Under the Knife

mannequin
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Kate Haas

Until recently, I’d entered a hospital exactly three times in my life: for my own birth (technically my mom walked through the swinging doors on that occasion) and for the routine births of my two sons. That was it. At forty-five, I’d never so much as had my tonsils out. And I liked it that way. Oh, I knew all about the OR and the ER, the NICU, and the PICU. But that familiarity derived from TV hospital dramas and heartrending medical memoirs, long my guilty, voyeuristic pleasures.

This contented detachment from all things hospital ended abruptly when I learned that I needed surgery to remove a benign ovarian cyst. The news sunk in with horrid clarity. Scenes from those shows and books flashed into my mind: the tense OR, doctors barking medical jargon, machines hissing—and myself in the center of it all, off the sidelines, pitched into the drama. Even allowing for my propensity toward the melodramatic, it was an alarming scenario.

At the same time, I also felt ridiculous: here I was in midlife, scared of a situation most of my friends had dealt with before the age of ten. Of course, none of my third grade pals had read Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science before going in for those once-routine tonsillectomies.

It wasn’t the surgery itself that unnerved me the most. It was the idea of being put to sleep. What if I didn’t wake up? My best friend in college had knee surgery our freshman year. She woke up. My sister opened her eyes after a c-section. I wasn’t thinking about them, or the scads of people who awaken in recovery rooms every day. Instead, I fixated on a minor character in one of one of Ann Hood’s memoirs, a young woman who dies from a rare reaction to anesthesia while getting wisdom teeth removed. I told myself it was crazy, but I couldn’t shake the vision of looking blurrily up at a masked face, and then…the final darkness.

I looked forward to the first appointment with my surgeon. My book group had recommended Dr. M., whose name inevitably popped up in any online discussion of local OB/GYNs, trailing adjectives like awesome, caring, respectful, and empathetic. Maybe Dr. Awesome would calm my fears.

When we met, Dr. M. turned out to be unsmiling and matter-of-fact. “I can schedule you for Tuesday, “ she said briskly. This was Thursday. I blanched.

Dr. M. gave me an appraising look, then switched smoothly to empathetic. “Some women need more time to adjust to the idea of surgery. I’m, ah, guessing you’re one of those.” We settled on a date six weeks away. Then I asked about the anesthesia.

“There’s always a risk of complications,” she acknowledged. “But it’s very small. And they’ll give you something to help you relax before the surgery.”

I nodded. In all the books and doctor shows, patients are well tranquillized by the time they roll into the OR. With enough pharmaceutical assistance, maybe I wouldn’t be freaking out, after all.

To allay my fears during the final weeks before my surgery, I asked everyone I knew for reassurance about going under. “It was HEAVEN,” responded a woman on a parenting message board—clearly the mother of an infant. “A medically induced nap.”

At my pre-op appointment, Dr. M. concluded by prescribing post-surgery drugs. “Would you like Percocet or Vicodin?” she asked, pen poised over her pad like a waiter inquiring whether I preferred the merlot or the pinot.

I looked at her blankly. Was evaluating the relative merits of prescription painkillers one of those modern-age skills I had failed to acquire, like texting? I searched my brain. “Um, Dr. House is addicted to Vicodin, I know that,” I offered.

“Let’s go with the Percocet,” Dr. M. said quickly.

•••

A week later at the hospital, nurses set me up in a curtained cubicle under what looked like a white blow-up swim raft. A continuous flow of warm air into the raft made it settle into position just above me. I wondered why they didn’t just give me a blanket.

My husband and I waited in the cubicle, where I grew increasingly twitchy. He read Coraline out loud to pass the time. “Is this too creepy for you?” he asked, after the chapter where Coraline is locked in the closet with the ghost children.

I contemplated the warming raft, hovering over me like a monstrous cocoon, and the imminent prospect of being rendered unconscious, possibly forever, via a needle in my vein. “Not really,” I said.

Now and then nurses came around with apologies about the delay. Dr. M. was delivering an early baby, it seemed. “Oh, that’s fine!” I assured them, doing my best to impersonate the plucky patient everyone loves. “It’s actually the anesthesia that really bothers me.” I didn’t mention my anxiety about waking up afterwards, figuring this might attract the evil eye, make me look paranoid, or both.

“Don’t you worry,” one nurse told me. “They’ll give you something to help you relax.” I was relieved to learn that relaxation was still on the agenda. I needed some of that, and soon. The nurse checked my chart. “Ah, you’ve got Dr. A.,” she said. “He’s the best anesthesiologist in the hospital. Really skillful, just great. He’s the one I’d want for my own family.” She winked. “And he’s the best looking, too.”

What did it mean, I wondered aloud after she left, that the nurse thought my anesthesiologist was hot? Why did she tell me this? Was I meant to conclude that good looks correlated with skill?

“I think you’re over-analyzing this,” said my husband.

It took three nurses and five tries to get the IV into my apparently miniscule vein. By the end, I was thoroughly demoralized. In that motherly way of theirs, the nurses kept repeating that I was “being a trooper, honey.”

The anesthesiologist arrived at my cubicle to introduce himself. He was tall and dark, but no McDreamy. Here comes the relaxation, I thought gratefully. Instead, Dr. A. inquired about my breakfast—a ruse designed to reveal whether I’d eaten anything since midnight—and asked a few routine medical questions. “I’ll see you soon,” he said cheerfully before departing. I interpreted this to mean that he’d return momentarily to administer my medicinal stress relief.

Eventually, some bustle began in the vicinity of my cubicle. A gurney arrived, along with a new nurse. She was short and solid and looked very capable. “Ready to go?” she asked.

My husband was holding my hand. “Can I go along?”

“Absolutely,” said Nurse Capable.

I watched the florescent lights pass overhead as we rolled through the long, white corridors and into an elevator lined with burnished metal, like a high-end refrigerator. I tried to breathe calmly and listen to Nurse Capable’s soothing flow of chit-chat. It was mostly about Dr. A and what a great guy he was. “He’ll set you right up,” she said. “Like drinking a bottle of your favorite wine, that’s how relaxed you’ll be.” I appreciated her reassurance. But wasn’t I supposed to be relaxed already?

At the swinging doors to the OR, my husband kissed me goodbye—this part, at any rate, was just like the doctor shows—and I rolled in. The room was very cold and full of people. Bright lights pointed in all directions. Over to the side, on a blue-draped cart, lay a glittering row of sharp metal instruments. I stared at them in dismay. I wasn’t meant to be seeing this. I was supposed to be doped up, so I wouldn’t notice all those scalpels, or wouldn’t care if I did. Instead, I felt horribly lucid.

Nurse Capable maneuvered my gurney to the center of the room. “Ok, hop up on the table,” she instructed.

I’m not proud of my fascination with medical dramas. I admit, there’s an element of morbid rubbernecking involved. And I’ve known all along that they can’t be very realistic, not all of them. But never, not on St. Elsewhere (my gateway drug to the genre), or on any I’ve seen since, has anyone told the patient to hop up on the table. The patients are too relaxed—like I was supposed to be!—to hop anywhere.

Lacking other options, however, I hopped up. Dr. M.’s masked face loomed over me. “This is Dr. S., who’ll be assisting today,” she said, pointing to one of the gowned figures hovering nearby. “Our anesthesiologist will be along soon.” Then she nodded to toward another masked face. “And this is Alex.”

“Hey, how ya doin’?” said a youthful voice.

Who the heck was Alex? Was this Take Your Kid Brother to Work day? And couldn’t he guess how I was doing? “Frankly, I’m terrified,” I said. “Isn’t everyone?”

“Huh. You mean you’ve never had surgery?” Alex asked.

I couldn’t keep the edge from my voice. “No, I have never had surgery. Have most people?”

“Oh yeah, once you get to be, like, forty, it’s a lot more common.” In the mind of Alex —whoever he was—it was clear that forty lay on a remote horizon indeed. I hoped he wouldn’t be allowed too near any of those scalpels.

Dr. M. spoke up. “Ah, here’s Dr. A.,” she said soothingly. “I know you’re nervous about all this. He’s giving you something to help you relax right now.”

I looked up at the lights. I looked around at the instruments and the machinery. A couple of minutes seemed to pass. My final minutes, possibly. “I don’t feel relaxed,” I said.

Seemingly two seconds later, I opened my eyes to a bright yellow light. My mouth felt coated in sawdust, and I was barely conscious, but I knew instantly, gratefully, that I had woken up, after all. “I’m thirsty,” I croaked, hoping someone was listening. “I’m really thirsty. Is everything okay?”

“What did she say?” said a voice.

“I couldn’t make it out,” said another.

“I’m thirsty,” I repeated. “Can I have some water?” The words seemed to float languidly above me into the brightness, like the viscous bubbles drifting upward in a lava lamp. I heard each syllable go by and slowly realized why no one understood: I was speaking Arabic. For it’s own inscrutable reasons, my consciousness had emerged from its chemical sleep set to a language I hadn’t spoken on a daily basis since leaving the Peace Corps, nearly two decades earlier.

I’d navigated a good deal of foreign territory during the course of that long, strange day. The doctor shows had prepared me for the high tech equipment and medical jargon. The memoirs had given me other people’s stories to latch onto. Still, so much had been unfamiliar. (I never did discover the identity of Alex). And yet, I realized afterward, nothing had been quite so alien, so mysterious, as that moment of awakening. It was what I’d fixated on for so many weeks, and it had gone exactly the way it was supposed to. Yet the return to consciousness, and the surfacing of those long dormant words, had brought with it a different, unlooked for awareness: the strangest thing I’d encountered in the hospital wasn’t frightening at all, and it turned out to be inside my own head.

•••

KATE HAAS is a creative nonfiction editor at Literary Mama and the publisher of Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and The Toronto Star. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

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Land of Shannon

O'Connor's Pub in Doolin
By Suzanne Van Atten

By Suzanne Van Atten

Bone tired and drunk on whiskey, I was wedged in the corner of a booth at Gus O’Connor’s Pub in the small seaside town of Doolin, Ireland. I watched my three girlfriends chat up an international coterie of men who had flocked to our table, drawn to the trio of boozed-up beauties. A decade older than my friends and more plain, I was excluded from the sexual energy that emanated from their flirtatious repartee, and I turned my attention to the musicians who filled the air with the sometimes jaunty, sometimes mournful sounds of their guitars, fiddles, and accordion. I recently had grown accustomed to my place in the periphery of my friends’ mating dance.

For years I had been a suburban divorced mom, occupied by working as an arts editor for the local newspaper and raising two sons mostly on my own. But that all changed when my youngest son left home for college. I decided my life needed a shakeup, so I broke up with my boyfriend of twelve years and moved into the city. Although a mere ten miles separated my former home (a ’60s ranch house in a working-class neighborhood) from my new abode (a shabby Victorian duplex in the shadow of glass-and-steel high-rises), they were worlds apart.

The moving van had barely pulled away from the curb when I found myself thrust into a lifestyle more like that of a college freshman than a divorced mom in her late-forties. A simple invitation to a colleague’s house party was my entrée into a lively social circle of mostly thirtysomething journalists and publicists who threw raucous parties, went to clubs to hear bands, and closed down bars three and four nights a week. Seemingly overnight, my phone was ringing with invitations to meet my new friends for drinks, dinner, and more. I soon developed an impressive tolerance for alcohol consumption and a constant quest for the perfect concealer to hide the permanent dark circles beneath my eyes.

One night after work, I met my friend Shelly for a beer at our favorite neighborhood bar. A flirtatious redhead with a penchant for floral print sundresses and red lipstick, Shelly is the most extroverted of my friends and the ringleader of our social activities. Her perpetually cranky boyfriend had recently moved out of the duplex they’d shared for six years and taken up with an art school student nineteen years his junior. Since her breakup, we occasionally lamented our single status. We missed having someone to share our beds, to kill our bugs, to carry out our trash; lately what we missed most was our traveling companions. That’s when we came upon the idea of taking a trip together. I had been dreaming of Ireland, and that suited Shelly, so we decided to book a trip in March.

We invited two friends to join us: Amy, the marketing director for the newspaper where I worked, a short, curvy blonde with an infectious giggle and dimples to match, and Scottie, an advertising executive at a global marketing firm, a tall, willowy, strawberry blonde. Amy recently had broken up with her boyfriend, a cute bald-headed boy and utilities trader who had become so obsessed with online gambling he no longer left his apartment. Scottie had been on her own for years, having yet to recover from the day she returned to her elegant, antiques-and-art-filled home to find her trust fund-baby boyfriend of seven years in bed with another woman.

Over a round of drinks one night, we raised our glasses to toast the fact that we were independent women with disposable income who didn’t need men by our sides to see the world.

•••

Our journey began in Dublin, where we spent our days touring the usual sights—museums, churches and shops—and our nights were spent in the pubs where I often found myself shuttled to the side as men elbowed their way in to chat up the girls. Sometimes I would return to the table from a visit to the restroom to find my chair taken by another potential suitor. There was a time when I would have been in that game, I thought, but it appeared that time had passed.

But then, I’d look at these men—overgrown boys really—with their drunken swagger and imbecilic conversations laced with crude double entendres, and I’d wonder why my friends bothered. Especially knowing the night would end on a sour note when the pub closed and the men realized my friends were just having a bit of fun and were going home alone.

After a couple of days in Dublin, we planned to spend the rest of our stay in Galway, but first was the leg of our trip I had anticipated most. I was leading the charge on a 250-mile roundtrip driving tour south of Galway through the picturesque Dingle Peninsula and back north again to spend the night in Doolin, a tiny seaside town famous for its pubs and the local musicians who gather there to play traditional Irish music.

The day of our journey, we woke up early and went to the hotel dining room for breakfast where I scanned the morning paper over a plate of bacon and eggs. “Listen to this,” I said, as I relayed the lead story. A man convicted of raping a divorced mother of three had been set free on probation, and his victim, Mary Shannon, had gone public to renounce the light sentence. Activists were rallying around her, and a protest march was planned in her hometown of Ennis. We studied the photograph of Mary Shannon, her long brown hair framing a face etched with anger.

“Unbelievable!” I said. “He was found guilty!”

“I guess you can get away with rape in Ireland,” said Shelly.

We finished our breakfast and the girls sipped a round of mimosas in the hotel lobby while I negotiated the terms with the car rental agent, a blustery, red-faced man straight out of central casting whose brogue was so thick, I barely understood a word he said. After his interminable lecture on the car’s operating systems, we took our positions—me behind the wheel, Shelly in the passenger seat with a map on her lap, and Amy and Scottie in the back seat. Off we set.

“Stay left, stay left!” “Watch the curb!” were Shelly’s constant refrains the first hour or so of our drive. Any other time I would have been annoyed, but mastering the art of driving on the left was no easy task and I welcomed her warnings. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful, sunny day, despite the March chill, and we admired the lovely green countryside, the low-slung stone walls and the charming little towns we passed as we headed south. But traversing the narrow, winding roads proved more time consuming than we had imagined, and three hours into our journey we found ourselves in a quandary. Our progress had been slow and time was passing; we began to wonder if we could cover all the ground we had hoped to in one day.

We stopped in the village of Camp, the northern gateway to Dingle Peninsula, and studied the map. It indicated a coastal road that looped around the land mass and a cut-through that dissected it called Conor Pass, at the end of which was the village of Dingle. If we drove the circumference of the peninsula, could we get to Doolin in time to make it to the pubs?

“Well, we’ve made it to Dingle Peninsula. We could just turn around and go back now,” said Shelly.

“The point was not to just come here,” I protested. “I want to actually see it. Maybe we could just drive along the northern route a bit, then turn around and head back.”

As precious minutes ticked by, Shelly and I debated our options and studied the map while Amy and Scottie sat quietly in the back seat. The more laid-back half of our quartet had been content so far to let the two alpha-chicks in the front seat call the shots. But we had reached in impasse.

“We’ve come this far. I think we should at least drive through Conor Pass,” Scottie said.

So we all agreed and proceeded along the northern route of Dingle Peninsula, speeding as fast as the narrow road would allow and climbing dramatically in altitude. Before long we noticed there was not another car in sight, not a house, not a road marker, not a sign of civilization anywhere.

“Look behind us!” Amy shouted, and we all looked back at the sunny, grassy, low-lying plains rimmed by the sea now far below us. It was a splendid sight, but it did not prepare us for what was to come. No sooner did we fix our eyes back on the road ahead that we rounded a sharp curve that revealed a vastly different vista.

Like some sort of eerie, lunar landscape, Conor Pass lay before us: a rollercoaster of massive stone mountains as far as the eyes could see. One after another, they rolled toward the horizon, all gray and rounded and rocky. We wound our way through the mountains, around enormous boulders that looked poised to roll over on us at any moment. Along the way were wide spots in the road where we pulled over to get out of the car and run up and down natural stepping-stones that led toward barren mountaintops. We rubbed our fingertips over thick carpets of fuzzy mosses and teal-colored lichen that grew in nooks and crevices around the rocks. We wet our hands in natural spigots of rushing cold water that splashed out of holes in the mountain, creating small pools and streams.

The wind grew fierce atop Conor Pass, so we pulled out every coat, scarf and cap we could find in the trunk to bundle up, and we ran around in circles like little kids to warm up, snapping pictures in every direction. The bitter cold and bizarre beauty made me feel drunk and giddy, and I was struck by the sensation that we were alone in the universe, plunked down in a place completely otherworldly and wholly our own.

Back in the car, we descended down the road, and the landscape gave way once again to lush green pastures and views of the southern coastline on the horizon. We stopped in the town of Dingle, where we shared a round of pints at Dick Mack’s Pub before starting along the peninsula’s southern route. That was when hunger pangs grabbed hold, reminding us that our breakfast had been so many hours ago.

As we approached the end of Dingle Peninsula, we entered the town of Annascaul and spotted The South Pole Inn. It was a ramshackle, two-story pub with fires burning in the hearth and walls lined with vintage photographs and newspaper clippings chronicling the South Pole expeditions of local explorer Tom Crean. Several photographs depicted the big strapping adventurer dressed in parka and pelts standing on a stark, vast landscape as seemingly unworldly as that which we had just left behind on Conor Pass.

Mindful of the time, we ordered our food to go—four toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and a single pile of fried chips. As we sped down the road, we perched the box of potatoes on the console between the front seats and devoured the warm, mushy triangles of meat and cheese.

The sun was no longer visible in the sky but daylight clung on, and I sped as fast as I could, hoping the light would last until we made the River Shannon, where we had to catch a car ferry.

“Um,” Amy uttered from the backseat. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her nose buried in the ferry schedule. “Yeah,” she said solemnly. “The last ferry is at 7:30 p.m.”

“What?” I cried. “It can’t be! The schedule says there’s one at 8:30 and 9:30, too!” But I was wrong. I had misread the timetable, mistaking the summer schedule for the shorter off-season one. I looked at the dashboard clock while my toasted ham and cheese sandwich tumbled uncomfortably in my stomach.

“It’s 6:30 now.” I said. “There’s no way we’ll make it.”

I was answered by silence.

“We can make it!” Shelly finally said with forced cheer. She studied the map for a few minutes. “Yeah, we can do it.”

If we missed the ferry, it would add ninety minutes to our drive over unfamiliar roads in the dark and would mean missing out on the pubs in Doolin, which closed promptly at midnight. We had no choice but to fly as fast as we could. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel and said a silent prayer: “Please don’t let us die trying.”

Between towns we zoomed past slow-moving vehicles and straddled the middle of the road on straight-aways at a fast clip. Outside Tralee, we came upon a moving roadblock. Despite our haste, we delighted at the sight of it: a man and his two children herding a trio of black-and-white cows down the road to a fresh pasture.

The clock read 6:43.

Our progress was slowed as we passed through the tiny towns along the way—Tralee and Listowel and Tarbert. We navigated our way around the confusing roundabouts. In Listowel we exited on the wrong road, but realized our error and backtracked through the traffic circle and headed the right way.

It was 7:12.

The last glint of light left the sky as we passed though Tarbert and headed down the final stretch to the ferry docks — a long, narrow, winding road with hairpin turns along the way. Everyone was silent and tense with concentration as though we could propel ourselves there by the combined force of our will. The clock read an impossible 7:24. The road was thickly wooded and our high-beams cut a swath through the darkness as I took curve after curve. My arms and shoulders were as tense as steel rods as I gripped the wheel and negotiated the tight turns.

“Maybe they’ll see our lights coming and wait,” I offered hopefully.

As we came around the last curve, the woods gave way, and we spotted the brightly lit station where the ferry waited, idling quietly at the dock. I shouted with joy as I zoomed on board and eased on the brakes, slipping into our space in the orderly row of cars and trucks calmly waiting to cross to the other side.

It was 7:31.

I rolled down the glass as the ticket-taker briskly approached my window, and I started to fumble with my purse to find my pre-purchased ticket.

“May I take your pulse, please?” he said with a wink.

We piled out of the car to stretch our cramped limbs. While the girls ran off to the restroom, I braved the fierce wind to climb up the steps to the viewing deck and watched the lights of the ferry dock fade into the night as we motored toward the north shore. My heart was still racing from the harrowing drive and my nose and fingers were numb with cold, but I relished the few minutes alone. I could barely believe we had made it. It was just a ferry crossing, but it felt like something more—like a test or a challenge, and I had won. Age may be robbing me of whatever grace and beauty I might have once had, I thought as I stood in the middle of the dark river, but I had guts and drive to spare, damn it. And that counted for something; in fact, it counted for a lot. For the first time I had the freedom and capacity to live a life of my own design, and I was just now realizing what an immense gift that was.

The tension that had chased us to the River Shannon had lessened somewhat, but we were still fighting the clock. The pubs closed at midnight and it would take us at least two hours to get to Doolin. Luckily, the roadways were nearly empty, and I straddled the middle line to avoid the low-slung rock walls that lined the streets and threatened to stop us, literally, dead in our tracks.

Driving as fast as I could, we passed through the dairy lands of County Clare in dark silence. But when we entered the last town before our final trek along the isolated back roads to Doolin, our progress was stopped cold at the town’s main crossroads. My intent was to turn right, but if I had, we would have been thrust headlong into an approaching procession of women and children slowly marching toward us carrying lit candles in their hands. Flanked by two women carrying a banner that read, “Stop domestic abuse,” I could just make out the unmistakable figure of a tall thin woman with long brown hair leading the way.

“My God, it’s Mary Shannon,” I said.

Struck by the solemn dignity of the women’s flame-lit faces as they silently approached, I was overcome by a sense of solidarity. I shared their outrage and admired them for claiming their right to be heard. And I identified with their desire for safety. I was suddenly aware that we were a group of women traveling alone in a foreign land, tempting danger as we sped through the night over unfamiliar roads and chatted up strangers over one too many pints. Our concerns were focused on making sure our money held out and cramming in everything we wanted to do before our time was up—not just in Ireland but in our lives back home, too.

We were city girls who lived in sketchy neighborhoods where panhandlers, car break-ins, and unwanted attention were daily occurrences. We patronized convenience stores buttressed with bulletproof glass to withdraw twenties from ATMs so we could go to dive bars where we stayed out too late. Afterward, we walked to our cars alone in the dark, returning to our burglar-barred homes, where we slept soundly in our beds, secure—however falsely—in the notion that we were safe.

“Quick, turn left,” Shelly said. “We’ve got to get around them.”

I followed her commands as she directed me around the women and back on our route north. Soon Mary Shannon and her band of supporters were far behind, along with the fears they embodied—of physical harm, vulnerability, financial instability, loneliness—the fears so many single women suppress everyday without even thinking about it in order to get through the day.

Eventually we began to descend into the tiny coastal town of Doolin. It was not difficult to find the Sea View B&B; there were only three streets in town. When we spotted the little dormered house stuck in the side of a hill, I couldn’t park the car and empty the trunk fast enough. Being the most eager to hit Gus O’Connor’s Pub—happily visible just across the creek not 100 yards away—I was the first one to clamber up the steps of the house and drop the brass knocker on the wooden door.

A post I’d read on a blog back home about a traveler being turned away from the Sea View for arriving too late flickered in the back of mind.

Again I dropped the knocker.

I heard rustling inside and a stomp or two, then the door flung open to reveal a very angry proprietress, wearing a thin floral bathrobe cinched tight to her waist with one hand, her blonde wiry curls bunched wildly in tufts on her head.

“You might have called,” she barked.

I apologized profusely as the others trundled in behind me, heavy with bags and fatigue.

“You’ll be heading to the pubs I guess,” she said.

We dropped our bags in our ruffled, rose-print bedrooms, ran combs through our hair and flew out the door, down the steep steps, over the stone bridge and into Gus O’Connor’s Pub. Finally! The time had come to toast our adventure and hear some Irish tunes.

The tightly packed bar was teeming with people, young and old, who were not just looking for a good time but had clearly found it. A fire burned in a hearth in the corner of the anteroom, and on the walls were scores of photographs of musicians and instruments.

We stepped into the large, main room, lined on one side by a long bar on the left. On the right, the space was filled with small tables and chairs, every one occupied. In the center of the room seated on chairs and benches were five musicians playing guitars, fiddles, flutes, and an accordion. We lingered by the bar with our first round, soaking in the music, before grabbing a booth just as a large group left.

We weren’t there long before we were joined by a revolving cast of young men, all travelers from various parts of the world. There was much talk about an upcoming rugby match they were eager to see the next day. We chatted and laughed, stepped outside to share cigarettes, and drank rounds of Guinness and whiskey. The muscles in my shoulders burned a bit as they slowly began to unfurl, releasing the tension that had gripped them all day. The whiskey was warm and soothing in my belly.

My mind soon wandered from the boys and their brash talk about where they were from and where they were going. I turned my attention to the music and grew fascinated by the deep red accordion as it wheezed and moaned its sad, lovely songs. A young woman smitten with its player had convinced him to let her fondle the instrument between songs. I had a powerful desire to wrap my hands around the mysterious contraption, to finger the small knobs and gently pump its lung as it wheezed. I wanted so badly to join them so I, too, could get a turn to touch the buttons and curious folds. Instead I just watched them from afar as they manipulated the instrument and felt my throat thicken with longing.

When the band was done for the night, I turned back toward my friends. Scottie was deep in quiet conversation with a beautiful, dark-eyed Italian, their heads so close together they nearly touched. Amy giggled as two animated Brits told her an elaborate story that required frantic hand gestures. Shelly, her eyes bright and her lips awash in a swipe of red, was snuggled up to a very tall Irish man with a goofy mustache. So I drained my glass, pulled on my coat and walked back to the Sea View alone in the dark.

•••

SUZANNE VAN ATTEN is a features editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a creative writing instructor, and a travel book author. Her essays have been published in the Gettysburg Review and The Chattahoochee Review, among other outlets. She is working on a collection of essays called Everything Is Temporary.

Fear and Rafting on the Rio Grande

whitewater
By David Berkowitz/ Flickr

By Zahie El Kouri

We have paddled beyond the point of return.

I am in the left front corner of a rubber raft. The guide has told me that if I jam my leg into the groove between the outside air chamber and the one that makes the floor, I’m less likely to fall out of the raft, so I jam my leg so hard that my left butt cheek aches.

The guide, who is almost certainly stoned, decides to do a safety check. “Everyone raise your oar like this.”

He holds his paddle up vertically, with the wide side toward the water. He does it with a sort of swagger, like this job makes him much cooler than scared city girls like me. I mimic his action precisely, clutching my oar in fear. My husband and his sister do the same, with confidence. My sister-in-law’s partner Dawn holds her paddle up, too, but she holds it horizontally, so the wide side is facing the center of the boat.

“I said this way,” the guide repeats. “You need to look at me.” The guide is sun-leathered and rangy, his hair bleachy-blond.

“I can’t look at you,” my sister-in-law says. “I’m blind.”

This statement comes as no surprise to me, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the guide either, as we’d discussed Dawn’s blindness with him when we arrived.

We’re on the Rio Grande, the five of us: my husband John, outdoorsy and fearless; his sister Liz, a four-foot-ten Krav Maga instructor; her partner, Dawn, an executive with a Manhattan non-profit; and me.

I am full of fear: I am afraid of heights; I am afraid of riding a bike in traffic; I am afraid of getting a concussion while skiing like I did when I was eleven. I generally don’t talk about my fears like a Woody Allen protagonist, but I try to avoid situations where I put myself in what I perceive to be danger. The more rational part of my brain tells me that lots of people go rafting without injury and that I have reached an age where I am willing to give this kind of risk another try. Nonetheless, I am happy for my helmet and my life jacket, and even though I have lost all feeling in my left leg, I jam it further into the raft.

Since neither Dawn nor I had ever been rafting, we signed up for the beginning level trip, a leisurely float down the calm part of the river. When we arrived, though, Liz and Dawn snuck away to change our trip to the intermediate one, which included something called “class three rapids.” I am terrified, but I don’t want to ruin everyone’s fun. Dawn, on the other hand, is smiling, her legs casually resting on the floor of the raft.

The guide says, “Well, just pay attention.” When we approach the first set of rapids, I paddle as hard as I can, against every instinct I have to curl into the fetal position. When we’re clear of the rapids, I see that everyone else in the boat is smiling, while I’m just happy to be in one piece. The next few rapids are the same—fear for me, smiles for everyone else. After the fourth set of rapids, we float along the river for long enough that I am able to take in the greens and browns of the riverbank.

That’s when I notice the large boulder in the center of our path. It is taking up most of the river, but it looks like there’s just enough room on either side for us to get by. Water splashes up the rock and churns around it in a great white frenzy.

“That’s a big rock,” I say to my husband.

“Yeah. Which way should we go?” he asks the guide.

“Oh, we’re just going to bounce off that thing,” the guide says.

“Bounce?” I squeak.

“Just paddle as hard as you can right up onto that rock, and then we’ll bounce off to the right.”

This does not sound like a good idea to me, but I am a lowly city girl who can’t feel her left leg. The rock looms ever closer, and I paddle as hard as I can straight on top of it. My corner of the raft hits the boulder. We bounce once off the rock and land sideways, the right edge of the boat hitting the water.

I am still in the boat! Hooray!

I look to my right. The seat next to mine is empty. John and Dawn and the guide are all in the water. Liz is leaning over the side of the boat, holding Dawn by her collar. John erupts from the water and climbs back in, his leg bloody.

“Dawn’s in the water,” I shout. The water swirls innocently around the raft. John jumps back in the water, helping Dawn clamber back in to the center of the boat, soaked and grimacing.

The guide lifts himself into the raft.

“Y’all took a swim?” the guide asks. “Get a little wet?”

Dawn grumbles.

“Dude,” the guide says, as about to share the wisdom of the ages. “It’s all about facing your fears.”

Dawn whips her head around to face the direction of the guide’s voice. “I do enough of that taking the subway in Manhattan every day while being blind.”

The guide says nothing. John and Liz turn away from him, back in their places.

Dawn stays in the center of the boat, shaking. “Is she going to stay there?” the guide asks.

“Yes,” says Liz. “She’s had enough.”

The guide looks at John, alone on the right side of the boat.

Dude,” he says, “you’ll have to paddle harder.”

He says it to John, but I take the message. We launch again, and I paddle with a new determination. Dawn has navigated New York City blind for thirty years; now she is thrown from a raft in the middle of the Rio Grande and climbs back in. Who am I to be afraid?

•••

ZAHIE EL KOURI writes about infertility, parenting, and the immigrant experience in the United States. She has taught creative writing at the University of North Florida and the University of Oregon Law School, and legal writing at Santa Clara University and Florida Coastal School of Law. She holds an MFA in creative writing from New School University and her work has appeared in Mizna, a Journal of Arab-American Writing and Dinarzad’s Children: an Anthology of Arab-American Literature, Memoir Journal, Brain, Child, and Ars Medica. You can find her on the web at www.zahieelkouri.com.

Thanks for Being Here!

Hi everyone,

I’m so glad you’re visiting the site. If you’re picking up what we’re putting down here, here are some handy tips to remind you to check us out more often.

• Sign up for notifications, conveniently located on your right. Thanks to the FGP peeps on Facebook, I’ve streamlined the email that comes to you when I post new essays. They don’t have images and they’re posted before anything else. (I did this because I didn’t realize how many people read the internet on their phones! Not me, man. I recently sent a text to my mother in which I called her something in Spanish. I’m not sure what.) I write an introduction (no spoilers!) to each essay; they’re just a couple paragraphs and I work pretty hard on them. You have to confirm that you’ve signed up—it might be in your spam box or, if you use gmail, it might be in your promotions box. The emails come in the wee hours, so insomniacs? Got you covered.

• You can also join the Full Group People Facebook page. The updates happen whenever I wake up—I’m not a morning person, so you’ll have to wait until I have my first cup of tea. There’s a small intro there (not the same as the one you get with the notifications). It’s a good way to share stuff.

• FGP has a Twitter page. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a great Twitter citizen, but I do update when we have a new post.

•••

I can’t even thank the people who contributed to the tip jar enough. We’re getting closer to recouping the expenses I put out to start this. I tear up every time we get one. I know that there’s a great TED talk on not making people pay for things but letting them, but if you grew up without a lot of money, it’s tough, emotionally. Thank you. Really.

Finally, I’m hoping that you’ll tell the people in your lives about Full Grown People. There’s an insane amount of talent here in FGP’s writers and artists, and I’d love for them to get an insane amount of recognition.

xo,

Jennifer

Death and Dying, Or Laugh Until You Wet Your Pants

homeandcommunity
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.etsy.com/shop/ebethfuller

By Shaun Anzaldua

My brother Josh and I are walking through the cold San Francisco mist. It’s four in the morning and we have just left the ICU at University of San Francisco Hospital where our stepfather, David, lays unconscious. He has countless tubes being fed by drip bags filled with saline and medicines. He has tubes down his throat which push air into his lungs, and a dialysis machine which is filters his blood for his failing kidneys. Electrical sensors are attached to his skin and connected to machines by plastic coated cords. The outlets in the room look like plates of spaghetti, covered with twisted cords. The monitors by his bed have five rows of lines in different colors, each forming its own pattern as it moves across the screen. It looks like a child’s Spirograph with its red, blue, green, yellow, white designs.

Earlier that day, we got the call from our mother that it wasn’t looking good. David had been in ICU on an oxygen tank for a week while he tried to fight a mystery illness which had taken hold of his lungs, weaving spider webs throughout, making it impossible for him to get enough air on his own. Day by day, the opinions change as to what exactly is wrong and now to whether he will survive this. Today they fear the worst. Our sister has gone home for the night, exhausted by days at the hospital. Our brother is stuck in Houston; he and his wife are trying to get in by the next day. We all thought we had more time.

Back when death was theoretical, David told his doctor, wrote in his papers, that he did not want invasive procedures should he fall critically ill. No machines, no rib breaking electric paddles. But then the moment comes when his doctor presents him with a choice. He is not responding to treatment, his body is shutting down, and the oxygen tank alone cannot sustain him.

“David, you can remove the oxygen mask and die peacefully with your family around you,” the doctor tells him. “Otherwise we’ll have to sedate you so we can insert the necessary tubes down your throat and into your lungs to get oxygen in there. You may not survive the procedure. Even if you do, you’ll be unconscious and won’t be able to talk. And there’s still no guarantee.”

Given the choice of certain death or invasive procedures, David decides on the procedures. He doesn’t want to die. He dreams of the cushy retirement community where he and our mother are going to move, far away from the never-ending work of the ranch where they now live. He is ready, and has been for years, to while away the hours reading and playing music and never fixing another irrigation head, feeding another horse or mowing another lawn, even if it is on a riding lawn mower.

Now he lies in a room full electronics, looking gray and pale and thin, while our mother and his son speak quietly about how long they should let him linger if he doesn’t respond to the medicines. If his heart doesn’t give out, he might live for days on life support with no hope of regaining consciousness. When do they let go? They decide to give it a few more days, to pray for a miracle. David had made it clear he wants to fight.

•••

I shiver from the cold as Josh and I make our way to the parking lot to retrieve his cell phone from his car. I wish I’d brought a heavier sweater. The streets are empty of people and cars, and yet we pause automatically at the Do Not Walk sign blinking red in the dark. We are on automatic pilot.

“We don’t have a road map for this one, Sis. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to do it,” Josh says as we cross the deserted street. This six foot four man and me, both in our fifties, we feel like children. While we’ve lived through the death of our grandparents, being in the middle of the experience this way is new. We want to protect our mother, and we have only instinct to guide us. We’re exhausted and more than a little punch drunk. He’s just driven six hours from Los Angeles, his second trip down here in the last week. I’ve flown in from Houston and we have been up way too long now.

We reach his car and he hits the electronic car door opener on his new pimp-green Mercedes. The headlights flash their recognition.

“Nice!” I tell him. The interior is softly lit with an amber glow that reflects of the deep brown wood paneling. The soft-as-butter, tan leather seats are calling out to me to come: take a test sit, take a test sit.

“Let’s just lie down for a few minutes,” I say. “Just a few minutes.”

We lie there, reclined in the sumptuous bucket seats, and drift into our familiar combination of banter and revelation. He tells me about the drive up from LA, how the nice electronic lady in his car suggested several times that he might want to stop for a cup of coffee. We both think the warning system is sadly incomplete because while it cautions you that you may be sleepy because you are now driving erratically and so you just might want to pull over for a cup of coffee, not once does it offer to brew it for you. We laugh about how tired we are, we laugh about how two of my kids are in therapeutic boarding school, how he’s lost his job and his son is on the streets. How as a result we’ve had to learn to lower the bar to ground level with zero expectations. We laugh about how in the midst of our game of My Life Sucks More Than Yours, our mother has swooped in at the last minute to steal the prize by tossing down her “My Husband is in ICU and May Die” card. Competitive bitch. She always has to win.

“So, have I told you about my dog?” I ask Josh. He looks over at me with his bloodshot eyes half closed.

“Nah, what about your dog?”

“Well, she’s white, right, and when white dogs lick themselves a lot in one spot, the fur turns rust colored. So her fur was all rusty and yucky around her butt and she was always licking and when I really took a look at it, it looked like maybe something was wrong with her vajay-jay. So I took her to the vet. You’ll never guess what the vet told me.”

“What did the vet tell you, Shaunton?” Josh asks me.

“The vet says my dog has an enlarged clitoris and I need to rub steroid cream on it twice a day. So I asked her, like, with all this licking, is she, well, enjoying herself? The vet wasn’t sure. Don’t you think having to rub cream on a dog’s enlarged clitoris trumps losing your job?”

“I could have gone a lifetime without ever hearing about your dog’s clitoris.” he tells me, but I can see his chest heaving with suppressed giggles.

“Josh, you know how you said we don’t have a road map, any instructions on how to do this?” I ask him. “I’m pretty sure we aren’t supposed to be doing this.”

“Fuck it.” He says. “Guess we should go back in now.”

“Do you think there’s a chance he’ll make it?” he asks me.

“I don’t know.” I answer.

We walk slowly back the hospital and ride the empty elevator up to the ninth floor. There are people sleeping in the waiting room, curled up on chairs. A nurse pushes the button to let us into the ICU ward where all is quiet but the beeping of monitors. For what must be the tenth time, she has to tell me to step back, the doors open outwards! We make our way to David’s room. Our mother and David’s son and daughter look stricken. Mom is leaning over David and frantically gestures to us to come to her side.

“Oh god, he’s passing! His heart is stopping! “ she cries. We all watch the bright red line on the monitor which blips as his heart rate drops, beat by beat, 24, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 11, 10, 6, 3, until it finally stops all together. It is less than a minute since Josh and I walked into this room. Ten minutes ago we were laughing, gathering our strength in the soft leather seats of Josh’s car. Now we hold our mother as she sobs, her eighty-two-year-old body shaking. We’ve never seen her like this, never seen her look so lost. “But he was fine two weeks ago,” she keeps saying. “How did this happen?” We have no answer for her. We hold her close.

The room is quiet now. The endless beeping of the monitors, David’s labored breath as the oxygen pump fills his lungs and then releases, all of it is silent. His skin is still warm to the touch. The nurse asks us to leave the room so she can remove the tubes and clean him up so we can say a more natural good-bye. We wander out into the hallway. There are family members to be called, arrangements to be made. David wanted his body to be donated to science, but there is a possibility he had TB. We need to talk to patient services about this, speak with a funeral home, write an obituary, plan a memorial. We are given pamphlets, all neatly collected in a manila envelope labeled “Bereavement Papers.” It includes lists of helpful books for people who have lost a loved one, lists of important papers to file and agencies to contact. The detritus of death. We need to get our mother home to rest. She has not slept in almost two days and she looks frail.

Josh and I are alone in the hallway as the others go back into David’s room for a bit. I am as tired as I can remember being in a very long time. “Okay,” Josh says, “I know this is going to sound really bad. Really bad. It just tells you what a weird fuck I am. But you know when we were standing there in all of that craziness of machines and drips and pumps? I was thinking about when people talk about ‘pulling the plug.’ How do they know which plug? There were at least twenty plugs in there. What if you pull the wrong one? Do you just keep going, just keep pulling and pulling until you get the right one?”

He looks childlike at that moment. It’s more than gallows humor. He has a good point. Things often sound clear in theory, only to turn out to be quite different in reality. We can’t help ourselves; we laugh at the inappropriateness of our inappropriateness.

“You know I’m going to write that you said that, right?” I say.

“Whatever,” he tells me, “We’re both going to hell anyway.”

•••

The early morning blends in to the next day. Arrangements are made; David’s body can’t be donated and must be cremated instead. We separate; Josh takes care of our mother, and I go to the airport to pick up my teenage son, also named David, who has just missed being able to say goodbye to his grandfather. He’s devastated. We talk and talk as we make the long drive to mother’s ranch. He’s better by the time we get there, hoping to be helpful and supportive to his grandmother. My siblings fly and drive in. They have been on high alert for days, and the house quickly fills. Platters of food and comfort come from loving neighbors throughout the small farming community. Our mother finally lies down to sleep.

And we siblings and our spouses do what we always do. We laugh, delight in each other’s company, deliberately needle each other, tease relentlessly, and together we get the job done. We make the necessary arrangements, we write the obituary, we plan the memorial service and write the program. We find pictures of David and have them printed to make a memorial display. My brother’s wife, Jackie, my best of friends, cleans the house until it shines and smells like oatmeal cookies.

After lunch the next day, as she washes the dishes in the Martha Stewart mint green kitchen of the old farmhouse, Jackie looks across the kitchen at my mother and me and asks, “Where’s David?” My mother and I both look at her in shock. “He’s dead!” we say in unison. For just a moment there is complete silence. Jackie’s jaw drops. “I meant your son,” she says. Oh, well of course she did. We double up with laughter, all three of us, until the tears stream down our faces.

The memorial comes. It is sad and joyful and beautiful. The simple Grange Hall is decorated with flowers from nearby farms; David’s bass cello and his tuba sit at center stage in tribute to his deep love of music. It is clear that this is a man who was loved by many, a man who was an integral part of his community. The tears come and they flow, and a pile used tissues grows around the room. There are more than one hundred people in the Grange Hall, people from David’s church, from the homeless shelter where he volunteered much of his time and talent, and from the brass band in which he played the tuba while dressed in red regalia. People speak of his generosity and his humor and his deeply intellectual nature. We think he would be pleased.

“I think you and I better have private services when we die,” my sister Lisa says to me as we stand in line for food. The potluck table stretches the length of the room and it is piled deep with casseroles and salads and breads and desserts.

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“To cover up the fact that no one would come!” she answers.

It’s true. We haven’t lived in the generous fashion of our mother or stepfather. We’ve been recluses, wrapped in our own worlds. Clearly it’s time to step up our game. At least if we want those we leave behind to be fed and cared for by our neighbors. At this point they’ll be lucky to get room temperature string cheese and a bowl of stale saltine crackers.

I watch my son David through all of this; watch him watching me with my siblings. I hope he is sees the love we feel for one another, the fun we have together, even in this time of sadness. He is loved by all of us, treasured by his grandmother. I hope that love will fill him up, help him to love himself a little more.

And then it’s over. The neighbors go home. The food gets eaten, the flowers begin to droop and drop their petals. After a couple of days we disperse, home to our own families. I stay a few more days with our mother to help tie up loose ends and to give the others reports on how she is doing. She and I talk long into the night, look at photographs, write to-do lists, cross off what we can. My mother rides the waves of feelings that go up and down. The tasks are like an inflatable life boat. If she lets go of all there is to do, she might sink beneath the waves. It is important to her to hold it together, and she does.

•••

My son David has gone back to his boarding school, and I have a conference call with my husband and David and his therapist.

“So David, how did your family deal with their grief? People have a lot of different ways of handling pain and stress. Could you relate to any of them?” his therapist asks.

“Well, they were all kind of laughing a lot. I don’t know. I didn’t really get it. It was weird,” he says.

“Were they laughing the whole time?” she asks.

“Yeah, pretty much. Up until the memorial. Then they got more serious and sad,” he says.

“It’s interesting, David. People deal with stress in many different ways. It’s important to get to the underlying feelings, to process them. But as long as you do that, humor is considered one of the more mature ways of dealing with stress.”

None of the books on death told us to laugh until we cry or wet our pants, whichever comes first. But here we are. Sad, dealing with loss, worried for our mother. And laughing. Because we are, if nothing else, a very mature group of people. Particularly when we are stressed. Particularly when we are together, finding our way down a path without a map.

•••

SHAUN ANZALDUA has a graduate degree from the University of California at Davis. She is a writer, real estate agent, and licensed private investigator. Shaun currently lives in Houston with her three teenage children. She is a contributor to Brain, Child and is currently working on a collection of essays.

The Sexy Problem

jump
By nvk_/Flickr

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

New to Zumba, I love the chance to channel the jump-around-like-crazy energy of my late twenties again—here at fifty. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had with exercise in a very long time. Unlike the pleasingly prescriptive yoga, which makes me feel serene and strong and slightly, hopefully elastic, Zumba is freeing. I jump on my two left feet. I sweat. I even unleash a few long-dormant “woot”s during class.

I’d never imagined the Y to be a sexy place. Others bring the sexy in; I certainly do not. I pretty much jump up and down when hips are supposed to unleash juicy moves I can’t imagine I’ll ever make—or have ever made, for that matter. I am far more at home with that crazy aerobics class energy of my late twenties (late ’80s and early ’90s) than anything so bootylicious. I’ve made it this far as a rounded (physically and metaphorically), strong, terribly self-critical woman.

Other people follow directions better. The class ranges from teen (almost always the good-girl daughters accompanying their cheery moms to class) to white haired ladies, with a few men, gay and straight, sprinkled in. Attire runs the gamut from Ts and shorts, to workout gear, to one woman’s “uniform” of a sundress and bare feet. Like my town, the Y—and the Zumba class—runs casual. At the same time, the most canned of the Zumba songs not only instruct participants to “move your body,” but to “shake your body,” and to feel and inevitably be—or at least channel—S-E-X-Y. The choreography orchestrates hips to shake and gyrate and suggest … things I’m not about to do during or right after class in the non-privacy of my very own kid- and teenager-filled home.

While I don’t want to make those signature moves, I don’t mind them. I’m especially tickled when the twentysomething instructors lead the class—and unleash their playfulness in shiny workout costumes with glitter on their faces. One spacey man half-points and gestures and magically enlists each participant to stand in as leader, like a Zumba whisperer.

In fact, the only time the make-it-sexy aspect of Zumba makes me terribly uncomfortable is when the class is taught by the middle-aged white ladies a.k.a. my peers (neighbors, fellow moms). Yesterday, for example, the teacher wore her carefully blown-out, long hair down. She wore makeup. She wore an ’80s-style cut-up T accompanied by black bike shorts and black Zumba shoes. I wore a skort and tank. Skorts are fun and flippy but decidedly not sexy. During class, I expended my energies in nearly equal parts between exercising and perseverating over the notion that to try to dance sexy at the Y in midlife could be fun, appropriate—not weird, not desperate.

I reminded myself how much I hate the judgy part of me. This woman’s wardrobe, hairstyle, or sexiness is neither my call nor my problem: my discomfort with her is all about me. And my unease isn’t new. Nor is it entirely about age. My peers’ aggressive delivery of sexiness has always made me squeamish. That’s because I’ve never been at ease with any sexy edges in myself. I grew up heavy enough to feel self-conscious, and regardless of pounds on or off, my self-consciousness has never fallen away. I wouldn’t have worn glitter—not in my twenties, not ever. I barely attempted makeup before I had kids. But I’ve never been prim, either: my cardigans aren’t buttoned up to the top and my skirts aren’t necessarily below the knee. Even before the mom-style overtook me, I liked cute clothing that aimed for cute, sweet, innocent sexy—and never a step further. My vanity has always had very strict bounds. I’ve never worn long hair down to an aerobics class. Practicality always won—with flat shoes over heels, clothes that never bind, and silver hair.

When I’m in Zumba class, I feel pretty … fit. After all, I can push myself to jump around for pretty much the entire hour even if I will not shake my booty, merely “jump and bounce.” Here at fifty, a healthy and fit self is my aim—in public. I want to feel pretty. I like to feel capable, or at least strong enough. I want to keep going.

I only want to let sexy out when and where I’m comfortable doing so. That’s in bed with my husband. We’ve got teenagers, teenage sons. Sexy has no other berth here. With teenagers around, my self-image is all about chill, or at least cool enough, slightly batty, and available to help if you need me.

But I’d like to experience the middle-aged ladies’ bids for sexy just as I do the twentysomethings’ bids—as theirs. I’d like to believe that my limitations in class—more jumping and less shaking—could feel as if they aren’t signs of a cop-out. I don’t know that any part of me wants to cultivate my inner-sexy, but I’d like to strut my stuff, on my own terms. If I felt as if I exuded strength and competence and had utter certainty of my beauty… I don’t feel that way, though. The problem with my ideal terms is that they involve a self-confidence that I do not have.

Despite the fact that I don’t possess that self-confidence—and by now, I imagine I might not ever find it—I don’t entirely feel that way. I’m too hard a worker to ever give up entirely. And I do long to experience that exuberant inner-something—if not sexy, then something close. So, as I obsessed about the teacher’s sexy aspirations, I asked myself whether I think that you must check your adult sex-having, sex-seeking, sex-loving self at some imaginary gate when you have children. I don’t. I asked myself whether I believe that you have to give up upon channeling a certain kind of sexy vibe when you reach a certain age. I might, I realized, even though maybe I haven’t even begun to try. I’m not at all sure what sexy looks like at forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five. I don’t know how it translates in this world that equates youth with beauty and sex appeal and power. I wasn’t even thinking I’d contemplate these issues all that much—and certainly not during exercise class at my local Y. But here I am, wondering whether I will surprise myself one of these days—and shake that body.

•••

SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. Her work has appeared recently in the New York Times, Salon, and Brain, Child. Follow her on Twitter @standshadows.

The Insomniac’s To Do List

A guide to getting things done at 3 a.m.

googly eyes
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Jody Mace

1. Keep close track of exactly how much sleep you’ll get if you fell asleep right now. Repeat every half hour.

2. Ponder why you said the dumb-ass thing you said today. If you didn’t say a dumb-ass thing today, revisit one you said sixteen years ago, at a job you used to have, to people you don’t know anymore. Consider how badly those people must think of you.

3. Resolve to use this time wisely. Think about cleaning the bathroom but then remember that you hate cleaning the bathroom and, plus, the cleaner is in the other room and you wouldn’t want to wake anyone up. Instead, decide to do some serious writing, unlike the stupid writing you do for a living.

4. Berate yourself for doing stupid writing for a living. Imagine the disgust that the seventeen-year-old you would feel for you if she knew the kind of writing you’d end up doing.

5. Imagine the disappointment your high school English teacher would feel if she knew.

6. Wonder if your high school English teacher would remember you anyway, despite the brilliance you demonstrated in class when you wrote that farce about archetypes. Consider the notion that perhaps you were not as brilliant as you always thought you were and that maybe you were really just a smart-ass.

7. Remember the mean thing that one person in high school did to you that one time. Look that person up on Facebook and feel vindicated that he is recently divorced, not because, obviously, being divorced is evidence of a character flaw, but because clearly in this case his wife left him because he was an asshole who did mean things to people. Haha.

8. Wonder what the fuck that noise was.

9. Entertain an extremely disturbing thought: how many insects are in this house right at this very moment?

10. Become convinced that there is a microscopic bug crawling on your leg. Challenge yourself to not scratch. Dammit.

11. Remember about bedbugs. Google how to check for bedbugs. Feel sick. Seriously disgusted.

12. Read a book.

13. Realize that you’ve lost your attention span for reading. Or maybe it’s your rapidly worsening short vision that’s the problem. In either case, consider that it may be caused by a brain tumor.

14. Google brain tumors and learn that you definitely have one.

15. Think about making a video for your children with all the advice you’d like to leave them, like how to choose a mate, how to set goals and stick with them, how to do the right thing when their friends are doing the wrong thing, and just how to be a kind person. Then remember that they don’t listen to you anyway so fuck it.

16. Instead, plan the music you’d like at your funeral. Start a “Funeral Playlist” on Spotify. Include some Morrissey because every funeral should have some Morrissey songs.

17. Give some serious consideration to how much further you’d be in your career if you hadn’t majored in the wrong thing in college.

18. Compile a list of all the people you know who are younger than you who are more accomplished in a similar career.

19. Fantasize about doing something inappropriate with someone you shouldn’t think about.

20. Resolve to be more patient with your elderly father, even when he tells you about his dispute with the phone company for the hundredth time, or when he answers the door wearing just a carelessly tied bathrobe despite expressly promising on the phone that he would put on pants.

21. Reflect on what a shitty person you are because you know damn well you will not be more patient with your father.

22. Make a list of all the things you’ve been neglecting to do. Make sure to include the oil change that your car is 1,560 miles overdue for and your mammogram.

23. Panic.

24. Find a bottle of expired Ativan and wonder if expired Ativan will just not work or if it will harm you.

25. Do something productive. Plan menus and a shopping list for the week. Start with eggs.

26. Notice that you’re really hungry.

27. Deny yourself food because it’s 3:30 a.m. and people who eat at 3:30 a.m. are either teenagers or have a big problem.

28. Think about your own teenagers and compile a list of all the things that worry you about them. Start with your older one, who’s in college. Is she eating enough? Does your younger one spend too much time texting, playing video games and watching Dr. Who reruns?

29. Move onto things that they don’t do but might do someday, like binge drink, drive recklessly, and smoke crack. If people still smoke crack. Research what the popular drugs are with the kids these days. Feel nostalgic about smoking pot in college.

30. Check your spam folder in case a really good writing assignment ended up there. Read about how you can get a sexy body that sizzles, rock-hard abs, and lose fifteen pounds in four weeks with just one brand new product. Also read a nice message from a hot Ukrainian girl with beautiful eyes who is ready to “correspond to erotic themes.”

31. Consider what the chances are that, in your forties, you’ll actually lose weight and decide that all your exercising has been a waste of time. Think of other people in their forties who are skinny and hate them. I mean, seriously, seriously hate them because they eat whatever they want and don’t exercise and look at them. Assholes.

32. Read an article about how lack of sleep can make you gain weight and can also adversely affect your mental health. Freak out about how you will never sleep again and you’ll end up the size of a house and also deranged and when you die they’ll have to take the door off its hinges to carry you out, and they’ll put you in a double-sized coffin and that’s all anybody will think about at the funeral, not the playlist you put together for their enjoyment.

33. Have a sudden, searing realization that one day your dogs will die. Cry. Because dogs are the best thing ever, especially your dogs. The way they look at you with those big eyes and wag their tails so hard their butts slide back and forth on the floor. The way they sigh and lean their bodies against you when you take a nap. My god, why do they have to die?

34. Calculate the very latest you can wake up and still get your son to school on time. Set your alarm.

35. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Smelted

tomatosfin
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.etsy.com/shop/ebethfuller

By Sara Bir

It was going to be a treat. I’d bought the fish at the discount grocer’s seafood counter, which usually offers semi-thawed Thai shrimp or filets of tilapia brightly flecked with some snazzy marinade that steadily works on its flesh until, when you get home, the fish cooks up pasty and mealy. But the smelt was wild-caught and, at $2.49 a pound, a steal. They looked so recognizably marine and vital in their plastic pan of chipped ice, the largest of them no more then eight inches from silvery snout to tail. As a part-time vegetarian plotting a quick relapse, I wanted the satisfaction of eating an identifiable animal.

The plan was to pan-fry the smelt and serve them with mashed potatoes and spinach salad, what one of my chef friends calls a three-point landing: protein, starch, and vegetable in their assumed sections on the plate, the protein filling three o’clock to nine o’clock (protein always gets plated closest to the diner) and the starch and veg claiming the remaining two quadrants.

Ever since I stopped eating and cooking meat, the three-point landing had all but vanished from our dinner table. I missed making pan sauces with the fond clinging to the bottom of my favorite skillet after properly sautéing a cutlet. I missed the hiss of chicken stock and vermouth hitting a searing metal pan. I missed artfully arranging components on a plate just so, letting the rusty bones of my expensive culinary school training perform some deeply ingrained but long dormant acrobatics. I liked knowing that I could still pull off classy restaurant-caliber food at home. We never go out to eat, often because I’m disappointed with the food at the upper-mid-range places in town everyone fawns over; we carefully select the locations of the once-a-year splurges and then I realize my $23 trout is served with only three spindly spears of asparagus and a blood orange buerre blanc that’s underseasoned. Better to stick to take-out veggie burritos or cheese pizzas once a month; we know what we’re getting, and no sitter required.

The smelt was an opportunity to please Joe with both my talent and my thrift. How fun it would be to sit with a bottle of $5 rose and lift the spiny string of intact bones from our fish, to crunch through a tiny browned tip of a fin! We couldn’t go to the earthy, broadly smiling locals of some anachronistic European village and bask in their hospitality, eating lusty, rustic foods; we couldn’t go to cozy places in Portland that hoped to offer a simulacra of the same sunny Mediterranean thing right here under our own oppressively grey dome or our damp skies. But we could pull off the coup of having that meal in our own dump of a rental house as our toddler sighed the sighs of early evening sleep in her crib just two rooms away. No sitter, no corkage fee, no showy tattoos of pigs or chef’s knives on the tensed forearms of our posturing servers.

•••

I’d never cooked smelt before. They’d appealed to me at the store in part because of their immediacy, the hint that we could have caught them ourselves on some rejuvenating fishing outing. Joe doesn’t fish. Daniel, my boyfriend many years ago, once took me to his family’s cabin deep in a West Virginia holler where we fished for trout in a clear, frigid stream using canned yellow corn for bait. Our catch was modest but enough to reasonably feed two. We fried them up using the Country Crock margarine from the cabin’s dormitory-sized refrigerator, and Daniel deftly lifted the rear fin of the fish to release the filet on one side, then the other, the perfect chain of bared bones resembling the cartoon skeleton a cartoon cat would dig up from a trash can.

That trip, it must have been Daniel who cleaned the fish. The few times I’d bought farmed trout, their bodies came eviscerated, their guts missing. But, newly examining the smelt I’d so breezily brought home, I find they are not gutted. It’s a decent pile of little fish, a baker’s dozen. After clumsily slitting open a few with my chef’s knife, I open up their cavities and scoop out the slimy brown organs and mushroomy red gills with my finger, just as the Joy of Cooking I’d looked at earlier during Frances’s nap advised me to. It’s tiny, stinky work.

The smelt give off the perfume of algae and barnacles clinging to the filthy blue foam float under a bobbing wooden dock, a smell of simultaneous life and decay. Yes, the disembodied segments of salmon filets I rarely allow into the house have fishy aromas, too, but they entail no liquid eyes or gritty digestive tracts to deal with.  The smelt are wet and cold, and my fingers act up, turning numb and yellow-white.

Mid-gutting, a naked and baby-fresh damp Frances pads to the kitchen, her hands clasped expectantly behind her back. These post-bath visits to the raging inferno of dinner prep are one of the few times she behaves demurely. “Mama, mama!” she calls, reaching out. With my fishy, frigid hands immobilized, I still can’t help but scoop her up using the crooks of my elbows. I kiss her and point her back to her father, who reads books to her in a marathon bedtime session peppered with explosions of shrieks and gigging.

I read to calm her; Joe reads to delight her. I like to time the cooking so that dinner hits the table just as Joe creeps out of her bedroom, but usually I get to the end of my prep and sense that he won’t emerge anytime soon. I’ll tap on the door and say, “Ten minutes and we’re eating.” Sometimes he won’t come out for another twenty; he lingers in there searching for some kind of elusive peace, hoping Frances will fall asleep in his arms and open a portal to her carefree non-adult world and invite him along to stay forever.

Even with the window cracked to the chilly March air and the feeble but noisy vent fan on, the cooked smelt assert their presence throughout the house. Joe makes his way from Frances’s room just as I remove the second batch of fish from the pan, and he scowls. “Whoa! It stinks in here.”

Yes, I agree, it does. It’s the exact duplicate of the cooked fish stench that haunted the stairwell of the sublet apartment where we stayed in Queens the summer of our doomed and ultimately aborted move to New York City. A Greek family lived on the second floor of the three-floor building, and the residue of the seafood they fried hung heavily in the humid city air. Joe constantly complained of that family, of the way the dubiously employed adult kids who still lived there constantly slammed the door. “So those are it? The smelt?” he says, looking skeptically at the tangle of heads and fins I just heaped on his plate. He says “smelt” the way you’d say “chum” or “chub.” He shirks, repulsed. “How are we going to eat those?”

“Like I’d told you, the meat falls right off the bone. You just lift the spine out like a chain. I can do it for you, if you like.”

“Uhhh…I don’t think I can eat this. It’s just…you know.”

The day before, when I’d bought the fish, I’d told him my plan, how we’d be eating these little fish like they do in trendy restaurants. He’d seemed into it then, unless he hadn’t been listening, or hadn’t understood. I guess I talk about cooking food a lot, using terms that don’t have any meaning for a person who doesn’t cook food. I guess it’s easy to tune me out. It’s certainly no effort for me to tune him out.

“These have faces. They look like fish.” He’s trying to excuse himself, to extricate his feelings from my hostility, but it’s only digging him in deeper. People who gladly eat dead animals but don’t like to be reminded that they are eating dead animals are not people I have much patience for.

“Okay, so don’t have the fish. You can have mashed potatoes and salad for dinner.” Mashed potatoes and salad is what a kid who’s not into what Mom made for dinner eats. I feel like I’m Joe’s mom a lot of the time.

“Mashed potatoes and salad?” he says. “That’s not very exciting.”

“So make yourself something else.” He does not. Joe eats a modest serving of unexciting salad and mashed potatoes, and by that point I’d be happier if he’d slapped together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead, because at least he’d be proactive about getting what he wants.

I find I no longer want my smelt, either, but I gamely eat a few ounces. The flesh does fall right off the bone. The caper sauce is excellent. I drink most of the rosé. Before we opened it, I had been thinking maybe we’d have sex later that night, but right then I wasn’t even interested in being in the same house with Joe.

•••

A few days later, I made smelt salad with a dab of the caper sauce and the leftover flakes of smelt—rich and fishy and still with some stray bits of crispy skin, fin, and needle-thin bone. I ate this at work atop long pieces of toasted rye and cornmeal bread I’d made myself, interspliced with nibbles of a kosher pickle I’d pickled myself. It was a splendid lunch, serendipitously Scandinavian. All it needed was some pickled beets. And while it’s no feat to make no-knead bread, or to make kosher pickles (that it’s all a matter of letting cucumbers and garlic cloves sit forgotten in salt water for a few days seems like an April Fool’s joke), I thought to myself, “I am awesome.” I wanted Joe to be saying this, and for the same reasons I was thinking it: that I made things that tasted good, that I figured out how to on my own, that I so shrewdly navigated our little family’s constantly ailing finances through cruel storms into civilized ports of comfort and even occasional refinement.

Daniel—Daniel of the trout and the remote Appalachian cabin—loved my food. It enthralled him, as did nearly everything about me. Only once was he less than thrilled, at a dry and chewy noodle kugel I’d baked using thick Amish egg noodles instead of the lighter supermarket kind, and even then he tactfully said he didn’t think this misguided Amish-Jewish fusion ranked among my culinary triumphs. I broke up with Daniel because I eventually found that I was not capable of being adored so much by one person. He spoke French and rebuilt motorcycles engines and split wood with an ax and won awards for his journalism. He thought everything I did was wonderful, and I left him.

Which I don’t regret. On paper the relationship was ideal, but in practice the responsibility of being idolized smothered me. Now I try to please the man I did marry by being who I am, and it backfires. Even when I set out with lovely intentions, I have to cook on my terms. To love me is to love my food. For him, I do not slice onions but dice them; the limp, stringiness of cooked onions reminds him of worms, the sight of which makes him retch. For him, I eschew spaghetti and fettuccini and linguini for the same reasons. For him, I buy Tofurkey sausages. There are far greater concessions.

When I was a teenager, you could have knocked me over with a feather if you told me I’d someday marry a skateboarder who plays drums and makes art, so elated would I have been. Skateboarding is the thing Joe slips away from the house for on Sundays, leaving me alone with Frances to cope with a pile of smelt and a cold, muddy playground calling her name. Then he goes to band practice. Then, after dinner, he washes the dishes and complains about how difficult it is to clean a sheet pan in our shallow sink, and about the amount of dishes there are to wash, even though I never reach for a utensil or pot without first thinking, “Do I need this? How can I go about this prep in such a way as to minimize cleanup?” because that is what working in professional kitchens and graduating from one of the top cooking schools in the country will pound into you. Then, after the kitchen is acceptably immaculate, Joe gets out his colored tape and works away at his art. The sight is so familiar by now that I don’t even notice him. He shows me a new piece and I can’t come up with convincing enthusiasm if I do like it; if I don’t like it, I just say “hmm” or “ahh,” then retire to the bedroom with a book.

Would that have happened with Daniel or someone else, that after more than ten years together he’d wander in from the garage, black grease under his short-clipped nails and an industrious evening of manly repairing and improving under his belt, and I’d grunt in indifference? Would the oily cling of cooking smelt put him in a grumpy mood once he set foot in a kitchen thrumming with the energy of a meal in unstoppable progress?

A week later, we still have some of the caper sauce. I cook two decent-sized artichokes in the pressure cooker to serve with it. It’s taken me years, but I finally figured out that artichokes taste best when you cook the hell out of them. I put them on a plate, one for me and one for him, and set an empty wooden salad bowl next to it for us to put the leaves in.

The artichokes are rich and meaty, more so as we work towards their gray-green hearts. Cleaning an artichoke is involved, about as much work as gutting a fish, though it’s not nearly as slimy or fishy. Eating an artichoke is work, though tasty and relaxing work. We obliterate our artichokes, dipping them in caper sauce and leaving behind only a thorny pile of spiny scraped-up leaves, and Joe gladly works his way toward his favorite part, the rich and tender area toward the center of the base and stem, and I realize you can’t count on everyone to be satisfied with making a meal of artichokes, or to think of such a thing as a special occasion, and I decide to let the smelt thing slide.

•••

SARA BIR is a writer, chef, and librarian who recently relocated from Portland, Oregon, to southeast Ohio. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a recipient of the Greenbrier Scholarship to the Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Food Writers. You can read more of her writing at www.sarabir.com

Soul Mate 101: Don’t Marry Him

balloons
by Gina Kelly www.etsy.com/shop/ginalkelly

By Susan Kushner Resnick

My soul mate’s hand was warm, so I felt safe letting go for a few minutes.  I had calls to make, people to summon to his bedside. While I sat next to him and spoke to his only living relative, a nurse walked into the room.

“He’s gone,” she said almost in a whisper.

I put down the phone and lifted his big hand again.

Cold.

I kissed his forehead then immediately called my husband.

David had been supporting me for the entirety of the relationship that I’d just lost. He wasn’t threatened by Aron, a ninety-one-year-old Holocaust survivor, although he became appropriately alert when I’d announced our first rendezvous fourteen years earlier.

Aron had approached me in the lobby of a community center as I put my baby in a car seat.

“Vhat’s his name?” he had asked.

I summed him up as harmless. I figured he was approaching strange women and babies because he missed his own grandchildren. But a few more questions revealed how wrong that assumption had been. Aron didn’t have children or grandchildren. All but one of his family members had been killed by Hitler.

“I was in the camps,” he said. “All the camps.”

Auschwitz, Birkenau, Dachau. Places of infamy where he learned to sort the blouses of the dead and to witness a hanging without flinching. Yet his eyes sparkled during that first conversation and he delivered lines like a Borscht-belt comedian. The contrast—so seemingly jolly for a Holocaust survivor—hooked me. I asked him out for a coffee date.

“You buying?” he asked.

And so, for $1.25, a beautiful friendship began.

In the early days of our relationship, we flirted. He’d drive by my house to see if my car was in the driveway. I’d make sure my make-up was right before ringing his doorbell. He would regularly tease David about the potential for romance between us.

“If I was thirty years younger, you’d be in trouble,” he said over and over.

I even imagined romantic scenes starring Aron and me, circa 1946. In these fantasies, I played the strong American lass loving the young Polish survivor back to life. I would soothe him after he woke screaming from the nightmares that plagued him from the end of the war to the end of his real life: dreams of vicious dogs and men shooting at his father. He would be so grateful for my patience and tenderness that he would take me as his bride. And for the rest of our lives, he would never construct slag heaps of laundry in the corners of the bedroom or forget every logistical detail I ever told him, as my actual husband does.

I conjured those fantasies because like most humans, I was conditioned to associate strong attraction with romantic love. I was drawn to Aron, therefore I must have a crush on him, right? And though I always knew that wasn’t the course our relationship would take—he was forty-four years my senior and the picture of elderliness when we met—I had a hard time labeling our bond. I played with all kinds of combinations: grandfather and granddaughter; sister and brother; best friends. None of them fit.

•••

The soul mate, we’ve been taught in our rom-com culture, is the brass ring of romantic love. Find your other half and you can start searching for wedding caterers. A soul mate knows you and “gets” you and will never let you down. Therefore, you should marry him.

Don’t.

At least not if you believe in soul mate as mirror image. There’s an old myth that says humans started as four-limbed double creatures, but the gods worried that we’d take over, so they decided to split us in half. Ever since, we’ve been searching for our other halves so we can feel complete.

How marriage became part of the equation I’ve never understood. It seems as though marrying your twin would be exactly the wrong thing to do.

For four years, I dated my psychological echo. At first it was wonderful: so familiar, so comfortable. He got me. Then it turned disastrous. This nice guy and I, with our tendencies toward depression and inertia, were bringing each other down. Because we were so similar, we made the same mistakes. There was no counterbalance—no one to pull either of us back by the belt loops when we got too close to the edge.

In a pairing of opposites, there’s always someone to see how crazy you’re getting and metaphorically slap you straight. The boyfriend and I didn’t have this. Thankfully, we didn’t marry.

My husband, by contrast, can pull me back from the brink and I can do the same for him. We are not soul mates. We are complete individuals, not two halves of each other. He is science and I am art. He is awake and I am dreaming. He saves and I spend. I’m better at parallel parking, but only he can remember where we left the car. Of course, our differences can sometimes be infuriating, but our pairing has worked for twenty-one years. I like to think that’s because David is my intended: the best husband the universe could have picked for me. A unified soul has nothing to do with it.

Aron also ended up with a romantic opposite. His girlfriend, Nerry, was a highly educated Russian professor of foreign languages who never complained about her serious medical issues and who read poetry recreationally. Aron, by contrast, graduated from fifth grade, complained about every twinge, and watched pro-wrestling for escape. At their cores, he was sand and she was steel.

Both of our relationships worked fine when we met, though I was yearning for something I couldn’t name. David and I balanced each other, made each other laugh, and agreed on the big things. But he didn’t get me unless I explained myself because he didn’t see the world through the same lens. I missed that. Then I found Aron.

•••

He identified our similarities first. He had tumbled into an anxiety-depression hole that led to a hospitalization that brought me to the first of many uncomfortable chairs by many institutional beds. He’d been admitted for chest pains, but the doctors and I knew that cardiac weakness wasn’t causing his distress. PTSD from four years in the Nazi system was making him sick, but he refused to see that or to speak to the staff psychiatrist about treatment. It was my job to convince him to surrender to help. As the sunset turned the industrial rooftops outside his window into art, I told him my story. I’d been anxious for years until a case of postpartum depression forced me to face and treat my brain’s chemical inadequacies. I’d felt fine ever since. Accepting help didn’t have to be shameful.

“Nothing bothers Nerry,” he said.

“Same with David,” I said.

“Good thing we have them because we’re both nervous,” he said.

He looked at me and grinned. We were both nervous. We laughed at the same things. We interpreted the world in the same cynical way, spoke in the same blunt manner, even liked the same foods prepared the same quirky ways. Because he’d been raised in the days of privacy and dignity, our conversations didn’t involve dribbling our vulnerabilities all over each other. But we still knew what the other would say or how the other was feeling most of the time. We didn’t have to work at trust and love, or worry that either would fade. Neither of us could be described as easy-going, but even after he hung up on me during an argument or I scolded him for being so exceedingly stubborn, we didn’t have to apologize or explain ourselves. It was easy. It was not marriage.

We were, I believe, the purest of soul mates. There was no romance or sex. Just the deep comfort of being seen and known and accepted completely.  For a brief period in both of our lives, we got to feel whole.

•••

Then his hand went cold.

What’s it like to lose a soul mate? The saddest part is suspecting that such a relationship will never come again. I plan on having my husband around for many more years, and I will surely develop new life-changing friendships. But I don’t think we get more than one soul mate per life cycle. Who else on this earth will ever know me so well? It hurts to realize that particular luxury is probably over for me.

I used to panic, as Aron got older, about how I’d live in the world without him. But it’s turned out to be surprisingly painless. I take comfort in remembering how lucky I am to have found my other half. But I also don’t feel like he’s completely absent.

I talk to a lot of dead people in my head—my mother, dear friends who died young—but almost never to Aron. This makes sense to me. Where else would the rest of me go after death? Following my soul mate theory, he is I. To reach him, I only need to talk to myself.

•••

SUSAN KUSHNER RESNICKS’s latest book, You Saved Me, Too: What A Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting and Swearing in Yiddish, was published in October 2012. She teaches creative nonfiction writing at Brown University.

Family and Support

bras
d-i-g-i-f-i-x/ Flickr

By Karen Dempsey

On vacation with my younger sister, Megan, and our families, I was sorting the laundry, her family’s from mine, when I called out to her, “Do you have a beige bra?”

“Noooo …” she said. “Because I’m not ninety.

“Hey,” I said. “I have the same bras you have—I bought that push-up you told me about.”

“In beige?” she asked, laughing.

I was defensive: “Beige goes with everything!” I tossed the bra onto the pile of my clothes. Jeans and t-shirts. Khaki shorts. Frumpy underwear.

Clinging to hangers in the dim corner of my closet are some remnants of my life before kids, before forty. The sleek gold tank dress I bought for a trip to Bali, when I wore little clothing and a lot of DEET. The green wool skirt that my tailor exclaimed over before tsking protectively over the hemline. “A little higher,” I negotiated, and he shook his head, sighing, “Ah, my girl.”

Those clothes I’ve been holding onto might not fit any longer—my body, or my life. But Megan’s right: at least I can have nice underwear.

I ordered some bras from the Gap Body store online. They came in the mail stuffed with hard tissue-paper cups to hold their shape. My husband John tossed one of the cups at me, teasing, “Aren’t you supposed to leave those in?”

The bras fit okay, but they were still sort of ordinary. I decided to exchange them for some non-beige underwear. But they sat in my closet until the next time I was headed to the mall—which happened to coincide with a visit from my father, who decided to come along.

“I need to buy some underwear and return a bra,” I said to my father—very directly— as he rode beside me in the car. “Do you have any errands you need to run?”

He shrugged. “I’ll just come with you.”

Divorced for three decades and on the verge of leaving the business he spent his life building, my father is a man defined by his faith. He carries in his pocket a string of rosary beads and prayer cards with photos of Pope John Paul the Second and Mary, the Mother of Christ.

My parents—Irish, Catholic, junior high sweethearts—married young and had seven children together. They divorced when I was ten. I spent alternate weekends visiting my father, my pajamas and a change of clothes stuffed into the folds of my rolled up sleeping bag. When I started wearing a bra, I stuffed that in deeper—probably along with my well-worn copy of Forever.

Bras were a nod to my developing femininity—to sexuality. Although my father and I talked about a lot of things as I grew up, bras weren’t among them. I am fairly sure that up to this point in his seventy years, he has also been spared the task of shopping for them.

But I was well past adolescence. Married. With two children. He didn’t seem to be giving it a second thought. So I why was I?

At the mall, he followed me into Gap Body.

He trailed along behind me among the displays of silk and lace. It’s just The Gap, I reminded myself. But my father’s face was already turning red. I had already picked out a style online and, when a twenty-something, khaki-clad boy appeared and chirped, “Is there something I can help you with?” I decided to aim for efficiency.

“I’m looking for the—satin hipster?” I tried to speak softly, but the boy clerk, whose named tag read Justin, wasn’t having it. He nearly clapped with enthusiasm. “Thong or panties?” he shouted.

“Just—the panties,” I said, avoiding my father’s glance.

Justin led me through the store. My father followed, his face fixed in a blank expression.

Waving a thin arm over the display table like a magician, Justin announced: “Low-rise. Ultra low-rise.”

I scanned the table. White, gray, beige. Megan’s admonitions popped into my head. “Do you have anything more in back?”

“We don’t.” He smiled apologetically. “You were hoping for the lace?”

“Um,” I said. “Just maybe something with a pattern?”

I felt my father shift beside me. “You know, it’s fine. I’ll just order them online.” I said. “I do have a bra to return, though.”

Justin took the bra to the register and held it up high.

“Cinnamon red,” he said approvingly. “Ultra plunge.”

I looked at my father, almost against my will, but he did not look at me. He gestured toward the door and finally—finally—headed outside to wait.

He was quiet in the car for awhile then said, “You must be trying to get revenge on me for something. All those times I embarrassed you when you were young.”

At home over dinner, my husband John asked about our day.

“My daughter took me to the unmentionables store,” my father said. “With all the women’s underwear.”

“It was The Gap!” I said, exasperated.

But John nodded in sympathy, and my father frowned at me in a very familiar way. Reduced to the role of recalcitrant child, I did the only thing I could. I blamed my sister.

 •••

KAREN DEMPSEY has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at kdempseycreative.com or follow her @karenedempsey.