Love will make you do crazy things. Like move to Texas.
If you find yourself moving to Texas, a state the color of dead grass, because you fell in love with a trial lawyer who sweet-talked you seventeen hundred miles from a peaceful existence on the East Coast—don’t blame Texas. Blame New Orleans. Jazzfest in particular and too many rum hurricanes, and the seductive powers of Solomon Burke singing “Cry to Me.” Because in New Orleans, you will meet your fate. You’ll forget that you’re forty-two and single and more likely to be hit by lightening than remarry. In New Orleans everything is possible. Resurrection from hurricanes. Second lines. Dancing on coffins. Love in middle age.
Do not be seduced. Do not think impossible things like, “I could learn to love Texas,” because God will test you. He will send you that man, the one you didn’t think existed. Who is quirky, kind and brave. Who sued a sexual harasser once and demanded his shoes. Because they were flashy, snakeskin shoes, and if that creep could be humiliated by leaving mediation in socks, his victim would feel like she really won something.
He asked, but he didn’t get the shoes. You love him for the asking.
So because of this story, and the sweet talk, and the sex, you move to Texas. God calls your bluff. You remarry.
It happens. I live in Texas.
I’m not alone. One thousand sixty people move to Texas every day, more than any other state. They say it’s for the jobs, but I’m convinced that they are lured here by sweet-talking Texans. One day you could be driving south on 1-35 with a U-Haul. Don’t be cocky.
You think you’ve got more sense than to live in a state with one hundred days of 100-degree weather? Think again. The streets of Austin are clogged with hopeful new settlers.
I love my husband and I cannot imagine my life without him. And yet every day I wonder how I wound up in Texas. I’ve concluded it’s a test from God. He wants to know how bad do I want it—this life, this good man.
Bad enough to give up lilacs, tulips, rhubarb, peonies, quick train rides to New York, art museums, Longwood Gardens, temperate weather, twenty-five years of collected woolens, overcoats, socks, snowballs, wood-burning fireplaces, the color green, autumn leaves, maple syrup… Would I give up water, God wants to know?
Because there is no water in Texas. They think they have water—they have no idea what water is. I grew up in Michigan, the Great Lakes state. We know from water. I moved to Texas from Pennsylvania. I had a house on the Susquehanna River and the five feet of water in my basement once to prove it. I know what rivers are. I know what lakes look like. This trickle of ankle-deep, piss-warm murk they call a “river” is what we non-Texans refer to as a “dry creek.”
I get panicky without water. I feel like I’m going to die, like one of those cartoon characters crawling across a desert. I wonder why more people aren’t stockpiling provisions. Frankly, I wonder why more people aren’t driving north on 1-35 out of this place. Perhaps I’m jaded—I moved here during a historic drought. My husband said, “Texas has droughts. This is normal.”
And then the forest fires started.
But that was three years ago. It’s rained a couple times since then. But when it rains in Texas, it rains all at once. Ten-inches-in-an-hour kind of rain. Deluges. Floods. The hard-baked soil can’t absorb it, so it washes down the streets and gullies. People get swept away. Drought, floods, oppressive heat: the weather wants to kill you in Texas—and it often succeeds.
It makes me wonder why on earth anyone settled this place, including Native Americans. You had to have been desperate. All the good land everywhere else must’ve been taken. Texas was what was left over—a scrubby wasteland the Anglos had to fight Mexico for, although I can’t imagine why. Shedding blood at the Alamo for the privilege of owning millions of acres of useless mesquite? WTF?
Like I said, desperate people. Free-thinking Germans, poor second cousins of landowners out East, eternal optimists. I guess they looked at whatever was chasing them, and figured they’d take their chances with the weather.
Who needs peonies, they probably said to themselves, when I can farm on hundreds of acres of withered grass? I’ll never have to knit another sweater as long as I live! Pretty soon their kid was saying to them, “Eat the jalapenos, Mom,” like that was a normal thing. Like pain was a flavor.
Somehow those settlers learned to love Texas. They didn’t just survive. They overcompensated with a colossal regard for the place. Texans adore Texas. Perhaps they’ve never been to other states, I thought. They have nothing to compare it to? It is, after all, a very large state. You couldn’t blame a person for driving eight hours in any direction and giving up. Damn, we’re still in Texas.
I don’t get it. Delaware doesn’t suffer this kind of conceitedness. Minnesota (certainly a state that matches Texas with weather that wants to kill you) doesn’t brag about how great it is. Minnesotans are far too self-effacing for that. Texas thinks it’s badass? I’m from Detroit. People from Detroit—we don’t talk about it. We just live with the contradictions. It’s like still loving a junkie who’s flunked his sixth round of rehab.
My husband loves Texas. He named his son after Willie Nelson. He drives a quad-cab Ford diesel pick-up truck. He wears pearl-snap Western shirts with no sense of hipster irony whatsoever. It just kills him that I don’t love Texas the way he loves Texas.
But I love him. I especially love the way he killed the five-foot long rat snake that slithered under our front door and curled up on the living room rug one day. He escorted the snake to the porch and then hacked it with a garden hoe. The snake did not improve my opinion of Texas. Nor did my mother-in-law’s nonchalance one-upping us when she related how a rat snake once fell on her from on top of the pantry. “They’re harmless,” she said, as if falling Texas rat snakes were as benign as cherry blossoms.
“People love Texas,” my husband admonishes. And judging by the Austin traffic, I know he’s right. I know I’m a freak for missing freezing rain and snow days. And I know in the grand scheme of things, the majority of people would rather have endless summer than lilac bushes. People move to Texas for the opportunity. The places I love—the woods of northern Michigan, tiny villages on the Susquehanna River, verdant green patches of New England—there’s not much opportunity there. It’s pretty, but as they say, you can’t eat the view.
My husband was once married to a woman who cheated on him for two decades before he found out and divorced her. I was briefly married to a man who was also a serial cheater with a double life. It was my second marriage. I thought I was done with love and commitment. There was a time in both of our lives where we thought these experiences would kill us. They didn’t kill us. They made us appreciate opportunity, the kind of opportunity that shows up in front of a four-hundred-pound soul singer in a purple suit crooning “Cry to Me.” That gets drunk in New Orleans and sweet-talked to Texas.
If I’m honest about Texas, I know I belong here. Because I’m a desperate sort of settler, too.
God asked, “How bad do you want it?”
I answered, “I guess I’ll take my chances with the weather.”
Until the bear came along, I was doing fine with nature. Shafts of sunlight were falling on the red huckleberries lining the trail, setting them aglow like tiny rubies. All around me, huge, craggy Douglas firs reached toward the sky, their limbs draped with moss, and giant ferns carpeted the forest floor in every direction. My family and I were deep into Olympic National Park, ten miles from the nearest paved road. This is the forest primeval, I thought, gazing at those massive trees. The murmuring pines—well, firs—and the hemlocks. I felt an unwonted surge of affection for good old Longfellow.
Let me be clear: the forest primeval is not my natural habitat. I grew up in the suburbs, the child of New Yorkers. Our family adventures involved the wily nabbing of city parking spaces en route to the ballet. On the few occasions that my parents took me hiking, I trudged along reluctantly, nursing a strong sense of grievance. What was the point? I complained. Why walk through the woods for no reason, only to turn around and walk right back out? Couldn’t I stay in the car with my book?
Sure, I loved my Quaker summer camp, where I learned to build a fire and use a compass, earning a “woodswoman” badge for acquiring these skills. I appreciated nature, all right. But for the most part, mine was the bookworm’s comfortable, vicarious appreciation. I savored descriptions of Heidi’s beloved Alpine meadows; the vast, mysterious swamp in Girl of the Limberlost; the cave-riddled coast in Island of the Blue Dolphins. From my vantage point on the couch, this was great stuff. But deep down, despite that badge, I wasn’t truly woodsy. And I never would be.
But then, as one does, I met a guy. I’ll call him Nature Man.
Nature Man was a biologist. He liked to lift up rocks and examine the grubs underneath. (He did this on our second date). He talked in near-religious terms about the glories of the ocean and could identify edible and poisonous plants in the woods. He took me bird watching, hauling along a giant spotting scope he’d borrowed from work, through which I watched, in horrified fascination, as a Peregrine falcon devoured a pigeon. (“Way cool, huh?” he said.) Nature Man also played old-time banjo and wrote me love letters illustrated with funny line drawings and watercolors. He planned romantic, themed birthday celebrations in my honor, and he liked to spend rainy Saturdays roaming the big downtown library with me, each of us collecting a stack of books to take home and read companionably on the couch.
There was no doubt about it. I would be learning to love nature.
In the seventeen years that I’ve been married to Nature Man, I’ve logged my time in the woods. I’ve nursed a toddler in a tent and gotten the hang of lighting a camp stove. I’ve grown fond of the scent of citronella candles. Planning a camping trip no longer fazes me, although it does tend to inspire irritation. Why go to all this trouble to haul pots and pans and ingredients into the woods, when we could cook at home in a nice, comfortable kitchen? But Nature Man and our two boys love camping, and I love them, so I keep this thought to myself. Most of the time, anyway. Because once we’re out there, amid those giant trees, out where the mist hangs like a dream over the mountains, and the jade green river churns between ancient rocks, I’m awed, each time, by the sheer splendor of the natural world. And at some point on each of these expeditions, I’m always struck by same thought: without Nature Man in my life, I wouldn’t be marveling at all this.
But in all these years, I’ve never articulated to my husband just how uneasy I sometimes feel in the wilderness. I can’t forget how far away we are, how isolated. And thanks to a ranger program we attended on yet another camping trip, I can’t forget about the cougars, either. Puma concolor, I learned that evening at the park’s rustic amphitheater, roam the Pacific Northwest. They are silent and stealthy, capable of leaping twenty feet from a standing position to land on the neck of their prey, killing it instantly.
I looked around the amphitheater. People in the audience were snuggling with their kids, spritzing on bug repellent, or nodding along with the ranger. No one seemed alarmed. Did you hear that? I wanted to yell. Twenty feet from a standing position! Onto your neck!
The next day, walking along the trail, I tensed at the creak of a tree branch, the back of my neck prickling in dread. Then I looked ahead to Nature Man, pointing out licorice ferns on a nurse log to one of our boys. My husband, I reflected, knew the woods far better than I, and he didn’t seem concerned about being attacked by the New World’s second heaviest cat (after the jaguar). You need to relax, I told myself.
I was successfully following that very advice the next year, the day we met the bear. I hadn’t entirely forgotten the threat of cougars, but I’d pushed it into a small corner of my mind, a little closet where I stash other irrational notions, like my conviction that a headache heralds a brain tumor or that only my will to live keeps the plane in the air. So as we walked deeper and deeper into Olympic National Park that day, I was happily gathering huckleberries for pancakes and musing about nineteenth century poetry.
Not everyone in our party shared my sunny outlook. Unlike twelve-year-old Simon, loping ahead of me in his broad-brimmed hat like a young Indiana Jones, Nate, my nine-year-old, was decidedly grumpy. “Why do we always have to do this?” he muttered. “You should have left me in the car with myTintin book.”
I repressed the urge to confess that I often feel the same way about hiking. Instead, I told him what I tell myself on those occasions. “We’re a family, Nate. And families do things together.” But there was no denying this particular apple’s proximity to the tree. When it comes to hiking, Nate’s my boy. Nature Man and I had lured him along with trail mix for the first hour. Sparring with his brother on a rustic bridge, re-enacting the encounter between Robin Hood and Little John, had improved his mood after that. But now, just half a mile from our destination, we were out of bribes. “I’m walking for five more minutes,” he said darkly. “That’s it.”
It was at this point that Simon came running back toward us, an expression of alarmed excitement on his face. “There’s a bear on the trail!” he announced breathlessly.
My mental closet burst open. Here it was, the confirmation of all my fears. Nature was a dangerous place, after all. Fearsome things did lurk here. If not cougars, bears, dammit all. Instinctively, I turned to Nature Man. He didn’t say what I expected: “Okay, everyone, turn around—fast!” To my astonishment, what he said was, “Let’s see this bear.” Then he kept walking.
For reasons that remain obscure to me, I followed him.
Sure enough, twenty yards down the trail stood a bear. It was black, with a patch of white on its head, and it was looking right at us. What struck me immediately about this bear—beyond the hair-raising fact of its presence—was its size. This was not a large bear. It was on the smaller side. No, I realized, as my heart began to pound quite unpleasantly, it wasn’t actually small. It was a young bear. Quite young.
All of us, even those not particularly cognizant of the natural world, know exactly what goes along with a young bear. Any second, I imagined, the enraged mother bear would burst from the woods. She would maul us and leave us for dead on the trail. Later, there would be a memorial service, and everyone would cry over the family killed by bears, and we would be forever held up as a warning whenever the park rangers give those talks about wildlife.
Simon had followed his father, and now he turned back to me. “See? There really is a bear!”
“Back away!” I said frantically, still fixated on our memorial service. “There’s a mother bear around here, and she’s going to eat us up.”
Nature Man, who was just a few yards ahead, did not appear to hear me. “Nate, can you see the bear?” he asked. “Let me lift you up.” He raised our son in his arms, as if making an offering to the ursine gods.
“Get my baby away from that bear!” I hissed.
Nature Man made a small sound, which could have been a chuckle. Nate said, “It’s been five minutes. I’m not taking another step.”
The bear gave us a last look, then ambled back into the underbrush.
“See, it’s gone,” said Nature Man. “I’m willing to keep walking.”
Simon said eagerly, “You mean, we’ll follow the bear?”
Nate looked even more mulish. “You’ll have to carry me,” he said.
I stared at my family. “You people are insane.”
Nature Man gave me a quick careful look, then hustled everyone back in the direction we had come. A few minutes later, as we walked quickly along the trail, Nate riding piggyback on his dad, my husband explained that he had only advanced toward the bear because he wasn’t sure Simon had actually seen one. And he had lifted Nate up partly for a better look, but also because, when confronted with a bear, you’re supposed to make yourself look bigger, to intimidate it. “And I wasn’t laughing at you. Well. Not exactly.”
Unwilling to be mollified quite yet, I informed Nature Man that he could forget about taking me hiking, ever again. Today it was a bear, but tomorrow? Cougars, for sure, and what next? Vermicious Knids? Wisely, my husband did not argue with any of this, not even my suggestion that Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’s amorphous space aliens might materialize in the Pacific Northwest. We both knew I didn’t mean it. Love had gotten me out of a book and into the wilderness in the first place, and I would be back in the woods next summer or even sooner. Besides, we were a family, and families do things together. Like get nearly eaten by bears.
KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.
“Thank you for a lovely dinner, Mummy. May I please leave the table?” John, who’s six, is going through a cute super-polite phase that I know probably won’t last but enjoy anyway. The “Mummy” is a bonus I get for having an English husband and kids who are into watching Peppa Pig.
“Thank you for asking so nicely, sweetheart. Yes, you may.” John stands up. Before he runs off, he carefully brushes down his shirt, pants, and, briskly, the bottoms of his feet.
I wish I could say that this regular post-meal action is the result of sensory issues left over from his early years. John spent his first month in neonatal intensive care as a premature baby. We were warned of preemies’ extreme sensitivity to touch of any kind, and the likelihood that it could become a lifelong trait. Pretending that it’s his choice would shield me from admitting to people that I’ve trained him to be hyper-conscious of tracking crumbs or sticky bits of rice from the table to anywhere else in the house.
His sister Alex, who’s three, copies him a few minutes later but neglects both the “thank you” and a few pieces of brown rice stuck to the hem of her pants. While I take their plates to the dishwasher and begin wiping off the table, I keep track of where she’s jumping and rolling, so I’ll know where to run the vacuum cleaner later. A pointless exercise, as I know perfectly well I’ll run it everywhere.
When my children go away to college or vocational school or just away, they will have two mantras drilled into them: “Clean up after yourself” and “Food stays, always, on the table or counter.” They are in serious danger of thinking their mother vacuums for a living, and of developing nervous tics related to dropping crumbs and eating over their plates.
I try my best not to imprint them with neurotic hyper-awareness of bits of grit and cat fur on the floors, or the tiny sticky spots of a squeezed lemon sprayed onto the counter, but I’ve given up trying to change myself. When I am eighty and cranky, nobody will be allowed to eat in my house. They might not be allowed inside at all.
Domesticity has been called a trap, a cage for women, a tool of the patriarchy. This can be true when imposed from outside, but if it’s a trap for me, it’s one I’ve made myself, and I don’t look at it that way. I wish I didn’t have to do all the work. I wish dust would just cease to exist, and that some invisible little machine would suck up all the crunchy bits of cereal from the floor before I ever had a chance to haul out a vacuum cleaner, that all my houseguests ate over their plates like I nag my children to. (How hard is that? Seriously?) Whatever way it gets done, though, I want the place clean.
This obsession—and let’s be honest here—stops, thankfully, at my doors. I don’t care what the lawn looks like, as long as we keep chemicals off of it, and I don’t give a crap what condition your house is in. As far as germs go—let’s just say sterility isn’t my top priority. I try to make sure nobody gets salmonella or toxoplasmosis, but my adherence to baking soda and vinegar as cleaning substances will only go so far.
This limit makes up for the fact that, when we have houseguests, I daydream about exactly what my cleaning routine will be when they leave—how I’ll strip the bed and do every bit of laundry as one enormous mass and mop up the basement and vacuum under and behind all the decrepit furniture and purge the kids’ toys while I’m at it. It relieves my allergy to knickknacks. It alleviates somewhat, I hope, the need to see No Crumb Leave the Table. But it probably doesn’t make my husband any less exasperated when I go around wiping the kitchen countertops after he’s already done so.
At the end of the movie Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman and his family, and all the Jews of the region, are being evicted from the country. They are given three days to pack up their belongings and trudge out to new worlds, foreign lands: Jerusalem, Germany, America. I always feel a strong connection to this story because my father’s parents came from similar Jewish ghettoes in the Ukraine, although they were never evicted. They ended up in Soviet Leningrad, leaving my father to emigrate decades later.
As far as the religion and traditions held so tightly by Tevye’s world, I can sympathize with but not relate to them. What I do relate to is the behavior of his wife Golde. Just before they and their remaining daughters leave the village forever, Golde tells Tevye she has to “clean up, sweep the floor.”
“Sweep the floor!” says Tevye, incredulous.
“I don’t want to leave a dirty house!” she snaps.
That’s me. When the apocalypse comes, whether it’s zombie or post-oil or religious, the barbarians will be at the gate and I’ll be telling my family to go on ahead while I finish up the dishes and sweep the floor one last time.
I read a tremendous number of mystery novels. Dorothy Sayers, Laurie King, Rex Stout, Ngaio Marsh, Nevada Barr—they and their cohorts have gotten me through some very hard times and very long international flights. A few years back, I noticed a common theme slipping through them, as if it were a requirement of the genre aside from a murder, a sleuth, and adequate red herrings: a fixation on a comfortable home. Starting with Lord Peter Wimsey’s leather-bound collections of rare volumes surrounding the perfectly harmonious and elegant upper-class London bachelor pad, on through Nero Wolfe’s made-to-measure enormous desk chair and favorite globe in his Manhattan brownstone, and into the modern shared household of Deborah Crombie’s Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid, with its scrubbed pine table and grand piano and dining room furniture with “an air of Provençal,” mystery authors linger, sometimes without seeming to be aware of it, over descriptions of welcoming homes and perfect rooms. Sometimes it belongs to a side character or a main suspect—a bistro in a Quebec village (Still Life, Louise Penny), an artist’s isolated house up a mountainside (A Grave Talent, Laurie King)—but still the hallmarks of comfort work their way into outsize place in the narrative. Gleaming wood, beeswax, squashy armchairs, bookcase-lined walls, the smell of good cooking coming from the kitchen, order and routine balanced with cozy softness.
It’s as if these mystery novelists are actually writing in search of the ideal home, as if their pursuit of mystery writing is itself a controlled flailing toward safety in a world where evil things happen and control is, in the end, an illusion—writing their way through the chaos to a place that’s nurturing, comfortable, welcoming, warm, intellectually and creatively stimulating. In the ideal homes of mystery novels, there are many, many books, a proclivity for crackling fires and candlelight (but no dust). The inhabitants always know how to value quality and beauty over show or cost.
I wonder sometimes how many of these authors are in command of their own homes. How many of them have solid wood tables of heart-warming beauty, smelling of beeswax, and soft leather armchairs where they read hardbound literature; and how many long for such things while looking around at their IKEA dressers, mildewed trade paperbacks, and broken hand-me-down sofas that the cat’s peed on way too many times?
Dig back into the reading history of many modern mystery authors, and you’ll find common loves: Anne of Green Gables, The Hobbit, Dorothy Sayers’s novels. Books in which a home is something alive, something that holds its inhabitants, builds a symbiotic relationship with them. A place that nurtures, to be nurtured in return. The Secret Garden, where the house is dark and unwelcoming, only drives home the point: this is not what a home should be.
These houses of waxed floors and cherry-wood furniture, the smells of stews and the warmth of candles, promise a slower, more rhythmic life, a world where love is gentle and the pains are universal but where there is always a place for everything and everything is in its place.
The house I grew up in had the love but not a place for everything. My mother was strict about the housework performed by her three daughters. We had age-dependent chores every Saturday: vacuuming, dusting, laundry, waxing the dining room floor, watering the plants, ironing, mowing, raking leaves, weeding the garden. As training, it was a good foundation. As cleaning it was ineffective.
For one thing, cleaning out the cats’ box (or finding where else they might have designated “toilet”) seemed to be nobody’s job at all. For another, that house was full full full of things—so many things and in such varieties that it still makes my throat clog to think of it. I dusted around stacks of New Yorker and Harper’s magazines collected over many years, scrubbed the bathtub around shampoo bottles that had gone past vintage and were into antique, made my bed with sheets covered in cat fur, polished the thousand scrolled crevices of the silver tea set that everyone loved and nobody ever used. The kitchen, in which piles of opened and unopened mail teetered next to old telephone books and days-old glasses of water, didn’t seem complete without over half the counter space being taken up by empty crock pots inherited from the wheat ranch my mother had grown up on, decorative bowls of sugar caked with coffee drips, antique tobacco tins, and a rack holding old, still pungent, spices (when someone tells you that you have to replace your cinnamon every year, don’t believe them). It’s impossible to truly clean a place with three kids and rambling cats and several families’ worth of stacked and scattered possessions.
We visited my mother last summer, and had an embarrassing couple of days where John would wander around her house saying things like, “You know Grandma, if you put some of these things away people might not trip over them,” or “Grandma, if we organized all of this, you would have more places to relax.” He tried to be as polite as possible, while I kept hissing at him to zip it. I took away treats and his Angry Birds playtime but still he couldn’t stop himself. Finally he looked at me, all wide-eyed and determined, and said, “But, Mummy, it’s good to tell the truth.” I tried to explain to him that everyone likes their home kept in different ways and that it wasn’t polite to criticize it and could even hurt someone’s feelings, but clearly this was one case where actions triumphed over words. My cleaning and de-cluttering routine had come a long way from my childhood, sometimes neared extreme (I do know that some of my vacuuming habits could qualify as a problem), and had obviously worn a deep track for at least one of my children. I was relieved that a habit of tidiness was becoming second nature for him, but I wasn’t sure if I should be ashamed of that relief.
My mother says that the reason I don’t like all the stuff in her house, what I call clutter and she calls life, is because I don’t know the stories behind it. That’s not always true. I recognize scrap paper where someone wrote down a phone number twenty-three years ago, and the torn shrink-wrap, which has been torn as long as I can remember, surrounding a vinyl album of loon calls, which I know she values because it was a gift from her father. I know the enameled tin mugs from Finland, the jam-making equipment from the Eastern Montana homestead, the wicker armchair where I used to rock my baby sister. I know the stories of a thousand things. And I do understand what she means. It’s just that I prefer my stories, instead of collecting dust as physical manifestations, typed up and filed away where they belong.
There’s a passage in Natalie Goldberg’s classic book on writing, Writing Down the Bones, where she takes a swing at writers with tidy studios. Disorder, she says, shows a fertile mind, “an indication of … someone that is actively creating.” Essentially, in a clean desk, she knows she’s looking at a writer who’s not working.
That passage is the reason I don’t have a copy of Writing Down the Bones in my house.
I have tried to “let things go,” “relax,” and “don’t worry about it,” as so many well-meaning people have advised. Most of them seem to think that I keep my house tidy because I want to impress them. (These are the people, along with those who walk around crunching chips without a plate, who don’t get invited over for dinner again.)
I’ve set up personal boundaries for my cleaning habits (I never clean windows, for example, and as a result never think about how dirty they might be) because otherwise I truly would get nothing else done. But aside from that, I don’t seem to have an in-between toggle. I’ve tried just keeping the dishes washed and the floor basically swept. But I’m aware, nevertheless, of the coffee grounds that migrated to the back of the counter, of the cats’ additions after rolling in a spot of sunshine on a rug, of the bits of salt left on the stove after my husband did the post-dinner clean-up, of the rice my daughter has tracked into the TV room, where she’s sitting on the floor playing “picnic” with her stuffed dogs. I’m conscious of all of it, and if I don’t take care of it I literally cannot work. A “why bother” washes over everything I’m supposed to do—pack in the laundry, brush the kids’ teeth, sit at my desk and earn a living as a copy editor, send a check to the preschool, order heating oil, call my mother, much less work on my novel or memoir or tackle a new essay. I either escape to a coffee shop, where it’s someone else’s job to clean up and therefore I don’t care, or huddle in a few maintained outposts in my home—the bed, my desk, the ironing board—and binge-watch The Big Bang Theory.
My husband asked me once why I felt such a need to wipe down the kitchen counters and sweep the floor before clocking out for the night. I told him about the coffee grounds, the sticky spots, the grains of salt. “Knowing those things are there is like having another person tramping around in my head,” I said. They’re making noise and disrupting thoughts and generally being a nuisance. It’s incredibly uncomfortable.
I can take an obscene amount of messiness in my own psyche, in my relationships, in my work. But only if the floors are clean, the toys are put away, the kitchen has been wiped down and, preferably, the cats are outside.
A number of pictures are tacked on the wall above my desk: a watercolor of a bare tree in a cold Russian forest, a postcard of a painting of Judi Dench, a photo of moonrise over Glacier National Park, which keeps my homesickness at bay.
One is a belated birthday card that my mom sent me almost twenty years ago. The painting on the front, Deborah DeWit Marchant’s The Artisans’ Cafe, depicts a girl looking somewhat as I might have then, down to a long brown French braid and sloppy afterthought clothing, with an empty pie plate in front of her, a full cup of coffee, and an open hardback book lying flat on the table. Her cheek is propped in her hand and she is clearly engrossed in whatever she is reading.
Articulating my feelings about this picture is difficult. I look at it and I see a moment when all the chores have been done, when nobody needs my attention, when all the crumbs are only specks of potential energy in a bag of bread. When the only part of the world that I have real influence over is at rest, if only for a few hours.
I know perfectly well that this kind of peace is unattainable through control over my physical surroundings. My food-free floors will not save the planet or hedge against my children’s future health and safety, or even negate the need for ongoing chores and errands.
But this is the only place I have, my only home. Critics can go on all they want about the new domesticity and how women still need to be freed from the hearth. But there is so much in the world I have no control over. I do not know if my son will still be asking politely to leave the table in a year’s time, or if my daughter will get over her obsession with dogs before she gets old enough that I feel obligated to get her a puppy. I do not know if my car will survive another six months, if another Sandy-like hurricane will trap us in a powerless house this fall, if the cats will ever, ever, stop peeing on the furniture.
I don’t know if the planet will survive climate change, if women’s rights will have to be fought for all over again, if my father’s homeland will use its foothold in Crimea to drag Ukraine and the wider world into full-scale war, if wildfires will make the air of my Montana hometown unbreathable this summer, if a friend will die of cancer next year.
I spend an enormous amount of time in my home. The only thing I can do, at this moment, is ensure that it feels like a place I want to be.
ANTONIA MALCHIK’s writing has appeared most recently in Creative Nonfiction, The Jabberwock Review, and ParentMap. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She recently finished My Russian Condition, a book about her lifelong relationship with Russia, and is working on Against the Grain, a memoir about motherhood, woodworking, and striving for the lost competence of her pioneer ancestors. She can be reached through www.antoniamalchik.com.
[This is kind of art you get when your editor is a former band geek. —ed.]
By Rebecca Stetson Werner
In the enormous domed metal building—a cavernous space dominated by three regulation size basketball courts where adults coach the kids’ teams, shouting to be heard above the din—I find the court for Nicholas’s game and quickly sit down on the bleachers. Every once in a while, a dissonant buzzer shrieks, so awful a sound, so jarring it makes my scalp tingle, and I curl in on myself in anticipation of the next blast.
Nicholas’s good friend passes him the ball. He catches it, sort of, but his grip is not quite firm enough, and it barrels on through his hands and down onto his shoe, bouncing out of bounds. I hear a groan and a snicker from somewhere to my left. I fight the desire to turn and glare at the person. Nicholas smiles, forcedly, and I see him apologize to his friend.
Then he throws me a pained look. Hoping to communicate with him as the one person in the crowd who knows and holds his vulnerability, I try to return my best version of what proves to be an impossible expression: a blend of a smirk moving into a softening around the eyes and then a goofy grin, with a bit of a shoulder shrug.
But I am not sure I get the expression right, and I may have missed my chance to connect and communicate with him. Because today, from the moment I entered the arena, I have retreated to the sidelines, taken a stance as an outsider. I am tense, self-conscious, distracted, and frustrated with those around me.
While all the other parents on the bleachers chat and yell and gesture and growl, I am caught up in my own head, spinning through a series of questions. When did this happen? How did we get here? When did we stop wanting our children to play nicely together, stop insisting on apologies when they hurt one another, stop valuing kindness and social skills above competitiveness and drive? And when did it become a good play to foul someone on purpose? When did we stop calling careful with that stick across the playground and start shouting check him?
“Out of the paint!”one parent bellows. Another shouts, “Boards!” every time a player shoots. I have no idea what they mean and wonder if I may be eavesdropping on a bizarre carpentry-focused reality show. I amuse myself for a bit by trying to overlay this crowd’s behavior onto a playground scene from when our children were younger. I imagine what it would have been like to sit on the benches next to the swings with coffee cups in our hands, interrupting one friend’s narration of her clogged mammary gland to shout to one of our kids: Swing harder! Pump those legs! Come on, work those monkey bars! Share those Cheerios!
I’m tempted to turn to the parents beside me on these bleachers and offer an explanation for myself: I was in the band.
In high school, I was a band geek, although there were lots of other, less kind names for members of this motley gang of musicians. On Friday nights, when the popular kids would sit in the bleachers with their French fries and sodas and cheer for their friends on the football team, I was there, too. But off to the side, clad in a royal-blue polyester men’s uniform, helmet perched atop my head, its plumes long ago snapped in half, yellowed, or simply lost.
On school days, I stood when the intercom called for the pep rally participants to go to the gym, and I left the room with all the Blue Knights in team jerseys and school colors. In the gymnasium, however, I was absent from the groupings of chairs in the center of the polished wood floors. Instead, I sat First Chair, adjusting my piccolo to a well-tuned B flat and offering it to each member of the pep band. Then I’d sit down again and await our turn to accompany the cheerleaders and play our school’s fight song.
And it wasn’t just pep band. I could also be counted on to maintain the spacing and pace of the most complex marching band formations, my whole row guiding left toward me, peering across the music holders affixed to their bent elbows. In the two-person pit orchestra, I routinely covered three woodwind instruments during school musicals, and would lean across the flute, piccolo, and oboe that lay in my lap so that I could reach the keys of the synthesizer. I must admit: I am a bit embarrassed for myself right now as I write this. Total nerd. But these musical talents did help me pass a bit socially, counterbalancing my polyester uniform and allowing me to relate to the jocks and popular kids. Sadly, these impressive skills were not sufficient to produce a flurry of prom invitations.
At some point during high school, I began singing, a sensible extension of my musical activities. Although some of my most important relationships were formed through singing groups, I never felt completely at ease in the choirs I joined. So I wasn’t surprised when, after her school choir concert, our daughter Julia unintentionally voiced what I also struggled with when singing. I asked her what it had felt like to be on stage, to stand before an audience.
“Well, I liked it when I played the xylophone,” she said. “I knew what to do with my hands. I didn’t know what to do with them when I was singing.”
Like me, it seems, Julia may be an instrumentalist at heart. I was accustomed to holding and playing instruments on stage, to having something protective between me and the audience. I often carried my black cases with me to keep my instruments warm enough, or because they didn’t fit in my locker, also conveniently giving my hands purpose as I moved through my school’s crowded hallways. I used to practice fingerings for scales on my desktop. It gave me something to do while I chatted with the more gregarious kids before classes began. Even now, when I am feeling nervous, my adult fingers long for the feeling of my oboe’s cold wood and silver. I can still call forth the smell of cedar and beeswax and saliva wafting up into my face as I open the case. I can even hear the creaking of the hinge as it opened and the snapping shut of the lid to my reed box. I mentally run my finger down the turkey feather I used to swab my oboe dry after I played.
But singing? As Julia said, it’s just you and your voice on the stage. But I pushed through this unease, this vulnerability, for whatever reason, and it led to something, someone, for me.
My husband, Jonathan, and I met in our college’s choir. He was a dancer and a singer in high school. He tells me of an awkward stage involving leg warmers and acne medication and asking a friend when football rehearsal was over. When we met on his first day of college, I was his assigned greeter, or what we called a hand holder, sitting with him while he waited to audition for the choir that I had already joined. What I noticed about Jonathan—after overcoming my fascination with his strange fashion choices, including a do rag, white t-shirt, tightly cinched pants and shirt cuffs—was that, though I was there to make him feel less nervous as he waited, he was not nervous at all.
The next time we met was in the basement storage room of the performing arts center. I, in my role as choir manager, was responsible for fitting the newly selected men for their tuxedos. This was my first time measuring inseams for men’s attire, and Jonathan, third in line, intervened. Clearly I looked as confused and mortified as I felt, awkwardly holding a measuring tape, trying to figure out how I was going to determine pant lengths for all these young men I did not yet know. “Have him hold the top, and you hold the bottom down by his ankle,”he suggested.
Ah. Ankle. That’s good. I can handle ankles.
But I think the night that our relationship moved from friendship to more than that was at the famed a cappella karaoke night. That evening, we sang each other’s songs. Which is not a euphemism. We actually sang each other’s solos from our respective a cappella groups. There were a lot of red plastic Solo cups in people’s hands that night, though not in his or mine.
He actually volunteered to sing my song, confidently and in full voice, which was a folky Tuck and Patty love song. Jonathan knows how to work a room. But I was then involuntarily pushed up to the front of the crowd as his group began the accompaniment to his signature song, “The Reflex”by Duran Duran. He typically performed with full choreography, and there was clearly some expectation that I would shimmy along with his group as they boogied down. I was completely terrified and uncomfortable and breathless and uncool and not at all uninhibited by the contents of a Solo cup. Yet he stood in the middle of the crowd and mouthed the words for me, smiling warmly the whole time.
In that moment of my vulnerability and his strength, my discomfort and his ease, and during many other moments in the next few years in which we flipped and flopped roles of lending support and revealing weaknesses, our friendship grew into understanding of and love for each other. We were able to give each other what we needed when working through our most difficult, most vulnerable moments.
There was the night, sitting in the middle of our college’s clay tennis courts, in which he—overwhelmed by his work and the high expectations and his exhaustion—confessed, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” And I told him he could, and we did. Together. We created our us and, eventually, our family. We sang Tuck and Patty while rocking our babies years later. And our kids still think we are so weird when we lapse into the fle-fle-fle-fle-flex refrain on road trips.
Back then, we didn’t think about selecting someone who had skills that complemented the other’s. We didn’t anticipate the need to tackle our own home improvements or the requirement that we support all of the different homework subjects. Or that one person’s musicality should be rounded out by the other’s athleticism. And therefore, given our poorly planned love, our house is repaired with duct tape and the kitchen faucet drips. Yet we have inadvertently managed to rock the homework subject coverage at the kitchen counter. And, although our three children each fall in their own unique place on the continuum between gregarious and introverted, luckily, between Jonathan and I, we truly understand them.
Yet without question, our weakest collective skill set is athleticism. Jonathan is a self-described great blue heron with sore knees when asked to assume an athletic stance. And I am awkward and clumsy and often find it difficult to walk across a room without tripping. Of course, as with home improvement and homework coverage, engineering well-rounded genetic loading for one’s potential offspring is not typically how one goes about choosing a mate. One is much more likely to be drawn to another who likes the same things, someone who also shows up to the same a cappella karaoke event.
This us, Jonathan and I. What we know from experience, despite our lack of sports expertise, is the importance of allowing oneself to feel and express one’s vulnerability. And we know the importance of where you place yourself in a crowd. As a couple, we are the result of the push and pull of social dynamics playing out while two people connected amidst a crowd’s pulse and noise. And we know how coming together—finding each other through an extended moment across the room—can evolve into a life together. A dance in which two people stop synchronizing themselves with those around them and fall into their own rhythm. Jonathan and I? We wish for nothing more than these moments, these connections, for our children.
Lately, I have been returning to that nervous, uncertain glance Nicholas shot me across the basketball court. About who I was, or perhaps wasn’t, for him in that moment. And about how Nicholas saw me, sitting among the spectators as well, caught up in my wonder at how our children are getting older and at how parenting requirements change with time. I lost sight of how this is all still about the connections, about forming the closest and strongest relationships we can with each other, relationships during our childhood serving as a springboard for embracing and moving out into the rest of the world. I want to change how I receive his searching look when it next comes my way. Though I know this will not always be the case, our children are still young enough that their raw and vulnerable glances are still directed at me.
Nicholas’s glance has also sent me back into my memory of that moment, albeit a more grown-up moment, between Jonathan and me so many years ago. Of the feeling of finding Jonathan across the crowd. And how that look moved us forward, shored us up, and helped us live. And the desire for connection with Jonathan is still there. I still hope for our eyes not to pass over each other, searching through the mess of parenting and work and distraction and stress. For our eyes to meet and linger, for this look to make the noise around us quiet. Once these intense and precious few days of parenting these beings has shifted and they move outward, that Jonathan and I will still be us, still finding each other, as the crowd thins and moves on. And for our growing children to see this, to know we are in the crowd for them now and for each other, available and strong. And for them to someday find this for themselves with another.
REBECCA STETSON WERNER lives in Portland, Maine, with her husband and three children. She has contributed to Taproot and Grounded Magazine; this is her second essay for Full Grown People. She writes about parenting, children’s books, and life in their very old home at treetoriver.com.
“Fear of fire, fear of lightning, fear of fire caused by lightning, fear of falling trees, and of those people who drive their cars into houses or gas stations because they confuse the brake with the gas. Once on Central Park West a man reached for my wrist as he said, “Can I ask you something?” but I didn’t let him. Fear of unasked questions that will never be answered. Fear of Rumpty-Dudget a character in a book, ‘Rumpty Dudget’s Tower,’ that I have never read, but whose worn blue spine I can sense on the bookshelf in my parents’ living room at all times, even now. Fear of women in high heels; fear of Mrs. Stein, my second grade teacher; fear of other people’s carelessness. Fear of small but deceptively sharp knives, like the Swiss Army knife that cut my brother’s finger so deep only one of my mother’s maxi-pads, with wings, could hold the blood. Fear of sirens, though only when I am driving and cannot tell where they are coming from; fear of North Korea; fear of visiting Turkey, where I was born, and not being allowed to leave. Fear that there is something really really wrong. Fear that there is nothing that can fix it.”
—A. Papatya Bucak, “I Cannot Explain My Fear”
My wife and I each paid twenty dollars to attend the one-night-only twenty-fifth anniversary screening of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street several years ago. This was at a point in our marriage where we probably couldn’t afford to blow forty dollars on a movie, but I had just started my first academic job and, for the first time, we had an annual household income of over $25,000, so we felt rich. More importantly, I love A Nightmare on Elm Street and was excited for the opportunity to see it on the big screen.
If you asked me for my favorite horror movie, I would honestly tell you that it’s The Shining. Kubrick’s use of tracking shots, Bela Bartok’s score, Shelly Duvall’s performance as an abused woman trying to survive in an icy, opulent hell—it’s all amazing and remains unnerving every time I watch it. But if I have a few beers tonight and decide I want to watch a scary movie, I’ll probably put something like Friday the 13th Part 3 in the DVD player. You can watch it in 3D in the comfort of your own home, you know. But more importantly, I find that cheesy slasher movies from the seventies and eighties just have their own sort of goofy charm. Yes, they’re violent, and more than a little misogynist. But it’s so hard for me to take them seriously at this point. Even though they were rated R, they seem, in their simple-minded black-and-white morality, childish to me. Not of the morally complicated adult world I live in, that’s for sure. So watching movies like these reminds me of my childhood, keeps me tethered to the dorky, horror-obsessed kid I was, and—I sometimes like to imagine—keeps me young.
Even before I saw my first horror movie, I found them fascinating. When I was a kid, my parents were diligent in shielding us from movie gore and anything remotely scary; the idea, I know, was to protect our impressionable minds from anything that might upset or disturb us, but I’m afraid it didn’t entirely work. In fact, as I got closer to my middle school years and realized that most of my friends had seen Halloween and Silent Night, Deadly Night, I became acutely aware that my parents had been sheltering me: there was a whole world of supernaturally-powerful serial killers and blood-thirsty demons out there. And though I understood, rationally, that these things only existed in movies, on some level I think I perceived something menacing about the adult world as a result of my parents’ zealous protection. After all, if there were nothing to really be afraid of, then why would I need to be protected?
But maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe my brother and I detected menace before becoming aware of these movies, and that’s what caused my parents to try to shield us from multiplex mayhem. I know that the witch in the Wizard of Oz scared me when I was a kid; so too did Dr. Banner’s transformation into The Incredible Hulk on TV. And my brother couldn’t stand to be in the room when The Electric Company started—the voice that yelled “Hey You Guys!” would cause him to cry if he heard it. And, truth be told, he was well into adulthood before he could force himself to watch the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the villain rips the guy’s heart out of his chest. So, perhaps my parents—realizing that their sons were high-strung and easily frightened—understood that they had to be on their toes when it came to shielding us from big-screen frights.
Or, maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing, and responsible parents just don’t let their kids watch R-rated movies full of naked breasts and chainsaw-wielding madmen who want to turn teenagers into barbecue sandwiches.
The bottom line is, by the time I was in the fifth grade, most of my friends had seen at least some of these movies, and I had not. I was fascinated by the very idea of these forbidden movies, what they said about the adult world, and why my parents felt the need to shield me even while my friends’ parents did not feel a similar need to shield them. Plus, there was that nagging suspicion—then, as adolescence was just on the horizon—that there was something more than a little lame about not knowing anything about these movies that were so important to my classmates. I was already beginning to understand that I was a dork—a label that would stay with me at least through the beginning of high school—and part of that dorkiness came, I understood, from my naïveté when it came to these elements of the popular culture that were so important to kids in the eighties.
I found my entrance into this world of horror that my friends knew so well one morning in the cafeteria before the first bell rang to send us to our classrooms. A kid I knew, Jeremy, had a book in front of him—The Nightmareson Elm Street, the official novelization of the first three Freddy Krueger movies. The films’ logo—which looked like it had been scribbled by a madman with a nerve disorder—was splashed across the cover, with Freddy’s razor-fingered glove hanging down, blades partially obscuring the title with the blood that dripped from them.
In all of my eleven years, I had never seen a book that looked so cool.
“Good book?” I asked him.
He nodded. “Yeah. The movies are better, though.”
Of course they were, I thought. “Why are you reading the book then?”
He shrugged. “I just really liked the movies.” I think he must have intuited my interest, because he said, “I’m almost done with it. I’ll bring it tomorrow, if you want to borrow it.”
Jackpot. Jeremy had allowed me to find a loophole in my parents’ “No Horror Movie” rule. They didn’t make R-rated books, after all—and weren’t my parents always on my case about reading anyway? Even if they found the book, I could always use their previously articulated arguments in favor of literacy against them. Finally, I had won. I would learn exactly what was so scary that my parents had felt the need to protect me.
I felt certain that reading the Nightmare on Elm Street book would allow me a deeper understanding of the real world.
I didn’t just read the book—I devoured it like a Romero zombie devours brains.
As I read it, I realized that books, too, could be scary. I had an imagination vivid enough to picture what it must have been like for Rod to see Tina’s sleeping body rudely lifted from the bed by an invisible force, shoved to the ceiling, and split open by unseen razor fingers. I could see Tina running from Freddy, his arms somehow long enough to stretch across the entire alley, affording her no escape. I could imagine Jesse’s dread as he came to realize that Freddy intended to possess his body in order to kill in the waking world.
The irony is, I probably would have been better off watching the movies, as far as my own fear went. When I finally saw the movies, I did find them scary, but I also realized that Rod and Tina were obnoxious and older than they should have been—they spoke the way people in their thirties think teenagers speak (“I woke up with a hard-on that had your name on it.” “Tina’s a four-letter word—your joint’s not big enough for four letters.”). The scene where Freddy chases Tina down the alley looked so fake that it made me giggle when I finally saw it for the first time. And Jesse was just an irritating whiner—if Freddy wants him so badly, let him have him, I’d later say.
But that’s not how I responded to the novelizations. No, the novelizations were simply terrifying, and—since Freddy Krueger killed kids in their sleep—I promptly resolved to never sleep again.
I didn’t actually make the decision consciously, of course. I may have had an overactive imagination and very little idea about how the real world worked, but I wasn’t an absolute moron. I knew, logically, that child murderers do not come back from the dead to haunt the dreams of the children whose parents burned them alive in their own boiler rooms. It just didn’t happen—and if it had, it would have been all over the news. No, if people could come back from the dead and hang out in people’s dreams, I was fairly certain that my grandfather would have checked in from time to time. The premise of the movies was not grounded in reality—it all came from this guy, Wes Craven, who wrote and directed the first movie. And, I could convince myself during the day, that guy probably lived in a mansion in Hollywood, surrounded by movie stars and supermodels, and hardly ever thought about this creation of his that was haunting me so.
That was my rational mind. But how many perfectly rational eleven-year-olds do you know—particularly when they’re in a dark room and the rest of the family is asleep and the house is making weird noises?
My parents realized pretty quickly that I seemed groggier than usual at breakfast, and that I was falling asleep while watching TV in the afternoon. And I eventually had to tell them that I wasn’t sleeping much at night anymore, and why. I can’t say my parents were angry with me, but nor were they particularly pleased. When all is said and done, I think the situation kind of annoyed them. “You’re not sleeping because you’re afraid that a boogeyman in a fedora hat that you read about in the adaptation to a movie you’ve never seen is going to kill you?” I don’t think that’s the type of question any father wants to ask his son.
As stupid as they surely found the situation, I have to say that my parents bent over backwards to help me to sleep again. No more drifting off in the afternoons. A big glass of warm milk before bed. God love them, at one point they even took me to our family doctor, apparently hoping that there was a pill or something that would make me forget to be such a neurotic coward. The doctor, for his part, seemed confused about what his role in this personal drama was supposed to be. “I would say,” he eventually concluded, “he needs to get over it and start sleeping again.”
Which is exactly what happened. As time passed, my terror over what I’d read faded. In a few weeks, it all seemed silly, and I was quite embarrassed by the whole episode. Scared by a movie character? How dumb. I promised myself that I would never mistake supernatural fiction for reality ever again.
I kept that promise, too. For several months. Until the USA Network showed Children of the Corn one afternoon when I was home sick, and the process repeated itself. Just as it would a year or so later when I saw Halloween for the first time. And then again with Friday the 13th. These movies terrified me as a kid, but I couldn’t stay away from them.
As an adult, it’s a rare and special thing to find a horror movie that’s genuinely scary. The Shining, The Exorcist, and Alien still retain the ability to unnerve, and I’ll occasionally find an older movie, like Bob Clark’s original Black Christmas, that really freaks me out. But too much of what passes for horror these days seems watered-down, or too outlandishly stupid to be taken seriously, or just not scary. I can’t imagine anyone watching the recent A Nightmare on Elm Street remake and actually getting frightened.
Of course, part of the problem is, I’ve found new things to be scared of. As it happens, my parents were shielding me from the menacing adult world; it was just the nature of the menace that I’d misunderstood. There are no doll serial killers or leather fetishist demons with pins in their heads—instead, there are religious extremists with bombs. There are factories dumping carcinogens into streams. There are people who think a life devoted to literature and art is simply decadent. There’s waterboarding.
I fear that my writing is mediocre at best. I fear that my wife no longer finds me as physically attractive as she used to. I fear that I’ll never realize my dream of becoming a tenured professor. I fear impotence. School shootings. Stand your ground laws. Getting drunk and revealing how offensive and obnoxious my internal monologue actually is. Cancer. Being revealed as the academic and artistic fraud I’m pretty sure I am. That my parents will die. That my wife will decide she no longer loves me.
These are the things that terrify me. Sometimes, the only way to calm my nerves and quell the fear is to turn my brain off and watch a madman with a butcher’s knife stalk and then kill some babysitters.
The twenty-fifth anniversary screening of A Nightmare on Elm Street was kind of a bust, actually. I had this idea that the theater would be filled with aging Gen-Xers excited to recapture the experience of being a child of the 1980s again. And there were a few of us like that in the audience. But there was also a group of about fifteen teenagers sitting down in front, and they were pretty rowdy—shouting things at the screen, giggling, running around the theater, making and receiving phone calls. My shushing got louder as the movie went on; a woman roughly my age sitting nearby eventually shouted at the kids, “Shut the fuck up!”
“This is ridiculous,” I kept whispering to my wife.
“Do you want to go complain?” was her constant reply.
I didn’t. I didn’t want to be the type of person who gets annoyed with young people. I didn’t want to be someone who gets angry at the sound of teenagers laughing. I hated the idea that I was the type of grumpy old man who said things like “Get off my lawn!” or who had groups of teenagers thrown out of places because of shenanigans and tomfoolery.
Towards the end of the movie, as Nancy is setting her traps for Freddy, one of the teenage girls came walking up the aisle, gabbing into her phone.
“Oh I know,” she said, “it’s soooooo stupid, but funny…”
As she walked past me, I leaned towards the aisle and shushed her as loud as I could.
She stopped and adjusted the phone so that it wasn’t near her mouth. I was expecting her to whisper “Sorry,” but instead she looked right at me and shouted, “Shut up!”
I was shocked, startled both by her viciousness and the phrase that entered my head immediately: “My God, I would never have spoken that way to an adult when I was her age.”
When I was her age. Back in the day. The good old days? The grown-ups I knew when I was a kid didn’t think so—they thought we were out of control, with crack cocaine, gangs, drive-by shootings, casual sex, and N.W.A. Of course, their parents thought they were out of control, with their LSD, free love, campus protests, left-wing radicals, and The Beatles.
Unexpectedly, I did experience fear that night—the fear that comes from knowing that, somewhere along the line, you became old without realizing it, and you’ll never know the reckless energy of youth again.
WILLIAM BRADLEY’s work has appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including Utne Reader, The Normal School, The Bellevue Literary Review, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, and The Missouri Review. This is his second essay for Full Grown People. He lives in Canton, New York, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University, and he has recently completed a collection of essays that link to form an unconventional memoir about love, loss, and pop culture obsessions. He also recently found a very cheap used copy of The Nightmares on Elm Street novelization, which he thinks he might re-read this summer. He’ll let you know if he ever sleeps again.
Nothing is simple. Nothing is pure. Sorrow folds inside the wings of happiness. And, as Louise Bogan says, “At midnight tears run into your ears.”
Late last April, when the fist of winter in Michigan was finally letting go, I sat in my tiny office and received the news that my essay “The Art of Being Born” had been selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays. I let out a little whooping sound that died quickly, and then I bounded into the hall looking for someone to tell. The hall was empty. I took big gulps of air and sighed. I even hit my chest to quiet its banging. Returning to my office, my euphoria began to trouble me. Didn’t I remember how once before, when I was carried away with my own good fortune, I looked through the windows of my dining room and watched as my neighbor’s hospital bed was wheeled out the front door? Roger had died that morning, the morning of my good news.
Nothing is simple, no one emotion comes without the accompaniment of another, the wolf inside the grandmother, the tears running into the ears.
And sure enough I lost my balance.
In those early moments when the trees were finally leafing out and the world seemed warm and green again, I had only happy thoughts. I marveled at how an essay I had written for my daughter, detailing the day of her birth would be making its way to a larger audience. And then something brought me to a halt just as that hospital bed bumping down the front steps of the Gifford’s house had tutored me in the scale of human suffering.
The Saturday evening before Mother’s Day, my daughter called, the Clare whose birth I wrote about in “The Art of Being Born.”
“Could you put the speaker phone on,” she asked, “so I can speak to you and Daddy?” As we moved into the bedroom I thought that she might be calling to tell us she was in love. She’s at the age when it wouldn’t be surprising news.
No, it was nothing like that. She called to tell us she had cancer. I don’t remember what words she said. My head was pounding too loudly to absorb everything she said. She tried to soften the blow, put a positive spin on it. I remember she said, If you have to have cancer, thyroid cancer is the kind to have. She was having a routine physical, and the doctor thought she felt something unusual in the area where the thyroid resides. She didn’t think it was anything, Clare said, but just to be sure, she told Clare to have a biopsy.
Clare joked with her friends that she had goiter, and she hadn’t been in a rush to have the biopsy done. She had just gotten the results a few days ago and they were positive. She did not call us with the news right away, I noted. It had taken a day or two for her to compose herself. She and her doctor felt certain they had caught the cancer early and that the prognosis was good.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Her doctor had shielded Clare from the more complicated scenario. And Clare, in turn, shielded us, minimizing her illness at every turn. A few days later, the specialist ordered more biopsies. The cancer wasn’t contained to the thyroid; they hadn’t caught it early, and the removal of the thyroid was no longer going to be enough because the cancer had spread into the lymph nodes in the neck. Now she was going to have to have a radical neck dissection.
Mother’s Day was cold. As if the weather was in concert with my internal revolution, it snowed. A week before when the weather suggested spring, friends had invited my husband and me to ride our bikes to the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing. I wasn’t in any mood to go to the zoo or ride my bike through the snow. I was in shock. We should have bailed on the outing, but we didn’t. I’m not sure why. Unbelievably, we thought it would be easier to go than to cancel. Or maybe we were just frozen. We both felt an obligation to be as positive as Clare was being. I felt her presence in everything I did or didn’t do, and I knew she would be upset if we cancelled.
We went to the zoo with our friends, but we were shaken. I hadn’t been to the zoo in over a decade. Zoos have always been mixed affairs for me. On the one hand, it’s the only way to come into contact with wild animals, to be in their presence for a few moments. On the other, I can’t glory in them for long without thinking about their caged existence, how their world has been shrunk to the size of whatever exhibit that the zoo was able to construct. Each exhibit is accompanied by signage that narrates a sad fate. Almost all the stories are of loss —the word endangered comes up over and over, shocking tales of the disappearance of habitat, poaching, with only the slightest ray of hope that something can be done in time. In time.
The others had moved inside the reptile house. I stood outside the bars of the snow leopard exhibit remembering the last time I had stood there with my children. I wondered if the snow leopard high up on the rock ledge, whose great grey eyes could be seen despite the camouflage by trees and shrubs and dusting of snow, was the same leopard I had seen before, or had that leopard died? I learned Serena is the current resident, born in captivity and fourteen years old, which would make it probable that she was the same snow leopard I remembered. Famously reclusive animals, they don’t come down to preen close to the front of the exhibit where we would be able to see the deep grey and black rosettes on her body and the smaller spots on her head clearly. They hold themselves apart and, as in Yeats’s epitaph, cast a cold eye “on life, on death.”
A child several feet away said to his mother, the animals don’t look happy. And it was true. The Amur tigers in the next exhibit—what was supposed to pass as a range– paced in agitated circles, never settling down. When they looked in my direction, they looked angry, waiting for something that would never come. Just then the snow leopard rose up onto her wide paws, flicked her enormously long tail and leapt from her ledge across the open space to another rock where she landed softly as she must have thousands of times in her fourteen years of captivity.
Shaken, shaken, shaken, that’s what I was. The cold eye of the snow leopard, practiced in a kind of dying every day, was beyond me. There’s nothing like thinking your child is safe and finding she is not and knowing nothing you can do will help. Everyone says this. I will hear it many times in the months to come and it will be true each time. Terrible things happen and we are daily surrounded by the news of them, but this wasn’t a terrible thing happening to someone else—it was happening to my child, the child I had carried inside me and given birth to and held on my chest, the child who had changed my life in every conceivable way, who had made me jump across the abyss and love her.
I had spent much of my early adulthood steadfastly believing I didn’t want children. I had doubts about my fitness as a mother born primarily from having been raised by a mother whose troubles had shaped my life. But as I started to turn away from the damage of my early life, I wanted to make the journey from young woman to mother, a journey, it turns out, that never ends, and decided to risk the free fall of childbirth.
In the last moments of my labor with Clare, she went into distress and I was wheeled into surgery. Despite pleas to stop pushing, I couldn’t and as she crowned my midwife could see what was causing the distress—the umbilical cord had wrapped around Clare’s neck. Each time I pushed, the cord tightened, cutting off her air. The mother knot, child and mother tied together, the essential couple. The midwife’s quick hands undid the cord and set Clare free. For a moment, though, things were complicated, one thing attached to another, life attached to death, nothing simple, nothing pure, one thing turned into another in a blink of an eye. And though that first cord was cut, Clare and I are not severed. There is nothing that undoes me from her even as life undoes itself. Perhaps it would be better to be as practiced in resignation as the snow leopard perched on her allotted rock and not like the tigers who wait for what might never come, but I can’t. I won’t.
Mandolin? Mandoline? I’ve never been able to figure out the pronunciation of this device or how it connects to music. I have angered it. It has just sliced lengthwise through my right thumb.
I have been battling a series of small but debilitating injuries since I hit my fourth decade—an ankle orthoscopy, plantar fasciitis, arthritic knees, unexpected bursitis in my shoulder. It’s old hat now. Maybe this explains why my first thought is the purely prosaic: “Fuck. Now I can’t finish dinner.”
But there the potato sits, half scalloped; there is the mandoline, so swift and clean in its retribution that I do not bleed until several seconds after I hang my thumb under the running faucet.
The water begins to turn a deep shade of rose. Anthropomorphizing the mandoline is a bad idea. Inaccurate. I turn my hand over, gingerly, and see that there is no flesh behind a portion of my thumbnail.
The shaking starts.
“Honey?” I call.
I have slung my teacher’s bag onto my single shoulder, often dozens of pounds, unprotected, for over a decade. In a misguided fit of back-to-nature, I spent a summer in “minimalist” sneakers, not realizing that my tendons weren’t strong enough to handle the strain. And what preventable loss of focus drew me away from noticing where my fingers had gone today?
Surely, as with all truths, the reality is a confluence of things both within and outside of my control, but I realize as I clutch the bloody paper towels around my hand that this doesn’t matter. I have already decided that I have not earned the right to cry.
I take deep, shuddering breaths over and over as I sit in the lobby of the urgent care facility. “I can’t scare the kids,” I keep thinking, although the kids aren’t there.
My husband negotiates the paperwork.
“You have to sign these,” he finally says, grimacing.
The irony makes me laugh, softly, and then a little hysterically.
I grip the pen between my index and middle fingers and, by the fourth form, I have managed something like my name.
“I am not going to be your friend right now,” says the nurse and briskly dumps a syringe full of saline onto my thumb. I am glad my husband is still outside finishing up the papers, so he doesn’t hear my swallowed scream.
A doctor pauses only long enough in the exam room to assure me that I have not damaged any nerves or tendons, that nothing drastic is needed for healing, and to explain that they will place a special foam on my thumb to stop the bleeding. “Okay?” he says. His mouth smiles, and his eyes say, “Now is when I need to smile.”
“Okay,” I say, and he has left before the second syllable hits the air.
The nurse, my husband, and I joke about “Carrot Guy” who came in just before me (now dubbed “Potato Girl”) as the nurse binds me tightly with a pressure dressing and compliments me on my pain tolerance.
I’m grateful. Really. I’ve seen a few doctors recently, and I’m grateful for them all, no matter how busy they are. I try to catch the nurse as we leave, but he wishes us a cheerful goodbye, determinedly eye-contactless, and starts rapidly wiping up the drops of blood I have scattered on the floor. It’s six o’clock, and the office is closing.
My husband scoops up the mandoline the minute we get home. It was expensive, but I don’t feel the slightest bit unhappy about watching him pitch the whole thing into the garbage can, scalloped thumb slice still stuck to the underside. We agree that you’re better off with a plain old knife. You can see where it’s going.
Three days later, I find out what I did to myself officially. It’s Ingrid who tells me, my primary care doctor. She’s unhappy, in the way doctors are unhappy who don’t want to besmirch their colleagues.
“They didn’t give you bandages that wouldn’t stick to the wound?” she says lightly but frowning. The nurse who took me in said something similar but far less diplomatically.
Ingrid has just come back from seeing the patient scheduled after me, allowing me to sit in an examination room and soak the dressing off my thumb in warm salt water. It takes almost an hour. I’ve had to work at it, pulling gently, literally asking my skin aloud to let go of the material and hoping that no one can hear me. The wound is reopened and throbbing out little tendrils of blood into the water by the time it agrees.
I’m disoriented by Ingrid’s question, because she’s staring right at me and typing into her health care software at the same time, without looking at her fingers. It hits me belatedly that she’s doing this on purpose, to make sure I don’t feel sidelined by what her hands are doing.
“It’s called degloving, what you did,” she says. I laugh until I realize that she is using an actual medical term. I am struck by its poetry.
She fills a bag with non-stick gauze, soft antibiotic ointment, and magical bandages that are impregnated with Vaseline, and she redresses my hand. She takes her own right hand and wordlessly rubs my knee for comfort.
I am turning in a tight circle, flapping my arm around as I try to shake off my bathrobe.
“Ah! A penguin in need of assistance!” says my husband, in the plummy tones of Superman.
I grumble wordlessly as the robe drops off my wrist just as I was about to take him up on his offer. As a pair mismatched almost exactly by a foot (I’m five foot three), we have evolved a silent vocabulary of gestures to indicate when I could use a taller person to step in. Standing forlornly in the kitchen with my hand floating in midair means, “Please get that damn coffee mug off the top shelf,” for example. Approaching him silently from behind with a light bulb is also effective.
Today, though, I unequivocally need him not because of my bathrobe, but because I can’t hook my bra straps together. It’s one of those tasks, I discover, which demands working opposable thumbs. I am more and more aware of these kinds of minute movements. I collect them, the way I used to collect small semiprecious gems in grade school. The heel kicks back to close a door when my hands are filled. The fingers hook the collar of a t-shirt to toss it up over the head. The shoulders, astonishingly, comply. Garnets. Rose quartz. Fool’s gold.
My husband, with fingers too large for these delicacies, is fumbling with hooks and eyes. “How do you people do this?” he mutters.
But he was the first to gently pull away the bloody paper towels and just as gently shoo the kids to the neighbors’ house and bundle me into the car. He reached across the seat and buckled me in with the same calm as when he held my hand, almost a decade ago, while I contracted blindly and endlessly to bring our two babies into the world. He saw both resulting c-sections performed behind the curtain placed in front of my head. He was too tall for it to obscure the view.
I finish my ablutions in the bathroom, wrapping up my thumb, lower palm, and wrist with the magic Ingrid bandages, then gauze, then cloth tape.
When I am finished, I open and close my four free fingers over the resulting thick tube for several moments, as if I am making a shadow puppet duck. This shape is reminding me of something, but it takes a while to bring it back.
It’s mittens. I remember suddenly, out of nowhere, how I would stay out for so long on snow days that ice would coalesce into small hail-like balls on the knitted wrists, with strands of wool as their nuclei. I remember the gritty feeling of the wool scraping across my mouth as I took off the mittens with my teeth.
My eleven-year-old daughter has just ripped open a package of litmus papers we’ve ordered for her school science fair project—she’s cleaning pennies with solutions of varying acidities. Once she discovers the rainbow of results, however, she becomes an unstoppable cyclone of litmus testing.
“Oh! Orange juice!” I hear her gasp, and the fridge door rattles open.
I am deciding at our laptop, after a long internal debate, that I’m going to post about my accident on Facebook. I’m preternaturally sensitive to sounding like I’m whining on social media.
I don’t define “degloving” in my post on purpose, hoping people will feel its weird beauty as I did. This turns out, amusingly, to not have been the best idea.
“WORST.GOOGLE.IMAGE.SEARCH.EVER,” a friend responds.
“What else, what else?” my daughter ruminates out loud. “Hair spray!”
“Oh god, it’s not that bad,” I type back, after seeing for myself what “degloving” brings up.
“Bleach!” my daughter sings out.
“Wait, hang on, you don’t have—” I call to her, but she’s already flung herself down into the basement where we do our laundry.
I lurch up from the computer and down into the basement after her, thinking to find her some latex gloves to use. She’s perversely saddened that we don’t have enough corrosive bases in the house for her to get the deep plum shade of the higher numbers of PH.
I don’t find gloves. She could care less. She brightens when she discovers that at least in the PH world, there appears to be no difference between slamming a glass of cranberry juice or one of red wine vinegar. This is good to know.
On the way back up from the basement, I pass the shelf where we store our less-used cooking contraptions. My eyes pass over the standing mixer, the apple peeler, the cherry pitter, and I shudder. I realize that I have now renamed this shelf in my head “Things That Can Hurt Me Really Badly.”
What is getting older but a yawing, a slipping and widening, of that shelf to hold more and more things? Pots. Pans. The stairs. My ankles. Ice. My blood pressure. My brain.
I look down at my hand. How on earth am I going to do this?
My daughter tears off another strip of litmus paper. “Maybe I can spit on it,” she says thoughtfully.
I can’t help it. I laugh, loud and long, and she joins me.
Just before I go to bed, I notice there’s a new comment on my Facebook thumb post. It’s from Rachel, an old college friend, whipsmart and wonderful.
“This is why we don’t own a mandoline,” she writes. “Or a mandolin, which is what autocorrect wants me to own.”
At least I’m not the only one. As I settle down to sleep I picture a clueless, cartoon Autocorrect and I, with a potato in one hand and a mandolin in the other, looking confused.
I cradle my bandaged hand in the crook of my left arm. I’ve re-wrapped it once more, once a day, as Ingrid showed me. “Don’t roll over on it,” my husband says sleepily, already in bed. My daughter is reading quietly about bacteria cultures in her room. The ibuprofen kicks in.
You’re not always going to see where the knife is going. Sometimes you’re going to look for a stringed instrument to make music, and find it is a bloody blade instead.
But what else is there to do? You reach out. You strip off your gloves. You play.
DINA STRASSER is a language arts educator of many stripes. She has been published in the New York Times, The London Times Online, and Orion Online, and she runs an award-winning blog on education at http://theline.edublogs.org. This is her second essay for Full Grown People.
The moment I poured the runnier-than-my-usual batter into the pan, I had a feeling. I had an hour or so on Saturday morning to make this cake—before I took my nearly six year-old-daughter to her gymnastics class. Later that day came the party. For the eleven children in attendance, I still needed pizza, gluten-free cupcakes for the girl allergic to gluten who’d bring her own pizza, and some ice cream maybe. It’s safe to say that by this—our fourth turning-six-years-old party—we’ve become relaxed. To call dancing a theme would be stretching it. To say we’d prepared would be stretching it.
That the cake did not come out of the pan in one piece wasn’t a surprise. Even the help of a carefully wielded spatula, the larger part of the cake headed to the wire rack with a halfhearted momentum, accompanied by the sad inertia from the rest still glommed to the pan.
A friend called right as I began to contemplate cake triage.
Her kids were fine. Her brother wasn’t. “He’d gotten clean,” she launched in. “And then he stole my stepmom’s jewelry.”
This guy had been in and out of trouble, more in than out, for years. His parents disagreed at this point about what to do. He stayed with them much of the time, because he was out of work. His mom—my friend’s stepmom—was at a rope’s end, and the jewelry theft—family treasures much more than dollar values—made her feel violated, stripped of all dignity. “She just wants him out. It must have felt so hostile,” she said of her stepmother’s response. “I can understand how she feels, although I don’t relate to jewelry like that.”
“Your dad?” I asked.
“He can’t abide the possibility that my brother would hurt someone else or himself,” she says. “He wants to have my brother on his watch, because he says he couldn’t live with himself if something happened and they were estranged.” The something my friend’s father imagined: homicide or suicide.
“I guess you never want to give up on your child, and yet you know that unless he gets help and it works, this can’t end well,” I said.
If you try to spackle chocolate cake with yellow frosting, you get little crumbled bits of chocolate cake interspersed in your thick yellow paste no matter how hard you try not to, like tiny flecks of dirt. “This cake could be on Cakewrecks,” I said. I had just enough frosting and enough salvageable cake to restore about three-quarters of the disastrous top layer, the one I’d meant to be the bottom layer.
“It’s made with love,” she reasoned. “It’s cake, and you put it in a bowl with ice cream and no one notices.”
I had already decided this particular cake required ice cream. In the morning, I’d told myself I had just enough time to make a cake. I’d done so little for this party and asked myself why should the smallest one lose out on a homemade cake? The bakeries that offered pretty decorations had shut down and no way would I buy a supermarket cake, for no reason other than I didn’t want to. My cakes are generally good. They are generally pretty enough. Not so this time. Then again, it wasn’t my son stealing my jewelry to buy heroin so there was that.
“Small children, small problems, big children, big problems,” I quoted one of those in-the-ether parenting aphorisms.
“Ooh boy, I know. I can’t imagine what I’d do,” she said. Her oldest is four. She cannot imagine. That’s the truth. My oldest is eighteen and I can’t imagine but more so. Enough distress of the way-beyond-Band-Aids kind has occurred now to make me appreciate how small the small children problems really are. I let myself marvel at my cake in this light and was surprised by how unworried I felt by its imperfection. It’s a cake. It’s not a drug addicted, jewelry thieving son. Let my problems start and end at cake—memorably cakewrecked cake. If only the wish could make it so.
A few weeks ago for some work-related research, I had to read through a stack of alumnae quarterlies’ class notes sections. According to convention, class notes start with the earliest classes and advance in time. The most recent grads go last. This means the first pages focus solely upon who died. Reports then drift back through the life cycle: ailments, assisted living and family travel, retirement, adventurous travel, gatherings of friends and grandchildren, professional accomplishments and empty nests, full nests, babies, weddings, engagements, first jobs. You can see years like ribbons—swaths of experiences, one after another across the thick, matte pages. Stories repeated.
One of the milestones that many women described were their seventy-fifth birthday celebrations. Quite a few took trips: with children or spouses or friends, to far-off places or somewhere cushy for family gatherings. That was the week my mother turned seventy-five. When I called to wish her a happy birthday, she remembered how hard her sixtieth birthday had been. Her sister had cancer and was only a few weeks from death. She was just a month shy of sixty-five.
“We did this big Chinese dinner with our closest friends when I turned sixty,” my mom recalled. “It was as if, in the face of everything that hurt we had to affirm the friendships. I didn’t feel like celebrating at all, not at all. I was so sad. In retrospect, until then, other than my divorce, I really hadn’t experienced loss.”
Following her sister’s death, my mother got a crash course in loss, including but not limited to her brother-in-law’s death and her mother’s. We did, too; ours included my father-in-law’s death and two of my peers, both of whom had small children.
We’d been so stunned by all the losses—numbed, crushed, battered, humbled, calloused. By the time we weren’t in the midst of some crisis, I felt different. There was no more denying the inevitability that life ends. Although I felt heartbroken more than once, I also felt more grateful, even for the hard parts. I understood that it was a privilege to get to be sad.
It turned out that my mother spent the weekend before her seventy-fifth birthday in search of a nursing home for her brother-in-law. He’s younger than she is, but his MS has progressed that far. “Nursing homes are depressing places,” she told me. Both of her parents managed to avoid them. I asked how about her birthday celebration. She and my stepfather had gone out to lunch. “We’re both so defeated,” she said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to muster energy to do anything more than that. I couldn’t have pretended to have fun today.”
Unlike the women who wrote of their milestone travel adventures or spa vacations with their female family members, my mother has no such plans. “The girlfriends’ lunch is in a couple of weeks,” she reported when I suggested the celebration didn’t have to happen that very day. She knows my sister in California will make cake with her three girls and that when she and I go with my kids to Florida next month, we’ll eat ice cream from the homemade ice cream place we ride a trolley to reach. None of that—ice cream and cake with her grandchildren—would be notable enough that she’d think to submit to the alumnae quarterly for her college.
So much doesn’t go into the class notes. What of those moments? The burning baby tummies and bottoms of feet, their slack eyes and wan skin that made the red cheeks look clownish. The first time I experienced it, there were two sick, the baby and the preschooler. The labored breaths and the gloppy, encrusted noses, the coughs like wounded seals, and all that heat—and it was on me because their dad had it too. So did our housemate. By the time I’d reached the doctor’s office, I’d wrung about a million tepid washcloths between them.
While I clutched seven-month-old-baby, the doctor patted my arm. We were standing in the exam room. “I’d like to get a chest x-ray,” she said. “If the baby has pneumonia, we want to treat it, but it’s hard to tell when they’re so little.” I couldn’t say anything just then. I’m sure I looked crazed, crestfallen, and scared. “It’s okay—it’s a precaution to check,” she reassured me and added, “You’ll never forget this.”
This: the illness that filled the house with all that labored breathing and filled me with exhaustion and panic in equal measure. This: the patience needed to care for all those patients. And beyond our household, more exhaustion and patience and panic while my mother’s sister, my beloved aunt was dying and my father-in-law had just received a diagnosis of myeloma. There was no place calm. No one could really help us and there was no way to help anyone else beyond the sick people I could touch. Islands of illness—and only ours promised a happy ending.
It was snowing. Big flakes flew at the windshield and tossed slickness on the roads. The flakes fell by the handful. I leaned in toward the windshield to squint between the wiper swipes, and I gripped the steering wheel as if I held tight enough, it would take over and deliver me safely to my destination. I am never a happy driver in the snow, and that day I was even less happy with the sick baby in the backseat and the need to pass home for the hospital. Cars inched along, the roads narrowed by snow. The tracks where tires tread muddied by sand and salt remained slick despite the intervention.
At the hospital, the x-ray technicians fawned over my chubby, ill baby. I stripped him down to a diaper as requested, his hot, velveteen skin under my rough, desperate hands. The way you take a chest x-ray for a baby unable to stand is this: You place him in a cylindrical plastic contraption, which holds him upright, his arms aloft so that the machine can capture an image of what’s beneath the skin. His chubby fingers waved like tassels to some comical, fleecy hat atop his head. “He’ll cry,” the technician promised. “That’s good. We want him to cry because crying expands the lungs so we get a good image.”
He cried as they placed him in the cone-shaped seat and pulled his hands up onto the top of his head. Then, all set in the odd little seat, he smiled at the technician.
“We’ve never had a baby smile here,” she said, as she stepped away toward the switch. “Maybe, he’ll get bothered, now that he’s alone.”
Nope. He just chilled in the seat with those tassel fingers and smiled. The technicians paused. “He’s a happy baby,” one concluded. “Let’s try to take the image,” she suggested and they did.
“I hope this works,” the technician said, as I slipped my sick baby back into his clothes. I added the possibility that the x-ray would be inconclusive to my long list of worries. I took him home.
He did not have pneumonia. Eventually, the household recovered. After that storm, which went on for a couple of days, like a prairie blizzard, there was a thaw. I walked to town.
The sun shone and the snow melted with such palpability it was as if we all were thawed ourselves. The high thirties felt like summer. Snow dropped in clumps from trees and in sheets from roofs, and there were puddles the size of swimming pools on the sidewalks and streets. I reached town and ate a frozen yogurt cone outside. I turned my head to drink in the sun. I gulped the fresh, warm air, grateful to be removed from the house and the clinging arms, the hot skin, the raw winter and for a few minutes to feel myself alone. It was my first outing away from everyone since illness overtook.
Anxiety and sadness flashed there, too, blinding as sunshine. My aunt, my strong, tall, smart, capable aunt, she was practically gone and my mother was inconsolably sad. Unlike my parents’ divorce when I was a child, there wouldn’t be a next chapter to imagine that could exactly ameliorate her loss. Sure, we all understood life would go on and we’d experience happiness again. You don’t get a second sister if you have one, though. Besides, right then, the loss loomed so close, like all those big snowflakes that had walled us in. I took more breaths. I clomped back in my soggy boots, my pants legs soaked. I cried on the way home. The sunshine and freedom gave me the chance to cry. I couldn’t let in the idea that all this might happen again, with my father-in-law, but then it did—about eighteen months later.
The thing that salvaged the cake wasn’t the ice cream, although I got both chocolate and vanilla. (We had more takers for chocolate; the vanilla was much better.) I bought rainbow sprinkles. I stuck two Playmobil figures, a knight and a princess on the low platform left by the lack of a complete top layer. I stuck two red plastic toothpicks with big lips bright as Taylor Swift’s red pucker. I placed all seven candles, six plus the one for a new year around the top layer’s ledge. The cake blazed; the loving lips and the smiling figures led the way. She blew. Her friends clapped. The candlelight danced against the glint in her happy, nearly six-year-old eyes. The imperfection didn’t change her joy. Imperfection really never does. The trick, I guess, if it’s a trick, is to see where you slip from problems you can spackle together with butter and confectioners’ sugar to the ones that require something else—and the ones that simply require your acceptance of them as part of a natural order. I saw the cake and heard the six year-olds’ squeals and remembered to look at it all.
SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER has had essays in the New York Times, Salon, the New Haven Review, and Brain, Child magazine amongst others. Her articles have recently appeared in American Craft, Ceramics Monthly, and Berkshires Magazine. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and is on twitter: @standshadows.
I moved when the birds flew away, when the squirrels had planted their meals in the dirt, and the trees shook off their skins. It was the beginning of my twenty-third winter. I packed unwashed clothes into a suitcase while my parents were at work. Suddenly I lived in Delaware, with my girlfriend Jen and her dog, Tubby.
Tubby did not belong to me at first. He was only my girlfriend’s dog. He was just a shedding thing who interrupted our kisses. I watched her play with him, jumping up and down, both smiling, as the floor squeaked and his mouth gummed her arms and his orange fur fell into the air and her long curls flew around her shoulders. I loved her.
One morning, Jen tried to put drops in Tubby’s ears. She coaxed him sweetly, petting him. His ears went back and his eyes closed in happiness. She grabbed the drops and stepped towards him, still speaking carefully. He saw the bottle and hid behind me. Tubby looked at me, and his eyes, a deep, sad, amber-brown, asked me to protect him. I stood still, not allowing Jen near his quivering body; his trust came so suddenly.
I started to walk him in the morning after she went to work, the ground freezing with winter. We walked across dark asphalt and around traffic, far from the apartment, to find a spot with grass and gnarled plants. Waddling from arthritis, he spent most of his time sniffing the ground, making no noises, except the occasional sneeze. I began to talk to him. Mostly about nothing. Then I spoke about my morning, my worries. I asked him if Jen would be safe and come home to us. I told him that I was scared I would not find a job, or even worse, that I would.
The weather darkened the mornings, and my fingers became red and numb in the chill. I searched out two pairs of gloves and wore both sets at the same time. He watched me as I layered my clothes before we ventured out. If we managed to leave at an early enough hour, I would sing to Tubby, knowing no one else would cross our paths. I couldn’t tell if he noticed my song.
Inside the apartment, I sat on the couch with my computer, my legs folded beneath me. He watched me. I didn’t have food, yet he came near me to be touched. He fell asleep with his head on my slipper. If I got up to wash dishes or to make lunch, his amber eyes watched me go, and his ears stood alert for my return.
One night, the sun was setting early and it was dark at seven. I stared at the ground, as I always did when we walked. The grass crunched under my boots. Suddenly I stopped. There was a form before me—a squirrel, dead in the brown grass. The night made its fur glint black and its eyes glow. Everything turned still. I shivered and pulled Tubby out of its path. He was uninterested. Streets and fences and the grass darkened, the world black except for the eyes of the corpse. I wanted someone to run to. I didn’t want to tell Jen. I wanted to seem strong. I was alone in my fear.
Snow started to fall too often, covering Tubby’s grass. His paws gathered ice when we walked. I wore layers that made me round and genderless. With every footfall, I wondered what would happen if my booted foot stepped on the squirrel, buried under six to eight inches of hardened snow. On the way back, I followed my old frozen footprints because they were safe. Tubby sniffed the fences and made new prints.
One week, the snow stopped falling and everything began to drip. I saw the squirrel, dead and asleep, gnawed and frozen. I made a note of its place in my path—past the first tree but before the bend in the fence. I walked every day with Tubby, avoiding the squirrel, sucking in my breath as we came near it, breathing out hot air when we passed. Tubby walked back to the apartment slowly—he pretended he was old and sick. I knew better. I had seen him run, towards the hidden grass, beyond the buried squirrel, towards the fresh air. He did not notice death. He was never afraid.
Jen left our bed every day at seven a.m. to go to work. It was hard to let her go. I woke up wrapped in our pink sheets, her smell lingering next to me. It escaped as soon as I tried to breathe it in. I fell back into dreams, listening to the sound of hot rain pelting the white tub. She kissed me awake. I felt her breasts against my skin as she bent over, pale and soft and warm and dewed. Her hair flew around her shoulders, and I could smell the sweet shampoo. I pulled her close. One more kiss and she had to leave, to dress herself and drive through the cold to a tall building full of things to do. Some days I cried. I needed her and was left in an empty apartment. I was left to look for jobs online. Left to write. Left to take care of the dog. Some days I begged her to stay home. I knew we needed money, but some days, I did not care.
In my first grown-up winter, I did not think I would get used to solitude. The sounds of the apartment scared me, the banging of the heat adjusting, the ticking slats of the blinds nudging each other, the refrigerator making ice cubes. I tried to fill the place with television sounds, familiar voices booming from another place. I got lost staring at the white popcorn ceiling. I saw lopsided faces and dancing ghosts.
Nine months ago, my life was filled with tons of faces, buzzing, caring, laughing, and yelling. There was always noise. I could hear my college roommates baking bread and stacking dishes. There was always music playing in the apartments next door. I spent my parents’ money on beer and mac and cheese. There were always assignments, parties, meetings—always things to be done and I was happy never to have time to be alone. Time in my own company was spent in the shower or behind my eyelids in a dream.
When classes finished, we waited for the day when we would put on cheap robes and end our college days in front of hundreds of satisfied eyes. I stared out of my bedroom window, watching summer burn the grass, and ran outside in a bathing suit to sit on towels with my friends.
Soon, I would be standing in the snow alone, helping my dog find the grass. When I found my way back to the apartment I shared with Jen, I took off my coat, my hat, my two layers of gloves, my socks, and my boots. I looked at my matted hair and red cheeks in the hall mirror. Tubby sloppily licked the ice off of his paws. I wanted to show Jen my snow-covered boots and my red cheeks. I wanted to hear her praise. She did not come back from work until the sun set.
It kept snowing. The sky was always grey and the ground was always white. I thought the snow looked like freshly grated parmesan cheese. I wondered if I should give a more flattering name to this celestial gift. I eyed the frozen cars and slippery roads from under my blue hood. I felt my skin flush in the nineteen-degree air, through which thirteen-mile-an-hour winds jerked at me and the dog at 8:30 in the morning. I walked home on cheese-covered roads.
Most nights, I sat nuzzling in my girlfriend’s lap, my head resting on her chest. Those types of evenings kept me standing. I longed for days where we sat around in oversized sweatpants and forgot about our empty bank accounts and frozen grass and the car with the broken headlight, and we simply lounged in one another’s warmth, sleeping in our smiles. One Wednesday, she was home from work because of snow. The weekend winked at us. Jen’s phone buzzed, jumping on the wooden end table. She picked it up, and her soft face tightened. Her uncle Brian was in the ICU. He had fallen and hit his head. He was unconscious and not breathing on his own.
Jen comes from a giant family with many uncles. I couldn’t keep their names or stories straight. I thought about my own uncles. I hardly ever saw them. My love for them was through blood. Jen was different; she loved her family, but more importantly, she knew them. She carried great empathy for anyone, a cloak of understanding that she could wrap strangers in, strangers on television or in line at the grocery store or standing near the highway in the cold. She was upset, but in a redundant way, as if these feelings were so familiar they were stale. She was used to pain. “He…” she said, “he has never been the healthiest person.”
I held her hand and kissed her and talked softly as she lied and said she was fine. She swallowed her fear and let it stick to her ribs. The day continued. I was happy to sink back into our relaxation. She liked to take her pants off at the end of the day and walk around in a baggy sweatshirt that barely covered her. She teased me as she walked. Her legs were long and pale and it was hard not to stare. I wanted to drink her and hold her at the same time.
As I walked our dog in the light that bounced off the sleeping snow, I worried about Jen. She silently let the hours pass after the phone call, without mentioning her own fears. I wanted to talk to her more after the walk. When I returned, my cheeks were red, and I smelled of frozen sweat.
As I took off my coat, my phone vibrated and blared my ringtone, a song by Young the Giant. Life’s too short to even care at all… It was my godmother, who only called when there was bad news. Two years prior, the morning that my grandfather died, it was her booming, tearless voice that told me. She spoke purposefully. She spoke as if from a podium. Now she told me my father was taken from work in an ambulance. He was throwing up uncontrollably. He couldn’t walk. He was sweating through his clothes. I felt very far away as I heard her explain: a CAT scan, an EKG, waiting on an MRI. They were admitting him. She would call me when they knew more.
She asked me if I was okay, if Jen was with me. I looked at the yellow walls of the kitchen that were marked and stained. Muddy snow melted from my boots onto the mosaic linoleum. My dad was sick. Tears flung themselves down my face. They felt unusually warm. Jen’s strong hand was on my back.
She pulled me to the sofa in the living room and held me. I did not say anything. I tried not to cry. I hardened. A selfish thought was bobbing among my fears. If Daddy dies, I’ll have to move back home. I hated myself. It was my dad, my dad. He was not supposed to get sick. He was not supposed to die. I looked at Jen, her galaxy eyes bright with sympathy. I told her I was sorry about her uncle.
I sat lying against her while Mame flashed on the television. I watched Mame over and over when I was a child. I knew Jen was only watching it with me because of my dad, but I took advantage. I watched Lucille Ball dance around and sing, and I breathed easier, and I waited. Mame was broke and trying to play “the moon-lady,” missing her cue and freezing on stage in a frilly white costume, when my phone rang. Life’s too short to even care at all…I’m losing my mind, losing my mind, losing control…
It was my mother this time. Her voice was soft and tired but filled with sympathy. The MRI was clean. My dad had stopped throwing up. They were still keeping him overnight, but they thought he was going to be fine. I breathed and crawled back to Jen. There was no reason for me to cry anymore. A smog of images started to dissipate…of my dead father, frozen like the squirrel, pale and cold beneath his grey mustache, my small arms trying to reach around my mother bent over in despair, searching for a black dress. I looked down at the dingy tan carpet…at the blue recliner with the broken handle…at my bare feet. “You can still be upset,” Jen said, softly, stroking my neck.
The following morning, I stepped out of the lonely bed and walked Tubby before my eyes were completely open. I stumbled along the half-snowed sidewalk, holding the leash with gloved hands and a scowl. I passed children waiting for the sight of their orange bus. Their mothers had bundled them tightly, and they kicked twisted stop signs and teased each other. I passed a woman warming up her car. I passed a man hunched over carrying a yellow plastic grocery bag.
I wondered what people thought when they looked at me. I wondered if they glanced or if they stared. Did they think I was a boy? My coat was zipped up beyond my mouth and my black hat covered my hair and forehead and the tops of my eyebrows. I wandered, formless. Only eyes peeked out of my clothes. I wondered if people were scared. Did they see the fat mess of a crumbling dog who could barely smell the weeds sticking into his nose? Or did they only see a Chow Chow, with its aggressive reputation and fierce disposition?
I moved branches out of my way instead of ducking underneath them. The dog walked me. I stood and stepped with his ignorant permission. I followed his footfalls…one/two…three…four. Slow, arthritic, half mad. I had to keep my voice positive, “Come on, BUD! Good BOY…” I had to stop him from running into the street where cars would run him down without looking back. I watched his back leg shake. And I drowned in guilt. No, we couldn’t go that way. No. Even though you stood old and tired and did not have enough grass I could not let you go where you needed.
I tried to balance this dog on the edge of my finger like a glass figurine. My parents used to hold me up like this. They tried to keep me from looking at the ground where eventually we all crumble into fragments. I could see the ground now. Tubby teetered in my hands and I tried to be sturdy for him.
Some mornings, life was perfect. I was in her arms and we were laughing at nonsense, and we forgot about our empty bank accounts and our brittle loved-ones.
My life was blissful and it also wasn’t, and that was exactly like walking the dog. It was my choice to walk him, though I had no choice at all. I could feel the guilt and anger, or I could breathe in the sweet air of the trees.
When I moved in with Jen, my mother asked to see me at least once a month. She made Jen and me promise to visit on my godmother’s birthday. This was the day before the Super Bowl, only a few days after my father was hospitalized with a fleeting storm of sickness, and my grandmother was just recovering from open-heart surgery. My godmother, Bobby, turned fifty-nine. I watched them all teeter in the air with my new, grown-up, eyes.
We turned into my parents’ twisted driveway. We sat in the car, sweating in our coats, filling out birthday cards and tearing price tags off of a chocolate mousse cupcake. I looked at my parents’ house. I felt older as I said those words. “Parents’ house.” Not my house. No longer my driveway, no longer my broken double door with painted gold handles, no longer my wooden spiral staircase. My parents had slowly stopped asking me to come “home,” but instead to “visit.” Whatever words she used, my mother still cried.
We walked inside and our boots squeaked on the marble floor. We gave presents and smiles and hugs. There was a new clock on the mantel of the living room. It was made of light stained wood. It was too simple—no numbers. Only a pattern of light and dark wooden dots told the time.
We sat on one of the giant corduroy couches, and our first official visit began. I sat next to Jen. Her coat covered her lap, and I leaned against her as we all talked. Bobby leaned back on the blue couch, her short white hair brushed high, her strong legs sheathed in jeans, her feet covered in thick woolen socks. Her eyes were quick behind her round glasses, and I saw as she tried to smile and laugh, even though she dreaded her birthday. We did not talk about it. My mother sat on the other end of the couch, her legs turned underneath her, wearing one of her unremarkable solid colored cotton shirts. My dad twitched in his chair; the springs had sunken in from his presence. He pulled at his grey mustache.
They talked, about the week, about the snow, stories that were mostly forgotten, movies mostly remembered. I listened as if I did not belong there and I did not know them. I drifted out and saw the wrinkles in their faces and their words. They seemed different. Or maybe I was different. My mother paused halfway through her sentences while we waited in patient politeness. She cocked her head and asked me to repeat my words. Bobby talked deliberately, but became confused with names and stories. My father talked about his health. Bobby teased him, yelling at him from three feet away, “You are getting into the territory of old people! All you are talking about is your health!” My brother was still asleep in his bed, and it was almost two in the afternoon. My father stuttered in his defense.
I was twenty-three. I was living with my girlfriend. I had a credit card in my wallet with my name embossed in silver and could use phrases like “our apartment” and “our car” and “our bills” and “what should I make for dinner?” It happened all at once. I stood up straight, because all sixty-three inches of my bones were suddenly walking around alone. My parents were now made of porcelain and reading numberless clocks, and I belonged to a new family.
Somehow this was true. But it was also true that a few weeks before, I visited an urgent care center to be treated for bronchitis. I filled out the paperwork and signed my name and was just another coughing person. Unremarkable, just as I wished. A faceless voice called me behind tall double doors and I found myself in an expediting room. A man and a woman bounced around. The woman took my blood pressure and my heart pumped while the man asked how many drinks I had a week and if I smoked and what medications I was on.
The woman looked at me, braless under my sweatshirt, my hair short, sitting pale and patient, and asked me to verify my birth date. She apologized, saying she thought I was under eighteen. I was small again. I slumped down into my shoulders. Every day I took care of my family: my dog, my girlfriend. I walked through snow and tried to keep everything from crashing to the ground. But that nurse could not see that.
My mother crossed the living room to hug me. She began to cry. I asked her what was wrong.
“I just am having trouble understanding,” she said behind the giant teardrops.
“Is it Grandma? Daddy?”
She shook her head and poked her small finger into my stomach. I realized she still missed me. She missed me like a mother who sends her child off to summer camp for the first time. She wanted me home. And I knew she wouldn’t stop crying when I left.
She nodded and cried harder. I held her close and patted her back. I was twenty-three, I was living away from home, but I was also an underweight baby, ignorant, sad, and waiting for the world. I tried to be like the wooden clock on the mantel. I tried to be without numbers.
Two days later, I started early. I ate a breakfast of Special K Fruit and Yogurt cereal. I ate right out of the box, dropping some on my lap, my hand blindly searching for the sweet white bites of sugar. I made a mess, and no one could tell me not to.
I walked the dog before eight and we met no one on the road. Back home, the kitchen was still clean from the night before. I could not stop singing. The walls were thin and the apartment next to us was attached, but I felt alone. I sang “Danny Boy” and Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” I liked to sing songs where I could not quite hit the high notes. I sang in the bathroom to hear the echoes applauding me. I stood on the stairs. I walked slowly, feeling each carpeted step beneath my feet and breathing in my privacy. I peered over the banister, only to see Tubby staring up at me, brown eyes bright, wagging his tail as I sang “Danny Boy.” He could not hear well. He could not walk up the stairs any longer. But he heard my singing and he looked up at me and I swear he smiled. But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying, if I am dead, as dead I well may be, ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying, and kneel and say an “Ave” there for me… I sang as if it was a happy song. I sang as if I was both alone and in company. In each kind of singing, there were sweet notes of contentment.
As the weeks went by, whispers of warm air floated through Delaware. Vultures started to sunbathe in the mornings. The vultures were tall, black, bony women, wrapped in night-colored cloth, peering at me with apathy. I walked by them with Tubby, and they became familiar and comforting. One morning, Tubby and I passed two vultures that were sitting on the edge of a giant blue dumpster. I walked closer and closer, wondering if they would fly away, or if they felt safe in their flock. I soon found myself only three feet from being able to reach out and touch a black wing. I stared. They were beautiful. Their only movement was a slight turn of their heads. They looked near me, never at me. I stood in the world with my dog’s head buried in grass and smiled at the undertakers. Their eyes were deep, their heads only shriveled grey skin, but sleek and strong. “Hello,” I said. I kept walking, turning to look back at them. In that moment, I was nothing to them. I was too alive.
I grew up in my twenty-third winter. I stood alone and sang alone and remembered the true color of grass. Spring came as always. I watched the blades twitch in friendly warm winds. It was both a numberless spring and something new. Shadows melted away as the sun climbed.
ELIZABETH KAVITSKY is a twenty-three-year-old student pursuing her master’s degree in creative writing from Carlow University.