The Hard Alphabet

alphabet beads
By poobesh a.k.a ECTOTHERMS lakshman/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

Of course I know better, but after sitting in the car for five minutes, I hit the horn. We’re ready. The pies I got up at six that morning to bake are ready. Frances’s change of clothing for the night is ready. Even the dog is ready, sitting expectantly in his crate in the back of our station wagon.

“Where’s Daddy?” Frances asks from her car seat.

“Daddy’s coming,” I say, which is true, he is. Eventually. Getting myself anywhere on time is challenging enough; getting our whole family anywhere on time is a triumph, and I almost pulled it off, at the cost of great anxiety and strategizing.

And now he’s ruining it. He’s in there brushing lint off his sweater or giving the sink one last wipe with the sponge or re-checking to see if we turned the heat off.

So I honk the horn, and it’s not a cute little hey there, the light is green! tap. It’s a get a move on already, asshole blare. Joe finally emerges from the house thirty seconds later, shaking his head, his mood as foul as mine. We will, once again, be late.


I have ADD. My husband has OCD, and our daughter has ADHD. The difference between what she has and what I have is the H. It stands for “hyperactivity.” I’m excitable, but I’m not hyperactive. Some goes for our dog, who’s half border collie and half Jack Russell terrier. If you know about dog breeds, you understand that Scooter is a furry summary of our family dynamics. The collective metabolism of our household is off the charts.

Of course we didn’t get a dopey, mellow lab. Of course our dog is a mix of the two most intense, high-strung breeds. Of course Scooter sheds his silky-soft white coat prodigiously, and my husband descends upon those million stray hairs with a sense of purpose only matched by Scooter’s determination to attack the vacuum cleaner. Joe vacuums a lot, sometimes when the carpet marks from my previous vacuuming are still fresh. Many Scooter bites scar the vacuum’s plastic exterior.

An OCD-ADD union is the bleach and ammonia of marriages. We were in our twenties—what can I say? Existing was easy back then, and the pleasurable things that pushed our ugly acronyms into the margins of our consciousnesses were readily accessible. The list of what makes us compatible is long, delicious. And, on the other side of the column, there are those harsh capital letters, scrawled in black permanent marker. The delicate balance between the columns teeters, at best. We aim for teetering.


For years, when I talked about my ADD, I described it as “the girl kind, where you’re dreamy and spacey.” But I stopped talking about it, because saying, “I have ADD” is like saying, “I have lungs” or “I often eat a few more potato chips than I originally set out to eat.” These things are fairly universal. Who doesn’t have ADD? So I concluded that its frequency neutered its power. All of the goals that I failed to achieve had nothing to do with that pesky nuisance. Obviously, I failed because I sucked.

Even the things I liked in school—English, art—I had to do my own way, or they didn’t get done. Filling out my math workbook in first grade, I always drew a Smurf next to each problem. The Smurfs would be polishing the subtraction figures or writing the answer in under the horizontal equals bar. Every Smurf had to be distinct. This, to me, was clearly the most important aspect of our math assignment.

Another boy in my class had ADD, but the kind with the H. His name was Ben. When seated, he created facsimiles of Transformers by sloppily cutting and folding pulpy blue- and red-lined writing tablet paper. Many of the things we covered in class are now a blur, but I clearly remember our teachers’ frustrations with Ben, the minutes dedicated during lessons asking him to stay in his seat, telling him to raise his hand before speaking. Every morning Ben’s mother sealed one of his pills in a white envelope, decorated the outside with a Snoopy sticker, and tucked it in his lunch box. One day, when our class organized our desks, about a dozen unopened envelopes tumbled from the chaos of crumpled worksheets and paper Transformers in Ben’s desk.

I didn’t have white envelopes with Snoopy stickers. My teachers expressed their concern to my mother during parent-teacher conferences, and sometimes in painfully earnest heart-to-heart talks with me. These talks invariably included the phrases “not meeting potential” and “so very smart.” This was back in the 1980s, before the rise of individualized education programs for kids with tricky learning needs. The adults in my life tried their best to reach out to me with the one tool they had: their hearts. It was not enough.

It wasn’t until high school, when it became impossible for me to coast by academically, that my mother got me diagnosed. We drove to a specialist about an hour away. He asked me to write out the alphabet in cursive and in printing, and then repeat a series of numbers after him. “Do you ever reach out and grab something without thinking about it?” he asked, and I gave him a frigid teenage fuck you look. What did he think I was, a toddler?

After the appointment, my mother took me to the bead store, a safe zone. I often stayed up late into the night making my own intricate clay beads in those days. It’s too bad the SAT didn’t have a bead-making section.

We did no follow-up. I didn’t want to take drugs; I was afraid they’d irrevocably change something fundamental about me, like a lobotomy.

There was no talk from anyone—my teachers, my parents, that worthless excuse of a specialist—about modifying my study habits, or about creating study habits, period. I dropped out of college, twice. I quit my first desk job—staff writer at an alt-weekly, a coveted gig for a twenty-something with no college degree—after a year and a half. ADD people do not handle deadlines well. They take on disproportionately epic importance until the scope of the deadline eclipses the project itself.

Another thing I did was work at libraries. Four of them, over the years. This I excelled at. I spent the majority of my time shelving books. There was no question about where things went. The alphabet is always the alphabet; the Dewey Decimal System is always the Dewey Decimal System. Pick up a book, look it its spine label, slide it between two other books in its appropriate place on the shelf.

At home, piles upon piles of sadly abandoned projects littered my office. The unfinished novel, the stalled book proposal, the unsent query letter. I had no idea where to begin making sense of it all. There it was, the demon phrase: “Not meeting her potential.”

Pick up a book, look at its spine, slide it on the shelf. Numbers and letters. The alphabet. P-Q-R. J-K-L. I can say it backwards in a heartbeat. It was my religion, the rosary I fingered for strength.

Five years ago, I got a prescription for generic Ritalin, hoping it to usher in a sunny new era of productivity. It’s helpful to some, but, alas, not to me. I still have the very same bottle, with maybe a dozen pills left. One day I decided to give them another chance, and I took two instead of one. The resulting freak-out was like a tweaker’s version of a bad acid trip. I drew a skull and crossbones on the bottle and hid it in the very back of the medicine cabinet. Back to the drawing board.


Frances is not diagnosed, not officially. But when I see her do things, I see me. Her brain works faster than her body does. She hits, she grabs, she utters hurtful phrases. Her latest is “poopy mama.” This is when I tell her she can’t do something or have something. She wants everything all of the time, and she does everything all of the time.

This is very ADD. It’s one of the things I like about it, and it’s why Attention Deficit Disorder is poorly named. Actually, we have a surfeit of attention. The world is so full of awesome ideas! They surge through your brain like electric joyrods! Every morning, you wake up and taste the magical possibilities of the day! A hundred of them! And which one to pick? And how can all of those magical possibilities be realized in twenty-four measly hours, because they absolutely cannot wait? And oh shit, the day is already half over, because managing those electric joyrods takes an incredible amount of energy, and it turns out you will bring none of those possibilities to fruition before the sun sets. Depression sets in. Time to go home. The day is a wash. (Difficulty prioritizing. Having totally unrealistic expectations. Not handling failure well.)

Frances isn’t there yet. Her days are filled with free play and a fairly flexible structure. She usually enjoys preschool and has only had one biting incident. The school follows what is called “The Creative Curriculum.” It’s child-led, a good fit for her. My inimitable girl is a square peg. You can count on an ADD person to run black or white. We love things or hate them; we are enthusiastic or despondent; we bellow or sit silently. The world at large requires a lot of functionality in the sloggy grey middle. When we try to hit those notes, we’re out of tune. I fear that once she heads off to the round-hole obligations of standardized tests and lots of sitting still, we may be screwed.

Until then, I spy on her when I arrive to pick her up. I file away her loud voice and her bossiness and her quickness to respond to a classmate with anger. I file away her laser-like focus when she sits on a cushion by herself in the reading area, surrounded by willy-nilly stacks of books. I file away the ten minutes of cajoling and reminding it can take to get her to do something simple, like hang up her jacket or put away blocks. In the morning, when she gets dressed, she will have one leg in one underwear hole, see a My Little Pony on the floor, and then grab it and play for fifteen minutes, half-naked, half-underweared. The agenda she follows is hers and hers only. Just like her poopy mama.


I have the advantage of insight with Frances. Joe does not. And we, mother and daughter, are so immersed in the rapid flow of thoughts coursing through our own brains that we can’t be bothered to consider the military dictatorship occupying his. But our domesticity has idyllic periods. We take walks together, we read picture books, we giggle at family jokes. We sit down to a home-cooked meal every night.

And that’s usually where it falls apart. Frances is the wildest eater in the four-year-old kingdom. She can render a peanut butter sandwich into a three-foot radius of crumbs and greasy fingerprints in about thirty seconds. And she never just sits at the table; she squirms, flops, slides out of her chair, a dynamic smear of motion. Joe’s watchful eyes zoom in as if a massacre were in progress. “Frances!” he’ll chide. “Don’t do that!” Then, to me: “Can’t you see the mess she’s making? Why aren’t you stopping her?”

I don’t stop her because I’m totally engrossed in the cookbook that I brought out to occupy myself while waiting for Joe to come to his perfectly executed meal. “Risotto waits for no one,” the Italians say. I have no idea what on earth Joe does in those lost minutes it takes him to get his ass to the dining room, where his plate of pasta or curry or—god forbid—risotto sits impatiently, its freshness plummeting. I know what Frances does, though. She digs in without him. For a while I made her wait, but no longer. Why should she? She got to the table on time, and Frances showing up anywhere when she’s asked to is a giant deal.

After dinner, we clean up. I try to do most of it, because if Joe takes on the clean-up, he’s sucked into a black hole of feverish wiping and sweeping and wiping. The kitchen sink is his trigger area. He’ll walk by and grab the sponge and dab at a non-existent drop of water, and then do it again, and then again.

“I already got that,” I’ll say.

“There’s still stuff here, I can see it,” he’ll say.

“Just put down the sponge and do something else,” I say. “I told you, I already got it.” This is an affront to me, to the miracle of me being tidy and conscientious instead of sloppy and careless. It is an affront to me swimming with all my might against the mighty current of my own nature.

And he goes on, wipe wipe. Dab dab. Oh, the sex we have not had because of a fucking sponge.

I do not shelve the cookbook.


Joe has pretty awesome ways of coping. He makes colorful art using exactingly spaced rays of narrow drafting tape. Patterns. Repeating. He plays the drums. Patterns. Repeating. Like me, he eschews drugs. He says the ones he’s taken, Paxil and something else, made him feel at a creepy removal from everything going on around him. Joe’s OCD isn’t just with physical actions. It’s about thoughts, repeating. It’s dark in ways that I can’t penetrate. He grabs his skateboard and grinds his favorite manual curb over and over again. That’s on the weekend. On weekdays, there’s always the sponge and the counter.

At home, our alphabet is in ribbons. There’s no A-B-C-D, like my divine library days. It’s got extra letters in some spots, and it’s missing other ones entirely, and it’s not even in the right order. It goes ADD-OCD-ADHD.

You might have your own alphabet, too. It could go OMG-MS or PTSD-FUBAR. Your hard alphabet is its own unique code, like DNA, even if its letters happen to match my hard alphabet exactly.

You can go looking for people to cut you slack, and maybe they will, a little, but the alphabet will still be there. You can tell yourself that you’ll triumph over it, but you’ll be wrong. A hard alphabet has no eraser. The only thing you can do is cope. All the people telling me to not eat gluten, or that Ritalin will fix me, or that my disorder is totally imagined? Go answer that knock at your door. I sent you a present. It’s an otherwise sane man with a vacuum and his cute little dog. They’ll be spending the night. Have fun.

Sometimes I meet people and spot the ADD in them. It’s like Gaydar or Jewdar. Hmm, I think. Does she? I find myself wanting to embrace that person, tell her I get it, that I’m part of her tribe. But my non-ADD self prevails; I buckle down that thought and keep it from wiggling out of my mouth. Just knowing it’s real is enough to keep me going. I grab the hand of the invisible, impulsive companion in my brain and look it in the face. We have to walk through life together, grapple for some kind of sync. We will cut the OCD and the ADD some slack. We will not honk the horn. We will have an awesome Thanksgiving, Scooter and pies and everything, even if we are half an hour late. And we will own our hard alphabet, backwards and forwards.


SARA BIR meets professional deadlines and is occasionally late for personal appointments. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The Oregoninan, The North Bay Bohemian, and on The Huffington Post; she’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Sara writes about food and develops recipes in her southeast Ohio home. Her website is

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By Gina Kelly

By Susan Rebecca White
(not pictured above)

Back when I was still shell-shocked from having separated from my husband of nearly seven years, when we still had a massive amount of financial untangling to do before we could truly own our own lives, when I was still kept awake at night by waves of panic about not having enough money to support myself, a friend told me, rather matter-of-factly, that I had a pile of shit in front of me that I had to eat. Not only that, but all I could use to do so was a tiny spoon. The good news, she said, was that one day I would reach the end of the pile, and then much lovelier things would be placed before me.

Her prediction turned out to be correct. I met Sam just as my divorce finalized. I like to say that he was my prize at the end of all of that shit, like the toy buried at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks—except of course, that’s not fair to the Cracker Jacks or to Sam.

When Sam and I first started dating, I was subletting a small carriage house in my native Atlanta. The carriage house was built in the 1920s, had hardwood floors and French doors, and the walls were painted a cheerful yellow. Sam lived about a mile away, and since we both worked from home, sometimes I would fix pimento cheese sandwiches and invite him over for lunch. He would bring sweet tea. After we ate, we would take a walk around the neighborhood before we both returned to the more practical details of our day. One sunny spring afternoon, after our walk, Sam and I tumbled into bed—work be damned.

We were thirty-six and forty-one years old, and we were in bed together on a Wednesday afternoon, sunlight streaming through the blinds and making stripes on the quilt. It was hard not to feel as if we were getting away with something. This was not what most of my friends—in the middle of marriages, careers, and parenthood—were doing. Yet Sam and I were not cheating on anyone, were not making up excuses to our bosses, were not neglecting our children. Both divorced without kids—his divorce more graceful than mine—we had each eaten our fair share of shit to get to where we were, in the giddy stages of early love. It was heaven.

After dating for nearly a year, Sam and I took a trip to Panama, snorkeled over undulating jellyfish, kayaked in the middle of the blue, blue ocean, gripped each other’s hand as our cab driver weaved recklessly in and out of Panama City traffic. Back in Atlanta we celebrated our one-year anniversary by having spaetzle at the same Alsatian restaurant where we had our first date, and it was there that Sam proposed.

By the time we married in a tiny ceremony in our home with a homemade cake and a bouquet picked from my friend’s garden, I was thirty-seven, Sam forty-two, and we wanted to have a child. Given our ages and our level of commitment to each other, it was tempting to start trying on our honeymoon, but I had a novel coming out the next month, and a tour to go on, and I didn’t want to be distracted by the “am I/ am I not” game one inevitably plays while trying to conceive. And so Sam and I waited until my book tour was over in July. At the end of that same month, seven days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and was rewarded with a faint blue plus sign.

I felt incredulous that this—pregnancy—was happening to me. I had always felt on the outside of things, a consummate observer. For a long time, this was my preferred mode of being—it gave me an illusion of control that I desperately needed. Agonizing over choices was infinitely preferable to actually making them. Which is why I spent much of my first marriage trying to figure out whether or not to have a child. It was far easier to wrestle with that question than to face the truth of my situation: that I was in a marriage that no amount of therapy would fix, and that I had willingly put myself into this untenable position in order to avoid fully committing to life, with all of its vulnerabilities and uncertainties.

I am now nearly nine months pregnant, my belly big and tight, my energy low, my body taking on a life of its own, and subsequently doing all sorts of embarrassing things. When I sneeze, I pee! When I walk ten feet, I get winded! If I don’t eat a bowl of prunes every morning, I’m constipated! Despite the all too earthy side effects, I love being pregnant, love that I get to experience the bizarre and amazing process of reproduction. I love feeling our son roll and kick inside me. The sheer physicality of the late stages of pregnancy makes what began as something abstract (revealed only by mild nausea and a plus sign on a pee stick) into something much more real. And the realness of the pregnancy has brought me closer to the astounding prospect that we will soon have an infant to care for. That once I deliver the baby he will be in our charge, and I will somehow learn to breastfeed, and get by on little sleep, and grow more patient as small tasks become mighty endeavors.  Soon there will be a human manifestation of our love—living, crying, and pooping among us—and we will love him in a way we have never loved before and will consequently be more vulnerable than ever.

Still, I am not yet a mother. I am intellectually aware that a mighty and miraculous wrecking ball is about to smash up the life we know, but I do not understand this on an emotional level. How could I before our son arrives? And so I find myself suspended between the life I knew and the life I am entering, much as I was when I boarded the airplane that took me away from my first husband and our home together and into a future yet known.

This means I am acutely aware of what I am losing: right now Sam and I are still a two-person unit with a host of inside jokes and allusions. We are newlyweds and we are playful. Hopefully we will remain playful as parents, but there is a weight that will come with our new responsibility that we cannot ignore. Post-baby, we probably won’t spend many Sunday afternoons playing Ping-Pong at the local sandwich place. Most likely I won’t cook as elaborately as I do now. Cheese soufflé will no longer be on the rotating menu, nor will I make homemade soda syrups and granola bars. We will have to watch ourselves and not act horribly toward one another when sleep-deprived and overwhelmed with the stresses of new parenthood. Chances are, we will not always succeed at doing so, and our own warts and shortcomings will be more fully revealed.

We are trading one reality for a more intense, harder one—one that for us will be richer, and deeper as well—and we are both ready and excited for the change. And yet the other day, I found myself weeping over what we are losing, our sweet courtship of pimento cheese sandwiches and afternoons in bed. I found this unsettling: it felt like my old, non-committal self coming back into play, the woman terrified of getting herself into something she couldn’t get out of. My tears also felt disloyal toward my unborn son, whom I already love with a startling ferocity. But then I tried to be gentle with myself, the way a mother might be, to allow myself to be sad about the ending of this time when we know each other only as a couple, this time of burgeoning love among people who are not new to life, who weathered some hard things before meeting (and who will surely continue to weather hard things as life goes on). I imagine that twenty years from now, I will think of our early, heady days as a couple with sweet nostalgia. And probably also with a touch of condescension, as in: We thought we were close back then, but look at what we’ve been through now, look at how the roots of our lives have entwined.

It seems that in life there is no gain that comes without loss. Surely one day I will think back on our son’s infanthood with nostalgia, as well as his days as a young child, a boy, and then a young man. To live fully is to commit to things we are terrified to lose, all while knowing loss will come. It occurs to me that life is a series of deaths we must endure, and even somehow embrace, in order to let new life in. Maybe the same is true of our corporeal death, when our bodies will grow cold and lifeless. Maybe instead of fearing that day, I will try to take comfort in the model life has presented so far: New life sprouts in the spaces made by the losses we learn to endure.


SUSAN REBECCA WHITE is the author of three novels: A Place at the Table, A Soft Place to Land, and Bound South. A Place at the Table was recently released in paperback. It is a Target “club pick” and a finalist for the Townsend Prize, Georgia’s oldest literary award. White has also published several essays in places such as Salon, Tin House, The Huffington Post and The Bitter Southerner. She lives in Atlanta with her husband Sam Reid and their (very) soon-to-be-born son.

Animal House

dog curtain
By Gina Kelly

By Jody Mace

It’s been a couple months since my dogs started wearing diapers.

So far just a few people know, mainly the people who have visited my house since the diaper regime began. I’m guilty of the worst kind of Facebook hypocrisy. When I post pictures of my dogs (and I do it a lot), I employ angles that hide their diapers. It’s kind of like that studied angle that many women use for their selfies—the camera slightly elevated from the face so that the face is looking up. It’s more flattering, but everyone knows what they’re up to.

Before one friend came over, I texted her, “I should tell you, we’re making both dogs wear diapers now. You will know soon enough.”

I didn’t want things to be awkward for her. There’s not a polite way to ask about dogs wearing diapers and I feared that the silence would feel weighty.

My dogs aren’t wearing diapers because they have a medical problem or because they’re old. It’s because they are acting like jerks.

My first dog, Shaggy, is an elegant little creature. He’s a schnoodle, a schnauzer/poodle mix, and sometimes I think he’s not really even a dog. He’s got this meaningful way of looking into your eyes as he tries to speak English. He can say “hello” and “I love you.” My husband, who is not as skilled at listening as I am, disputes this, but trust me.

Our second dog, Harlow, is not a specific breed exactly. He’s a medium-sized, white hairy dog. Someone found him abandoned in a nature preserve and for reasons I don’t understand, we took him in. He had clearly been neglected in every way for some time. His coat was a matted mess. He wouldn’t take food from people. He didn’t know how to walk up steps. He was distrustful of everyone.

We took him to the vet, got him his shots, and had him neutered. I took him to a behavioral trainer, one that looks beyond commands like “sit” and “stay,” and, instead focuses on building his confidence and decision-making skills. I kept him by my side every waking hour, for months, at first on a leash, until he learned to follow me around, to come when I called. The change was like a miracle. He’s relaxed now, and he bonded with us. He’s got a sweet temperament. He’s almost the perfect dog.

Except he pees everywhere. Everywhere. If we put a bag on the floor, he pees on it. He pees on the furniture, on the walls. Once my husband Stan was lying on a couch downstairs and Harlow parallel parked next to the railing in the upstairs hall and launched a perfectly aimed stream of urine onto Stan’s head.

If I’m going to be totally honest—and at this point, what do I have to lose?—I’ll mention that Harlow has also, on rare occasion, pooped in the house, too. It’s a measure of how troublesome the urine is that I have no particular emotion when I find a pile of poop. It doesn’t happen often and is fairly easily picked up. One time he left a pile that was perfectly formed into the word “HI.” Since it was kind of a miracle, I took a picture of it before cleaning it up and posted it on Facebook. Then I learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who is disgusted by pictures of dog poop, no matter how literary, and the kind that suggests I create a line of greeting cards featuring messages spelled out in dog feces.

We had this idea, before we adopted Harlow, that it would be good for Shaggy to have a dog friend. That if he spent time with a dog and not just us humans, he would learn to be more dog-like. It turns out that he didn’t learn much from Harlow. Except peeing. Our graceful, intelligent, little dog-person was now lifting his leg and peeing on the side of the couch. There really is such a thing as a pissing contest.

We worked more with the trainer. I don’t want to relive it all here, but trust me when I say that we did all the things. All the things. Finally she dropped her voice and said, “You could try belly bands.”

Belly bands are just what they sound like. Cloth bands that wrap around a male dog’s middle, attaching with Velcro. When my kids were babies, I thought it was sort of weird the way some moms went nuts over cloth diapers and cloth diaper covers. I don’t mean in a utilitarian way, but for the aesthetics. When I heard them gush about the cute patterns I thought it was a little pathetic. They’re diapers! They’re just going to be soaked in urine.

Now I get it. I started out utilitarian with the belly bands, buying just a plain white one for Harlow. But it made him look like an old man in tighty whities. Or like Walter White, cooking meth in the desert. So I bought a belly band with a cute peace sign pattern. And another one with stars. And one with tiger stripes. It made it all a little bit less sad.

I’m convinced that they have no idea why they’re wearing diapers. They don’t like them but they’ve come to accept them. When they come inside they wait in a little line for me to put the diapers back on them. If I could have just five minutes during which time they’d really understand English, I would tell them one thing: “Don’t pee inside.” That’s it. I believe that if they really understood that I wanted them to never pee inside again, that they’d make their best effort to avoid doing so. They want to please me. And yet they do the very thing that pleases me the least.

Since we started the diaper regime, our life has gotten better. The dogs don’t have to stay glued to my side. We’re not cleaning the carpets all the time. Speaking of cleaning carpets, now I’d like to share with you the secret of getting dog urine out of carpets. This is a bonus, a takeaway from this essay, if you will. It’s a process that’s very inexpensive but time-consuming.

First you need to find the spots where the dogs have peed. If your carpet is tan like ours is, it may be hard to see the spots after they have dried. That’s why you need a black light. Wait until nighttime, turn off all the lights, and walk around, shining a black light on the carpet. The urine spots will glow. Some other fluids will also make the carpet glow, but that’s your own business and who am I to judge? Once you’ve found the spots, mark them by surrounding them with masking tape. Turn on your lights. Then spray a mixture that is 50/50 white vinegar and water. Soak those spots. Wait for them to dry. If you’ve saturated them sufficiently, this will take a day.

Next spray them with hydrogen peroxide that has just a little bit of dish liquid mixed in. Really lay this stuff to the stains.

When that’s dry (and it will take overnight at least), sprinkle baking soda on and then vacuum it up. This gets out the odor and the black light test will verify that it did the trick.

So compared to that process, diapering a couple of dogs several times a days is not a big deal. Their diapers are almost always dry. The belly bands discourage them from peeing inside because there’s no fun in it. So it could be worse.

But still, I can’t help but consider the complexity we’ve added to our lives. Our kids, at sixteen and nineteen, are old enough to be pretty self-sufficient. I can forget to cook dinner and nobody is going to call child protective services. They can make their own damn macaroni and cheese. Things have gotten simpler for us from the days of busy, demanding toddlers who were hell-bent on electrocuting themselves and breaking all the eggs from the refrigerator. From those days, life has, year by year, gotten simpler. And yet, instead of taking advantage of the simplicity and lack of demands on our time, we did this thing that has made our lives infinitely more complicated.

We brought animals into our house. Sometimes when I think of it, the whole concept of pets seems bizarre. We do all these things to insulate ourselves from the unpredictability of nature and the outside world. We build houses, we seal the doors and windows. We avoid building a house on a flood plain. We install locks on the doors and a security system. We buy homeowners insurance in case there’s an act of nature.

Then once we have this safe, controlled environment, we bring in animals. I believed all along that Shaggy was kind of a person. But people don’t pee on the ottoman. They just don’t. When the whole peeing thing started I’d sometimes look at these dogs and think “My god. They are animals.” They seemed like just one step away from raccoons. Once I hired an expensive pest control expert to lure a raccoon family out of our attic. But we invite the dogs into our house. To live. We say, “Yes, you are a being who likes to chew on a beef bone that’s been buried and left to rot in the ground for a week. But by all means please live in my house, which up until now, has been kept in a fairly sanitary condition. Here, sit up on the couch with me and I’ll scratch behind your ears and possibly kiss the side of your face.”

And they’re unpredictable. When we adopted Harlow, we didn’t consider the possibility that he would be an unrepentant urinator and that he would get Shaggy started too. But it would have been reasonable to assume that he’d do some things that would bring complexity into our lives. Dogs do all kinds of things. They run away. They bite. They bark at the nice couple pushing a stroller down the street as if their baby was the antichrist. They tear up cushions, leaving the cushion carcass surrounded by mountains of fluff.

I think about entropy a lot. I mean, I think about it on a superficial level, the way non-scientists do, because as soon as I start reading words like logarithm and microstate and quantum thermodynamics, I find that I need to quickly click on Youtube and watch a video of a chimpanzee riding a Segway. But the idea of entropy is that systems naturally move from order to disorder. If you put an ice cube into a cup of hot water, the water doesn’t freeze; the ice cube melts. The molecules of the ice cube, which were frozen into a rigid order, are freed to move around as a liquid.

So is there also a sort of entropy at play in our personal relationships? When things become too simple, do we have a tendency to add elements that complicate them? In a sense, any time we take on the responsibility of caring for another being, we’re opening ourselves up to complications that we can’t predict. How do we know that the child we bring into the world won’t have a disability that will require us to reshuffle our lives? Or that the man we marry won’t have a stroke a year later? We don’t.

The issue of nurturing is all mixed up in this idea of personal entropy for me. I took in these dogs and that means I made a promise to take care of them, even if they brought chaos into my life.

I think we have pets because at a very fundamental level we have a need to nurture. And with that nurturing comes all kinds of risks. In the scheme of things, the diapers aren’t a big deal. But every time I put a diaper onto a dog, I’m struck by the ridiculousness of the situation. Dogs, healthy dogs, wearing diapers. But I’m also sometimes reminded of the bond we share with these animals, and the promise we make when we teach them to love us. When Harlow learned to trust us, to sit by us and awkwardly lean against our bodies, looking at us as if to say “Is this how it’s done? This love thing?” we lost the choice of letting him go. He was ours.


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

The Break-Up

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By Beth Hannon Fuller

By Dorothy O’Donnell

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been dumped before. Or ended my share of relationships that had disaster written all over them. But this particular break-up hit me harder than most, even though, technically, I wasn’t the one being dumped.

It happened at my eight-year-old’s school on her first day of second grade, the hottest day of the summer. Seeking shade while I waited for the screech of the bell to release her, I headed for the courtyard with the big oak—the one the kids called The Barney Tree—by her classroom. The mother of Sadie’s closest friend was already sitting on the wide, tile-studded concrete planter that surrounded Barney. I smiled and sat down beside her.

I liked Janet. I considered her my friend. We made small talk—about the weather, our husbands’ annoying habits—as we had so many times before while we waited for our girls.

That summer, they’d spent hours bouncing on the trampoline in my backyard, dissolving in peals of laughter as they played a game they called “Butt War.” They dressed up like Hannah Montana and danced around my living room belting out “The Best of Both Worlds.” They went to day camp together and called each other B.F.F.

Just before the bell rang, Janet turned to me and sighed. “I need to let you know what’s been going on,” she said.

My stomach clenched. I was pretty sure I knew what was coming.

She told me that during their last playdate, Sadie kept punching and pinching her daughter, Amy. It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened, Janet confided. Sadie had even kicked her in a fit of anger.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, her eyes wide.

I stared at the tawny oak leaves scattered on the asphalt and pushed them around with my foot.

Sadie was diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder when she was five. Frequent mood swings—including extreme irritability that can be triggered by something as innocent as a playmate saying “hi” to someone else—are symptoms of the illness.

Usually, she saves her explosions for home. It’s where she feels safe to lose control. Maybe all the time she’d spent with Janet and Amy made her comfortable enough to reveal her ugly side to them, too.

When the girls first became friends, I expected each playdate to be their last. Although she’d never physically attacked another child before, Sadie’s explosions had pushed most of her few other companions away. But as the months rolled by and their get togethers continued, I made myself believe everything was okay. I was desperate for my daughter to hold on to her one good friend. And Janet never mentioned any problems.

I’d told her about Sadie’s condition, although I’m not sure if she understood it. And I get that. It’s easy to see my little girl’s outbursts of rage as bad behavior. Or the product of poor parenting.

I wouldn’t want Sadie to play with someone who hurt her, either. But that knowledge didn’t soften the blow when, as the classrooms’ turquoise doors swung open and chattering kids flooded the courtyard, Janet said she thought our girls should “take a break.” It wasn’t hard to read between the lines: I knew their friendship was over. And so was ours.

I broke the news to Sadie as gently as possible on the drive home. She kicked the back of my seat and pummeled it with her fists. She shrieked that she hated Amy. But by the time I pulled into the driveway, she was sobbing as the realization of what her behavior had cost her began to sink in. Inside the house, she grabbed paper and crayons from a kitchen drawer to make a card.

“I’m so, so, so sorry!” she scrawled beside a giant purple heart with a sad face and a jagged line severing it in half.

I squeezed her tight and told her I was proud of her for taking responsibility for her actions. But I warned that the card wouldn’t magically fix everything. She said she wanted to give it to Amy anyway.

I wish I could say that I handled the situation with as much grace. I didn’t. I’d expected my child to be destroyed by the break-up. I wasn’t prepared for how devastated it left me. I missed talking to Janet, who, like me, was an older mom with one child. I missed our occasional outings to the beach, barbeques, and dinners at the girls’ favorite pizza parlor.

Like a scorned lover, I obsessed over every conversation I’d had with my former friend; I tried to pinpoint the exact moment our relationship had soured. Was it the afternoon when she’d called me a soft touch when it came to discipline? Or the evening I showed up at her house to pick up Sadie and she’d hesitated a second too long before answering when I asked how the playdate had gone?

“Great!” she’d said with a strained smile, peering over my head into the dusk. “Everything went just great!”

The more I kept hitting the rewind button on our relationship, the more bitter I became. I went out of my way to avoid Janet at school. One day at pick-up time, I saw her walking toward me as I sat in the car line waiting for Sadie. She was holding hands with Amy and another girl I recognized—a docile creature, who, I was sure, never lost her temper or hit anyone. As I slouched in my car and watched the happy trio cross the parking lot, a wave of envy and anger crashed over me. How could they move on so easily with their lives after leaving such a gaping hole in ours?

I hit rock bottom a few weeks later. I was walking my dog in our neighborhood when a blue minivan chugged by. The driver lightly beeped the horn to say hello. I recognized docile girl’s mother behind the wheel. I gripped Max’s leash tighter, wondering if this woman lingered in Janet’s living room to chat after playdates the way I once had.

From the back seat, Sadie’s ex-bestie and her new sidekick turned to grin and wave at me. I feebly wagged a few fingers in return. What I really wanted to do was flip them off. Because I so wished that my daughter was crammed in the back of that van with them. I ached for her to have a normal childhood, for me to be a normal mom. As the van disappeared around a bend in the road, it felt as if the life we were supposed to have was vanishing with it.

I yanked Max’s leash and turned for home, ashamed of the jealousy and self-pity churning inside me. Janet had every right to protect her child. That’s what mothers are supposed to do. It wasn’t her fault that Sadie is the way she is. It wasn’t my fault, either. A gray river of fog tumbled through the valley below the street where I was walking. I imagined it washing away the anger and pain I’d been lugging around since the break-up.

That night, I clicked on the website of a local support group for parents of kids with special needs. I’d thought many times about going to one of the group’s monthly coffees but always found an excuse not to when the day came around.

The following Friday, I printed out directions to that morning’s coffee and drove to the house. With a trembling hand, I pressed the doorbell. A woman with long black hair and a kind face opened the door and welcomed me. She led me into her living room where a dozen or so other women sat on a cream sofa and dining chairs, nibbling blueberry scones and talking. No one looked shocked when, after introducing myself, I told the story about Sadie hurting her playmate. They just nodded or flashed sympathetic smiles.

The next time I saw Janet heading across the school courtyard in my direction, I didn’t look away. I said, “Hi,” and asked how it was going as we passed each other. It still stung to know that she and Amy weren’t part of our lives anymore. But I was finally ready to start moving on with mine.


DOROTHY O’DONNELL is a freelance writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and daughter. Her stories and essays have been featured on,, and NPR. She is currently working on a memoir about raising a child with early-onset bipolar disorder. You can find more of her writing at

The Time Machine

By Gina Kelly

By Reyna Eisenstark

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a concert in a bookstore in Hudson, New York, when some hipster put his nearly empty pint glass right on the bookshelf next to him. (This is a bookstore so hip that it has live music and serves beer.) And noticing the glass’s precarious placement next to the James Joyce books (of all things!), I waited a few minutes until I could no longer stand it and then grabbed the glass and put it on my table. A guy closer to my age than the hipster’s sitting near me immediately said, “Thank you! That was bothering me too!” And then, “Are you a Virgo?” What I said was no, but what I thought a few days later (when I accused my own ten-year-old daughter of being a Virgo) is that what I am is  … a grown-up.

This realization had been a long time coming.

Just a few years ago, when I was forty years old and my twelve-year marriage had completely unraveled, I dated a guy who was ten years younger than me. It started out as you might expect, but it turned out that we had many things in common: favorite authors, movies, music. Remarkably, we even shared a love of certain television shows, ones that he had watched in reruns growing up and I had watched in real time.

One of the thrills of dating a thirty-year-old was living the life of a thirty-year-old, but as a forty-year-old. On the weekends, while my daughters were with their father, I would step back into another world. My young boyfriend and I would go to parties at his friends’ houses. Sometimes that meant sitting around a fire pit in a backyard, smoking way too much weed, and watching a girl dressed in a cape spinning around in a hula hoop, and sometimes it meant sitting on a zebra-print couch, in a black light-lit room decorated with black light posters, again smoking way too much weed, and wondering briefly why I had ever left my dorm. Going out with friends meant first going to someone’s house and getting sufficiently drunk before heading out into the world. Going out period actually meant staying out until two a.m. and sleeping until noon the next day.

I had done all of these things before. And in actuality it had been many years before. Somehow all these people I met in their late twenties and early thirties were living a kind of delayed life, the one I had gone through in my early- to mid-twenties until I ended up settling down with the man I eventually married, and we went to, for example, readings at the 92nd Street Y. But here they were in their extended youth, with their comic book hero costume parties, and my young boyfriend firmly in favor of staying that way for as long as possible.

And here I was, astonishingly getting to do the whole thing all over again. “You’ve found a time machine!” exclaimed my friend Susan when I told her about my weekend life. And that’s just what it felt like. A time machine that actually worked the way it was supposed to instead of the way it works in nearly all science fiction shows, with devastating results. Because honestly who wouldn’t want to return to the hedonistic days of their youth but without all that youthful insecurity and doubt? For a while there, I will admit, it really was thrilling.

I was always the oldest person wherever we went. Strangely, it didn’t bother me at all. I sometimes found myself an amused observer, smiling to myself with some inner knowledge that I knew it would take these people years to figure out. Although there were times when I saw girls, say, dressed in shorts with tights, a look I could no longer pull off, and the realization that they were just at the beginning of something made me feel envious. I was getting to experience youth, it was true, and there were times, dancing at some club in the way early hours of the morning, that I felt truly alive as I hadn’t in years, but I would have never done these things at forty were it not for my young boyfriend. And that was when I realized that my actual youth was truly over.

I liked to imagine that my boyfriend’s friends saw me as a cool, possibly striking, older woman, but I honestly have no idea. When I was about twenty-two, a friend of mine was dating (and eventually living with) a thirty-year-old woman. A bunch of us would go over to their apartment and the only thing that struck me were the lines on his girlfriend’s face, something that I hadn’t really ever noticed on anyone before. She looked older, but we all got along just fine. This seemed to be the way things went with my young boyfriend’s friends, too.

Things went on like this for about a year, but my relationship with my young boyfriend evolved into nights at his apartment cooking together and then watching a movie or some TV show like Mad Men, which was perfectly fine with me. It turned out that my young boyfriend, lost, trying to get his career started, was going through a kind of depression, but it also meant that I wasn’t staggering around exhausted at one a.m., dying to leave the bar and just get to sleep.

And then one night when I came over, wearing an old blue hoodie and expecting a night of homemade dinner and TV as usual, my young boyfriend mentioned going to a party and I actually protested. We hadn’t gone out into the real world in a long time, and I found that I had preferred it that way. But I agreed to go along.

It was on the way to the party that I had a revelation, the kind of thing that could only come to a forty-something grown-up: I did not care what anyone thought of me. I was going to go to this party and if no one liked me, it completely didn’t matter. I didn’t even have to talk to anyone if I didn’t want to! Who cared! Thus freed from the usual party anxiety, I had a rather enjoyable time, snacking on the plentiful Trader Joe party snacks, drinking beer, and standing in the corner of the kitchen in my hoodie, observing the young people around me with a permanent smirk on my face. At a certain point, my young boyfriend tried to include me in the conversation he was having with some couple, and I made just the slightest effort at being friendly. But mostly I just didn’t care.

I realized that I no longer envied these young people, with their whole lives ahead of them. I realized that they would be making the same decisions I had: they would marry or not, they would have children or not, and every decision they made would make them regret others they did not make. They were just at the beginning of this stage and I was, I realized thrillingly, relieved to be on the other side. As a seventy-year-old woman once said to me, “We are all young for the same amount of time.”

So let’s leave that party for now and return to the empty pint glass. One way to think about it is this: a twenty-something puts the glass on the bookshelf (next to the James Joyce books, for chrissakes!) and turns away from it without a second glance. The thirty-something sees the glass, feels worried and perhaps a little responsible, but ultimately turns away and hopes for the best. The forty-something sees the glass, and having seen dozens of nearly empty pint glasses spill or crash, grabs it from the bookshelf and sets it down. The glass is no longer precarious. It is exactly where it should be.


REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her essays at

Give and Take

By nan Palmero/ Flickr

By Elizabeth Campbell

When I responded to the email and signed up our family for a shift, the details of exactly how we would be spending our Saturday morning didn’t dawn on me. I didn’t pause to picture myself and our older son standing on the edge of a puddle of cindery snow-melt, cigarette butts, and crumpled receipts, the cuff of my jeans trailing over my sneaker soaking up the cold water. We stood outside the Market entrance to Wal-Mart, the only magnet big box superstore in our rural area. My husband and younger son occupied the Home and Garden entrance, engaging anonymous strangers and occasional acquaintances. And we panhandled.

The mom in charge of the booster group for our kids’ basketball team arranged the permissions from Wal-Mart, set up the shifts, and provided us with a laminated 8”x11” sign naming our cause and an empty pretzel jug. Surprisingly, that’s all it takes for an activity that yields a one hundred percent profit margin. No Wal-Mart employee checked on us, and we must not have provoked any complaints, although one skeptic shrieked, “It’s a scam! It’s a scam!” as her companion dropped a dollar in the can.

Fortunately for us, the temperature on the day we panhandled was thirty-five degrees, not the twelve it had been for weeks, and the burst of sunshine seemed good for donations.


When the boys were toddlers, I always gave them each a dollar or two to put into the Salvation Army kettle or for a poppy for veterans or into the offering plate at church. That’s how I’d been raised, and the kids couldn’t see the checks my husband and I wrote over the years—to the United Way and the Volunteer Fire Department, to a scholarship fund established in memory of my grandparents and a scholarship fund at the school my friend founded in rural Nicaragua, to NPR and the Fish and Game Club, to the Cancer Society and the March of Dimes. I wanted our boys to have tangible experiences of giving. My hope was to nurture their giving hearts, for them to grow up never remembering a time they left some stranger poor.

In early adulthood, I passed the particular homeless man who stood outside the corner bagel place near my apartment in Hyde Park in Chicago frequently enough that eventually, I didn’t buy myself a cup of coffee without coming out with two. If I didn’t have enough money for two overpriced luxury items, then I probably shouldn’t be buying one, I reasoned. I’d give him a couple dollars here and there, and once a sandwich I’d packed for lunch. After a few months, he disappeared for a week or so, and then reappeared, looking one hit away from death. His actions embodied the reason most people don’t give to people who act like him. Of course I didn’t want him to die, but I honestly didn’t really care what he did. All I knew about him was that he liked three sugars in his coffee.

Eventually, though, as our kids entered the world of organized activities, and as the tide of fundraising rose around us, irritation about giving rose within me. I found myself constantly buying or selling, for my kids or my friends’ kids, to support a variety of worthwhile activities. The homemade frozen pie sale for the preschool was my gateway.

From there it has been all downhill in the currency exchange that supports field trips and field improvements, playgrounds and pay-to-play. The catalogs of overpriced junk—nine-dollar bags of gummy bears or ten-dollar rolls of wrapping paper—from the PTO go immediately into the recycle bin without hesitation. The fifteen-dollar dollar tub of cookie dough my friend’s son delivered went into the garbage after one batch of plastic flavored cookies. A year’s worth of organic gardening magazines piled up, unread, on an end table in the year three of my friends’ kids sold for the magazine drive for the senior class trip to Washington, DC.

I’ve refused to let the kids participate in most fundraisers for a while. Instead I grudgingly write a check for the buy-out amount rather than guilt our relatives into a quota’s worth of Zap-A-Snacks. But now my husband and I figured it was about time the kids do something to support their activities other than sell raffle tickets to their grandparents the night before money had to be turned in to their coach. Thus we signed up for “the fundraiser” and pretty quickly, the details of what we were doing sank in.


Our younger son learned in the first five minutes to drop the direct appeal. He tried initiating contact—“Would you like to support our basketball team?”—but that caused people to turn and run, and his contagious smile turned out to be the best ask. A few commented on the basketball logo on our sign, but most people didn’t ask what our cause was before dropping a dollar in the can. Between the two entrances we covered for two hours, windshield washer fluid and fifty-inch TV sets seemed to be the most obvious hot items, amidst carts of mundane groceries.

The older fell into a script. “Good morning!” Eye contact. A couple dollars or a handful of change later, “Thank you, Sir.” “We appreciate it, Ma’am.” I’d echo his thanks, maybe comment on the warming sun. The wind thrashed the clouds back and forth, flooding us in sunshine or shadows, warm enough to remain gloveless, but with only one hand exposed at a time, while the other warmed in a pocket.

“Sorry, no cash! You should swipe debit cards!” fortyish moms would call out to us as they rushed their cart to their crossover vehicle, acknowledging us over their shoulders. My son would look at me skeptically and I’d shrug. I could equally believe or disbelieve each one of those moms that passed us by. You’ve got to draw some lines somewhere.

People who appeared most able, based only on appearance, usually made no eye contact and a beeline for the side entrance where we could be avoided entirely. That reminded me of a comment an adult paper carrier told me knowingly: “The longer the driveway, the smaller the tip!” Even though I know that it’s not a good indicator of generosity for people who probably itemize their charitable giving, it does sting to be ignored. Elderly and disabled people, people who looked to have enough on their hands by just getting out of their cars and into the store—let alone endure the exertion of their shopping experience—hardly ever ignored us. They paused, painstakingly extricating wallets from pockets and dollars from wallets, smiling softly. People who know what it feels like to be ignored don’t seem to pass that feeling along.


During a pause in the action, I asked my son how he felt about our efforts and how a person decides how to give. Does the cause matter? In a world of limited resources, how do we make good decisions? “You think too much, Mom,” he responded, a twelve-year-old feeling the success of what he was actually doing in the present moment. I came with him into the present, and when the grainy wind picked up, peppering us with the silty dust of a three-acre parking lot, we’d squint and lean into each other in solidarity. When the twenty-something skateboard type blew past us with a quick hey nod, and we realized he’d dropped us a tightly rolled ten, we shared twin feelings, reflected in each other’s faces.

He’s right, though, I have reflected a lot about giving well. My uncle contracted AIDS in the eighties, and died in the nineties, before protease inhibitors, but not before devising an intricate estate plan. He established a charitable trust of which his nine nieces and nephews would be the trustees. Until the youngest of us turned thirty, we would distribute the interest annually, then eventually, the principal. The annual distributions weren’t huge amounts of money but certainly more than any of us would have been giving out of our own resources. We rotated the decision making, and then made the big decisions on principal together, through email and on an Adirondack porch, over lots of wine, tears, and laughs, lining up our memories, values and our dollars.

I think there is a tendency to want our giving to mean something, to make a difference, to influence a change for the better. Most people like the idea of teaching a man to fish and feeding him for a lifetime. I get that, but there’s a bigger and bigger part of me that doesn’t like it at all, that doesn’t like the potential for superiority that can accompany the transaction of money, knowledge, or power. Sometimes hungry people just want a fish, not because they like fish, but because they are hungry, and they will figure out how to get something different than fish next time. Lately I see myself less persuaded by mission statements and program descriptions and find myself more likely to pull out my money and just give away the damn fish. Somewhere where are no expectations involved—hopes that a scholarship recipient will excel or a belief that the advocacy will yield a certain result.

“What’s the point?” one may quite reasonably ask. Isn’t there an inevitable futility to this approach? An endless string of coffees with three sugars?

I suppose there is, and for me, that’s okay. It falls in with the lot of our common humanity, and the likelihood that anyone is as likely as anyone else to need the unexpected compassion of another. I won’t sign up for another shift panhandling outside Wal-Mart to fundraise for youth sports again anytime soon. The generosity of strangers overflowed our cans. As we got home, warm and clean, the kids counted the money, enthusiastic and reflective, and they promised themselves never to walk by person collecting without pitching in. Turns of fate are often hairpins, it seems to me, and in the switchbacks, in the ebbs and flows, keeping my balance requires a give and take.


ELIZABETH CAMPBELL is a pseudonym for a clinical social worker who, because of the nature of her work, seeks to limit personal information available online.

The Rest of the Story

By Gina Kelly

By Lee Gulyas

My first date with the man who would become my husband was a disaster.

It was August, and the San Francisco fog rolled across Ghirardelli Square where we both worked selling things to tourists. As we walked, I noticed Ed had a slight limp, and in that optimistic way of seeing one thing connected to everything else, I thought about my friend who had just sprained his ankle and asked my date if he had sprained his.

“No,” Ed said. “I have a fake leg,” as he tilted his head and gave me a smile, leading me to think he was toying with me.

“Yeah, sure. That’s a good one,” I said, not about to let him, or anyone, play me for a fool.

We drove for coffee in the Mission, away from the water and fog, past the War Memorial Opera House, past the fortune cookie factory and into the sun. Light streamed onto our table and illuminated the twisted branches of the sidewalk trees, sad dogs on leashes, motes of dust revolving in the air. Ed talked about folk art, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Hungarian food. I told him about my love for classical music and punk rock. He didn’t blink, didn’t think the two were incompatible. After a moment of silence, I motioned to his leg and asked how it happened. “My friend shot it off when I was thirteen,” he said, smiling.

“Great, great,” I said, always the cynic. “Do you tell everyone the same story?”

After coffee, we agreed on dinner and more conversation. We talked about landscape and trains and music and literature as the sun disappeared and lights framed the city skyline. I lingered over my calzone and asked him to tell me more. “We were camping in the middle of the desert and my friend got the gun out of the truck and it just went off.” He flashed the same, sly smile, and his eyes gleamed.

“Wow,” I said. “Your story just keeps getting better. You’re really good at this.”

We decided to go for drinks. I took him to a dive bar close to my apartment. He was impressed with the extensive taxidermy, year-round Christmas decorations, dim lighting, and ample margaritas. I selected music on the jukebox—Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Ranchera. We sat on red vinyl-covered swivel stools and sipped drinks under the glow of Christmas lights draped over deer antlers. After a few drinks, we planned for a weekend hike on Mt. Tamalpais.

Later, while I described the mechanical beauty of vintage Italian motorcycles, Ed sat his drink on the bar, leaned over, raised his pant leg, pulled up his sock, and stuck it to the Velcro square on his hard, plastic leg.

I remember my stomach turning, growing tight. I felt queasy and it wasn’t the margaritas. I don’t remember the rest of the evening, what was said, how we parted. What I do know is that at the age of twenty-five, for the first time in my life, I called my mom to talk about a man. After blurting out the story, panicked that I couldn’t go hiking with him, that I’d made such an ass of myself, she set me straight. “It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.”

How could I argue with that?


I’ve never been known for my social grace, yet this blunder had my head spinning. I didn’t want to face Ed after spending the whole afternoon, evening, and night making fun of him, but I couldn’t figure a way out of our next date without making myself look worse. The awful thing was that I was falling for him, and it had seemed so long since this was possible. San Francisco in the eighties was a playground full of sex, drugs, and music, and I had played for years until my circle of friends became smaller (and more responsible). The party was winding down. We no longer danced till four a.m., heading out for breakfast after, tearing through the streets on motorcycles to get home to our beds before the sun came up. Now we worked at our jobs or went to school and met for breakfast on Saturday mornings. I hadn’t been on a date in years, but I was content enough with my job and my friends that being “dateless” didn’t bother me. And I never thought that I was missing anything until the possibility of missing my next encounter with this man outweighed any chance for the salvation of my pride.

The next day was sun and shadow, redwoods and ferns. I wondered if I should say something—apologize for my disbelief, my arrogance—but at first there didn’t seem to be a good time, and as the day went on an apology seemed irrelevant. We sat on a rock in the middle of a rushing stream. We feasted on pistachios and dried figs, listened to woodpeckers and ravens. We scrambled up hills and down ravines, stood above the fog line and peered across to San Francisco.

At the end of the day when his car stopped in front of my apartment, Ed leaned over, stared into my eyes and asked, “Can I do something?” I nodded tentatively and he reached around to the back of my head and took my unruly hair into his hand. He lingered, then let go.

In the coming weeks we walked all over the city to restaurants, movies, and cafés. At Point Reyes, we hiked two miles with full gear in the blue moonlight and made camp on a bluff overlooking the ocean. On a weekend trip to Squaw Valley, he taught me how to downhill ski and never laughed, even after the chair lift knocked me down. We backpacked our way through steep canyons and valleys in the Southwest, swam in cold, spring fed waters in Oak Creek Canyon. I was in new territory—I usually spent my time in restaurants and bars and my idea of outdoors activities took place on a motorcycle. Still, I was hesitant about Ed’s handicap, uncertain of how his disability could change my life.


I couldn’t figure out exactly what I was afraid of. It wasn’t that his prosthesis was limiting—he was way more active and daring than I was. It certainly wasn’t the idea of disability—my aunt had polio, my dad had a permanent tracheostomy, and I have friends with a range of conditions and array of medical apparatuses. So what was my problem?

That’s when I realized that I was my problem. I wasn’t afraid he would need me. I like being needed. I was afraid that I would need him.


It took years for my husband to tell me the rest of the story. How his leg blew open in front of him, how his friend’s father threw him in the back of the truck and drove like hell to the nearest hospital, miles away over rough desert roads. How he waited in the emergency room for hours while the hospital tried to locate his parents so they could authorize emergency treatment, so the doctors could do more than just resuscitate him each time he slipped away. How he spent months in the hospital enduring surgery after surgery, taking away more of his limb because of the spreading gangrene. How a young resident told him to leave the hospital, that he had been allergic to the antibiotic, but the attending doctor wouldn’t even consider allergic reaction a possibility. How leaving the hospital not only saved what was left of his leg, but also saved his life.

Over twenty years later I won’t lie. I won’t say that Ed’s leg has been problem free. Since he is active he often breaks his prosthetic foot. The costly legs have to be replaced every few years, the silicone liners every few months, and insurance doesn’t always cover the expenses. There are times when his skin gets irritated or chafed and then he can’t wear the leg at all. He’s undergone corrective surgery that required him to stay off his leg completely for two months straight—no prosthesis, no walking, no driving. He suffers from back problems; there are days at a time when all he can do is take muscle relaxants and lie flat on his back until the pain subsides. Then there’s the frustration and subsequent depression, a symptom of all the imposed inactivity. He experiences chronic pain, not phantom ones, though he gets those too. But he rarely asks for help; he hates being immobile, reliant on others for his basic needs.

Ed seldom slows down unless he has to. We visit relatives in Hungary. We’ve trekked through rural Mexico, traveled through Romania and Ethiopia, and lived in Yemen—all difficult places to get around. He gardens, bikes, swims, and has a long list of interests and projects, too many for me to keep track of. I’m content in the house, with a book. Ed’s the one that makes me get off the couch and out into the world.

Now he jokes that I married him for the parking space. I laugh, but I have to admit that it is convenient. The state we live in calls the rectangular blue placard that hangs from our rearview mirror “a privilege.” I see it as a courtesy, a small gesture that can only help make this single aspect of his life a little easier.

In the meantime, we’re proof that normal is relative. Sometimes our daughter, now a teenager, has to be reminded why we often can’t go skiing or for a hike, or why we get directed to the front of a crowded parking lot at Disneyland or the fair.

Sometimes I forget too, even though I know my future will include a long parade of orthopedic surgeons, dermatologists, prosthetists, physical therapists, and the accompanying bills. We’ll have to move from our cozy Victorian home to a more practical one-story house, ready for wheelchairs, accessible design, and all the accoutrements of “independent living,” even though there is no such thing, even though in the end it could be me who has to rely upon Ed for care. I suppose this is the rest of the story: nothing is certain—so we go forward the best way we know how.


LEE GULYAS lives in Bellingham, Washington, and teaches at Western Washington University. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such journals as Prime Number, Event, Barn Owl Review, and The Common.

Real Estate

house and sky
By Gina Kelly

By Zsofi McMullin

For days after we sold our house, I felt uneasy. It felt like the house was still somehow attached to me like a phantom limb—heavy and itchy and restless—and I had to remind myself constantly that it was none of my concern anymore. I didn’t have to worry about shoveling the snow in the driveway or fixing the leaky window in the dining room, and I no longer had to grumble about the cold, creaky wooden floors.

We bought our house eight years ago, just weeks before the housing market collapsed. I don’t think it was love at first sight, but more like comfort at first sight. We could see ourselves living there, hidden among the trees of our wild backyard. We could imagine our furniture in the living room, our pots in the kitchen, our bed upstairs, a crib in the second bedroom. Our small family—not yet in existence—would fit in this small house neatly, comfortably.

Right before we signed the papers to buy the house, we ran into its owner, a middle-aged woman who inherited it from her mother. She lived there with a huge, white dog whose fur we’d keep finding in the most unusual places even years later. “This place really needs a young family,” she told us, waving towards the gray house behind her. I had never owned a house, but I knew what she meant. I knew that this was the place where it was all going to happen—where we would become a family, where we would settle down and be happy.

And it was mostly true. We were mostly happy, mostly settled. We battled with the wild raspberry bushes in the yard, with the ice leaking through the old roof, the paint chipping off the shingles. But the place was ours and I was surprised by how much that mattered to me and comforted me. I felt anchored, secure.

Then we decided to move to another state for a new job. The house was on the market for what seemed like decades, various strangers walking through our rooms critiquing everything from the ceilings, to the size of the kitchen, to its location. I felt insulted and protective of our little nest but also a bit resentful of its stubbornness. Why couldn’t it just let us go? Yet when we finally received an offer on the day the moving truck arrived to pack up our boxes, I felt no relief, no joy. The financial burden was lifted, the responsibility gone, the worry relieved.

Our tether gone, we were free to go. And yet…

I walked through the empty rooms one last time the day of the closing. I only cried when I got to my little boy’s room where he and I spent so much time awake in the middle of the night. I was taking the little boy with me obviously—he was sitting in the car outside—but I felt like a part of me was left behind among the soft yellow walls and the baby blue closet, and the view of the yard.


I grew up in a large, cold, crumbling apartment in the center of Budapest. At one point my uncle, his wife, and their new baby lived with me, my brother, my parents, and my grandfather. There was nothing unusual about this—a lot of my friends lived with their extended families. Once my uncle and his family moved out, my brother and I no longer had to share the tiniest bedroom and my parents did not have to use the living room as their bedroom. These changes felt like huge luxuries, and my brother and I reveled in our new furniture in our bigger—still shared—bedroom. Our desks faced each other and we passed notes and giggled as we did our homework each evening.

My mother grew up in this apartment, rented from the local government. At one point each floor had just one apartment that was later chopped up into three. We lived on the third floor, in one of the larger places. The rooms had tall ceilings and windows and big, double doors. The bathroom was heated only by a gas heater on the wall, so whoever was the unlucky first person in the bathroom in the morning had to turn it on and wait for the temperature to become bearable for a shower. The kitchen was heated only by the oven so we always had to dress in layers for meals in the winter.

During the political changes in Hungary in the 1990s, our apartment building became sort of a no-man’s-land. The government no longer cared for it, but the occupants didn’t own their apartments yet, so maintenance was non-existent and the building declined slowly, paint chip by paint chip. I remember giving this explanation to many visitors before they figured out a polite way to ask about the state of hallways, the elevator, the courtyard.

My parents purchased our apartment after my grandfather’s death. That was the first time that my family owned real estate. Now at least the crumbling walls belonged to us.

When my parents moved to the U.S. a few years later, they first rented out the apartment then put it up for sale. It’s still on the market, along with dozens of similar apartments on our street. I think about it often—I think about buying it, renovating it, living there in some other life, finding comfort in the familiar neighborhood. But the place is a burden on my parents right now, and I wish for them to be rid of it. I wish I could be certain that selling it will feel like a relief—a lifetime of history and stuff packed up, thrown out, passed on to a stranger who can start there anew.


“Is there anything you want out of your grandmother’s apartment?” my father asked a few months ago as he was distributing her belongings among his cousins and other relatives. She died the year before and, by the time I arrived to Hungary for her funeral and saw her apartment for the first time after her death, her clothes were already donated, including what I wanted the most: her red, flowery scarf and her big fur winter hat.

It seemed silly at the time to make a fuss about this—and it still does because I know that what I truly, really want can’t be mine: the smell of Wiener Schnitzel wafting from her apartment into the hallway on Sundays; the scent of freshly ironed linens as she opened a cabinet to pick a tablecloth for lunch; the tap-tapping of her slippers as she walked back and forth to the kitchen down a long, skinny hallway; the clinking of her china on the table; the gurgling of her ancient coffee pot; the cold air that swooshed into the apartment when she opened the balcony door to retrieve the fruit salad that she kept cold out there.

I couldn’t pack up any of these things.

Her apartment in Budapest sold almost the same day as my house in Maine. My parents traveled there to sign the closing papers, and I watched them unpack their suitcases just a few days later when they returned to Maine to their small, rental condo: Ten bottles of homemade jam, a metal key hook, a couple of framed drawings, books, a ceramic trivet, a decorative plate that used to hang in the kitchen.


Lately I think a lot about these three pieces of real estate and about how they came, went, and yet somehow always stayed in my life. Are the walls they held around me just that? Does the weight of owning these walls matter? Do they just hold our stuff, or are they places where our life collects, that place where babies come home from the hospital, where dinner is cooked, where parties are held, where nothing or everything happens? Is there freedom to be had by not being attached to these structures, or does their absence weigh heavier?

I like our new—rented—apartment. It’s modern and much bigger than our little house was. Groundkeepers shovel the snow, salt the driveway, fix clogged pipes. Our furniture gets lost in the big rooms and under the tall ceilings. It’s easy to live here, detached from history, from responsibility, from what comes next.

But I miss the weight, the burden tying me firmly to one place to call home.


ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a recent transplant to Connecticut. She works in publishing and blogs at