All Sorts of Things and Weather, Taken in Together

By audreyjm529/ Flickr

By Randy Osborne

My forearms and the backs of my hands are faintly speckled and sketched with blood. Like when, in grade school, you twiddled the ballpoint pen between your fingers and let the tip touch paper for quick, light slashes. Like when you made dots by pressing.

These traces on my flesh—they heal and are remade, but they will heal again—can pull a stranger’s gaze, can make him look away. Neither defined enough to signify cutter, nor dug-out enough to say crank sores, the marks mean something else.



Upon waking, Sciurus carolinensis, the Eastern gray tree squirrel abundant in my Atlanta neighborhood, yawns and stretches. It sees the world in color. Its hands bear vestigial “thumbs.” Its body temperature ranges from 98 degrees Fahrenheit to 102.

Its brain weighs 0.25 to 0.35 ounces, relatively large for a mammal, in proportion to body weight. This is not because the squirrel is extra-smart, but because it has parallax vision (it looks at you with both eyes at the same time to judge your distance, for the purpose of fleeing) and spatial memory (it doesn’t find buried acorns by odor alone—it remembers), and because a squirrel’s keen sense of hearing needs more gray matter. Its ears face sideways, like ours.

The family name Sciuridae is Greek for “shadow of the tail.” Used mainly for keeping warm and dry, the tail adds 17.8 percent of protective value to baseline when raised. Someone has measured this. Below the tail rests a cluster of blood vessels that the squirrel can dilate or narrow to warm up or cool off—no small matter for endotherms, creatures that make their own heat, like us.

You may detest squirrels. Many urban people do, given the raiding of bird feeders that goes on, given the chewing-up of attic insulation, which compromises our own heat-making, and given the mad, kamikaze severing of electrical wires. “Tree rats,” you may call them, ignoring the many differences. I love one.


In June 2012, I was making more money than I had ever made. My first foray into the corporate world, with its murky, ever shifting demands meant a nicer apartment, with a pool and gym. My girlfriend Joyce and I dined at snazzy restaurants. We talked about having kids. My boss flew me out to work in the home office, a skyscraper that gleamed in the San Francisco sun.

Abruptly one afternoon, by phone, I lost my job. Downsized and restructured, I drifted, uncertain about my future. Ours. Although I didn’t realize this when we met a few years earlier, the matter of children was a potential deal breaker, since Joyce half-wanted kids. “Not your willingness, I mean, but whether you would be open to the idea,” she said, vaguely.

I was. With three grown kids from two previous marriages—three, by the way, is also the average size of an Eastern gray squirrel’s litter—I felt ready to consider fatherhood with Joyce. But now I was jobless. Even before, there was a potential snag. Our ages differ by twenty years. The gap is wide enough to worry over, especially considering the already shorter lifespan for men. Twenty years is how long squirrels are estimated to live in captivity. In the wild, only about half that.


In August, a friend asked me to substitute as host of her literary reading series. A simple chore. Welcome the turnout, introduce each of three writers, and wind up the show, good night. But I felt nervous, an impostor. Although I had composed a few pieces that seemed okay, I was not a member of the scene, not a bona fide person of letters. I admired the others as they sped past, trailing bright streamers of irony.

Since I had planned to attend as a spectator anyway—and with, after all, not much else to do—I said yes.

We strolled in the near-dusk, making our way toward the coffeehouse. I saw a few people I recognized, no doubt bound for the same place. Suddenly, someone cried out, pointing to a spot in the street beneath a massive oak. We hurried over.

A tiny curlicue twisted slowly on the asphalt, its sparse fur (pelage, I would learn) unruffled, eyes open. Blood seeped from the nose and mouth. Delicate whiskers (vibrissae) twitched. About twenty-five feet above us, we spied the leafy mass of nest (drey).

Joyce’s artist friend Hilary retrieved an old tee-shirt from her car. She lifted the squirrel from the pavement as if handling smoke. Her fingertips arranged the fabric around its wee body, which all but disappeared. Most squirrels don’t survive their first year, and this one fell hard. Internal injuries, most likely.

Of the night’s event, I remember only the end, when Hilary approached me with the bundle, a cleaned-up nose peeking out. She had asked around—nobody wanted to take the squirrel home. Made sense to me, hardly a fan of the rodent class. Everyone probably recalled well, as I did, all the baby-bird failures of the past and couldn’t face another. Hilary tucked the corners, a final tidying of the package.

“It’s a boy,” she said and held him out to me.

At home, after a Google search, I witnessed myself driving to Publix, where I asked the pharmacist for a batch, please, of one-cc, needle-free syringes. Then to the infant-care aisle, where I seized a liter of Pedialyte. Next, PetSmart for a can of Esbilac puppy-milk powder.

Removed from his burrito-style wrap, he fit in my palm like a miniature doughnut with a licorice-whip tail, or like an exotic, oversized insect. He kept his eyes closed, as if to say either, “Let me get some rest, it’s been a long day,” or, “I can’t bear to watch what the human is about to do to me.”

I loaded the syringe with Pedialyte. Here goes.

As soon as he felt contact, he gripped the nozzle with bony hands and sucked, eyes half open now, gulping, as my thumb delivered a slow push.

Baby squirrels in the wild gain sixteen-fold their weight in two months. In humans, this would be comparable to an eight-pound baby reaching 130 pounds in the same period. The squirrel mother’s magic milk consists of twenty-five percent fat and nine percent protein. Compare Esbilac powder, stirred into Pedialyte: forty percent fat and thirty-three percent protein. Close enough, it turns out.

During those first weeks, Bug took six syringes of formula at each meal, with feeds about four hours apart. He would drain the first syringe, swat it away, and grope frantically for the next. In about a month, he was downing less formula and rejecting the syringe after emptying two or three. He munched bits of apple. A few weeks later, diced raw green beans, and broccoli stems. Shelled nuts. Before long, he was cracking into them himself.


“Imagine,” the wildlife rehabber tells me, “having a two-year-old child who is emotionally dependent on you—only you, they latch onto a single caregiver—and who will never grow up. I mean never.”

I think of my kids as two-year-olds. Hadn’t I wanted them to grow up? Of course, I did. Yes. And: no.

The rehabber is realistic in describing my options. She is predicting from experience how things will go. Did she say “emotionally”?

Until her, I didn’t know that people exist who specialize in the process of returning squirrels to their natural habitat, after well-meaning humans like me snatch them out.

“But it doesn’t always work,” she says.

I keep her number.


“The majority of mammals live solitary lives; estimates suggest that at least 85 percent of mammals can be classified as asocial animals that aggregate only briefly at a seasonal food source or to mate.”

—Michael Steele and John Kropowski, North American Tree Squirrels (Smithsonian Books, 2001)

Joyce and I watch squirrels jump, dart, and scurry in the park. On a flat surface, squirrels can travel as fast as 16.7 miles per hour. Their crazy trajectories, never in tandem or together, bisect each other across the grass and up the trunks of trees. Lyrics from a Patti Smith song come to me, the one she wrote for Robert Mapplethorpe as he was dying of AIDS. “Paths that cross will cross again.”

In the traffic behind us on North Highland Avenue, we hear a pop—the sound a plastic bag with trapped air makes as tires roll over it.

Together, we turn. The squirrel lies near the center of the road, still alive, hands clawing pavement, unable to drag the rest of its body. After a few seconds, stillness. A light, almost merry wave of the tail, goodbye.

How far away the curb must have seemed, in that squirrel’s fast-fading, parallax, big-brained vision. The Stephen Dobyns poem, “Querencia” (Spanish for “a secure place”), describes a bull tormented in the ring as the audience cheers.

Probably, he has no real knowledge and,

like any of us, it’s pain that teaches him

to be wary, so his only desire in defeat

is to return to that spot of sand, and even

when dying he will stagger toward his querencia

as if he might feel better there, could

recover there, take back his strength, win

the fight, stick that glittering creature to the wall …

The glittering creature in this instance is not a matador but an SUV, now a block away. No bloodthirsty crowd, only a few pedestrians who seem not to notice what happened. Maybe the driver didn’t, either.

One of the many reliefs of no longer owning a car is that I don’t have to worry about killing anything with it, but I remember instances. A thump, the glance in the rear-view mirror. That wad of flopping misery. My sick, jarred sense of a fatal suffering so great and so nearby, yet unfelt by me, impossibly, its cause.

In Dobyns’s poem, the afternoon proceeds messily, the bullfighter proves inept, and “everyone wanted to forget it and go home.” Joyce and I do, too. Cars make sad arcs around the squirrel corpse, which I know I should relocate before it’s transformed into a meat rag.

The squirrel’s up-tilted, almond-shaped eye, with that tight rim of lighter hair, is still moist and shiny. I’ve had my eye inches from Bug’s. Like this eye, his are strong-coffee opaque, yet suggestive of a depth.

The body is warm in my hands. I think of Hilary’s fingers. I feel crushed bone pieces, many bone pieces, jostle amid the limp flesh. Before situating it in the grass, I sneak a glimpse at the lower abdomen, the pink nub there. Male.


Tonight’s sunset must be glorious to somebody. On Elizabeth Street, I stand gaping, unfazed, at the orange-scarlet and indigo riot in the sky.

I’m hungry.

Scientists at Wake Forest University devised a chamber with an oxygen analyzer, put a squirrel inside, and gave it something to eat. The idea was to find out whether squirrels know which nuts are smartest to consume, i.e., which offer a “net value” (calories) that justifies their “handling costs” (effort taken to split the shell, determined by oxygen use). As you may have guessed, they do know. They budget every sliver of energy. Gray squirrels do not hibernate, which means that, even in the harshest winter, they forage. Searching and often not finding.

Squirrels budget, and so must we, the privileged. Dinner done—burritos, cheap New Zealand white wine—it’s playtime for Bug. He’s ready. He charges madly up and down the levels of his tall cage. We do this twice a day, to keep his skeleton supple and because I can’t resist him.

Metabolic bone disease is the main cause of death in captive squirrels. Like humans, when they are not exposed to enough sunlight, they make no vitamin D and can’t absorb calcium. I send away for Bug’s food. The fortified blocks, in sealed plastic bags from Florida, consist of pecans, protein isolates (whey, wheat), and thirty other ingredients, including vitamins D, K, E, as well as B-1, -2, -3, -6, and -12, with all the important minerals. A month’s supply, twenty-five dollars.

He springs out. Perches on my shoulder, rotates to inspect the room. Hops atop my head.

For the next hour, he scrambles over and across my arms, legs, hands, and torso—somehow he knows to avoid my face—pausing only to wrestle. This involves tumbling between my hands, losing then regaining the top position. Over and over.

He nips, and I feel the promise of his incisors, but not their full gift. The damage is done by his inward-curved claws. Evolved for tree bark, they slice and puncture flesh. I endure this abuse in trade for the moments between, when I touch his pelage, soft belly, and cold wet nose. His tail, plumy, snow-fringed, sifts through my fingers.

I offer a hazelnut, which he snatches and “buries”—finds a cranny in the sofa or an empty shoe or even a vacant pocket, jams the nut in as far as possible, and pats around the area. Scatterhoarding. During play, he will not stop longer than a few seconds.

In the mornings, though—yawn and stretch—he positions himself on the cage’s upper tier, where I can reach him, tucks his snout into the crook of my thumb, and submits to a few minutes of drowsy massage. As if he knows breakfast follows. He does know.


One of Emerson’s lesser-known poems, “Fable,” pits squirrel against mountain in an argument—the dialogue of big versus small, hashing out superiority. Says the squirrel,

But all sorts of things and weather

Must be taken in together

To make up a year

And a sphere.

And I think it’s no disgrace

To occupy my place.

It reminds me of Bergson’s Introduction to Metaphysics, where he writes that “many diverse images, borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.” But toward what is Bug directing me? What am I expected to seize?


Squirrels mate twice per year, once between December and February, and again in summer. Estrus lasts eight hours. All day, males chase the female, who copulates with three or four. Each gets about twenty seconds. The older, dominant ones usually prevail, but not always. In “breakaways,” the female escapes to a secluded area for a few minutes of peace. She mates with the first male that finds her.

Bug’s downy testicles are huge, about the size of butterbeans, loaded with baby-making potential. In “active” mode, his balls weigh seven grams. They shrink to one gram when the season of lust passes. Why shouldn’t he get his chance? Even if it’s with a girl who’s just tired of going through the paces with more virile types and willing to take whatever guy comes along.

But I fear for him in the wild. Predators hover and lurk. Hawks and owls. Cats, foxes, and snakes. The hodgepodge of parasitic species that want him includes six protozoans, two flukes, 10 tapeworms, one acanthocephalan (thorny-headed worm), 23 roundworms, 37 mites, seven lice, and 17 fleas. There is also the odious botfly, which lays its eggs under the squirrel’s skin. Larvae become disfiguring lumps the size of olives, called “warbles.” Eventually, the pupa drop out of dermal holes to finish growing in soil.

What’s mating worth?


In the fall of 2013, I see reports of squirrel migrations in north Georgia. A bumper crop of oak acorns in the previous year led to a high birth rate, followed by a mild winter and rainy spring, which caused the supply of nuts from oak, beech, and hickory trees (mast) to dwindle. That’s one theory. Less obvious forces could be responsible. Naturalist P.R. Hoy of Racine, Wisconsin, reported gray squirrel migrations across his territory during three satisfactory mast years—1842 (four weeks, a half-billion squirrels!), 1847, and 1852. No one knows why.

In more recent history, our state has not seen a migration of 2013’s magnitude since 1968, a year when other stories pushed aside news of wandering Sciuridae. The war in Vietnam raged that year, with the Tet offensive in January and the My Lai massacre in March. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June. President Lyndon Johnson gave up on seeking a second term.

Quieter history was made in Greenwich Village. “In retrospect, the summer of 1968 marked a time of physical awakening for both Robert and me,” writes Patti Smith in her memoir. They had begun to understand what was possible, and what was not.


Winter’s almost here. Joyce and I continue our talks. I bring up parenthood more often than she does, she who has yet to become a mother (nulliparous). At the same time, I wonder about my fitness for doing the dad thing yet again.

For more than a year Bug was, other than Joyce, the last thing I saw before sleep, and the first thing I saw in the morning, his cage and towel “nest” situated opposite our bed. I woke to the squeaks when he dreamed.

At odd moments, almost every day, memories of him rise. Images. Sniffing inside my ear. Smacking on a chunk of avocado, his favorite. Balancing on my hand, his teeth scraping my thumbnail. Nuzzling me as, from the other side of the bars, I trace his flanks and ribs. I feel his heart tapping.

I see him leap from branch to branch in the forest canopy, his body made for this. The “overstory,” botanists call the green ceiling, limbs almost entwined, leaf and twig so close together that the vibrissae of tree squirrels grow longer than those of ground squirrels, the better to detect what’s near. There’s an “understory,” too, down where I am. Paths that cross will cross again. I picture him in mid-air.


RANDY OSBORNE writes in Atlanta, where he teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at Emory University. He’s the director and co-founder in 2010 of Carapace, a monthly event of true personal storytelling, and staff writer at BioWorld Today, a daily newsletter that covers the biotechnology industry. Represented by the Brandt & Hochman Agency in New York, he is finishing a collection of personal essays.

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The Prince and the Perv

By Gina Kelly

By Jennifer Niesslein

A word association game: Pick up the robocall, and hear the name “John Smith.*”

John Smith means a prince of a man—a beloved elementary-school teacher who your fifteen-year-old son adores. Gifted and popular. Merry eyes, short, kind of a goofball.

“A sad acknowledgement.”

Oh, no. Did he die? He’s married with two daughters—sweet, smart kids, one in your son’s grade, one in your best friend’s daughter’s grade.

“…arrested yesterday on charges related to child pornography.”

Game over.


I’d last seen Mr. Smith a few weekends before. Our kids had arrived at the age when they had many commitments, both social and academic, and no driver’s license. It had been the third weekend in a row where my husband, Brandon, and I had listened to another of their musical performances.

Brandon and I waited in the lobby with the rest of the parents while the kids took off their uniforms and packed up their instruments. We chitchatted with the parents of our son’s closest friends, but it’s a small community—just one high school for the whole city—and we were familiar with many other parents. I called the other parents by their first names, but Mr. Smith would always be Mr. Smith to me; I’d already mentally filed him away as “teacher,” an identity that requires a certain amount of respect.

He was standing near the door. “Hey, there,” I said to him, smiling.

He smiled back. “Hi,” he might have said. “How’s it going?” maybe. I actually don’t remember. He wasn’t clean-shaven, but it was a weekend after all; I looked kind of schlubby myself. He was just Mr. Smith, a known quantity. He was friendly with the other parents, joked with the kids, and carried that particular kind of teacher celebrity—the teacher who every parent wants their child to get—with grace.

When his mug shot was posted on every news outlet in our small city, I could see that, to a lot of people, he would look like a perv. No crinkly eyes, no smile. Just a bald, white man with a grimly set mouth. He was charged with two counts of possession of child pornography and one count of using a communications device to solicit child pornography. I Googled those words as if they could mean something other than what they mean. They don’t.

I don’t know what kind of story this is yet. Is it about sympathy for the devil? Is it about confronting a monster? Is it about a decent man with a terrible fetish? Is it about my own stupidity?


It should go without saying, but without children, there would be no child pornography. Every child porn video or image out there shows a kid experiencing abuse at best, rape at worst, on film.

It’s tough to find numbers on the victims. In December 2012, a Congressional report on child pornography was released. It’s book-length and covers everything from sentencing suggestions to behaviors of users of child pornographer to data on the victims themselves. “It is unknown how many victims of child pornography exist worldwide,” the chapter on the victims begins. A Canadian governmental report estimates that there are more than five million unique images of child porn on the internet.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a special task force that looks closely at child pornography. In fact, the Congressional report, as well as federal law enforcement, relies on the Center’s work. “The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (‘NCMEC’) has reviewed over 57 million images and videos of child pornography (many of them duplicates)” according to the report, “and has assisted law enforcement in the identification over 4,103 individual victims.”

(Two things to note: First, those 4,103 kids are just a small fraction of the whole. Also, Reviewer for NCMEC has just shot to the top of my list of Worst Jobs Ever.)

Some numbers, from NCMEC’s own intake program, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the makeup of child pornography as a whole:

• Girls make up 57% of the victims; boys make up the other 43%.

• Twenty-four percent of the children are pubescent. Seventy-six percent are pre-pubescent; of those kids, 10% are infants or toddlers.

• Most of the victims are abused by someone close to them. It’s a fairly rare occurrence for the children (or the adults they become) to speak out.

But when they do, this is some of what they say:

From “Amy,” as reported by the NCMEC, at a judicial proceeding against her uncle: “I am still discovering all the ways that the abuse and exploitation I suffer has hurt me, has set my life on the wrong course, and destroyed the normal childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood that everyone deserves.”

From Masha Allen, on Nancy Grace, who was adopted from a Russian orphanage by an American man: “My pictures that are on the Internet disturb me more than what Matthew did because I know that the abuse stopped but those pictures are still on the Internet.”

From an anonymous male victim originally from Kentucky, in the Tampa Bay Times: “It’s taken my happiness, my peace of mind. It’s taken everything. I can’t get it back. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen.”

According to the Congressional report, both the Supreme Court and Congress have acknowledged that the children abused in pornography experience a unique form of victimization since the record of their abuse lives on and provides fodder for yet another someone to get his rocks off. If that’s not enough, some victims have reported that it haunts them that the images of them could be used to “groom” new victims. Worse yet, some victims become revictimized when porn users stalk them, online, at school, or, in one documented case, at a softball game.


Mr. Smith was being held at the jail without bond. The judge said that he would reconsider if Mr. Smith’s attorney and wife could prove that he had no access to the internet or smart phones.

We, the community, still had no idea what he’d been looking at. Somehow, it would make a difference, we thought. “Barely legal” or something.


It’s a rare scandal that doesn’t start with a secret. Ask Bill “That Woman” Clinton. Ask Larry “Wide Stance” Craig. Ask John “You’re So Hot” Edwards. Ask Mark “Hiking Trip” Sanford.

Like a lot of reasonable people, I believe that people can be extremely gifted in their work and still screw up royally in their personal lives. I know a guy who’s super-smart and creative with tech stuff, yet he has fucked over his family in a major way. I recently read of a wonderful actor with a terrific family who died of a heroin overdose. If I can believe what I hear, I’m a damn good editor, but I know that I’m also a terrible custodian of my own health.

I believe that people can compartmentalize, that the good and the ugly can stay separate and sometimes even work in tandem to make a better, stronger person. When I think of Mr. Smith, my first impulse is good guy, quickly followed by or maybe not.

Can a person have a terrible secret but still be a decent human being? This isn’t so much a question as a desperately wished-for hope. (So desperately wished-for, in fact, that my own online search history has become riddled with the phrase “child pornography.”)

The research shows that there isn’t a definite link between pedophilia and child pornography. “[N]ot all child pornography offenders are pedophiles, and not all child pornography offenders engage in other sex offending,” that 2012 Congressional report states. “While there is overlap in these categories, each is separate and none is a predicate to any other.”

In some ways, this is exactly what I wanted to know: that it’s possible for a person to harbor a horrible sexual fantasy and still keep it in the fantasy realm. This is the best-case scenario, other than Mr. Smith’s arrest being a case of mistaken identity. This is the scenario that lets a parent feel okay about her child having been under Mr. Smith’s care.

In other ways, it doesn’t help at all. In the chapter on child pornography offender behavior, the Congressional report slices and dices all the studies that have been conducted on child pornography offenders. There is a correlation—although not causation—between someone owning child pornography and committing sexual contact with minors. Most child pornography offenders have a certain type of image that they like—a certain gender, certain age of child. Other times, though, some of the data contradicts other data. Some of the data introduced me to a world I had no idea even existed, like online communities where “collectors” trade images and form social bonds with each other. And it occurred to me that all of it is based on the offenders who got caught, which skews the sample.

None of it, really, though, helps me understand what Mr. Smith allegedly did when he thought no one was looking.


Mr. Smith was denied bond at his hearing until, the judge said, a forensic psychologist could determine that he wasn’t a danger to himself or others.

According to local media, some details emerged about what Mr. Smith allegedly did. The defense attorney said that Mr. Smith had had some explicit sexual contact with a fifteen-year-old girl living in Northern Virginia, albeit via web cam. The prosecutor insisted that the judge needed to look at the images and the chats and the hundred-plus pages that would show that Mr. Smith had done this sort of thing with other girls in the past two years. It was implied that this was some raw stuff.

Mr. Smith had also submitted to a lie detector test. He admitted to “the essence” of the allegations, but insisted that he has never, ever had physical contact.

When the first judge denied bond, Mr. Smith’s attorney immediately appealed, leading to a second hearing in one day. The second judge also said that Mr. Smith could only be released before trial after a meeting with a forensic psychologist and with the caveat that he could have no internet or smart phone access.

The media also reported that Mr. Smith’s supporters were in force at the hearings. This, in spite of everything, made me happy.


Fifteen years old. For some people, that detail will exhonerate the alleged crime, maybe just a little, especially in this culture that equates youth with sexiness. If she can bleed, she can breed, I heard a friend’s brother say once when I was younger. At the time, this didn’t chill me; I grew up in boy culture, all football and heavy metal and talk dirty to me. Girls were ornaments: the cheerleaders, the trophies, the afterthought.

Back when the internet and smart phones didn’t exist, I was a fifteen-year-old girl living in Northern Virginia.

I was researching something for school at the library connected to the community center when a tall guy with curly, dark hair started flirting with me. Italian looking and muscular, he’d been playing basketball in the courts in the building. We struck up a conversation. His name was Mike. He was twenty years old.

We went on a date that I cleared with my mother by pointing out that I was mature for my age and he was immature for his. Which was true enough, I suppose. (By the time I was twenty, I’d be in college, living with Brandon, and would have been seriously creeped out by any of my contemporaries dating a high schooler.)

At an ice cream shop, Mike bought us sundaes. All I can remember of our conversation is that he pointed out that our waitress looked like Broom Hilda, the comic strip character. Afterwards, we made out in his car.

We went on a couple more ice cream/ make out dates. I think I liked the idea of him more than I actually liked him. It was probably mutual. I was an honor roll student; I never asked him what he did for a living but suspected it was something sketchy, involving a cousin of his whom I’d met once. I never had sex with Mike, and I think he finally figured out that I never would. The last time I spoke to him was on the phone, when he arranged another date.

He stood me up.

I got dressed and waited for him to pick me up. I waited longer. My mother looked at me sympathetically, but she wisely didn’t say a word, not calling attention the fool that I was being made. By the time I conceded that he wasn’t coming and I took off my makeup and jewelry, I was seething. I hatched a plan.

In the next month or so, I got a friend who had a driver’s license to drive me to the grocery store. They sold raw chicken livers in plastic vats filled with chicken blood. I wanted the blood.

We drove to Mike’s neighborhood and found his car.

I poured the blood all over the car. I hoped it would ruin the paint job. I realize now that it probably seeped into the vents and created the ungodliest of stenches.

So, an exhibit: the emotional maturity of one fifteen-year-old.


In December 2013, a Congressional aide named Jesse Ryan Loskarn was charged on counts of possession and distribution of child pornography. Thirty-five years old, Loskarn was allowed to post bond and stay at home until his trial. He hanged himself on January 23.

In a letter he left behind, he wrote, in part:

The first time I saw child pornography was during a search for music on a peer-to-peer network. I wasn’t seeking it but I didn’t turn away when I saw it. Until that moment, the only place I’d seen these sorts of images was in my mind.

I found myself drawn to videos that matched my own childhood abuse. It’s painful and humiliating to admit to myself, let alone the whole world, but I pictured myself as a child in the image or video. The more an image mirrored some element of my memories and took me back, the more I felt a connection.

This is my deepest, darkest secret.


How to make sense of Mr. Smith’s deepest, darkest secret? It’s a lot to ask of anyone, to open your heart and your mind to encompass this big, gray mess: that Mr. Smith has done an amazing amount of good in his teaching career and that Mr. Smith might have victimized minors. It’s an almost impossible thing to ask of his nine-year-old students.

When my son was a year older than them, he joined Google Groups (the precursor to Google Plus). I was nervous about his foray online, and I monitored his account. I noticed an unfamiliar name following—and attempting to interact with—him and many of his fifth-grade friends. Through some sleuthing, I found that this person was an adult man who lived in an Atlanta suburb with his parents. I notified the other parents. I notified the guidance counselors at the upper elementary school. I notified the local police’s task force on internet crimes, who asked if my son would let them take over his online identity. (My son declined.) In the end, the kids kind of took care of it themselves, calling the guy out as a “creeper” and blocking him.

I think now that this is a story about loss. Children have lost a certain kind of innocence: the victim in obvious ways, those who knew Mr. Smith as an educator in subtler ways. The city has lost a teacher who makes kids excited about learning. Mr. Smith has, at the very least, lost his reputation and almost certainly his career, no matter what the result of his trial. His family has lost so much, on so many heart-breaking levels.

I’ve lost a little bit of faith in my own moral compass. I wish I could go back to being able to categorize people as creepers or not, worthy of blood on their cars or not. I can’t.

* John Smith isn’t the teacher’s real name. There’s plenty of media coverage of the story, and out of concern for his family, I elected not to go there.


JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. Her website is

What I Know Now

By Gina Kelly

By Elizabeth Titus

Hours after I became a mother at the age of forty-three in a remote city in China, I got a phone call from my brother Kent. Our father had suffered a cerebral aneurysm and was unlikely to live for more than a few days.

It was December 9, 1994. My father was seventy-six years old, living with his fifth wife in Florida. My mother—his first wife—had died eleven years earlier, and in those terrible ensuing years, my father went crazy and kept getting married to any woman who would say “yes.” He was depressed, desperate, defensive. No matter what his three children advised him, he always had a “next in line,” a woman he knew we’d all love.

The women were younger, destitute, uneducated, and amazed that a man had come along to rescue them. They had no idea that money was one thing, but what went with the money was a man who desired to control their every move. Always headstrong and impulsive, he became worse, so much so that my brothers and I wondered if he suffered from a borderline personality disorder. The judge in his second divorce hearing (the divorce after just a month from his marriage to Bert, a woman I never met who left her job as a waitress at his country club to marry him) suggested my father see a psychiatrist, which my father found absurd. He had no need for psychiatrists; in fact, he considered it a sign of weakness. It was whispered for years that his older sister, Anne, had seen a psychiatrist while she was at Wellesley College, because she was so “high-strung.”

The truth of the matter was that Anne had suffered at the hands of an alcoholic, abusive father who was an embarrassment to his family in the upstate New York town where they had lived. A graduate of Hamilton College in the same class as writer and critic and fellow curmudgeon Alexander Woollcott, of Algonquin Round Table fame, my grandfather was a brilliant, spoiled man who got a law degree at Columbia University and then never bothered to work.

“When was Grandpa’s last case?” I’d ask my father.

“Of Labatt?” was always the response.

We’d laugh and laugh at this private joke.

My grandfather would sit in an overstuffed, low-lying easy chair in the parlor of the Greek Revival home purchased for him and his bride Lucile by his father-in-law and smoke cigars and drink Labatt beer all day long, living off the income from a family bakery business that his wife’s ancestors started in 1896. When my grandfather fell out of bed, drunk, in his late seventies and broke his hip, the end was near. As he took his last breath, my father was at his side, and he told people later that he had said, “Good riddance, you son of a bitch.”

The night before my husband Gregory and I left for China in December 1994, I called my father in Florida to tell him we were on our way. I had seen him a few months earlier at the “celebration” of his fifth anniversary to his fifth wife. She had taken me aside and had said she was leaving him because he was crazy and a womanizer and told anyone who would listen about his new penile pump. I’d told Gregory to call Continental Airlines because we were returning to New York City immediately.

During my final conversation with my father that night before going to China, I tried, as I always had, to get him to focus on me, his youngest child and only daughter.

He talked about a cousin I barely knew and his wife’s friend who had gone to China to adopt a child. He relayed every detail of their trip.

“What about my trip?” I almost screamed into the phone. “What about me?”

I told Gregory that I hoped my father would drop dead.

And he did.

Did he die because I willed it? Did I kill my father?

“There’s nothing you can do,” my brother, a doctor in Richmond, Virginia, where my mother had grown up, told me. “You could never get back in time.”

I knew that I couldn’t leave China without first going through the legal adoption process, which would take place at the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhou in a few days. So I didn’t even think about leaving. A DES daughter, I had endured years of infertility, IVF, a stillbirth, and two ectopic pregnancies; nothing was going to stand in my way of becoming a mother now. I told Gregory that I didn’t want anyone in our group of twelve adoptive families to know about my father. I wanted to keep this separate from the joy of becoming a mother. I would file it away somewhere deep inside my brain and deal with it later.

And so we went on as we had before the phone call from my brother, delighting in our happy, beautiful baby girl. We have photos of the three of us, laughing and clapping our hands, in the hotel restaurant.

When my brother called two days later to say my father had died, never regaining consciousness, I cried, for the first time. And then we prepared for our long trip back to America with our baby girl, Wei Xin-Fei, renamed Lili.

I flew to Florida for the funeral, which took place on a golf course. Golf was his only real passion, so this was fitting. The master of ceremonies, if you will, was Patty Berg, the winner of a record fifteen women’s major golf championships and a founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. My father had become friends with the five-foot-two powerhouse Patty Berg because she was the pro at his golf club. After one of his divorces, he had nowhere to live, so he moved in with Patty. I had a hunch that she was
a lesbian, although she never came out, which is the only explanation I had for why he didn’t marry her. I’m sure he asked, as he always did. But she was not his type; she was smart, successful, independent, tough. He liked the thirty-year-olds he met at shopping malls and bought televisions and VCRs for, the ones who had
 been mistreated by men. He was there to save them. His mission in life.

Patty Berg told funny stories about my father, like the time he got a hole in one and then tried to duck out of having to buy drinks for everyone. A notorious cheapskate, we had many family stories about how he’d put rotgut vodka in Smirnoff bottles. There was never a brand name in his cupboards; he was the king of store brands. Heinz Ketchup or Crest Toothpaste? Forget

He was the ultimate do-it-yourselfer, and not a very good one. He cut his own grass and hair, did the family laundry, whites and colors all together, and mended our clothes. My father prided himself on his sewing ability. When I’d visit him in Florida, I could see him eyeing my jacket to see if there were loose buttons.

“Take that jacket off, and I’ll sew that button back on right now,” he’d urge me. Or rather, order me.

“It’s okay, Dad,” I’d respond.

But he was a dog with a bone, and in no time, he’d whisk out his olive drab sewing kit, which he received during World War II, where he had served in North Africa soon after graduating from Yale. He had everything he needed in that frayed kit: small Wiss bandage scissors; a tape measure; some hooks and eyes; a thimble; sewing needles; a safety pin or two; and a couple spools of Coats & Clark’s Boilfast fifteen-cent thread. He had two colors of thread, forest green and blue-grey. Oblivious to matters of fashion, he paid no attention to matching his thread to the item in need of his attention.

When my father’s widow/almost ex-wife asked me to select a few items from his desk drawer in their condo in Florida, I came across the sewing kit.






“I’d like to have this,” I told her.

“Oh, that Rex,” she laughed. “He did love to sew. And he was terrible at it.”

That Rex. Rexford Walker Titus Jr. My father. A lunatic, in so many ways. He drove me crazy, and then he died, before meeting his granddaughter. I rarely discuss him with her.

But now, days after she has turned twenty, I think I’ll show her the World War II sewing kit. And maybe I’ll tell her about Patty Berg and the funeral on a golf course and the grandfather she never knew.

I may also tell her a terrible truth of my own life: hours after she was brought to our hotel room, her father and I called his parents and my brother Kent to tell them we were parents. This was before Skype and Instagram, so there were no photos.

I planned to call my father in a day or two, but I didn’t, and it was too late. So he never knew of our joy. Why, oh why, was I so damn stubborn, such a child, at the age of forty-three? Why did I still feel the need to punish him, a confused, frightened man who lost his bearings when his wife died?

I return often to the final paragraph of a 1954 story by Harold Brodkey, called “State of Grace,” that I first read when I was an English teacher in Philadelphia in 1974. It left me speechless then, and it still does, forty years later. The author looks back at his arrogant, guarded thirteen-year-old self, filled with guilt and self-blame at his lack of tenderness toward a younger boy:

“I’m thinking of all the years that might have been—if I’d only known then what I know now. The waste, the God-awful waste. Really, that’s all there is to this story. The boy I was, the child Edward was. That, and the terrible desire to suddenly turn and run shouting back through the corridors of time, screaming at the boy I was, searching him out and pounding on his chest: Love him, you damn fool, love him.”


ELIZABETH TITUS has been a journalist (Gannett), an English teacher, an advertising account executive (Doyle Dane Bernbach), and a communications director (fifteen years at American Express). She has a BA in English (Skidmore), an MA in English (University of Pennsylvania), and an MBA (Wharton). She left the corporate world in 2002 and has not looked back, dedicating her time to freelance writing, traveling to places she always longed to see (Africa, Russia, Turkey), taking courses at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute, and volunteering for two nonprofits devoted to educating Afghan women, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project ( and The School of Leadership Afghanistan ( She is the mother of Lili, age twenty, and the legal guardian of Sabira, an Afghan woman, currently at a boarding school in New England and hoping to attend Middlebury College in 2014.

Water from a Well

By Gina Kelly

By Sarah Pape

Roger lived in the kind of house I coveted: a swatch of deep green manicured lawn, the clean white paint of a new development, and high ceilings. The higher the ceilings, the more desirable the home. That’s what I thought at nineteen, living in a two-bedroom apartment where, when you flipped on the light, cockroaches scattered. This was our first place as a family—Rik, me, and our seven-month-old baby, Sylvia. We’d just gotten married and everything we owned was second hand. We would go to yard sales every weekend, holding things up to each other, as if to say, “This? Is this what grown ups own?”

We bought a little tabletop ironing board and an iron so that I could press Rik’s thrift store button-ups and slacks. He was working at a dealership trying his best to sell cars to people who wandered onto the lot. He didn’t have the bloodlust for it and would come home dejected and wrinkled after sweating all day on the blacktop. We were living off of meager commissions and mercy checks from my family, waking up every morning with the dread of having to make another call—either to the bank to argue overdraft charges or to feign a casual tone as I worked up the courage to call my mom or grandparents to ask for more.

Late one night, I picked up the worn Want Ads that Rik had fallen asleep with and began looking for something I could do. I only had one year of community college under my belt, but I could type and write. I began feeding a fantasy of becoming a secret shopper or someone who “makes money from home,” going so far as to pay fifty dollars to get the catalogue for products one could assemble. It turned out to be dollhouse furniture. They would send you the pieces. I did the math and realized it would take thousands of tiny desks and bunk beds to even pay the electricity bill.

Then I saw Roger’s ad in the Personal Services section: “I’m a disabled man in need of light cleaning, grocery shopping, and assistance with physical exercise. Some experience necessary.” We had only lived on our own for a few months, but I was learning quickly how to manage the domestic. I wasn’t meticulous, but we cleaned enough to hold the roaches back. I knew how to shop on a budget. In fact, some nights I would take the baby and go wander the aisles of a store, loading up the cart and then putting everything back. I was rehearsing for the day that we would have enough money and could buy whatever we wanted. That’s what success meant to me then. That’s why I was practically salivating when I pulled up to the white tract house when I arrived for an interview the next day.


People in wheelchairs don’t scare me. My grandmother, who had contracted polio at twenty-five, lived her life—and mine—on wheels. My cousin and I would fight over her chair when she would get into her recliner for an afternoon nap, using a slide board to bridge the distance between the wheelchair and her destination. Careening down the long, marble hallways, we could balance on the back wheels, spinning in circles. As we got older, Nonie needed more help getting in and out of her chair. They eventually bought a nylon sling that hooked to a manual lift. Once you hooked each corner to the mechanism, you pumped a lever that incrementally lifted her into the air. She would hang there in the cradle of the nylon sling as you wheeled her to where she wanted to go.

It was my experience with this that convinced Roger to hire me. He was impressed that I knew what a Hoyer Lift was and that I could easily identify all of its parts. That first day, he showed me around his huge three-bedroom house: the office where he had a massive computer set-up with voice recognition, his kitchen with flats of Gatorade and Mountain Dew, his bedroom with one wall covered from floor to ceiling with jerseys and t-shirts signed by rock stars and athletes. He loved heavy metal. His long red hair was tied back in a loose braid, something that would eventually become my job to maintain.

I met Roger on the decline. The first few evenings when I came to work, he had me help him into his hot tub, after which I would dress him, then hook up the lift and place him into the waterbed. It was an ordeal, but the process promised to bring him some relief from his muscles, strung tight and prone to spasms. Roger had always been afforded any technology or machinery that could help him function independently, but he had advanced cerebral palsy and his body was nearing its limits.

There were a series of exercises and stretches that he needed me to assist him with. He would lie on his back, and I would put one leg up onto my shoulder and push it toward his upper body. It was part porno, part gymnastics coaching. His already contorted face would twist into agonized knots as he slurred for me to keep pushing. Then I would take turns sitting on his thighs, straightening his stiff, bent legs. Most nights, he would fall asleep with me on his lap, some infomercial droning from the TV next to the bed, the remote out of my reach.

And he coughed through everything. After many bouts of pneumonia, he had a compromised respiratory system and he would hack to the point of vomiting. Nothing seemed to help. It would just eventually stop, and he’d lie there panting from the effort of it all.

At midnight, I could go home. I ached toward those illuminated numbers on his nightstand, littered with cough suppressant, bottles of Gatorade, and empty bottles for him to pee in during the night. My breasts would be rock-hard and full of milk by the end of my shift, and I would selfishly hope for my baby to be awake as I maneuvered through the empty streets toward our tiny apartment. Just to take the pressure away. To soften me enough that I might fall asleep, still hearing, in my sleep, Roger’s incessant cough that sounded like dying.

As we worked to get him ready in the mornings, I had to train myself to not ask if he was okay. No matter what coughing, vomiting, muscle spasm that had just occurred, Roger would nod vigorously that he was fine and wanted to move on to our next task, undeterred by physical discomfort that would undo most people. We had more important issues at hand. He relied on me to not only dress him but to make sure he looked good.

“This one?” I would ask, holding up a pressed black button-up shirt.

“Nope. K-k-ke-keep looking,” Roger urged me deeper into his walk-in closet, decades of clothing lining each side.

I held up two more, “Either of these?” Vigorous head shaking. No.

“Wh, wh, what, what would your hus-hus-husband wear?”

I thought about Rik and the pile of faded black band t-shirts he pulled from most days, and then the ironed polos on hangers from his short-lived career as car salesman.

“Probably something like this,” I assured Roger, holding one up with the tags still on, the fabric heavy and liquid over my hand.

“That’s g-g-good then,” he relented, as I bent each of his arms and slipped them through the unwilling holes, buttoning the shirt from the second one down, revealing just a hint of fine red chest hair.

Roger was a two hundred pound man, and although it may be unfair to make the comparison, there was something seamless about my days diapering and clothing my infant daughter and my nights spent cleaning up vomit and squeezing his unrelenting legs into sweatpants. Sometimes, I was there until the day’s end. Others, just to get him ready for school in the morning. He asked me if I might be able to type his papers if he spoke them to me, and I agreed. I said yes to everything he asked, whether I could or not. I needed to be indispensable to him. Every hour meant another $4.25 on my paycheck.


His tract home was near the grocery warehouse. I shopped there after work sometimes when everything but the forklifts had emptied the vast aisles of mealy produce and Spanish generics. At this hour, there was no one around to see me pull out the stack of WIC vouchers I used to pay for our peanut butter, milk, and cheese. Sometimes Roger would give me a twenty to pick up a few things for the next day. Amongst his line of plastic bottled drinks and frozen dinners, I would occasionally throw in a candy bar or Chapstick. I wouldn’t tell him and he never noticed.

Was this stealing? By definition, yes. Yet, sitting in the empty parking lot at one in the morning, breaking off pieces of chocolate and letting them melt slowly between my sore-from-grinding teeth, it felt like a reward. A bonus for getting through another day of a life I had never imagined. I told myself, Roger would give this to me. He often offered me food or a beer. I never accepted his offers, but I took this as permission.

Sometimes, I stole time. I would add twenty minutes to a shift. Not much, but over the course of weeks, would equal to days. I’ve earned this, was my mantra leaving after midnight, sleeping for a few hours between breast feedings, and then getting back into the car to meander back to that big gleaming house. Tiptoeing in, he would often still be sleeping, and I would fear that he had died. Aspirated in a coughing fit in that stretch of hours that I had gone home. But then he’d shift or fart or just be lying there with the TV on, and I’d wheel the lift to his bed, roll him side to side to place the sling, hook in and begin pumping the handle as if getting water from a well. He would fold into a perfect bundle, rising above the twisted sheets and sloshing bed.

I wasn’t the only one who worked for Roger. He had other girls who would do the day or night shift, depending. None of us could work more than twelve hours a week, so I asked for more clients through the agency.

By this time, Rik had been let go from his third dealership and was collecting unemployment. Once a week, he would wake up at five a.m. to inquire about a tree cutting job one town over. Each time they would tell him to come back next week, so he’d drive home and crawl into the California King bed that had been passed down from my grandparents, to my mother, then finally to us. He’d stay there with Sylvia, sleeping, and I would rouse to get to another shift.

Most of the work was bland—helping Joyce, a high-functioning woman with Down Syndrome, to create a budget; making sure Ron got his three-wheeled bicycle to the shop for a new set of tubes; cooking a week’s worth of meals for Susan, a fifty-year-old woman blind since birth.

But then there were cases like Martin, who was so large he couldn’t wipe his own butt and had stains running down the back of his pants. Porn-addicted and developmentally disabled, he’d sit in his oily tan recliner, a gallon of milk in his grip, asking me again and again if I liked “man and woman love movies.” Because the smell was unbearable, the agency arranged for him to take public transport to the grocery store to meet me. I would follow him through the store, listening for his grunts of agreement as I pointed to various foods.


As my clientele was growing, Roger began getting sick more often. He dropped out of school and spent his days at home. I would sometimes stay, off the clock, to watch a movie or listen to some music. It was hard to understand his words, slurred and truncated by gasps and hiccups, but being in each other’s company was simple. In this way, I was escaping from home and what waited for me there. There was no middle space any longer, just layers of need and necessity and care, often beyond what I knew to do or to manage. Like Susan’s face when I attempted to cook eggplant, soggy with canola oil, bitter and tough. Like the unimaginable softness of her shoulders when she would ask me to rub them for her, little hums of pleasure emitting from her at being touched.

I was running late to Roger’s one day, exhausted from being woken in the middle of the night by police. The downstairs neighbors, a reclusive Asian woman and an old man who drove his Cadillac up and down the circular driveway, called the police with a noise disturbance. “There was a report of a baby crying,” the officer informed us. We were bleary eyed, holding our rosy cheeked, feverish baby.

“They do that,” Rik offered, and they apologized, citing our neighbors as having called frequently on past tenants. I had overslept my usual alarm and I knew that one of the other girls was getting Roger up that day. It would take me a half hour to grab his groceries and head over. I dawdled at the store though, completely unmotivated to face the bottles of cold piss on the nightstand to be emptied, the chunks of dandruff I’d have to comb through to tie his hair into a ponytail, or the crusted toothpaste at the corners of his mouth, waiting to be wiped away.

I was readying my excuse for being late when I clicked the lock and heard shouting. Incoherent and muddled as his speech was, I could clearly distinguish, “Help!”

I ran through the maze of hallways and rooms to find him in the bathroom, crumpled to his knees and hanging by one arm from the metal bar next to the commode. His entire body weight was held by the torsion on his upper bicep and bone, both spare to begin with. I tried at first to work his arm out of the tight space, but I realized quickly that the gravity of his body was too great. I’d have to lift him up and slip his arm out from there.

Not thinking, I held him under his arms and grabbed him in a big bear hug, pushing up with all the strength in my legs. I wasn’t strong enough. I could get his upper body lifted incrementally, shifting the point of pressure, but he was dead weight. He said to call 911 and his mother, who lived an hour away. I tried one last time to lift him and felt a terrible wrenching in my back.

The paramedics came and, with the strength of two men, lifted him up and wrested his arm from the bar. I sat on the bed, watching and holding my lower back with two hands, willing myself to stay upright until he was taken away. He was in shock, and from what they guessed, suffering permanent nerve damage. Finally, the house empty, I put the groceries away, left a note for his mother and drove home, wincing with every turn.

Stumbling up the stairs and through the door of my apartment, I made my way to the rocking chair. Rik, surprised to find me home, held a delighted Sylvia out to me. I burst into tears and cried, every sob radiating through my torn lumbar muscles. It was excruciating, but I couldn’t stop. Nothing could stop me.

The threshold of my body was one I had not yet met. Trying to make sense of the calculations it took to make a life in close proximity to the needs of others, I had fractured into too many pieces to hold. Rocking myself that evening, ice pack against my back, I wondered how we would keep everything together despite the limits of our two young bodies, no marketable skills, and the mounting responsibilities of an adult life.

My own parents had had me young, not much older than Rik and I were. I remembered falling asleep to the rhythmic tapping of the electric typewriter as my mother wrote her term papers, working her way through college by day and pulling shifts at Montgomery Wards each night. At her graduation, I was as tall as her hip, on which my baby brother was balanced.

I kept working with clients a few hours a week, but I also signed up for classes at the local community college. Sylvia went to the child development center on the days I went to school and when I transferred to the university, she began kindergarten. This is how we built a life, with paystubs and textbooks piled on thrift store tables, each apartment slightly bigger than the last. No high ceilings, but we have a garden grown by Rik’s two strong hands and a bed bought solely for us. We worked hard. We were lucky.


SARAH PAPE teaches English and works as the managing editor of Watershed Review at Chico State. Her poetry and prose has recently been published in Pilgrimage, The Rumpus, Mutha Magazine, California Northern, The Superstition Review, The Southeast Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Cadence of Hooves: A Celebration of Horses. Her poetry chapbook, Road Z, was published by Yarroway Mountain Press. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript of essays.

The Marriage Plate

By Beth Hannon Fuller


By Jessica Handler

The auctioneer’s receipt for my mother’s tableware reads, 78 pieces Rogers ‘First Love.’ $150.00. I put the receipt in a green plastic file marked “estate.” The hundred and fifty dollars I put in a household checking account.

Copious, easily tarnished silverware with extravagant names was a standard wedding gift in the fifties, when marriages were copious.

Salad forks, dinner forks, olive and pickle forks. Knives for checking for food between your teeth by eyeing the slim mirror of the blades. Soup spoons, dessert spoons, serrated grapefruit spoons, nestled large protecting small and smaller.

Marriages are easily tarnished.

I doubt that my father was my mother’s first love, despite the brightly named wedding silver. When she was fourteen, she held an unfulfilled crush on her cousin. His name was Paul, and he was sixteen. He could play the hell out of the piano: he rolled through some boogie-woogie. She never mastered boogie-woogie, but she played the hell out of Chopin.

At twenty-three, my father appeared to be a good catch.

I have a blurry memory of going fishing with my father, of gray predawn light, of mist, of trying to bait a hook.

My father was no outdoorsman: how could it be possible that we went fishing? Squinting at the narrow mirror of my mind’s blade, I can’t find an answer.

I have a memory of failing to catch anything.

A few years ago, a student told me he knew the guy who’d whistled the Andy Griffith theme for the TV show soundtrack. You know it: someone whistles a hearty tune while Opie and Andy amble to the fishing hole.

They appear to love each other.

I borrowed the idea in another classroom. I explained to my students how, when writing a screenplay based on a novel, a writer needs to show what’s inside a character. How to show closeness? Opie and Andy, walkin’ to the fishin’ hole.

It’s kind of a dumb example of depicting physical representation of the unspoken.

Try showing this in a screenplay: my husband laughing at a video on his computer of a mud-soaked hippo letting loose a blast of farts. My husband is in tears from laughter.

He’s a very funny guy.

I shine from the inside when I can make him laugh. I see him bent large in the blade, and I see myself small, barely a fleck. Turn the blade and I loom, large eyed and small mouthed, and he tightens to a speck.

That’s easy to show, but not this. Sometimes we don’t have anything to say to one another.

A colleague once told my husband to warn her if he planned to employ humor in conversation.

We think that’s very, very funny.

We didn’t register for silver when we married. We got beautiful dessert plates from Tiffany’s and a hideous, sharp-cornered crystal bowl that I wish now I’d had the sense to return. I lost it, buried it in the basement or a closet.

You could put your eye out with that thing—it’s worse than with a knife.

We came to the marriage with our own flatware from brand-name discount stores. The forks and knives, the soup spoons and those other spoons for what—yogurt? cereal?—cohabitated nicely.

Someone bought that fancy silver as a wedding gift for my mother and father. My father’s parents, most likely. They had money. My mother’s parents might have scrimped and saved for it. They loved her more than silver.

I polished that silver after Thanksgiving dinners, after the Seders over which my father intoned, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” I appreciated the diligence required to wash, dry, polish, wrap, settle. Salad forks, dinner forks, olive and pickle forks. Knives and soup spoons and dessert spoons and serrated grapefruit spoons. A silver claw with four retractable prongs for sugar cubes. An archly modern Georg Jensen cheese knife, adopted by this silverware family.

You had to wash the silver in warm water, dry it, then dull each piece with a menacing-smelling cream from a plastic jar, polish it with a soft gray cloth, then put it to bed like dressed-up kittens in perfectly shaped red velvet forms inside a walnut case.

And I sold it all, earning less than the cost of a week’s groceries. One hundred and fifty dollars is padding, polish, a sliver of safety money.

I baited the hook: the silver had become small fish in the estate world.

The auctioneer took the heavy walnut box (heavier than I remembered) along with a quality but faux Mission desk, a cedar-lined blanket chest (I kept the linens), boxes of various “smalls.”

My own first love wasn’t a cousin, but a good looking boy in my high school whose parents had emigrated to Georgia from South America. He taught me to say “love” in Spanish. Yo te quiero.

This means I want you.

We had sex for the first time in my bedroom. My parents were at work. My sister was somewhere in the house, watching television, or practicing the piano.

Andy Griffith, maybe, or a Satie Gymnopedie. No boogie-woogie yet.

I was twelve, and my boyfriend was thirteen. I had made a bet with my best friend—which of us will lose her virginity before the other? I caught the first boy. I won.

I lay there and thought of groceries, of what was in the refrigerator and the pantry. I’d need to start dinner before my mother came home from work. I would make coq a vin. Or meat loaf. There were also fish sticks. I didn’t realize, at twelve, that these could be seen as sex jokes.

Sometimes when I set that table, I used the good silver.

Now, my husband and I polish each other until we shine. We nestle together, large protecting small protecting large. We look in the distorted images we make in silver blades, and we laugh.


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


By Gina Kelly

By Marietta Brill

When my sister’s doctor recommended that she get a mammogram, Karren called me. “Do you want me to make an appointment for you, too?” she asked, as though scheduling a pedicure. I immediately agreed. She rarely needed medical interventions, and this might be her way of asking for support. And I was way overdue. As busy New Yorkers—Karren, at the time, an advertising creative director and yoga teacher, me a freelance writer and Brooklyn mom of a teen—unpleasant procedures weren’t high on our to-do lists. I also knew that going with Karren might make it seem a little fun.

We arrived together. It was a rainy Thursday. Wearing sweaters and jeans, my sister and I looked more alike than usual. “You ladies,” the doctor said when he looked up from his chart, “you look a lot alike—you could be twins.” Tall, dark-haired, and olive-skinned, Karren and I were often mistaken for twins. I noticed that the doctor could be Matt Damon’s stunt double.

“Thank you!” we replied in unison.

“We’re just sixteen months apart,” Karren said.

Like Borscht belt comedians, we had our routine down over years of telling. I might describe how my husband once confused us. Karren would joke that our mother couldn’t tell us apart on the phone. “That’s because,” my sister, who’d once been an actress, would continue cheerfully, “we have the same voice box.” This expression always baffled me. I imagined tiny, identical gramophones in our throats. But lately I thought it was a great way to explain what made us alike—something indefinable, as intimate as breathing, which our voices expressed.


Looking at the doctor’s immaculate mahogany-grain wood desk reminded me of a similar room at Sloan Kettering Neurology Unit two years earlier where Karren, my husband Peter, and I had waited for a good hour to look at my brain scan. I’d been having seizures that left me temporarily speechless and with auditory hallucinations. On the neurologist’s wall were framed nature prints and an eye chart.

Like many doctor’s offices, it had the fake cozy vibe of a Holiday Inn. Pre-diagnosis, it was a neutral purgatory, the zero-point baseline where nothing was yet decided. We would stay in this innocent safe zone until the doctors arrived—and then with a diagnosis I’d either leap above the line into my treasured normal life or drop into some ring of hell.

We had run out of conversation and our worry hung in the air with the buzz of the fluorescent lights. With a sharp tap on the door, the neurologist burst in with his entourage of five interns. Insanely, I felt like I was in the middle of a Marx Brother’s movie (the neurologist was a little short), and I half expected someone to honk a horn. He did the usual double-take and made a tepid joke about our similarity (“Which one’s the patient?”).

In front of this audience of family and doctors I was asked to perform tests. The doctor read a list of random words for me to keep in the back of my head and repeat later. Then he asked me to walk a straight line. The crowd watched as I minced, heel to toe, along blue paint-tape, like a DUI suspect or a trapeze artist. I was told to count backwards by sevens from one hundred, a task I couldn’t handle reliably in my most sober moments. “What’s the name of the Vice President?” he asked. I couldn’t remember and almost began to cry. When I couldn’t replay the random words from ten minutes ago, through a blur of tears, I saw Karren mouthing the answers. We all practically cheered when my knee jolted from the reflex tap.

Finally, the doctor tacked a film up on a light box and we gathered around the image. It looked like a Google satellite map of two shadowy divided galaxies, with a white dot on the left side, lighting up like a population center. I wanted him to zoom in, to give me the details, to orient me. “It’s an enhancing lesion in your parietal lobe,” he explained. None of us knew what it meant. Karren gasped and reached for my hand. My husband Peter squeezed my shoulders. I thought the word “enhancing” had a soothing, upbeat sound to it. I was wrong (again).

“If it shows up bright on the scan, it’s active.” This was at once not enough and too much information. I couldn’t think of anything to say. The critical, investigative part of me shut down. I looked down at my kitten-heeled Mary Janes. Those Aerosoles were so darling and comfy. They had gotten me through our mother’s funeral a year before, through our father’s funeral the year before that. They were not lucky shoes. But they were the perfect mid-life shoes, cushioning me from the hard bricks of life. Comfort is what I sought more than anything.

The neurologist said that the lesion was pressing up against the speech center in my brain. It explained why I’d suddenly lost my ability to speak and started talking like a caveman a few weeks ago. And the auditory hallucinations. In one type of hallucination, everyone had a French accent. Another expression was the echo of voices and sounds. Once I heard a stroller clanging down a stairwell for close to half an hour, as though the stairs were endless and haunted.

The centimeter-sized dot shining hard in my brain suddenly became the center of my universe. I kept thinking of the palindrome, “rats live on no evil star.” It wasn’t true, I thought; awful things could live anywhere.

The doctors agreed that the lesion was too dangerously close to my speech nerves to biopsy. No surgery. They would watch it with MRIs and give me anti-seizure drugs for the speech and hearing problems. Desperate for any good news, we almost cheered again.

Somehow, we were starving after the appointment and found a coffee shop called, amazingly, The Silver Star. Karren and Peter sat across from me in the booth. I was the focus of their searching, gentle looks. They were waiting to follow my lead. “Well, at least I don’t have to get my head drilled,” I said.

They laughed a little. Peter put his hand on mine.

Karren looked at me, intently and kindly, and said, “I know you are going to be five hundred percent!”—a mantra she would repeat in the months to come. I didn’t want to argue. I wanted to believe that she saw something inside me that I couldn’t, some other force that could outshine and blot out the enhancing dot.

The waiter came. Pete ordered a western omelette. Karren said, “I’ll have two eggs over easy with whole wheat toast, and a slice of tomato.”

I said, “I’ll have exactly the same thing.”

Karren promised she would be with me at every appointment. And she was. We ate a lot of eggs over the next year until the dot faded, and we had no more use for the Silver Star.


Ever since we used to eat TV dinners in front of Patty Duke Show reruns in our suburban split-level house, Karren and I have been charmed by the idea of being twins. Back then we looked nothing alike. She was petite and I was tall; she tanned and I burned. She had big brown eyes, and mine were hazel. But the closeness of our age and our dark hair gave our mother enough reason to push the likeness. She ordered matching haircuts—pixies as toddlers and Beatle cuts as tweens. She duplicated our smocked Peter Pan–collared dresses, mine red and Karren’s yellow.

I did not appreciate my little sister then. I saw her as an interloper. I resented having to watch her in the playground, help with her homework, slow down for her when we were riding bikes. Once, when she was two and I was four, I aimed a rock at her head and surprised myself by hitting her dead on. My satisfaction wilted within minutes. It was my first experience of guilt, and to this day, I can see her lying there in bed with a cold pack inches from her Bambi eyes.

I continued to resent and ignore her until I was about thirteen when I realized that not only was she very sweet and loved me, she was wise and hilarious. As we got older, we got closer and looked more alike. We became the sworn keepers of each other’s secrets, protecting our nervous mother from my pack-a-day habit and her relationship with an older man.

Sometimes our similarity almost got us into trouble. When I was nineteen, I went out with an acquaintance of hers who called me “Karren” all night long, but I was too embarrassed to correct him as he introduced me to his sophisticated friends. He was mad when he finally figured it out. Another time, Peter and I had been on just a few dates before he went on vacation; when he returned, Karren was standing at the top of the steps of our walkup apartment. Pete loves recalling how he saw the red-lipsticked smile and dark hair and thought it was me—but eerily different. He was ready to go with it until I stepped onto the landing beside her. “Hi!” we said, doppelgangers in stereo.

For the next two decades Karren and I moved in lockstep through life, sometimes criss-crossing and sometimes following the same paths, reflections of the other in an imperfect mirror. Karren moved to New York City after college, and I did too. She led me to my first writing job in advertising, and I led Karren to hers. I introduced her to her husband and to yoga. We lived together in a sky-lit Chelsea apartment where we threw great dance parties. More importantly, Karren and I had a strong spiritual curiosity that drew us beyond our Jewish background. Over the years, she inquired into Kabbalah and Kundalini yoga. I was suddenly the tag-along.


Throughout the yearlong ordeal of trying to diagnose and treat my brain tumor, Karren kept her promise. She saw me through seven spinal taps and countless CT scans, brain scans, and MRIs. She was by my side during day-long infusions and anxious waits for lab results. Once, in a panic, I felt my eyes swimming in my head: the dizziness that forewarned of a seizure. Karren held my face in her hands and said, “Look at me, and breathe.” I stared into her sweet brown eyes and followed the slow count of her breathing, inhale and exhale, until I felt that her air was mine and, sufficiently infused, relaxed.

When the panic attacks recurred, I visualized her eyes, tuned my voice and breath to her frequency to guide me back to balance.

In Dr. Matt Damon’s waiting room while Karren was inside, I couldn’t believe how nervous I felt. Praying she would be okay gave me a sense of how she’d felt all of those months when my fate was in question. After it was over the doctor admitted, laughing, that he still wasn’t sure who had which appointment. It didn’t matter. The doctor read the results, giving us both a clean bill of health.

As we went our separate ways, Karren said goodbye one more time and I heard my own voice echoing back, leaving a doctor’s office with one less worry. I realized that I turned to Karren to connect with an essential part of myself that went deeper than illness. Hearing her voice, so similar to my own, had nourished my vitality. She helped keep my brain scan serenely unlit.


MARIETTA BRILL lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and teenaged son. She writes poetry, essays, and articles about books, art, health, food, and parenting. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, The Brooklyn Rail,, Parenting Magazine, and The Daily Forward. She blogs about cooking at

A Letter from the Ed.

Hey everyone,

I’m switching things up a little. I’ve been hearing that three essays a week is too much for even the most ardent readers to keep up with, and I have to say I understand why. FGP isn’t a website where you’re all, Ha! That guy’s phone autocorrected his text to his mother to say something completely disgusting! or, Whoa, it turns outs that by taking this quiz, I have revealed myself to be a carburetor!

The FGP writers offer up some really terrific stuff, the kind of essays that require a little space to devour and sink in. I’m not being a drama queen here. It’s a fact, Jack.

So, I’m going to start publishing twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The essays will be up at noon, EST, because I know I get a little overwhelmed by my inbox and social media feeds first thing in the morning.

If you haven’t signed up for the notifications from me, you can, over there in the upper right. And if your primary way to find out about new essays is via Facebook, a tip: Go to the Full Grown People page, find the “Liked” button and hold it. It’ll bring down a menu, and if you click “Get Notifications,” you will get notifications. (Otherwise, it may or may not show up in your feed.)

Thank you so much for reading!




young tree woman
By Gina Kelly

By Jon Magidsohn

Late on Boxing Day, well after dark, I scanned the collection of tools I’d stowed in my backpack to see if I was prepared for my mission: garden spade, claw hammer, flat-head screwdriver, keyhole saw, chisel, anything I thought might help whittle away at the hard soil. If I’d owned an ice-pick, I’m sure I would have packed one. I went upstairs and changed my clothes, convinced my outfit should be head-to-toe black like in the movies. I couldn’t be sure if what I was about to do was illegal, immoral, or simply frowned upon. Still, I thought I should try to blend into the shadows, if only for discretion. I grabbed Sue’s canister from the dresser and carried it downstairs. I put on my black wool coat, threw the backpack full of tools over my shoulder, and quietly went out the back door. I tossed the backpack into the front seat of the car and then carefully strapped the canister into the baby seat in the back. Should I encounter a sudden jolt during the ride, I didn’t want ashes embedded forever in the loosely-woven Toyota upholstery.

Down at the Toronto Beaches, I parked the car on Lee Avenue halfway between our old apartment and the new tree, planted two months before. The tree stood as the closest thing to a gravestone Sue would ever have. I shut off the engine and sat in the dark stillness of the night. All I could hear were the sleepy Lake Ontario waves treading up to the shore and my breath in the icy December air. I unfastened Sue from the car seat, pulled out my backpack, and closed the car door. I walked with purpose toward the lake, cradling the container in my left arm, until I reached the young sugar maple, proud and lustrous under the nearby streetlamp.

Standing on the boardwalk in front of the tree, I momentarily considered changing my mind. The wall of frozen mist suspended over the shore bore down on me. I looked east into the wind and then west toward the lights of downtown to see if any people were out for a late walk. The coast was clear.

I knelt at the tree, placed the canister on the ground, and removed the small spade from my backpack. One last look around before I plunged the spade into the dirt about eight inches from the tree trunk. The ground was harder than I’d expected; the spade barely made a dent, just a tink, tink sound like metal on stone. I reached for the hammer instead and tried loosening the dense earth with the claw end. This proved to be more effective. I scooped out the free soil with my other hand. Clawing and scooping like this for two minutes—I went down maybe four inches—my heart pounded like I was panning for gold. Then I heard voices. I stood up and saw two people and a dog heading my way from the west. I quickly covered the partially dug hole with my backpack and took my cell phone out of my coat pocket. Pacing slowly in front of the tree, I pretended to be just another late-night stroller having a private conversation.

“Yes … Uh-huh … No, no, everything’s fine …,” I said as the people drew even with me, their dog obediently heeling. “I’ll be home soon … I just have one more thing to do.”

The interlopers passed by, and I was left to resume my campaign of digging. But I began to doubt my fortitude. The hole in the ground looked like more of a grave than I’d originally considered. Graves are final; irrevocable. Within them, I imagined, people disintegrate. They disappear forever.

I picked up the hammer again and switched to auto-pilot. Claw. Scoop. Claw. Scoop. I worked quickly, nervously. The ground still resisted like frozen rubber, but I persisted. I had nearly reached what I thought was an acceptable depth when I heard the voices of more people coming down the boardwalk. Backpack over the hole, I stood up and resumed my pantomime with the cell phone.

“Hi, it’s me,” I said. And suddenly Sue was listening on the other end of the phone. “I’m here now, sweetie. I’m at the tree right now … Can you help me?”

She was sitting comfortably in a quiet, warm, white, dare-I-say “heavenly” place, cordless phone in her hand, listening peacefully to my supplication. She wasn’t smiling as I typically pictured her, but rather she had that serious, stern look she’d get when she was fixed on something critical; something she wasn’t quite sure how to manage.

“I need you to steady my hands or whatever it is I need steadying.” I wasn’t sure what I meant by that. I’d never relied on Sue for physical guidance. “We can do this together. Can’t we? You and me forever … And after we do this, I might be able to move forward, little by little.” This was more of a question than a prediction. I had no idea how I’d get on from here.

The people passed by, completely ignoring me. I wiped my eyes and looked at the container of ashes sitting at the foot of the tree. Sue told me to keep talking.

“There’s so much I want to tell you,” I said. “But I’m not sure how. All of my memories are changing colour. When you died, so did the future I thought I’d been promised. Without you things are … blurry.”

I looked toward the lake, the frothy white waves fading to distant black. The cold night burrowed into me under my wool coat, but I’d stopped noticing. I thought of the road trip I’d taken with my ten-month-old son the summer before. We’d left Toronto three months after Sue died and criss-crossed North America for six weeks on our adventure of healing, an expedition meant to kick-start my new life as a widower and single father. Being alone with my son and my thoughts brought clarity after the claustrophobic home-grief and it secured a bond between father and son. It also brought to light some alarming revelations that I wished I’d been able to share with Sue. I wondered if I should confess.

“Everything I’ve discovered since you left is pulling me in a different direction,” I said. “I could have spent the rest of my life with you … and that would have been fantastic … but, you know, we might not have made it. We weren’t perfect. But I’ve accepted that … Because that was us.”

That was us: imperfectly in love.

“I know you loved me. But … we got it wrong a lot of the time.” I swallowed and took a cleansing breath. “If you hadn’t died … we may still have ended up apart.”

Until then I’d kept my epiphanies to myself, but telling her how I felt was proof that I was moving on; the thick, aching emptiness was starting to lift. If Sue had really been there, she may have protested as she usually did, but I was in control of this one. I looked up the road toward the building we lived in a lifetime ago; before we moved away so Sue could chase down her journalism career, before parenthood, before cancer. Eight months earlier as Sue lay in that hospital bed, I’d said goodbye to her and felt the relief of seeing her out of pain. But now my own pain was lifting without aid, without wondering what she’d think.

“The more I think about it,” I said, “the more I believe you would have found some reason to leave me … and I wouldn’t have had the strength to fight you.”

I still loved her but I hated the memories that had recently become clear. I’d awoken that morning knowing I’d been holding onto the past for fear of the future. And if this telephone conversation was any confirmation, Sue was giving me her consent to let go. But I didn’t want to hang up the phone.

“Whatever happens to me from now on, good or bad, it will be because of you. You got me here … and without you, I’ll go in some other direction; some other path than the one you and I would have travelled.”

Instead of dreading a future without Sue, I realized, I could choose to welcome the opportunities that came my way because of her absence. Some good things could still happen to me. I was thirty-five years old; I still had a lot of life left. Accepting the possibility of a good future wouldn’t mean I’d forgotten the life I’d had with Sue. The good wouldn’t negate the bad. They would simply be the two sides of one life.

“I have to do this now … It’s time.”

Maybe this is what Sue meant by life after death. I might have taken her too literally when she spoke of her beliefs. Because I knew she would always live within me. My life evolved with her. Before she came along I was an immature, lazy, idealist looking for a mate. Sue gave me perspective, energy, wisdom and love. She forced me to grow up. She gave me a son. She’d live in him and the person I would become.

I moved over to the hole completely oblivious to whether or not people were walking by. The cold beach had grown peaceful, composed. I could no longer hear the whispering waves.

‘This tree will be here forever and so will you.’

I knelt at the hole, the cell phone still at my ear with Sue breathing on the other end. “Okay, I’m going to hang up now … Here I go … “

The calm of night wrapped me in its dark cloak. I looked down at the shadowy hollow I’d mined, pausing in a moment of pseudo-prayer. I can do this. Everything’s going to be all right.

“I love you … Sweet dreams … Bye.”

I put the phone in my coat pocket, removed the lid from the container and lifted out the clear plastic bag holding the ashes. I’d never taken it out before. The volume seemed curiously low and it weighed less than I’d imagined. A bag of sand the same size would have weighed more. I wondered if all of Sue was in there. My cold hands shook as I fumbled with the knot in the plastic bag. For fear of lingering too long, I tore the bag open and tipped it toward the hole in one motion. The little bits of black, grey and white filled it up like water flowing into a bowl. In the heavy, frozen air no residual ash dust came off the empty bag. She was all out. Without pausing, I put the bag into the container that once held Sue and then ladled the cold dirt back over the ashes with my hands. I stood up and packed it down with my feet, firmly enough to level the soil but not so firm as to feel like I was stomping on her. I surveyed the area, making sure it didn’t look like someone had just buried his wife in the roots of the tree named after her.

But it wasn’t Sue I buried that night. What filled that icy hole was a piece of the past I no longer clung to. Not ignored, just set aside. A past, I’d figured out, that could stay in the past without fear of it extinguishing my future. Eight months of grieving, sadness, hard work, confusion, personal challenges, epiphanies, and loneliness were buried. The tree that sprouted from that struggle stood as a marker in time, resting between what was and what will be.

I packed up my tools and walked back to the car. The icy air filled my lungs and cleared my head. I breathed easier than I had been an hour earlier. Before I stepped onto the sidewalk, I passed a Department of Parks regulation garbage can. The generic canister that Sue had rested in for the past several months had no more symbolic meaning than the lamppost the garbage can was chained to. Sue had always been worth more than what housed her. What had true meaning had been left at the roots of the sugar maple next to the boardwalk. The cheap ceramic container landed at the bottom of the garbage can with a thud.


JON MAGIDSOHN is originally from Toronto, Canada. He has written about fatherhood for, the Good Men Project, Today’s Parent, and Mummy and Me magazines. He’s also been featured in Mojave River Review, Chicago Literati, What’s Your Story?-Memoir Anthology (Lifetales) and currently publishes three blogs. He moved to London, UK, in 2005 where he received an MA in Creative Non-Fiction from City University. Jon, his wife, Deborah, and their son, Myles, are now in Bangalore, India, where Jon writes full time.

No Cars on the Road

boy on floor
By Gina Kelly

By Nicole Matos

My three-year old son and I are on the floor. Bless his occupational therapist, but her daily home-based tasks are killing us. I place blocks in a line and run a car over this road. “No!” Alex charges between me and the blocks and tries to rip the cars from my hands. “No! You don’t! I tell you!”

“Well, you can play your way”—I point to his pile of blocks—“But I will play this way. We can play differently.”

You and I are different, we are different people. His therapist (the “feelings” one, not Speech or OT) pushes me to say this, after I have explained the hairdryer battles, the sign-he-saw-that-I-didn’t-see, his new insistence that I have a penis, although he was fine before with me and my vagina for babies to be born out of. Babies like Alex? Did it hurt? Did we do it in a hospital?

But now his fears and his tantrums have settled around the truth that he and I do not always match. Over and over he tells me that I have a penis—I TOLD YOU, I TOLD YOU, as if his insisting on it will make it so. When I try, “We are different,” he goes crazy: “No! Not different! Not different! No! Please!” I reassure him that I love him, nothing is changing, we are already different, we are, after all—a bizarre sort of Platonic evidence I pull out of my ass—not always in the same place at the same time.

But the cars: “Alex will accept adult variations in his play.” He seems to know that this is an object lesson, a battle of reality paradigms, a showdown. “No! No! I’m so mad at you! I want to poke you in the eye [and does], I want to hit you [and does]!” And I hate my whole life. I hate every imaginary parent who has ever played cars with their imaginary child. I hate all my other imaginary children: those twenty eggs I saw on the ultrasound that month he was conceived. Nineteen other possible Alexes, but none of them here to help us, now.

Why? Why? Why no cars allowed on the road? And yet, the next day—“I want to play cars, Mommy”—he lines up the blocks, runs the car over the top, and eyes me carefully. “This car needs to wait his turn. Uh-oh! We can solve the problem! Look, relax and solve the problem!” Trying again. Showing me. So, what can we do to get second-day Alex on the first day? How do we beat down first-day Alex so second-day Alex can live, live, live?

If I had another child in my house, a child that picked up the car and ran it on the road, easily, heedless, I would backhand that child. I would sink my teeth into his shoulder and suck.

I tell my husband that, in my secret evil angry head, I call the therapy programs that are saving our lives—saving our son, by line items and inches—the Ghetto Where What You Wished Wouldn’t Happen Happened. That when I see the words “Special Needs” (especially if they are surrounded by rainbows or smiley faces), I think they should be renamed “Outrageous Needs.” That is how I think of Alex’s needs, on those days when he is just a bleat of screeching irrational anxiety—“Give me my blanket! No blanket! Take off my sock! No sock! [Hits me.] Mommy, I’m sorry! Mommy don’t go!” Outrageous needs!

And, I tell my husband, I am scared I have a worn spot in my mothering now that just won’t go away—a worn out, sagging, trampoline spot that other parents have time to patch up because it isn’t so often used, so outrageously. And it is holding—it has to hold, I have to make it hold. But what if it breaks? What if my love somehow leaks out?

The next day there is third-day Alex—not struggling, not overcompensating for having struggled, but just himself, total, complete. We have a great time at the park. We ride the swings and the slide and play pretend in the way that feels safest to him, in exaggerated fake voices, with the reminding anchor, “This is just pretend” sprinkled throughout. An old woman gives him a huge lollipop, spontaneously, and I let him take it, not thinking how close it is to Speech.

I spend the ride setting it up: “We will need to say goodbye to the lollipop, for Speech, but I promise it will be in the car when you get back.” And he does it voluntarily, giving it up, even waving the lollipop bye bye. But then he can’t hold it together. He lies down on the sidewalk, telling me with his body, I am overcome. He doesn’t want me to hold him, but I say I love him, touch his hand, and we count to ten and to ten again, calming.

After Speech, his therapist says, “He actually did great today—he used a big word, ‘promised’!” We look at each other, my son and I, co-conspirators.

Back at the car, the lollipop is waiting, and I grind it in for next time, the prophecy I’m determined, through all my human resentment and selfishness, to make true. “If Mommy promises, I will only promise when it is true. I will only promise if I am certain.”

And he says, sincerely, “Thank you mommy Alex promise.”


NICOLE MATOS is a Chicago-based writer, professor, roller derby girl, and special needs mom. Her work has appeared in such publications as Salon, The Classical, The Rumpus, theNewerYork, The Atticus Review, Monkeybicycle, THE2NDHAND txt, berfrois, Chicago Literati, and many others. Follow her on Twitter at @nicole_matos2.