Ah. That time of year again when I reflect on the Thanksgiving when, inexplicably, my child said at the extended family dinner table that he was thankful for George W. Bush.
I kid. It’s the time of year that I think about what I’m thankful for. And it includes you all, my kindred souls who’re interested in the literature and messiness and dissection of adulthood. If I were a deranged millionaire, I’d fly you all here for a gigantic party.
I’m going up to cook my part of Thanksgiving dinner for my people, so there won’t be any new essays this week, but this is also the time of year that Pushcart Prize nominations are due. This year’s are:
Zsofi’s essay comes out the first week of December, so you’ll have to wait until then.
It’s getting harder each year to make my six nominations out of the nearly hundred essays FGP publishes, and my short list included every damn one of them, so peruse the archives if you find yourself waiting for the turkey to be done or needing some down time away from the loved (or tolerated) ones.
“It’s too soon,” I hissed at Richard, on the phone with his mom.
Millie planned to fly in for Thanksgiving, less than three months after six-year-old Ben had been placed with us. We were still navigating a precarious new existence as a nuclear family. Nuclear bomb was more like it. But Millie had waited two decades since our wedding for us to produce a grandchild and her ensuing visit was inevitable, like ptomaine after eating undercooked poultry.
“Sure, you can stay here,” Richard said to Millie.
I waved at Richard like the guy with the light wands on the airport tarmac, trying to prevent a jumbo jet from crushing a baggage handler. “Where?” I mouthed.
Richard and I took turns sleeping on the daybed in my office next to Ben’s room so that one of us would be near if he woke up disoriented. We were his twelfth family. He’d recently fallen asleep in his booster seat on the way to see Kung Fu Panda, and when I nudged him awake in the theater’s parking lot, he wailed in terror, having no initial remembrance of who I was: his newest mother.
Richard turned his back on me to finish the phone conversation, then hung up and faced me. “She’ll cook the whole Thanksgiving dinner. She’ll make Ben his own special pie.”
“You know what we were told in all of the foster-adoption training sessions, over and over, about new families and holidays.” Keep it mellow and uneventful, trainers droned around their ubiquitous cough drops. We’d practically been tattooed with Beware the Holidays, as full of triggers as an NRA rally. Had Ben eaten turkey or ham for Thanksgiving with his most significant foster families? Said a prayer or made fart jokes? Football game on or off? Canned or fresh cranberry sauce? Sat at a formal table like Richard’s family, or, like mine, eaten off doubled paper plates balanced on our knees?
“Look how relevant the rest of the training’s been,” Richard pointed out. True, I never referred to the training binders. Instead, I scrawled WILD ANIMAL TRAINER in my notebook and jotted down techniques after coming across a nature article and thinking: That’s what I am. Not a parent. I’m that killer whale trainer who gets seized by her ponytail, pulled into the tank, and worried to death.
But the adoption trainers were onto something with their dire predictions about trip-wired family celebrations. After a dinner out for my October birthday, Ben had refused to get in the car with us. He’d stood on the sidewalk between the car and the restaurant and hocked loogies at the windshield in front of my face. Nothing had gone wrong to set him off: I was simply the most recent in a long line of mothers, being honored though I, too, would surely send him packing. Only time would show him he wasn’t going anywhere.
“What should we do?” I’d asked Richard as Ben paced, working up more spit wads, swearing like a Pulp Fiction character while the diners inside looked on. My heart rate had escalated and my margaritas grandes had blared in my bladder like a mariachi trumpet as I’d prepared to exit the car and navigate a public scene without getting arrested.
“Hit the wipers.” Richard, slouching, had flipped the switch. Not reacting came easier to him than to me. Provoking him was like trying to get a rise out of a thermometer with no mercury. He was so laid back that a doctor once told him his blood pressure was so low he should be dead.
The rubber blades had swished the ooze trails across the safety glass—would that our fragile new family hold together as well under impact.
We’d laughed—surprising Ben. Our mixture of pragmatism and gallows humor enabled us to survive each day and face the next. All of Ben’s other parents had caved in or kicked him out in response to his behaviors. We were the first to put a replacement pair of eyeglasses on his face within twenty-four hours of his snapping the first pair in his fists, and he knew he’d lost that battle. The first who kept a patch on his lazy eye, like keeping a cone on a feral cat. To deny him dessert until he ate his vegetables; we learned that Brussels sprouts float after he tried to flush them. Unconditional love, maybe, but with a steel backbone. Ben needed boundaries. He needed parents, not buddies. I would have failed had I not had a spouse as unflappable as a manatee.
Ben had seen us laughing and got in the car.
Now Millie—a mother who had let her children roam safely free in their Midwestern suburb every afternoon until she rang the dinner bell, who never disciplined her kids, whose teeth I’d never seen behind her close-mouthed smiles—was going to land in the middle of our Pythonesque reformatory.
Land mines littered our upcoming Thanksgiving tableau, and who knew which one a corncob might set off? I needed more tension in the house like I needed a bucket of gasoline to douse a fire.
But Richard could not refuse his mother her visit. We both knew that. He continued placating me, repeating her promises to him: “She’ll do all the cooking that whole week. And watch Ben during the days so you can work.”
I hesitated. Another ugly parenting surprise had blindsided us: the local schools shut down for the entire Thanksgiving week. I was telecommuting while on partial maternal leave, a complicated arrangement; Richard worked late several nights per week; we were both wracked with deep, hacking coughs but had no time or energy to manage a doctor’s visit; and I dreaded the fifteen-hour stretches alone with Ben. Much the same as I felt about being alone with Millie. Over the decades, we’d managed to overcome our embarrassingly clichéd history of discord by keeping things as shallow as a cookie sheet. Living two thousand miles away from each other helped.
Richard shrugged. “It’ll all work out. Don’t worry.”
Easy for him to say. Millie liked to say that her pet peeve was turning off light switches. I refrained from correcting her that her pet peeve was really people leaving lights on. The problem was that Millie turned off lights when I was still in the room.
Millie had raised her firstborn alone for a few years after leaving her first husband and returning home with a newborn to the Midwest and her grim mother. In his mid-forties, Richard still could do no wrong in her eyes—other than having married me, her only palatable explanation for his living his entire adult life on the other side of the continent.
I would be sandwiched between Millie’s and Ben’s hostility like slaw in a shredded pork grinder.
“And she’ll hem Ben’s pants,” Richard added.
“Dirty pool.” I’d begun to hope that saggy-pants, with resultant dragging hems, would last through Ben’s adolescence, so I wouldn’t have to learn to work the borrowed sewing machine, as perplexing to me as busy moms looking stylish at PTA meetings; shaved armpits and clean underwear meant a presentable day for me.
I sighed, defeated with that last bit of blackmail. When I first traveled to Millie’s house as a newlywed, she commanded me to scrub off my hand lotion; she was allergic to the smell. With a long arm and pointed finger, she sent me from the room, which she aired to erase any trace of me. She’d never learned to spell the last name I’d kept when we’d married.
Yet here was an olive branch in the form of domestic help, of wanting to be a grandmother. Millie’s highway anxiety had grown so pronounced that she could no longer drive except on her suburb’s local roads, so this was no spindly peace offering, this offer to fly solo, cross-country, to welcome her newest family member.
In advance of her arrival, Millie began shipping low-fat, low-salt, special diet ingredients for allergies I’ve never understood, such as adverse reactions to all ice cream except Haagen-Dazs. At a restaurant once, she ordered plain spaghetti—no sauce, no oil, no cheese, just coagulating noodles.
With no holiday planning of my own to do now, I came around quickly to the idea of a handy mother-in-law underfoot, and I readjusted my attitude to look forward to her arrival. After all, she had managed to birth and raise a pretty decent fellow I called my husband.
We rented a bed for her and used rugs, curtains, and wall hangings to soften and decorate Richard’s den, which had once been a garage. Quirky, makeshift lodging symbolized risk and adventure to Richard and me. But Millie’s home décor was beige and could pass as a dentist’s waiting room, lovely in a nondescript way.
Millie arrived with massive amounts of baggage for a stay of less than a week.
At a glance, she diagnosed Ben as having her same food allergies. I didn’t protest, figuring her bland ingredients wouldn’t hurt him for a week. The cook got carte blanche on the menu, as far as I was concerned.
We muddled through the days pleasantly. I was a mother now, a visible person with substance. Millie was Ben’s grandmother and great with kids. Two decades of sandpaper relations had worn down our splinters. Maybe we weren’t lustrous mahogany, but veneer would do.
I gladly shopped for everything on Millie’s list and chewed (and chewed) her spice- and additive-free dinners, where the color and taste of all three food groups resembled tree bark. I loved and appreciated every morsel and frequently requested seconds. Ben learned to say, “Yum,” before asking, “What is it?” To be fair, he asked me this question nightly, remaining suspicious of anything that didn’t come from a McDonald’s bag, and I’m no Julia Child.
Hell, I would have adopted Charles Manson years earlier if I’d known it would bond me and Millie. I’d finally discovered the hidden plus-side to in-laws. My only job was to keep out of her way as she took over my kitchen and complained about my pans and stale sage, which didn’t bother me. No less than a birth mother with a newborn, I welcomed her gift of sustenance and nourishment, and her presence was a relief rather than a thorn.
But a few days after her arrival and the day before Thanksgiving, Millie woke up and declared that she had a sore throat and was staying in bed. No cooking. No Thanksgiving prep. No childcare. I placed a distress call to the community center where Ben now went after school so he could work on social skills and I could roll out my yoga mat but watch hockey highlights on my laptop instead. The community center took Ben for the day. Ben had never been there for a full day, and I didn’t know I was supposed to pack him a lunch. The other kids and counselors all shared their food with him, a scene straight out of a TV holiday drama.
Millie would never have made such a mistake.
When Richard got home from work early that afternoon, Millie announced that she was packing her bags and taking the first flight home, possibly before Ben got home from day camp to say goodbye.
Richard took me aside. “What happened between you two while I was gone?” he yawned.
“Nothing! I liked having her here! I was working! I left her totally alone except when I asked her if she needed anything from the drugstore.” I thought Millie preferred me invisible. “I was in the canned food aisle forever yesterday trying to find that special salmon she asked for.” I had come home with the wrong thing, but she still had been gracious.
She told Richard that she missed her husband, who had stayed home to care for the Shi-Tzu-Poodles, and hated her bed and room. It was cold in Seattle, and she needed the Florida sun (their snowbird home) to recuperate. She needed The Price is Right, which she called The Drew Carey Show, but we’d gotten rid of our television when Ben moved in, to keep a calm and quiet environment. She repeated that she had a sore throat.
“Sore throat?” Richard shouted at Millie. “Sore THROAT? SORE THROAT? Boo-fucking-hoo! I’ve been sick for three months and it doesn’t fucking matter! You’ve been promising Ben his own pie, and you’re going to stay and bake him a fucking pie!”
Boo-fucking-hoo? Ah, bittersweet moment. I’d been waiting since the Bee Gees were at the top of the Billboard charts for Richard to stand up to his mother, too much to expect. It’s difficult even for me to voice concerns in my loudmouthed family, and Richard’s family doesn’t quarrel. Millie leads a quiet family discussion, and then everyone does what Millie decides. No voices raised, problem buried—except that cow patties continue to emit methane. Easy to criticize, yet Richard is one of the few people I know who describes his childhood as happy.
Richard’s crazed yodeling to his mother continued: “This is about Ben, not you, you got that? You are not going to let this child down! He’s had too much of that already from too many people! He’s six, and you’re sixty-six. Grow the fuck up!”
Suddenly, Richard had a button. He’d never had one, much as I’d tried over the years to sew one on. He was now a Dad: Do not mess with his kid.
But then the world tilted further on its axis when it turned out that Millie’s problem was not me, nor Ben’s troubling behaviors.
The problem was Richard—no longer the easygoing man often mistaken for The Dude, but the strict disciplinarian he had become in order to keep ourselves and our son safe. A black-and-white-rules parent—the parent his child needed, not the parent he’d always thought he’d be.
When Ben weakly punched Richard’s stomach at a party, Richard moved out of reach, reprimanded him, and followed through with the consequence of immediately leaving a party barely started.
When Ben threw a scooter at us, Richard confiscated the scooter.
When an angry Ben took a crayon to the table, Richard handed him cleaning supplies.
I was as firm as tofu and would later be sent to specialized parenting training for wimps, but Richard had a monolith spine.
When Richard told Ben’s therapist about the lenient, lackadaisical kind of dad he’d like to go back to being someday soon, with a motto of love them and let them be—the kind of parents he had—the therapist shook his head and said, “I find that kind of parenting just does not work at all for these kinds of kids.”
Millie called Richard a dictator. She called him Hitler. She phoned her husband to say she was being held hostage. She got two digits in to 9-1-1 to report a domestic violence incident though Richard had come nowhere near her. Downstairs, I pressed myself flat to the wall (okay, sort of bow-shaped, since my fanny won’t quite allow flat) to stay out of it.
Richard had never in his forty-five years spoken an unkind word or raised his voice to his mother. Although I had longed for—and sometimes insisted upon—this moment, there was nothing joyous in finally hearing Richard tell his mother off. That he was this near to the edge was no victory. He backed down and apologized to her, immediately, sincerely, and repeatedly. He moved her into our bedroom.
When Richard and I flew to the Midwest for Christmas one year, Millie spent three days cooking the holiday meal, filling the entire upstairs and downstairs refrigerators, pantries, and freezers. Millie’s mother sampled her dinner plate, then pushed it away, saying, “My daughter never could cook.”
Her gesture symbolized her feelings for a fatherless baby she can’t have wanted—“She doesn’t talk about it,” Millie cut me off when I once asked them for the story—and never demonstrated loving or appreciating. Yet that daughter took care of her for years, all through a slow, aggrieved decline, dropping everything, time and time again, to respond to her needs.
Millie broke the cycle of bitterness by bestowing unconditional love and nary a critical word upon her children, instilling in them a strong sense of confidence. A self-assurance that allows her son to follow his unerring instinct on what is best for his child, for whom unconditional love is simply not enough.
Millie awoke early Thanksgiving morning to make Ben his pie and salvage the meal. She blended and boiled, the salt can nowhere in sight. Swamp water under the bridge, I thought with relief, but she and Richard tangled again, this time in hushed shouts over what I think was a pan of gravy, though it was difficult to distinguish from the other dishes. Ben was home, so they kept it down.
Still, the tension transmitted itself through the house like the urine fumes that soon followed. Our Labrador peed on the floor. Ben peed on the floor. They peed upstairs, downstairs, and on the stairs. I dashed between them with rags.
I inserted myself between Richard and his mother. If I never expected Richard to give his mother a piece of his mind, I expected even less that I would stop him if he ever did. “You two need to stop. You’re traumatizing Ben.”
“You will not do this to my family,” Richard hissed at his mother over my head. “You need to leave. Right now.”
Richard’s “family” had always to him meant his birth family, the people he’d grown up with and then left at age nineteen, never to return. Unable to have children despite trying for ten years, I insisted that he and I were a family, nonetheless, but he could not agree. “We are a couple, not a family,” he maintained. Pets didn’t count. No amount of crying or arguing could dissuade him from this belief. I couldn’t change his feelings, and he couldn’t change his feelings, although he knew they hurt me. We’d been round and round that mulberry bush multiple times.
Now, suddenly, Ben and I were his family, and I knew he would protect us with his caveman’s club even if he died in the attempt.
For that I was thankful.
Millie’s last words to Richard as she wrestled her baggage out the door was, “Well, your wife didn’t want me here, anyway.”
“No, wait! I wanted you here! I liked having you here!” I wanted to protest.
My words wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. She punted her words of reproach to my corner of the triangle rather than finding fault with her own child—which her mother had done too much of.
She cherished her kids, even when she’d brought her first baby back home without its father—exactly repeating her resentful mother’s young single motherhood scenario but choosing to adore her baby instead. Reading Ben’s two-thousand-page case history that filled an entire IBM box, I had a clear understanding of how hard it is to break family cycles, but this she had done. Just as Richard was now a different type of parent than the limp-noodle variety she’d modeled.
“What do I say to Ben?” I asked instead.
“Tell Ben I’m dead,” she said.
But something else had died: the notion of the parents we thought we’d be, the type of children we had once been, and the parents we thought we had.
Richard drove his mother in silence to the airport Hyatt while I threw her turkey in the oven and tried to figure out what the rest of the tan dishes were supposed to be.
We told Ben that Millie left because she was sick, but Ben knew better. Everyone in Ben’s life had left him, and now Ben’s new grandmother had left him, too.
I’d always gotten bone-deep satisfaction from sucking up drippings with the turkey baster and squirting hot fat over the browning carcass, a primal urge straight out of the Iliad’s sacrifice scenes. But this year, I never opened the oven door. I didn’t interfere in what was best left with me out of it.
Millie’s bird was perfect. Crisp on the outside, succulent on the inside.
That evening I set out the salt shaker and my grandmother’s plates, and my family sat down to give thanks.
I always regretted not stepping to Millie’s defense that Christmas when her mother criticized Millie’s meal. I had waited for someone else in her family to say something, but nobody had.
I wish she could have heard the praise for the meal she prepared for us before flying the coop.
I steeled myself for Ben’s certain meltdown, but he seemed newly centered. Someone else had been sent packing, but Ben stayed. His father had stood his ground to fulfill the promise made to his son.
We let Ben eat his pie first.
JENNIFER D. MUNRO is a freelance editor whose blog, StraightNoChaserMom.com, is the First Place Winner in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists blog competition (under 100,000 monthly readers category). She was also a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her work has also been featured in Salon; Brain, Child; Literary Mama; Best American Erotica; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. Her humorous stories about sex and the sexes are collected in The Erotica Writer’s Husband. Website: JenniferDMunro.com.
In high school after lunch I goofed off in the library with my misfit friends Richard and Joel. Richard: grubby, overweight, and indifferent, with taped-together glasses that sat crooked on his head. Joel: milk-white skin, wispy hair, and translucent, vaguely bluish eyes, like an alien. Voice so deep it was almost inaudible. My boys.
On this day, I was getting over a bad cold. My entire face hurt. We sat at one of those round study tables. Joel, who would die of a rare disease a few years after graduation, said something unexpectedly funny and I laughed—really more like a snort, with unintended oomph.
My entire sinus cavity … disgorged.
There was a lot.
The result was not something that could be discreetly nostrilled up, like a worm that poked from its hole (maybe they saw, maybe they didn’t). It was a hot, greenish-yellow blob, like something from another world that covered my lips, and half my chin, and was advancing. The jackpot of snot.
As teenage boys we reveled in bodily functions, of course, but in the seconds after my blast each of us knew in his own way that I had gone too far, albeit helplessly and by surprise. Richard and Joel gaped. They cackled. I did the only thing I could think of.
With a cupped paw, I wiped away the seeping, viscous wad. Then I chased Richard and Joel around the library with it, my handful of disgrace. We howled with a kind of weird joy, they scrambling, me in pursuit as the masters of world literature gazed down at us from the shelves, disdainfully.
Fast-forward a decade or so. Joel was no longer among us, and I’d lost track of Richard, as one often does after high school. I was getting married. In those days, state law required emissions tests not only for cars but that, too. The doctor used one of those cotton-swab sticks, like a Q-tip but about nine inches long. It didn’t have to be that long.
“Wait,” I said. “Why is this even necessary? My fiancé is the only person I’ve ever had sex with.” This was true. Go ahead and feel sad for me here if you want. I felt a little sad for myself.
AIDS wasn’t around back then, but herpes was, and syphilis, and gonorrhea. Also human papillomavirus, or HPV. I read the other day that every sexually active person will come into contact with HPV at some point, if not one of the others. Think of it. An ordinary person’s loins are seething with contagion. Maybe you’ll meet someone new tonight.
The doctor muttered something about public health. “We just want to keep you honest,” he said, and I realized, possibly for the first time in my stupid existence, that I could lie but my body would tell the truth.
Next I was a new husband, with a job: photographer for the weekly newspaper in our northern Illinois town. One day my editor sent me to shoot the girl’s swim team at the high school, which had won some kind of award. I arrived at the appointed hour during practice, everybody out of the pool, lined up. Thanks to a powerful strobe flash on the camera, I was able to stand far enough back to fit all of these nubile beauties into the frame. I left the school feeling good. I’ve always felt good, leaving schools.
In the parking lot I heard distant sirens, then closer, and then a line of squad cars followed by an ambulance heading into the cemetery across the street.
Because I was a newsman, I followed them. To the body, which lay face-down on a grave in front of the headstone. I captured that image, and next the overall scene, then zoom: the lad’s half-open mouth, tousled hair, the cassette player near his elbow.
A guy came over yelling and waving his arms. Owner of the cemetery, private property, get out, no pictures, get out get out. Because I was a newsman, I photographed that guy, teeth bared and veins bulging on his forehead.
Later he phoned the office and apologized for his rage. Just came out in the moment, he said. I lost control. But he also threatened to sue if we used the pictures. A boy who lost his girlfriend, as people like to call it, in a traffic accident had shot himself on her resting place while their favorite song played.
We consulted our lawyer. Yes, any cemetery is private property. But the usual rules don’t apply when an event of public concern takes place on it. An event, he said, of public concern.
We didn’t use the pictures.
I peered over my editor’s shoulder at the prints of the swim team. It must have been the strobe flash, the water still on the girls fresh out of the pool, and the weave of their nylon suits. Two rows of beaming maidens faced us looking—except for the faintest shadows of what they wore—as naked as newborns, albeit more interesting. “Nice,” my editor said. “We can’t use these either.”
Fast-forward another ten years into my starter marriage, as people like to say afterward. Let’s extend the housing metaphor and say it was a fixer-upper. Let’s say it had a weak foundation, and was falling down around us. It did.
They say the body is the house for the soul, the body that secretes and excretes and blurts. The body that things come out of, not always planned, and can’t be put back in. The body that’s cut and bruised in wrecks of all kinds. The body that’s brokenhearted. That might be hidden, and—in a flash—exposed.
Wikipedia defines flesh as “the soft substance of the body of a living thing.” The body: private property we have no choice about showing other people, since the body is where we meet them, in our mutually arranged or accidental events of public concern. It’s the site of inevitable trespass, too, at least until the house is foreclosed on, emptied, and then gone altogether.
I still think about that swim team.
RANDY OSBORNE’s writing has appeared in various online literary magazines. In 2014, his work was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces, which first appeared in Full Grown People, is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book of personal essays.
“This essay doesn’t have to be about our affair,” my boyfriend, who’s also a writer, told me.
This can just be a story about a ring.
My son Max turns fourteen next month. He was sprawled on the couch watching a YouTube video—that viral Bruno Mars lip-dub marriage proposal that took place in Portland—when my husband and I came in from walking the dog.
David and I were in the middle of having the Why Don’t You Take Drum Lessons bicker. This is the one where I nag at him to find a hobby, and he says, “It’s not your responsibility to organize my life” and then I say, “I just want you to get out more, and be happy,” and then I get pouty, and he gets mad, and then I get mad that he’s mad.
Max looked up from his phone like he’d just realized we were in the room. “How did you—you know—propose to Mom?” he asked.
David and I stopped our bickering and collected ourselves.
I answered Max’s question even though I knew it was meant for David. “He got down on his knee. He gave me a dozen roses.”
“Yeah, everybody does that,” Max said. “I mean, what did he do that was special?
“Knee bending and roses are romantic,” I explained.
David spoke up. “Well, son.” He lowered his voice in the name of drama. “I chased her—from the Upper East side to the Upper West side—by cab.”
“You did?” This was more the kind of story Max had expected. Put some music behind it, and you’ve got a YouTube video.
Our whole engagement story is in fact special, but not the kind of special I’m ready to share with my teenager. I didn’t tell Max, for instance, that I’d bullied David into marrying me. Maybe “bullied” is too strong a word. I’d said something along the lines of, “David, we have to get married as soon as possible.”
And he said, “Why?”
And I said, “Because my parents are going to die soon, and it’s important to me that they see me get married.” My father had late stage diabetes. My mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her bones. Then I added, “I love you, honey. But if you aren’t ready to get married, then we’re going to have to break up because I need to find someone who is.”
After that, our conversation went on so long, I had to take a taxi to my psychiatrist’s appointment on the West side instead of the cross-town bus.
When I told the psychiatrist about my marriage proposal, she said, “Sometimes women are ready to get married before men are. Give him a little time.” My session lasted another twenty minutes. And, sure enough, when I walked out of the building, there was David waiting on the sidewalk. He did get down on a knee and handed me a dozen roses and said, “Nikki, I realize now if I don’t marry you, it will be the biggest mistake of my life.”
Then we walked along Central Park West holding hands until we found a pay phone and I called my mother. “Mom,” I said. “David and I are getting married!”
“Oh, Nikki, thank God!”
Then she asked, “When?”
“This summer, I think, Mom. On the farm.”
And she started to cry.
When we called David’s parents, his mother said, “Oh my goodness.” I couldn’t tell if she was excited or appalled.
A few months after we’d announced our engagement, David and I gathered in the dining room of his Grandmother Kaska’s house with his parents, Anton and Margaret, and my parents, Bernie and Esther, and David’s sister. We couldn’t gather in the living room because it was full with two grand pianos. Kaska had trained at a conservatory in Switzerland before the war, and had then taught piano in Queens for more than forty years.
The china cabinet in the dining room was filled with ivory figurines from China and silver sugar bowls with silver tongs and bottles of liquor dating back to the fifties. On the walls were oil painted scenes of Paris, and Brussels, and also a few dark portraits.
I hadn’t expected an engagement ring. David and I had never discussed it, and it wasn’t something I had ever dreamed about. So when his family gave me the diamond, I was surprised. My hands are not beautiful. I garden without gloves and at the time I worked with animals, cleaning cages, and my nails are thin and tear easily and I bite them. After I started wearing the diamond, I tried to take better care of my hands. I’d quit biting for a while, months at a time, but then, I’d be at the movies, and the film would be suspenseful, and before I knew it, my nails would be raw and my cuticles would bleed.
Grandmother Kaska sat at the head of the table. On the wall behind her was a portrait of a woman who could have easily been mistaken for a man. Kaska said, “Nikki, I’m going to tell you a story.
“This”—she turned and pointed to the portrait, her eighty year old fingers bent and swollen from arthritis—“was Vera. Vera was my mother-in-law, Rajmund’s mother. She was the first to wear the ring.” Everyone in the room looked at the portrait of Vera, who looked back at us. “Vera’s husband worked in the diamond industry and he made the ring for her, in Amsterdam.
“When I became engaged to Rajmund, Vera took the ring off her finger and put it on mine. I wore that ring to Cuba when we couldn’t get into the United States. Three years later, I wore it to Ellis Island.” Kaska took a sip of tea. “When Margaret got engaged to my son, I took the ring off my finger and put it on hers.” Now Kaska looked at the ring on Margaret’s finger, so we all did.
My mother once told me, “Remember, when you get married, you’re marrying a whole family.”
Then Margaret got up from the table. She came and stood between David and me, and she took the ring off her finger. “I have to admit,” she said, “I thought I’d wear this ring a few more years.” She handed the ring to David, and he slipped it on my finger. Actually, he didn’t slip the ring on my finger, because it wasn’t a perfect fit, although by the time we got married in August, and I’d lost my bride pounds, the ring did fit just fine.
Margaret sat back down. “Go ahead and get a new setting if you don’t like this one,” she said. “I know you’re hard on your hands.” Everyone at the table looked at my hands. “But then, of course, with a new setting, it would no longer be the same ring.”
David’s sister, who was in high school at the time, said, “It’s weird to see it on your hand, Nikki. I’ll always associate it with my mother.”
My mother said, “I can’t believe my daughter is going to wear a diamond.”
I told this story to my girlfriend Penny. Penny has many diamonds, and I told her how the ring on my finger is ceremonially passed from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law in each generation, and that the expectation is that someday, I will give this ring to my son’s fiancée. Penny, who’s husband recently gave her some $2500 Kiki de Montparnasse pearl restraints and the accompanying 24K dipped handcuffs with key and chain for Mother’s Day, said, “Give your diamond engagement ring away to your daughter-in-law? Darling, I think that’s assuming an awful lot.”
I do wonder, though, who will I give it to? Because my son and my daughter both currently date girls, it’s possible I’ll have more than one daughter-in-law. Then what? Does it go to the spouse of the child who marries first? Or the one I like best? This is confusing, perhaps, but the important thing is this: the ring has been handed from one generation to the next, from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law for over one hundred years; it was on my finger that the ring broke.
When I had the affair, then came out about it to David, I explained to him that I didn’t want to end the relationship with my boyfriend and I didn’t want to stop being a wife, either, and that was the beginning of our open marriage.
The transition was not elegant. David was hurt, and angry, and surprised. I became the family pariah, which of course, every family needs. David and I went to counseling, first just the two of us, then, my boyfriend, too. We called it tri-therapy, and it went on long enough that we couldn’t afford to rent a place at the beach that summer because our entire vacation budget was going to the therapist.
Near the same time we were becoming a truple, we had a step-niece who was divorcing after four years of marriage. Our kids had been in the wedding—a big wedding, at a vineyard in the Willamette Valley. The family opinion was that the divorce was unfortunate, especially given the twins, but still, much more socially acceptable than what David and I were choosing to do.
“It’s not like they get to vote,” David said.
“An open marriage?” David’s mother said to us. “What the hell am I supposed to tell people?”
“Tell people we love each other,” I answered. “And tell them that we love parenting our kids together in the same house.”
“But you cheated on him,” Margaret said.
“Tell them our sex life had irreconcilable differences. Tell them David’s dating lots of nice women. He’s doing just fine for himself.”
She considered this. “Why didn’t you come to us sooner? Maybe we could have helped.” Then she bestowed some advice: “Lots of married couples don’t have sex. After a while, in a marriage, sex doesn’t matter.”
“For me it matters,” I said to her. “It matters to me. And believe me, it matters to your son.”
What I didn’t tell her was that David hadn’t gone down on me in twenty years; that he’d confessed in couple’s therapy that he’d “never been that attracted to me,” but he thought it didn’t matter. I had tried to make myself more attractive to him. I lost weight, I dyed my hair, I wore sexy clothes and lingerie, but nothing I did made him want me the way I wanted to be wanted.
I asked my step-niece out for lunch. Sadie is the one member of my family who didn’t treat me like a pariah at the family gatherings we still got invited to. I admired her, and I trusted her to give me the straight story.
“Sadie, I feel a little paranoid. It’s been more than a year since you got divorced, and I came out about the affair, and I get this sense like everybody in the family is still just talking about me behind my back.”
“You aren’t paranoid. Everybody is still talking about you behind your back.” She took a big bite of her turkey reuben. “We have parties you aren’t invited to.”
“I know about the parties. What are they saying about me?”
“I knew you’d ask, so I brought some notes.” She took her Smart Phone out of her purse. “Do you want me to read them to you now, or do you want me to send them to you in an e-mail?”
“Oh my God, Sadie. Just read them.” The ice was melting in my tea.
I’ll never get over that she lied to us. It’s shameful.
I can forgive her for the affair. It’s the fact that she hasn’t stopped with that boyfriend.
If her parents were alive, they would be embarrassed by her choices.
She should take off that family ring and give it back to Margaret. Of course now no one will ever want to wear it.
And my personal favorite:
They should take their daughter out of St Mary’s and put her in the public schools.
Sadie closed her phone and finished her sandwich. “I’m sorry, Nikki. I’ve got about five more minutes and then I have to head back to the office. Let’s have dinner soon.”
“Listen. I don’t want to have to explain about us anymore. Neither does David. We’re always on the defensive. I want us all to be able to be in the same room at Thanksgiving this year. I really want to know: What do you think we should do?” Sadie freshened her lipstick. She took her keys out of her purse and set them on the table.
“You’re the ones who’ve chosen the morally ambiguous path. You owe them more education.”
I know Sadie hated selling their bungalow after the divorce. She hates the shared custody. She hates the way her kids come back from weekends with their dad all tense and frazzled.
My boyfriend is a good man. He and David get along. The kids like him. So does the dog. He makes homemade burgers that our son describes as “the best he’s ever eaten.” He was our daughter’s preferred driving instructor this summer.
“What we’re doing isn’t destructive,” I say. “It’s not simple, or easy, but it’s working for us.”
“Don’t tell me,” she said. “Tell them.”
I did not take the ring off out of shame or as a protest. The shank split just as we were preparing for a big family trip, and when we got back, I was busy and it sat in a box on a shelf in my bedroom for six months. The jeweler I took it to for repair called the split a “stress fracture” and told me it wasn’t my fault. He said the solder line had worn down from years of rubbing and normal wear. He asked me when I’d had it resized.
“Never. I think my mother-in-law had it resized when she gave it to me—more than twenty years ago.”
The jeweler nodded his head as if that explained everything, and he studied the ring with his loupe. “This diamond isn’t particularly brilliant, but it’s charming. I’d estimate it was cut sometime between 1790 and 1820.”
“1790? It’s older than I thought.”
The jeweler looked up at me.
“Old?” He kept a straight face. “This diamond was formed in the earth more than a billion years ago.” He looked back at the diamond and added, “This is an old European Cut. It’s got a high crown, a small table, and a large, flat culet. It also has a circular girdle, and—take a look here—it has fifty-eight facets.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “The family tells a different story.”
He shrugged, then he pointed out that there was some prong failure. He got out a little envelope, dropped the ring in, and wrote out a claim slip. “I’ll have it done by next Saturday.”
When I got back home from the jeweler, I texted David.
Me: The ring was made by Vera’s husband and given to her, right? Because the according to the jeweler, the diamond is actually older than we thought. Can you ask your dad about this?
David: Actually, I think the ring was originally forged by Sauron. In Mordor.
Me: And can you ask your dad what his grandfather’s name was? And what year did he and Vera marry?
David: Why don’t you just ask my dad yourself?
So I sent my father-in-law a quick, casual e-mail, asking about the ring. He still hasn’t replied.
When I picked up the ring, the band sparkled in a way I’d never noticed. The jeweler asked if I’d like my other rings cleaned as well. I didn’t know that gold needed to be cleaned. I handed him the two other rings I wear: my mother’s wedding ring, that I’ve worn since she died nineteen years ago, and my wedding ring, which I’ve never had cleaned in the twenty-one years I’ve worn it. He didn’t comment on my mother’s simple gold band, but he admired my wedding ring. “This is old, too,” he said, impressed. “I’d estimate 1820s—because of the Lily of the Valley pattern, and the quality of the gold. Is it eighteen carat?”
“I don’t think so…”
“Is it English?”
“I don’t think so…”
He looked inside the band and found the inscription “David and Nikki 1994”. David’s wedding band has the same inscription as mine, except in his ring, my name comes first. We had asked the woman who designed the rings for us to copy an old pattern. We wanted them to look seasoned, like they’d seen a lot of love.
The jeweler shrugged.
Despite the family’s opinions, I don’t have any intentions of returning the engagement ring early. Partly, this is because I like the way it looks on my hand now that I’ve discovered a good gel manicure holds up for weeks, and partly because my boyfriend whispers sexy things in my ear when I’m wearing it, and partly because I won’t be shamed. I want my kids to associate this ring with my finger. Someday, I want them to reflect on the fact that I didn’t take it off.
NIKKI SCHULAK writes and performs comedy about bodies and relationships. Her work has been published in numerous journals and websites. Her essay “On Not Seeing Whales” (Bellevue Literary Review) was chosen as a Notable Selection in Best American Essays 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her teenagers, her husband, her boyfriend, and her beloved dog, Calvin.
I’m so sleepy, staring out the bus window. It must be near midnight by now, and half the kids have curled up with their pillows and blankets, headphones and cellphones. I’m getting rocked fairly roughly to sleep. I take a moment to search through my purse for a pill, two really, first my birth control pill and then a cranberry supplement. I swig down a gulp of bottled water for the first, and, for the first time, notice that Mindy is sleepily regarding me from across the aisle. She very quietly asks me about the second pill.
I bristle a little that I have so little privacy here, that these teenagers get to know so much about my life that I didn’t mean for them to. She doesn’t mean any harm asking after me, though, and is trying to do so quietly. I reply quietly back, “Well, maybe. I do seem to be having some, um, trouble in that department.”
Mindy nods and gently leans her head on the back of the seat in front of her. “My mom uses those—they seem to help,” she offers softly. “Sorry you’re having trouble.”
Her dyed curly hair frames her face, and she’s removed the vintage eighties earrings she’s worn to the tournament today. Mindy gathers her traveling blanket around her body and pads over to my side of the aisle and sits down next to me. She didn’t really ask, but I think boundaries are somewhat invisible to her. She’s a good kid.
She’s still half whispering when she asks, “Do you really have an infection, or are you just peeing a lot?”
I kind of thought that issue had been put to bed, and I’m unsure of whether it’s okay to even answer her, whether I should shut her down. That just seems mean, though, and unnecessary. I answer that as far as I know, I’m just peeing a lot.
“You know, you could be pregnant.”
As far as I remember I only raise my eyebrows and nod. Is this conversation actually happening?
“Odam is having a girl,” Our other speech/debate coach and his wife are expecting. “I think you are pregnant. It’ll be a boy; they’ll be friends growing up.”
Odam, last name, kind of astounds me as a coach. He’s the one who has every kid clamoring to hang out in his room before school, after school, during lunch. I’m envious that our students want to be around him 24/7.
But … I am also absolutely horrified at the thought of my life being that taken over by children. I like the quiet before the first bell rings and that lunches give me a moment to think. After school I can plan and sit and rest, then I can seek my students out when I’m ready. I know where they’ll be—Odam’s room. These speech and debate tournaments last from Friday afternoon until late Saturday night and I enjoy them. I do. It is a lot, though. I sometimes just want to read and sit and disengage and be by myself.
Having company sometimes is nice, sometimes.
I take in what Mindy’s said. She might not be wrong about this. The week before, when I had been shopping, I was suddenly drawn to a little blue blanket. One with frogs. It was so soft and felt necessary. I picked it up then slowly set it down again and left it there, convincing myself that I was crazy. We don’t have any plans for this yet. The plan was to start trying next year, just before my husband’s job transferred us again. So that I wouldn’t have to leave my kids before we actually moved away.
“That’d be nice, for us to have kids who would become friends,” I tell her. This is far too familiar a conversation to have, but it’s so sweet and hopeful and generally not embarrassing, I let her go on, let her in.
“You know, I want to have lots of kids. I’m good with kids.”
I’m sure she is good with kids. I watched her a number of times read stories to children and she’s a natural: sweet and empathetic and kind. When she whispers about how nine children would be what she really would like, and how she knows she’ll be a wonderful mother, I am sleepily sure that she’s right about that. I like my privacy and I want to be professional and distant, but as Mindy keeps talking, the compartmentalized aspects of my life keep bleeding into each other. All I can feel is affection. It’s nice that she has wishes and hopes and dreams for me, like I do for her. I secretly hope that she is a little bit psychic, too, while I listen and fondly watch her curls bounce along with the bus.
A few weeks later and I’m chaperoning for a state-wide tournament. Odam was the one who really coached polished and perfected blonde Cheyenne to the top of her field, but things being what they are, no one is going to send a teenage girl and a male teacher alone on a flight to the Texan-Mexican border. So, I got to tag along, too. At this point I know Cheyenne more by reputation than conversation. She is a shark, great at debate but even stronger in original oratory. I’m a little nervous that she’ll be just like those girls I knew in high school. The Winners. The ones who had little time for the “also-rans” like me. With a start I realize that I am still scared of popular teenage girls.
My survival tactic back in the day had always been to bury my head in a book, act a little cool, aloof, and distant until I could prove to myself that it was safe to peek out. Often when I did, some slight, some pointed look, some omission put me back in my place. However, now I’m a chaperone, sharing a room with a girl who made it to State. I can’t hide my envy behind a book all week and pretend I’m invisible and that she doesn’t exist. That is just not going to be okay. I am a grown woman with a degree, a husband, and a mortgage, for God’s sake. I should be over this stuff by now.
I’d filled my suitcase for this trip with a full pack of pads and a full pack of tampons, thinking I would need them. But day after day, the dull ache below my navel never developed into a full-blown cramp. When I could get away with it, I’d stare off into space calculating and recalculating. We had not been planning to get pregnant. I couldn’t believe that Mindy might be right. Or that as I was figuring this out while I was hundreds of miles from my husband. I called him from the hotel and asked him to ransack WebMD, to look up every symptom I was having. Everything—exhaustion, bloating, nausea, sensitive nipples—meant I was either pregnant or about to have my period. My roommate was starting to get suspicious.
Between the moods swings, the napping, the bits of conversation she and Odam could hear and the fact that I couldn’t not tell them for one more second because I was going to burst if I had to hide what might be the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my entire life from them for three more days … I admitted to them what was going on. That very soon I was going to find out if I was pregnant. To my surprise, they both grinned and bounced while we talked and they enjoyed teasing me mercilessly. Every time I scarfed a handful of chips, or started to drift off while I was talking, Cheyenne just laughed and would proclaim, “You are so pregnant, Kwagner.” I feel absolutely silly for even considering being afraid of her.
“Um, Miss?” Danielle is in my Pre-AP class and has come up to my desk. We’re all writing quietly and she’s approached me with her paper in hand and a stage whisper.
“Yep, hon, what you need?”
“Miss,” she’s quieter than ever and hasn’t given me a drop of trouble since I met her, “I wanted to ask you something, but I’m worried that it might be rude.”
I blink a little trying to guess what it could be, “Well, I’m sure it’s no big deal. What’s your question?”
“Well ma’am, I noticed that you’ve been looking a little poochy. Not bad or anything, but is it okay if I ask you, are you pregnant?”
I’ve only known I’m pregnant for five days and I wonder how I could possibly be showing already. I’m shocked. Well, the hell with waiting those first six weeks to be on the safe side. I’m not going to lie to her; there’s no reason to. This baby, this tiny grain of rice with a heartbeat, wants to be a part of the conversation despite my introverted objections. I don’t get a say, anymore, about keeping private.
“Um, yes, I just found out myself.” Danielle squeaks as quietly as she can in delight. “But I’m not ready to tell anyone yet, is that all right?”
“Of course, I won’t tell a soul, I’m just happy I was right. Are you excited?”
“You know, I am.”
“Okay, Miss, that’s all, I’ll go back to work now.”
She sneaks back quietly to her desk, never asking about her essay, never telling anyone before I’m ready. It takes me a while to realize how closely my body is looked at every day if so slight a difference is seen so quickly. I feel as if I had always been teaching naked and never knew it.
Dierdre is unhappy that I am pregnant.
And she has stopped calling me “Mom”.
She liked to call me “Mom” and had been doing so all year. We were close and I knew too much about her home life for me to ever see her real parents without having to push down anger. I knew there should have been a point when I drew that line between us more firmly, where I should not have allowed her to lean so heavily on me. But who can in good conscience step aside when you could catch someone who is falling? It doesn’t dawn on me that she is having this close relationship torn away from her. My biological child could become my whole world, a world that wouldn’t include her.
For a few weeks she doesn’t even talk to me, doesn’t smile. She had a boyfriend by then, and the two of them had stopped by before and after class pretty often. He assured me that he’d talk to her about it. I hoped he would, but for the few weeks that Dierdre kept me at arm’s length, I was able to breathe.
As my pregnancy progressed, I needed literal breathing space. I needed fresh air to escape the fumes of Axe body spray and Bubble Yum that permeated the classroom. I couldn’t escape the nausea of morning sickness, or the strange smells of masses of teenagers pressed around me at all times.
Figuratively, I needed breathing space to figure out whose kids were going to win out at the end of the day, mine or someone else’s. My body wanted me to take a two-hour nap every afternoon. My gradebook, on the other hand, was gaping and empty and needed to be filled with percentages. Each night was a fight over who would get my time and energy and attention. I could not fathom how much worse the push and pull would be once my olive-sized baby was a full grown child. These are just logistics, though, and I harbored the illusion that if I was just well-organized and resourceful, I would be able to manage my time and energy to get things done.
Deep inside, however, I knew that Dierdre has forever muddled and warped my ability to be objective about this. Her deep, endless needs stared me right in the eye and made it clear that being a teacher is absolutely more than grammar and roll call and assignments. I couldn’t pretend that just managing the paperwork will make everything turn out all right. I had asked these children to trust that I have their best interests at heart, that I care about them and what they will learn, that I will be in their corner through good and bad. It took so much of me, almost all my waking thoughts. The feelings that poured off of my kids stayed with me through the rest of the night, every night. It was so much.
If I were to leave them to stay at home with my baby, because it was too much, I would have lied to them about always being there. I would tell them that they’d be okay, that I’m interchangeable and, that their lives will be just fine after I have gone. Which will inevitably make them feel as if they were always interchangeable, that my life would be just fine without them. Not true. Some might understand, but the kids who needed the most were the ones who would feel me severing the ties the most completely.
Towards the end of the school year, Dierdre’s class throws me a baby shower, complete with pastel streamers, yellow duckies, and a hand-decorated cake. We eat while watching Romeo+Juliet, and Dierdre takes a picture with me. She later sets it in a frame with the word Friends engraved all around in different fonts. An acknowledgement that I can’t remain her mom, but maybe I am not lost to her forever. I’m glad to have her back, and scared that I’m going to have to leave her before too much longer.
Last period, and Andrew is in trouble again. Maybe he’s just talking, making the girls around him giggle, rolling his eyes back in his head, leaning back in his seat, and stretching his ridiculously long legs out into the aisle where I have to climb over them—I don’t quite remember. I’m eight months pregnant and not happy about any shenanigans, much less his, so I’ve dragged him out into the hallway to ask him what’s going on.
He gives me some muttered apology, again, I don’t remember for what offense.
“Miss, you remind me of my mother. She’s short and smiles a lot, too.”
“Oh?” Is this a good thing, a bad thing…
“She lies all the time,” he frowns and stares at me hard. “All the time she’s smiling, she’s hiding something, she’s hiding what’s going on to us, pretending it’s not happening. I’m trying to figure out if you are really like her.”
I know that Andrew is going to be testifying against his father in court soon, confirming that his father had abused him and his younger brothers for a long time. I know his aunt and uncle are raising him, and that I have no possible way to contact his mother. If you look at Andrew’s file, it’s as if she really disappeared.
“Okay.” I take a deep breath. There is not much else I can say. He is studying me, and has been trying to decide if he can trust me. He looks down at my swollen belly. My shirts barely cover me and sometimes my lessons are interrupted because the whole class is mesmerized by the baby’s flips and turns just under my skin, just under my shirt. I have become used to all the staring, all the questions. I had imagined that my baby and me, as we both grew, our intimate relationship would be wordless and private. Me and my baby, we’re public property.
“Miss, can I ask you, did you want your baby?”
I’m about to answer him without hesitation, but I then pause to notice that I was about to answer him without hesitation. Before this baby, I would have weighed every answer to see if it gave too much away, or if what I said could have caused trouble somehow. I don’t take time to decide if my answer will hurt him somehow, but I do take the time to make sure what I say is true.
“I wasn’t expecting him, but, yes, I want him. Very much so.”
He nods a few times and seems to trust that I haven’t lied to him. “That’s good. I think it’s much better when the mom wants the baby. It’s different.”
The next class, Andrew brings in pictures. They are of him and his younger brothers as babies and toddlers. I sit by his desk and we all exclaim how cute he was. I’m torn. He’s rewriting my image over his mother’s, making a version of her who tells him the truth and who smiles at the child version of him. It seems to be helping him somehow. I cannot imagine leaving him behind in just a few weeks. But what had happened? When did he begin to believe that his mother never wanted him at all? How badly will I hurt my son if I don’t do right by him?
Will my son eventually paste an image of a different mother over me? Will he look at me and know exactly who I am and need to erase that person, those flaws that hurt him so badly, in order to function?
I cannot afford to get this wrong.
My son, Nicholas, the boy I carried around amid so much commentary, is now six years old. His kindergarten teacher is very pregnant with her first child. My guy seems completely captivated with the idea but refuses to ask her any questions. He wants to know about her belly, if she’s excited, whether the baby is going to be a boy or a girl, but he absolutely will not ask her. He is terrified he’ll embarrass her. I try to hide my smile at this, as if all the questions my students asked about him in utero had offended him deeply. He is quite serious, so I don’t want to appear as if I am laughing at his plight. But I would have never guessed that this shyness would have become a part of him, especially after my students’ impertinence helped break my heart open a little more than I thought it could.
When it’s time for his teacher’s maternity leave to start, Nicholas keeps frowning into his cereal. With furrowed brow he admits he is worried that he might forget what she looks like. “Mom, I’ve been having dreams for her and the baby, but I can’t finish them if I can’t remember what she looks like. Some dreams I can control but not if I forget her.”
I don’t know quite what he means. He is very serious and anxious about it, though, so I help how I can.
“Should we ask if we can take a picture of her?”
Nicholas nods but then yells out, “But I don’t want to ask her! I would feel embarrassed. She might feel embarrassed.”
“What if I ask her?” I offer. “I am sure she would think it was sweet that you wanted a picture of her.”
I always did.
“No, I would feel embarrassed.”
“But do you still want her picture?”
Nicholas looks down into his lap and whispers, “Yes.”
I e-mail her and ask her for him then bring my camera when I go pick him up. When I take his teacher’s picture, he hides behind my legs and barely says goodbye. She seems to appreciate that Nicholas wants to remember her. He seems uncomfortable and unsure of this intimacy, that she knows that he likes her. He misses her already.
She still isn’t back from her maternity leave yet, and all us parents give each other looks because we know maybe she will come back and maybe she won’t.
I didn’t come back, and that was so painful.
I hope for my son that she does. I find it sweet and hopeful that he has wishes and hopes and dreams for her, the way I’m sure she does for him.
I have a feeling she misses him, too.
I always did.
KRISTIN WAGNER writes creative non-fiction drawing on her experiences as a teacher, a stay-at-home mother to two school-aged boys, a wife, a person struggling with fibromyalgia, a foodie, and a self-appointed critic of pop culture. She posts regularly on these topics at kristinwagner.wordpress.com. In addition her work has appeared online with FibroDaily.com, Literary Mama, and, most recently, at Mother Always Write.
Nicholas’s teacher did come back from her maternity leave after a solid twelve weeks home with her first-born, a boy. Once she finally did, my often anxious first-born was able to let his shoulders relax and was able to smile a little more quickly. And frankly, so was I.
I’m not sure when I started telling my husband bedtime stories to get us in the mood, but the why is clear: We had begun looking at each other at the end of the day with the erotic gaze of two poached animals. After checking off our entire list items for the day, we had become just one last to-do.
Fact: The last thing on your list never gets done.
“Should we?” I asked Adam.
“I don’t know—do you want to?” he said.
The truth is, I didn’t. Adam might tell me he is game nearly a hundred percent of the time, but there was something weighing on us. The feeling was: not yet, or maybe, not here. The room. This room! It was infected with everything left from the day. It was like someone had stuffed the last twenty-four hours in a canister and had set it off like a bug bomb in our bedroom.
“It’s this place,” I said. “It’s haunted by the specters of our godforsaken lives!”
We stared at the ceiling for a while.
“What if we weren’t here,” I suggested. “What if we pretended we were… somewhere else?”
“Are you going to go all Fifty Shades on me?” he asked.
I hadn’t actually read the book, though I got what he was implying. “That reminds me… I have never even asked you what your fantasy is.”
We both looked around the room. We looked at each other.
“I’m kind of happy with how we do things,” Adam said.
“I don’t have any problem with how we do things, either, you know.”
“Maybe if we had better furniture?”
“What if we just pretended we were someplace else?”
And that’s when the solution became clear to me: I was in search of a Calgon Moment. I’m a travel writer by trade. You know the girl—itchy feet, heart on fire. But I’ve got the whole shebang—kids, husband, house. Sometimes it’s just not possible to wander, so in that moment, in the space between checking off lists and connecting with my husband, I decided we that we would wander through stories.
Adam was game. And so on one of these days, these one-day-in-a-million-same-days, I started in on the spot with what would be the first in a long line of stories created to whisk us away to somewhere else.
“Okay, we’re in Munich,” I started in. “We’re at Café Rischart, that little place on Marienplatz that makes the tiramisu so thick and high it looks like a building. I’m the new apprentice baker. I’m whipping the zabaglione for the tiramisu on my first day alone in the bakery. But oh, look, there you are. You’re a busboy. You are sweeping the front of the store before it opens. It’s wintertime so there is a light flurry of snowflakes falling outside. The smell of coffee and cream is in the air. You’re watching me whip the fluffy cream layer as you sweep, back-and-forth. But then, I drop an egg! It falls to the floor and cracks. You walk towards me to help me clean it up and you flip the switch by the door, setting off the animatronic elves in the front window.”
At that point, he laughed.
We were there. Or rather, we weren’t there—at least, not in that room haunted with the ghosts of the day.
But would it work again?
Over the next couple of months, Adam and I met at tea ceremonies in Japan, at a terrarium bar where we reached into the same glass globe of air plants. We become those people who have stood in the electricity of proximity while waiting for an hour outside a trendy brunch spot. We both wax on about the just-melted cheese atop the huevos rancheros and the silken avocados until yes, there we are stepping out of line and heading somewhere, and fast. We’ve been solo travelers on a cruise ship, a rain-soaked logger and a soup chef, two lost people at a meditation retreat, a wedding dress designer and the girl who’s just about to marry the wrong guy, a mover with one last box to carry me over the threshold, two people who at a shelter trying to adopt the same cat.
Any writer worth her ilk will tell you there is fun to be had in placing characters in a new setting and watching them do the unexpected — that if Flaubert had set Madame Bovary loose in Marseille, she might not have ended up drinking that bottle of arsenic. But while the settings always change, some elements are always the same: The two of us meet cute somewhere far, far away and interact until that point where we look at each other and it’s become the inevitable.
We are going to have sex.
There is no stopping it because this story can’t end any other way.
“We are in the grocery store, and we’re both carrying those shopping baskets because we live alone. We’re looking at cereal. I can’t find the Rice Krispies. You look at me, and I’m just about to cry because I had a bad day at work where I’m sure the guy I share my office with is trying to destroy me. You’ve got pine nuts and fresh fronds of basil in your basket and were headed to the pasta aisle when you saw me there in my shirt, slightly askew because the buttons were off by one. You say, ‘General Mills, I think that’s over there, on the bottom row,’ and you bend down and pull it off the shelf for me. Kneeling, you hand it to me and say, ‘I love Rice Krispies, too.’ We put our groceries in one of our carts and ditch the other one.”
Isn’t this what we really have to overcome in the long-term relationships: to meet again and experience the thrill of what it felt like to be the only high line-item priority to another person, the only truly necessary thing on the list?
I’m getting better in the telling as I concoct more stories for us. The stories get easier to relate, the situations more specific, our jobs and pasts more complex. I always throw something in there to make Adam laugh—I give him some creative manscaping, or I’m wearing platform shoes with aquariums in the heels a la I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and my heel fish is depressed and, surprise! Adam’s the only fish expert in the city who can help. I pick places I know would make him happy: two solo hikers in an old-growth forest, a man and a woman who showed up at the same show on the wrong night. Two people lost without a map who have to rely on their more animal instincts to find their way out of the city.
But most of the time I am picking settings just for me. I am a harried office worker joining the laptop brigade over a latte, he’s a sailor just in from his ship, tying knots to make a handle for the cold brew station at my favorite coffee shop.
“I can sense you there beside me. What are you doing? You’ve got the black rope in one hand and are affixing it to the top of a ten-inch-long cylinder of wood with a line of thin duct tape. It’s long and about one-inch wide, smoothed by hand. I type away, and you are weaving the rope in and out in a braid around the long, thick handle of wood. I’m watching you but trying not to seem as if I am. You’re about a third of a way down the wood now. Occasionally you whip a thread of paracord to the left and it lands on the soft skin of my right inner thigh. You don’t even notice, and I don’t tell you, but it keeps happening. Thwap. I’m typing, typing away as the barista steams milk for my latte and there’s this guttural swirling sound moving from a low grumble to a high-pitched scream. My fingers are typing faster now, though a few minutes later I can’t even say what I’ve written since all that I can sense is the light flick of paracord hitting my thigh. Thwap. You’re close to the bottom of the handle, now. Thwap. You’re almost finished with it. Thwap. You tie off a knot at the end and then look up at me.”
EMILY GROSVENOR is an independent journalist and essayist based in McMinnville, OR. She blogs at www.pioneerperfume.com, and you can follower on Twitter @emilygrosvenor.
A Korean adoptee, I had just spent a month in my birth country teaching English for a school that wanted me to be white. In order to quit, I had to spend a day overseas, so I was in Japan because of visa laws. I figured I’d make a little trip of it. For three days and two nights, I wheeled a suitcase around Fukuoka, temple-watching and feeling sorry for myself.
I had only a hundred dollars in my bank account. Since I’d broken my contract in my first month, I hadn’t gotten paid. On the first night, I headed to the beach. It was still warm in October, and I lay on the hard sand and tried to sleep. After a few minutes, I moved to a bench instead. I was there for less than an hour when it started to rain. My clothes stuck muddily to my body, but when I unzipped my suitcase, I realized that the reason I could change outfits was because I was dragging my life behind me in a piece of luggage.
I had nowhere to go. I asked myself, What would a homeless person do? I made my way under an overpass. There I laid my head on my suitcase and attempted to cry myself to sleep. I wasn’t even thinking yet of how I had been left under a bridge in Seoul as an infant. I wasn’t ready to confront my adoption. I had only been in Asia for a month, and it was the first time since I was two years old. I didn’t make the leap to thinking that my birth mother might have left me under a bridge for the same reason I found a bridge in Japan—rain. I stayed under the overpass until the rain faded to mist, and then I dragged my suitcase back into the streets, planning to empty my bank account on a hotel room, call my parents, and tell them I needed to come home.
I might have done just that if I had found a single hotel in my one-hundred-dollar budget. When everything was too expensive, I made my way to a bar. In Korea bars stay open until early morning and I hoped the same would be the true in Japan. I took a table in the back, low to the floor, where people could sit cross-legged. I parked my bag there and ordered a single beer. I used the table as a pillow. Whenever anyone came by, I took a tiny sip to make the beer last. It had cost something like ten dollars.
Someone must have taken pity on me and let me sleep.
In truth I might be mixing this memory up. I might have started in the bar and ended under the overpass. I wonder why I remember it in this order. Maybe I want to think that when I hit bottom, a stranger helped me—because that is how I have always thought about my adoption. Maybe I want to think that I made myself move on from the bridge, and not that I ended up there because I could go nowhere except my past.
When I woke in the early morning in a closing bar in Fukuoka, I returned to the city with my suitcase and my shame, and I temple-watched again in a sleepless haze. I hated the city’s artificial cleanliness. My legs hurt—that was real pain. The malls were full and the temples empty. The desire to fly back to Connecticut grew stronger and stronger. But I didn’t call my parents. The real reason was that I had left a new girlfriend in Korea and I wasn’t ready to throw something away before I knew what it was.
I searched again for a hotel until I found a room that maxed out my account. As sad a place as it was, the hotel held plenty of wonders—there were slippers, a heated floor, a bidet built into the toilet seat. I had never seen a bidet before. I used everything in the room and took a long bath and got ready for bed. It was maybe six in the afternoon. Before I slept, I tried to find perspective. I wasn’t truly alone, of course—I could call my girlfriend and ask her to wire money, or I could call my parents and ask them bail me out. I didn’t know what it was to be truly alone—or I hadn’t since I was an orphan.
With a calling card, I phoned my girlfriend so that someone would feel bad for me, someone other than myself, and I told her about sleeping in the bar. I didn’t tell her about sleeping under the bridge—that seemed too much. She was more shocked than pitying. And soon I was defending myself. I couldn’t appear to be so poor that she wouldn’t want to date me. The phone shook against my ear. I said I had to go to sleep, and I listened for a minute or two to more shock that I would sleep before sunset. Eventually my girlfriend shamed me into actual perspective. I was simply being cheap or punishing myself. I wanted to appear as if I had a pitiable life, but I was just making choices she couldn’t understand.
She never wanted to save me. I let that sink in, in that hotel room in Japan, sleeping naked in a borrowed robe. Rescue hadn’t drawn my future wife, a Korean woman, to me, a Korean adoptee. That was my expectation. Those were my rules for myself. I felt oddly relieved—and oddly disappointed. I harbored the half-hope that she might still change her mind and I wouldn’t have to save myself. But of course I would.
MATTHEW SALESSES is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood, which was named of the season’s best books by Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Gawker, and others, and was a Best Book of September and a Kindle First pick at Amazon. He has written for NPR, The New York Times, Salon, Glimmer Train, The Millions, and The Rumpus, among others. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Houston.