Hope Floating

baby
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Robin Schoenthaler

I was forty, and single, and pregnant, and jubilant. I blossomed during a perfect pregnancy and then proceeded to give birth to a beautiful baby boy I named Ryan Peter Schoenthaler, eight pounds twelve ounces and twenty-one gorgeous inches long. He died nine days later in my arms, still and cool.

I buried that boy on a sunny hillside in a tiny casket designed to look like a bassinet, and by the time I stumbled out of the cemetery, I was a dead woman walking. Some days I couldn’t keep my eyes open; other days I could barely speak. I dreamed in adjectives: impossible, unbearable, unimaginable; I woke up with verbs: pulverized, imploding, eviscerated.

Two years later, I gave birth to a boy named Kenzie James. I got through the pregnancy and birth through denial, plain and simple, with one permanent pricetag: nine months of total amnesia. Of that period of pregnant pause, I remember OJ Simpson and I remember grinding my teeth, and that is really all.

Three miscarriages and three years later, when my last son came along—Cooper Craig Schoenthaler—I was wholly awake and fully attentive and I remember everything. Of the six pregnancies, I am left with one birth story.

Cooper was delivered by Cesarean section. An average C-section takes six or seven minutes from incision to delivery; Kenzie’s took an endless half-an-hour; Cooper, eleven minutes. Eleven minutes to a lifetime.

I lay there while they opened me up again, floating along the arc-line that had gradually and irrevocably led me to this scene—lying flat on my back in a yellow room with bright lights. I was a woman physician under the care of women who started out just like me, women who struggled over books and tests and money and hostile men in positions of power for years at a time and who now put their bodies and souls on the line.

I remember my obstetrician Sharon coming to my hospital room at midnight to attend Ryan’s brain-dead baptism. I picture her holding my hand in the NICU that night and then again and again over the next five years. I think of all the phone calls: I would sob and she would let me make any appointment any time as I worked through the surviving of survivorship.

I think of all the tables I have laid on and all the doctors I have seen—a long line, a stately procession—giving me good news and bad news and no news at all. I think of Ryan’s delivery and his death. I think of how I lifted his body straight up above me, offering him to the sky. I think of Sharon two years later holding Kenzie aloft, in triumph, a giddy elevation of child-spirit, a peak moment, a crystal. I think of the dim light in Ryan’s NICU room where his soul sailed away, and the bright lights in Kenzie’s delivery room when his soul sailed in.

I think of the night light that Kenzie uses—how at three he is already such a singular little person who wants to look at books alone at night, how his soul is full of light and always has been. I feel the presence of both Kenzie and Ryan very distinctly within me,  as well as a whole line of women who have given birth before me—my grandmothers and my friends, my mom and all the bereaved women in books and on buses.

I listen to the heartbeat monitors and think of Ryan’s heartbeat ceasing and Kenzie’s frantic heartbeat when he’s feverish and the roaring in my ears each time I miscarried and I can’t help but compare them to the steady beat-beat-beat that is my own heart’s rhythm in this room at this moment.

It’s a long eleven minutes.

Then I hear Sharon start to croon. In seemingly an instant, she again holds one of my sons aloft in the light. The overhead lamps create an aura, a halo, an embrace and I experience blindness reversed as the light heightens every pore and every limb and Cooper is outlined in beauty, screaming shrieking bloody beauty. He is alive, he is aquiver, he is a soul.

They bring him to me wrapped up and warm. I get my first good hard look at him: he is red-faced and dumbstruck, and I am the same.

I reach for him. No one says a word. The room is quiet; it feels like an altar. There’s no heart monitor machines now, no barking loudspeakers, just the murmuring of Sharon and her partner, and the nurses counting sponges. I kiss Coop over and over—his perfect cheeks, perfect skin, perfect neck. He turns to me when I speak.

I lay there with this miracle in my arms, flooded with all that can happen over the course of half a decade. I remember the long period after Ryan’s death when a pain-free interval seemed impossible, when anguish never ended and never waxed or waned.

But I realize, lying there, that somehow, somewhere, something carried me through. It is too strong to call it “hope”: there was no hoping back then. It’s too strong to say it was anchored in me—it was not. But it must have floated, in and out, with the moon, or with the seasons, or maybe with each breath.

Because something helped me hear the muffled words that sometimes bounced off the sheer rock cliffs of my pain. I began to hear the voices in the cemeteries I visited—voices of mothers who murmured that if I could just keep breathing long enough the tunneled darkness might begin to lift. I began to see the anguish of my cancer patients in terms of cells defying death. I began to connect myself to a humanity bound up with suffering—plague victims, war dead, road kill, religious martyrs, and most of all a long line of women who had keened over children in caskets.

Something had taken hold of me. It wasn’t optimism or confidence or faith in an equitable universe—that was gone and would never come back.

It was much fainter: a tiny turning, a whispered murmur, a miniature red berry lying deep and dormant. But the berry dropped a seed and the seedling took. A tiny bud appeared and on it there must have been a drop of dew, and that was where I let that little thing that must have been hope float. I never touched it, I never named it, I really never even knew it was there. I just let it float. I let my hope float. I let my hope float on an impossibly tiny bud and now I had another son, I had two more sons.

They move us to the recovery room where it is dimly lit and quiet. Cooper nurses. I am pain-free and at a level of peace that is hard to describe to this world. I curl up on the gurney in the darkened recovery room, all dreamy sated senses.

Eventually the nurse and I begin to chat. She remembers Ryan well. “Every time I pass Room 428 I think of all the flowers you left behind,” she tells me. Then we coo about Cooper, how beautiful he is and already such a good nurser and so alert and connected and smart.

She tells me then about her own difficulties with conceiving, her doubts and how frightened she has become. I can so completely relate to this young woman at the beginnings of yet another long trail. She says to me, “We’ve tried so hard to have a baby, but I’m afraid to keep trying. How did you keep your hope alive?”

I start to tell her, but I hesitate. I’m suddenly tired beyond imagining, my eyes and limbs feel weak and I am nearly asleep. I murmur, “Just let it float.” She says, “Hope Floats? Isn’t that a movie?” and I giggle into the pillow.

Lying there laughing, I feel them like a flash flood, the raw and precious lives that led us here: the lives where pain has a beginning but anguish has an end, where seasons start and berries fall, where there are voices that can pierce the darkness and where cells that split can mean life in one year and death in the next and where there are webs that connect us with our ancestors and that in the darkest winter there are buds that can act as cradles and that hope may not spring eternal but that it can absolutely float.

•••

ROBIN SCHOENTHALER is a writer/mom/physician (the order varies by the day) who lives outside Boston with her sons Kenzie and Cooper. They are now seventeen and fourteen, and Ryan, had he lived, would be a freshman in college. Her website is www.DrRobin.org.

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Waking Bad: One Wife, One Husband, Two Beds

coupleinbed
By Cosmita/ Flickr

By Eric Williamson

This essay contains spoilers about Breaking Bad, so if that matters to you, bookmark this baby. —Ed.

I have something of dire importance to say to my wife, Sheryl, but she’s on the phone. So I grab a beer and mill about.

When she’s finally off, she tells me that she went to Zumba, how tired she is, how her cute dominatrix instructor from the Ukraine encouraged her to up her weight limit, what her dom wore to class, what she wore to class, what the other people wore. Sheryl knows I hate this kind of conversation, because it’s not really meant for me—unless, perhaps, as punishment.

When she’s done, I say, “There’s a new theory floating around about Breaking Bad.”

She doesn’t respond, just stares at me. This is significant because, for the past several years, the one thing we could agree on, without fail, was that show. Following the saga of Walter White—the cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who transforms into a drug kingpin—was inexplicably therapeutic for us. The rule was we had to watch every episode together, without cheating, or there would be serious hell to pay from the other. Afterwards, we would discuss.

We got married, in fact, because we liked talking to each other.

Here’s the gist for those uninitiated into the series: Walt needs to earn money for his family before he dies, so he enlists the help of one of his former students, Jesse, and together they secretly cook meth in an RV out in the desert. But Walt’s plan is complicated by the fact that he excels at his new cottage industry. His blue meth is the purest around, which puts him both in competition, and in league, with some of the most ruthless members of the criminal underworld. Ultimately, his megalomania endangers the lives of everyone he loves, including his wife Skyler, his teenage son Walt Jr. and his newborn Holly.

“The theory,” I continue, “is that what we saw wasn’t the real way the show ended, and that the last episode was all in Walt’s head.”

Sheryl looks around the room, at the color of the walls that she’s not satisfied with, at a stinkbug pioneering a stretch of molding.

“The idea goes that as the police close in on Walt in the snow-covered car he’s trying to hotwire, he changes up the game in his head. The cops pass him, he magically finds a set of spare keys behind the visor, and rejuvenated by his sudden good fortune, returns to New Mexico to settle his final scores.”

She stares at me again. At least it approximates eye contact. “But what does it matter?” she asks. “He dies anyway.”

Her comment feels like a kick in the nads, but I catch my breath and soldier on. “Well, it’s important because it determines whether he’s able to die on his own terms. It’s about being a man, you know? And then you’re left to ask: Well, is that just after all he’s done? Is that right?”

But she persists in her take—which is not to have a take, I guess.

“I’m just saying, what’s the point of even talking about it? The show’s over now.”

“You’re right,” I say, deflated. “What’s the point?”

•••

Sheryl and I met as undergrads at the University of Georgia, reunited on Facebook twenty years later, flirted by phone for several months, and then finally began our bi-coastal dating relationship.

Jet-setting between my home in Los Angeles—the entertainment capital of the world—and her home in Charlottesville, Virginia—where nothing much happens but the weather—was super-romantic. She was the one who wooed me. She sent me handwritten love notes and little gifts (including a cast iron skillet) that evoked pleasant thoughts of domesticity.

When we were together, we were always on vacation.

When we were apart, we talked on the phone almost every night, about the old times, the status of mutual friends, the unspooling of our lives. Unspoken was how she became more conservative with the birth of her son, how I became more liberal from my five years of living on the Left Coast.

What didn’t seem like a match two decades earlier gradually came to seem do-able.

The difference in time between Eastern and Pacific meant my stories were often bedtime stories for her, and I could tell by the long pauses between affirmations when she was nodding off. Neither of us minded so much that I didn’t always get to the ending, though.

Some stories—the ones we truly love—we don’t want to end.

•••

I never meditated too long on why the writers chose the name “Heisenberg” for Walt’s alter ego. I knew his namesake was a scientist and that it had something to do with the atomic bomb, but I figured they would either explain it more or I could look it up later. Well, I finally looked it up.

Warner Heisenberg was one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which not only led humanity down the road to atomic weaponry, but it also led us down the road of quantum theory in general, which includes quantum chemistry and quantum physics.

Just like with Walt, good intentions could be viewed as having gone astray (although in the real Heisenberg’s case, it was a more complicated matter). The real Heisenberg had terminal cancer, too.

Now I’m not a scientist, and I understand the show’s creators had very little scientific background as well. But there is a concept called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more certainty you have in measuring the position of a particle, the less certainty you’ll have in defining its momentum—and vice versa.

Subsequent theories in the quantum realm express similar dualities. Just like that old chestnut about the Deep South, it’s all relative, right? The truth and how well it can be defined are sometimes dependent on your perspective.

At least two realities exist in Breaking Bad. One is the TV ending we can live with. Walt finds a way to transfer his ill-gotten gains to his son, exacts his revenge on those who crossed him (who were conveniently more evil than he was), and rescues Jesse from the meth dungeon, where he had been forced to cook for the thugs that Walt had previously allied with.

I still need that ending. It may not be quite as logical, as “real,” but I cannot live in a world in which Jesse at least doesn’t get away. He doesn’t deserve that fate.

But I’ve also come to accept the implicit ending, that what Walt thinks he experiences is actually a fantasy he concocts in his own rotting brain. He’s still aware, of course, of the logic of how people will react to him, based on how they’ve reacted to him in the past, and this knowledge keeps him from spoiling his own illusion that he has continued forward, even though he has really gone nowhere.

With a generous nod to postmodern film criticism, which counts viewer interpretation as being as valid as the filmmaker’s conscious or stated intent, it simply feels more like real life.

In reality, bad things happen to good people, and some mistakes can’t be taken back.

•••

One of the reasons Sheryl and I fight is sleep. If one of us sleeps well, the other can’t seem to get a wink. Sleep is the aspect of a loving relationship you can’t really work on. It’s a zero-sum game, and we are both greedy in bed in that respect.

When she sleeps, she sprawls diagonally, points her long legs all the way down to her big toes, and kicks like the professional dancer she aspires to be in her next life. I’ve often suspected, though, she doesn’t do her Rockettes performance in my absence, and that she’s passive aggressive even in REM state.

But I admit that I am more disruptive. I scream unexpectedly in the middle of the night, for example. It isn’t always a nightmare. Sometimes I simply fall asleep on my arm, and my arm follows, and the alarm in my subconscious goes off, bleating its warning from the murky depths that a part of me is dying.

This all led to Sheryl’s decision to finish the basement. It would give us more space, she explained, and we could move her son down there, freeing up a bedroom for when we both really needed our sleep.

My stepson T. is fifteen and already six-foot-two. His haircuts alternate from Ziggy Stardust, to hippy-dippy, to high-and-tight. He’s currently trying to grow a mustache, and so far, he’s already doing better than I’m able. He’s a good human being. Better than me on that front as well. He’s also quite possibly a genius—just ask his mother.

So she drew up plans—she once dreamed of becoming an architect—and oversaw the contractor. She did all of the finishing touches herself. Throughout the process, I was supposed to praise every new wall erected, every sign of progress, but to me it felt like we were going backwards.

The pending change in our sleeping arrangements felt like the demise of our romance.

•••

Suspense, of course, is essential to telling a good story, and one aspect of Breaking Bad that fascinated us both is that it jerked you around in time. An unexpected flashback or flash forward would create a tantalizing mystery that begged to be solved. Like the pink teddy bear with one eye that ended up in Walt’s pool.

The puzzle pieces didn’t always make sense right away, but you knew by end they would all fit together.

The bear, we learn, was a result of the fictional Wayfarer 515 air collision, in which a bereaved air traffic controller accidentally sends a commercial airliner into the path of a chartered plane, killing 167 people. One act of un-kindness—in this case, Walt letting Jesse’s girlfriend die—kicks the next domino, which is her father, the air traffic controller, whose distraction leads to the mid-air collision.

With so many lives affected by the tragedy, your imagination is left to extrapolate how bad energy will just keep multiplying.

•••

The flight from Los Angeles to Virginia is about seven hours. If you fly non-stop. Plus, you have to take into consideration the three hours you lose. My flight was further complicated by a stop-over and a bump, which meant staying in the Philadelphia airport an entire sleepless night.

Walter White did many unforgivable things over the course of the show. He even poisoned a child. All I did was try to get some sleep.

For my first official day home, Sheryl planned a party for all of her friends to welcome me. But as the time crept closer for her to trot me out, I was still in bed, which was still “our bed” then. She rudely shook me awake.

“Would you stop?” I begged. “A man needs his sleep!”

“A man needs his sleep?” she repeated, outraged—as if my exhaustion was an affront not just to her and her own need for sleep, but to all women’s need for sleep.

“A human being!” I said and covered my eyes with a pillow. “Now go away!”

She left in a huff, telling me I had five more minutes and then I’d better get up. When she returned, she brought her son in to double-team me. He was much littler then, but together they were a force of nature.

“Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” they yelled as they jumped on me and bounced the bed.

I bolted upward and threw out my hands in self-defense. Once I remembered where I was again, I was not amused.

“You’re lucky I didn’t hit you!” I snarled and rolled over.

Despite the obviousness of the context, I knew that didn’t come out quite right. Sheryl confirmed as much when she responded, “If you ever hit me or my son…”

Unfortunately, that fight stretched out for several days. The welcome-home party took on a turd-in-the-punch-bowl vibe when I hardly spoke to anyone, inviting retaliation from my wife afterward. The drama culminated with me on my cell phone in tears on the Downtown Mall, still trying to explain myself, but needing to be anywhere else but in the same house with her.

As teenagers rubber-necked, that’s when I said it. That thing you can never take back.

•••

After the never-ending home construction project was over, I finally had that sleep study done, the idea for which had originated months earlier at Sheryl’s request.

It was awkward. The tests are conducted in a hotel, which seems to me more tawdry than medical. The technicians put electrodes all over your body, they let you watch a little television until you’re sleepy—I caught a repeat of Breaking Bad—then they observe you while you sleep. You really can’t move around much. You’re tethered.

I didn’t feel like I slept much during the testing. I kept going under and then resurfacing. They call these “arousals.” I was relieved to learn that they didn’t mean the other kind, because they said I had a lot of them during the night.

In the morning, they fed me a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel lobby. I ate second helpings, with the assumption that I had no obligation to tip.

I felt good about that decision because the bill from the test was a killer. Another source of animosity between us. At first she said she would pay a portion of the damage, but then she reneged. Choosing to have the test done was ultimately my decision, she said.

At my follow-up appointment, the doctor said there wasn’t anything dangerous about my sleep. I didn’t need to strap on one of those S&M space masks—an assortment of which he had on Styrofoam heads all around his office—but I could still get one if I wanted. He would just have to make up an excuse for insurance purposes.

I returned home triumphantly from the doctor with test results that proved I fell “within a range of normal.” To which she only sneered.

But I had done what she wanted, and I asked, “Can I come back to our bedroom and sleep?”

“Now that we’re in separate rooms, I feel like the problem has been solved in my mind,” she said. “I’m getting the best sleep of my life. But maybe you can visit once a week?”

I think a part of her wanted me to beg, as penance for some past sin. But I was too proud.

As our standoff unfolded, she actually faulted me for not being more loving, for not catering more to her needs. She grew increasingly confrontational, and she justified her actions with the non sequitur that she could behave that way because she was the girl in the relationship.

Silently, though, I agreed with Sheryl. I believe that all girls should be told they hang the moon. They should be told that they are pretty and smart and that they are loved, without condition. But that’s not what happens in every girl’s childhood.

And that’s not how I responded. What came out of my mouth instead was, “I can be just as much of a girl as you can.”

•••

So here we are. Breaking Bad is over, and the only show that even comes close to replacing it for us is The Walking Dead—a metaphor I’d prefer not to contemplate.

What happens now that we can’t offload our marital tensions vicariously through Walt and Skyler anymore? What happens now that we know the whole story—that Walt Jr. won’t become a meth addict, as we once feared, and that poor Jesse indeed makes it out alive, if not unscathed?

What happens now that we’ve reached an end?

We have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for months now, with fans to knock out any impromptu noises in the night. During this particular night, which is actually early morning, I’m so mired in the old lumpy futon mattress I sleep on that my arms get pinned to my sides and one of them falls asleep. By instinct, I cry out and wake myself. It’s loud, but maybe she didn’t hear?

A few seconds later, the hall light shines in through the door cracks. It’s 3:30-ish a.m.

I fall back to sleep and get up at my normal time. When I peek into Sheryl’s bedroom, she’s already downstairs. Her bed is made. And I verify the situation with our wedding pictures is status quo; she’d taken them down, despite the therapy we both agreed was helping.

I have to hand it to her. This is her passive aggressive masterpiece.

You take for granted the images you see all of the time, until they’re gone. I’m trying my best to picture the cluster of three 11 x 14 photos, but it’s a challenge. All three portraits are of the two of us at the ocean in our wedding clothes—a destination wedding in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

In the picture that comes most readily to mind, Sheryl stands on the black rocks in her red cotton Victoria’s Secret dress, looking statuesque. I sit in diminutive silhouette, staring up at her like a child might.

The second-easiest to recall is the one of us prone in the volcanic sand, and you can see us both clearly in this one. I wear a white shirt and have my tan britches from Old Navy rolled up mid-calf as I nest in her arms. We both look stupidly happy as we stare off towards the ocean, like a scene from our remake of From Here to Eternity, the last blush of sunset still clinging to the bottoms of the clouds.

But the third picture is the hardest to remember. It doesn’t come to me right away, but it will later. It’s a close-up of us in silhouette. Our arms are entwined yet free-flowing, like some statue from a Hindu temple. A beast or a deity with a shared torso and two distinct heads. Even in shadow, both of us are clearly recognizable as our individual selves.

That’s the one I’ve always liked best.

I had waited a while before calling her out on taking the photos down. She claimed it was because I referred to her clustering of art as “junky,” which isn’t quite right, because she also removed the stand-alones of us propped up around the house.

Who was wrong first? I don’t know. Sheryl’s always had her fears, and she’s always made them a reality. I’ve always reacted in knee-jerk fashion, turned tail and ran, but being married isn’t about that. It’s about sticking.

Yes, technically, I was the first to cry uncle on the bricks of the Downtown Mall. To say in a fit of anger that I wanted a divorce. I’m ashamed to say I’ve said it more than once, but I’ve always taken it back. And she’s taken me back.

Finally, she said it, too. And while she also took her words back, the photos are still down.

But we are not over yet. In part, because I don’t want us to be. I’m still hopeful she feels the same.

As I get ready to take my morning shower, I overhear a conversation between mother and son. He apologizes for having been grumpy the night before—he lost his favorite calculator.

“It’s all right,” she tells him. “We’re all working on becoming better persons.”

Soon after, T. leaves for school. Sheryl sips coffee on the couch and writes in her journal. I eat a quick breakfast and throw together my lunch, all in purposeful silence. My episode of night terror still hangs over us like blimp.

But before I leave the house, like she does for me each weekday morning, she rises from the couch to give me a goodbye kiss. Sometimes it’s not a real kiss. Sometimes she only receives, on her cheek or on her forehead. But it’s something, and probably more than I deserve.

This morning, just like always, she meets me half way at the barrier that separates “shoes on” from “shoes off.”

Suddenly, with her right hand, she balls up her fist and rears back like she’s about to hit me.

But with her left hand, Sheryl pulls me forward and kisses me on the lips. Which tells me that an ending isn’t always an ending, and that we might just be okay.

•••

ERIC WILLIAMSON is a journalist and communications professional who has recently begun exploring personal essay.

Somewhere Under the Florentine Moon

catchthesun096 copy
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Pamela Wright

I wasn’t overly concerned when I heard the shouting start in the apartment next door. I’d neglected to learn more than a few pleasantries in Italian before leaving Atlanta for Florence, so I was unable to decipher so much as the rudiments of the argument. I stopped unpacking my overstuffed suitcase and listened for a moment.

There were two combatants, one male and one female. His voice was gravelly and unsteady, hers crackled and shuddered. I smiled and imagined two adorable Florentine pensioners engaged in a harmless spat over the evening meal or whose turn it was to take out the trash, the sort of benign bickering that occurs occasionally but inevitably after many decades of an otherwise happy marriage.

As I continued sorting through piles of clothing and cosmetics, the voices became louder and more urgent. I could not understand the sum and substance of the argument, but the increasingly heated tone was universal: Aged or not, these people were pissed.

“Basta!” shouted the woman.

The old man responded with a lengthy barrage of unintelligible Italian, punctuated by something that sounded like puttana. That particular word sounded vaguely familiar, with a rather unsavory connotation. I thought it might have meant whore, or perhaps even the c-word, an epithet so vile that not even a hell-bent heathen like myself could be sufficiently enraged to utter it. I tried to imagine anyone daring to speak to my tiny but total-Southern-belle-badass grandmother in such a fashion and a shudder ran down my spine.

A loud crash erupted behind the bed. One of them had hurled what sounded like a very large piece of crockery against their side of the shared brick wall with sufficient force to launch flurries of red and umber dust into the late afternoon sunlight streaming in from the balcony. While I might have been unfamiliar with Italian culture and customs, in the rural South of my childhood, when folks got this het up, odds were pretty good that someone was going for a gun. Even my grandmother, always a practical woman, kept a pistol in her patent-leather pocketbook for quick and easy access. When compelled to brandish the weapon, she looked like the love child of Queen Elizabeth and Clint Eastwood.

Another stream of what I could only assume were expletives followed, and I stood dead still over my suitcase, a curling iron in one hand and a bottle of hairspray in the other. Neither would provide much defense unless the dispute next door was the result of an ill-considered home permanent. I heard the scraping of wood against wood, but before I could deduce its source, a  crash stilled my breath and jolted the bed a good three inches away from its original position against the wall.

Jesus Christ, I thought. This isn’t an argument, it’s a mob hit!

My parents’ twenty-year marriage had ended badly, but even amidst the escalating anger and recrimination of its wretched, waning months I never heard anything remotely like this.

I dropped to the floor and scrambled beneath the bed for cover, my heart pounding in my throat. This was not at all what I had envisioned a few weeks before when I first hatched my somewhat impulsive plan for a solo vacation to Europe.

•••

Unlike all of my female friends and relatives, I was both single and childless. Both were entirely my choice, and I was generally content with the life I had built for myself. A solitary creature by nature, the prospect of marriage loomed like a self-imposed prison sentence, and I had never been very comfortable with children. Little kids don’t drink wine and rarely follow politics, so after establishing what they hope Santa Claus will bring them for Christmas, I’m pretty much at loss for conversation.

By my early thirties, I was not merely resigned to la vita da single, I had come to revel in my self-imposed spinsterhood. I enjoyed the solitude and the independence to pursue my own interests, and I’d even developed an impressive set of landscaping and home improvement skills along the way.

Still, I did experience an occasional twinge of domestic existential angst. I sometimes watched young couples in a restaurant near my home as they fussed over cooing babies and leaned their heads close together in intimate conversation. I never wished I had that life, but every now and again I found myself wishing I wanted that life. As much as I relished my autonomy, there were moments when I wondered if the companionship and support of a life partner would be a worthy tradeoff for my independence. Granted, these moments were fleeting and almost always occasioned by such crises as the discovery of a roof leak in the wee hours of a stormy night or a dead possum in the basement, but it did cross my mind.

Men had drifted in and out of my life over the years, good men for the most part, some of whom had offered a lifetime of security in exchange for my last name. Marriage to any one of these men would have been a safe bet, and my refusals to accept boggled the minds of my married and desperate-to-be-married girlfriends. But I could not bring myself to gamble decades of my life and a kind man’s happiness against the off chance that the marital/maternal instincts would just kick in once I strapped on a wedding gown and said, “I do.” Worst case scenario, at least I have a spacious home. Eleven rooms will hold a lot of cats.

As the Big Four-Oh-My-God approached, I felt restless; I was happy but a bit unsettled. I suppose it was, at least in some small part, the realization that the life choices I had made so cavalierly during my twenties and thirties were becoming more limited. In ten years time, when the last of whatever good looks I was born with had faded and the Good Ship Fertility had sailed, what if I realized I had made a mistake?

It struck me that a change of scenery might soothe the soul, and I became intrigued with taking my first solo vacation abroad as a fortieth birthday present to myself. I spent weeks poring over a stack of guidebooks, practically drooling over the picturesque scenes of rolling Tuscan hills and quaint medieval villages. I envisioned myself, confident and self-assured, frolicking through the achingly beautiful Italian countryside on a bicycle. A long, gossamer scarf would stream behind me from my swanlike throat, a la Grace Kelly opposite Cary Grant in one of those old movies I spent entirely too much time watching.

It would be altogether perfect.

I bought a plane ticket to Florence and rented an apartment right off the Ponte Vecchio, all paid in full and non-refundable in case I tried to chicken out. It was meant to be an adventure, the trip of a lifetime, a paean to my independence. I wanted to become the sort of woman who went to Italy alone.

And there I was. In Italy. Stuck under a bed.

Perhaps I had made a mistake. I could barely ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in front of my house, let alone through the Tuscan hillside. With my luck, coupled with an inherent clumsiness, I would undoubtedly get my Grace Kelly scarf caught in the spokes and throttle myself by the short, squatty neck. Suddenly the prospect of spending every Saturday night in a greasy barbeque joint with a squalling, red-faced baby and a NASCAR-obsessed, potbellied husband who would probably sleep through the storm and pretend he didn’t see the dead possum seemed more appealing.

As the battle continued unabated next door, I cautiously snaked one hand out from under the bed and felt blindly along the edge of the coverlet until I located my guidebook. More crockery shattered beyond the brick wall. The old man unleashed yet another litany of invectives at his companion. The old woman responded in kind.

Basta! BASTAAA!!!” she spat.

I burrowed deeper beneath the bed and paged through the guidebook to the “Helpful Words and Phrases” section until I found the B’s.

Basta {interjection}: enough; “that’ll do!”

Enough? From my perspective under the bed it sounded more like “May God have mercy on your soul, you rat bastard!!!”

By the time the last dapples of sunlight had slipped into shadows, my neighbors had mercifully retreated to their respective corners. Rich, spicy aromas wafted in through the open balcony window and I was overcome with hunger. Encouraged by the fact that the armistice next door had lasted a full and unabated five minutes, I pulled myself from under the bed and headed out the door in search of dinner. Hunger always bested fear in the end.

•••

When I mentioned to people I was going to spend a week in Florence, Italy, alone, the invariable reaction (particularly from single women) was something along the lines of “Oooohh, maybe you’ll meet somebody! It’ll be just like that movie Under the Tuscan Sun!

I seriously doubted that this would be the case. I saw that movie. I liked that movie. But let me say, without a drop of false modesty, Diane Lane I most assuredly am not. Still, I could not deny the smallest, most fleeting of romantic musings in the weeks before I left Atlanta for Italy.

I had imagined spending the first night of my vacation in some lovely, out-of-the-way Florentine café, where I would while away the evening breathing in the same intoxicating air that had inspired Michelangelo and Botticelli, whilst a mustachioed waiter with impeccable old-world manners poured my wine and called me signorina with a twinkle in his eye. The music of Pavarotti would play softly in the background as a warm breeze lifted perfect waves of auburn hair from my creamy porcelain shoulders.

Somehow in this fantasy, my hair had grown about twelve inches into long, perfect waves.  I had also become ten years younger, twenty pounds thinner, and grown creamy porcelain shoulders worthy of display, as if I would somehow morph into a red-headed version of Veronica Lake as I passed through customs.

In reality, I had stumbled (quite literally, thanks to sleep deprivation and a misplaced cobblestone) into a café a few blocks from my apartment on the far side of the ancient Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The unsmiling waiter, mustachioed but with eyes more bloodshot than twinkly, barely spoke as he took my order and quickly disappeared into the kitchen. It was a lovely, late September evening, but there was not another soul to be found on the restaurant patio. For a moment I wondered what the crowds of people spilling out of the trattoria next door knew that I didn’t, and if I had just wandered into the Florentine equivalent of Denny’s.

As I dined on mediocre bruschetta and overcooked ravioli in cream sauce washed down with copious amounts of Prosecco, a nice breeze began to blow. Alas, it did not lift long auburn waves from my (modestly covered) shoulders because I was in the process of growing out a horrifically bad haircut that had left me bearing a disturbing resemblance to my fourth grade school picture. If Pavarotti were playing softly in the background, I could not hear him over the tubercular-sounding cough emanating from somewhere deep inside the empty restaurant. I elected to take it on faith that the unfortunate consumptive had not prepared my food, but I nevertheless abandoned the remnants of pasta left on my plate. I didn’t want to carpe diem myself into a bad case of food poisoning on the very first night.

I felt a bit unsteady on my feet as I stood and made my way to the street. Perhaps I had exercised poor judgment in knocking back three glasses of wine in rapid succession after being awake for thirty-six hours straight. I took my time walking back to the apartment, peeking through shuttered windows into shops I might visit the next day and stopping to admire the moonlight as it danced across the surface of the Arno River.

One of my favorite aspects of travel is discovering the distinct smell that every city or country possesses. Every place I have ever visited lives in my memory according to its unique fragrance: the clean damp of Ireland, with notes of peat and wood smoke; the way the seventh arrondissement of Paris smells like butter and gruyere cheese melting into fresh, crusty bread; the metallic, energizing scent of New York City in December. Florence had a warm, ancient bouquet and a pleasant dustiness that was like breathing in the Renaissance itself.

As I stood by the river sucking up the essence of Italy, I detected a hint of musky cologne. I turned and found a man standing a few feet behind me, speaking Italian in my general direction. I looked over my shoulder. I assumed he was addressing someone else, but I was the only one there.

“Pardon?” I asked.

“You are American, yes?” he asked.

I thought it remarkable that he could place my accent based upon the utterance of only one word, but I quickly realized that as a nearly six-foot redhead I couldn’t exactly pass as a native.

“Yes, I am,” I offered hesitantly. I recalled a passage in my guidebook that warned of pickpockets and thieving bands of gypsy children who preyed upon American tourists. This guy certainly didn’t look menacing, in his well-tailored linen trousers and argyle sweater, but I was alone in a foreign country on a dark and largely deserted street.

The man quickly fell into step beside me as I began walking in the direction that my Prosecco-addled brain estimated would lead me to the safety of my fourth floor apartment. He said his name was Marco (of course it was!). I stole a glance at him as we passed beneath a street lamp. He was about my height and appeared to be somewhere in his thirties. And he was handsome … really handsome, with thick brown hair that fell in layers over a high forehead and an aquiline nose that could have been carved by an Italian master.

He attempted to make small talk as we walked, asking where I was from, how long I was staying in Florence, if I’d visited any of the surrounding towns. It took a few attempts for him to understand my name, but otherwise his English was very good, much better than my virtually nonexistent Italian. It all seemed innocent enough, but Marco was just far too good looking for this to be a pick-up. In Atlanta, a guy like this would be up to his spectacularly firm ass in co-eds and pageant girls, not scamming for a one-off with a bedraggled American tourist staring down the barrel of middle age. The only way I could conceivably draw his attention back home would be to spontaneously combust in the middle of the street.

As Marco continued to describe the wonders of Tuscany, I worked my tongue against my front teeth in a fruitless attempt to dislodge the errant fennel seed that had wedged itself there during dinner. I was suddenly painfully aware of the death grip my Spanx had around my waist, and I could practically feel the gravity pulling on my face. I certainly didn’t feel glamorous like Grace Kelly, or sultry like Veronica Lake. I felt sturdy and matronly, like Eleanor Roosevelt. The mugging scenario was starting to seem like the more likely objective.

“Well, I’ve enjoyed talking with you, but it’s been a long day and I should get back…” I said and quickened my step.

“But wait, please!” Marco grabbed my hand and pulled me to a stop beneath a streetlamp.

I didn’t know if I should be flattered or kick him in the balls and run like hell.

“You are so beautiful, you cannot leave yet. Please, come and have a beer with me. I will take you to the most beautiful place in Florence.”

Please, dear God, don’t let it be the trunk of his car!

I offered further protestations of exhaustion and jet lag, but Marco continued in his attempts to persuade me to accept his hospitality. I’ll admit, they were beginning to wear me down. I had no husband to account to; I was a free agent on the loose in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. There were no children waiting at home, only cats, and they pass no judgments. Cats are good that way.

Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated; hell, I probably would have tried to pick him up. Recapturing a moment of the reckless glory of my misspent youth was tempting, indeed. At the very least, it would make for a saucy story to share with all of the other old maids in the state-run nursing home where I would undoubtedly spend my twilight years.

Or it could end with my god-awful passport photo flashed across CNN as Anderson Cooper, grave of voice and furrowed of brow, warned against the dangers of American women traveling alone and succumbing to the devious and dangerous charms of foreign men.

Or maybe he was a perfectly nice, well-intentioned guy who had a thing for slightly older women in need of restrictive shapewear. I had heard that European men appreciated maturity in a woman as in a good wine or delicately nuanced artisanal cheese. I had always assumed it was bullshit, but who knew, maybe there was some truth to it. I scanned Marco’s face again, trying to work out exactly how far into his thirties he might be, and wondered how well the term “cougar” translated from English to Italian.

“Well, maybe just one beer, but only if it’s not far…” I began. Maybe it was the wine, but a second wind of energy began to course through my veins. Then I turned my gaze downward where it settled on my feet.

There exists, I am certain, an unwritten but inviolable international law mandating that all women over the age of twenty-five attempting entry to any European country must be in possession of the sturdy, low-heeled, oh-so-sensible but altogether-butt-ugly walking shoe. Said footwear must be worn at all times, as evidenced by the untold thousands of pairs that carry female travelers bunion-and-blister free from the banks of the Seine to the back alleys of Barcelona every year. And there I stood, fully compliant in my size nine-narrow, round-toed, hand-stitched Clark’s.

They were about as sexy as a colostomy bag.

I found it categorically impossible to entertain even the notion of playing the femme fatale, even the Eleanor Roosevelt version, while shod in what my mother had previously described as clodhoppers that she herself would not deign to wear to a rat killing. I nearly laughed out loud as I attempted to envision myself seated on a barstool beside Marco, legs crossed, hair tossed, as I loosened one shoe and let it dangle seductively from my perfectly manicured toes. Whereupon, its full and considerable weight would most assuredly fall to the floor with a crash so loud and resounding that all conversations would cease in its echo.

“Why are you smiling? Will you come with me or not?” Marco asked and tugged at my hand again … just a little too hard.

My smile faded as I again imagined my formidable black shoe dangling from the end of my foot. But this time it was dangling out of the open trunk of a late-model sports car as Anderson Cooper sighed and shook his lovely silver head. My burgeoning second wind blew itself out somewhere over the Arno River.

The giddy effects of the wine had abandoned me with a headache, and I was suddenly so exhausted I nearly swooned. I wasn’t a reckless kid anymore. I was a grown-up woman in sensible shoes.

Basta.

I took back my hand, then I took my leave.

The sky was blanketed with stars as I walked slowly toward my apartment, admiring the architecture and reflecting on the events of my first day in Italy. I wondered what my friends were doing back at home as I tried to compute the time difference. It would be daylight soon in Atlanta, time for the early morning rush of which-child-would-eat-what for breakfast and frantic searches for car keys and briefcases.

I began to consider that perhaps I had made a mistake in declining Marco’s offer of a drink and whatever else the invitation may or may not have implied. I was guilty of over-analyzing things on occasion. Would this prove to be another experience I might someday come to regret having not embraced? Sometimes a drink was just a drink, and after all, I had become the sort of woman who went to Italy alone … carpe diem.

I stopped and looked back over my shoulder to see if Marco was still standing beneath the streetlamp, but he had disappeared, somewhere under the Florentine moon.

•••

PAMELA WRIGHT is a freelance writer from Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently working on a collection of essays titled High Hair and Low Expectations.

 

The Pull of the Moon

swimmer
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Meredith Fein Lichtenberg

I’m watching the water roll in, walking quickly along the shore while there’s still land to walk on. I know I could make it around the whole tidal island, back to the wooden stairs set into the rock face, and then up to the summer cottage, before the tide stops me. But I was delayed setting out—by what, I don’t remember now: an unexpected load of laundry, a lost Pokémon card, a creeping Daddy Long Legs that spooked my daughter out of her nap.

I walk briskly, but I can’t make up the time: I’m three-quarters of the way around, but the beach gets shorter and shorter. Now I’m walking right up next to the rocks. Now I’m tying my sneakers around my neck and water splashes over my feet.

I’m walking faster, grinning as I try to outrun it although I know I can’t—it’s much more powerful than I am. Now I’m hiking my skirt up to keep it dry, and finally I have to swim. As I ease into the water, I’m laughing that it beat me, and I’m more than a bit exhilarated, hooked. I was ripe for the taking, ready to be swept away by it or by something else.

•••

When we first arrived here, we’d driven slowly, the way you do when you don’t know the roads yet, where each turn in the road or unusually shaped tree might be the landmark that you’ll imprint on your memory. We worried, driving beneath the canopy of old pine and oak trees, that we’d missed a turn—wasn’t there supposed to be a bridge?—then the road dropped off abruptly, and a wide salt marsh spread out endlessly left and right: long, waving grass, divided by a gray wooden bridge. Across it, the narrow road climbed steeply into the pine forest, winding across the island to cliffs facing Cape Cod Bay. Only it wasn’t an island, just then, because the tide was low.

After we found the cottage, the rest of my family ran to climb down the cliff to the vast, shell-strewn beach, but I stayed to explore the inside. I found that the owners had left us a calendar. It showed the phases of the moon and the height of each day’s tides, drawn as parabolic curves along the calendar page. Each day, I saw, as the moon waned to a crescent, the high tide water would surge higher. It would cover the beach to the rocks. It would fill the creek below the bridge we’d crossed. It would overflow whole salt marsh, cover the tall grass, spill onto the pavement, make the road impassable, at first for minutes, but then longer and longer each day. By the new moon—they called it the “astronomical high tide”—the road would flood for hours, cutting us off from the bridge, the rest of the Cape, and the world.

capebridge
Courtesy Meredith Fein Lichtenberg

•••

Vacation is always lulling and maybe a beach vacation even more so, but this cut-off place that’s drowned twice daily makes me feel almost drunk. Since the road floods at inconvenient times, and I’m not a planner, we rarely get off the island. I never get away from it long enough to come down, so I keep feeling all I want is more. It is enjoyable in a way that feels a little naughty, like a cocktail hour that goes on for weeks.

In the hall, there’s an aerial photo of the island. I can make out the pitched roof of our cottage, a speck of reddish shingle visible through the knot of pine branches and scrub oak. The Bay water swirls around like a Van Gogh, but the colors are blurred, so you can’t tell whether you’re looking at water or sand or marsh. I pore over the photo, and the tide calendar, and my maps, obsessively. I don’t want to think about anything else.

I take down the photo, and soon I’m carrying it with me from room to room. Each time I look at it, hungrily, it’s like I’m taking another hit. This was how I was when my kids were infants: they cried, or even just peeped, and I became dopey with the strength of the call, impelled to respond to it. I was obsessed with their rhythms, disinclined to get far enough away from them to sober up and see it more clearly. This didn’t happen the instant they were born, of course; at first there was the shock at what I’d lost.

But when that subsided, it was obvious: my babies’ needs were clear, irrefutable. When they needed, simply, my breast, all I had to be was the breast they needed. It made me docile. Every time I looked at them, I was drunk with it again. It wasn’t just that I was broken, or that my instincts rose up and I saw I was perfect for the role just by being a mammal. It wasn’t even that, as the weeks passed, I did it for the sake of the love growing between us. Yes, it was those things, but more than that, living so completely constrained by them, living utterly in their minutes, there was so much about me that I did not have to decide. It was heady. For a while, I could be simply a mother with her young, fecund, legitimate, uncomplicated.

•••

When the tide comes in, we walk down to the bridge and see teenagers who gather there to jump into the cold Bay water. A handful of skinny boys with farmer tans goggle at the curves that half a dozen sunburned girls are trying to camouflage under shorts; their play-acted confidence is punctuated by giggling. When the intensity peaks, they all jump off the bridge to cool off. Wading in the marsh, collecting green crabs with my kids, I’m aware that I have all the freedom the teenagers imagine they want, and even access to adventures they haven’t dreamt of yet.

And, yet, I am spending my vacation at the one shelly beach near the cottage, snacking on stale bunny-shaped cheese crackers because we’re out of peaches and the tide too high right now for me to cross the bridge and drive off-island to the farm stand. I’m not restless. If I stay here, in sync with spring tide and neap tide, it will shape the day for me. And that feels, at the moment, perfect. People talk about freedom like it’s only a good thing, an ideal, the ideal, but it’s also so damn demanding. This feeling of containment—we can’t leave because the tide’s in—takes the pain of decisions away; it’s easy to surrender to it.

Surrender is so unlike regular life. It’s not maybe we should stop using plastic wrap is it worthwhile to buy Ad Words for my website do you think we should talk to your parents about getting long-term-care insurance I wonder if that conference is a good networking opportunity or a waste of time, and by the way who might I be in this life I’m making? Only, simply, yes, now, for you. Regular life has freedom. But there’s a different liberation in being defined, for a while, by something bigger than you—the ocean, the infant’s hungry mouth. It made me happy for a long time.

This summer, for the first time since I last looked, Henry and Jane are not babies. Being fundamental to their hourly survival has, I realize, long since given way to lovable, fungible parenting. There is time now to attend to questions of plastic wrap, Ad Words, long-term care insurance, networking, other things. But I’m soft and used to surrender. There’s a vacuum where babies’ rhythms once defined me. In the vacuum, I reach for something else to contain me, to numb me, to let it stay simple a little longer, and in flows the tide, also gigantic, demanding, beautiful, and simple. It carries me along, willingly.

I walk around thinking “water.” Water. Water and water and water and water and water and what more would I want and I’ll be the island and let it suffuse me, shape me, create me. I feel I am helpless for it, that sparkling feeling that takes over, makes me feel something-like-happy, and a little dumb. I just want to think about it again and again, to be near it and let it command me and keep out all the other big stuff. I feel I am in love with the rhythm of the tide. And is that so weird, really? I was also, twice, in love with babies who were, then, little more than mouths, lungs, and assholes. They were my flood and ebb, and I loved them, and I love this.

•••

Somehow, though, one day, we venture out to see friends. We return home late in the evening, sleepy, and as the car comes over the hill, I literally gasp to see the marsh, spread-eagled, careless, before us, and island rising up beyond it, awaiting inundation. The bridge is dimly lit by a handful of stars to the east and the last bit of sunset to the west. Water is everywhere, and I’m so instantly pulled back into its magic that it takes me a minute to realize that we misjudged the timing. It’s half an hour before high tide, but already the pavement is wet. A man with binoculars tells us we can’t cross safely till the tide turns and water ebbs away. His shoulders are low and his feet are in waders. He speaks in a slow, authoritative cadence. “The road dips down on the far side of the bridge. Even if it’s still passable here, it’s too dangerous on the island side.”

I blink dumbly, repeatedly. “We have to wait?” I ask.

Greg quietly suggests we leave the car and hike home in the dark, and some tiny fraction of me briefly imagines us wading across and climbing through woods lit only by a merest sliver of moon. It’s what we’d have done before the kids. But Henry worriedly asks what we’ll do, and Jane observes that it’s very dark. I am as slow as a cow, disoriented, but I can see that she would need to be carried and he would complain all the way back. My habit of surrendering doesn’t lend itself to adventuresome thinking.

So we wait. A long, cranky hour passes in the car. I open the windows and look out at the stars and the marsh. Even in darkness, I can see the water moving in; I can hear it, moving towards me, relentless.

The kids respond to long periods of confinement with a kind of hideous duet—each takes solo verses to opine about the injustice of having had to share the one good fishing net all day, or our present lack of snacks and entertainment. Then they come together for a complain-y, bickering chorus that would sober anyone up, their voices joined in harmonious resentment. It is my least favorite sound track.

I think of whole days trapped with them—hundreds of them—with a toddler insatiable for endless rounds of The Erie Canal or a preschooler smelling every dog-piss-fertilized flower on the way to the store. How lovely it had been, at first, to surrender to them each time, to find their helplessness or curiosity thrilling, their appetite for repetition fascinating, clues to the people they’d grow to be. And yet sometimes I spent—I spend—a whole morning waiting for naptime, searching among my feelings for the peaceful surrender that came so naturally at first. Sometimes I find it again. Other times I feel, I want my fucking freedom. But motherhood deadens your impulses. You don’t leave a little one behind. You don’t even fantasize about it. You look at her and she pulls you back in and the restive feelings are all against your will.

The high tide finally rolls in and then begins to recede dreadfully slow. I am itching to get moving but I’m so tired. The sea’s undertow pulls some kind of crazy love out of me, undeniably; I don’t wish it away. It is irrational, the way it’s irrational to love being your babies’ bitch. But right now, strung out on the tide we’re tied to, I want to go home.

•••

On the day of the New Moon, we finally join friends off-island, at the ocean. My toes sink in to the loose, white sand dunes there. Compared with the packed, moist Bay beach near our cottage, it’s hard to walk. The sun blazes, reflecting diamonds all around me, so bright that I’m confused; between the glare and the deafening surf, it seems our island is a cave we have hibernated in, and now, away from it, I’m jolted awake by hunger, amazed to reencounter the world—it’s huge and beautiful, and I’ve been asleep for years.

All at once, it’s evening. The idea of folding ourselves into the car, back to the cramped domesticity of the cottage is unbearable. I am suddenly ravenous. I want French fries and onion rings and fried oysters and stuffed quahogs, a baked potato with a little plastic container of sour cream and beer on tap and soft-serve ice cream. I want everything you can’t get at home.

We end up at a local place with a hundred other vacationers in skin tones ranging from sunburnt to roasted. We share a long picnic table with someone else’s bickering family. The kids, restless and whining, draw on paper placemats with broken crayons, and solve the word-find with the improbably misspelled “seafod.” The adults are clutching plastic lobsters that will light up and vibrate, eventually, to let us know our order is up. It’s too bright, too loud, hard to wait. Everyone is cranky, and I don’t feel like trying to make it better. I think, longingly, for a moment, of our tidal island, dark, limited, yes, but also a buffer against these harsh wilds of Tourist Restaurant Hell. It is a nest whose beauty makes me so dopey I call the drudgery of cooking and cleaning and caring for my little ones a “vacation.”

My life is that nest. I designed it to fit my peculiarities, to comfort me so I could brood and nurture my young and learn to be their mother. I placed each leaf and feather and twig painstakingly, then filled it with people I love. It limited my world, so I could focus on theirs. I made it so beautiful that living in it seemed like a terrific deal in exchange for my time, my body, my freedom. It was, once.

In the loud restaurant, now, everything seems distorted, pointed the wrong way, poking me; I have no room. This life I’ve so carefully built, loved ferociously, found so much more than satisfying, this nest, which suited us so well, it’s not just a nest, anymore. It’s a cage. And its bars, woven all around me, are the twigs and scraps I chose myself, placed with my own hands and heart, according to my own design, to contain me. The kids are hatched now; it’s only me still hoping to be comforted by containment—grasping at anything else that reminds me that for a brief time there was a role that suited me so perfectly I was willing to enslave myself.

My cheeks are hot with shame. Even birds, with their almond-sized brains, know that after the little ones hatch and fledge, it’s time for the mother to fly, again, too, to go anywhere, alight unsentimentally for sleep on any old twig. Even the most lovingly built and well-used nests are just for a sojourn. Only human mothers try to remain there so long that they go crazy. Only human mothers could try to stay in a cautious, protective role that fits less and less, a little longer, a little longer, to avoid seeing the loss, the heartbreak of being outgrown, the terror at what we might become next.

A while after the plastic lobsters vibrate, I want to get going. The high tide isn’t until late. “But it’s the new moon,” I say, over and over, more to myself than to anyone. But Henry and Jane dawdle with French fries, and on the way to the parking lot there’s No we can’t do mini-golf tonight and Fingers do not belong in your brother’s ear and Let it go, she said she was sorry. I gun the engine restlessly while everyone straps in.

Off the highway, I fly up the road with the pine canopy. I take the hill so fast that my stomach springs up to my throat and down to my groin. As we crest the top, I see alongside the marsh, several cars parked and slow-moving folks wading down to the bridge or standing, hands-on-hips, gazing into darkness. They’re here to see the astronomical high tide.

The water is already creeping up the road, farther than we’ve seen it before. In a wordless, agonized split-second calculation, Greg and I meet eyes and realize we’ll be trapped here till midnight.

I open the car door to see water already inches up the tire. It is closing in. It’s not containing me, holding me, providing me the structure I need. Not anymore.

Our eyes meet again for a moment as I make the decision. Then I drive forward, not testing, tentative, but lurching, foot to the floor. The water is deeper than I had guessed, the steering wheel not so responsive. But my foot is an anvil. The world dwindles to nothing except for my certainty that I must get across immediately. The car is listing to the left as we descend, deeper, towards the bridge, and it occurs to me that I could miss the bridge entirely and go straight into the creek. I think: I must get through this motherfucker! And then: This mother really may be fucked.

I’m loony, I think. But it’s moonless tonight, and I’m the opposite of loony: I’m emerging from a years-long dopey haze, and now getting out of it, I’m newly reusing a muscle I can only barely control. My pacing is wild. All I can think is that I must drive forward.

My aim is decent, and we’re up on the bridge, momentarily on dry ground, and I’m elated. We’re halfway there. We thunder across only to descend with a belly-flop splash to the further side. The causeway here is deeper, and for a moment, I can’t quite feel the pavement; are we floating?

My head is roaring, a chorus telling me to GO! GO! GO! Water is splashing over the hood of the car (GO!! KEEP GOING!). I need to turn on the wipers (GO!). It’s so dark that I can’t see where the road ends and the marsh begins. Are we veering left? If the tires go into the marsh, we are sunk (FASTER!). I can’t see the road at all (DON’T STOP! KEEP GOING!). There is no road (GO! GO GO GO!).

I hear Greg’s voice, as through a tunnel—is he telling me to slow down? I am afraid to listen, afraid that whatever he says will be like the newborn’s cry, like the rising tide, a Siren’s wail, tempting me back to the habit of following, surrendering, but I am in the driver’s seat now. We all need me to jam the pedal down and go forward, with no compass and no way to steer, navigating only by the imagined road ahead.

Then I’m on dry land, heading up the hill onto the island, speeding, now that I’m not dragged down by feet of water. We whip along the sand road, through the trees, the last mile through the steep forest.

Shaking and triumphant, I’ll be sore tomorrow, but for now, I’m laughing uncontrollably, giddy. I feel soaked with tears and sweat; adrenaline races through my arteries. Soon all four of us are whooping and giggling. At home, we put the kids in bed unceremoniously, still covered in beach and dinner, and Greg and I walk back down to the causeway without a flashlight. The pines above look like pulled cotton balls against the black sky, and the moonless night is so dark we navigate purely by memories of where the road curved or bent or rutted. We walk without speaking, dumbfounded, holding hands, and arrive exactly as the tide is high. The marsh is so full it looks like a lake, covering even the tallest grass, deep enough to reflect us, and the trees from the island and even the stars above. The sky and the water go on and on, even farther than I can dream of.

•••

MEREDITH FEIN LICHTENBERG lives in New York City where she is a prenatal and parenting educator and a board-certified lactation consultant. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, The Mom Egg, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere, and she can be found online at www.amotherisborn.com.  Her kids aren’t really called Henry and Jane; she wonders how life would have been different if they were.

 

Lucky Girl

trippywoman
By honeymoon music/ Flickr

By Jessica Handler

I was in my late twenties, on a road trip with friends, when I flopped into a chair at a music club in New Orleans and had a look around. We were lucky; the club was rocking, and we were already in a highly pleased state from visiting the drive-through daiquiri place. When I caught sight of a trampled baggie trapped under a table leg, I leaned down to examine it, making as if to tie my shoe. The bag had either been hidden for safekeeping or fallen from a stoner’s pocket. If it held a few loose joints, I’d take it. If it were pills, I would take them only if I could identify them. This bag held neither. The bag held a jackpot: leathery, grayish chunks of psilocybin mushrooms. Lucky me. Free drugs. The baggie was in my pocket in a flash. Later that night, the mushrooms met orange juice and a blender, and then my body.

This moment in drug history is more than twenty years old, but it’s one in a sequence that composes a kind of mental flip book for me. There are the “first acid trip” pages, which end with a teenaged me supine beneath the comic book spinner rack at my neighborhood pharmacy, whirling the cosmos of Archie and Weird Adventure above my head while belting out a then-current Three Dog Night hit. I like that sequence; it’s funny and poignant, the stuff of memoir. I’m also fond, in a rueful way, of my memory of origami-style birds fashioned from the cut-off corners of magazine pages. The glossy paper made neat packets to hold just enough cocaine for a few pre-party lines. I’m less affectionate toward the next pages in my flipbook: me licking the empty, unfolded paper triangles, searching the creases for remnants of the numbing thrill.

“We’d have a hard time getting you addicted to anything,” my physician mused during a recent checkup. She’d prescribed a short course of something innocuous, and I’d balked. “I’d rather not,” I’d told her. I wasn’t afraid I’d become dependent: I’d already done my obsessive turns with better drugs, and years had passed since I’d licked, swallowed, or pocketed anything that rated as a Class IV narcotic. I was tired of drugs, prescription or otherwise.

“You’re lucky,” she said.

I grew up sneaking peeks at the Physician’s Desk Reference the way other kids steal a look at the Playboy magazines their fathers believe are safely hidden behind the laundry hamper. The PDR’s color pictures of pills were my idea of erotica: pale pinks, blues, and greens, sweetly side by side or blatantly aggressive in grainy blow-ups. Most of the book’s scientific language escaped me, but I welcomed its atmosphere of danger tinged with hope. My father got a new PDR every year, hardbound and heavier than any of the Martindale-Hubbell law books in his office, and nearly as thick as the dictionary in our den.

He believed he needed them. My two younger sisters were terminally ill with separate diseases; their illnesses were moving targets, and every drug might be a door to redemption. On Sunday afternoons, I went with him to the pharmacy (later the location of that first acid trip) to fill sheaves of prescriptions and buy a carton of his unfiltered cigarettes. Sometime between his first and last trip to the drugstore, my father developed an addiction to amphetamines. Eventually, my mother was knocking on the pharmacy’s glass door before business hours, meeting my sisters’ needs for real medication and filling my father’s illegal scrips. She didn’t know then that he’d had them faked, only that she wanted his rages stilled so that she could mother her daughters in moments of peace.

My friend Suzanne theorizes that people our age don’t do recreational drugs because we no longer have the leisure time to recover like we used to. That Captain-Crunch eating, pajama-wearing indolence of the next day—and even the day after—lives in a spot on our personal timelines when no one needed looking after (those mirrors laid across table tops weren’t tools for self-reflection), and grocery-buying and bill-paying were afterthoughts at best. “We’re afraid we’ll run out of luck,” I agreed. “We’re old enough to know we could die.”

Even when I was young, I knew that luck stuck to people in different ways. Even though my father was an addict (who didn’t buy his drugs on the street, and was therefore, a different, better class of user) he was also, for a while, the executive in charge of an alternative sentencing drug treatment center. The basic algorithm at the center: go to state-sponsored hippie rehab, or go to jail. Junkie teenage runaways only a few years older than I was slept in the center’s bunk beds, washed the spaghetti-crusted dinner dishes, and were encouraged to chime in during “rap sessions” led by social workers. On the few occasions I accompanied my father when he dropped by work on a weekend, I made a beeline to a reasonably clean beanbag chair beside a dirty window. The air smelled like musty old house, incense, and dirty socks. I’d bury my face in a book and try not to breathe.

My father excelled at the complicated handshakes the inmates—earnestly called “family”—bestowed upon him. Some of the older boys in the “family” looked dangerously romantic to me, aloof, and thin as pin-joints. I imagined hanging out with them, impressing them with how much I knew about their twin passions, drugs and rock music. I was eleven. I had no idea what we’d actually do or what their lives were like. Hiding behind my paperback copy of The Exorcist, I stole periodic glances at the wall clock, counting the minutes that became hours until my father and I could go home for dinner.

At home, drugs hummed in my sister Sarah’s nebulizer. The motor made our kitchen smell vaguely of plastic while she coughed through the vapor. Drugs had swollen my sister Susie until her face resembled a wheel of white cheese. Drugs were all around me, close as family, distant as adulthood. Two more PDRs came and went before I gathered pills and pot from my father’s bedroom bureau and made friends in high school: gentler, less-broken versions of the unapproachable treatment-center boys.

•••

My flip book didn’t end in New Orleans. Not too terribly long ago, my husband and I stood in the doorway of a coffee bar in Amsterdam, reading the chalkboard menu. We felt awkward; buying pot in the open in order to smoke it in the open seemed utterly wrong. The prices were suspiciously cheap. Turned out they make it up with the lighters. Inquiring puis-je utiliser votre Zippo? of a French twenty-something at the next table got us smoking. My husband, a soft-spoken, deep thinking man, had told me a raft of funny college anecdotes about pot turning him into a deathly silent, withdrawn shell. “I get really quiet,” Mickey said, drawing out the “really.” I’d stopped smoking pot years before we met, and the harder stuff was long gone from my life. My husband and I had never smoked together.

In the coffee bar, I smoked one joint, delighted that they roll them for you. They box them, too, like my Camel cigarettes of yore. I smoked and talked. I got garrulous. I sang along with the stoner video for “Little Green Bag” playing in a loop on the television in the corner. I lit another. I chatted with the folks at the next table. And Mickey grew quiet. Really quiet.

“Honey, are you okay?” I asked, pretty sure that he wasn’t.

Silence.

“Honey, do we need to leave?” I had three entire joints left, neatly rolled, in a cute box. The coffee bar was plastered with signs warning me not to leave the premises with marijuana. Our hotel was plastered with reverse messages: bring any marijuana in, and face imprisonment.

My sweet husband moved his head. Not a nod, but a barely perceptible vertical bob.

“Can you stand up?” I asked. Please be able to stand up, I thought, eyeing the vertiginous spiral staircase to street level. Mickey made that same head-gesture and, as if he were emerging from a puddle of glue, rose to his feet.

Un cadeau, I said to the French kid with the Zippo, pointing to the box with my last three joints. Lucky him.

Step by slow step, my husband and I climbed the metal stairs to street level and walked carefully to our hotel, each snow-dusted cobblestone and trolley track a massive obstacle.

When I told Suzanne that we’re old enough to know we might die, I was thinking back to Amsterdam and my history of fearsome chances: a beloved husband rendered mute in a basement coffee shop four thousand miles from home, a reckless young woman churning dubious flora into a blender, a desperate mother negotiating a momentary balance. And what I see now in that mental flipbook are brushes with danger, and a few very lucky people dancing on the edges of something close to hope.

•••

JESSICA HANDLER is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Honors include residencies at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize.

 

Goodbye, 1735 Asylum Avenue

curtains
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

I was deep into middle age and so was my childhood home: 1735 Asylum Avenue in West Hartford, Connecticut. It had been forty-nine years since my parents had bought this house, and it had not held up well.

But neither have I. I take several pills a day for maladies like high blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety, and depression. No pill helped me to sleep in the days before we cleaned out 1735. Dad had been dead for a decade, and it was time to move my mother out.

My sister Carol, my brother John, and I each took a couple of rooms to empty. I volunteered to go through the master bedroom. I wanted to be alone with the detritus of my parents’ lives. Alongside the cancelled checks and the thumb-smeared Polaroids from the seventies was my master’s degree thesis that I wrote in the late 1980s—a collection of short stories called The Ninety Day Wonder in honor of my father’s service during the Second World War. John said he saw Dad read my thesis cover to cover in one sitting, crying as he turned the pages. The book was dedicated to him.

By the time 1735 sold, my mother had erased any traces of my father. The house was teeming from years of hoarding. She hung on to tests that she administered when she was a Spanish teacher in the seventies and eighties. She saved every single greeting card anyone sent to her. She saved her children’s baby clothes— clothes disintegrating from age. Then there was my prom gown, the dress I graduated high school in.

Maybe that is a sign of age—an unkempt house filled with stuff. Or maybe it was a bulwark against leaving. When my father died, the house was still habitable. Then the heater broke down and had to be replaced. The sump pump wasn’t up to the task of keeping the basement dry. Weeds shot through cracks in the driveway. The shrubs were overgrown. The window air conditioners—streaked with bird droppings—wheezed asthmatically. The wall opposite the banister was forever scarred after my father’s chair lift was removed.

•••

That final time we cleaned out 1735, my mother was in a rehab facility, and we made the most of her absence. Two months earlier, she’d spent her last night in the house. She had called me in a panic that she was feeling very unwell. Although I live in Boston, I made the call for an ambulance to take her to a hospital in Hartford. My mother will tell anyone who will listen that that hospital stay was the beginning of the end for her. I will tell anyone who will listen that summoning an ambulance saved her life.

Here is what my siblings and I had to do to save my mother further: During her extended stay in the hospital, we used the power of attorney that we had wrested from her the year before. We sold the house with her grudging acceptance. We promised to salvage pictures and other mementos. She decided to go to an assisted living facility in Connecticut rather than one in Massachusetts near Carol and me because leaving the area would cause unbearable changes like watching a different local news anchor.

•••

“I brought these,” Carol said waving boxes of masks and latex gloves. These were the same gloves that had to be worn to take blood or give a shot. These were the same gloves my father’s aides snapped on to toilet him, to wipe his drool. These were the same gloves we had to wear at 1735 where a family of raccoons recently lived in the chimney. These were the same gloves we were glad to have on when we found mouse droppings or the mice themselves.

These were the masks that made us look like mad surgeons or hygienic bank robbers. These were the masks I saw people wearing in the freezing, flu-ridden streets of Boston. These were the masks we wore our last days at 1735 to inhale less mold and dust.

I used to dream of the day I would watch a wrecking ball smash into 1735 Asylum Avenue. I thought that watching the house collapse would be satisfying, cathartic. I would take pictures upon the first impact. I would cheer. I would cry. I would dance on the edge of the house’s open grave. But that’s not what happened. We sold 1735 in less than a week to a builder who intended to take the place down to its studs and renovate the unhappiness imbedded in its walls. “An open plan,” he said. No more dark corners of sadness and dust mites. The house would be turned to face the sunlight and the side street. 1735 Asylum Avenue would vanish as a house and then as an address.

It turns out that selling 1735 unmoored me. It set me adrift without an ancestral home to go back to. We had cut a deal with the builder that we would take out personal items and leave the rest for him to deal with. Leave the green-swirled sofa stuffed with old circulars under the cushions. Leave the hi-fi missing the first A of “Magnavox.” Leave the dining room table with the warped leaves, the table I sat under when I was a little girl as my parents fought their way through another year of marriage. We left the chipped, cow-jumping-over-the moon-lamp that dimly lit the bedroom that I shared with Carol.

I left love letters written by bad boys and pleading letters that I wrote and never sent to those bad boys. Bad karma to move that stuff. I looked for a packet of poems that a nice boy wrote for me the summer after I graduated college. He was the sophomore who loved me—the senior girl who had a boyfriend I was afraid to leave. I gave him a chapbook of poems by a poet I thought was profound at the time. I can’t remember the name of the poet nor could I find the nice boy’s poems to me. I just know those poems were once mine, and now they would become part of the ash and rubble as 1735 Asylum was reincarnated.

I left the rotary phone in the den where it had been for almost half a century. The phone wheezed when the wheel spun and 523-0765 was rubbed off of the circle in the center. After all these years, it turns out, my mother was still renting from the phone company.

We were disappointed that Mom couldn’t take the phone number to the assisted living in the town over.

“What about just keeping 0765? I can deal with a different prefix,” I said.

“Taken,” said John who was in charge of getting the new phone number.

My siblings and I salvaged what we could and went back to the hotel to toast to our exhaustion. We barely lifted our glasses of the default Pinot Grigio we ordered in mediocre restaurants.

“Are you going to miss the place?” I asked Carol.

“Too much happened there,” she said.

She meant that my parents had papered the place with emotions that ranged from my mother’s mania to my father’s depression. But for the longest time, 1735 also represented permanence to me. It was the address on my driver’s license for the nine years that I lived in New York City.

Like houses that have been in one family for decades, my parents’ place burst at the seams with memories that were good and bad and ugly and beautiful. There were fights and reconciliations and moments of pure love. There were the deaths of parents and grandparents. There were great parties, the hi-fi blasting, where my parents danced rumbas and drank Cuba libres. There was my wedding gown that I hung on the living room lintel the night before my nuptials. There were grandchildren who toddled around the house.

My mother romanticized the home she made with her husband, and for better or for worse, she wanted to stay until death did part her from 1735. We must have appeared to be the most negligent children in the world as the neighbors watched her haul the pails out every Sunday night or noticed that her sidewalk was not shoveled after a big snowstorm. She lied to us and said her lawn man did snow removal. She lied to us that she had a lawn man. She lied to prevent her own removal from the house.

Visiting 1735 over the years, we often choked on agitation and the dust that accumulated as thickly as the plush carpeting that once covered the floors. For the last ten years we begged, we fought, we threatened Mom, and still she sat immobile in the chair my father had spent his last days and nights in the den—the chair that ejected him so he could go from recliner to wheelchair in one jerky motion.

Then I had an epiphany. Of course the idea of giving up the ancestral home in Connecticut was anathema to my mother, who had already left her first home in Cuba forever. My siblings and I were forcing my mother into another exile. We had already scattered from 1735 and left most of its dower contents in place. Like my grandparents who walked away from twenty-five years of silver and jewelry and dishes in Old Havana—“with only the clothes on their backs and their toothbrushes,” was my mother’s description—we shut the door on a house in West Hartford that was full of furniture and clothes and things we could not bear to dig deeper into.

We, too, had exiled ourselves from Asylum Avenue forever.

In the hospital, my mother screamed that she wanted to be buried seis pulgadas in the backyard. But we had bought a double plot when my father died. My mother would be six feet under the ground next to my father. And after 1735 had passed on, the furniture and the clothes went to the backyard to die. The builder promised that everything would be disposed of efficiently and quickly. I assumed that meant there would be some dignity in the process.

Instead, 1735 was stripped bare and its furnishings laid in the front and back yards for random people to pick over. They came with pickup trucks, U-Hauls, and minivans and took away my parents’ bedroom set. The living and dining room furniture were parceled to strangers. I hoped my bedroom set went to a little girl who would feel like a princess with a white and gold etched headboard. I didn’t see any of this myself, but I heard about the scene from one of my mother’s former aides, who got giddier as she told the story.

“It was like looting,” said the aide. “And they even took the clothes no matter how scrappy they were.”

Other families seem to have physical objects, talismans of sorts, to evoke their history. I pointedly remember that we had nothing from Cuba except some creased black and white photographs. If I, the child of exiles who went from country to country with little more than the clothes on their backs had known, I would have taken those things before they were outside for the world to grab.

•••

JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and O Magazine. She is at work on a memoir titled 1735 Asylum Avenue: A Family Memoir.

We Know Where You Live

shadowman
By srqpix/ Flickr

By Terry Barr

The blinking red light of the phone machine, as usual, unnerves me. Why do I always think that somehow this will be the message that changes my life? It’s all I can do to walk past it, even though I’m holding my baby daughter Pari, even though I need to put her down gently to keep her warm and asleep. Still thinking of that machine, I wait a beat, two. Her breathing is normal, calm. Exhaling now, I walk back to my machine, abandoning my wife Nilly who, as usual, wants to glow in our daughter’s sleep.

There are two messages flashing at me, actually. The first is mainly silence until the very end when I hear “TERRY BARR” in a voice attempting to speak its authority. The message ends there.

The next one begins.

I am standing alone in our living room looking out of the broad picture window at our quiet, connector street. It’s getting late on this Saturday night, ten days before Christmas. Nilly hasn’t emerged yet from Pari’s bedroom, which rests at the back of the house, far from the living room where I stand, and I thank God for that now.

When I hear it, I freeze until the message runs out. I look back towards my daughter’s room. Has Nilly heard? But there is nothing stirring back there, no “Oh my God,” and no footsteps approaching with worry and fear. So it’s only me. Me and my machine.

And those words.

Before I can think this through, I do the one thing that in the light of day I’ll most regret: I hit the erase button. But I want to make this disappear. I want to throw my machine like a discus out into the night. I want to wake up again on Saturday morning for a do-over. I want never to have heard what I heard, and more than anything else, I want to be sure that neither my wife nor our daughter has heard it. Or ever will hear it.

And it’s only in this last desire that I succeed.

•••

We had been to two Christmas parties that night. The first was an Amnesty International gathering celebrating our recent success in our Holiday Card Action campaign. We’d succeeded in sending over one hundred greeting cards to prisoners of conscience all over the world that morning as we took to the main street of our downtown. Stationing ourselves at a cross street with heavy shopping traffic, we would gently accost perfect strangers who’d sometimes smile and sometimes sneer at us as we ask them to send a message of hope to a prisoner of conscience of their choice. We have twenty-five to thirty different prisoners to work for—men and women who have been bound and held in a prison in some remote part of the world for exercising their human right to speak their beliefs, wear what they want, or support some loved one who has run afoul politically of a governmental tyrant.

Mixed in, too, and usually the hardest to get people to sign for, are the death penalty cases. Amnesty unconditionally opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. Sometimes our card-signers want to debate the issue with us. These debates usually get nowhere, and I often refuse to engage because who knows what this other person has experienced? My strong beliefs are my own, and I keep telling myself that I’m not threatening or challenging anyone else’s, or if I am, I’m doing so respectfully. Beliefs can’t hurt, right? I’m aware of the irony here that if I truly think that beliefs can’t hurt, I won’t fully get what Amnesty’s prisoners are suffering.

Still, it turned out to be a good day despite these moments of doubt and conflict. Over a hundred messages of hope that we hope will reach our prisoners. Maybe it’s true that Christmas does bring out “goodwill toward men.”

At our party this night, everyone is in high spirits. We toast each other for our success; we toast those who signed our cards. We toast our prisoners and hope that next year they’ll be free. And we toast the founders of Amnesty, two British students who wanted to change the world, or at least show the hopeless that someone cares.

Our Amnesty group is a diverse lot: teachers, students, lawyers, social workers, and psychologists. Our group leader is a British astronomer, one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. A man, in his sixties, who still likes to climb a good tree.

We eat our potluck supper, raise our glasses one more time, and then the three of us—Nilly, Pari, and me thriving on all the attention—head off to our next gathering, which is a party for the staff of our weekly alternative newspaper. I’ve been writing film and local theatre reviews over the past year, trying to hone my skills and give voice to whatever arts scene our town has.

The party is held at a duplex in an older part of town. As we enter its arched doorway and I see peeling paint on the inner hall walls, I’m reminded of all those grad school parties I attended not so many years ago. Our host, a guy wearing a silken robe and an ascot over what might be flannel pajamas, leads us to a side porch where a pumped up keg awaits. Strings of mismatched Christmas lights are draped haphazardly from room to room, greeting us everywhere we turn, but saying what?

Pari is sneezing at the party’s cigarette smoke. I barely know the paper’s editor—and he’s the only person I know here—but he’s nowhere to be found at first. Soon I see him and another boy his age tumbling out of the bathroom.

“Hey Terry,” he says, before his momentum, or his friend’s weight, pushes him out the door onto the porch.

“Are we about ready to leave,” Nilly asks. She gives me that look, but it isn’t necessary. Not at all.

I love this paper and am glad it gives no restrictions on what I write about and say. No word count; no demand to simply recount the plot and give a thumbs up or down. There is a star system, though, and for my latest review, I gave Spike Lee’s X four and a half stars out of five. I thought Lee’s ability to capture the complexity of Malcolm in just under three hours was a feat itself worthy of high praise. I appreciated his courage and tenacity. His audacity. And my review said so.

As we drive home, I’m thinking that even though we stayed at this party for barely half an hour, it was worth it to mingle with people who, even in our small town, aspire to a more bohemian lifestyle. In fact, the whole evening for me has been warm and cheerful—an evening surrounded by friends and people who love each other. While I’m not a Christian any more, this time of year is still—and I know of no other word for it—so joyous.

Or so I believe until we get home. Until we walk in the front door and I see that red blinking light. Until I press the “play message” button.

Until I hear his voice.

•••

The next morning I walk across the street to my neighbor’s house. Steve’s a police detective, and he agrees to come over and talk to us. After greeting Nilly, he gets right to the point.

“Why did you erase that message?”

“I don’t know. I just reacted. I didn’t want anyone else to hear.”

“What exactly did it say again?”

“Well, it began with: ‘Terry Barr!!! We know who you are and where you live! We’re watching you!’”

That was bad enough.

“Have you had any other messages like this?”

And then I remember the other late night calls, the ones asking: “Is this Mark, the Art professor at Clinton College?” The same college that employs me.

“He doesn’t live here,” I answer, but the caller hangs up before I can ask “Why do you think he lives with me,” or more importantly, “Just who the hell are you anyway?”

“All I can tell you to do,” Steve says, “is to save any other messages you get, and put call-tracing on your phone. We need to build a case file and collect evidence.”

I must still be in shock. Will this work? Will I even want to answer the phone again? Still, we purchase call tracing, the phone calls stop.

In their place, packages begin arriving. Round, white packages unlike any I’ve ever received. They come from The Bradford Exchange and other such “collectible” outlets. Commemorative plates and coins: things you see advertised in popular magazines or on late-night TV. Places with 800-numbers that don’t ask questions and don’t demand credit cards. Places that allow the “Bill Me Later” option.

Over the next few weeks, we receive BassMaster equipment, Columbia House LPs usually containing the latest from Brooks and Dunn or Toby Keith—musicians I’d never intentionally listen to. We get subscriptions to Rolling Stone, Field and Stream.

Penthouse.

“I’ve never seen a Penthouse,” Nilly says.

When we see him, we ask the postman what we should do with this stuff.

“You didn’t order it, did you?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s all yours then. They can’t do anything to you!”

So we return what we can, refuse what we’ll never want.

And then the first Hustler arrives. We’re anxious now, and ashamed of the pornography, of the violation, of someone we don’t know imagining us holding such a magazine.

I call their 800-number to cancel any other Hustlers and strangely, miraculously, they’ve saved the order card. They mail it to me, and I see the writing for the first time. A hand not only not my own, but a form of printing that I’d characterize as coming from someone who isn’t comfortable holding a pen, someone who stopped paying attention to anything scholastic around the sixth grade.

Next comes an afternoon call from a representative trying to confirm the “escort” I’ve ordered for that evening:

“I have the request right here on my phone tape, though I have to say that the voice really doesn’t sound like yours.”

“Could you play it for me?”

He does. It’s familiar, I think, the same voice: deep, smug, satisfied with itself but in a southern dialect not even remotely close to mine.

I’m from the South, have lived in this region all my life, from Alabama to Tennessee and now here in South Carolina. When I travel to New York or Boston, people there recognize my southern accent immediately. But down here, there are people who believe I’m from New York. Maybe it’s my training in music and theatre back in high school. Maybe it’s that while my mother drawls with the best of them, my father, also a native southerner, has a different slant. A Jewish slant. An accent that seems to defy a specific region.

All I know is that the voice on that tape is truly and defiantly southern. And not “city Southern” either:

“Mah name is Turry Bawhr, an’ I’ed lahke an es Cort for toonaght at sebm.”

He gives our address, and then, in an even more smug tone, he signs off with a “Thaink yew vera much!”

I ask, and in a compliant and law-abiding way, the escort service turns the taped message over to the police. And then, the calls start coming again. Always late at night; always asking for “Mark.” We trace these, turn them over to our investigator. Months have passed since the initial disturbing call, and we have collected diecast cars and random cologne samples and Playboys and US magazines. And more BassMaster stuff. I can’t begin to describe all that we got, all that subsequently made up our massive yard sales.

The police have enough evidence now to confront our harasser. He hasn’t actually committed a crime, but they think they can at least scare him, intimidate him. Make him stop. And just as they’re ready to do so, we put it together, or at least together enough to see how this started, to understand what set him off.

I had asked Nilly before if she remembered any crank calls, anything suspicious, even anything that seemed innocent. It’s usually the thing you’ve forgotten, the thing you say to yourself, “It just couldn’t be.”

“You know,” she says, “there was this time when I got a call asking if you were the same Terry Barr who reviewed movies. I said ‘yes,’ but that he’d have to call back to speak to you. He was polite and thanked me.”

“But he never called back.”

“No, he never called back…Why did I tell him who you were?”

“It’s okay. You couldn’t have known.”

A few days later, our investigator checks in. He and another officer paid our caller a visit. They told him they knew what he was doing and that if he didn’t stop, we might press charges. He never actually denied anything, but he didn’t admit his guilt either.

“We warned him pretty good. You should know, though, that he’s in his late thirties and still lives with his parents. And, of course, he has a record.”

“For what?”

“Indecent exposure.”

They even tell me his name, and later, I look him up and find out where he lives—an area of town notorious for its less-than-progressive thinking, though of course I’m just stereotyping now. It does my soul—so committed to human rights—no good to know the truth behind every stereotype, or to be right in my stereotyping. Is it good to know who this man is, though? Can knowing bring peace?

“Well, that’s all we can do for now,” our investigator says. “Let’s hope he doesn’t bother you again.”

I understand. I’ve watched enough episodes of Law and Order in my life to get it. To get that the best we can do is to change and unlist our phone number, and so we do. The phone calls stop, but the packages still come.

A year or so later, after our second daughter is born, we move to a larger house in a different zip code. The packages stop then, and after a few months, I finally get out of the habit of looking out our window at night when random cars come driving by.

It’s obvious, too obvious to say—though I will anyway—that though I erased that tape, I can’t erase its memory, its message. I can’t erase the fear or the harassment of those many nights in our young life.

I did tell Nilly, as well as the police, what the voice on that tape said. But thankfully, neither Nilly nor Pari ever had to hear that voice, so if they have any memory of that night or that time, at least it won’t be what I remember. At least I protected them from that. And if I did put them at risk by liking Spike Lee’s X, or erasing a hate-filled tape, I’m as sorry as I can be, as I’ve ever been. We didn’t deserve this; of course we didn’t. But then, does anybody?

“Terry Barr!!! We know who you are and where you live! We’re watching you! Remember. WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE! SIEG HEIL, SIEG HEIL, SIEG HEIL!”

•••

TERRY BARR is a regular contributor to culturemass.com and has had essays published or forthcoming in such journals as The Museum of Americana, Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Fat City Review, Sport Literate, and Melange Press. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Greenville, South Carolina.

Someone Stole Home

whitefish
By Loco Steve/ Flickr

By Antonia Malchik

Great Northern Bar in Whitefish, Montana, had once been a real local hangout until it got into all the guidebooks described as “a real local hangout.” Now, the round, garrulous bartender serves too-clean tourists alongside locals with greasy baseball caps and drooping, walrus-sized mustaches.

Over pints of Moose Drool we’ve been chewing over local development, which has been moving at an accelerated rate since the Aspen Corporation bought Big Mountain, the ski hill under which Whitefish is clumped.

The brown ale’s malty flavor makes me wonder what took me so long to come back home. When I left my hometown first for college and then to live overseas, I didn’t know if I would permanently return. As a travel writer, I lived happily in Europe, Russia, and Australia, keeping the static image of my perfect home with its clear mountain air as an assuring beacon. Montana, I assured myself during my twenties, was my last best place. It would always be there.

That was until I took my English-born husband Ian to Whitefish and reality socked me. We’re looking to move back here, Ian and I told the bartender, but the property prices are staggering. “Where are all the young families goin’?”

“Eh, C-Falls, Kal’spell,” he figures, wiping down the counter. Columbia Falls and Kalispell, Whitefish’s neighbors, have always been more blue-collar than my hometown, where former hippies nurtured a nature-loving tourist industry.

“You don’t sound like you’re from here.”

“I’m from Tennessee.”

“Beautiful country.”

“Yup.” A slosh of the rag sends my empty glass skittering and he gets me a refill. “This is a better place though. Or useda be. I bin here twenty-five years. It’s not the same.”

“You think the town’s dying?” He puts cash in the register and shouts at a white-haired tourist who’s brought his loafers and khaki shorts too far behind the bar.

“It’s already dead.”

•••

At our bed-and-breakfast’s rustic log tables, Ian and I fall into chatting over huckleberry waffles with a couple from Texas. Our first morning, we got talking real estate, where I voiced shock at the rise in property prices (more than double since my mother sold her house five years before) and our worry that we wouldn’t be able to afford moving back. Now, in some sort of self-flagellation, I can’t stop talking with them about their plans to buy a vacation home here.

The man has a slightly chagrined look as, with defensive smugness softened by a Texas drawl, he says, “I guess we’re part of the problem.” This friendly, tidy, golf-playing guy and his wife then relate their previous day’s real estate search, touring the premises of an Iron Horse golf club.

“They’ve got them all over the country,” says his wife, “and you have to own property on it to play the course.” My next question feels stupid, but then, I figure, so is their need to play golf on an exclusive course up a mountainside.

“Couldn’t you just play on the public course downtown? I mean, if you’re only going to be here a couple months a year …” And that’s where my charitable view of this couple hits a pothole. Because there I am, wanting to move back to a home I love fiercely, yet facing the incomprehensible prospect of not being able to afford Montana. And there they are, willing to drop over half a million dollars to buy an empty quarter-acre lot so they can golf a particular eighteen holes once a year. How can my meager income compete with that? How can anyone’s?

I am reminded of this couple when having lunch with one of my former high school teachers the next day. “I don’t understand these people,” his wife says. “There’s this woman I know having trouble selling her 4300-square-foot house. She’s got a driveway almost a mile long. Who in their right mind would want to plow that in winter?” The acquaintance, like many snowbirds, only lives in Whitefish in the summer. “What did she come here for in the first place?”

What do people come for? Some Montana mystique? The last best place? The lure of Western individualism? You might as well ask why people go anywhere at all.

The question is, what do I come for? What is this place I am hoping to return to, after years of living abroad and then on the East Coast with my English husband and our kids? How is my dream of Montana any different from theirs? The frontier is gone. The wilderness is sometimes preserved, sometimes not. The town is like towns all over the world—people pushing and pulling and rubbing along together, trying to build good lives for themselves and their children. Do I deserve the Big Sky more because they love it less? What do I think I’ll find here, if I move back? What sort of magic could keep Montana secure from the rapacious spread of humanity?

•••

“I need to get out of here,” I say to Ian after three days. We’ve hiked up Big Mountain once, stuffing ourselves with this year’s bumper wild huckleberry crop along the way. The rest of the time we drove around the countryside, as all the other tourists do, “looking at real estate,” and I can’t take anymore. The sight of log McMansion developments carving their way up once-empty mountainsides and gargantuan, hotel-sized homes on what were once the sites of human-sized farmhouses left me reeling. A speck of land on the lake, a place once perfect for communal high school bonfires, costs over a million dollars. I try to imagine my kids growing up here, whether they would have the slightest chance of absorbing the wilderness in their blood, something that I took for granted until coming back, and I feel as if I’ve been shot in the gut.

We drive out toward East Glacier, where my mother and I used to escape Whitefish’s abnormally gray winters. The road winds along the bottom of Glacier National Park’s big-shouldered mountains and shoots out onto the prairie like it’s been loaded with gunpowder.

Here, on the Blackfeet reservation, little has changed. For how long, I wonder? The clouds brushstroke across the sky and the prairie warps into the mangled toes of the Rocky Mountains. Behind us, unfarmed hills hold yellowbell, pasqueflower, bitterroot: indigenous prairie flowers that were rare even before the specters of housing developments and oil drilling encroached on their remaining landscape. Just to the north is the Two Medicine formation, where I first fell in love with geology and dinosaurs, history learned from stone rather than books. To the east rolls the land where generations of my grandfathers scraped out boundaries of their wheat ranches.

It brings no relief to acknowledge that my great-great-grandparents inflicted a similar kind of harm on the Native American tribes and their landscape that I wail about in Whitefish: carving up grasslands and enclosing the prairie to plow it under for wheat and cattle. I might feel some tenuous connection to the people whose teepee rings still mark my second cousin’s cattle fields, but I wouldn’t know this landscape, wouldn’t love it, if those whose home it was for centuries hadn’t been pushed out to make room for people like my ancestors. In the end, the losers always seem to be those who love the land and their relationship with it the most, those who have little desire for more.

We drive along the craze-lined hills where few tourists penetrate and the wind talks only to cattle and horses and trees. We pass a sign for neglected road repairs. “Rough Break,” it says in orange. No kidding.

•••

In a life driven by a craving for culture shock, I never thought that the most difficult integration would be back into my own hometown. Years of living abroad, plus several more feeling like an alien on the U.S.’s East Coast, and now I don’t know if I have the courage to return. I love Montana more than I ever have another person, and its alteration has hit me harder than the betrayal of any person could. It seems easier, now, to escape overseas, to learn a new language and culture anywhere else, than it does to come back and face the reality of fighting for a home whose spirit is dying.

Seeing the effects of wealthy influxes on my community, where prices are driving young people out, I am torn between a desire to move back right now, immediately, to throw myself into the yanking between hyper-development and preservation; and running away, somewhere overseas where I can just be an observer and chronicler in the trials of some other community. It’s easier to be the invader than the mourner, to take on the role of the couple from Texas somewhere else, with less money, perhaps, but not with any more right to belong. It’s easier to move to a place that can’t hurt me.

But to renounce Montana entirely is unthinkable—I wish it could remain protected, so that I can wander, knowing home will always be there. For those of the pioneer spirit, there is nowhere left to run.

•••

The day before we leave, Ian and I get up early, intent on one last hike and handfuls of huckleberries.

Partway up Big Mountain’s hairpin turns (which are being widened and softened) is a lookout maintained by the forest service. Its loop road is almost unnoticeable and leads only to one picnic table set near a rock ledge. I used to come to this place in high school, early in the morning, latte in hand, to watch the sun lighten the valley and sip coffee in the near-silence of pine whispers.

The lookout is still there. But I stop, stunned, at the evidence of a new development being cut in right above it. The little loop is ripped up, the road mashed out for access to what will be more multi-million dollar homes, more evidence that even Big Sky country’s open views are only for the wealthy.

I turn my back to it, gulping back sobs, craving this one small piece of my life to be left alone. My heart scrabbles to voice a cry of injustice: Shouldn’t this beauty belong to everyone? We sit on the picnic table and Ian puts his arm around me. Lodgepole pines stand sentry over a plunging view that I wish desperately had no monetary value. Do I fight or run?

I think of other places I’ve lived in and fallen for, of Scotland’s Outer Hebridean islands, of Moscow and Vienna, and the Australian Outback. Maybe I’ve carried my Montana dream to all of them, infused them with a love of my home that runs so deep it’s almost like DNA. I’m scared to return, scared of the changes, scared of the pain. But home, for me, doesn’t actually exist anywhere else.

On that cool August morning, the refrain of a song my mother once wrote comes back to me. In all the wide world, none of those other places have the pull of her simple words: “I’d rather give up heaven than Montana.”

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK’s work has been published in The Boston Globe, Brain, Child, The Walrus, Creative Nonfiction, many other newspapers and literary journals, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on Elements, a memoir about motherhood, striving for the lost competence of her pioneer ancestors, and questioning the true meaning of sustainability. She can be reached through her website, antoniamalchik.com.

Hit Upside the Head

cellphone
By docoverachiever/ Flickr

By Powell Berger

Human touch, calloused hands, lips. I wonder if I’ll ever know it again, if I can ever trust it again. Sometimes I think maybe, yeah, I can do it. I can know human intimacy again. Then other times, I heave and shudder and pull the covers over my head. Sometimes I do both at the same time.

My cell phone rings. His smiling face, captured on his birthday at his favorite Broadway show in happier times, lights up my screen. The marriage ends, but life continues, and there are things like soccer schedules and divorce filings. It’s all pretty amicable and friendly, considering. I try not to talk about the lies and the abuse, and he doesn’t bring up my many failings. We’re good that way.

“Figure I should tell you I spent last night in the emergency room,” he tells me after we sort out the weekend soccer comings and goings.

“What happened?” I know his drama and don’t want to over-react or get sucked in. But I know he’s had some minor health issues lately, and I was/am married to him and have kids with him. I still care.

“I collapsed. Passed out. They called an ambulance and the EMTs took me to the hospital. Apparently just exhaustion. And low blood pressure and dehydration. I was at Pinky’s.”

Pinky’s. The neighborhood bar where he hangs out now, sucking back beers with a crowd I don’t know. And yesterday, apparently, where he passed out. At twenty, passing out at the bar gets you dumped in the back seat and taken home. At almost sixty, they call an ambulance.

“Did you hit your head?” I picture him sitting at the bar, collapsing off the stool onto the floor. He drops his beer, there’s a mess, and people scatter. Some stranger hollers and the bartender calls 911. The clip plays out on my mental reel, and in it, he might’ve hit his head.

“No. I didn’t hit my head. They say I slumped in my chair and my eyes rolled back and I went all limp.”

Someone did what people do when it looks like someone might die right there at the table. Someone called an ambulance. Someone at the table because he was sitting in a chair; he wasn’t at the bar.

I listen but I don’t breathe. My kids’ dad and my soon-to-be ex-husband collapsed less than a mile from my house and I didn’t know about it. And he could’ve hit his head.

The mental reel spinning, I think of him in the ambulance alone, at the hospital alone. This man who had his first IV when he had out-patient knee surgery in his early fifties, who’s yet to spend a night in a hospital bed, who gets queasy at the sight of blood and needles. He’s alone and scared and on a gurney, then in an ambulance, and finally, a hospital.

“Was someone there to help you, to talk with the doctors?”

He pauses. A painful, long silence. And I feel stupid.

He was at a table, not at the bar. Tables are more intimate, more private.

“Yeah, my lady friend was with me. I’m seeing someone now and she was once a …” He says something about what she once was but I don’t hear it. A nurse, maybe? A doctor? A candy striper or a stripper or an astronaut?

The mental reel spins again, but this time, on a different track. Some woman I don’t know rushes in with him, her face contorted with concern, holding his hand and demanding attention stat. He’s scared, but he’s comforted by her presence. She takes charge, takes care of him. Her. Not me.

He’s not in the hospital now; he’s on the phone with me, calling from his office. That means he’s okay and didn’t likely spend the night at the hospital. No one checks out of the hospital and goes straight to work. So he went home, late, after they released him. But patients who collapse are advised not to be alone.

The mental reel stops. The scene freezes in that awkward spot, like when you hit pause on the DVR.

I think I’m going to throw up.

He says something about the doctors taking him off the blood pressure medications or changing the dosage. I say something about the stuff they sell at Pinky’s not doing much for hydration.

We move on. Apparently, he already has.

•••

POWELL BERGER is a freelance writer living in Kailua, Hawaii. She’s editor-in-chief of Travelati, an iPad magazine once described as “This
 American Life in the travel context.” Her writings have appeared in Travelati, Inside Out Hawaii, and various other online and print publications. Her travel adventures with her two teens are chronicled on
 her blog, www.familyvagabonding.com, and her writing world is housed at www.powellberger.com.

Eye of the Beholder

eye
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Kim Kankiewicz

I wait in a lobby with purple carpet and rounded walls and a magazine rack stuffed with picture books. A fifty-gallon aquarium nests in a cubby four feet above the ground. Orange and green nursery school furniture occupies the central space, surrounded by clusters of adult-sized chairs. I am thirty-five years old and the only patient here without a parent.

My life story could be set in eye doctors’ offices. I’ve been pinned by technicians to a reclining chair in Phoenix as my first ophthalmologist dropped atropine into my pupils. I’ve written fawning essays about an eye doctor in South Dakota who nicknamed me Trouper. I’ve leaned into tonometry machines in Iowa and Kansas, with medical students lined up to scrutinize me. I’ve mourned for an eye doctor in Minnesota who died of cancer. I’ve formed an uneasy friendship with the wife of an eye doctor in Nebraska who had an affair with his nurse. I learned I was pregnant from an ophthalmologist in Boulder reviewing pre-operative blood work.

In all those encounters, I’ve never been the right age for my eye clinic. As a child with glaucoma, I grew accustomed to being an anachronism. Among the crepe skin and hunched backs, I was pink cheeks and muscled legs. It was one of the ways my visual impairment made me uncomfortably visible.

I laugh when, two decades after my diagnosis, I find myself the lone adult patient in a room full of children sporting eye patches and doll-sized spectacles. The mother next to me, a nervous twenty-something, glances my way, and I pretend to be amused by the book I’m holding. I hadn’t considered what should have been obvious when I scheduled this appointment: a specialist in strabismus, colloquially known as “lazy eye,” is primarily a pediatric ophthalmologist.

This is confirmed when the doctor enters the exam room twenty minutes later. He is wearing a Mickey Mouse tie. He skims the pages in my fat file and wheels his chair over. We sit knee to knee as he shines a penlight into my blind eye, then studies it through a scope.

“Working around your other surgeries, I can get you to eighty percent alignment,” he says.

“Would this be covered by insurance?” I can see nothing from my right eye, which is why it’s wandered further off kilter every year since the surgery in my teens that marred my appearance without saving my sight.

“It’s medically justifiable,” the doctor says. There’s some practical benefit: face-to-face communication would be less distracting for my conversation partners. And my blind eye takes in just enough light to claim a functional benefit.

Realistically, though, strabismus surgery won’t improve my vision and isn’t necessary. I knew this when I made the appointment. What I am contemplating is, for all intents and purposes, cosmetic surgery.

•••

I once vowed, horrified when a classmate had breast implants before she was old enough to vote, that I would never opt for surgery that wasn’t medically necessary. My smug self-assurance came from an unusually informed perspective. By my twenties, I’d lost count of the eye surgeries I’d endured. Enough to have preferences regarding anesthesia. (Fentanyl is nice.) I knew that surgery is always nightmarish, recovery always excruciating.

The collective experience of surgery made me feel like a cadaver, indifferently carved open and sewn back together. When the doctor in Boulder joked that mine was his first pregnancy announcement after screening for six thousand cataract operations, I wasn’t impressed. I was just glad to be distinguishable from the other 5,999 patients.

Only on the operating table did I want my handicap to stand out. Everywhere else, I wanted to appear intact. I tried to achieve this by excelling in school, performing onstage, and ultimately starving and exercising my body until it collapsed and I left college for bulimia treatment. Eating disorders are complicated, their genesis complex, but I know mine originated between an exam chair where I squinted against the light and a school hallway where I wore sunglasses indoors, between a hospital bed where I wanted to be conspicuous and a waiting room where I did not.

Healing from an eating disorder is simultaneously complicated and simple. Recovery is a lifetime process, but it often comes down to treating oneself with both gentleness and brutal honesty. I’ve acknowledged my self-absorption, my complicity with a system that values women’s adherence to narrow standards of beauty above all else. Most of the time, I resist preoccupation with my appearance by throwing balled-up socks at the television when a woman is blatantly objectified and asking myself who would possibly benefit if I were more attractive.

Who will benefit if my wonky right eye is aligned with the left one? I don’t believe anyone has ever been too distracted by my lopsided gaze to maintain a coherent conversation with me. I suspect some acquaintances have not even noticed what feels to me like a huge deformity. Despite the growth I think I’ve experienced, I have to consider that in the end this surgery is nothing more than vanity.

•••

The operation takes place at a children’s hospital. The intake nurse, who rarely needs to differentiate between patient and child, talks to me in a high-pitched voice. Even when she catches herself, she seems unable to adjust her register. To add to her discomfiture, I am accompanied by my mother because my husband was called away on out-of-state business. My mother has experienced nearly as many eye surgeries as I have and is worried primarily about finding her way back to my house if I’m not lucid enough to navigate. She comforts me, unexpectedly, in a way my husband could not.

“It’s a simple repair,” she says. “Nothing to feel conflicted about.”

Mothers don’t cause eating disorders, but if you made a list of the ways they might contribute to them, very few of those factors would apply to my mom. She has an incomprehensibly easy relationship with food. She makes healthy choices as a way of life. I don’t recall her uttering a single deprecating remark about her body or mine. The closest she came to criticizing my appearance was asking semi-regularly, “Is that what you’re wearing today?” as if I’d donned a costume to amuse her before dressing in my actual clothes. (Retrospective photographic evidence explains her bewilderment.)

I didn’t understand my own feelings about my eye disease, and I hid them from my mother. She hid from me the likelihood that I’d be blind before adolescence, the plan to relocate to a city with a blind school, the fears that she was inadequate to help me survive. What I saw was my parents’ unwavering presence. Intuiting that my vision was at risk, I was unworried. My parents would take care of me. Little did I know my mother felt as insufficient as I did.

The surgery is not as simple as my mother predicts. Through the haze of anesthesia, the operating team’s conversation sounds graver than usual. The operation, I later learn, lasts an hour longer than scheduled. When I awake, my surgeon explains that he discovered additional real estate left from previous operations. He’d altered his game plan to avoid damaging a shunt. In practical terms, this means more pain and less certainty of success.

It will be days before my eye turns from blood-red to white, weeks before I can peruse the lasting impact of surgery. Will it noticeably change my appearance? Will it change anything else?

“I’m glad you could be here,” I tell my mom, when she has driven us home without a wrong turn.

“Me too,” she says.

•••

My children are solicitous when they return from a friend’s house after my operation. This is their first brush with eye surgery, and their concern charms me. I explain the procedure as my mom defined it for me, as a repair. They don’t know the surgery is an attempt to improve my appearance; I won’t let on that I wish to be beautiful. It’s an intermittent desire, one that no longer defines me, yet I’ve gone under the knife to satisfy it.

I want to spare my little girl from measuring her value in a mirror, but Signe is learning, inevitably, that beauty matters. She has confided that she hopes she is pretty enough to have friends in kindergarten. I stumbled through what I hoped was an appropriate response, enumerating the qualities that make her a good friend. She looked unconvinced.

When Signe stared at my face a few months before surgery, I thought of an essay by Alice Walker. Walker dreaded the day her daughter would notice her mother’s disfigured eye, just as my daughter was noticing mine. The pivotal moment in Walker’s essay is when her daughter remarks, “Mommy, there’s a world in your eye.” I shouldn’t set much store by this atypically affectionate account of Walker’s relationship with her now estranged daughter. Even so, I was crushed when my little girl said, “Your eye looks scary.”

She recognized my hurt before I masked it and apologized for days afterward. I reassured her she’d done nothing wrong, talked about how differences make us beautiful, told her my blind eye reminded me to be grateful for the eye that can see. But she had observed that deep down, I too hope I’m pretty enough to belong.

You won’t find integral as a synonym for beautiful in any thesaurus. In my vocabulary, they share meaning. Integral means both whole and essential to the whole. If you are integral, you are complete, and the world would not be complete without you. What I have learned over years of reflection is that when I long to be beautiful, I long to be integral.

•••

Three weeks after surgery, my irises are horizontally aligned so closely you might think they were allies. The overall effect, however, is unremarkable. My right iris remains a paler shade of green than the left. My right pupil is still the black-marker dot of a child’s drawing, never dilating because it never beholds light. My right eyelids, stretched and sliced over decades of treatment, still gape like snarled lips.

As a child, I heard a doctor say my disease could “burn out” by adolescence. I imagined a celebration, like a sweet sixteen party with balloons and cake, attended by my friends, my doctors, the aunts and uncles who inquired about my eyes during holiday dinners, the teachers who had visited me at the hospital. Now, as an adult who should have outgrown such naive fantasies, I had let myself believe again that a single moment in my ocular history could unbreak what came before.

Most days I am reconciled with the badge of my brokenness. Most days understanding my desire for beauty as a desire for wholeness is enough to make peace with it. Most days I believe I am integral to—and through—my mother and daughter and every woman who wants to be integral, too. But some days I close my eyes, unseeing and unseen, and dream of revision.

•••

KIM KANKIEWICZ has written for Brain, Child, Denver’s Westword, the Saint Paul Almanac, and public radio. She is a recent transplant to the Seattle area, where she hasn’t yet found an eye doctor.