I’m spending this week on my own adventure at the NonFictionNOW conference, so there there won’t be any new posts this week. (Who has two thumbs and made a reservation for a 5:38 a.m. flight? This idiot.)
In the meanwhile, I hope you’ll choose your own FGP adventure, either by catching up on essays or getting your spooky on by reading some of my favorite Halloween ones: Jody Mace’s “Haunted Wedding” and William Bradley’s “Fear.”
If, by any chance, you’ll actually be at the conference, I hope we cross paths! I’ll be the zombie on east coast time, fretting about the high elevation and what time it is really.
We’re waiting in front of the building, under the canopy and protected from the rain, when the town car pulls up. It’s a chilly early morning. I’m going to the airport and should be in Seattle by the afternoon. My wife’s friend, Sarah, who has been staying with us, is heading home to Maine, and we’re sharing the ride to JFK.
Our driver is an elderly Korean man. All the drivers from this car service are Korean. “You can take Atlantic or Linden. Whatever way you think is faster,” I tell him.
He drives slowly. His hands, gripping the wheel, are trembling, and every few seconds he lifts up his right hand and glances at it before smacking it down on the wheel.
The old man heads down Coney Island Avenue and passes Caton. When I let him know he’s missed the turn, he points to the GPS. “You’re going the wrong way. Turn around,” I say. Again, he points to the GPS and drives straight ahead.
It’s out of our way, but we’re going out to take the Belt and ride alongside the shoreline. It’s the scenic route. There’s almost no traffic on the parkway. We can see glimpses of marsh adjacent to the water. Cordgrass and common reeds, the ocean on one side and Jamaica Bay on the other. In the sky, flocks of birds are flying in formation. At this hour, with the rain coming down, it’s possible to imagine the New York Island in its natural state before the salt marshlands were drained and filled in with buildings, highways, and airports. In my still-drowsy state, these intimations of a physical world untouched by human activity strike me as startlingly beautiful, an impression punctuated by our driver’s periodic and emphatic slaps on his steering wheel.
We drop Sarah off at the Jet Blue Terminal. She says something about how lucky we are to have missed the storm, although, even if it hits, it’s not going to reach New York until late the following day. We’ll see. Weather forecasters are always hyping storms that usually end up veering off course and being less than advertised.
The plane lands in Seattle on time. I’m there to attend a conference on interactive media. There will be panels on social media, advertising, online commerce, and digital storytelling. Representatives from Facebook, AOL, Hulu, Amazon, and hundreds of smaller digital media outfits are attending.
The Japanese newspaper where I work has about ten million print subscribers, and its leaders are suspicious of the digital onslaught and new media carnival barkers. For fifteen years, I’ve been taking around colleagues, who are visiting from Japan, to American digital media companies claiming to have discovered the secret to a bright electronic future. Many of those businesses no longer exist. For over a decade, as American newspapers were blithely putting their publications on the Internet for free, their Japanese counterparts always insisted that anyone reading their stories online pay the same price as a print subscriber. Bolstered by a network of zealous sales agents and a reliable home delivery system, newspapers in Japan remain a staple of daily life. But since the 2008 Great Recession, Japanese newspapers have been facing the same afflictions battering print news publications in the United States. The Japanese, like Americans, are glued to their phones, and the handwriting on the wall says that before long, most of them will be reading the news on a digital device. So I have come to Seattle to attend panels and meet with whoever will talk to me, and I hope I’ll learn something that I can report back to Tokyo.
The next morning, as I’m heading out of the hotel lobby for the Convention Center, the rain is coming down hard. A smiling concierge is distributing sturdy extra-large umbrellas to guests. When I ask him if he wants my room number, he tells me it isn’t necessary. “We trust you,” he says. For some reason, I find this unsettling. An umbrella is something you buy on a misty street corner for three dollars from a Senegalese street vendor, or from a South Asian immigrant at a newsstand, or at a shoe repair store from a Russian guy who doesn’t speak English. This thing I’ve been handed is a piece of furniture. It seems so durable that I’d feel guilty about losing it.
Across the street from the hotel, there’s a cafe. I’m running late, but figure I can get a cup to go. At this place there’s a ritual around ordering coffee that I don’t understand and an elaborate art to making it. After answering series of questions from an extremely friendly barista, I wait and wait. It’s not yet nine in the morning and Seattle already has me rattled.
This is some of what I write in my notebook on my first day attending the 2012 Seattle Interactive conference.
News is getting faster and smaller. It travels at the speed of light. There is more news. There are more sources.
The story is reported before the media gets there. Cameras are everywhere. Everyone is covering the news. We get our information in different contexts. How do we know if something is true?
What does it mean to tell a story? Trust your community. Connect. Embrace the share. Storytelling is a narrative to which people surrender.
Interactive is nonlinear. Multiplatform deployments. Epic mix.
Amygdala hijack leads to an immediate overwhelming reaction, disproportionate to the stimulus, triggering a deep emotional reaction. Storytelling is an interaction. A single story builds on emotional connection and triggers long-term memory.
Forces of nature are reshaping the world. Waves of technology are eroding our foundation. This transformation is happening and we must adapt to survive.
When I get back to my hotel room that evening and turn on the computer, I see that just a couple of hours earlier, the big storm that had been approaching the east coast the day before has struck New York City. This one did not veer off course. Hurricane Sandy has made landfall. There has been flooding and an explosion at a Con Edison substation, and the southern part of the island of Manhattan has gone dark.
On YouTube, I see a video of cars floating down Avenue C, just two blocks over from the Lower East Side building where my parents live. It immediately occurs to me that they are prisoners in their tenth floor apartment. My father is eighty-seven years old and has Parkinson’s disease. In recent years, he’s had a series of falls, and every step he takes has become an adventure. There’s no way he’s going to make it up and down ten flights of stairs. It’s too late to call New York. In anticipation of the storm, my wife’s company had given everyone the day off. We live in Brooklyn on higher ground, so I guess that things aren’t too bad for her. I’ll check in with everyone tomorrow.
The next morning my eighty-year-old mother assures me that despite the lack of power and water, everything is fine. Neighbors are checking on them, she tells me. Later on she’s going to take the stairs and try to buy batteries from the hardware store.
The second day of the Seattle Interactive Conference is a lot like the day before. A chorus of warning from casually dressed marketing mavens to the survivors of a news industry decimated by the digital revolution. “Change or die” is their message. The electronic acolytes are exultant. There is a universe of possibility. The neophyte presenters have their beady eyes on the future. There are no elegies here for all that has been washed away.
I have lunch at a Vietnamese place with my friend Claire who has attended a morning presentation by someone named Shingy who works for AOL and has the job title Digital Prophet. She tells me Shingy’s got a space alien look with big electrified hair and that he’s very fond of certain words—mobile, leverage, social, branding. He’s a showman. Evangelical, but in a wink-wink way. A hustle here, a hustle there. She’s charmed by his audacity.
“I thought that all the digital prophets had left AOL and migrated to a different platform long ago,” I tell her.
“Not all of them. He’s a minor prophet,” she explains.
“Did he say anything about the flood in New York?”
“Nothing, I’m afraid. But he’s only a minor prophet.”
I call home that afternoon. My wife Joanne says if the power stays down she’ll drive into Manhattan and pick up my parents. They can stay with us until they get electricity back. But the car needs gas, so she’s going to have to deal with long lines of panicked drivers at gas stations. I’m not sure my dad will be able to make it down the stairs, but if they go very slowly maybe it can be done.
Later on, I speak again to my parents. “Any looting going on yet?” I ask, remembering the 1977 blackout when local kids broke into stores on Avenue B and on Delancey Street. The Sneaker King was especially popular on that night.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother tells me. She is English, from the town of Banbury in Oxfordshire, and moved to New York in the 1950s. “Everyone is being very friendly. Hassan, the super, knocked on our door to see if we were all right. When I went outside, it reminded me of the war. The long lines. All the blackout periods we had. We could be fined if even the glimmer of a light escaped our home because it might aid the German war planes.”
I tell her that Joanne will pick them up tomorrow if the lights are still out. “Really, that isn’t necessary—we’re fine,” she says.
After the second day’s final panel, I go back at my hotel room and look at the New York Times web site and catch up on what has been happening. Subway stations and the tunnels under the East River are flooded. The South Ferry stop is covered track to ceiling with sewage. More than one hundred houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point. Two hundred fifteen patients were evacuated from NYU Hospital after the backup generators failed. There are photographs of garbage and debris in the streets, sandbags surrounding the Goldman Sachs building, a flooded plaza on Water Street, a parking lot with hundreds of partially submerged yellow cabs, and free pizza being handed out on Avenue B.
I read a story about some of the dead. A twenty-three-year old makeup artist in Queens electrocuted by a severed power line. An old man swept away from his house by flooding waters. A young couple in Brooklyn walking their dog, crushed by a falling tree. A father and his thirteen-year-old daughter drowning in their Staten Island home.
I talk with our newspaper’s New York Bureau Chief Yuji Yoshikata. He lives on the twenty-sixth floor of an apartment on East 39th Street that has lost power, and over the past twelve hours he has rushed up and down the stairs several times. There are interviews to be done and photos to be taken. Japanese daily newspapers have both morning and evening editions. So there are facts that need to be gathered, and context and history that must be provided. Deadlines must be met. For the Japanese, the March 11, 2011, tsunami that killed over 15,000 and left hundreds of thousands without homes will be the lens for understanding what is happening in New York. And for Yoshikata, who spent ten days in Haiti in the days after the 2010 earthquake there, the events in New York, will be filtered through his own recent memories.
There’s an email from a friend who has just gotten back from a Brooklyn bike ride through the destruction. He’s checked up on another friend who lives on a barge docked on a pier and writes about seeing fish onshore where the water has receded and cars that have been moved several hundred feet. People with gas-powered pumps are draining their basements.
I speak again to Joanne. She tells me they’ve set up shelters for displaced people at the big Armory by our house and a nearby high school. She’s been trying to contact our friends in Red Hook. They have lived for twenty-five years on Van Brunt Street in a house that, over many years, they renovated themselves. There are photographs online of terrible flooding on that block. “If they need a place to sleep, they should stay with us,” I tell her. She tells me she’s going to drive over the bridge and see my parents in the morning.
The two-day conference is over, but I have another day and night in Seattle. In the afternoon, I’m supposed to talk to some people at Amazon about putting newspapers on the Kindle. I call my airline to see about an earlier flight back to New York, but I give up after spending time on hold listening to recorded music. At 3:00 am, I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. Lying in bed, insipid platitudes that I’ve heard over the last two days keep running through my mind. Paradigm shift. Game changer. Ride the wave. I pick up my phone and open up the laptop on the bedside table and check Twitter and Facebook. A flooded basement in the Rockaways. Scroll down. Houses in flames. Swipe. An outdoor Staten Island Red Cross station. Tap. People on cots in a makeshift shelter at the Armory. Click. The digitization of catastrophe recorded in real time on my news feed.
After my meeting with the Amazonians, I call home. Joanne’s upset. After waiting for two hours on a gas station line that hardly moved, she gave up and went home. She feels bad about my parents. “You did your best. They’ll be okay,” I tell her.
Later I speak to my mother who tells me that tomorrow, if they can make it down the stairs and manage to flag down a cab, they are going to stay with their friends George and Peggy in Hell’s Kitchen, where electricity was never lost and life has returned to something close to normal. “Peggy said your father can sleep on their massage table and I am going to be on something called a futon,” she says brightly. I’m sitting outside along the waterfront near the ferry terminal as we talk. It’s October 31st. Halloween. On the street there are people walking around in costume. Witches, superheroes, Mitt Romney, oompa loompas, Elton John. In New York the big parade has been cancelled.
Fortunately, my flight back to New York the next day takes off on schedule. My car service driver meets me at the baggage claim area, and I’m surprised to see it’s the same old man who drove me out to JFK five days earlier. This time we take Atlantic Avenue, and about half way home everything comes to a complete stop. The westbound traffic has somehow gotten tangled up with a long line of cars waiting to use a Shell station. “Very hard to get gas today,” the driver says. I tell him I wasn’t sure there’d be anyone to meet me at the airport. “Very hard,” he says. “Everything going up. Gasoline, insurance, taxes. And less work, much less work. Very bad since Lee Min Shok. I very angry at Lee Min Shok.”
I wonder if he’s talking about a new owner of Green Light Limo, or perhaps a dispatcher who’s giving him a hard time. After sitting in traffic for about twenty minutes, I realize he’s talking about the cascade of cataclysmic events connected to the day four years earlier when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. In East Asia and, especially in Japan, these misfortunes are often referred to as Lehman Shock. It’s no wonder this poor guy keeps smacking the steering wheel. Some disasters are natural and others are manmade. Eventually the traffic clears and we make it onto Eastern Parkway, then up Prospect West, and finally, as night falls, home.
I speak to my parents. They successfully navigated the stairs, got a taxi, made it uptown to their friends’ apartment, and spent the night there. “The futon was very comfortable,” my mom says. My dad, who is on the other line says, “Don’t believe your mother. She’s just being nice Sleeping on the massage table wasn’t so great either.”
There’s still no train service into Manhattan. I tell my parents I am going to take a bus into Manhattan and walk around the old neighborhood. I’ll let them know what I see.
Later that day after waiting in a long queue, I catch the bus on Atlantic Avenue by the new arena. It travels over the Manhattan Bridge. I get off on the Bowery south of Houston Street and start walking. Just north of Houston, two kids with cans of spray paint are tagging a solid metal bar grate covering a storefront. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone doing that since I was in high school. On St. Marks between 2nd and 3rd, which is usually packed, there are fewer than a dozen people the entire length of the block.
I head over to Avenue B. Nearly all the boutiques and restaurants are closed. For this one week at least, the Avenue has been reclaimed by poor people. Many of them are black or brown. There are elderly people pushing shopping carts and bohemian types who would not have seemed out of place in grittier times. The streets are a ghost land of times past. I find I’m sliding into a 1970s reverie, looking at strangers and exchanging with them the head nod of recognition, which involves the slightest tilt of the chin upward. The Lower East Side head nod is a vestige of yesteryear. Its unspoken message was, “You know I belong here and I know you belong here, so we’re okay, right?” If accentuated with a tilt in a particular direction, it was also understood to mean, “Can you believe this shit?” The shit in question being the existential condition at that moment, which might have been expressed by the sound of a siren from a fire truck clambering along the avenue or a warning about those troublemakers down the block. So much communicated in a tilt of the head.
But now it’s November 2, 2012, and this head nod is acknowledging that there have been four full days without electricity, which is triggering in those of us who are old enough to remember some kind of supernatural time travel, or maybe just a new hyper awareness of the fragility and impermanence of everything. And walking here, after the flood of instantaneous digital images and audio from these same streets that I absorbed just days ago from three thousand miles away, there is a deeper conjuring up of emotion and associations. What does it mean to tell a story? How do you know if it’s true?
Hooking back to Avenue A, I pass shuttered storefronts that once were Ukrainian coffee shops. Pirogi reveries. On the corner of 7th Street, long-gone Leshkos, where a girlfriend once threw a glass of water in my face and stormed out, leaving a plate of food that I finished because I was hungry. Sour cream memories.
One more block west at 1st and 7th Street there is a collection of bedraggled fair-skinned young adults huddled together. The hardware store on the corner is open, lit by candles, and as I get closer I see those gathered under the chilly gray sky are taking advantage of a portable generator to charge their phones. Looking to connect and share. They remind me of junkies, who forty years earlier, lined up on nearby street corners waiting impatiently, desperate to make a different kind of connection. Then and now, searching for a rainbow and an escape from being alone.
Up to 14th Street and then east and back to Avenue B. On the corner of 11th Street a large congregation of young people has come together in front of Congresswoman Velazquez’s District Office. They are loading cases of bottled water, blankets, and canned food into vans. A woman with a clipboard is asking if anyone speaks Mandarin or Spanish. “How’d you hear about this?” I overhear one of the volunteers, a young man, asking a woman.
“Facebook,” she says, making it sound like more of a question than a statement.
They’re being dispatched to deliver aid to the elderly and infirm trapped in their apartments. From this catastrophe, something unusual is happening. A communion between these fortunate good Samaritans and their often invisible neighbors, the tens of thousands cordoned off in the neighborhood’s flood zone, the brown brick shadow city of public housing developments running south and west along the FDR Drive. Each project has its distinct history and character. Wald, Riis, Baruch, Smith, LaGuardia, Rutgers, Gompers, Campos Plaza. The long narrow strip is the last bastion for the Lower East Side’s destitute and working class.
Gathered on this corner, the volunteers appear calm, resolute, and cheerful. While I’m aimlessly walking the streets, these kids, unburdened by the curse of memory, are actually helping people. These streets belong to them now. They have the run of the place. They’re the ones who will have the challenge of living on the island as tides are rising. Maybe someone among them will help figure something out. Wind, solar, fertilizing the ocean to capture carbon. Science could be our salvation. Or maybe the deluge swallows everything. These kids though, they are all right. They’ve set up a makeshift assembly line and are passing along pallets of bottled liquid from one person to another to another. Up close, I read the labels. Poland Spring. “People are thirsty and need water,” someone says.
JACOB MARGOLIES works in the New York Bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. In addition to his work as a journalist, his writing has recently appeared in Project Syndicate, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Summerset Review.
“Did I tell you? I’m multi-orgasmic,” said my eighty-three-year-old mother. This was her conversational style—ditch the segue and go straight to another chat about sex. I was taking our picnic gear from the trunk of my car and needed a minute to process. “I learned that word in the book you gave me.”
Walking along our favorite beach with its long, easy-going shoreline gave my mother and I time to talk more honestly after my father’s death. In the process, we became friends. She was like a broken piggy bank as her collected stories spilled out. I was the first woman she had ever talked to about sex; from my teen years on, I knew more than she did on the subject.
On one of our earliest walks, she revealed that for their first twenty years of marriage, the missionary position was the arrangement. And for the last thirty years it had been husband-directed abstinence. Once I was past my do-I-really-want-to-know-this reaction, it was distressing to think how sexually unfulfilled she must have been her whole life.
Even though my father had enjoyed dirty jokes and recited smutty limericks, I realized as an adult how unworldly, if not prudish, he was. On one occasion after a lesbian couple had visited, my mother brought up a new topic of inquiry—how do two women make love? When I started to answer, my father said, “You can’t be serious,” in a tone freighted with yuck, and fled to the living room to watch The Brady Bunch with my kids.
“Now that I know more,” my mother said on another beach walk, her voice thick with resentment, “I realize that sex with your father was strictly for his benefit.”
I asked her to say more. She hesitated, her eyes taking my measure, as if to see whether I was grown-up enough. “The fact is,” she said, her face flushing with embarrassment, “I never had an orgasm during intercourse in my marriage. I’ve only had them in my sleep.”
“I’m really sorry, Mom,” was all I could think to say at the time.
The more she revealed, the more I was struck by the difference one generation can make.
When I was nine, the Big Talk with my mother consisted of her buying me the book OnBeing Born, which contained not one mention of how people “did it.” Ten years later, my mother’s second attempt at instruction came shortly before I walked down the aisle. She offered this as my sendoff: “Sex can be beautiful.”
With the advent of the women’s movement and the freedom to have intimate talks with women and men, I enjoyed a good lover or two. Unlike the women of my mother’s era, I knew how to take care of my sexual needs with or without a partner. A bonus was frequenting, without the slightest embarrassment, the paraphernalia treasure house in Berkeley called Good Vibrations.
I would have taken my mother to choose her own vibrator, but I didn’t trust that she could remain as composed as the sophisticates who shopped there. Only in the Bay Area could women pretend it was no big deal to see an entire shelf of hefty Day-Glo dildos. And so for my mother’s next birthday, I bought her a small, basic vibrator and the book Sex for One by Betty Dodson. I insisted she open my gift at home, after a birthday lunch with my daughters.
Later that evening my phone rang.
“Were you trying to kill me?”
“Mom?” I barely recognized her throaty voice.
“Who else? Your gift almost took the top of my head off.”
Then I remembered her special present.
“Well,” she tried again, “this is the best gift anyone has ever given me. I had no idea.”
With that it started. Sometimes, when my mother and I chatted on the phone, catching each other up, her tone would soften. I knew what was coming. It was as predictable as the ochery sky that precedes a Midwest summer storm. And sure enough, she would pause for a moment and then share, “Mr. Right dropped by today.”
I would picture her mischievous smile and appreciate her late-in-life pleasure all over again. “How nice for you,” I would say and mean it. “There’s nothing like an attentive lover.”
I was happy for her in private, but her did-I-need-any-batteries remark in the aisle at Rite-Aid made me—her enabler—blush. I was more comfortable in the roles of sympathetic listener and occasional sex educator. There were still things my mother wanted to know about in detail into her nineties.
She was curious about the younger generation. What did they use for birth control? She thought the morning-after pill was great, but she worried that kids took sex too lightly and had it too early. “It should be special,” she said lost in thought while we drove along the winding coastline after a day at the beach. “I hope it was for you and the girls.”
We never talked about my sex life and how my mother had openly fretted over my getting pregnant before marriage—ironic, since she hadn’t provided a single method of avoiding it. Several girls in my high school had been sent to “their aunts” for extended vacations. Their pregnancies were the narrative that dominated my mother’s vigilance until I was safely married off without the proverbial shotgun. Later, when she occasionally dug my first and sweetest love, Jerry, out of her memory vault, my feelings of resentment at being spied on by her reconstituted like a glass of Tang. Reliving my adolescence when sex was half terrifying and half aching required me to stop and take a breath before I could appreciate why she worried. It took a while after the Jerry exchanges before we were back on the friendship track.
After a memorial service for a family friend, my mother brought up the topic that was most on her mind. I anticipated another gloomy pre-death drill on where to find the money she had stashed in various shoe boxes if she “croaked.” Instead, it was what if she died in bed and the paramedics found Mr. Right? What would they think of her at her age?
I wanted to honor our unique end-of-life discussion and not go for the easy retort, you’ll be dead. Instead I said, “I’m sure they’ve seen it all. Besides, they might think you’re really worth saving. Ignore the DNR on the fridge door and keep you going.”
We never stopped talking about sex. I should say my mother never did. We would laugh about the way intimate details of sex were being hinted at in the new century. “How ridiculous,” my hip mother said after watching a vaginal fragrance ad of a woman dancing through a field of lavender after the implied douche. “We need information, not crap like that.”
On one of our last trips to the beach, my mother said, “You’re a writer. You should write about the fact that there are a lot of old ladies out there, like me, who think they have to go without. We still have all of our urges and body parts, but no one talks about it. And their daughters aren’t as thoughtful as you were.”
“If I did, it would be about you.”
“You could wait until I’m dead,” said Mom—the eternal shock jock. “It won’t be that long.” She could move between death and life in a matter of minutes, going over the details of her imminent departure in the parking lot and then once inside Safeway buy two half-gallons of ice cream.
“Oh. What do I care?” she said with a devilish grin. “Go for it.” She asked me more than a few times how this very essay was coming along.
We didn’t always have serious talks about sex. One time we settled on our beach blanket, and with a little wine to loosen our imaginations, made up commercials for vibrators, delighting in our witty jingles until the tears streamed down our cheeks. I miss those times.
Shortly before her death at ninety-seven, we were having coffee in her kitchen. “I want you to take this box,” she said, moving our cups to the side and putting a small silvery box on the table. She lifted the lid and I saw the very dog-eared book Sex for One and Mr. Right wrapped up like a mummy. “I think my time has about run out, and if your brother gets here first and finds these, he might think the worst of his old mother.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes, honey. I don’t think I ever thanked you adequately for that wonderful birthday present. It changed my life.”
When I saw how frail she was, I took the box.
Just when I was about to break down in sobs, anticipating how much I would miss her, she cut through my sentiment in the formidable directive tone I knew from my childhood. “And don’t put it in the dumpster outside,” she said, her eyes fixed on me until I nodded yes. “They probably go through the trash here. You never know these days who’s spying on you.”
BARBARA CLARKE works as a freelance grant writer and written extensively for corporate clients, trade magazines, and newspapers on a variety of topics. Her memoir, Getting to Home: Sojourn in a Perfect House, was published in 2009. “How Many Writing Books Does It Take to Write a Novel, Memoir, Nonfiction or Something besides an Annual Holiday Letter?” appeared in the 2010 debut issue of Line Zero, a literary-arts magazine. She is currently completing a novel that includes socially relevant topics on the health insurance industry (where she worked as an executive for fifteen stressful years), the pre- and post-Feminine Mystique generations, and the various ways of love. She uses Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” as both her personal and writing guide. Her blog is www.thiscertainage.com, and her website is www.barbaraclarke.net.
The writing in my head syncs with the rhythm of my gait as I walk through the familiar grounds—not familiar in that I’ve ever been inside of this ubiquitous, quasi-suburban condo complex, but in that I could get perfectly lost here. This evening, rather than going north towards the farm, I decided to go west, down the hill, then took a right and wandered into a backdrop unexpectedly perfect for feeling my way into something I didn’t know was waiting when I left the house: a memory, maybe, of who I used to be. A mirror of who I’ve become.
I’m walking, and I’m overcome with the need to find the way out. There must be a hidden path from the neat contours of this neighborhood into the semi-wilds of an in-town farm. I just know it—and I’m determined to discover it. I follow the winding sidewalks and cut through the cookie-cutter parking lots. I’m moving deeper and deeper into something, the way one might walk through a house in a dream. The further from the street I get, the grey-blue condos like a hall of mirrors, the more I move into the feeling of how I related, as a woman in my twenties, to women in their forties and maybe to other women, period.
When I was in my twenties, women in their forties seemed not old exactly, but… how can I put this? Like women.
There was something so foreign to me about the divorced ones. And also about the married ones, the ones with careers and husband and kids—all of these, really, lumped together in some category of grown-ups, of having figured something out that I had not and wasn’t sure I wanted to. A category of… Other. Other than what? Other as in mothers? Other as in adults, whatever that meant but was most definitely not me?
At twenty-five, I was newly married, completing the graduate degree that would mean little more than that I’d marked a few years’ time, written more poems, felt unseen by female professors, and wondered if my advisor and I were flirting or being literary at the Irish pub, his Guinness to my Diet Coke with lemon. (Was I afraid to drink, to let loose, of him or of myself?) And then there was the cigarette I’d scrub from my skin—hands, mouth—before turning to walk home to the tiny one-bedroom I shared on Summer Street with my new husband.
We moved to Vermont and I donned an official title as director of a small nonprofit, where I inherited a board of alumni and faculty that included some women in their forties. I was once again the girl among them, young, smart, small, and mighty—and regularly mistaken for an undergrad. Their lives seemed to me an unattainable blend of alien and enviable, far from mine for reasons I couldn’t name except to say that there was always some nagging—I’d feel it especially after running or sex—that I was longing for something. I began to name the longing “myself,” and this would go on for many years.
Walking tonight among these ubiquitous middle-class condos with their flowerboxes, a single lonely bench, automatic garage doors closing out the outside world, and decks turned inward rather than towards each other, the sensation comes rushing back and now I’m writing in my head in earnest. I’m forty-one and suddenly I realize that now I’m the woman in her forties.
She felt like a girl—I felt like a girl—because to really become a woman, to actually grow up, would require something of me big, scary, destructive and off-limits—something like cheating, like an affair and with another woman no less, like breaking all the goddamn rules, like making my own prayer books and play books and plans. And none of this would accommodate the sweet house with the French doors, the earth mama I also knew myself to be, the role as wife by way of the only models I knew, and the babies I knew were waiting for me. I could not reconcile the leaking breasts that would nourish then shrink back to perky young with the running with wolves and reading other people’s poems, never my own. And so I didn’t. I looked at other women and I looked at myself and one of us had, always, to be Other.
I’m flooded with the memory of running with him, my husband, through a golf course—a conventional landscape not all that different than these condos. There’s a full moon. We don’t have kids yet; I’ve never been pregnant. We are a year or so married and why am I so angry, so agitated, so full of rage that I have to stop right in the middle of that manicured green to scream a rare scream while he looked on, at once supportive and—I can only wonder now—befuddled?
Do I still feel like a woman in her twenties filled with longing? No. I am the woman in my forties now. And yes, too—because I carry this girl-woman who really truly didn’t know how to become, to break open by breaking with what I’d been told, taught, and shown.
The parallel rhythms of writing and walking are now in full swing, having felt my way towards and indeed found my way to the path, the one I knew would free me from the condos into the wild of the farm’s back gardens, where lie row after row of stunning beauty, well-kept secrets finally revealed.
I’ve gained a few pounds since this latest round—I hope my last—of quitting smoking. And these few pounds on my small frame mark the difference between a more angular and an ever-so-slightly softer and fuller body. I am no longer a girl and no longer a child. I am no longer longing, at least not in that way that had me looking at all the women around me thinking, they are The Real Women.
How did I get here? By leaving the apartment I share with my wife of one year for a sunset walk alone. By going down the hill instead of up and taking a right instead of going straight. And finally, by walking towards the sun instead of turning my back for another minute on the light.
These are the ways I find my way to the path, the existence of which I only imagined and intuited. And there it is—beyond the lonely bench, and all those years of not belonging.
JENA SCHWARTZis a poet, writer, and facilitator, known for leading rich, safe, creative, and deeply nourishing online groups and real-life retreats. She is also co-founder of The Inky Path, an online writing school and community. Jena lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her kids, Aviva and Pearl, and her beloved wife, writer and artist Mani Schwartz.
It was one of those nights when I knew I’d wake up a different person. My anxiety was jumping up on me like a wire-haired terrier that had to relieve itself.
I’d been at the Haight Ashbury street fair with Max the day before and he’d pointed to a sign in front of Amoeba Records saying that the store houses a clinic where you can get a medicinal marijuana card. He said, “You’ve always said you wanted a card—would you really get one?”
Sure. So, I go inside and fill out these forms, handing them back to the receptionist who looks like a scaled-up Courtney Love in a red cocktail dress. She assures me my driver’s license will be returned to me. I expected the doctor to look like one of ZZ Top, but he’s a dignified family practitioner who looks like Archbishop Desmond TuTu. He listened to my anxiety and sleep complaints.
“Did something bad happen to you?” he asked.
“My husband George died of cancer a little over two years ago. He was in denial about being sick and wouldn’t let his doctors talk to me,” I said.
He nodded sympathetically, making a little “tsk” sound.
He asked, “What do you do that’s sensual?”
“Um, I have a boyfriend,” I stammered.
“No, sensual,” he clarified, “Do you get massages?”
“Well, you should. And you should go on long, aimless drives stopping wherever you want to,” he advised.
When he went to take my blood pressure, I told him I have white coat hypertension; my blood pressure shoots up in medical offices. Probably because when I was ten, my mother got sick and went to Kaiser Medical Center and never came out. The doctor sang to me in a silly voice while he measured my blood pressure. The result came out normal, 120/80.
He gave me the prescription. I asked, “Should I worry about getting addicted?”
“You have an awareness. You’re always there looking over your shoulder at yourself. That’s huge. You won’t let yourself get addicted.”
I wished he weren’t already married.
When I came out of the office thirty-six minutes later, Max was vibrating with impatience, his head twitching a bit, spiky gray hair standing up on end.
“Why were you in there that long?” he demanded. “The receptionist said no one has ever been in there over a half hour. Look at all these people waiting,” he added.
“We were talking,” I said, “He was trying to help me.”
“I thought you guys were doing it in there,” he muttered.
No, it was deeper. I was understood.
After the street fair, Max and I went to a Berkeley dispensary on a tree-lined, residential street across from a pretty cafe. The air seemed green, a sense of promise, out with my boyfriend, trying new experiences. When I came out with my first ever pot order, Max wanted me to go back to the dispensary to pick up a couple things for him.
I refused. It would look like I was being directed by a pot-loving friend capitalizing on my card. Every kid who’s seen an After School Special knows that the boy who wants you to do something wrong isn’t really your true friend.
Max has smoked pot almost forever: a couple of friends keep him supplied. But he’d been happy that now I could pick up a couple things for him…I mean us. So, why hadn’t he ever gotten his own card?
“I don’t want to be on any list for that,” he explained.
“But I should be?” I asked. “I was a lawyer.” Maybe he was just too lazy to get a prescription. Or he didn’t want to pay the fifty-four dollars for the card. But I don’t trust someone who wants me to do something they won’t.
“It’s no big deal. The pot’s for us,” he added.
It was a big deal. I am not a drug dealer. I’m a person suffering from “depression and anxiety.” My grief therapist said so. A suburban homeowner. A former Rotarian. A Porsche driver, for God’s sake. Max is the perennial pot smoker. Besides, wouldn’t a real boyfriend want to go into a weird place like an urban drug dispensary with me? (Even though it wasn’t weird). Wouldn’t he want to guide me in my choices? (Even though he’d confused the effects of indica and sativa, the two main strains of pot).
My gifts with purchase included an innocent enough-looking joint. I lit up my freebie the next night while watching Revenge, an evening soap opera like a modern Dallas. Except that it’s set in the Hamptons. But it still feels kind of like a drag show. The women hang around their houses in low-cut, pencil-skirted dresses paired with spiky pumps and speak in drawn-out, slow voices.
These super-rich people have to stay together despite their vast resources because otherwise there’d be no TV show. I don’t have to stay in one place, or stay with Max, but I can’t decide anything beyond what to buy. And that I don’t want to be alone.
Since George died, I never know what I want except at the most basic level, like a child. I might crave a spicy scallop roll, or a pile of dim sum, or aqua colored sheets, or a new cactus plant. I can’t figure out where I want to live, or who I want as a partner or if I want to travel.
The Voice In My Head doesn’t let me relax. It tells me I need to sell my house or I’ll never get over my memories. It insists that I sell the Porsche since it was George’s car. It demands that I work on social media so I have a writer’s platform so I don’t die with nothing to show for it. It chides me that Max is not my “forever” person.
I’d hoped the pot would sedate The Voice and we’d both agree that I should move to an apartment by the ocean or figure out how use my law degree in a cool way or become a full-time stoner with little short-term memory, but no anxiety. I would sedate The Voice with edible pot cookies and put it to sleep with campy TV serials. And maybe lull it into happiness by curling up with Max.
When Max and I first got together, I was transported by the time we’d spend just lying around. He’d rub my back and I’d feel my bones relax. I’d sleep next to him and it was like warm silk. I felt softened. We were so lucky to have found each other in dreary Internet dating land. He’d play guitar in bed; I was soothed.
Then money cropped up. Max wanted to split the cost of things equally so when we’d go out to eat, I’d hear, “Isn’t it your turn?” But Max had picked the restaurant, and he didn’t seem to notice what things tasted like; he’d pick places that sucked. It felt weird to drive to his house, roll out of bed then pay for dinner like I had to pay to be with him. I could be slept with, but not cherished. Not since I became a widow.
After puffing away, I felt restless. Then anxious. I couldn’t sleep. My heart was pounding. I called Max, questioning him about why he’d been so disappointed I hadn’t filled his order for him. I didn’t want to admit that I was an incompetent pot smoker.
I couldn’t ask him to come over. I couldn’t really rely on him. A true boyfriend that was meant-to-be would have intuited my distress. But we just argued about his making requests on my pot card. And taking my car to the Haight Ashbury.
I finally got off the phone and hung out with my joint-induced anxiety. I slipped into dark dreams, awakening out of them with a jolt. The next morning I felt tired, resigned to an inertia that settles in like slow-growing mold.
Max said I take everything too seriously. This from someone who says I should get over George when he’s convinced his ex-wife of ten years ago ruined his life. But they had great sex every night including the last night they were together. I didn’t need to know that.
But maybe I did. And I need to decide what I want besides imported brie and candles that smell like the ocean.
DEBBIE WEISS blogs at www.thehungoverwidow.com and at The Huffington Post. She’s writing a memoir and anti-advice manual about widowhood. Her work has appeared in xojane, Better After Fifty, and The Erma Bombeck Humor Writer’s Workshop.
The doorbell rings. It’s five in the evening on a Saturday in April and I’m home alone. Not expecting anyone—not really knowing anyone in Berlin, where I’ve recently relocated from California for work—I’m not sure if I should answer it.
If my husband was here, he would have groaned, “What are you doing?” when I finally went for the door, telling me to “leave it.” But he wasn’t there and it’s almost impossible for me not to respond when summoned, a deeply ingrained response from most of my life up until now. If a call comes in from a number I don’t recognize, I’ll answer just in case someone actually needs to speak with me even though I know it’s almost certainly someone trying to upsell me a premium cable bundle. Maybe, I thought, it’s a neighbor wanting to ask if we have hot water, as I had done some weeks ago when we had none and it turned out our whole building was having problems.
“Who is it?” I ask through the still-closed door.
“It’s your neighbor, Christina. I need to come in. I am having a panic attack.”
There are eight apartments in my building, and I had only met the occupants of two of them: the woman who’d helped me when the water heater went out and the stern woman across the hall who rides a bicycle with a wire basket threaded with plastic pink flowers. (The stern woman had been our neighbor once before when my husband and I lived in the same apartment for eight months in 2011. She looked like she had seen a ghost when she saw us the first time after we moved back in.) I’m sure Christina is neither of them, and, despite the fact that we were in a building with a locked front door in a relatively affluent neighborhood, I pause to consider if Christina might be a crazy woman with a knife.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know you. I’m not sure I feel comfortable letting a stranger in my house.”
“Please, I need to come in. I am having a panic attack,” she tells me again.
This time I believe her. I turn the bolt and pull open the heavy wood door, lacquered in a dried-blood-colored paint like all the others in this former East Berlin, turn-of-the-twentieth-century building. Kristina is wearing pajamas and glasses, her long blond hair unbrushed. Perhaps sensing that I’m sizing her up, she apologizes for her appearance. I’m also self-conscious. It’s too early in the day for the pajamas that I also wear, my contacts already replaced for the evening with glasses and my hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. I don’t apologize for my appearance, though; I’m not the one knocking on other people’s doors. I scarcely form these thoughts before Christina is speaking.
“I don’t know what to do. Since last night I have had the fear,” she says, each word articulated precisely in her German-accented English.
Fear is a direct translation of the German word angst, but it’s her use of an article in front of the word that anthropomorphizes her distress and catches me out. What was likely nothing more than a minor grammatical slip by a non-native English speaker reminds me of how I felt about my husband’s depression four years earlier in this exact same apartment. I came to think of it in human terms: an unwanted mistress that no amount of hand wringing from either of us could drive out.
This evening was not the end I had anticipated to what had been an unusually euphoric day. My husband was in England for the weekend, and I had taken the opportunity to indulge in a day of carefree wandering that had somehow morphed into a shopping spree. It was the first real day of spring in Berlin since our arrival that March, and the city was buzzing. (I am not a woman who uses words like “euphoric,” “carefree,” “spree,” and “buzzing,” and yet they are true.)
It started with a bathing suit. I had no intention of buying a bathing suit, but it was a black, retro-style, one-piece number, the kind of thing fashion editors might refer to as timeless, and it seemed like a good idea. As did the scarf, dress, and two pairs of shoes at the shop around the corner. And the dress and two pairs of jauntily patterned flip-flops at the new-to-me Spanish chain store a couple blocks away. Then I ate a lunch of salad with a glass of Sekt at Lindner, a posh German deli. I can blame the backpack and pink-and-white-striped-slip-on sneakers that followed on the Sekt, but not the items that preceded them.
As I walked home, I pondered my uncharacteristic consumerism—this was the largest quantity of clothing I can remember buying in one outing since I was a teenager—and felt ill at ease with my happiness. I am of the school of thought that as soon as you become aware of your happiness, it’s destined to end.
To ward off my discomfort, I silently intoned Zen truisms, acknowledging I had no expectations for the happiness I currently felt to be permanent, and I joined a line for ice cream that had spilled out on to the sidewalk of Weinbergsweg. Here a theory emerged. My elation that had found expression through my American Express card was a product of being separated from my husband for the first time in many years by mutual choice without any anxiety attached. It was late afternoon and I hadn’t heard from him since a brief email exchange that morning. Nor did I feel worried about being out of touch. Just a couple of years earlier, this would have been unimaginable.
Around the time of our last stint living in Berlin, my husband’s depression and anxiety—and my complicity with both—had escalated to the point that any extended length of time apart simply wasn’t worth the angst. When my work required a business trip, my husband coped by demanding adherence to a strict ritual of communication: at least thrice-daily phone calls and regular text messages to keep him informed of my movements at all times. Should I lose track of time at a business dinner and fail to contact him, there were consequences. The worst of these occurred during a work trip to Shanghai when, late one night after such a dinner, he threatened to check himself into a hospital if I didn’t fly home that evening. At that point it seemed to me his “threat” was the most humane thing he could do for both of us.
I didn’t fly home (despite my husband’s pain, he has never been suicidal), but I still felt defeated. When I had some free time the next day, I stayed in the hotel rather than stroll on the Bund—which I had hoped to see on what I thought would be my one and only visit to Shanghai—because I knew that I could only get a reliable phone signal and access to my email at the hotel. It was just easier that way. Neither did my husband check himself into a hospital in my absence. Instead we both carried on in this state, equally suspended in the disbelief that this was really happening.
How could it be happening when we had both seen a therapist regularly for years previously? We had done the work, slayed the demons. We clung to these former lives as therapy patients like a talisman even when it resolutely failed to protect us. Insanely, we even undertook an international relocation for my job, our first move to Berlin in 2011.
By then I was used to the demands of being constantly in touch via text message, even if my husband had the uncanny knack of summoning me as I was carrying bags of groceries up the five flights of stairs or fumbling for my keys. Mobile phones had become the curse of my existence, but they were nothing compared to his crying jags and panic attacks. These started in earnest in Berlin, once while on a walk around one of the many Seen (lakes) on the outskirts of the city, another in the Eames-style armchair in the guest bedroom of our furnished rental apartment. An English-speaking cognitive behavioral therapist with an office near Zoo was identified, and my husband returned from his first appointment with stacks of photocopied pages for me on how to respond to someone having a panic attack. They helped when, on a bench in the departure hall of Schönefeld Airport waiting for a flight to England, he told me he couldn’t get on the flight. At least I knew there was no use trying to talk him out of it. We stood and walked silently back past security, then down the long outdoor corridor to the S-Bahn back to Alexanderplatz.
Back in the Berlin apartment, I tell Christina to sit down and direct her to a metal chair with a raffia seat in a tiny alcove of the entryway. The better part of me thinks I should ask her upstairs to sit on the couch, but I am still on guard.
“I have the same chair!” Christina says, and we are both grateful for the reprieve of this kindred if unlikely brought-to-us-by-Ikea moment.
“Would you like a glass of water?” I ask.
Christina does not want a glass of water, which she indicates by ignoring the question and telling me several times in a row that she doesn’t know what to do.
I think of the time four years ago when my husband sat slumped in that same chair, having just thrown a Roma tomato at the wall in an act of poignantly impotent rage. I tell her what I should have told him then.
“You need to see a doctor.” (What I told my husband instead: “I’m calling my father,” a declaration made all the more strange by the fact that my father and I do not have a close emotional relationship. But I couldn’t think of anyone else who had the virtues of being both unencumbered enough and willing to fly across the Atlantic to help extract us from the situation.)
“I can’t. I’m on family health insurance. My parents won’t pay for me anymore to go to the doctor. I went to the doctor today, and he tells me because my blood pressure is normal there is nothing he can do,” Christina tells me in despair.
I fantasize about grabbing that doctor by the shoulders and shaking him. I wonder about the state of German mental health care, which, aside from the American therapist my husband saw privately here in 2011, I know nothing about. I tell her again that she needs to see a doctor.
After a few more minutes of sitting in my entryway, Christina leaves, having resolved to try to call her parents again. I wonder if I should have been more generous, insisted she stay longer, come upstairs, and relax a while. But the truth is I am also worried that I’ve opened a Pandora’s Box with Christina that I will regret. Will she knock on my door again in the middle of the night? The next day? And the day after that?
“It’s not your fault, you’re going to be okay,” I tell her as she steps onto the landing to go back downstairs to her apartment. “Everything is going to be okay.”
These days, things are okay for my husband and me. I didn’t call my father that afternoon in Berlin. Instead my husband and I endured too much for too long until, finally, back in America, we both went back to therapy and he went on antidepressants. Four years later we’ve returned to Berlin to the very same apartment. Memories of things I’d rather forget are inevitable. Even beautiful spring days can’t escape suspicion.
Christina never knocked on my door again, but sometimes I think about what I’d like to say to her if she did, and, I suppose, what I wish I had been able to say to my husband and his “mistress” four years ago. In this fantasy I morph into Anne Lamott acting out a postmodern version of a knock-knock joke.
Christina: Knock, knock.
Me as A.L.: Who’s there?
Christina: The fear.
Me as A.L.: Why come in and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea! Maybe the fear would like a slice of cake, too?
It’s an unlikely scenario because, at forty-three, no matter how much I admire the tribe of warm, wise women that Lamott represents, my inherently prickly nature always manages to poke through. Personality limitations aside, I like to think that at least next time I could tell Christina this: Don’t worry—we all have the fear. Even those of us who spent the day shopping and eating ice cream and walking in the park while sending inane tweets about how spring has finally sprung in Berlin. Most of all, we have the fear.
JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, the 2013 IndieReader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus and Tales from a Small Planet, and she’s a contributor to Edible Ojai & Ventura County. You can find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.
This is one of my earliest memories: I am three or four years old, scrabbling for a hold on a fallen tree while a river repeatedly pulls me under. I paw at the bark. The water is cold, moving fast and strong. It churns along with my other memories: the overturned Coleman canoe beating against the tip of the log, my father’s orange cap as he reaches out to pull my mother’s arm. When he has her, she lets herself drift to the sucking water that tries to drag us under the tree. She encircles me with her free arm, holding me above the current. My older sister has been balancing on the log, trying to reach me.
“How old?” I ask my sister Sasha. She is in California, sunny Santa Cruz. I am in dreary, garbage-scented Boston.
“Well, maybe you were two,” she says. Running water and the clink of plates tell me she’s washing dishes. “It was the guy they asked for directions from. They wanted to take us canoeing on the Madison, but he gave them directions to the Jefferson. It was a lot wilder.”
“So the canoe turned over in the rapids and we all caught onto a half-submerged tree, and…”
“Papa got pushed to the bottom several times before he got up. I climbed up the end, but Mama lost her hold of you and both of you were going under.” If I was two at the time, she would have been seven or eight. It surprises me, that this half-figment of half-memory—was my father wearing an orange cap?—is real to someone, that my sister remembers me half-drowning with clarity.
“How awful,” I say, as if the accident had recently happened to someone else.
A few years after that conversation my husband and I are in France for a wedding, in a small town between Nice and Monaco. The small, scruffy beach is next to placid Mediterranean water of such clear, bright blue it feels unreal. No matter where you swim, the water is never murky, and the bottom looks immediate, like a hologram.
My husband wants to dive from the floating dock a little ways off, so we swim towards it, he, the stronger swimmer, in front.
Halfway there I stop swimming. The water is clear. I can see the bottom. The dock isn’t far away. I try to convince myself to keep going, but my heart pounds, terrified of the water, of the depths, of the powerful, gentle-looking mass of a sea that is just longing to pull me under.
I turn around and head back to the beach, crawling onto the sand like I’ve been saved from a wreck, not caring what I look like in my very American one-piece suit and ridiculously pale, freckled skin that’s slathered in sunscreen. I long to be in that beautiful water, but I’m terrified of it. I know it wants to take me back.
It’s not just deep water. I’m afraid of the dark, too, and ghosts, and the monsters under the bed. Frisson-filled, gut-freezing fear that tells me these things are real. It’s their reality that terrifies me—ghosts drifting through my house, creatures beneath my box springs, the dark night as a monolith of unknowable worlds seen through acid trips. Other things that keep me lying in bed, staring into the dark and unable to move: the weeping angels in Doctor Who, ruthless alien races that might someday invade from another star system, a future like that in I, Legend, where most of the surviving human population has mutated into zombie-like beings due to pharmaceuticals gone wrong (I consume a lot of science fiction). And, ever since I read Stephen King’s book Lisey’s Story, mirrors.
Fears of pain, nonexistence, and the unknown. Water holds all of them. To die in water can mean one’s body slips out of sight, taken below on bright, sunny days of children’s laughter bouncing into jet skis’ obnoxious roars. Arms overhead, legs kicking, and then fear itself winding around the ankles to pull gently down. Hair floating upward to greenish light as the body is forced to lie among the muck that ancient glaciers left behind. My phobia makes this end feel like fate. A lingering death, a cold one, leaving not even footprints, just the water and sunshine, laughter and jet skis.
In Babylonian mythology, Tiamat is the goddess of the ocean. Her mate, Abzû, is the god of fresh water. Tiamat is the embodiment of primordial chaos. Or she is the embodiment of harmony, uniting salt and fresh water for all of creation. She is a serpent, an early form of dragon, or a goddess who made dragons filled with poison. She was killed by other deities, who created the world and heavens from her body. Her tears formed the mightiest rivers.
I’d love to connect my water phobia to ancient creation stories, to turn my human life into sensical narrative. But I do not believe in mythologies. I do not, in fact, believe in anything I can’t see or feel or sense or prove. I believe in mathematics. I do not believe in ghosts or the monsters that lurk in dark lake bottoms.
Why, then, am I terrified of them?
The word frisson describes a thrill of fear or excitement, a sense of foreboding that defies precision. The word’s very existence is proof of our fears. It acknowledges that we are terrified of things we cannot see or sense or know. Our minds are frightened of what our bodies can’t feel—or is it the other way around? Is it the mind’s fear and the body’s reaction, or the body’s fear and the mind’s reactions? Where does the experience of that wild river, the log, my family’s terror, reside in my body? Why does my mind insist there is something down there, in the non-empty spaces of dark matter between rocks and silt and sightless water?
I can see it now, in this barely-lit room where my children are sleeping. It’s sifting around the pine trees and the rustling aspens outside, a nameless something that awakens very real fear. Can you feel it?
An unfinished book sits in my drawer—or, not in a drawer but in a file on my laptop, our new drawers. It’s only partly written, set aside after a cross-country move and a year of living in someone else’s home while adhering to an exhausting work and parenting schedule. I touch the thought of returning to the book and feel wary. I say I don’t have time, and it’s true, I don’t. Not the kind of long, luxurious hours that extended writing demands to achieve any kind of depth. The lack of time I have is crushing. It’s its own being, monstrous and impenetrable like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A weighty horror.
I fear drowning under the lack of time. It holds books that I will never write. In that space is where I will cease to exist, fade away. And yet, why should I feel that way? Why must our names be etched in more than our immediate lives if we are to feel real and whole? Are we so terrified of being forgotten?
(Yes. We are.)
But caution also keeps me from diving into it again. A book is a long, sustained effort. It requires stamina, willpower, a certain quality of fearlessness to keep going when it feels your words have landed you in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been there before; this is the fifth time I’ve headed into those wide-open, unpredictable waters.
I fear venturing out there this time, kicking off again, not sure when I’ll get to the other side, and the petrifying thought of what’s lurking beneath the surface. Writing a book can lead to dark, unexpected places, once you let the words start to flow. What if I get to the middle and run out of energy, and the monsters snake around me as I try to tread water? What if I disappear?
It’s so much easier to stay in the shallows near the shore, penning smaller things, where I can see others’ faces, hear their laughter and splashes, even jump in deep sometimes and come straight back to shore.
My husband and I went scuba diving once on the Great Barrier Reef, back when we were living in Australia. A tour boat scooted us and a dozen or so others out from Port Douglas and the guide gave a perfunctory ten-minute lesson in dive symbols: up, okay, help, shark. I was the only person who had never even snorkeled.
“You a water baby?” he asked me in that brisk Aussie twang. “You love the water?”
“Yes.” I do, I really do. I grew up in Montana, where my family hiked all the time, preferably up into the mountains, where ice-cold lakes sat in tiny dips of valleys. Any hike where I can’t jump into a lake or at least soak my feet in a river at the end of it felt pointless. I would swim in a lake every day if I could.
When he toppled me in, wet-suited and oxygen-tanked, I took a few moments to get used to the mask, and ended up hyperventilating, heading towards panic, until I figured out how to breathe all the way out as well as all the way in. A thirty-second lesson with more impact than years of yoga.
Then I followed the group down, arms at my sides to keep down oxygen use, and I wasn’t scared. Nearly forty feet below the surface, where the monsters supposedly lived, I had no fear. The colors were just as bright as in photos—blue, orange, yellow corals and fish; big feathery growths of red; strange, enormous clams that closed as our shadows passed over. “Don’t put your hand in one of those,” he’d warned us before we left the boat. “You won’t get it out again.”
The water was cold, even through the wetsuit. I emerged hungry for lunch and eager for the afternoon dive. There was so much beauty there, none of the dark mystery that haunted the lakes of my home state.
I’d like my fear of deep water to be about something else, to turn it into a metaphor—for writing a book, for example, or for life and the risks we do or don’t take. But the near-drowning of my two-year-old self and her family, the sucking, surging power of that swift-moving river, were very real. When I long to swim across a lake, and flinch back because the water has become too dark and the monsters are waiting to get me, it’s not about taking risks in life and venturing into the unknown. It’s because I’m afraid of being pulled under and drowning.
We humans, we’re always seeking meaning. We want our suffering to have purpose, our fears to shape into Jungian explanations, our gods to exist. We are storytellers, symbol-makers. We find it hard to accept that not everything can be about something more.
You almost drowned because of our stupidity, says my father.
I almost lost you, my mother says to my sister and me.
The town I live in is built on a lake, and in the summer we take advantage of that fact several times a week. I swim out to the lake’s floating dock with my kids safely lumpy in life jackets. We climb up the dock and my son jumps off and climbs out again, over and over until he can barely keep his head above water. He’d do this until the stars pricked out overhead and the water became frigid, if I let him.
My daughter doesn’t want to go under. After years of swimming lessons, she’s still afraid of submersion and doesn’t like getting her face wet. It’s okay, I tell her, you don’t have to. I sit on the dock and stretch my legs out. She slides down them, gripping my hands, the life jacket keeping her cork-bobbing in the water.
I never learned to dive, so I stand at the edge and jump straight in. Underwater, the tiny bubbles I’ve made fizz around my ears, and I bob to the surface and swim to my kids, listening to the ripple-rill of water over my shoulders. I love this feeling so much, more than almost anything, the splashes of the lake, the mountains chaining the valley. My son wants to swim out farther together and we take off. He can’t see the constriction in my chest, the fear gnawing my toes. I don’t tell him there are monsters out there.
ANTONIA MALCHIK has written for Aeon, GOOD magazine, 1966, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and the managing editor of STIR Journal. You can read more of her work through www.antoniamalchik.com.
He wasn’t a handsome man, but he had a handsome man’s chin. And a voice that made up for pretty much everything else. I could not get over his voice. It’s the only thing about me, he once said, that I can control. He was on his college debate team and I could only imagine the suckers that thought they could actually talk him out of anything. I spent years trying to find a voice that resembled his, just so I could hear it again, but I never could. He was also quite tall, which was nice in theory, though I really didn’t ever get to see him all that much.
When I was twenty-six, we had the briefest of brief love affairs that lasted really only a couple of weeks; well, really only about four nights. But then, after it was over, we swirled around in each other’s heads for years, each not really aware that the other had never forgotten those four nights. Was, in fact, still thinking about them.
We had met in the backyard of my first real boyfriend four years before our actual love affair. I heard that voice and saw him casually snap a cigarette out of my first real boyfriend’s hands and I thought, Oh. This is the kind of guy I should be with. And then when a bunch of us were hanging out a few years later, after he’d moved out west, and then returned briefly, I realized I still felt the same way. But he had to go back west, he told me, as we stood in the dark outside a bar, and he continued to explain why, even though it seemed like we could be dating, we couldn’t really be dating.
But we both thought about it for a long time. Long after he moved back west and after I got married and after he got married. We had been in and out of touch for all those years that followed. I would write to him out of the blue and he would write back and it was just basic how are you doing sort of emails, nothing much, really. But it thrilled me anyway.
And then one time I wrote to see how he was, and it turned out he just happened to be visiting relatives back east, not far from where I was now living with my husband and two children. And we thought that hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we got together? It was. He came with his wife and his young son and we all got along well. At one point, when the two of us were talking alone together in the kitchen, he leaned against the counter and knocked a bowl to the floor. It shattered. And he was incredibly flustered, but I told him it was no big deal at all, just a bowl, jeez, wanting so much to make him feel comfortable. I noticed again that he was really quite tall. Thirteen years had passed. I was almost forty.
One night, soon after this, when he was safely back across the country, I asked him, in an online chat, to tell me something he’d always wanted to tell me. There was something about how he had knocked that bowl onto the ground. There was something I thought I knew. And eventually, after asking me if I was sure I wanted to know, he wrote that he should have never gone back west way back when we should have dated but didn’t. We should have, in fact, dated. I mean, there was more, of course, but that was basically it. We had never stopped thinking about each other for all those years. So now what?
There are people that make an appearance in our lives at exactly the right time. Sometimes you recognize it immediately but, other times, you don’t quite see it until long after the fact, when a series of events that seemed random and scattered begin to line up in your memory with a surprisingly linear precision.
So for instance, not long after the online chat just described, I was with my husband at a friend’s birthday party when I started talking to a woman I had known just a little bit. We were both giddy and a bit drunk at this party, and she told me about a writing workshop that was offered through a local university. I suppose we were talking about writing, but I can’t really remember how we got there. She told me that the university got good writers to lead these workshops and all you had to do was apply. If you got in, it was free. “You should do it!” she said, hardly knowing me at the time.
And I did. And it was at this workshop, where I found myself sitting at a table with total strangers, not a mother or a wife but a writer, where I began to feel my real self emerging again, the one I had buried for years, buried so that I could not see what was right in front me: my terrible unhappiness, my difficult, exhausting marriage.
When I think of the beginning of the end of my marriage, I always return to that random conversation with a woman who had been an acquaintance, a conversation that very casually set off a long series of events that quite simply changed the entire direction of my life.
But what about the man with the handsome man’s chin? Did you think this was going to be a love story?
It was, in a way.
After our online confession, he wrote me gorgeous poems, the sort of poems you dream of receiving when you’re twelve years old, studying your face in the mirror, and imagining love. It was intoxicating, of course. There were secret phone calls in which we talked about our love for each other, with a plan to meet secretly, somehow, even though we still lived thousands of miles away. We were never going to run away together. But maybe we could meet just one time. We had never, in all those years, spent more than a few hours together.
This is the guy you’re supposed to wait for your whole life: the one who gets you, who thinks you are more beautiful, more special, more interesting, than any other woman in the world, who says exactly the things you want to be told, things that you assumed no one could possibly know you’d want to hear.
We had never, in all those years, spent more than a few hours together.
In the end, we stopped talking. He had to stop. He couldn’t see me. He thought he could come all those thousands of miles by himself, just for a time, but in the end, he could not. And in the end, it was too much, too sad, too painful for everything. And then his emails got less and less frequent; he would not answer his phone when I called. It was too hard for him to keep up with his normal life and to have this secret life. I got that. But I missed him. I kept trying to contact him, but he was gone. For a long time, I was angry, frustrated, sad. Years passed. My life took a turn for the worse, and then, after another series of events, a turn for the better. Which is where I am now.
When I think of him, this man whose love for me was like the love you are told to wait for your whole life, I can only think of him as someone who, more than once, simply showed up in my life at exactly the right time. He was never going to be the love of my life, not really, much as I thought so at the time, but the one who would make me think (more than once), Oh. This is the kind of guy I should be with. Not him, exactly. We were never quite real to each other. Our relationship, if it had really happened in our twenties, would have ended. Maybe after a few months. Or a few years. Instead, nearing the age of forty, it was one last gasp at our youth, a way to recapture those few weeks, or really, those four nights, that we barely spent together. Even at the time, I could see that we were setting ourselves up for a disappointment, but not quite the disappointment that it turned out to be.
But I like to think that we both showed each other a window in which a different swirling life existed, and then once the blinds were quickly drawn, we could keep that image in our heads. We could hear a faint voice on the other side, waiting for us to get over there, to see what was possible.