Full Grown People will be back next Monday with a brand-spanking-new essay, but in the meantime (while I’m cooking and drinking and guarding the good stuffing) maybe you’d like to catch up on some essays you might have missed? You can poke around in the archives or search by category.
Or, here’s a little list. Every year, editors of small magazines get to nominate six pieces of work for the Pushcart Prize, a huge honor in the lit world. The deadline is December 1, so now at the end of November, here I am, with much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair. I want to nominate all of them—I love each essay on this website for different reasons. Alas, this was my long list of possible Pushcart nominees before I narrowed it down to six:
See what I mean about the gnashing and the pulling? Even now, I’m thinking, but what about…?
I also want to thank you all. Thank you for reading, for commenting, for sharing on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you for signing up for the notifications and writing about FGP on your websites and for donating to the tip jar. A publication is nothing without its readers, and I can’t even tell you how grateful I am for your warming up this corner of the internet.
Resolve, The National Infertility Association of America, lists a variety of emotional and physical symptoms in response to not getting pregnant when you want to get pregnant. They include but are not limited to:
Lack of energy (especially when you have an unsuccessful cycle, on medical appointment days, or when you will see a pregnant friend);
Irritability (snapping at people or making mountains out of molehills)
Inability to concentrate
Shoplifting is nowhere on this list.
Yet in the nearly three years it took me to conceive, along with over $22,000 in home-refinancing and credit card debt, I also acquired the following:
One black large-ring pullback belt with double buckle
A boxy caramel suede jacket with fringe on the front pockets and hem
Decadent Fig, Orchid Surrender, and Cheating Heart lipstick (Estee Lauder)
Two bottles of 2006 Chalone Vineyard Pinot Noir
The complete boxed set of My So-Called-Life
Much like infertility, shoplifting requires a certain kind of seat-of-your-pants creativity. Some seasoned lifters, for instance, line empty bags with aluminum foil to get past the door sensors; others rig bags with springs or wear enormous coats with hand-sewn secret pockets inside. Whatever the method of concealment, though, recreational shoplifting has long been considered an archetypal feminine vice, an impulsive pilfering of the phallus and the mirror image of castration anxiety. Secreting a skin cream in the feminine folds of your purse couldn’t be more obvious in this respect. Or imagine a necklace up your coat-sleeve, its laminated price tag held fast like a nascent IUD. Think about the fact that just this year in a South Carolina outlet mall, they arrested a woman with over $1700 dollars worth of stolen clothes in an empty infant car seat.
When I finally got caught, it was on the first floor. The first floor of most department stores is the sort of gateway drug of shoplifting because it is full-to-bursting with easily pocketed items such as makeup and jewelry, a whole range of objects no larger than an infant’s palm or a deck of cards. I had just slipped a gold-plated chain necklace with purple lacquer beads into my shopping bag full of already purchased merchandise.
Standing in line to actually pay for something while you steal something else is a trick I thought I was clever enough to come up with on my own although, actually, it’s quite commonplace. Cloaking oneself in the veneer of respectable consumerism has a certain logic: who would suspect someone who is in the middle of paying for something else? The calculations involved in such decisions (how much to spend, how much to steal) are both whimsical and precise, a weighing of the universe against your own held breath and courage. I was actually feeling sort of virtuous that day as I had passed up a display of patterned SmartWool socks, thinking somehow that a pair might be pushing my luck. Then I heard the voice behind me:
“Ma’am, you need to stop right now and come with me.”
Of course I had not choice but to follow him, though he made me walk in front, somehow guiding my elbow without touching me at all. We rose up on the same escalator that, as a child, I used to be afraid would catch my shoelace and crush me. Resort-wear was on sale, and we passed turquoise and pink signs that read “Island Getaway” against a backdrop of pixilated palm trees and sand. I remembered then, oddly, that the first word I learned to read was “Island.” “Is-land,” I pronounced it (with an “s”) to much praise, as I had I tried to sound it out and not just guess, which when it comes to words is just about as much right as wrong. I still cling to this skill—to be able to make a mistake and be redeemed for how I made it—even in the most awkward of circumstances. Perhaps if I just explained to this young man, I thought, as we rode past waffle grills and men’s shirts and thick blue Mexican glassware, that this was all because I was thirty-seven years old and didn’t have a baby. I had made a mistake but I could learn.
Yet I couldn’t speak of these sorts of calculations as we turned right and left nearly a dozen times into the stained off-white recesses of the store, a place where doors no longer whooshed but were opened by punching a code into a metal box above a doorknob. This is where the logic of theft got you, I thought, as I was ordered to sit in a chair with leaky stuffing. This was the place for people like me, people who think the universe runs via a system of payback such that pilfered accessories could balance existential rage.
The gentleman who had caught me on a camera concealed in a mirrored pillar couldn’t have been more than twenty-four years old, with dark hair cut close to his head. He called in a female sales assistant—store policy I later learned—and the only thing between me sitting up straight and passing out in fear was my ability to concentrate on her silver nametag and the garland of irises tattooed around her ankle. Both of them were, I was sure, ridiculously fertile, with at least thirty years of potential baby making between them. She usually worked at the cosmetic counter where they wore white coats. By now I was so used to being administered to by people in white coats that I half-expected her to ask me the date of the first day of my last period and to take out a syringe of Lupron.
“Name?” he asked, as she rotated the ankle of her right leg in a circle and stared at her cuticles.
I learned that if I signed a paper saying that it was my first offense and I agreed to pay the store one hundred dollars and not shop there anymore (though I was allowed, he emphasized, to shop online whenever I wished), I could be let go without involving the police. It wasn’t until he ripped the form off from the top of a pad of them that it really hit me that people did this all the time. I didn’t know why anyone else did it. I only knew that for me it was a way of biding time and ferreting objects away until the empty space was filled. If I had been pregnant, I might call this magpie-like behavior nesting.
I saw a therapist for a while over my anxiety about not being able to get pregnant but not about my shoplifting; it seemed too personal. Her assurances that I had come from “a long line of women who were able to have children” didn’t work for the obvious holes in its logic: anyone who has been born should therefore never suffer infertility. She prescribed me anxiety medication by consulting a laminated circular chart.
Years later, and after I finally had a baby, I learned that she had long been on a kind of informal shoplifting “watch list” at one of the more expensive boutiques in town. She hasn’t been arrested for a number of reasons, I suppose, chief of which includes her being white, in her late sixties, recovering from throat cancer, and recently divorced from her husband of forty years who left her for his Japanese teaching assistant. (In a small college town information like this spreads quickly).
I imagine my therapist, even now, arms full of Academic Woman of a Certain Age clothing—long, flowing caftan-like tops with nubby printed textures connoting either travel or a degree in anthropology—clothes meant to encase their wearers like so much flocked wallpaper. When she hands over her Visa Gold she nicks a scarf, say, or a free-trade wallet whose earmarked profits benefit children in Guatemala with cleft palates. The clerks in the store keep a lookout and try to sense when she might take something in order to distract her, like shaking a bright plastic toy in the face of a crying infant. No one really has the guts to actually call her on it, and the store must make enough money from what she does buy that they can afford to leave her alone but for the watching. My reaction to this information is a combination of repulsion and sympathetic joy.
The fear of getting caught, as any therapist will tell you, is an endemic part of the thrill of shoplifting. The pounding of blood in the arms and neck, the panic-static in the eardrum, the bursting open of the department store’s heavy glass and metal doors and into the air of the known world abruptly accessorized by what you both do and do not deserve. Thus the final steps out of the store are the scariest, and the most thrilling. I would draw this part out, lingering at the edge of tile and concrete, fingering the perfume bottles in an approximation of calm, my attempt to look less criminal and more casual consumer, a hassle-free flaneur with time on her hands and the world at her feet, a pantomime of the person I wanted to be. Not a thirty-seven-year-old academic whose left hip was covered with raisin-sized bruises from hormone injections. Just a woman. A woman shopping, as women do, for something warm and soft.
Of course, the stealing only quelled my pregnancy obsession for short periods of time. I still zealously counted the days of my cycle, took my temperature and recorded it in shaky print on a series of post-it notes next to the bed, bought package after package of ovulation kits and debated on the toilet seat whether the cervical mucous stretched between my fingers was, in fact, an inch or more in length, and if the opening to my cervix felt like more like my lips or my nose (the former connoted the approach of ovulation, or was it the latter?). For three years I would periodically sneak my index finger into my underwear to check for blood as the twenty-eighth day approached, the absence of which would mean I could breathe for the next hour. When my period came, as it inevitably did, the pelvic tugging and the thick molasses cramps became yet one more sign of the fact that the more I wanted something, the less likely I would be to get it, that I couldn’t count on getting what I wanted without subterfuge. Once stopped at a red light (probably on day twenty-six or twenty-seven), I reached up under my skirt with my left hand only to see the man in the SUV next to me raise his eyebrows and smile. You’d think that such embarrassment would warrant something good later to make up for it, but still that month my period came. Later, standing in line buying tampons, I palmed a tin of mints the size of a swallow’s egg.
Statistics vary, but most agree that women are born with a finite number of eggs, somewhere between one and two million. Approximately 750 eggs are “lost” each month and even fertility specialists throw around the term “shelf-life” to refer to the ways in which a woman’s eggs begin to diminish in quality after her twenties. One doctor called it the “dried macaroni problem.” If you have a box of dried macaroni on your shelf, you can expect it to last for years and years. However, the longer it sits inside your dusty cupboard the more likely it is that when you set it to boil, some of the individual pieces will have deteriorated.
I have never stolen a box of macaroni.
Part of what makes shoplifting seem alluring is also that you can pretend that you are striking a blow against the facts, against a world where the age you are able to pay your bills and live without three other people splitting the rent is also the age at which your peak fertility begins its precipitous drop. Stealing then felt to me like a swipe against Mother Nature and Father Capitalism at the same time. After all, that sweater at the Gap? It was made by fertile women at maquiladoras being paid cents a day.
Across the parking lot from my pediatrician’s office is a large department store whose red star signals its function as a space of gratification, both imaginary and concrete. When I carried my son into and out to of my car for his first checkup, I was afraid someone would stop me. I love him so much that I’m still not convinced he will disappear into thin air for everything I have ever done.
Two weeks ago, I saw my old therapist on the front steps of our local organic grocery store. It was October, and she had just tucked her cell phone into her wool pocket after calling (I imagine) for someone to come and collect her. By the time I was finished shopping, I saw her get into a taxi and leave the store’s order behind, turning her back on shelves, radio frequency identification tags, video cameras, prices for objects per can and box and gram and ounce. Before she stepped into the cab, her long linen skirt brushed against a pile of pumpkins arranged by the entrance, their round ridged orange skin fairly glowing in the shadow blue of early evening. They were still sitting there as she drove away. Right out front. Anyone could have taken one.
JENNIFER MAHER is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She has published scholarly and creatively in a variety of venues including Brain, Child, Bitch Magazine, and Feminist Media Studies. She lives with her family in Bloomington, Indiana.
I’m holding in my hand an inexplicable jewel. It’s about an inch and a half long, just the right size to nestle inside my closed fist, and smooth; it feels slightly warm, not cold as a stone would be. When I was a child, I thought it looked like an eggplant—a miniature, precious eggplant. Not only because of its fat teardrop shape, but also because of its color—in my hand, it looks dark, almost black, but when I hold it up to the light it glows deep purple-red. On its blossom end is a bright gold cap that comes down in points just like the green stem part of an eggplant, which makes me think its maker intended it to look like an eggplant, and it wasn’t just my childish imagination. At the top of the cap is a gold loop, so that it can be worn on a chain.
This object used to belong to my Korean grandmother, my father’s mother. She gave it to her daughter-in-law, my mother, who kept it in her jewelry box, unworn, for years, where I used to love to find it. Not long ago, my mother passed it along to me.
The eggplant is not the only jewelry my grandmother gave my mother. My grandparents made the trip from Korea to Boston to see us perhaps once every two or three years, and when they came my grandmother brought gifts. Matching sweaters she had knit for my two older brothers. Tiny rings for me: turquoise and amethyst. Cash, hidden in the hem of a coat. Once, my mother parted the wrapping paper in a large box; inside it was gleaming, dark fur. My mother reached for it, exclaiming, “A mink stole!” When she unfolded it, though, it turned out to be a tiny fur jacket that tied at the neck with big mink pom-poms. For a five-year old: me. I can picture my grandmother hiding a smile.
My mother and her mother-in-law were never close. It did not help that my father himself did not have a good relationship with his mother—“she’s a bullshitter,” he would always say of her. But my father was the first of his brothers to marry and so my mother was the recipient of a number of gifts from my grandmother, all of which are embedded now in my earliest memories.
When my mother gave me the eggplant, I was caught off-guard. My mother has a long, rich history of giving me presents I don’t like, although I have never believed she has done this intentionally. Gift-giving is simply not something she cares about, and thus she approaches it like the chore she finds it to be, to be accomplished with the least inconvenience to herself.
She frequently gives me old things that have been lying around her house, or that she has picked up at the swap table at the town dump. Now that I’m an adult, I’m glad that she just gives me old stuff because then I don’t have any qualms about throwing it away. But sometimes this tendency of hers annoys me, as when she wraps up things that are already mine. I’m not sure what she is thinking when she does this. It could be that she has forgotten that they belong to me, as when she presented me with a set of twelve wooden place-card holders, carved to look like miniature Korean villagers, that I somehow acquired on our one family visit to Korea when I was eight. When I unwrapped them, I said, “Mom, these are mine.” She seemed genuinely surprised. Since I had never bothered to remove them from her house, I suppose she was justified in thinking that they were hers. That still does not explain why she thought I would like to receive them as a gift, however.
For my fortieth birthday she gave me a set of gold-plated miniature spoons bearing the crest of my grandmother’s alma mater (Ewha Women’s College, in Seoul, Korea).
“Mom,” I said, letting the gift wrap fall to the floor. “If you want to get rid of old, ugly, useless crap, why don’t you just sell it on eBay?”
“What?” she said, incredulous at the suggestion. “Who would buy it?”
The point is, when opening a gift from my mother—when smoothing out the previously used gift wrap bearing the ghostly marks of old scotch tape and lifting the lid of a cardboard box bearing the logo of a long-extinct department store (Jordan Marsh recurs with some frequency)—expectations are low. It could even be said that the sight of a wrapped box can fill me with dread and anticipation of disappointment and bewilderment.
But when she began, within the past few years, to give me her old jewelry, I was moved. For the first time, I felt that she was giving me things that had some meaning for her, things she specifically wanted me to have.
The first time I opened a small box and found one of the bracelets she had been given by my grandmother, I believe my mouth actually fell open and I uttered a word I rarely say when I open her presents: “Thanks!!” This bracelet is made of oval domes of a material with the hue and translucency of apricot jelly. No, not apricot. Something redder, darker, something that must be plucked from a tree with blossoms and is juicy and tastes like honey—maybe quince? I can picture this bracelet as it used to nestle against white cotton in my mother’s cream-colored, red-silk-lined jewelry box. I used to love to look through this box and carefully handle the colored gems. My mother is a pianist, and I remember watching her get dressed for a recital, how exciting and disconcerting it was to see her put on little screw-back earrings that dangled and swung and caught the light and transformed her from mere mom to someone perfumed and lipsticked, floral and fine, an artist and a performer in a pretty dress and high heels. My mother was giving me part of my childhood, and part of her youth.
In addition to the bracelet, she gave me the earrings that match it. The earrings are more of a teardrop shape, but of the same deep clear orange. Another time she passed along to me a necklace and earrings of dime-sized slightly curved disks the color of the ocean at its greenest, set inside circles of silver. I also have heavy earrings of a green-gray stone carved into flower baskets that hang from enameled flower backs.
But my favorite piece of all was always the eggplant. My mother gave it to me in the condition in which it had sat in her jewelry box throughout my childhood—without a chain or any way to wear it, just its gold cap, and a rough patch on one side as if someone had dropped it in something sticky that then hardened forever.
When I’ve asked my mother what these objects are made of, she has always been vague. There are so many opportunities for misinformation. It was never clear to me exactly why my mother was uncertain, but it could have been because she thought it was impolite to ask directly, and so my grandmother just hadn’t told her exactly what the pieces were; or perhaps she doubted what my grandmother had said; or maybe my mother just didn’t understand her because of the language barrier. My grandmother could be the source of uncertainty, or it could be my mother herself. At various times my mother told me she thought my grandmother had said the quince jelly jewelry was made of red jade. She told me maybe the ocean necklace was green jade. The flower basket earrings were white jade, perhaps. And the eggplant—she didn’t know, but she guessed amber.
All the references to “jade” made me suspicious. My mother doesn’t like to say that she doesn’t know something. And I know the “jade” answer solves a lot of problems for her. When she says something is made of jade, it is her way of saying: it’s from long ago and far away and however little I know about jade, you know even less, so just be quiet.
So I tried asking my father. My father is a scientist, a person who believes that facts matter.
“Dad, do you think this is red jade?”
“How would I know?”
“Grandma said it was red jade.”
“Then it’s bullshit.”
I wonder if my mother actually liked any of these pieces. The fact that she wore them doesn’t necessarily prove that she liked them. But she herself might not even have been able to answer that question. I don’t recall ever hearing her say, about a piece of clothing or jewelry, or item for the house, “I love this!” or even, “This is nice!” I heard her say, “It was on sale and it just fits the bill!” or, “It was right there in the back of the closet!” Liking or not liking something was not particularly relevant to her. Which also explains why, when giving gifts to others, she doesn’t tend to take their personal preferences into account. It’s not because she doesn’t care about them or intends to displease them—personal preference simply is not something she thinks very much about.
I considered taking the pieces to an appraiser, but most of them were in need of repair and I didn’t want to take them anywhere in the condition they were in. In addition, I had been to an appraiser once, in New York. Their policy was to charge ten percent of the value of each piece, which, it seemed to me, provided an odd and transparent incentive to appraise on the high side. It was a transaction loaded with more than the usual distrust and positioning, and I didn’t want to go through that with my few family heirlooms.
Last winter, however, while skiing in Vermont over Christmas vacation, my husband and I came across a small, family-owned jewelry store in the base village, and we went in so I could choose my Christmas gift. The young woman standing behind the case of blinding diamond rings was wearing a great deal of jewelry. I thought that if I wore that much jewelry I would look like a crazed kleptomaniac, or a hoarder heiress. But Roxanne looked like a radiant goddess. She guided us through our options patiently, enumerating each piece’s characteristics with the deep, husky voice of a fortune teller, and by the time I finally settled on a pair of gold dangly earrings, I trusted and loved her like a sister. As she wrapped the earrings, I told her that I had some old, broken jewelry that I wanted to have fixed.
“I can help you with that!” she said. “Bring them in the next time you come.”
So when we returned home to New York I packed my pieces carefully in pouches, and when we went skiing over Martin Luther King Day weekend, I brought them to Roxanne.
She and I sat opposite each other under a bright light, with a small table between us. I suddenly felt afraid for my little jewels. Here’s the thing about them: they are all I have from a grandmother I barely knew and whose life was essentially unimaginable to me. We are not a family that has much in terms of handed-down possessions. My mother’s family left Korea when she was a child of six, and no family possessions came with them across the Pacific on that boat, the last to leave Yokohama for the United States in 1940.
My father’s family, still in Korea, fled their home in Seoul for the south as the Communists advanced at the beginning of the Korean War ten years later. On our one visit to Korea when I was a child, I explored my grandparents’ home and found doors hidden in walls, rooms behind panels, places where they could hide if the Communists came. My father calls his mother a bullshitter, but I prefer to think that she simply was a keeper of secrets, a role that often necessitates obscuring the truth. There are reasons why the provenance of things is unknown—in all that fleeing and hiding, all manner of things were lost and forgotten.
But now it feels important to know about these few things that remain, these things that comprise my inheritance: what is their value? Perhaps it is because my grandmother is gone, and my parents are aging, and soon this information will be irretrievable, unless someone makes an effort. Perhaps it is because I want to give these things to my own children, and I want to know what it is that I am giving them.
Roxanne placed a little pad on the table and carefully laid out each piece. She examined each with interest. I sat silent. I didn’t tell her about how I always thought the bracelet looked like jelly or the necklace like seawater.
She started with the bracelet.
“My mother always said that was red jade,” I ventured.
She shook her head. “It’s carnelian,” she said, eying it through a loupe. “Pretty, and it’s set in a high karat gold. The bracelet is lovely just as it is. And the simplest thing to do with the earrings is just to put them on gold wires so you can easily wear them. I can do that for you right now.” And she disappeared into a back room, re-emerged with two gold wires, and, with a twist of a pair of pliers, replaced the screw-backs.
She next picked up the green necklace and weighed it in her hand. I could tell from the quickness with which her hand lifted and fell that the weight was underwhelming. She showed me how the green color was pulling away from the edges of each little disk, leaving them clear. I was very disappointed in them. They plainly had no value at all. Roxanne, seeing my expression, held them up against her neck.
“They’re a pretty color, “ she said. “A fun piece, for your daughter, maybe.”
“Hum,” I said. I didn’t want to give my daughter anything crappy, not even for fun.
The jade flower baskets interested her. “Look,” she said. “The baskets and the rings they dangle from are cut from one piece of jade—see how there’s no break in the ring? “
“So they are really are jade?” I said, brightening a bit.
“A great piece of workmanship,” she said. “A real conversation piece. The enamel backs are going to be too difficult to clean, though, especially since I can’t tell what the metal is. So if you want to wear them we’ll find you just a simple pair of gold hoops, and you can hang the baskets from them. “
“Should I be careful with these, then?” I asked. “Are they fragile?”
“Well, they’ve obviously been through a lot—you can see how the rings are wearing thin in places. They can’t be as fragile as all that. And it’s not so much that they’re worth a ton of money—they’re just interesting. Nice pieces.”
And then we came to my little eggplant.
“Oh,” Roxanne said. She held it, and thumbed the rough patch. She weighed it in her hand. I told her to hold it up to the light, and she did.
“Oh, look at that,” she said. She weighed it some more. Finally, she spoke.
“I have no idea what this is,” she said.
“Neither do I, “ I said.
“It’s very light. I’m going to guess some kind of resin,” she said. “Amber.”
“Amber sounds right,” I said.
“But this gold cap is very high-karat,” she said. “And the workmanship on it is very fine. It indicates to me that it’s something of value. No one would put a fancy cap like that on something worthless.”
“You didn’t know my grandmother,” I said.
“Let me hold onto this one,” she said. “I’ll ask the people at our studio what they think it is, and what they think can be done with it. I’ll let you know.”
I wear my new carnelian earrings quite a bit. I like their length, their color, and the way they dangle. But I still do not know what they are worth. Roxanne would not put a dollar value on any of the things I brought her. She said she didn’t know what they were worth, and determining exactly what they were made of would involve subjecting them to tests of various kinds to determine things like hardness and melting points that would probably damage them irreparably. Her view was, if you like them, then wear them—what difference does it make what they are worth?
This wasn’t a satisfying conclusion for me, though, so I went on eBay and plugged in “Carnelian earrings” to see what I could find. “Carnelian earrings,” it turns out, are a dime a dozen. Almost literally. I found a pair that approximated the size and shape of my teardrops, and the bidding started at: thirty-nine cents.
I heard from Roxanne a few weeks later.
“The artists at the studio could not determine what the material is,” she said. “Our best guess is still amber. But I have to tell you that there is a possibility that it is plastic. We can’t rule it out.
“We can repair the loose cap by putting in a new pin, and we can take off whatever is stuck to it,” she said. “And I’ve found a perfect gold chain for it. The chain runs …”
I can’t even tell you how much. More than I would ordinarily pay for a piece of jewelry, especially one that could not be ruled out as being plastic.
I wrote back. “I would like to be able to wear this piece. But is there any way to guarantee that it is not plastic?”
“No,” she wrote back. “But it is a lovely piece, and I think if you love it, you should wear it.”
If I love it. It was as simple, and as impossible, as that. Being my mother’s daughter, I don’t ask myself that question very often. Do I love it? Is there an answer to that question that is separate from the questions of its utility, its dollar value? Of course I don’t love it. I don’t tend to feel love for inanimate objects. Although, you know, if I ever were to love an object, the eggplant might be the one.
“I wanted her to tell me what it’s worth,” I complained to my husband. “She didn’t answer my question at all.”
“Go ahead and get it fixed,” he said. “Otherwise, it will certainly be worth nothing.”
Ultimately, I gave Roxanne the go-ahead. In a few weeks she let me know that it was ready. She said it was gorgeous.
And it was. And it is. The chain is Italian gold, richly colored but not overly brassy or bright, substantial but not heavy. Roxanne had two loops put in so I can wear the pendant at different lengths. As it turns out, I wear it all the time. It suddenly seems that every outfit is enhanced by a possibly plastic eggplant on a lovely gold chain. I will never know what my eggplant is really made of, but at this point I’d almost rather not know, for its unknowability may be its most precious feature. When I give it to my daughter, she will know at least this part of its story: I took my mysterious inheritance of indeterminate value, and I put it on a gold chain, and I gave it to her, with all my love.
CAROL PAIK lives in New York City with her husband in a half-empty nest. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literal Latte, among other places, and has been anthologized in The Best Plays from the Strawberry One-Act Festival, vol. 6, and Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, fifth ed. More of her writing at: www.carolpaik.com. More about her short film, Pear, at www.facebook.com/pearthemovie.
“So what’s new in your life, boys? Is there anything you can share with us or that you even want to share?” My partner’s mother breaks a momentary silence at our holiday dinner table while unscrewing the cap off of her container of bottled water. I reach across a plate of spinach-pie wedges to grab the etched glass wine decanter and fill my glass in front of me. My partner Janyce is cutting into a lamb chop, swirling a forkful around in the egg-lemon sauce on her plate. Over on the far left, my older teen, Connor, is scooping up another spoonful of rosemary potatoes from the ceramic bowl and dropping them in a pile on his plate.
“I’m getting my license soon,” says Connor.
“Hey, did I ever tell you what my dad did to me when I got my license?” Janyce’s sister Agni blurts out from the far opposite side of the table. I can see the top of her head from behind the vase of orange and pink pastel tulips as she hoists her little black dog up on to her lap.
“Ag!” says Janyce, placing her wine glass down and shooting her sister a stare before looking nervously over at me.
“It’s okay,” I say. “Let her tell the story.”
“Well, on the day I passed my test, I asked Dad if I could take the car to drive to Peggy’s house,” she says, looking straight at Janyce as she pauses to shift the dog to her other knee. “And he said to me that I had to wait for him to go with me because I couldn’t drive the car alone for another three months. He said it was because the insurance would take three more months before it would go into effect. Can you believe that?”
“That’s not true, is it?” asks Connor.
“Of course it’s not true!” says Agni as she starts to giggle. “You thought you were being smart, didn’t you, Dad?” She gives a jab to her father who is sitting beside her and looking down at his plate.
“I don’t think he heard you,” says Janyce.
“Oh he heard me. Just look at that smile,” she says.
Janyce’s dad picks his head up and grins. “It worked, didn’t it?”
“It worked until I got my first car myself, and I made a comment about needing to wait a few months for the insurance, and they looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “The guy said to me, ‘You can drive the car out of here right now.’”
“I don’t get it,” says Connor. “Why would your dad tell you that, then?”
“We were going to try the same thing on you,” says Janyce looking over at me. “But too late now, huh,” she says to him. “Dad just wanted her to keep driving with another person in the car a little longer for the practice.”
“Oh! Yeah, well I don’t need any more practice. I’m ready,” he says.
I steal a sideways glance at my quiet younger teen, Aidan, to my left. It’s close to seventy-five degrees outside, but he wears a blue plaid flannel shirt buttoned up to the top, covering his black concert tee-shirt. The gaping metal tunnels in his ears are plugged up with a stopper of red, just barely visible from behind his shiny black hair. Behind me is only the sideboard table that I’d adorned with a rustic candelabra and a plate of shiny yellow packaged marshmallow peeps and boxed chocolate bunnies.
“Why do you let him do that to his ears?” whispers my Aunt Gail just over my shoulder. Nobody hears her say it but me, and yet I notice how Aidan sits a little straighter in his chair.
“Want to try some of the greens?” I ask Connor, motioning toward the bowl directly in front of his plate.
“No, thanks, I don’t like steamed daffodils,” he says.
“Those are wilted dandelion greens, wise guy,” I say.
“I’m all good, Mom.”
My partner’s father and sister are talking about something I missed, and Janyce is now leaning back in her chair, her plate pushed to the side. I dip my fingers in the shallow bowl of mounded mini jellybeans next to my flatware. Multicolor glass cordial glasses embellish the top of each dessert plate on the green tablecloth and remind me of the spring crocuses outside, just now beginning to push their way through the soggy earth.
“Is it okay if I go visit across the street?” asks Connor.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m done too. I want to go skate,” says Aidan.
“Sure, guys, you can go. Thanks for making an appearance,” I say.
I take in a deep breath. We all made it through the rushed first hour of a holiday meal in the new house, with all my new relatives.
As the teens perform their stiff goodbyes and get up from the table, I catch the end of Janyce’s sister’s and father’s conversation.
“I used to love YaYa’s shoes—remember those? They were so high and she was so short. They had those bows on them,” says Agni.
“Yeah, and she was always mad at us for wearing jeans,” Janyce chimes in. “I remember how she would be dressed and ready for me when I had to drive her to the Greek market. She was in her dress, those shoes with the bows, and she had her bag in her hand. We were only driving across town to buy feta!”
“Well, that’s how it was with the Greek women of that generation. You dressed properly to go out,” says Janyce’s mom.
“Okay, maybe to go out, but remember how mad she got at Dad when he was wearing ripped cutoffs to build the deck?” says Agni.
“That was hysterical,” says Janyce. “Remember that, Dad?” She turns to her father who smiles and looks down at the table while shaking his head from side to side.
I don’t add anything to the conversation; I watch my sons exit the room. On their way out, they pass by my long deceased Uncle Ray, who is leaning over Janyce’s shoulder to look into the main platter of leftovers still on the table. “Lamb and artichokes? Where is the ham and raisin sauce?” he asks, and I almost laugh out loud. I watch him in front of the brick fireplace tilting his head to listen to the Rembetika music playing from the stereo. He’s wearing a white button-down shirt with his white tee-shirt still visible, black pants, and gleaming polished shoes. Wisps of graying hair drape sideways across a partially balding head and half of his bottom lip is curled up in a crooked smile. His face droops slightly on one side.
“Who wants coffee and cookies?” asks Janyce. I start gathering and stacking dirty dishes as Janyce’s mom begins unwrapping the pink and green tissue paper from the small wrapped Easter package in front of her.
“Oh, aren’t these pretty,” she says.
“Those are from Athans Bakery, Mum,” Agni says. “I got you some filled with Nutella and some with mint. Those big ones have hazelnuts in them.”
“Oh, I can’t eat hazelnuts. I’ll have to give those to Daddy,” she says.
I pass Janyce on her way out of the kitchen as I’m on my way in, carrying the dirty dishes. She’s holding a bottle of ouzo in one hand and a plate of kourabiedes in the other.
“Kris and I are having some ouzo… Dad, are you having some too?” I hear her ask as I return to the entrance of the dining room. I stand perfectly still for a minute in the doorway as I watch my own grandmother, who we buried over ten years ago, looking at the pile of chocolates with the others. “I can’t eat hazelnuts either,” she says to the table. Then she fades away.
“Come sit and have ouzo with me,” says Janyce. She looks at me and pats the chair seat beside her.
“The teens were unusually silent, don’t you think?” I ask her as I lick white powder from my fingers and take a sip from my cobalt-blue cordial glass. Late afternoon sunlight streams through the windows and dances on the glassware. Nobody else is talking anymore, and we listen to the soft plucking of the bouzouki playing in the background.
“Well, they are getting older,” she says.
I nod in agreement, but to me that’s only part of the reason. It’s really more that the teenagers aren’t so comfortable with all the ghosts at the table. It seems that the smaller the holiday gathering, the easier it is for the relatives of the past to show up and make a comment or two. I was watching the two teens during dinner, anxiously looking at their cell phones, glancing out in the direction of the backyard while sitting straight in their chairs, all sullen and still. They couldn’t quite get comfortable with this holiday, the first one with my new relatives in a new house.
And yet to me, their fortyish mother, I only wish I could stop time during these moments and linger over dinner with my new relatives while all the relatives I remember so fondly pass in and out to get a closer look. That’s the real reason for the holidays coming around every year. It’s our yearly chance to welcome back all the ghosts to the table.
KRIS GUAY lives in Franklin, Massachusetts, with her partner and two teenage boys. She works as a communications manager in higher education. Her work has been published in Moms Who Need Wine and the Middlesex News, and will soon be in Corium Magazine. She writes her own popular blog called “Life with Teenagers” at www.2teen.wordpress.com.
After over a month away, my college freshman sends me an email containing, in its entirety, her opening paragraph for an essay (probably due in a couple of hours). No need to comment; she wants me to check the commas. It is our only inside joke; she doesn’t “get” commas. More precisely, she gets that commas are the only necessary punctuation, allowing the harried, headlong writer to separate ideas, go to the bathroom, dramatically pause, enumerate, whatever—commas are like school paste, hastily completing one ring before the next in the brilliant paper chain of her thinking.
She is brilliant, let me not fail to mention, attending a, cough, elite university. She’s also sensible and diligent, witty, humane. How terrible is it to have one grammatical fault?
Not very. But I know what you’re thinking, you, parent-who-is-not-me. You’re thinking she should be correcting her own comma errors. You’re thinking, how terrible to have only one funny intimacy between you and your daughter, one (count it) joke, after eighteen years of positive, thoughtful, healthy, creative, stable, mindful, whatever, parenting? How lame to get one lousy email in a month?
You tell me, chuckling momma. And I know you will, momentarily. I became a mother just in time for the zeitgeist of self-conscious parenting—we stared, compared, wrote books (guilty!), blogged, bragged. Currently, we buzzfeed our anxieties across the wired universe—Are You Enabling Your Adult Child? Is 25 the New 18? 10 Signs You’re a Helicopter Parent. Or Are You a . . . wait, what’s the opposite of a helicopter?
Tricycle? Dirt bike? Wheelchair? Somewhere on the primitive terrestrial level of emotional locomotion is where my daughter and I bust our moves. My cousin and her daughter exchanged 212 texts and seven phone calls in her first week at college—in this digital parenting age, there are so many new ways to keep score—but that’s not how we roll. We don’t talk, much, my daughter and me. We don’t text. A grammatical point is the center of our intimate universe. So boo me.
Boo her, too, charging ahead, comma-tose, in her spectacular, mother-free life. I envy her, let me put that out there. I’d like to go back to college, belly-up to the buffet table of knowledge, and feast. I’d like to peek out from behind my shiny hair at the smart and sultry guys peeking back.
But that’s a feeling I like to keep separate from missing her. She’d like that, too, and if we had one other joke, she and I, that’d probably be it. How can I miss you if you won’t go away?
Do I miss her? Yes, no. No, yes.
2. Use a comma to separate the elements in a series (three or more things).
Like you, attached parent, I’ve spent the better part of two decades observing this beautiful human. I watched while she composed her tiny arguments with me. At two, holding my gaze, she walked backwards with the juice she was not allowed to take out of the kitchen, already seeking an escape hatch from the Mothership. First sentences included “You’re not the boss of me,” and “I want my privacy, please.”
She was tough, contained, stubborn, true, quick, observant, thorough—from the very start of life. Unfoolable, she refused all bottles and pacifiers, forcing me to breastfeed until she finally got a cup with her own damned name on it.
From the moment she could write, she liked to bring her universe to order by making lists: Jews We Know; Christians We Know; Ask Mom About. One of her lists, “Rules,” composed in crayon during a particularly disastrous play date, virally migrated to copier rooms across America after I taped them to my office door at work:
No telling secrets!!!!!
No phisical contact.
No trowing shoes.
Listen to grownups.
Don’t waist electrisedy.
Have fun !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Be polite unless your being funny!
Always follow theese rules!
My brother-in-law used to begin corporate staff meetings by handing out Rosalie’s Rules. In fact, all of us who took this list to work understood that following Rosalie’s Top Three Rules—No telling secrets. No whining. No physical contact—would pretty much eliminate conflict. And it was sobering to realize that this insight came from a six-year-old.
My six-year-old. I remember her early bodies. Fine white hair standing straight as wheat on her head. Her fat square foot in my palm. The berry birthmark on the side of her nose, fainter each year. Her delicate frame in a white tee-shirt, pink rosebud on the collar. I was watching, admiring, evaluating—every minute, all the time—like the rest of my friends did with their kids. And for a time, in clear violation of Rule #3, I’d catch her up just to dance with me; she’d kiss me as many times as she could count; I’d knead the warm dough of her after a bath, when we played “Make me a pizza!”
At thirteen, however, she reverted to Rule #3, stopped returning hugs and accepting kisses, pulled up the drawbridge of herself and peered down at me from a high parapet. She was polite (Rule #9), but not funny. I couldn’t get a laugh out of her to save my soul (which sorely needed to hear her laugh). It was a long and difficult period, five years of her disciplined, disapproving distance—my girl backing away, still holding my gaze.
In the spirit of Rule #1, I should say that before she was born I feared having a girl, and this is precisely why: this regard. I know, because I was a girl who once regarded her mother from the same high place—with love, but without mercy. I needed my mother in very specific ways(a pumpkin pie, a prom dress, a crisply ironed shirt), but I couldn’t, for a long time, talk to her. Like Rosalie, I was never one of those girls who told their mothers everything. Yet I couldn’t help feeling, over the years of my daughter’s childhood, that I should become one of those mothers.
I simply didn’t know how. Shamed, I listened hard while other mothers filled me in on juicy news my daughter never reported—classroom antics, crackpot teachers, drama-club drama, teen romances, breakdowns, and bad behavior. I accepted their pity—their daughters dished, while I got my updates from the school website—and internalized their unspoken question: Doesn’t she know her own daughter?
In the newly empty house, her wee face on a stray refrigerator magnet can slay me.
3. Use a comma + a conjunctionto connect two independent clauses.
So I’ve been getting out more, and today took a walk when no one else thought of it. I had the park to myself, sky quietly blue and the trees starting to riot. A shift in season announced itself in my lungs. As I got into rhythm, I felt my energy rise up to my demand: heart delivering, muscles stretching, bones holding everything aloft. A shift in me, a space in me, opened up. Here I am, I thought: moving, alone, separate.
It was a concrete experience, nothing mystical about it. I’ll turn fifty in a few days. I’ve been a woman for thirty-eight years, a wife for twenty-eight, a mother for twenty. My body, me as object in space, has been caressed, ogled, stretched, shoved, squeezed, sized up, sucked, fucked, fondled, leaned on, burdened, stuffed, starved, examined, cut, drained, cleaned, sullied. There have been many hands upon me, hands I love and want to return to. Hands I slapped back (or should have). But this body, and the mind inhabiting it, has been returned to me, whole, completely capable of its animal and spiritual work: propulsion, going on.
And along with the impatient leaves, this other, thrilling idea came down: No one is watching. I have my privacy, thank you.
Like most empty nesters and the officially middle-aged, I certainly have regrets. But one of them is wishing for the wrong things. I wished for childhood to be perfect for my kids, not one molecule damaged or opportunity ignored. I wished to be perfect myself—more ambitious, more confident, less judgmental. I wished my daughter and I were closer. But I didn’t wish for this—for my sole self returning after a long journey through other lives, other bodies, other selves.
Of course, I wished my kid would get into her dream school, which, in fact, she did. At the freshman convocation, I squinted from the bleachers to pick out the pony tail that belonged to me—my beloved yellow head bobbing in the sea of promise. But the chaplain who delivered the invocation caught me in the act. “These are your children,” he said to the flock of proud parents, who, let’s be honest, felt we, too, had arrived. “But they don’t belong to you. They belong to themselves.”
My daughter has been telling me this very thing, in various ways, her entire life. There’s a difference between privacy and secrecy, and I suspect that in prior generations everybody knew that, not just six-year-olds. Gathering a new space around her (albeit with a roommate I don’t know much about), I think my daughter has been returned to her self, too, untethered, no one looking over her shoulder, however lovingly. That’s a heady feeling, I know. In the compound sentence of our lives, we’ve both arrived at a comma. Something has gone; something is coming, but we’re going to stop here a moment and, privately, catch our breath.
Don’t judge us, oracles of parenting, friendly rivals I run into at the coffee shop who ask how Rosalie is doing at school. (I don’t know; fine, I guess.) We’ve taken a break from judgment and are composing ourselves for our futures. No secrets. No whining. No throwing shoes.
And in this new, quiet space I hear a faint voice calling from the distance. I love you, now, will you please, shut up and tell me, where the commas go?
KRISTIN KOVACIC is the editor, with Lynne Barrett, of Birth: A Literary Companion . She teaches in the Literary Arts department of Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts School and in the Masters of Fine Arts program at Carlow University.
As a gentile living in Salt Lake City, the holy beating heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I probably have no right to meddle in Mormon religious matters, even though the Church meddles in secular ones every day: a prohibition on Powerball tickets, a ban on adoptions by cohabitating couples, arcane liquor laws that turn restaurants and taverns into temperance-era time machines, Proposition 8. I certainly had no right to attempt to claim a place in the standby line for the Priesthood Session of the LDS October 2013 General Conference. Besides being a gentile, I am also a woman: strike two. In the Mormon faith, men get the priesthood and women get motherhood. Men bestow blessings and women birth babies.
Strike three: I am childless.
Strike four: childless by choice.
After four years in Utah, during which I had learned to soften my loudmouth and dodge conversations about family and children, it astonished me when Mormon feminist organization Ordain Women called out the Church on its separate-but-equal lie: Motherhood is not equal to the priesthood. Motherhood is equal to fatherhood. Only priesthood is equal to priesthood.
Until Ordain Women made headlines, I was only dimly aware of Mormon feminism. I had heard of excommunicated feminist scholars and a “wear pants to church” protest, but Ordain Women felt more direct and radical, more relevant.
Ordain Women believes the priesthood should transcend gender and parenthood, just as Joseph Smith intended in 1842 when he envisioned the Nauvoo Female Relief Society as a “Kingdom of Priests.” Without the priesthood, women cannot take the reins of clerical or ritual authority. Men oversee everything they do, even in the all-female Relief Society. When the Church limits women’s roles because of motherhood, it echoes patriarchal justifications for locking women out of everything from the voting booth to education.
Maybe if women held the priesthood keys, I thought, they would spring open doors for me, too. Maybe I could finally claim a place for myself here, a childless gentile in Zion. Do not get me wrong. Everywhere I have lived, I have endured relentless uninvited commentary about my choice not to bear children. I am selfish. I am depriving my parents of grandchildren. I will never know real love. I will never be a true adult. But here in Zion, the commentary cuts deeper: Here, I am denying spirit babies their bodies. Here, I am defying God’s commandment to “be fruitful, multiply”—and risking the salvation of my soul. I am goingagainst God’s plan. The patriarchy of the church trickles down into my life, too. What happens to Mormon women happens to me.
So on October 5, 2013, when Ordain Women attempted to claim places in line for standby tickets to the priesthood session, I joined them although I did not join them as myself. I joined them as a woman I’ll call Sarah, who could not attend and whose name I drew from a stack of proxy cards, similar to the LDS ritual of getting baptized by proxy for a deceased ancestor. I was her proxy sister, and it was my sacred duty to carry her to the door of the Tabernacle.
At least, that was my justification on that day. Now I know I had it backwards: she was the one who carried me.
Hours before walking to City Creek Park where Ordain Women gathered for a prayer and hymn, I realized I did not own a stitch of appropriate attire. Every member of Ordain Women, I was certain, would show up in raiment befitting potential priesthood holders. All I had was a closet full of hippie patchwork dresses, boyfriend jeans, and Chuck Taylor All Stars. On the one hand, patchwork dresses are at least dresses; on the other, you can see the silhouette of my thighs when sunlight hits the diaphanous cotton gauze—not exactly modest attire for Temple Square. Gentile that I am, I still respect the sacred space beyond those fifteen-foot walls. Plus, it was chilly, the first true autumn day. As for the boyfriend jeans: modest but sloppy. Tomboyish.
Too broke to justify new clothes, I was trapped in a double bind: dress like a boy or stay home.
Would my baggy jeans insult these women who yearned for the priesthood so badly they were willing to risk apostasy—or worse, excommunication? Would I attract hecklers? Then I realized that my dilemma represented the secular vs. spiritual tug-of-war I face every day living in Salt Lake City: How do I navigate Zion’s spiritual and cultural expectations of femininity and modesty while staying true to who I am?
I had to go.
On my way to City Creek Park, I stopped in Temple Square and listened to Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s voice booming almost God-like over loudspeakers.
A woman’s moral influenceis no more or nowhere more powerfully felt, or more beneficially employed, than in the home.
I found myself transported to the first time I heard words thundering over a loudspeaker. It was a union picket, probably 1979 or 1980. I was four or five. A man chanted, “Solidarity Forever,” and picketers sang back, a call-and-response. I never forgot it, the visceral feeling of words at that volume, how they vibrated in my heart and bones. As Elder Christofferson spoke, I watched a pair of little girls, maybe six years old, spinning in frilly white flower-girl dresses by the edge of the reflecting pool, as if rehearsing their future wedding dance. Most sacred is a woman’s role in the creation of life. Were these their first loudspeaker words, the first ones to vibrate inside their hearts?
The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined. We have enough women of fame and fortune; we need more women of faith. We have enough greed; we need more goodness. We have enough vanity; we need more virtue. We have enough popularity; we need more purity.
Families picnicked on the lawn east of the looming temple spires: men with their suit jackets strewn on the grass, sleeves rolled up, backs of their hands shielding eyes from the afternoon sun; women tossing napkins and sushi trays into Harmon’s grocery store bags, wiping their toddlers’ mouths.
If this were Portland, Oregon, where I lived for nine years before moving here, somebody would have raised a fist and shouted. We have enough patriarchy! We need less theocracy!
I was an ex-pat in my own country. And yet, part of me must have assimilated. Why wasn’t I raising my fist? Why wasn’t I shouting?
As I stood up—
Take particular care that your dress reflects modesty, not vanity, and that your conduct manifests purity, not promiscuity.
—I thought again of the hippie patchwork in my closet and felt good for choosing my comparatively modest jeans.
Then, as if to put me in my place, a young elder walked by, looked me up and down, and scowled. I could almost hear what he was thinking: Tomboy. Dress like a woman.
By the time it was almost my turn to approach the Tabernacle door, I already knew it would not turn out the way that Matthew: 7 booming over the loudspeakers in Temple Square a few hours earlier had promised: knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Not this door, not this time. The guard standing sentry at the bottom of the steps had turned away Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly, and the news trickled down within minutes to the rest of us, along with a message to stay in line: each of us would knock at that metaphorical door, even knowing the answer. We would force the Church to cast us out one by one, not just our gender, but us.
Up until the moment she was turned away, Kate Kelly had believed—really believed—the door would open for her. What for her had been an act of pure hope and faith had for the rest of us transformed into a ritual drama.
Earlier, as we walked two-by-two from City Creek Park to Temple Square, we passed elders holding up signs, the best-dressed beggars I have ever seen in their starched white shirts and black wool suits.
“Need Tickets,” their signs read.
Nobody around me seemed to notice this reversal of the normal order in Zion: men beseeching women. I thought the elders meant it tongue-in-cheek, a jab at Ordain Women for attempting to “steal” their tickets.
Then, after we arrived at Temple Square and stood shivering in the early autumn chill, I noticed an elder clutching a sign to his heart:
“Be an answer to prayer. Need tickets.”
I knew then that the elders on the sidewalk had been sincere, and in fact, their signs were not directed at us at all. Walking past the conference center, we simply happened into their path.
By contrast, Ordain Women rules forbade begging tickets off sympathetic male friends or relatives. This protest was not about getting in. It was about being let in. Still, I wondered why we did not thrust signs into the air and chant. Did the elders milling about on the square know why we were there? Did the frilly princess girls? How could they know our purpose if we did not assert ourselves in some way?
A sister missionary wearing a star-print dress in Wonder Woman blue-and-white and a red corduroy coat passed by, arm hooked in her companion’s. Her nametag bore a United States flag. Her outfit, I realized, made her the embodiment of that flag: a living, breathing Lady Liberty. If this were a protest in Portland, I could safely interpret that dress as a “statement.” Here, though, I am still learning how to read. But my questions cut deeper, too. As a man had asked me just before the group left City Creek Park, “How do you do a religious protest?”
Until Ordain Women, all my protests had been secular.
I once dressed in all black for a theatrical funeral procession through downtown Portland to protest the Carabinieri shooting Carlo Giuliani at the Genoa G8 Summit in 2001. At the front of the march, several “pallbearers” carried a black cardboard coffin aloft, which we planned to lay at the door of the World Trade Center. On our way there, we staged a die-in in front of the Oregonian newspaper offices.
Another time I locked arms with a line of strangers to prevent donors from exiting a parking garage to attend a fundraising dinner for President George W. Bush.
In Seattle, I chanted, “This is what Democracy looks like!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”
In Washington, D.C., I plopped down in resignation on the lawn in front of the World Bank as riot police circled our demonstration.
Locked arms, blocked intersections, costumes, signs, chants, dances, drummers, direct actions, handkerchiefs shielding nose and mouth in case of pepper spray: these signify protest to me. But how do you mount a religious protest, where your target is a higher authority?
And in Zion, is there ever really a difference? In March 2011, I attended a protest in the Capitol Rotunda against a bill that threatened to strike at the heart of Utah’s model public records access law, the Government Records Access and Management Act. Conservatives and liberals joined forces, and for the first time since moving here in 2009, I felt like I could claim a place in this community. As I ascended Capitol Hill on foot that day despite an aching knee and a fever, I realized how hungry I had been to get involved in civic activism again, to carve out a space for myself as a Utah citizen. I moved to Utah kicking and screaming when my husband landed a promotion he could not refuse, and for the first few years, I barricaded local politics out of my life, refusing to learn representative names or follow the issues. As a liberal gentile, I felt like I had no voice, anyway—no hope of being represented. Even most Democrats in this state sound like Republicans to me.
Inside the capitol, I was shocked at the politeness of the protest. Protestors held signs—
Talk About a Freight Train
Sunshine Not Secrecy
GRAMA may be old, but she has a voice
Only Cockroaches are Afraid of the Light
—but they did not, as Portland anarchists would have, lock arms and shut down the capitol. They spoke their minds for the appointed time and dispersed on cue.
What made the protest culture here so polite? Was it just the conservatism of the state in general or something about the Mormon culture? Then, someone said, “You know the Church is behind this bill. If you’re fighting government secrecy, you’re fighting the Church.”
In other words, there is no such thing as a purely secular protest in Zion.
But is there such thing as a purely religious one?
Now, standing in line at the Tabernacle, I clutched my proxy card, worried if I loosened my grip it would float away on a breeze. Back at City Creek Park, when organizers had invited attendees to carry proxy cards, I knew I wanted to do it. I felt the desire viscerally, a physical ache in my lungs. It was so intense I almost reached for my inhaler until I realized this ache was not asthma: it was a testimony, Mormon-speak for burning in the bosom, the fire of truth.
I wondered what it meant to volunteer to get cast out for somebody else—and for somebody else to request it. It was the opposite of a proxy baptism, when living Mormons stand in for the dead, getting dunked in the baptismal font on their behalf, a magical telegraph bouncing from star to star: you are wanted in our fold. My proxy was alive, inhabiting a body, and she had telegraphed me through her Mormon sisters.
What if these women knew about the afternoons I spent circumnavigating their temple during my early days in Salt Lake City, longing to tap into that magical telegraph machine and zap a signal to my dead brothers in the phantom zone? Or the time I wrote my brothers’ names on a slip of paper and carried it to the temple doors, where for just a moment, I considered sticking it into the lock like a pathetic skeleton key?
Was I so desperate to tap into the temple telegraph machine that I was using Sarah to do it?
On the loudspeaker, Elder Christofferson had derided feminists for scorning the “mommy track,” but he was wrong. Back at City Creek Park, I had witnessed an Ordain Women member fielding urgent texts from her daughter about an eleventh-hour homecoming dress catastrophe. All around me in line, women fussed with strollers and tended to toddlers. And just as I had predicted when I scorned my baggy jeans in my bathroom mirror, the Ordain Women members came dressed worthy of the priesthood: most of all Kate Kelly in a mustard yellow, waffle-knit blazer and purple pencil skirt. These women radiated color, a stark contrast to the elders’ black-and-white suits. Even here, I did not fit in, except for this: All my life, people like Elder Christofferson have assumed I thumbed my nose at motherhood, but they never ask why I do not want children, just like they do not ask these women why they want the priesthood.
Ask, and you shall receive.
Suddenly, it felt right for me to carry Sarah to the door of the Tabernacle. Who better than the gentile, the childless-by-choice tomboy in boyfriend jeans, to be cast out on her behalf? For that is what I am, always, as long as I live in Salt Lake City: an outcast. Marked, set apart.
One by one, women ahead of me approached the Tabernacle steps.
One by one, they sought entrance.
One by one, they were told, “Entrance to this event is for men only. Please go to LDS.org.”
The guard meant they could log onto LDS.org to watch the priesthood session live for the first time in history, the perfect Orwellian maneuver: nobody could accuse the Church of sexism if women could live stream the priesthood session at home—at home, there was that phrase again. At home: where I had almost stayed because of a stupid outfit.
When it was my turn to break from the line and approach the Tabernacle alone, I glanced from the crowd of people to the men snapping camera shutters at the front of the line and thought, “Nobody knows I am doing this as a proxy.” Should I announce it? Was it dishonest to let them think I was Mormon? Or could they already tell?
I looked up at the temple. How did I not notice before? Our ritual was playing out in the shadow of the west central tower, the one with the Big Dipper carved into it: the constellation for lost souls. In the basement below lies the baptismal font, where proxies stand in for the dead. If the temple really were a telegraph machine, the tip of that Big Dipper handle would be the wire connecting to the sky, to Polaris, the North Star. From there, any soul can be found, maybe even living ones. Maybe my proxy sister’s. Maybe by standing here, I was transmitting a message to her.
I swallowed hard: dry tonsils, pill-stuck-in-my-throat feeling. “I am seeking entrance for me and”—I thrust out the card instead of speaking her name, as if exorcising her from my body. I needed the guard to see her as separate from me.
To my surprise, he leaned forward and read her name. He did not hurry. As a Mormon, he understood what it meant to be a proxy for someone. He understood I was carrying a burden. In this small act, I had transferred my burden to him.
But I had given myself away all the same: No Mormon in the baptismal font would exorcise her proxy. I was a phony.
The guard looked me in the eye. “Welcome to Temple Square,” he said. “Entrance to this event is for men only.”
For the first time, I felt the full weight and power of the Church bearing down on me, as if for that moment, the temple had been tilted from its foundations just a crack to let me peer inside at the baptismal font, then dropped, Wizard-of-Oz like, crushing me. It did not matter if I thrust out the card. What mattered was my heart. I had become her. I had become a Mormon woman.
I maintained eye contact as I nodded.
I did not cry because I did not know if Sarah would cry.
Finally, I understood: This protest was not a protest at all, but a prayer. We did not need signs because Heavenly Father could read our hearts. We did not need chants or locked arms or sit-ins because in the very submission the Church demanded from us as women, we held the trump card: We had made them tell each and every one of us no. We had made them witness our submission. We had made our burden theirs. It was not a ritual drama; it was real.
As I rejoined the crowd, a brilliant green dump truck loaded with trash bags barricaded us from the door: picnic detritus of the day—paper cups, sticky silverware, empty sushi trays, greasy napkins—the very things the Church’s strict gender divisions define as “women’s work,” were now a literal barrier to entering the Priesthood Session.
The women, however, did not decry their fate. Instead, they broke into a hymn: “I Am a Child of God.”
I was the only one not singing, the only one who did not know the words.
In an intersection on our way back to City Creek Park, a man dressed in a devil costume with a University of Utah Utes hat pointed a pitchfork at us and growled, “It’s just like Hair Club for Men. You can’t have it because it’s for men!”
Was he mounting a secular protest or a religious one? After all, in the Mormon faith, there is such a thing as false testimony, a burning in the bosom inspired by the devil instead of Heavenly Father. And yet, that Utes hat: a cheeky reference to the annual “Holy War” between the BYU and Utah Utes football teams. I got the sense the Dark Lord of the Hair Club for Men was more riled about women’s social roles than any doctrinal dispute.
But then, isn’t that what we had just protested: social roles as doctrine?
Behind me, a man shouted, “Satan is a Utes fan? Oh, come on!”
Later, when we returned our cards so our proxy sisters could keep a tangible memento, I asked if I could contact the woman on my card. I wanted to tell her how it felt and what it meant to me to do that for her. The organizers suggested I write my name and email address on the back of the card, so I did. Even if she never contacts me, we are eternally connected as proxy sisters now, our relationship sealed by that artifact, an unofficial temple ordinance record.
On my way out of the park, I asked one of the women if it might offend my proxy sister to have a gentile carry her name to the Tabernacle.
“Non-LDS men can attend the priesthood session,” she said, shrugging. “Why not you?”
I knew right away what she meant: If non-LDS males who possess no other credentials for the priesthood than their gender can attend the priesthood session, certainly non-LDS women who live under this patriarchy can, too.
But for me, it also meant something more fundamental, something less and something more at the same time: Why not me?
KARRIE HIGGINS lives in Salt Lake City. Her writing has appeared in Black Clock, DIAGRAM, Quarter After Eight, the Los Angeles Review, and the Los Angeles Times. Her essay “The Bottle City of God” won the 2013 Schiff Prize for Prose from the Cincinnati Review and will appear in the 2014 issue. She is at work on a book by the same title.
My phone buzzes just as I drain hot pasta over the sink with Sam hanging on my leg and my husband talking about the mortgage or some electrical issues in our basement or something else house-related. I try to nudge Sam away from the boiling water and towards the dining room table—with a quick stop to wash his sticky little hands. I hear my phone again, impatiently beeping and buzzing, and I recognize that someone is trying to send me a message over Skype. It could be my mom or my brother, so I settle Sam, serve dinner, and quickly glance at the screen.
It’s not my mom. It’s not my brother. It’s Him. It’s a short message and it’s written in German and despite not having spoken one word of German in oh, about fifteen years, I know and understand every single word immediately. “I was at a charity event tonight and I don’t know why but I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
That’s it and I am nineteen again.
That’s it and I am back in his small, dark college dorm room, lightheaded from one too many fuzzy navels and giddy with excitement. I am sitting on the floor across from him, cross-legged, but all I can think about is how much I want to wrap my legs around him and pull him even closer. We are both wearing flannel, and Whitney Houston is playing in the background. A friend of ours stops by for a few minutes, but quickly realizes that he is interrupting whatever it is that’s about to happen. He laughs and rustles my hair as he gets up to leave, like he is happy for me.
I feel happy and confident when he finally kisses me—I’ve done this before, I know what comes next, but I am amazed that it is actually happening to me. I mean, he is so cool. So blond. So blue-eyed. So dreamy and smart and worldly and, oh my God, that accent. I am a chubby Jewish girl from Hungary—I don’t get swept off my feet by sparkly-eyed blonds. Ah, but I am now, and we quickly make our way to my room—my roommate is away for the weekend.
There is some confusion about whether I am a virgin or not, but after I reassure him that he is not about to deflower me, he is tender and hungry and talks to me in German the whole time. I wake up in the middle of the night, squished between him and the cold cement wall and spend the rest of the night in the lounge of my dorm building, watching bad TV and thinking that what I have just done was so cool and so grown-up and so sophisticated. And so very unlike me. I don’t see him leave in the morning, but he leaves a note on my bed. “You are a wonderful woman. See you soon.” And his initials: PD. I realize in a panic that I have no idea what the “D” stands for.
It’s March now, and he is graduating in two months. It quickly becomes clear that our night of passion does not guarantee me any privileges when it comes to seeing him, or talking to him, or eating together in the cafeteria. It does not gain me invitations to the cool parties he attends or to the spring dance. I think we go on one date maybe—a movie and an uncomfortable dinner.
It doesn’t matter. I am in love.
It’s easy to think back and say that I was young and stupid and confused sex with love. It was probably true. He was doing what handsome German students do during their study-abroad year. I was doing what bookish lonely girls do when said handsome German students pay attention to them. It is all so dull and obvious now, but it was so tragic back then and it would have stayed like that in my memory if our story had ended there.
But it didn’t. In fact, our story is still not over and that’s an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach every time his name shows up in my inbox.
After our (well, mostly my) tearful goodbye on a cool May morning before I headed back home to Budapest for the summer, I was convinced that I would never see him again. But for once, I was pleasantly surprised. He came to visit me that summer and the next, flew to the U.S. to see me at college several times. We talked on the phone and e-mailed all the time, and we met up at international airports for quick, furtive rendezvous in business lounges. Most memorably, he showed up at my office, unannounced, a month before my wedding.
Through all those years of not seeing each other much, we somehow became friends and moved on from our beginning as a tipsy one-night-stand. I think we both found it easier to open up when we were so far apart from each other, yet just a phone call away. The heart and the mind are so easy to reveal in a quick e-mail, a brief message, a silly card. There was always something easy between us, something natural and light-hearted. He was six years older than me, already weighed down by starting a career and figuring out what grown-up life is about, and I think for a long time—and maybe even now—I represented a carefree and happy time in his life. It was a comfort to both of us to recall our haphazard romance and to share a laugh about our youth and naïveté.
We never really talked about it, but obviously we both dated other people and I got married first. When he showed up at my office on a cold November morning, my heart stopped because again, this was not something that happened outside of movies—a scandal before my wedding? Did he come to take me away? To confess—finally!—that he is truly and madly in love with me? Did I even want that anymore?
He made no confessions. He came to say goodbye—I suspect that by then he was in a serious relationship with his future wife and had to put an end to whatever was going on between us. We held each other for a long time. He kissed me on the forehead and brushed his knuckles playfully across my chin before he left my apartment. I watched him walk down the long stairway leading to the street from my front door and for a moment I almost—almost—called him back. But I knew that would have been a mistake and that neither one of us were the kind of people who would do that before our weddings.
We stayed in touch for the next decade, exchanging a few phone calls, a few e-mails about birth, death, jobs—the big stuff of life. There was always so much tenderness and so much history in our exchanges, assuring us that we weren’t alone in navigating all of this uncharted grown-up territory. It felt like we were finally on equal footing—I didn’t feel like the chubby Jewish girl anymore, and he didn’t seem like that shiny, untouchable person I remembered him to be. We were just two people who knew each other from way back when, who built a friendship out of an ill-fated college romance.
So here we are now, almost thirteen years later. Here is this message on my phone, beeping and wanting attention. I want to give it attention, because it’s …well, because it’s Him. I am a practical person: I believe that love is a choice every single day; that marriage is a choice every single day. No matter how hot the passion is in the beginning, to sustain a life together the passion must cool and every morning must begin with a choice—to be present, to be kind, to be understanding, to iron shirts, to cook a favorite meal, to listen.
But whatever this other thing is, it is not my choice—and it never has been. Whatever pulled me to him on that March night when I was nineteen is still in me—irrational, unexplainable, unstoppable, and I assume never-ending. I have felt this stupid love-like-thing for this man for the past eighteen years of my life and I have no reason to think it will change.
The next morning he e-mails me to say that he is thinking about what the rest of his life holds for him, how to handle the responsibilities thrust upon him and still find happiness. “Right now, but also for the past few years I wish I had you by my side,” he writes. “For many reasons.”
I know that, years ago, a message like that would have had me in tears of joy. And I am in tears now too as I look at my iPad screen in the early morning darkness. But it’s not joy I feel. I want to scold him. I want to be angry. Has he not learned how easy it is to believe that life would be different—better, more exciting, sexier, easier—with someone else? Does he not know that if he did have me by his side, he would not write me lovelorn notes in the middle of the night? I would be the nagging wife who only has time for the kids and I would not be the young love that got away.
I turn off the iPad and try to go back to sleep. As I drift off, I think about how I don’t want our story to be a sad one. I don’t want it to be about regret, or the road not taken, or opportunity not seized. I don’t want it to be about making the wrong choice or picking the wrong person. I am not sure what our story is about, but I can’t let it be about those things. I want it to be about possibility, about love that endures in whatever shape it appears in life. I want it to be about making a choice and sticking with it.
I want it to be about that little corner of the heart where I tuck away what I treasure most: an old friend with sparkly blue eyes, the smile of my baby, the reassuring weight of my husband in bed next to me.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN was born in Budapest and lived there until she turned eighteen. She became a “full-grown-person” over the past nineteen years spent in the U.S. She lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and her four-year-old son. Her day job is in publishing, but she spends all of her free time between four and five a.m. every morning imagining that she is a writer.
There’s been a death in my family, and I need to be with my people. FGP will be back next week, although I’m not certain which day. Check your notifications and/or your Facebook or Twitter to get back in the swing.
In three hours, I have a chemistry exam I might fail. I say “might” because I could cram desperately in the three hours between this moment and the time of my probable failing, and I’d rather spend those three hours doing something useful. Cramming is a deceptive word for panicking.
This feeling of looming academic doom is familiar, and I’m skilled at managing it calmly. Somehow I passed chemistry when I took it in high school, over twenty years ago. (“Somehow” was actually Betsy, my saintly lab partner, who happened to be the daughter of a chemistry teacher.) I recall very little about our curriculum—octets and ions and moles—but I remember sitting close to the window, because through it I observed the antics of a brazen woodchuck that lived in the woods bordering the school grounds. I also remember looking at the graffiti on my desk, which read, “Paige and Erin are DIKES.” They were not, as I knew firsthand, because Paige and Erin were two of my best friends. I also knew how to spell dykes properly, with a Y instead of an I, but it took me a few weeks of staring at the doubly incorrect slur on the desk before I realized I could simply erase it. If high school chemistry had tested me on groundhogs and stupid rumors and the ability to sketch various martyred saints in my notebook while listening to the Doors, I would have received an A.
And now, this exam nears. All these years later, I thought I had learned my lesson about chemistry class. Unlike the first time, I have applied myself as much as possible, because the topic is genuinely interesting to me—or at least the parts that have to do with cooking, because I am a chef. I’m teaching a charcuterie class next week, and deadlines loom: finish typing up the recipe packet, order duck legs and duck fat, drive all over town to purchase ingredients. Chemistry and charcuterie both require my full attention. My heart is with the pig.
Charcuterie is the art of preserving meat, most often through curing, smoking, or drying. Different chemical reactions make it all possible, sodium and nitrogen compounds mingling and swapping electrons in atomic versions of French kisses and extravagant, multi-player sexual positions. NaCl. NaNO2. KNO3.
Of course, I can’t write balanced chemical equations for what happens when you rub kosher salt, brown sugar, and sodium nitrite on a slab of fresh pork belly and let it sit for a week or so (some juniper berries, peppercorns, sage, and bay leaves are helpful, too). I just know that it happens. You put the dry cure on, flip the belly over every day to make sure it cures evenly, and, five to eight days later, it’s bacon. (You can omit the sodium nitrite, and the myoglobins in the meat won’t turn that hammy pink color, but the end result will still be delicious.) Then you rinse off the dry cure, at which point you can smoke it or cook it off in the oven. It’s not rocket science, but it is chemistry. What you wind up with is different from what you started out with.
Always chemistry awaits. Chemistry awaits because I don’t have a Bachelor’s Degree. I never wanted one, ever. I didn’t even understand the difference between an Associate’s Degree and a Bachelor’s Degree when I went off to college, because I thought college was for browsing for used cassette tapes at record stores and drinking gallons of coffee at noisy cafes while reading a stack of the local alternative weekly newspapers. I dropped out of college before I failed, which is like quitting a job right before they can fire you. This didn’t comfort my parents, whose money I had been wasting with great indifference. As it turned out, the money-wasting was merely an annoyance to them; their main concern, understandably, was my future.
My first paid writing job was for an alternative weekly newspaper, where I wrote music criticism. And so my parallel, independent course of study paid off somewhat, and for many years I was smug about it: I don’t have a traditional college degree and I never needed it, nah nah nah nha boo-boo! College was for amateurs, people who like to sit and talk. Working? That’s for pros. I’m a worker. I suck at sitting. That’s why I went to cooking school.
Writers sit a lot, however. Despite my deep love for alternative weeklies, I left that job and undertook a string of high-energy, low-wage positions that managed to more or less pay the bills. Chocolate factory. Cookwares store. Library. Introducing a daughter into this equation was financially irresponsible, but we did it anyway, on purpose.
Then I realized how flawed my logic was, and how pathetic and passive my budget-driven melancholy was. My husband, a likewise melancholic fellow with a meandering career background, was not going to bring home slabs of bacon, ever. I felt our lives slipping away from us as friends moved ahead into promised lands of financial security; we languished behind, tossing scraps at the incredibly persistent credit card balance we couldn’t knock out, no matter how many extra hours I picked up at whatever job I was working at the time. In order for our family to make it, I needed to become a different person, one who could gracefully eat shit. A person who could bite the bullet and follow directions she didn’t really want to follow.
We don’t discuss charcuterie in chemistry. It’s an online class, which I chose because my work schedule is unpredictable. There’s a massive, poorly organized textbook, and we’re supposed to read the textbook, log in to the web portal, and take half a dozen quizzes every week. That’s it. When I emailed my instructor and asked her to recommend some resources outside of the book, she suggested I come to her lecture. “But I’m taking the class online,” I said. “The lecture is supposed to come to me.”
We do take our tests in person, and that’s when I see our instructor, who is perhaps my age, with a petite build, an awkward manner, and a head of fabulously curly blonde hair. She seems to have a genuine concern for the academic performance of her students and a genuine difficulty connecting to them conversationally. I think she’s as confident leading the class as I am taking it.
So there it is: I will probably fail the test, because instead of attending chemistry lectures after work, I’d rather rake leaves with my daughter and watch her jump in and out of the leaf piles with unmitigated three-year-old glee. I’d rather walk the dog before dinner with my husband, and we will push our daughter in the stroller with us even though she’s way too old for the stroller and has to be coaxed into it with tiny handfuls of raisins or almonds, because if my husband and I don’t move around and talk about our days in the neutral air of the outdoors, bad things will happen. I’d rather set a real table with cloth napkins and cook a real dinner, which we will sit down together to enjoy, because that’s what we do in our family. I’d rather get my proper eight hours of sleep most nights, because if I don’t, bad things happen.
Most of the kids in my chemistry lab could realistically be my kid. All these years later and I still can’t make myself care enough to pass. Or maybe I care too much. Every week that infernal textbook throws more and more concepts at us, just when the one we were covering started to get really good. If it were up to me, I’d overhaul first-year chemistry and rename it Periodic Table Studies. I love the periodic table. It’s like a beautiful map; with each examination, it reveals more intricacies, more patterns. There’s a mysticism to it, a leap of faith, because I don’t care how many experiments chemists have done over the past dozen centuries, we can’t see and touch the atoms of those elements the way we can, say, a handful of cumin seeds or a stick of butter. Or a slab of pork belly.
I spent hours making flash cards for each element, because our instructor said we’d need to memorize most of the table. My inner child leapt for joy—craft time! I wrote the Latin or Greek roots of the names, or the interesting places they were discovered, plus short descriptions of what each element looked or smelled like, so it could be more tangible. Each element had its own story. I like narratives, and so far chemistry had not given me any good ones. On the day of our second exam, I was dismayed to find we were in fact not tested on our knowledge of the periodic table, but had to fill out a long list of electron configuration problems. And yes, those do have to do with the periodic table, but not in the way I like. By the time we hurtled to those, I was still swooning over radium and rubidium.
I went back to school with the ultimate goal of becoming a registered dietician. I have a culinary degree; I care about good nutrition; I love teaching cooking classes. I threw those things into a hat with my desired salary, spent a few weekends clicking away hopefully on the Occupational Outlook Handbook database, and—poof!—created my future, reasonably profitable career. The logic went like this: by the time I have my credentials, the job market for R.D.s will be extra-sweet because of the awful diets Americans have, my years of studying late into the night would pay off, and I’d be able take our family on nice vacations and finally fulfill my dream of pledging to multiple public radio stations.
I’ll be nearing fifty by then. Is it worth it? Foremost I am a chef and a writer; I intentionally cook with bacon grease and chicken fat, I use salt liberally but strategically, and I’d rather discuss how to get a good sear on a pan of mushrooms than how to best preserve their nutrient content. That many R.D.s don’t actually work with the public but create crummy, bland menus for giant institutions was something I chose to overlook.
Maybe failing chemistry is necessary. I’m stubborn, and I don’t like to accept that I can only accomplish so much in a given time frame. Those cloth napkins are one reason we have so much laundry to fold. I have quite an array. Some I purchased for a song on clearance. Some I sewed myself in the days when I did a lot of freelance writing. I thought sewing napkins was procrastinating, but it turns out it’s one of my preferred methods of prewriting. Ages have passed since I’ve made napkins, but I really enjoy using them. They make me feel especially civilized.
Using paper napkins would save me maybe a few hours of laundry chores every year, and I could use those hours to study chemistry. Instead, my pro-napkin actions have clearly voted against chemistry and all it stands for. Sometimes you can’t just dip your toe in. You have to wade up to your ankles and hang out for a while before you realize that body of water is not where you are supposed to be.
This morning, I saw my advisor so I could discuss my strategy for next semester: lighter class load, no sciences. “I am coming up on a place in my life where I won’t have the time available to excel in a demanding class the way I’d like,” I lied, because I’ve been in that place since way before I even contemplated going back to school.
My advisor suggested I take Cultural Geography to fill a requirement.
“It won’t bore me, will it?” I asked him. “Because some of my classes here have, and if I’m not engaged, I get surly and I sort of give up.”
“By showing up and doing your work during the lecture, you will get an A,” he said, which was his disguised way of confirming yes, it will bore me.
But I’m still looking forward to next semester, and the one after that. If the sad implosion of my performance in chemistry has taught me this much, what more thorny truths about myself could I discover? Class by class, I’ll wrestle with demons more terrifying and impossible than those run-of-the-mill academic ones.
I thought that understanding the reason for your past failures made you impervious to future failures of the same sort, but here I am, wrong yet again. I’ve dreamed of going back in time, armed with the knowledge of my terminally ill bank account to come, so I could excel in high school and college instead of drifting through. But now I know that I’d make the same mistakes, only with more flair. Your problems don’t go away, even when you acknowledge and accept them. They’re still there to deal with, no matter how grown-up or deserving of success you feel you may be.
You can’t just desire the result—in my case, the employment opportunities afforded by a fancy piece of paper with computer-generated calligraphy on it. You have to desire the process. There’s no point in making bacon at home if you aren’t enthralled with handling the meat, scrutinizing its progress as its flesh firms up in the dry cure, daydreaming of the savory lardons you will cut from it and fry up to top a salad of bitter greens. Making the bacon is the point; eating it is just the reward. I like learning about chemistry, but I love my family, and I can’t click pause on this part of our lives together. Chemistry wants more of me than I can give it, now or maybe ever.
I doubt I’ll go into nutrition. I’m much better at teaching people how to make pâté than I am telling them not to eat it. Wearing the costume of a future R.D. boosted my confidence a bit, but the outfit was ill-fitting. The only way I’ll ever get any kind of degree will be slowly, leisurely, the way I prefer us to eat dinner. To earn an A in my chemistry class, I’d have to rely on frozen pizzas and skip the bedtime stories I look forward to reading to my daughter. My brain and my time and my kid are too valuable to squander on half-assing anything. Maybe I’ll take chemistry twice. Not because I have to, but because I want to.
SARA BIR got 68% on her latest chemistry exam and had a blast teaching her charcuterie class. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The North Bay Bohemian, The Oregonian, and Section M. She’s currently drying a roll of pancetta in her basement and working on a vegan baking cookbook. Read more of her work at www.sarabir.com.
We met in the dim basement of a fraternity. The fraternity—we can’t remember which now, any one of those old columned houses lining Rugby Road—pumped music loud and we had to shout in each other’s ears to be heard. We were refilling our red Solo cups from the keg of cheap beer when we first yelled to each other. We were dressed alike, in tee-shirts and denim shorts. We joked later that we found each other because we were the two people who looked as if they shouldn’t be there, vaguely alternative kids in a sea of khakis and L.L. Bean.
We were nineteen years old. It’s funny to think that we danced that night—Hey, show this person your least impressive skill! We went outside to talk and stood close to each other. We didn’t want the night to end so we piled in with the others in Kathy’s little Honda; we slept in the same room that night, one of us in the bed, the other on the futon. From that night on, we were inseparable.
We both lost weight that first year. We woke each morning giddy that something good would happen that day: we would see each other. Of course, in the first few weeks, we were both a little cautious, consumed with a heady mix of romance and doubt. Was it completely reciprocal? Would we run out of things to talk about? Would some terrible, deal-breaking flaw reveal itself?
There was a certain kiss that tamped the doubts down. We were walking from a party, holding hands during the few blocks it would take us to get to the convenience store. We were going to buy a pack of cigarettes. We stopped and turned toward each other, savoring those seconds when our mouths were near but hadn’t yet made contact, the salty scent of our faces, the delicious nerves. We kissed. After that, we threw out caution. We took a sort of ownership of each other’s bodies, a jumble of legs and arms and mouths and love.
On the university grounds, there was another couple that looked like us, her tall and with a sheet of long hair, him taller with a mop of curls. They broke up before graduation, but we wondered if they got the same sort of comments we did. A mentally ill woman—the one who did somersaults on the pedestrian mall—told us that we were going to make beautiful children; strangers we’d just met would remark on how well matched we were. Our chemistry seemed like a force field.
We twined our lives together. We stood together outside the hospital room door and heard the first cries of our oldest nephew after his birth. We took cheap vacations to places like off-season Chincoteague, using our last ten in cash to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. We stayed up late waiting for the other to get off shift waiting tables or tending bar. One summer day, we skipped work to go hiking at Sugar Hollow. It was a ways out of town and we drove with the windows open and the music pouring from the speakers. We found an easy sun-dappled trail that led through some streams, and we walked the gentle incline, bumping into each other just as an excuse to touch skin. We took pictures of each other posing on a rock that lay just beneath the surface of the water, an optical illusion of levitation.
That’s how we felt about each other: we walked on water.
We grew up to be the people we are now, shape-shifting together, holding hands like the Wonder Twins. We were the engineering major and the English major, morphing into the trumpet player and the local journalist, turning into the chemical engineer and the aspiring short-story writer. We became husband and wife, father and mother, good cop and bad cop, fly fisherman and Scrabble addict, quality assurance engineer and business owner.
We can see our flaws now, both in ourselves and each other. On the eve of our thirteenth wedding anniversary, a strong thunderstorm blew into town. A huge limb fell off our maple, hitting the yard with such force that it stuck into the earth at a forty-five degree angle. Worse, the city sewage line backed up into our basement.
We spent most of the night on the phone, calling the city and the sort of companies that clean up murder scenes. It was certainly grisly down there, the pipe in the recesses near the hot water heater spewing whole neighborhoods’ worth of filth. We rolled a dampened towel and placed it under the basement door so the smell wouldn’t permeate the rest of the house.
The next day, the city came to clear the wreckage and the cleaning company came back to scour. We lost nearly everything in the basement. We were tired and both missing work to deal with this minor catastrophe. After everyone left, we sighed, assessing our lost belongings—the antique chest that held sports equipment, a basket of laundry, the bright ceramic flowerpots bought on a long-ago Mother’s Day. Our Christmas tree and ornaments, including every one that our son had ever made and the Lenox china one of two doves, bearing in gold script “First Christmas Together 1991.”
“Did you at least save the ornament—our ornament?” one asked the other.
“No—the whole box was disgusting.”
Exhausted, we snapped then, reverting to type: one of us irritated and pragmatic, the other seething and sentimental. We didn’t speak for the rest of the day, not so much as a punishment but to avoid saying something that we couldn’t unsay. We took a nap; we came to our senses by dinnertime. It was our anniversary, for God’s sake. We had each other, even if our keepsakes, as we’d later put it, went down with the shit.
It’s been so many years, we might be the kind of people that some refer to as “smug marrieds.” We don’t know. Every partnership, it seems to us, is a locked box, knowable only to the people in it. We don’t feel smug. We feel grateful for the constant accrual of all these minutes together—the winks across a crowded room, the ass grab in the kitchen, the phone call from home, the car sex on a (whoops, not quite) deserted road, the arm to cling to at the funeral, the mispronunciations of words that our son made when he was little.
Last year, we turned forty. It sounds odd to say, but we don’t know what the other looks like anymore. We have too many associations—love, passion, comfort—to see one another with any degree of objectivity.
For people like us, forty is when you start to realize that you’re out of big beginnings. Unless something unexpected happens (or you force it to happen), there will be no new romances, no new weddings, no more of your own babies to nuzzle. You know very well that you’re not going to relocate.
Couples around us have started to break apart, tender bands of skin on their ring fingers, new apartment keys in their key chains. Even in the very best of circumstances—amicable, mutually decided, no kids—we find it sad for them, something with such a hopeful beginning coming to a close. No matter how much better off our friends wind up being—and they are, they always are, at least emotionally—there is pain.
On a more self-involved level, though, these break-ups remind us of something every couple loses sight of: that it only takes one of you to develop an itch for something new, and there is nothing at all that the other can do about it. It’s the lesson we learn from our newly single friends, over and over. We try hard to lose sight of the lesson for the sake of ourselves. As someone wise once said, “You gotta have faith, faith, faith.”
We got married on the grounds of a sprawling bed and breakfast, just beyond the koi pond. It had sprinkled earlier in the day, but by the time the pianist struck up “Here Comes the Bride,” the sky was clear and warm. We were twenty-four and wrote our own vows. The ceremony itself lasted all of five minutes.
It was a lovely beginning, but essentially it was just a party in celebration of us.
In novels and in jazz, the big squishy middle is where all of the interesting stuff happens. In our story, this is where we are now.
We don’t know which events will seem important years down the road, but we’re living the details right now. In 2013, in our big, messy house, our son practices his clarinet. Our Boston terrier mix is still alive, goofy as ever. We haven’t used a babysitter in a long while, and we usually go out to eat on Saturdays, just the two of us; weirdly, our son despises eating out. We laugh ourselves silly over a random lyric we hear on the radio. We eat lunch together most days in the TV room and finish off with a piece of chocolate. One day in February, you come home from work with Chinese food for us, and I ask you, my valentine, to read this, and you do.
This essay originally appeared on The Nervous Breakdown, which is an excellent site you should check out.