconds, ten seconds, twenty seconds, he is motionless. His heart stops. He is dead.

Then, as I am preparing to dial 911 and trying to remember my CPR class from high school, the face suffuses with berry-red. The unmoored eyes dart, saccading across the ceiling until they rest on my face with a look of great alarm. Kembrew has said that when he first comes to, he has no idea where he is or how he got there. So I’ve learned to tell him. He listens with intense attention—“You passed out; you’re on the bedroom floor; you’ll be okay”—and the eyes start to reflect light again; he speaks, remembers, a skipped record needle sinking back into the groove of life.

More than once I’ve I dragged Kembrew to the emergency room after one of these incidents. It’s maybe the worst thing I can do: the anxiety of being in a medical situation tends to cause more episodes of vasovagal syncope, a condition in which the chutes of the blood vessels open in response to some physical or emotional trigger, and not enough blood can reach the brain, which in turn causes loss of consciousness. In other words, fainting. Blacking out. A common condition, often benign.

I simply don’t learn, though. I can’t be alone with him, with it—especially in the middle of the night, when it always seems to happen. The word “syncope” comes from the Latin and Greek “syn” (together) and “kope” (to cut off). Each time, this cutting off of everything that holds him together, that holds us together, unnerves me. To see him in an unresponsive state, even for a few seconds, is intolerable.

All the more so because my husband is not the kind of person who is normally known for being at a loss for words. Kembrew teaches for a living, leading discussion in small classes or lecturing to large ones. In his spare time, he organizes protests. He writes multitudes of letters to the editor of the town newspaper. He delights in the fact that upper officials at the university where we both work consider him a troublemaker and give him dirty looks at receptions.

I remember one of the first times I heard his voice, back when we barely knew each other. I was driving somewhere with the radio on; he was a guest on a local NPR show. A listener called in to vehemently disagree with his position and hold forth upon his own. Rather than being taken aback, as I would have been, my future husband jumped into the fray—“Let me ask you this,” he interrupted when the caller took a breath—and gleefully debated his opponent, matching the man’s intensity, never backing down. And yet, when it’s three a.m. and he’s sick, or he’s struck by sudden medical fears for himself or others that remind him of his childhood when his family couldn’t afford to go to the doctor, he succumbs. And I’m the one who has to step up, fill the silence with my words, and I can’t. “Syncope” also has a grammatical definition: the excision of part of a word. In his proposed absence, words whose significance we built together—marriage, family, love—become distorted and lose their meaning. My vocabulary fails.

So I end up driving Kembrew through our sleeping town toward the permanently-lit red EMERGENCY sign. I tell myself that since the fainting spells are usually brought on by dehydration caused by ailments like the flu, it’s worthwhile to make the trip since they can give him fluids through an IV. Really, I just want company. I want someone else to be there.

During our most recent trip to the ER, a nurse hooks Kembrew up to an EKG machine, and it catches the next syncope on its ticker tape. I watch as the heartbeat, that clichéd beeping line with its regular jerk upwards followed by a slow slope downwards, just keeps sloping down and sloping down and sloping down. “Um, hello!” I call out to a group milling at the nurses’ station. In a flash, our small room is crowded with people. “Get the cart,” someone says. They place defibrillator pads on his chest. They inject his IV with atropine. Then we all stand around and watch.

Again, notions. Notions of heroic rescue. Not the Victorian novels, but TV hospital shows this time. Everyone leaping onto the body, massaging it back to life, deploying machinery. Instead, we hover ineffectually, exactly the way I do when it’s just me and him and the bedroom floor. The nurses and residents and a rumpled cardiologist-on-call who has been paged and still seems halfway in whatever dream he was having—we all stand there in the presence of the body’s lonely struggle to survive. It’s not like the TV shows: at some level, he must do this for himself. The heroics are all internal. My voice sounds from somewhere in the back of the room, repeating my usual mantra: “You’re okay, sweetie.” Someone glances at me as if I’m insane. “He’s breathing,” one of them says, looking on the bright side in lieu of a heartbeat.

I think back to the early morning of June 12, 1999, to the paramedics’ unfamiliar voices in the background as my mother’s familiar one, catching on her fear, tells me over the telephone, “They say he’s still breathing.” By the time I hang up and put my clothes on to go to the airport to get on the next plane to St. Louis, my father’s dead from a heart attack. Breathing often continues for a few moments after the heart has stopped.

But that was then and this is now, and now the usual invisible hands—not mine, not the doctors’, which are all just hanging there useless—throttle him back to life; Kembrew’s face goes scarlet, and he is again among us. Only now do I notice that taped to the side of the crash cart is a laminated sheet of paper that says, “When there is no pupil response for X seconds”—I can’t now remember how many—“page the social worker/grief counselor on call.”

When we were first in love, I would watch him as he slept. One morning, as I was watching him, he opened his eyes and looked right at me, and that simple action seemed like such a miracle that I started to weep. I remembered how I was taken to see my dad in the ER exam room where they put him after he died, in the same hospital where I was born, and how I studied my father’s face then, touched his cheek. For a long time afterward, whenever anything good happened to me, I would think, “I’d trade it all for another five minutes with my dad.” All of the accumulated good in my life since he died, over two years, over five—I’d have traded it all without a second thought. Then I fell in love and wondered if that was indeed true anymore. You have turned my mourning into dancing, I thought, looking into the eyes that were looking back at mine, having performed the miracle of opening on a summer morning. It was a verse from Psalms I had somehow picked up during my atheistic life. You have taken my sackcloth and clothed me in joy.

After the drama is over and our room empties of hospital personnel, I corner one of the doctors in the hall and explain that there’s been a small misunderstanding, ha ha, that this has happened before, that perhaps we could try not to alarm him with more talk of how serious it is. “But it is serious,” she tells me. “Your husband scared the bejeezus out of us just now. His heart stopped.”

“Okay,” I say, thinking, Yes, course. This is how it is. I knew it. It’s not benign; how could it be? The body doesn’t lie. Into the Cardio-Vascular Intensive Care Unit we go, where his new neighbors are gray lumps on their hospital beds. Having fainted three times in quick succession this morning, Kembrew looks almost as gray as they do. They say he must remain for a couple days of observation. There is talk of implanting a pacemaker. There is talk of implanting an emergency pacemaker to cover the time before a permanent pacemaker can be implanted. But after a few hours, during which I watch the green line of his heartbeat and the blue line of his respiration on the monitor like it’s the most fascinating show on TV, it’s broad daylight out, no longer the fluorescent-hued night of the ER. A new mood arrives with the day shift.

He doesn’t look like his neighbors any more; anyone can see that, so they set him free. It’s benign, the day-doctors tell us. It mimics sudden death so naturally it causes alarm. And his heart didn’t stop, they clarify: it just paused briefly. It maybe pauses longer than some others’, but it’s still an acceptable pause. This makes us feel better, but for me, every day still has a tinge of three a.m. around the edges, and it always will. Each time it happens, the floor will fall away from my life, and I can’t help that any more than Kembrew can help fainting. How many seconds is X?

Back when few of our friends had children, and long before we contemplated it ourselves, babies seemed like alien beings to us. In one of our first up-close encounters with one, we marveled at how small and delicate our friend Chris’s newborn son was. The baby plunked into our arms, we each displayed the stiff, awkward don’t-break-it arm-crook of the childless. “Don’t worry,” Chris told us, already a seasoned father with one older child. “They’re not as fragile as they look. They cling to life!” His hearty “they cling to life” has stuck with me over the years. I believe it and I don’t believe it about anyone I love, because it’s true and it’s not true, and I’m sure Chris or any parent, or any wife, or any daughter, must feel the same way. The body’s drive to live is invincible. Until it isn’t.

Dismissed from the cardiac unit and the hospital, which in the daytime is once again our friendly, local, familiar hospital where we get check-ups, we walk to the parking ramp on our own two feet with no follow-up appointment scheduled. It’s what I’ve come to think of as the get-out-of-jail-free card, yet another to add to the several we’ve accumulated as we approach middle age: that breast lump that turned out to be nothing, the stomach pain that required a peek with the stomach-camera. Outside in the bright sun, back in the community we know so well, everyone looks outrageously healthy: so ruddy, so active, so obliviously jogging and pink. It’s easy to believe that there are plenty more of those cards in the deck.

When it happens again, though, it’s always night. Since Kembrew knows I’m not strong or fast enough to catch him, he aims for the floor. Sometimes he makes it all the way there before he passes out. Sometimes he falls the rest of the way. I run in, always too late, in no way the dashing Victorian gentleman, appalled to find that the person who most pleases and irks and understands me in the world has cut himself out of our shared experience. And there isn’t a thing that I can do about it. I can’t catch him. I can’t resurrect him. I can just be there.

•••

LYNNE NUGENT is managing editor of The Iowa Review. Her essays have appeared in the North American Review, Brevity, the Modern Love column of the New York Times, and the anthology Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia.