My best friend Justine, in a sleeveless white dress that flared out in ruffles above the knees, descended the steps of a waterfront house in Maryland. The fifty hushed guests gasped on cue. They were here to celebrate the couple’s forever-love; I was paying my final respects to our friendship.
That morning I hadn’t helped blend makeup to match Justine’s honey complexion or calmed her down in a moment of panic, even though we’d been friends for twenty-one years. Instead, I wandered around a nearby mall where I once waited while she went on a first date with a man she met online. This was in the early 2000s when Internet courting was synonymous with Craig’s List Killer. Then, I was her wing woman, but today I wasn’t by her side.
But at least I’d be in attendance, unlike her first wedding seven years ago. Amidst the stress of planning a wedding both families disapproved of, she decided on a four-thousand-dollar per person destination affair, even though I, the maid of honor, was living paycheck to paycheck. We’d already been quarreling about details when she took a new stance.
“Honestly, I don’t care if anybody’s there. I don’t care if my family’s there. It doesn’t matter if you’re there or not,” she’d said in a huff. Hurt, devalued, and financially relieved, I’d bailed on the wedding and the planning of her stateside bridal parties. But seven months later, I’d felt guilty.
“It’s fine,” Justine had said when I’d broken our silence with an apology. “I’m over it.”
But I wasn’t. I’d vowed to prove myself reliable. So a few years later when she—newly divorced—prepared to relocate to New Jersey, I scouted apartments on her behalf and emailed self-made videos. With my help, she picked a Jersey City high-rise with a hypnotizing view of Southern Manhattan, not unlike the one behind her now.
As the bride stepped slowly into frame, I held up my iPhone and counted: one … two … Two was the number of times that I’d spoken to Justine on the phone in the last two years and I didn’t know why. My thumb hovered over the shutter button as I let her walk out the shot and to the trestle where her groom and maid of honor—her college roommate who had replaced me before—waited.
Inclusion on Justine’s wedding guest list but exclusion from her life was the culmination of bewildering behavior that began when she left New Jersey in April 2012. For two months, I left unrequited texts and voicemails. At first I was worried that something happened to her until I saw a Facebook post. She was living; she was just doing it without me.
My phone remained silent until September. “Hey. I’m in the City,” she texted. “I’m gonna be at Penn Station around seven tonight if you want to meet up. If not, that’s fine.”
“Sure,” I said, trying to match her nonchalant-ness. That evening I braved the rush-hour drive over the George Washington Bridge to meet her in Midtown.
We hugged. Then we laughed.
“What the heck happened to you?” I said.
“I guess I did your thirty days of silence and solitude,” she said referencing my sporadic practice to abstain from phone calls to find my true and drama-free self.
“Yours was like three hundred days. And at least I tell people,” I said. “You just disappeared.”
Justine shrugged. “I did think about you. I’m glad to see you’re doing okay.”
Until she boarded her train, we made familiar easy jokes and traded expressive glances that had become like a secret language since our first day in a Connecticut Catholic high school. Drawn to each other by the energy that makes atoms collide, we compensated for our inability to take unsupervised outings (edicts set by mothers we believed were overprotective) by creating our own social world that lived on the landline.
We talked every day for hours. Even after college, we chatted in the mornings until she pulled into the parking garage and her signal dropped. Fifteen minutes later, we reconvened at her desk, yapping about work before getting off to actually do it. One year she called me at seven in the morning. A New York City radio morning show was searching for a female co-host. “You should apply,” Justine yelled excitedly from somewhere on I-95. She knew my dreams of working in entertainment. I auditioned for the job and got it. If it weren’t for her, I never would have heard the ad.
I hoped our train station reunion was the rebirth of us, but my only communications from her the rest of the year were two pictures: one of her in a cat costume on Halloween and another of some balloons on New Year’s Eve. The next summer she texted that she was moving in with a new boyfriend. We joked about telling her mom, and I refrained from asking why she moved on from me.
I suspected fundamental differences in our personalities had finally convinced her we were incompatible. While I had been taking creative risks that led to years of low-paying jobs and episodic unemployment, she was making good on a self-imposed deadline to be a six-figure salary executive at a Fortune 500 company by age thirty. If we were TV shows, she was The Jeffersons, and I was Sanford & Son. I knew she wanted positive change for me, but maybe like a haggard spouse grown tired of waiting, she packed her bags and left.
At the end of the year, I found out that she’d gotten engaged. Another friend saw it on Facebook and phoned me before I received my BFF’s texted pic of the groom on one knee: “He proposed.”
I was truly happy for her. I just pretended to be surprised.
The next month, I actually was astonished when Justine texted a surprise dinner invite at the end of a business trip that had brought her back to town. I agreed.
I picked her up in my SUV, but we may as well have been in Doc’s DeLorean. As we waited for a table, I marveled over the chocolate diamond engagement ring and chuckled at stories of her fiancé. After the food arrived, I asked why she disappeared.
“I didn’t realize that happened … it wasn’t intentional,” she said. “It was a crazy time. It’s funny because he knows exactly who you are. I talk about you all the time.”
Even though unintentional wasn’t in her DNA, I nodded. Two months before the wedding, my phone rang.
“Would you write and read something for the wedding? You know me the best and the longest,” she said. “I was going to wait until you returned your invite, but I figured I’d ask you now.”
The invitation had been sitting on my kitchen table. It wasn’t just the loss of friendship that made me debate my attendance; the costly trek from western North Carolina to the coast of Maryland would obliterate the tiny bit of money I had to live on for the summer.
“I’m surprised you asked,” I said. “I didn’t think that I was in your inner circle anymore.”
“I guess we’re not on the same page,” Justine said. “To me, our friendship is the same even though we don’t talk. I thought about what you said at the restaurant. Maybe I pulled away because I didn’t want to keep asking you to hang out when you couldn’t afford it. I dunno. But if someone asked me, I’d still say you are my best friend.”
“Well, I’m honored that you asked,” I said, blinking quickly to ward off a familiar sting in the corners of my eyes. “Of course, I’ll do it.”
During the ceremony, as the couple made jokes with the officiant and guests, I waited for my cue. When she called my name, I rose from my seat and angled my body toward the couple, reading the poem I’d written.
“Love is patient, ever-present /Love is kind, joy divine/ Never envies, never boasts/ Humbles hearts, comforts souls / Pushes towards the finish line /in the midst of mud and grime.” I paused at the reference to the couple’s participation in a mud-filled obstacle competition and glanced at my old friend. Justine had tears in her eyes.
At the end of the reception, she walked over to me. “Thanks for doing the reading. It was perfect. I hope you weren’t put out of your way with all the traveling …”
I was exhausted but not from the physical distance—from the emotional one.
“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it,” I said, glancing only for a minute in eyes that used to say so much before averting my gaze to the blue-black water behind her, almost indistinguishable from the night sky.
“What time does your flight leave? We are having people over for crabs tomorrow at eleven if you want to come.”
“I leave at one.” I gave her a loose hug. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” She gestured towards remaining wedding business. “I got to go.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
[“Justine” isn’t her real name. —ed.]
KEYSHA WHITAKER has a MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her work has appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward, The Frisky, and the New York Press. She hosts Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers, from a closet in Pennsylvania.
He cuts off my bridge piece by piece and I can feel the spikes in the places where my front teeth used to be and I can’t look him in the eye and we can’t make small talk because I can’t talk but even if I could talk, what could I possibly say? With spikes in the places teeth are supposed to be, a person is not a person anymore. I’m no longer intelligent or self-confident or smart or funny or a professor or a wife or a sister or a friend. I’m someone you couldn’t bear to look at, someone whose eyes you couldn’t bear to meet.
“What happened to the tooth in the first place?” he asks me early in the three-hour session.
“Bad dental care when I was a kid.” I wish I could lie convincingly and say that there’d been an accident. It was my birthday and I’d gotten a brand-new Huffy bike and I was so excited as I was riding it and showing off and waving at my beloved family that I rode right into a parked car and knocked my front tooth out. We’ll never forget that birthday! She was just so excited about her new bike! But no, my story is much more banal and far more heartbreaking. My mother never took me to the dentist and the sugar wore a hole in my front tooth. White fillings could only go so far to cover it up, so eventually a dentist told me that my best move would be to do a bridge.
And so here I am twelve or so years later, age forty-one, having my mouth prepared to get a new bridge inserted. The technology has come a long way, my dentist tells me. There won’t be any more silver backing. All porcelain. Nice and white and shiny and new. “Do you drink a lot of coffee?”
“Some,” I say. “Not sure if you’d call it a lot, but I drink it every day.”
But before that, we’ve got to cut off the current bridge in order to make impressions, and I’ll go home today with a plastic bridge. No corn on the cob for the next two weeks.
My jaw hurts from being held open for so long. I can feel the sweat beads rolling down my back. As the drill is going, water sprays on my face, on my forehead, and it’s dripping down from my mouth onto my neck. Every once in a while he takes a towel and wipes my mouth for me. Oh, the indignity! My hands are clenched, my entire body is tense and he tells me to “turrrrrrrn” toward him. I wonder if he says that in his sleep. Can’t he just tell me to turn toward him? Does he have to stretch out the word like he’s speaking to a three-year-old?
In between drilling and cutting and pulling off pieces of the bridge, he actually does go and talk to children who I imagine can’t be much more than three. He tells them what a good job they’ve done today, asks them about school starting in a few weeks, and gives them a basket from which they can choose a toy. You can choose a ball or a bracelet or a dinosaur. I try not to perform a mental critique of the gendered choices because I’m lying back with spikes instead of teeth. I’m not smart or critical in this position. I’m just a body. I imagine what might happen if the power goes out and I’m stuck with these spikes instead of teeth and there’s nothing he can do for me. He’ll tell me to go home, to eat soft foods, and he’ll call me when the power comes back. I wish I had better control over my thoughts. They’re not helping. Meanwhile, he’s busy cementing positive associations with the dentist for these small children who will never have to lie back in a chair while a dentist cuts off the bridge they’ve worn for twelve years because their natural teeth rotted out of their heads. “Good job, Brynn,” he says. Then I hear him walking back toward me. He knows I’ve heard him over there with the children. But what is there to say? Except “turrrrrrrn toward me.” And I open my mouth again and my jaw still hurts and it wants to crack but I can’t open it wide enough. The water from the sprayer and the rubber from his gloves make things slippery. I close my eyes as his hands come toward me, open them when light seeps through. Close them again when I see the drill in his hand.
“Do you have a pacemaker?” he asks me.
“No.” One thing I can be proud of: my heart hasn’t quit on me yet.
He asks because he’ll be using electricity to solder off pieces of my gums. I want to say something about the smell, how I remember that this is going to bring the smell of death, but I can’t speak because he has his fingers in my mouth and I have spikes instead of teeth.
During one of the breaks I really have to pee, so with my mouth closed and a piece of cotton sticking out of my mouth, I make my way to the bathroom. I try very hard not to look at myself in the mirror. Just the cotton. That’s all I see. When I get back, he asks if I’m okay. Yeah, I mumble. Just had to use the bathroom. “I try to tell people not to look in the mirror during this process.” Finally, something I did right!
“I didn’t,” I say. “All I thaw wasth thisth cotton.”
I gag when he puts the goop in my mouth to make the first impression. He’s put way too much goop on the tray and it’s all over the inside of my mouth and I’m using my finger to swipe some of it out but it’s bad. “You’re a gagger,” he says.
Why, yes I am. I nod.
“Mmmhmmm.” And then I imagine that he’s imagining that I must be no good at blow jobs since I gag so easily and then I’m ashamed to think that I’ve assigned this thought to him and the shame, it threatens to eat me alive and it’s all I can do to close my eyes and try to imagine that I’m someplace else. It’s not working because I have spikes where my teeth are supposed to be. I can feel them with my tongue and I form a mental image and just as quickly try to erase it. We see with our tongues almost as much as we do with our eyes.
He examines the impression. It’s okay, but not perfect. He wants it perfect, so we do it again. This time he’ll put a little less goop because I’m a gagger.
From the back of the office I hear, “Mommy will go first and you can watch. Brendan, you’re so brave!” And I think about my mother with her false teeth. The time we were at the beach. She was in the water, bouncing up and down in the waves and for a minute there it looked like she was going to lose her dentures. But she caught them just in time. Mommy will go first and you can watch.
When it’s time to choose the shade of white for the new bridge, he has me hold up a mirror (the plastic bridge is in place by now). He says he really likes the white of the plastic bridge, that it brightens up my smile and that if it were his mouth, he’d go with that shade. It’s hard to exercise agency in such a situation. I have nothing to do here but trust him. He says we can whiten the bottom teeth to match, but if he were going to err, he’d err on the side of whiteness. I take a deep breath and agree. He asks again if I drink a lot of coffee. This time I just nod.
The visit lasts three hours. During that time at least four different children have had their teeth examined by my dentist in between his cutting and soldering and drilling and asking me if I’m okay. When I get up to stretch, I’m exhausted. “You were a real trooper today. The next visit won’t be nearly as long.”
I muster everything I’ve got so I can perform confidence with this man who has just seen me with spikes instead of teeth. And I think about how he is the only person on this planet allowed to see me that way. Steve wouldn’t love me anymore if he saw me like that. I imagine it’s an image that’s hard to shake. I’m standing and looking the dentist in the eyes and he takes a towel and tries to get some of the goop that has stuck to my chin and neck. His eyes are kind. He eventually stops trying and tells me I can go use the mirror in the bathroom to get it because he doesn’t want to hurt me. I tell him I’ll take care of it in the car.
I imagine him telling his wife about me, about how he felt shame for me as he cut out my teeth. I imagine that a case like mine makes him feel good about himself, that he’s doing good for people, that he helps them. I imagine myself as an object of both his pity and his pride and there are no holes deep enough to bury my head and I honestly can’t think of anything more shameful than bad teeth. Because bad teeth means not that you did something bad but that nobody cared enough about you to love you in the most basic of ways.
AMY E. ROBILLARD is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University, where her favorite course to teach—the one on the personal essay—garners the most enthusiastic responses from students. She and her husband are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley and one named Essay.
On a gray January Monday in 2008, Diego Alcazar—back from the dead despite being tossed from Hangman’s Bridge by brooding Jason Morgan—kidnapped slutty, sneaky Samantha McCall and winsome Nurse Elizabeth Weber. Then he gunned the car, drove the women out to the samebridge where he had nearly met his own maker, and smashed through a guardrail. The car dangled over some unnamed river outside Port Charles, New York.
The scene was only made possible, I learned during a special SoapNet exclusive later that evening, due to revolutionary green screen technology, which finally allows soap characters to leave their hospital beds, nurses’ stations, and posh boudoirs and then hit the great outdoors. And I have to admit: the bridge scene was spectacular. Water rushing, car creaking and careening, twisted steel scraping the concrete—I clung to our green faux suede sofa, simply transfixed, right up until the commercial for Yaz, a revolutionary new birth control pill that I am now officially too old to take.
Nurse Elizabeth escaped just before the car, with slutty Sam still locked in the trunk, plunged off the bridge into the water. Holy shit! I yelled to my six-month old son, Cyrus, who, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, was not supposed to be in the presence of television before the age of two. Instead, in its 2001 Policy Statement titled “Children, Adolescents, and Television,” the AAP suggests that parents should “encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.” Fair enough. I decided to go for talking.
They killed Sam! I began our conversation. Cyrus mouthed his orange binky with some disgust before turning back to the task at hand: trying to lick the blue plastic dangle-toy on his exersaucer. I figured it wasn’t my fault if he didn’t want to talk back.
Earlier in the fall, Cyrus was only six weeks old and I was still trying to nurse him, so I couldn’t leave the house without giving the general public a size 42-DD dose of a woman’s right to breastfeed. I was thirty-nine and already into my second marriage. Recently tenured, I had earned my first sabbatical leave from the small liberal arts college where I taught, the kind of college where students are likely to study abroad in exotic places. At least, they seem exotic to me. (I once crossed the Canadian border at the International Peace Garden on a trip to North Dakota.) The resident xenophobe by comparison, I have listened with envy to my students’ stories of intestinal discomfort in Shanghai and New Delhi, quaking at the very idea of such flexibility, such openness to change.
Many of my colleagues, too, travel internationally, finding ways to take their families on sabbatical trips overseas, blithely asking their children to pick up and leave relationships, soccer teams, Play Stations. These colleagues—mostly men, many of whom have stay-at-home partners—view their everyday lives as escapable, as malleable and impermanent. Mortgage payments need to be made, certainly, but houses can always be rented out for a semester or two.
When colleagues learned that I wouldn’t be traveling at all during my sabbatical, they worried that I’d be isolated at home. But I would have all the company I needed: the new baby, his or her preschool-aged brother, and their Pokemon playing idol, the second-grader, who would entertain us daily just as soon as he came home from school. Most importantly, thanks to my friends at General Hospital, I would enjoy genuine camaraderie. I did not share this particular insight with my fellow faculty members.
I only allowed myself to watch GH when my five-year old, Ellet, attended Little Saints Preschool on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when Ellet stayed home with me, I sacrificed my General Hospital time in the name of motherhood. I made that sacrifice from mid-September until Halloween, when Nikolas Cassadine, finally reunited with the love of his life, Emily Quartermaine (now played by gorgeous, dull Natalia Livingston, instead of the fabulous Amber Tamblyn, who originated the role back in 1995 before she became Joan of Arcadia on CBS), announced an impending Black and White Ball, which would take place on Spoon Island, home of the creepy Cassadine mansion. This wasn’t going to be just any black tie soap opera party. I knew that nearly every major character on the show would attend. That’s because General Hospital creates special events to bring the whole cast together twice a year: during the sweeps weeks of October and February.
My beloved ABC friends would drape themselves in the most stunning formal gowns and tuxedos for the Black and White Ball. They’d sparkle with jewels. The spectacle of it, I thought. That October I couldn’t wear anything but the pink and white nursing shirt my friend Tina gave me, which I coordinated with some attractive size 2XX pedal pushers from Target, the same ones that I wore the night my water broke.
I just couldn’t help myself. Preschooler in the room or not, if the party started on a Tuesday, we would watch on a Tuesday. I had to attend the ball.
That’s how my five-year–old found himself a mesmerized guest of the Cassadines at their Black and White Ball. Ellet wore full Batman regalia at the time—he often dressed then either as Batman or Darth Vader—so he fit right in. He plopped his caped crusader self right next to me on the sofa and watched the entire first hour of October sweeps, enchanted by the cloak and dagger drama of it all. “Why are they dressed up? What are they eating? Is it a party? Will they open presents?” I beamed at him.
“Who’s that girl, Mommy?” he asked as Emily first entered the room.
“That’s Emily,” I told him. “Not the real Emily, of course, since Amber Tamblyn left. It’s just Natalia Livingston.” I made sure to respond accurately.
“Oh,” he said.
Unfortunately, this new sweeps plotline revolved around a series of strangulations that took place at the Black and White Ball that first night. My son was delighted. Between the kissing and the killing, he thought that this was a pretty good show.
I’ll admit it. I loved having Ellet beside me that first Tuesday we watched GH together. “You’re such good company,” I told him. I let him watch again on Thursday. But when he stepped off the afternoon preschool bus at 3:10 on Friday, ran to the front porch, threw down his backpack, and asked me what he missed on General Hospital while he was at school, I knew we had a problem.
Let the innocent among you cast the first stone.
My son remained captivated throughout November, as Port Charles citizens tried to identify the crazed maniac who had stalked them on Spoon Island that Halloween. Ellet watched through Christmas and New Year’s as well. But by February, I noticed that Ellet’s baby brother Cyrus—now five months old—was also watching GH.
I tried to get Cyrus to nap from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. each day, but sometimes he just wasn’t sleepy, and so, as the National Academy of Pediatrics suggests, I’d let him play with blocks on my lap, or I’d read him books during the commercials. I hoped we weren’t doing any permanent damage.
I first watched General Hospital as a teenager in the 1980s. Each day I rushed home from my suburban high school at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Standard time. Clad in size 14 Pretty Plus blue jeans from Sears—how I wished I could fit into the Levis that everybody else wore!—and a preppy pink sweater with a whale on it, clutching a full sleeve of Chips Ahoy and a can of Faygo diet root beer, I tuned in, turned on, and checked out. Because I did so, it mattered a little less each day that my sometimes belligerent, occasionally drunk younger brother counted the cookies I ate every afternoon, humiliating me at dinner each night by announcing how many were missing. It mattered a little less that my mother’s still undiagnosed bundle of mental illnesses overpowered us like a tsunami, leaving my brother and me drowning in her unpredictable behaviors, doubting our own instincts, never sure if what we witnessed was real or imagined.
I gratefully escaped to college, where I scheduled my classes whenever possible for the hours prior to 3:00 p.m., the show’s East Coast airtime. When I accepted my first high school teaching job, I sometimes took sick days to catch up on my grading and my viewing. And when I returned to graduate school to earn my masters degree, I watched whenever my class and work schedules allowed.
I completed qualifying exams for the Ph.D. in 1996, and that’s when I tuned in religiously. For two years, as I wrote my dissertation, General Hospital seemed to provide a little bit of comfort while I fought a nasty case of Imposter Syndrome. No matter how many professors complimented my work, I couldn’t shake the certainty that I didn’t belong in a Ph.D. program. There had been a mistake—surely the fellowship I received in my first year was intended for someone else. I wasn’t intellectually strong enough to survive. I couldn’t trust my own instincts as a writer or a researcher; I always sought approval from my professors before I could commit ideas to paper. The prospect of writing a dissertation nearly crippled me.
The worst part about graduate school was the fact that I couldn’t predict where I would end up in the long run. Even if I miraculously finished my dissertation, would I get a job? Soon I spent more time worrying about my future than the present. Only television offered me relief. I wasn’t alone in this habit. Most of my women friends in graduate school watched an enormous amount of television. The Eighteenth-Century British Literature specialist watched Felicity. A poet raised in an uber-religious household devoured Will and Grace. Creative writers and linguists and medievalists alike adored Ally McBeal. But theirs were weekly diversions. Mine was the only daily devotion. Watching General Hospital became sacrament.
In the fall of 1999, I sent sixty-five job applications, suffered through sixteen humiliating job interviews at the annual Modern Language Association Convention, often sitting on beds in some department chair’s hotel room, and then gratefully accepted the one job offer I received from a small college in southern Minnesota. I quit watching General Hospital cold turkey. Hung up on the idea that real professors didn’t watch soap operas, and stunned by the new demands on my time, I traded afternoon delight with ABC for curriculum committee meetings and conferences with students. But in fall of 2007, I underwent tenure review and applied for my first sabbatical leave, a full year devoted to research, writing, and new course development.
Newly tenured and about to give birth to my third child, I needed the comfort of something familiar and dependable as I faced staying home with the new baby (not to mention a preschooler and a second grader). I had no idea how I’d behave. Would I don an apron and bake cookies? I don’t own an apron. Would I find myself utterly fascinated by my children’s development, and thus inspired to write? Would I feel trapped by my circumstances and lack of mobility? Would I act out? Who would my children become? Who would I become? My whole life felt like a Friday afternoon General Hospital cliffhanger. I figured I might as well tune in and find out.
Contrary to what sociologists might assume, I’ve never turned to daytime television in order to escape to someplace new. New places frighten me. Instead, I use daytime television to return to someplace familiar, a place where people always behave in predictable ways. In Port Charles, New York, doctors always seduce nurses. Nurses always get pregnant out of wedlock before finding true love with good-hearted gangsters (apparently Port Charles has some sort of gangster pipeline from New York City). These gangsters always prove to be twice the men the doctors ever were. Gangster-Nurse weddings always end in fistfights as doctors experience post-break-up regrets.
That fall, surrounded by burp rags, I needed desperately to be able to simply turn on the television and slip back into Port Charles. I figured it would be like returning from hiatus. Once I turned that television on, it wouldn’t really matter how much time had passed since I last watched the show.
But now I lived in Minnesota on Central Time, where the show comes on at 2:00 p.m. and people eat lunch at 11:30 a.m., an hour clearly better suited to blintzes than burgers. It wasn’t quite as easy to slip back in to life in Port Charles as I’d hoped. But I was determined to succeed. I took deep breaths each time a new mouth spoke the words of a beloved character; I didn’t even flinch when characters returned from the dead. I wasn’t bent out of shape when I found that Noah Drake—remember Rick Springfield when he played dreamy Dr. Drake back in the ’80s?—now had a son named Patrick, who was already a grown-up brain surgeon. Patrick was in love with Robin Scorpio, one of my favorite pre-teen characters back in the ’90s; thank god Robin was still played by Kimberly McCullough, who left the show briefly about the same time I went to grad school. Apparently, Robin, who contracted H.I.V. from her true love, Stone, just before his heartbreaking death, and then hooked up with Jason Morgan (the same Jason who threw Alcazar off Hangman’s Bridge), was already an experienced surgeon.
Bobbie Spencer, the prostitute-turned-nurse who once dated Dr. Noah Drake, was now in her late fifties and crammed into her nurse’s uniform in a most unfortunate way. Some new soap hunk played Lucky Spencer, son of Luke and Laura. A posse of new teen characters—Maxie, Georgie, Dylan, all descendents of GH regulars from the 1980s, wiggled their shapely young asses across the screen daily. A new token African American character, a wise, tough-yet-tender woman named Epiphany, now ruled the nurse’s station. Epiphany had a sidekick, an orderly named Cassius, played briefly in cameo by Billy Dee Williams. Yes, that Billy Dee Williams.
No, really. It was mind-boggling, but since I have a Ph.D. I caught on quick.
I knew I could catch my show on SoapNet each night at 9:00 p.m., after Cyrus and Ellet went to sleep, enabling them to retain their innocence just a bit longer. But I have never watched General Hospital at any time of day but the afternoon. I have always wanted—needed—to watch it with the rest of the stay-at-home mothers, the homebound and the elderly, the night shift workers, and the teachers staying home sick. I needed to watch it with the dissertating female graduate students in emotional crisis. I needed to watch it with the overweight high school girls, the ones with snarky brothers and anxiety-ridden mothers and no athletic team practice to keep them late after school. I needed that viewing experience to signify that I am part of something bigger than myself, a community of viewers who also need their worlds to stand still—even if only for an hour—each day.
When I go to Port Charles, I am removed from my own setting and transported to a place where characters behave in blessedly predictable ways, year after year. Time itself doesn’t stand still at General Hospital. But the master narratives remain the same, and those archetypal characters—the winsome nurses, lecherous doctors, and good-hearted gangsters—behave just as they ought to behave, just as I expect them to behave, just as I need them to behave, forever, no matter where ABC’s green screen technology takes them.
We humans learn from both fantasy and imitation. Let’s say a young, unmarried GH nurse discovers her unexpected pregnancy. I can study her response. When that plucky nurse bounces back a few months later (pregnancies are always shortened on GH) as a sexy single mom, I learn that we need not drown in our respective pools of misery, no matter how deep they might seem at first. Watching General Hospital helps me to draw a frame around my own life, to see where its parameters lie. Daytime television shows all of us, thanks in part to that green screen technology, where the edges are in our lives. Just how much philandering is permissible before someone is redefined as a cheater? How many times can a role be recast—how often can a character literally remake her self—before the essence of that character’s identity is lost?
I tune in not because I fear change but because I fear my own unpredictability in the face of change. There’s a difference. Even change can be predictable. It’s predictable that ABC will recast the roles played initially by children, for instance, substituting picture-perfect teenaged actresses for gangly eleven-year old ones. Soap opera children always grow up too fast. But those soap opera children follow well-mapped paths: they will either be doctors or gangsters, nurses or prostitutes, and they will die of car crashes or failed surgeries.
My children don’t yet know what the future holds for them. I don’t know what the future holds for them. And I don’t know how I’ll behave as they begin to make their own choices. I only know that the children of Port Charles will grow up as their beautiful parents fade gracefully into the background; I know that child actors will become featured players, their flawless faces illuminated in the green glow.
REBECCA FREMO teaches English at Gustavus Adolphus College. Her essays and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, Water~Stone Review, Lake Region Review, Tidal Basin Review, Poetica, Red River Review, and Naugatuck River Review. Her chapbook of poems, Chasing Northern Lights, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012. A Virginia native, she now lives in St. Peter, Minnesota, with her husband and three sons.
 As I revise this essay, it is now 2014, and I am on my second sabbatical from the college. Because I am a working mother of three, it’s taken me seven years to move through the revision process on this essay.
 That’s because the phenomenally talented Jonathan Jackson, nominated as Outstanding Younger Actor at the Daytime Emmy’s in 1996 and 1997, before winning the award himself in both 1998 and 1999, had moved on to prime time pastures. You can catch Jonathon Jackson now, in 2015, on ABC’s splashy nighttime soap, Nashville, which I watch faithfully each Wednesday night at 9:00 PM.
“Syncope and sudden death are the same thing, except in one you wake up.”
—Dr. B. J. Carey, Irish Medical Journal, June 2003
No dainty wilting violet, he. His whole body thunks to the floor. He can’t see. He can’t hear. He can’t speak. He can’t think. And here I am, new to the scene, with my notions gleaned from Victorian novels: fainting couches and smelling salts and fluttery ladies caught by dashing gentleman at the most romantically opportune moment. Not he. He throws everything into it, or rather is thrown, flung. From wherever I am in the house, I’m jerked into the room by the sound of the crash. I kneel down, take his hand. He stares through me, unblinking, as I hover above him, trying to catch his eye like a schoolgirl with a crush. I repeat his name into the void, love unrequited. I pat a stiff, clammy hand that is no longer his hand. For five seconds, ten seconds, twenty seconds, he is motionless. His heart stops. He is dead.
Then, as I am preparing to dial 911 and trying to remember my CPR class from high school, the face suffuses with berry-red. The unmoored eyes dart, saccading across the ceiling until they rest on my face with a look of great alarm. Kembrew has said that when he first comes to, he has no idea where he is or how he got there. So I’ve learned to tell him. He listens with intense attention—“You passed out; you’re on the bedroom floor; you’ll be okay”—and the eyes start to reflect light again; he speaks, remembers, a skipped record needle sinking back into the groove of life.
More than once I’ve I dragged Kembrew to the emergency room after one of these incidents. It’s maybe the worst thing I can do: the anxiety of being in a medical situation tends to cause more episodes of vasovagal syncope, a condition in which the chutes of the blood vessels open in response to some physical or emotional trigger, and not enough blood can reach the brain, which in turn causes loss of consciousness. In other words, fainting. Blacking out. A common condition, often benign.
I simply don’t learn, though. I can’t be alone with him, with it—especially in the middle of the night, when it always seems to happen. The word “syncope” comes from the Latin and Greek “syn” (together) and “kope” (to cut off). Each time, this cutting off of everything that holds him together, that holds us together, unnerves me. To see him in an unresponsive state, even for a few seconds, is intolerable.
All the more so because my husband is not the kind of person who is normally known for being at a loss for words. Kembrew teaches for a living, leading discussion in small classes or lecturing to large ones. In his spare time, he organizes protests. He writes multitudes of letters to the editor of the town newspaper. He delights in the fact that upper officials at the university where we both work consider him a troublemaker and give him dirty looks at receptions.
I remember one of the first times I heard his voice, back when we barely knew each other. I was driving somewhere with the radio on; he was a guest on a local NPR show. A listener called in to vehemently disagree with his position and hold forth upon his own. Rather than being taken aback, as I would have been, my future husband jumped into the fray—“Let me ask you this,” he interrupted when the caller took a breath—and gleefully debated his opponent, matching the man’s intensity, never backing down. And yet, when it’s three a.m. and he’s sick, or he’s struck by sudden medical fears for himself or others that remind him of his childhood when his family couldn’t afford to go to the doctor, he succumbs. And I’m the one who has to step up, fill the silence with my words, and I can’t. “Syncope” also has a grammatical definition: the excision of part of a word. In his proposed absence, words whose significance we built together—marriage, family, love—become distorted and lose their meaning. My vocabulary fails.
So I end up driving Kembrew through our sleeping town toward the permanently-lit red EMERGENCY sign. I tell myself that since the fainting spells are usually brought on by dehydration caused by ailments like the flu, it’s worthwhile to make the trip since they can give him fluids through an IV. Really, I just want company. I want someone else to be there.
During our most recent trip to the ER, a nurse hooks Kembrew up to an EKG machine, and it catches the next syncope on its ticker tape. I watch as the heartbeat, that clichéd beeping line with its regular jerk upwards followed by a slow slope downwards, just keeps sloping down and sloping down and sloping down. “Um, hello!” I call out to a group milling at the nurses’ station. In a flash, our small room is crowded with people. “Get the cart,” someone says. They place defibrillator pads on his chest. They inject his IV with atropine. Then we all stand around and watch.
Again, notions. Notions of heroic rescue. Not the Victorian novels, but TV hospital shows this time. Everyone leaping onto the body, massaging it back to life, deploying machinery. Instead, we hover ineffectually, exactly the way I do when it’s just me and him and the bedroom floor. The nurses and residents and a rumpled cardiologist-on-call who has been paged and still seems halfway in whatever dream he was having—we all stand there in the presence of the body’s lonely struggle to survive. It’s not like the TV shows: at some level, he must do this for himself. The heroics are all internal. My voice sounds from somewhere in the back of the room, repeating my usual mantra: “You’re okay, sweetie.” Someone glances at me as if I’m insane. “He’s breathing,” one of them says, looking on the bright side in lieu of a heartbeat.
I think back to the early morning of June 12, 1999, to the paramedics’ unfamiliar voices in the background as my mother’s familiar one, catching on her fear, tells me over the telephone, “They say he’s still breathing.” By the time I hang up and put my clothes on to go to the airport to get on the next plane to St. Louis, my father’s dead from a heart attack. Breathing often continues for a few moments after the heart has stopped.
But that was then and this is now, and now the usual invisible hands—not mine, not the doctors’, which are all just hanging there useless—throttle him back to life; Kembrew’s face goes scarlet, and he is again among us. Only now do I notice that taped to the side of the crash cart is a laminated sheet of paper that says, “When there is no pupil response for X seconds”—I can’t now remember how many—“page the social worker/grief counselor on call.”
When we were first in love, I would watch him as he slept. One morning, as I was watching him, he opened his eyes and looked right at me, and that simple action seemed like such a miracle that I started to weep. I remembered how I was taken to see my dad in the ER exam room where they put him after he died, in the same hospital where I was born, and how I studied my father’s face then, touched his cheek. For a long time afterward, whenever anything good happened to me, I would think, “I’d trade it all for another five minutes with my dad.” All of the accumulated good in my life since he died, over two years, over five—I’d have traded it all without a second thought. Then I fell in love and wondered if that was indeed true anymore. You have turned my mourning into dancing, I thought, looking into the eyes that were looking back at mine, having performed the miracle of opening on a summer morning. It was a verse from Psalms I had somehow picked up during my atheistic life. You have taken my sackcloth and clothed me in joy.
After the drama is over and our room empties of hospital personnel, I corner one of the doctors in the hall and explain that there’s been a small misunderstanding, ha ha, that this has happened before, that perhaps we could try not to alarm him with more talk of how serious it is. “But it is serious,” she tells me. “Your husband scared the bejeezus out of us just now. His heart stopped.”
“Okay,” I say, thinking, Yes, course. This is how it is. I knew it. It’s not benign; how could it be? The body doesn’t lie. Into the Cardio-Vascular Intensive Care Unit we go, where his new neighbors are gray lumps on their hospital beds. Having fainted three times in quick succession this morning, Kembrew looks almost as gray as they do. They say he must remain for a couple days of observation. There is talk of implanting a pacemaker. There is talk of implanting an emergency pacemaker to cover the time before a permanent pacemaker can be implanted. But after a few hours, during which I watch the green line of his heartbeat and the blue line of his respiration on the monitor like it’s the most fascinating show on TV, it’s broad daylight out, no longer the fluorescent-hued night of the ER. A new mood arrives with the day shift.
He doesn’t look like his neighbors any more; anyone can see that, so they set him free. It’s benign, the day-doctors tell us. It mimics sudden death so naturally it causes alarm. And his heart didn’t stop, they clarify: it just paused briefly. It maybe pauses longer than some others’, but it’s still an acceptable pause. This makes us feel better, but for me, every day still has a tinge of three a.m. around the edges, and it always will. Each time it happens, the floor will fall away from my life, and I can’t help that any more than Kembrew can help fainting. How many seconds is X?
Back when few of our friends had children, and long before we contemplated it ourselves, babies seemed like alien beings to us. In one of our first up-close encounters with one, we marveled at how small and delicate our friend Chris’s newborn son was. The baby plunked into our arms, we each displayed the stiff, awkward don’t-break-it arm-crook of the childless. “Don’t worry,” Chris told us, already a seasoned father with one older child. “They’re not as fragile as they look. They cling to life!” His hearty “they cling to life” has stuck with me over the years. I believe it and I don’t believe it about anyone I love, because it’s true and it’s not true, and I’m sure Chris or any parent, or any wife, or any daughter, must feel the same way. The body’s drive to live is invincible. Until it isn’t.
Dismissed from the cardiac unit and the hospital, which in the daytime is once again our friendly, local, familiar hospital where we get check-ups, we walk to the parking ramp on our own two feet with no follow-up appointment scheduled. It’s what I’ve come to think of as the get-out-of-jail-free card, yet another to add to the several we’ve accumulated as we approach middle age: that breast lump that turned out to be nothing, the stomach pain that required a peek with the stomach-camera. Outside in the bright sun, back in the community we know so well, everyone looks outrageously healthy: so ruddy, so active, so obliviously jogging and pink. It’s easy to believe that there are plenty more of those cards in the deck.
When it happens again, though, it’s always night. Since Kembrew knows I’m not strong or fast enough to catch him, he aims for the floor. Sometimes he makes it all the way there before he passes out. Sometimes he falls the rest of the way. I run in, always too late, in no way the dashing Victorian gentleman, appalled to find that the person who most pleases and irks and understands me in the world has cut himself out of our shared experience. And there isn’t a thing that I can do about it. I can’t catch him. I can’t resurrect him. I can just be there.
LYNNE NUGENT is managing editor of The Iowa Review. Her essays have appeared in the North American Review, Brevity, the Modern Love column of the New York Times, and the anthology Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia.
Lauren smiled a little from behind her half-moon desk, running her hands over my resume, my writing samples, and my list of references. We had spent the last hour going over everything I could have wanted to know about a job—work/life balance, office culture, and maybe most importantly, at least in the nonprofit world, a compelling mission. If I was going to commit to raising money for a living, I wanted it to be for something I believed in myself. People can smell a snake oil salesman a mile away. This was a place I could really get behind, though. The director seemed like the kind of woman who wanted to see other women succeed; the kind of boss who understood that her successes were her team’s successes. I was slowly falling in love with the idea of being employed here. “So, don’t feel like you have to answer, but … what exactly happened with your last job?” She rested her eyes on the gap in my work history, then brought them up to meet mine.
I smiled and measured the words building in my throat. Which ones to let out, and which to leave out? I had to be careful, diplomatic, but, above all, honest.
Almost one year before, at noon on a beautiful, bright spring Wednesday, I was called into the office of Greta, the headstrong, no-nonsense director who reviewed my grant proposal drafts and splattered them with Xs and question marks. My supervisor Jill, who reported to Greta, followed close behind and shut the door to the office as I sat down at the cheap beige particleboard table. At that point, I had been working at the small but venerable arts organization for less than two months, still getting my bearings, trying to decipher the acronyms, and laughing my way past the unrecognizable names that were dropped at my feet. Oh, did I see Smith Von Lichtenstein’s new one-man show that was staged in a refrigerated meat truck under the Ben Franklin Bridge? Totally. I was out of my depth, a fish on a bicycle, but I was employed. I had worked at far worse jobs for far less money. At least here, I had a desk to sit at and regular bathroom breaks.
“What’s up, ladies?” I had no immediate reason to be worried. Sure, things hadn’t been going great—the jump from my long-term, albeit limiting position at a very large nonprofit to a higher position at this more modest organization had been anything but smooth. I had decided to leave my first real job after almost four years acting as everyone’s de facto assistant. It was a great place to work in that it was a resume-builder, but in actuality, I was sick of fetching coffee, submitting invoices, and collating binders full of information for the people doing the real work. I hugged my coworkers, who had become like family, packed up my note cards and photos and figurines, and did what you do when there’s nothing more to do. I left.
My new colleagues, mostly arts administration lifers, possessed the welcoming spirit of ice sculptures, and all the original writing I submitted—the crux of my job responsibility, in fact—was struck through with red pen, condemned for being “inconsistent with the organizational language.” My co-workers ate lunch at trendy restaurants without me and exchanged gossip just outside my door; several mornings, I entered the tiny, badly lit office I awkwardly shared with Jill, only to find her perched at the edge of her swivel chair and ready to ask me if I had “a moment to chat.” (This, for those who may not know, is nonprofit-ese for “You’ve done something stupid, and I’m trying to find the nicest way possible to tell you to stop.”)
Even my interest in musicals—which, at my culture-less high school had been deemed an obsession—paled in comparison to the show tune–whistlers that one-upped each other on obscure Tony Awards trivia and prattled off Bernadette Peters’s roles in alphabetical order for fun. That I was consistently missing the mark was no mystery to anybody. But it takes a while to adjust to a new place, my friends kept saying. Just stay the course and trust your instincts. I remembered the fights I’d have with my parents every time I left another thankless retail job in my early twenties. Impetuous, impatient, flighty, they called me. Can’t stay in one place for long, they said. Make up your mind, they chastised. I wasn’t ready to quit this one yet. I hated it, but not as much as I hated disappointing people I loved.
“Rae,” Greta sighed, “I think we all know this hasn’t really been working out, on both sides. You and Jill have spoken a few times about this, right?”
“…Right.” I pursed my lips, afraid to say anything that might incriminate me. My gut started to drop, and I could feel my pulse in my throat. Could they see the vein in my neck, I wondered?
“We’ve discussed it, and, well … we think it’s best if you leave.” Oh, God. No no no. “We’re happy to issue you a severance, and we’ll plead no contest to unemployment compensation.” Unemployment? Wait, did she say I’m unemployed? “Now, why don’t you head back to your office and pack your things, hmm? Jill will walk you out.”
My ears filled with a fuzzy static. My eyes locked in on her mouth as the words dripped out, in slow motion. I couldn’t even hear myself ask her, Now? I only knew that I had finally spoken out loud when she said to me, straight faced, “Yes. Now.”
The next few moments merged into a nightmare montage. Did I pack my lamp and my photos before or after I landed on a bench outside, crying into the afternoon sun? Who did I call first, my mother or my roommate? Why did Jill place her hand on my back as she led me outside, as though I might spin around and strike her? Did she secretly like me—did she feel bad? Did I cry on the train? Why was that damn sun so bright?
Like a tiny ten-car pileup, everything after that happened so fast. What felt like only minutes later, I was in bed with my laptop, Googling unemployment forms and blubbering. And then my new routine began: Collect paltry benefit checks. Go out drinking with girlfriends. E-mail every contact I have to ask for part-time work. Obsessively check job boards. Work shifts at the coffee shop for tips and free sandwiches. Continue drinking with girlfriends. Send out resumes. Send out resumes. Send out resumes.
The interviews and phone calls came easy enough—but so did the rejections. Everyone was so sorry. They wanted me to know how nice it was to meet me, how very qualified—even overly so—I was for the position that they had so easily given to someone else. A few times, I even made it to the second or third round of interviews, meeting with more and more people, answering harder and harder questions. I found myself heartily defending my commitment to nonprofit fundraising, a line of work just a few years prior I hadn’t even known existed.
Pulling myself up out of bed got harder and harder, the weight growing on me with every month. I started writing little Post-It note reminders to myself and sticking them all over the place—voices that would speak back to me as I went about my day. On my way down the stairs: LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU’RE BUSY MAKING OTHER PLANS! As I brushed my teeth in the bathroom mirror: NOTHING IS PERMANENT, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE! Inside the kitchen cabinet where I kept the cereal: DON’T KILL YOURSELF TODAY! MOM WILL NEVER RECOVER! I was constantly convincing myself to keep going, to turn the other cheek while the struck one throbbed hot. But at the bottom of my relentless interviewing, my hopeful monologues, the peppy Post-Its, I was so angry.
I was angry with myself for turning my back on predictability, security, and professional boredom, for the moving target of bigger, of better, of more challenging or meaningful or true. I was angry at every employer in Philadelphia for emailing me back, chatting with me jauntily over the phone, inviting me into their offices, smiling as I answered questions in their conference rooms—telling me not this time, not this job. I was even angry at Greta and Jill—even though I would have quit that stupid job, had they given me a chance to secure a landing pad—for not giving me a heads up, not even an hour or two to get used to the idea that by lunchtime, I’d be made redundant, totally afloat, rationing out the handful of change I had to my name.
Someone once told me that the best thing about your thirties is “productive anger.” When you’re younger and something devastates you, destruction is the next logical step: you rage, get drunk, leave livid voicemail messages for people who don’t deserve them. You want everyone else to hurt as much as you do. But once I realized that a couple of months of consistently unrewarded effort were closing in on half a year, “productive anger” was sorely needed. The ugly, unrelenting fire in my gut pushed me right out to the door and to the big conglomerate gym a mile away. I convinced my mom to front me the ten-dollar-a-month fee, and I spent almost every morning chugging away on elliptical machines, perfecting yoga poses I had forgotten, and pushing increasingly heavier weights away from me, above me, and behind me. I turned the Beyoncé and Biggie Smalls and Girl Talk in my headphones up loud and locked my eyes on Fox and Friends, Maury Povich, the Rachael Ray Show. Every ounce that fell from my frame made me feel a little less keyed up. I could feel myself getting lighter.
My creativity even benefited from this burst of usefulness. I enrolled in a couple of writing classes, held at community writing centers in neighborhoods that I’d hardly visited. The change of scenery was stimulating—suddenly the inertia and boredom lifted, and I couldn’t stop writing. Every story I submitted for workshop vibrated off the page, each word having landed there after fighting its way through my clenched teeth. But my jaw slowly loosened, and the little wrinkle between my eyebrows smoothed itself every time I sat with those people—the nurse, the retired schoolteacher, the émigré cook with a bum hip—and let my focus drift away from the pile of resumes, the dwindling money, the mind-numbing tedium.
The more anger I fed into my pursuits, the less there was to draw from. The pool of it got more and more shallow until my fingernails dragged along the floor, finding only the sediment, the good stuff, the concentrated trust in myself that was left behind. I could see that I had almost drowned trying to get down there, but once I did, I found what I was truly made of—what kind of person I was in the face of ruin.
“So … your last job?” I cleared my throat, brushed the hair from my forehead, and smiled at Lauren knowingly.
“You know, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you think they will. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity they gave me, but the culture, the people … I knew I belonged somewhere more collaborative, more supportive. And I’ll be honest—this summer was hard… more than half a year without consistent employment really does a number on a girl, you know?”
She laughed, nodded slowly. “Oh, I know. Trust me. I really, really know.” We smirked at each other like two friends with an inside joke. “And collaboration, support? I totally get it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t run an organization that believed in those two things. So don’t worry. I think you’re in the right place.”
I felt hyper-charged and tranquil all at the same time. I didn’t know whether to do cartwheels or cry uncontrollably. Maybe later, once I knew something official, I’d do both. But in this moment, in this room with Lauren, after an hour of talking and laughing, after the longest year of my life was almost safely behind me, all I could manage was, “Yeah … I think I’m in the right place, too.”
All names have been changed except Rae’s. —ed.
RAE PAGLIARULO is an MFA Creative Writing Candidate at Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Daedalus: A Magazine of the Arts, Full Grown People, Ghost Town Literary Magazine, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is also the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. She works and lives in Philadelphia.
I could sort of make out the outlines of the tattoo on my husband’s arm on the small photo on my phone. He took it in front of our bathroom mirror, holding up his right forearm in front of his face. I had to turn my head to the side to see that there were sun rays and a sword and a heart—some Masonic symbols that I don’t understand and perhaps I am not even allowed to understand. The tattoo stretched from wrist to elbow and wrapped all the way around his arm.
When we got married thirteen years ago, Drew did not have a single tattoo. I don’t think we ever talked about his desire to have one. Now he has four, with a fifth one in the plans. The first ones were modest, easily covered up by shirts and forgotten. I was away on a business trip this time and I knew that it was “tattoo day,” but the size and scope of this latest ink caught me off guard. I scanned myself for a reaction: how am I supposed to feel when my spouse turns from a baby-faced, soft-haired man into a bald, tattooed dude? I know how his mother feels about his tattoos and, when I think about my own sweet, soft-skinned baby boy getting inked when he is older, I completely sympathize with her. But Drew is not my child—he is my husband. So I should be supportive, right? I want to be—and I am—but I can’t help but stop for a moment to acknowledge the unease in the pit of my stomach. Is it the tattoo itself that makes me pause? Or the change that the tattoo signifies? Does it signify a change? How do I know?
Drew and I met at work a year or two after graduating from college. We were in the same class and, in fact, he is in some of my graduation photos, sitting a couple of rows in front of me. But we never met while in school. When he got a job at the same newspaper where I was working, I was dating one of his good friends. When my heart was broken, Drew was right there, ready to comfort me with late night conversations and trips to the mall and movies. We spent long afternoons in his car, driving around rolling Pennsylvania hills and forgotten small towns. We ate bad food at bad chain restaurants and then over drinks we shared the contents of our wallets. His: foreign currency—just in case—cash, credit cards, EMT certification cards. Mine: Hungarian ID, cash, and a handwritten note from my college roommate: “The map is not the terrain.”
I don’t think it was love at first sight—we even joked about how we weren’t each other’s soul mates—but it was definitely comfort and friendship at first sight. I didn’t want any more friends with privileges or long-distance boyfriends who never called. I wanted someone who was there and who wanted me. Drew was—is—a grounding force: solid, steady, warm. He has a way of simplifying life down to its essential elements: “You love me, I love you. We are a family. What else do you need to know?”
We first kissed on a summer afternoon in my apartment. He brought in a bowl of apricots from the kitchen and told me to close my eyes. He split the fruit in half with his fingers and slowly fed one to me, wiping juice from my chin with his thumb. I heard the clink of his glasses as he put them on the table. The next bite was not an apricot.
We got married in Budapest the following January. We giggled through the ceremony and our vows, and the next morning in our honeymoon suite overlooking the Danube, we drank champagne for breakfast and watched as people on the street below us hurried to work. We felt content and close and didn’t take this whole marriage business too seriously.
What do we promise when we say “I do?” Sure, we promise for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. But life rarely comes down to such stark choices, especially early in a marriage. We never really have to make a conscious choice to stay married when the other person is seriously sick. Or when money runs out. Extremes happen, sure, but rarely.
When they do happen, it’s obvious that it’s one of those big, life-defining moments where one’s job is to stand by and be supportive. Your husband calls to tell you that he is in the emergency room because he burnt off half his arm in a firefighting accident. His father has a brain tumor. His father dies. He gets the job. He doesn’t get the job. These are clear-cut cases. You know what to do about them. You know the right amount of alcohol to pour into your evening cocktails. You know that a rare steak and chocolate cake will bring comfort. You know what words will spur the other person to action or to a different way of looking at the situation. You know when to shut up. Or take your clothes off. Or just get lost for a couple of hours. You know that whatever the thing is, it will pass.
What nobody mentions before marriage is the vast gray area between rich and poor, sick and healthy. That there can be shifts and trembles and almost unnoticeable movements and changes in your life together. When your spouse is going through something personal, a little crisis or journey—one that you are not necessarily invited to. And that’s okay, because you do not want to be invited to everything, but still. This person lives with you and you’d like to know where he is going. Will the tattoos lead to a Harley? To a girlfriend? A sports car? Or are they just tattoos? Does he even know for sure?
Looking at the picture of his new ink, the skin around it still raw and red, made me think about my own scars—the ones on my belly from an exploding gallbladder, the ones around my breasts from my breast reduction surgery, and we are not even going to go into the scars and flab and rolls of fat left behind by pregnancy and childbirth. It’s easy to forget about those, and even easier to forget about the invisible scars left behind from what everyone goes through in life: becoming a mother, losing loved ones, trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in a career, figuring out friendships, lost loves, family. It’s easy to not look at my own path, to just blindly go on, day-by-day, not glancing back at the big picture. It’s easy to not stop and consider how the shifts in my life made an impact on the person I promised constancy to. The heart and the dagger and the rays of sun on Drew’s arm made me look at all of that, and I realized that I am fooling myself if I think that he is living with the same woman that he married.
I also realized how it’s possible to know someone so well, and yet not at all. How everyone’s life is full of topsy-turvy roads and blind spots and how sometimes the person we think we know best is the one who will surprise us the most. Sometimes the person we love wants lots of tattoos.
Our son is five and has a very vivid imagination and his pretend-play is very complex, detailed. He always wants us to play with him, but usually it’s hard to follow where he wants a particular scenario to go. He just wants us right there, sitting on the floor with him as he lines up his toy soldiers. I am really not playing with him; I just serve as the audience. He leans on me, touches my hair, or gives me a kiss between battles. He sits on my lap for a while, then just holds on to me with one hand while he rattles on and on. It’s obvious that he has a clear picture in his mind about where things are going, who will win the battle, who will capture the castle.
That’s how I’ve been thinking about our marriage lately. Our careers have taken off. We are out of the trenches—or in-between trenches—when it comes to parenting. We have a comfortable life. There are no life of death decisions immediately in our future—hopefully. But on any given day, I remind myself, one of us is on the floor, lining up soldiers. We are off, battle plans in our heads, fighting on, figuring out the next steps. All that we can do for each other is ask questions, listen, and sit there, in case the other one needs a soft, comforting embrace, a hand to hold.
Even before his latest tattoo, Drew’s been gently teasing me about getting one too over a small scar on my right shoulder. The scar has mysterious origins—for a long time I thought that it was from a childhood immunization, but my mother told me that happened on my other arm. It looks like a pink bite mark—two distinct, uneven spheres right next to each other. I know exactly what my tattoo would be: a pink peony, the flower that bloomed every spring in front of our summer cabin when I was a child. They somehow became “my” peonies, and even after I moved far away from home, I would get timely reports from my grandparents and parents about the size of their early buds, their expected bloom date, their dark pink color, their fragrance filling up the garden.
So I would have this pink peony over my scar on my shoulder. I think about it every now and then, talk to Drew about it, but deep down I know that I am never going to do it. Whatever Drew is expressing through the pictures on his body is his alone and I know that eventually we’ll both understand their meaning in his life—what they are covering up, what they are exposing. I help him apply lotion on his arm in the evenings and make sure that he can be free to go for his next appointment with the tattoo artist to finish the work. That is all I can do.
In return, I know he will tuck our son in bed and bring me tea—or wine, depending on the night—so that I can write these words, perched in bed, listening to the two of them laugh and read. I know that later he will come to bed, smooth his hands over the scar on my shoulder, over my breasts, belly. The skin on his forearm will be still rough under my fingers as it heals. We’ll hold on tight to each other so we can battle on. “I love you. You love me. What else do you need to know?”
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, and Kveller. She has a son, a husband, and, as of press time, still no tattoos. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @hunglishgirl. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
Susannah was murdered just before Christmas. I didn’t hear the terrible news until after New Year’s, when a friend called me on my way home from a family holiday out of town. The house where she’d been killed was just a hundred yards or so from ours, poking up from behind trees across the road. Nothing between us except our long driveway and adjacent pond. Not that I could have stopped what had happened, even if we’d been home. We probably would have been sitting in our living room watching TV or upstairs reading bedtime stories to our two kids. We probably wouldn’t even have heard the gunshots.
When it happened, the co-op preschool that her son and my son and daughter attended was already on the holiday break. My husband Brad and I had loaded up our SUV, bundled the kids into their car seats, and driven down to Portland—Maine, not Oregon. From there we’d flown to Michigan, to my in-laws’ house with its big Christmas tree and glittering ornaments. In the days before Facebook and Twitter, we’d remained blissfully cocooned and cut off from the rest of the world.
I didn’t understand at first why I reacted to the news of Susannah’s death the way that I did. Yes, there was the shocking violence of it. And the throat-catching sadness for her little boy, and the wrongness of anyone snatched from life, much less someone so young. But there was more to it than that. Especially when I admitted to myself that I hadn’t actually liked Susannah. Or, more accurately, I hadn’t allowed myself to like her.
The truth is, I’d always been a little afraid of her. After she was killed, I understood why.
Bradand I had been in Maine for a few years by then. In our early thirties, we were just starting out in our marriage and our life as parents. We’d always been city people before. Our move from Los Angeles to the idyllic town of Camden was the first of what we expected would be many adventures in our life together. Camden is the childhood home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the town where the movie Peyton Place was filmed, and, rumor has it, a haven for retired CIA spies. Locals looking to move know to put their houses on the market during the summer, when tourists fall in love with the quaintness of it all: the harbor, the lupine-covered hills, the age-old stone walls, the black and white Oreo cows. But Maine winters are for a hardy few, and the smart lookey-loos come to their senses before any money changes hands.
We moved to Camden knowing what we were getting into. Brad had been offered a two-year gig at the Institute for Global Ethics, to work on a project about running positive political campaigns. I saw the move as a way to leave my workaday life as the PR director of a small college—to trade in my pantyhose and suits for jeans and sweaters and get back to writing. Fully expecting to return to L.A. in a couple of years, we found tenants for our small house. But the two-year project turned into two more, and five years after moving we finally unloaded the L.A. house, unsure if we would ever head west again.
Moving to Camden felt a little like we’d entered the witness protection program—so far from everyone we’d known, plunked down into a new life. I took to that life more easily than one might expect, embracing it with “pinch me” elation: pancakes on Sundays, a fully-stocked pantry with an extra freezer for meat, trips to the pumpkin patch, red wagons in the driveway, rain boots and slickers, mittens and parkas. This was the stuff of ordinary families, which I’d carefully observed during childhood sleepovers. Having grown up in small apartments with my single mother, who was much more interested in books and travel than picket fences and seasonal door wreathes, I kept waiting for the residents of Camden to discover that I didn’t belong.
Oh, I knew how to look the part at Mommy and Me music classes, or when it was my turn to handle a baking project at the preschool, or while hanging out under a wide- brimmed straw hat at the local beach, my kids appropriately slathered with sunscreen and playing with sand pails and shovels. But I still felt inferior, the way I had as a kid when I would tell friends and their parents that my mother was a lawyer rather than a legal secretary. I told that lie right up through college, even though the thought of being found out made me queasy.
Certain people hatched such lies in me—in Camden, people like Kim Tate and her husband Jack. Kim was a tall, athletic blond who’d gone to Yale. She’d met Jack—also tall, but dark and handsome enough—on the train between New Haven and New York City one afternoon when they were both in college. With their good looks and money, the Tates were small-town famous. Other mothers at our preschool had a crush on Jack, one of them going so far as to tell Kim that she looked forward to receiving their photo Christmas card so she could moon over him. I had more of a crush on Kim, whose three perfect little children were spaced a year and a half apart, lined up like cherub-faced Russian dolls in hand-knitted sweaters she’d designed and made.
Our oldest kids—Kim’s and mine—were in the fours and fives class at the co-op preschool along with Susannah’s son. If Kim was on the elite end of the social spectrum, Susannah was on the other. Or at least that’s where—I admit now—I put her. Almost from the moment I met her, something about Susannah made me steer clear. When I saw her faded, rust-colored Toyota in the school’s parking lot, I stayed in my own car, behind darkened windows. I waited to go inside until after she and her son emerged from the school—their fingers laced, the day’s artwork flapping in Susannah’s other hand.
She was one of those pretty girl-women—twenty-one, twenty-three, twenty-five? If she hadn’t been a mother, she might have seemed even younger, like a teenager with her whole life before her. I’d seen fathers at the preschool watching her, trying to be nonchalant as they homed in on her. You could tell that she’d grown up attracting such attention and was no longer surprised or moved by it. At first, I wondered if my impulse to avoid her was simple jealousy because she was younger and sexier than I was. Her short skirts and angled beret over long corn-silk hair displayed a confidence that I’d never had. Then I noticed that she avoided me and the other parents as well—never lingering to chat on the playground.
She smiled but hurried purposefully, gathering her son’s lunchbox, backpack, and coat. My mother had projected a similar defensive smile when she attended school events or collected me from a sleepover. Just we two, she used to say. It dawned on me then that Susannah’s confidence, like my mother’s, was designed to let other parents know she was doing fine, even though we outnumbered her two to one. I could feel how tightly Susannah’s hand grasped her son’s as they exited the preschool, holding on to each other and their place in the world.
The only time that I can remember even talking to her was at my daughter’s birthday party. It was July; all the preschool parents stood around on our wide green lawn as kids took turns barreling down the giant yellow Slip ’n Slide my husband had set up.
I happened to be standing next to Susannah when the gifts were opened. Her son’s present was a wooden fairy wand that his mother had painted dark blue and topped with a glitter-encrusted star. She’d written my daughter’s name in silver along the handle. We watched as my daughter opened the gift and ran her small hand along the scrolling letters of her name. Susannah leaned sideways to me, our shoulders touching, and said, “I knew she would like it. She’s such an artist.” I imagined them together in the co-op preschool on one of Susannah’s days to help. I could see her asking my daughter about the painting she was working on. Susannah would’ve bent down to be eye-level, pushing her long blond hair behind one shoulder as she did.
Then one day, as I pulled into the preschool lot, I noticed a man sitting in the passenger seat of Susannah’s car. He was my own neighbor—a fit, tanned man named Craig. He operated a moving, refuse, and antiques business out of his home and adjacent barn. When we first arrived from California, my husband had hired him to help move us in. Admiring his Yankee entrepreneurism, my husband marveled, “He’s got it covered. He’ll move it, dump it, or sell it.”
I remember being inordinately happy to see my neighbor in Susannah’s car, happier still when I passed her familiar Toyota parked in front of his house. It intrigued me to think of how they might have met. Perhaps he had hired her to answer the phones for his business. Or they’d struck up a conversation in Cappy’s bar on Main Street. There was no question of why Susannah would appeal to him. But I could also see why he would appeal to her. In his late forties, he was attractive in a town where single men were few and far between. She might have said to herself, try older, try wiser. He would be a good provider, a role model for her little boy. I pictured them together—sheets rumpled, his tanned workman’s hands on her milky skin. I imagined him thanking his lucky stars each day to have such a lovely girl on his arm.
I’d once imagined such meetings for my mother: a new client or lawyer in her firm, who would appear one day and change our lives. I wondered what Susannah’s secret was. How had she managed to find a partner and step into a new, safer life when my mother had not?
Kim Tate was the one who caught me on my cell as my family and I drove home from the airport. “I didn’t know you two were close,” she said. “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying as I sobbed after hearing the news. Sobbing that I didn’t understand at first because, of course, we were not close at all.
In my mind’s eye, I could see Susannah sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee with me. I imagined her son playing with my kids on the floor of our living room, but that had never happened. I hadn’t wanted them at our house. As cute as her son was, I’d written him off as damaged goods. Damaged the way I’d been at his age. Jealous of what my friends had, prone to elaborate lies and petty thefts, hitting and hair pulling when no one was looking.
It hadn’t been Susannah’s youth or prettiness that made me steer clear of her and her son. It had always been their aloneness and my fear that if I got too close, that old familiar just we two aloneness might rub off on me.
Like a bedtime story, my mother used to tell me of our escape into the world from my father. She’d light a cigarette, press it to her elegant lips, exhale, and begin. Benign stories at first. Later, the stories about his venereal disease and his cheating and her black eyes. But even in her early, seemingly innocent stories, there was always a little violence. Singeing her eyelashes and eyebrows trying to light the stove in their first apartment. My father breaking his arm in an arm-wrestle on his birthday—the bone splitting right through the camel hair jacket she’d given him. “His muscles were stronger than bone,” she’d said with a trace of true awe.
Our neighbor Craig was a mild man, nothing like my father. And yet he’d acted on the same jealousy and possessiveness that my mother had run away from. My mother had also been a girl-woman. At nineteen, the day she first felt me move inside her was the day she began plotting how to leave my father. Scared of what this man who slept beside her with a gun under his pillow might do to us one day when my crying got too much for him or when yet another man admired her beauty. Somehow I’d given her the courage.
Was it her little boy Susannah was thinking of when she told Craig it was over? It wasn’t hard to imagine Craig’s desperate pleading as he tried to make her stay. My mother told me that my father did the same, how he threatened to commit suicide if she ever left him. I could picture Craig grabbing Susannah’s arm. She would have tried to shake him off, her blond hair flying as she tossed the few things she’d brought to his house into an overnight bag. She would not have known that he’d gone to the barn to look for a gun.
My mother’s getaway car had been a teal blue Corvair. She’d literally and figuratively strapped me in beside her from then on—her precious cargo. How I wished Susannah had just gotten in that rust-colored Toyota and driven as far away from Craig as possible. How I wanted to run to her now and wrap my arms around her.
He shot her twice, using an antique pistol from his shop. According to the papers, after he killed her, he called his grown son and left a message on the son’s answering machine. “I’ve done something stupid,” he said. Then he hung up and killed himself.
As my family and I drove down our road, past Craig’s quiet house, I remembered the last time I’d seen Susannah’s car in his driveway. The sense of relief I’d had, thinking she’d found her happy ending. Thinking she could loosen the grip on her small son’s hand just a little because they were safe at last.
Passing our pond—frozen and covered in snow—I heard the car’s engine labor as it climbed our long driveway and saw the ice crystalized on branches of barren trees. How I wanted to rewind the film and change Susannah’s ending the way my mother had changed ours.
As we pulled into the garage, firewood neatly stacked and dry by the mudroom door, I told Brad I’d help him unload the suitcases in a minute. My fingers were already tapping out my mother’s telephone number. I waited, still in my coat in the car, pressing my phone to my ear, listening for her voice, waiting for us to talk, just us two.
ANDREA JARRELL’s personal essays have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column; Narrative Magazine; Brain, Child Magazine; Memoir; Literary Mama; The Washington Post; The Huffington Post, and the anthology My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friendships, among other publications. She is at work on an essay collection.