The panic attacks almost always happened deep in the night, their after-effects rippling through my life like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The first happened the summer before my junior year of college. I was sure that my heart would explode. But my heart didn’t blow up. Instead, its rapid, loud, insistent beat filled my head, and I rocked back and forth in bed until the sun came up.
Panicking, I quickly learned, was exhausting. Anticipating the next attack was grueling.
Panic afflicted my gaunt sepia ancestors; it has walked with us hand-in-hand for generations. We are a people who open doors to empty rooms, expecting to see our worst fears incarnated. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly those fears are. Some of them can be as nebulous as the panic and depression that have smothered the Latina and Jewish women in my family.
No one in my family talked about the forced cold showers, the electroshock therapy involved in keeping my paternal grandmother’s anxiety in check. No one said a word about my other grandmother’s body odor, greasy hair, and catatonic states. When I was a child, no one acknowledged that my mother masked her phobias, her phases of panic with bullying, narcissism, and half-hearted suicide attempts.
I suspect that the ghosts of panic that frightened my grandmothers and drove my mother to the brink of insanity have haunted me since the moment I was conceived. And when panic first happened to me, the machinations it planted in my mind threw me into a future I imagined so catastrophic that I saw myself completely incapacitated. What if, What if, What if, went around and around in my brain like ticker tape.
Dread and wonder coursed through my body the day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. How could I be a mother, let alone a decent one? When the panic strangled me in my sleep, I was terrified it would cut off oxygen to my baby. My heart revved up until its beating migrated to my head. I had never taken medication for panic. And now that I was pregnant, I wouldn’t even take a Tylenol.
Throughout my pregnancy I struggled to decipher arguments about nature versus nurture, biology versus psychology. I intuited that between these polarities lay a multitude of explanations for how behaviors developed and persisted not only within a single individual, but also across generations. Would my baby imbibe anxiety and depression through my milk? Would I model it to her? Would she inevitably flinch at my shaky touch?
The baby was beautiful and terrifying. What if, what if, what if? I filled in the hot white blanks with pure disaster. What if I stopped functioning and couldn’t care for the baby? What if I panicked with her in the supermarket? And most chilling of all—what if I had passed down my chipped, inferior genes to her?
“Stop torturing yourself,” said my gentle husband who, at the time, was working on the Human Genome Project. How I prayed that the genes that triggered my anxiety and depression would combine with my husband’s pristine genes, losing their power to hurt my daughter. I fantasized about him hard at work hunting down the gene for what ailed my ancestors, what ailed me. My husband was clearly on the side of nurture and promised me that our daughter would grow up secure and loved.
Nevertheless, I found articles that claimed phobias and panic disorder could very well be inherited. “Genetic switches,” I, practically panting, recited to my husband, “can get tripped and set off chemical changes that occur in a fetus’s DNA, thereby imprinting familial trauma on them.”
My husband shook his head. “It won’t happen to our baby,” he said.
“And why not?” I asked.
“Because we’ll know how to treat her right,” said my husband the geneticist.
“But what about bad luck—that’s always a factor that could wire our baby for anxiety and depression.” As I spoke, I thought about an observation my therapist made that there are some people who never panic under any condition. The first time I heard him say that, I pictured a flurry of Magritte’s topcoat-wearing men raining down on me. Cradling my newborn daughter, I knew that I could never share the Magritte image with her.
My mother, her long black hair falling out of its bun, frequently pleaded with my father to send her away. “Please,” she begged, gulping for air, “I need to go. Now.”
Over the years, I periodically asked my therapist to commit me too. “You’re just tired,” he said.
What I most remember about therapy with him was that I refused to acknowledge panic in my world. I was twenty-seven, eight years out from my first panic attack. I lived in terror that my world would shrink to the point that I couldn’t leave my apartment. The word “phobia” scared me so much that I asked my therapist to remove a book he had on his shelf with the word on the spine. “I am not that person,” I told him all the while living in fear that I would panic in public without a way to get home.
At the height of my panics, Prozac had just come on the market, and it was touted as the miracle drug for the anxious and depressed. I read testimonials in which people swore the drug gave them their life back. They were newly confident, newly capable, and most importantly, newly happy. The words “brain chemistry” bubbled to the surface in these articles. But I was sure my brain was beyond fixing. And more to the point, taking medication was one of my phobias. Would my memory slip away? Would I feel numb? Would my future children have birth defects? And worse yet, would the pills not work and leave me forever hopeless?
That last question scared me enough to keep me just on the other side of trying Prozac. I could tough it out. My people were scared to death of taking medication. “Do you want to be in La La Land?” my mother taunted me that first summer of panic. “I have two other children to take care of,” she screamed. “”I’ll send you to the Institute for Living,” she said threatening to institutionalize me. Her face was so close to mine I could see her large pores. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express that I could feel the weight of her mental illness imprinted on my cells.
I had been flirting with the idea of taking medication after I finished having children. A girl and a boy, perfect bookends, a friend said to me. Perfect bookends with an imperfect mother. But I hesitated to take medication. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to beat this thing on my own. But with whom was I waging war? Panic? Myself?
The night I wanted to commit suicide, I had been caught up in a loop of panic for weeks. My two small children slept peacefully as my husband rubbed my back. “It’s time,” he said. By that I knew he meant that I needed to call the psychiatrist I had consulted with for a prescription of Klonopin that I had not filled.
In the coming weeks I took the Klonopin with Lexapro, an anti-depressant. I didn’t feel relief exactly. Instead, I detected emotions coursing through my body, a circulatory buzzing of activity that the medication tamped down. The first side effect I experienced was how hard it was to cry. But the panic drained out of me until it was a bearable, hum of anxiety. And then one day I suddenly realized I was happy. The revelation happened in the car on one of my daily drives to and from my daughter’s school. I had settled into a routine. “You’re a caballo de circo,” my mother chided me when I was a child comforting myself with repetition. Maybe I was a circus horse driving the same route over and over. But on that day I picked up as many of my daughter’s friends as could fit in my SUV. Their chatter delighted me. Their energy soothed me.
I’d proved that anxiety was not an accurate predictor of a situation. This was what I told my daughter when she called me from camp. Just sixteen, she said the world had gone very sad on her. “It’s like there’s a curtain of gauze suffocating me,” she cried. My God, had my genes taken the best of her? As I listened to my girl on the phone, I knew that she was trapped in her thoughts. “What if I freak out in front of people? What if I die?” she said breathlessly. There it was again: What if? What if? Another generation struggling to fill in that sharp, menacing blank. But I also remembered my husband’s wise words—we’ll know how to help her.
My daughter is now twenty-one and also stable on Lexapro. She studies psychology. Her choice of major makes me believe that she wants to cure herself, even cure me. My daughter also knows that hiding is dangerous—even futile—and so she decides to tell the world about her condition with a one-word story literally written across her face. In the photograph, the word “Lexapro” starts across her forehead, goes down to the bridge of her nose, and finishes at her left cheek. “I am not my anxiety,” my girl declares. Her face, her struggle, is her contribution to the “What I Be Project” founded by a photographer who describes it as social experiment. In word and picture, a subject boldly declares that he or she is not solely defined by societal reactions to her life story.
With my daughter’s picture out in the world, I pray that the Lexapro will continue to quell her panic. I pray that the doubts, the worries, the blame will continue to diminish for both of us. I pray that the night will never again be a long tunnel of fear and hopelessness. And I pray that Magritte’s men will simply float away.
JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared on the New York Times opinion page, the Boston Globe, Cognoscenti, The Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, Brevity, Salon, and other venues. Judy has completed a memoir called The Ninety Day Wonder, in which she tries to get closer to her remote father through saying the Kaddish—the Mourner’s Prayer—only to uncover her father’s secret past.
My dishwasher broke. So I’m standing at my sink, hand-washing all of the dirty dishes I’d rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher the day before, plus the rest of what had accumulated since. Doing the dishes always means looking out the kitchen window. In the warm weather, with the window open, I can hear the bullfrogs and waterbirds from down in the creek. Today I’m washing and watching, my rubber-gloved hands warm in the soapy water, Joe’s work-gloved hands lifting broken cinder blocks and chunks of concrete off of the back lawn and onto the trailer, which is hitched to the back of the John Deere.
His arms still bear bruises from the beating he took changing the John Deere’s blades the week before. His shins are scratched from mushroom hunting in shorts deep in the woods, and his right knee is scabbed over from where the guardrail on the bridge gouged him impressively as he tried to climb over it. Last week, he took a weedy thorn to the front of his nose, and it bled and bled and bled, but he said he wasn’t hurt. Now he’s outside my kitchen window, in the fenced-in part of the back yard, bending over and righting himself, lifting and moving one jagged hunk at a time. His black gloves say CAT in big yellow letters. After he has removed the blocks, he mows inside the fence. I go upstairs to get some work done on my laptop, the push mower sputtering in the background. After a while it’s quiet, and he comes in to ask for a burger. I’ve learned to keep ground beef, Swiss cheese, and buns on hand at all times.
I head back to the kitchen and open the fridge, hunting and gathering, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, provolone, that brown mustard that he likes, butter for the cast iron skillet and to toast the buns. I look out the window to see the shorn lawn out back, and Joe in reverse motion now, heaving new cinderblocks off the trailer into a tidy little octagon in the grass, his yellow-lettered CAT hands swinging with each heavy hoist. I quickly pat the beef into concave disks and set them on a smear of butter in the pan. For nearly two decades I was a vegan, but today the sound and smell of sizzling fat and flesh make my mouth water without compunction. Outside, Joe stands back to admire his work: We have a sweet new fire pit in the back yard now. He comes in, washes up, and sits down to his burger and a Gatorade. Purple, low-calorie. His favorite.
There are always a million repair projects around my property. Or maintenance. Sometimes I lose track of the difference. And there are upgrades too. Things that work perfectly well but are ugly or old or otherwise undesirable. I don’t expect Joe to take on everything all on his own. I make calls, set appointments, take care of the household business. I need to have the heating vents cleaned. And several stumps ground out of the front yard to make it easier for Joe to get the mowing done. It’s a part time job, the mowing. A few hours a day, a few days a week, in season, to keep everything sensible around here.
And I had a painter come out the other day to give me a quote on several smallish jobs: My kitchen ceiling has that horrible popcorn texture on it and it’s impossible to clean, so it has this greasy little beard on it right over the stove. Twenty-three years of the detritus of cooking here, ten of them mine. My son’s bedroom needs painting too, and then there’s the trim on the inside.
It used to be that I would come home from work in the late evening to find the house a wreck, my husband and son still in their pajamas, homework incomplete, no dinner or bath or bedtime stories in progress. Upstairs in the master bedroom, my husband would proudly show me the fruits of his day of labor: tiny, elaborate, repeating patterns of flowers and leaves and berries that he had painstakingly painted on the wooden trim around the windows and doors and the crown molding framing the room. He would spend the hours I was at work on a stepladder in the bedroom, choosing and mixing paints and delicate brushes, dabbing dots of gold and silver highlights on his acrylic flora, all the while neglecting the real plants on our small farm and the real boy pinging off the walls downstairs wondering what would ever be for dinner.
The kitchen ceiling and the boy’s room are easy enough problems to solve. The trim is another story. “You could sand it and prime it and paint it,” explained the man through his fuzzy gray beard, “but you’d still be able to see it.” I nodded. “Some days the light will hit it just right, and even with a few coats of paint, those patterns will make themselves known to you again.”
I could imagine exactly what he meant, and there was no way I was going to pay someone to do all that work only to still see those flowers in relief just refusing to die in the afternoon light.
“Call Kevin,” he suggested. “He’ll come in and redo that trim for you, and it’ll be much nicer than what you have now. Get those corners right with a miter saw.”
I think to myself, Joe’s such a real man to be able to lie with me in my big marital bed with that shitty trim and the painted ramblings of an unbalanced mind insistently outlining the bedroom.
My first divorce hearing was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2014. We were still living together, but my husband had moved himself to the guest room in the basement. The night before the hearing, the tension in the house was horrific. There was screaming and wailing and it was so, so dark. It finally simmered down to a wretched and tearful talk in the kitchen, just outside my son’s bedroom door. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, wanted to be out of my son’s earshot, for crying out loud. I excused myself from further conversation. My husband responded sorely, “I hope you sleep well in the bedroom I made beautiful for you.”
Like my divorce, all these repair projects always cost more than I think they will, and at this point it’s all money I don’t have. In the nineteen months since the sheriff removed my husband from the house, I’ve had to put in a new water treatment system and a new barn door. I bought a new used car on credit—appropriately enough, a Ford Escape. Bought a new doghouse and a new compost bin too.
I put in a security system after my husband broke in. I guess that’s an upgrade, though, not really a repair. I’ve had to replace siding and remove birds’ nests and repair both garage door openers after a bad windstorm. Fixed the refrigerator once and the dishwasher twice; now it’s not working again. I should’ve just replaced it the last time. Sometimes things aren’t worth repairing; it’s cheaper to get a newer, more efficient model than it is to keep sinking money into something that just doesn’t work. I know, I know, that’s how our landfills get full: planned obsolescence. Things don’t always last like they should.
Once Joe moves in, money will be a lot less tight. It’ll be different having a second income in the house after all these years of family breadwinning by myself. He’s not afraid of work. He brings in good money and he’s handy. Strong, incisive, good at figuring out how everything works: people, machines, plants, animals, electronics, toys.
I’ve never once heard him holler at things that get in his way, not even the stump that took out the blades on the John Deere. “There’s no point,” he says. “You can’t reason with inanimate objects.” This property has long felt to me like just a lot of work, but Joe says he’s always wanted to take care of a place like this. I can see that it satisfies him. I hope it stays that way. I’m trying everything I know to make sure that he feels like it’s his home too, even though it’s technically my house. I call it Our House, in the Middle of Our Street. I ask him to help me pick out area rugs and bedding. I’ve made space literally and figuratively: cleaning out closets and dressers, and learning to stop hosting him when he’s here because then he feels like a guest. But nothing that I do or don’t do is really key, because the thing that makes him feel most at home here is working on the place. He likes that John Deere. He was proud of those bruises.
I’ve been known to tell people that owning a home is a lot like being in love: At the outset, it’s all spacious and bright and airy. It looks and feels perfect and seems worth all the sacrifices you had to make to get it. But then you move in and you start to fill it with your crap and you notice its flaws. Spaces fill up. Cracks start to show. New things get old. The dust settles, and one day you look around your place and realize that it’s not only not perfect, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Everything needs repair or maintenance or replacement. So you sand and you prime and you paint, and one day the light hits things just right and those old patterns just make themselves known all over again. An adult lifetime of monthly payments starts to seem a lot longer than it once did.
I also tell people that this home is a dream home, but it was someone else’s dream. I’m a city girl, a third-generation Angeleno. I lived in Paris and Chicago before I married, and I thrived. I never really even imagined myself paying a mortgage, let alone paying for a stump grinder or a John Deere or a barn door. I never dreamed of this place: a big pine-log home with a pitched metal roof and skylights, perched atop hilly green acreage in the rural Midwest. This winding road runs between two small central Illinois towns, and all my neighboring farmers—real farmers—have gone organic.
This place is beautiful, no question, when I take a longer view, when I can see past the claustrophobia of repairs and projects and dust. Out front, I have a porch swing and a healthy ecosystem and a pretty good sunset almost every night. There is no time of year that the view out my bedroom window is not breathtaking, if I look beyond the framework of florid trim. When it’s winter and the air is frozen clean, the early twilight colors the snow on the ground periwinkle blue. It happens every year. I’ve spent a decade in this house all told, long enough to see the patterns emerge.
My husband had two favorite lies, and he told them louder and more frequently the closer I got to divorcing him: One was “you’ll never be able to take care of this place without me,” and the other was “no one else will ever love you.” I’m in my seventh season on my own here now; soon Joe will move in and that will change. It’s a good change, I think. The light is hitting everything just right, and from my perspective, it all seems to be in good repair.
GINA COOKE is a linguist working toward her second graduate degree, a pursuit that has spanned half of her adult life. She lives and works on a small farm in the rural Midwest with her son and her dog. She typically writes about spelling: word histories, word structure, and word relatives. This is her first foray into the personal.
Jim and I were on the phone, discussing his recent love-gone-wrong, and, boy, did he feel like shit. He wondered if it’d be possible to have a do-over for that threesome. Get it right.
And I wondered if it was possible for the sex to go wrong. Or is it always the relationships that go wrong and cause the sex to falter? I mean, barring force, coercion, infection or… can sex go wrong? Or is it the relationships?
The do-over would be reparative, Jim explained. They’d invite that guy back again for another threesome. Jim had it worked out in his head. They could fuck him like this, or like that. Make eye contact with each other at just the right moment. Get everyone in the groove.
I listened. Unconvinced. Even Jim was not convinced as he made the argument.
“But sometimes there’s such ecstasy in a threesome,” said Jim. “I mean, when it’s great, it’s great. And when it’s not?”
My mind answered the question: There’s emotional turmoil and feelings of inadequacy, or disrespect, or abandonment and you think about it for days, weeks, months. Had it been a year since their first go of it? He added, “The problem wasn’t the threesome.”
I nodded silently, on the phone, when he said it.
Really? Jim met Mr. Threesome for drinks just to get his take on the situation, even after Jim and his partner had parted ways. From the invited guest’s point of view, everything was great. Mr. Threesome is involved in his own drama with his husband divorcing him to move to Brazil with a younger man, though. What does he know? No, definitely, everything was great.
It’s sort of a miracle when two people make enough of the same story of their interactions, their looks, their words, and alliances in order to have a good experience, settle down and enjoy some time. Definitely a miracle to make it last.
During the lengthy catch-up with Jim, I have also begun thinking about the most recent person I dated. Just a week, then friendship. “Flirtatious friendship,” she said.
“What are you getting out of that?” I grumped.
Something went wrong. Or maybe it went right. How could I know which?
About a year ago, I overheard a conversation that has stayed with me. I was in a gallery where a woman’s art was being shown, and someone smiled and marveled at her domestic feat—she and her husband: forty years together this year! Her husband said, “Yeah, no trick really. If you’re lucky to meet someone when you’re both young enough, you grow up together. All of your likes and dislikes develop together. How you handle things. You know what the other person means. That makes it easy. We get along. ” They both smiled and nodded, like a postcard image from the land of happy relationships.
Maybe it’s lucky that I still have some growing up to do.
See how I did that? Went straight to optimism rather than saying, god, you’re screwed really, if you try to partner up as an adult, an older adult, an adult with your own ways of coping and finding beauty in the world, thank you very much. Don’t harsh my mellow, babe. I already know how things work. One could see it like that instead. I’m always so fucking optimistic.
“Doesn’t there have to be some kind of effortless frisson in a good threesome?” I said to Jim. “Or some kind of arduous planning? I mean, as soon as you’re trying to make it go well, it’s already not going well. So, the do-over would never work. The two of you with the plan would be maneuvering the third in order to get it right. And then that third guy— that guy who’s not part of your relationship, that guy who’s really great and really hot and carrying around his own drama—that guy’s just a prop.
“I don’t relate to sex like that,” I said to Jim.
But, of course, sometimes I do. I’m always telling some kind of story in my head—I think everyone does that. I am also feeling the body. And perceiving the other person. It’s not like we respond to one another based on animal musk alone. We have interconnected stories. Sometimes our stories rub each other the wrong way, though there can be attraction in that too. And what about emotions? Always a river of emotion just beneath the skin. A grip that leaves bruising can mean pleasure and the most tender touch, pain. An embrace soothes one day, stifles the next. The lexicon is unstable. It’s amazing we ever understand each other at all. Perhaps the range of human stories is smaller than I’m willing to admit.
“You showed me tenderness,” my date said.
And I learned that was a bad thing. Only not bad, because, wow, who would call that bad? I didn’t even know what I’d done that could be interpreted as tender. I’m just being… human, I thought. But yeah, that can look a lot of ways. Tenderness caused distance, which wasn’t what I was hoping for. It wasn’t what she wanted either, at least not at first. She was so interested in me at first—and remains so, though in an oddly constructed sort of way. I pouted and pondered. Then I laughed at myself. Always back to compassion and amusement, still a little weird and nervous; hopeful me.
Even with two. Even with one. We are telling ourselves our stories. My body and mind don’t always know each other. Emotions spring from both, make a wet mess or a happy puddle. How can it feel so good to sleep in the wet, metal, acid, musty funk of sex, body truly relaxed? Body rent, spent, heavy with sleep, still whole. Is “good sex” even about knowing someone, or just imagining what we mean to each other, what we ourselves have become, with the other?
I’ve felt alone in a loved one’s embrace too.
“I have issues with trust.” My date said. And I was listening and trying to understand, but I didn’t understand. Why would a person let that shit win? Yeah, so what? That’s my story. Maybe I was not listening well enough. Try again. Stop. Don’t try too hard to understand. I could just listen. Just. Be a good. Was I listening or telling my own story? I couldn’t tell.
Here’s a story about a threesome that went wrong. Jim keeps talking about the sex-gone-wrong like it’s the important part. And my mind is traveling.
This was a long time ago so I have nothing but perspective, which is all I ever really had even when it was happening: mine. I am just one person after all. We were three one people. Two of us, long-term lovers, thinking that we already knew each other. We didn’t know ourselves in that situation. I’m not sure I know us now, so I’m grateful that the past is pliable and lets me re-mold it according to my current understanding. This is the story that came to mind when Jim was saying, “What if we could just have a do-over? Maybe then it would all turn out okay.” Maybe then Jim wouldn’t be meeting his former partner in the park, for a walk, rather than wasting another meal he couldn’t eat after those kinds of awful conversations they have now.
My lover was an angry, jealous sort. And wow, that can take up a lot of time and supplant ease and many of the good feelings people have for one another. She perceived an interloper, interested in my affections. I rolled my eyes. Tedious. “So what if she’s hot for me?” I said about the interloper. “I can’t do anything about that.” I said. “I’m totally not into her or I’d have already done something about it!” I made a bold statement. I wouldn’t let her think she was bullying me. I’d have had sex with the interloper if I wanted to. I didn’t want to.
(My eleven-year-old son laid it down for me once, after an evening we spent with this same interloper: “You’re stupid if you don’t know she likes you.”
I replied, “I know she likes me, but what can I do about that?”
He answered with the buggy eyes of a kid who had to tolerate adult stupidity. “You could stop encouraging her!”)
So, my lover and I were on a road trip and I was starting to get pouty about the whole trip blown to hell because of her jealousy and nonsense and soon she’d go stoic and not even speak to me. But then something different happened. She said, “Okay, what if I do something else with this feeling? What if I embrace it? What if I see it for what it is: someone thinks you’re hot. Why wouldn’t she? I think you’re hot!” I brightened a bit. Could this be? She continued. “Yeah, she and I are alike enough that I could totally even see what she’s into about you. Yeah, I like her! I mean, I do actually like her. It’s not like I’m mad at her about anything. I get it. You are hot.”
Mobility was one of the things I loved about her, the ability to come up out of something tricky and think about it, move to see it another way. It had just never happened before on this theme. I was nodding, not minding at all being thought of favorably now by both of these women—the interloper and my lover, with whom I was not going to have a bad weekend after all. Then she said, “Yeah, I’m totally getting into the idea of watching her fuck you.”
“Hang on. Are you serious?” I was stunned that she’d gone straight from angry and jealous to this. She’d gone straight to watching us fuck from giving me side-eye and saying, “Never a minute’s peace with you. Every butch dyke within four hours of here comes sniffing around your porch wondering if you neeeeed anything.” That old saw exhausted me, of course, and I whined about how they never meant anything by it, but I was not sure her new turn would be an improvement.
It’s not that I’m against threesomes. I’m just not a fan. If the moment seemed right, my optimism would likely kick in again, though I’d doubt my competence. In theory, great. It seems like communication is all it takes, but meh. I’d sort of relegated threesomes to youthful experimentation. I’d experimented. I prefer connection and depth with one person, with myself, and, well, whether or not I always get those things has nothing to do with the thrill of a third person.
“But what if something amazing can be enhanced?” Jim said.
“What if it can?” I countered. “At what risk to some greater, longer-lasting peace?”
But, hey, it was fun to see her so animated about something that normally installed a rain cloud over her head. And then it was fun to speculate, with my lover, about the desires and propensities of this third person, to review the small things the lovely interloper said that were evidence of what she would think or want or like or do. And my lover and I had a good time on that trip, and good sex, and ease. That’s what I want really. Ease. Just let there be ease, kindness, affection. Of course I want good sex. Maybe I want more than I realize.
Just before our fourth date in one week, the woman with trust issues asked me whether I enjoy affection, somewhat public affection. We both noted the small thrill of our legs leaning together on a previous date, in the theatre, and I was thinking about how a small thrill can take up residence and exude a larger loveliness than expected. And about how much I loved the clarity of a direct question like, “Do you enjoy public affection?” And we would be in that theatre again that very evening. I am not often one to make bold gestures, but I think, good. I have made space for her simple gestures, bold gestures. I was receptive and looking forward to affection. Quite so. I was possessed of a small thrill, just in the talking. The talking, indeed, was what had happened between us, nothing else. Yet the loveliness was large. But that night, something was off. She didn’t touch me all evening, even after asking to earlier in the day. Not even her leg leaning into mine.
By the second day of our road trip, after the swimming and strolling, during the long and scenic drive toward home, my lover and I were planning to ask the interloper (who had then become the third party, or even the sweet friend) if she wanted to… you know. How will we ask her and what mood will be made of this? The planning was a small thrill, growing larger, and we were fairly sure she’d say yes. She’d been doing some work on the house and that’s why my lover became fixated on her in the first place. The two of them worked all morning on the house and I worked inside and then made lunch and the three of us ate and then they got back to work. Every evening when we were alone, my lover fixated on how the interloper looked at me and flirted. And I said, no, that kind of flirting didn’t mean anything. It was just appreciation, recognition. And my lover curled her lip in disgust.
We were planning the threesome, so sure we knew what was coming, but how on earth could we have known each other, our own minds—let alone her? We were just happy for the relief of jealousy and anger. Well, I was, and perhaps that relief made me extra hopeful, because usually I’m a think-and-talk-things-through kind of gal. And I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the interloper, our sweet friend, to be uncomfortable in any way.
I phoned while we were on the road and left a coquettish message saying how we’d been keeping company so much lately, what with the home improvements and all, and that my lover and I had been thinking about her and could we talk soon?
It’s not the who’s-doing-what in bed, it seems to me as Jim talks. It’s who’s looking at whom and how. The flow of the eye contact; the flow of connection. Who feels important and why. It’s the wanting and fulfillment of desire for something that’s not just physical. I’ll accept that some people are better at these encounters than others and it seems that, for Jim, it’s gone well numerous, numerous times. He’s a directive sort, after all, and I’m sure he steers well around tight corners, maneuvers out of a cul de sac with ease. Maybe it’d be easier with three strangers, I muse, during our conversation. “No,” he says, “it’s particularly sweet when two of the people really care for each other.” I realize that I’ve never been “the third” in a threesome. I’ve always been one of the two partnered people. At some point, I’ve always thought, Why are we doing this? even if the whole thing was… nice.
The interloper did indeed agree, said she felt like suddenly it was Christmas. I felt my first heart-clench of overwrought expectation.
We had a simple candlelit dinner and my lover was suave, sexy, and a bit removed. She had already turned voyeuristic. We had discussed nothing of our fantasies with our invited guest. Truth is, I’m not even sure I had my own specific fantasies. Which was strange for us. Usually I was the one steering the romance, though she was driving the sex. I smiled, winked, and beckoned with one painted fingernail; I tapped my shiny lower lip, raised an eyebrow and she leaned in for a kiss.
This was so different—her imagining and discussing the unfolding event, during our road trip. I was excited hearing all of the set up she envisioned, all of the anticipation she’d mustered. She had really talked it through and that was the thrill for me. I recalled how, when we were first together, it took her a while to get good at phone sex. I give good talk; she was more action than language.
I’d already had what I wanted. The ease. The talk. The twosome.
Did I mention I wasn’t into this woman? I wasn’t lying. That was the truth. And as soon as she was kissing me, I panicked. What the fuck kind of stupid idea was this?! And then she was kissing my lover and I swear to god my lover was having the same thought because, you know, who invited that kiss? Not me. Not her. I’ve been with women who turn into giant homophobes about the thought of a butch-on-butch kiss. That wasn’t it exactly, but what was it? And what was happening to my lover and her assertiveness? As we moved to the bed, as if on a conveyor belt, I was already thinking how to maneuver into the driver’s seat. We were careening out of control. I didn’t know how weird things had gotten for my lover until she looked at me, stricken, with the interloper kissing down her back, and mouthed, “Help.”
Oh, this is good, I thought. And then I started noticing the interloper’s energy and how she would turn to me ravenous, then back to my lover, perfunctory, and I said, “Hey, let me just put words on the dynamic here. I’m not sure there’s a charge happening between the two of you in the same way that both of you have a charge for me.” And it was like I’d just given two magnets permission to fly apart—but when they both instantly attached onto me with a powerful zeal, I thought, lord help me, what have I done? And who were these sniveling cowards I was in bed with anyway? Neither one of them had any voice of her own.
“I just didn’t want you to feel left out,” said the interloper to my lover and they practically shook hands, all forgiven.
It’s also true that I felt a sweet protective feeling toward my lover. And that’s not totally hot. And then there they were, like a hundred hands and mouths and, okay, she didn’t know me, but Jesus, do not bite my nipples. Too much was happening at once.
And maybe it’s this: Nothing they were doing was about me. It was about them, only not really that either. It was about some idea of each other, and some idea of me and some idea I had about ease. And they’d have just carried on, only I’m not keen to be the vessel for something in which I’m not really participating, and so I sat up and said, “I’m very sorry, but this isn’t working for me.” And I stood up and started putting on a bit of clothing, just enough to be clear, polite. I was apologizing and my lover sat back to watch me do my thing. She knew me and respected my voice, my sexual intuition, and my sense of things. She often took my lead because she trusted it.
We went back to the table and I served dessert and what could we say? Our interloper was apologizing and re-strategizing and trying to get us all back to bed. And I was done. My lover had gone back to her stoic observer role, waiting for me to find the kind and comfortable way out of all this. She was definitely still in her sexuality, but like a vacuum-packed container of her sexual self—no scent of anything, nothing in the package to be affected by the outside air. I knew we’d be doin’ it when the interloper left, and the trouble was, the interloper knew it too. She was hurt and felt excluded because she had been. And not just by me.
I’m not sure what happened between the two of them, but they remained friends in the coming months, became closer even, as they sat on the porch and drank beer, my lover affectionate toward me, the interloper a bit chilly to me when she’d say hello or goodbye. It took years before the interloper and I were on truly good terms.
I’ve learned this lesson before, in childhood, and how many times since? The person who finds the voice stands to lose the relationships. And I’m always trying to grow up enough to find the kindness in the voice. I still stand to lose, even as I soften so my voice doesn’t sound like, “Well, fuck you, at least I’m still standing.”
My date said those trust issues weren’t about me and that was some small relief, but she didn’t want to keep dating me either. Those issues influenced how close I could be to her. I’m still drawn to her, and yet I cannot come near. What use is the attraction? There’s some meaning in that word, isn’t there? Attraction. Something magnetic, like metal, wood, blood, the scent of sex or purpose. Does purpose have a scent? Does sex have a scent before it happens? Everything contains its opposite too: repulsion. I read once that organically occurring perfumes, like those containing wood or flowers, will always be more compelling to humans than synthetic scents. Synthetic scents are all good-smell. The natural ones also contain feces and decay.
“I’m definitely attracted you. This is all new territory for me,” my date said. “I enjoy/adore you and for whatever reason…” She didn’t remain compelled. Or maybe it was that she felt more compelled to withdraw. Not my business to know.
Something was in decay; stillborn. And I was suspiciously eyeing her. Her inability to remain true to a simple attraction made her seem untrustworthy, and somehow, more interesting. Is that even true? Maybe it’s more trustworthy to actually see a person’s errant whims and fears, rather than them being hidden. Such strange start-stop inconsistencies and fear-pleasure combinations. I was noting the inconsistencies—in her and in me too. Single. Separate. Still interested. Irritated. Accepting. Still engaged and observing.
Scent triggers memory. Who am I to her and she to me? And what do I care if some stranger doesn’t want to date me any more? The body wants complexity, not just the good. I am attracted to sweet-clear-something-not-quite-right-complexity, already waking up in the warm puddle of it, though alone.
My life is good. I am alone. In the hammock, I’m listening with interest to Jim’s story about his recent loss of love. “We didn’t communicate enough,” he said.
And I said, “It sounds like you communicated all the time; you just didn’t want the same things.”
He disagreed, and we carried on discussing the terrain of speaking and listening and sometimes deciding to do what doesn’t feel right, or what feels right in the moment but you know it won’t be later.
Jim said, “He knew it would hurt me to leave with the guy from the threesome, and he did it anyway. He even acknowledged it later. He knew he could’ve simply stopped and connected with me and then called that guy afterward if he was going to do that. That would’ve been unpleasant, but not the same as leaving with him, barely a goodbye to me.”
I sighed at the pain of this. “It wasn’t the lack of communication.” I said. “It was the follow-through.”
Now my date and I only communicate via email. All this speaking and listening and writing and reading, and my erotic body doesn’t understand why it’s been left out of the conversation. The body is how I know things, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this odd bit of dating, my mind shouldn’t be in charge. It’s too unstable and is far too fond of its own notions. If I’d been Jim, I would’ve wanted a kiss, touch, and fondness, too, before my lover left the house. That scenario makes me want to cry. More zeal for a stranger than kindness for an intimate. More desire to stay separate from someone significant than to risk being close. Even knowing what made sense, Jim’s lover couldn’t do it. Even with so much spark and talk and enthusiasm, my date decided that even kissing me once, just to find out what attraction was there, would be too much.
Whether it’s three, two, or just one person, we learn the shifting terrain of love and sex slowly with a combination of fear and pleasure. Never the same river twice. New bodies and stories bring new meaning.
But the mind can maintain the same river, step into it the same way, again and again. The mind can make pleasure or fear, depending on what it expects, creates, endures.
I told a friend about the dates gone wrong and she said, “Don’t push the river.”
“I’m impatient.” I replied. “I want to know what’s possible; what’s not.”
I also know this: Love listens and is patient. Fear wants speedy resolution and will get all up in someone’s business to find relief. I have trust issues. But why would a person let that shit win?
I pose no threat. I am more thoughtful and communicative than most. I know the importance of sex. Consistency and tenderness help me overcome fear. That’s my story. Jim is also kind and thoughtful and yet, when he said, “no more,” his partner was wrecked and angry, devoured by loss. We inhabit a shifting terrain and come to know it intimately, no matter whom we keep at arm’s length. Distance just placates the mind and keeps pleasure at bay. Managing a bit of hunger can seem better than feeling sated and vulnerable. And why not? It’s all just a story.
I know what I want, and there’s risk in it but not too much. I will almost always choose the risk of two, probably not three or more. I am fairly content with one. Jim and I are talking about communication, and that means memory and longing and whether what we want can match up with our abilities to achieve it. When I’m confused, the body tells me when to hang on, when to let go, when to stand up and put my clothes on. That’s my story. I trust that wanting means I’m alive. It’s good to be alive. I rely on the beauty of being able to stand up again after feeling broken. So far, that’s what’s always happened.
There’s wisdom in optimism. That’s my story.
KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.
The rhythmic clicking is so far in the background that I think, how bad can this be?
Country, top 40, ’80s rock…
I wait for the technician to list a station I like, classical or maybe jazz.
…hip hop, jazz?
The right earphone lands a little too far south. It cuffs my upper cheek and skims my ear. It will have to be close enough for the next half hour or so because I don’t speak up in time. As she motors me into the tube, the technician drops a soft cloth on my face. It’s still bright behind my shut eyes. I open them and peek beneath the cloth’s bottom edge at the glossy, spiraling cavern. I shut my eyes again fast. Later, my husband Mat will ask me, How close was your face to the ceiling?, and I’ll say, I don’t know.
The technician tucks a buzzer button beneath my left hand. In case of emergency, she says.
I squeeze it without meaning to. It buzzes.
Are you okay?
The first test will last one minute. Hold real still.
My feet are taped together as if I’m in a hostage situation. I try not to think of it that way, like I’m enclosed in a thick plastic tunnel, strapped down with my feet taped together. Only one person could hear me scream, if I screamed, and I just met her. I don’t even know her name. She’s wearing false eyelashes and a wig, as if in disguise. I’m here to diagnose and regain control of my left hip and my life, the very same life a stranger now controls. Now that’s irony. For the moment, the only option is trust.
Are you okay?
The next test will take about three and a half minutes.
The sound patterns change. Grinding happens, and then the noise my printer makes when it spits out pages. It’s not exactly pleasant, but it’s fine. I wonder if she’s selected the correct station because the song sounds more like swing than jazz. The machine gnashes and moans, while a smooth, clear, female voice sings up-tempo about something wonderful. That’s the honest-to-God lyric: something wonderful. More irony. Every time I want to fidget, I bite my tongue hard to yank me back to the top of my body, the part that can will my toes not to shift position.
Are you okay?
The next two tests will take about four and a half minutes each.
I want to ask about the tests. What exactly are they testing for four and a half minutes? Then what different thing are they testing for the following four and a half minutes? But I also want to get this done, and she’s chatty, this technician. Her children are both grown, the boy is married and works nearby, loves his job, and the girl lives farther away but has provided grandbabies who compensate for the distance. I know all this from limping in socks and a hospital gown from the waiting area to the room I’m in now—about twenty-five steps, maybe less. If I ask about the tests, she will want to be clear, explain every detail, and I appreciate that, but I want this done more than I want to know what’s being done to me. I want information about this stoppage in my joints, so I can walk properly again and go through with my daughter Hannah’s high school graduation trip. I splurged on plane tickets to Italy for one last family hurrah and the promise of daily gelato before college tuition payments begin. I’ll never be forgiven if I cancel it. I’ll ruin it if I go and can’t walk. A bad diagnosis is lose-lose. Still, I want to know.
Are you okay?
It’s the correct station after all. The instrumental jazz I’d hoped for plays, but I can barely hear the saxophone above the machine’s jackhammering. I was a New Yorker for a while, so the noise is no big deal. Over time, we adjusted. The baby slept through it, but not Hannah, my sensitive toddler. She approached my side of the bed in her pink princess nightgown, a curl stuck to her forehead glistening with sweat and sleep. Frowsy and blowsy, Mat called it when the kids awakened disheveled, warm, and pink like that. At eighteen, Hannah’s pincurls have softened into waves but remain the same brown and blond and red. The sun still tracks freckles across her nose. I still see that frowsy and blowsy child in the pink princess nightgown every time Hannah the young woman barrels through the door after a run, ponytail swaying. When she was little, I wanted her to stay curled into me forever beneath the cocoon of sheets, yet I itched for her to return to her own bed, where her twitching and breathing wouldn’t keep me awake. Now it’s differently the same. When she’s home, sometimes I can’t sleep, thinking about her leaving for college in just a few months. I can’t sleep when she’s not home either, worried she’ll pile into a car driven by some drunk teenager, even though I’ve told her a thousand times to call me if there’s ever a situation like that. No questions asked; just call.
Are you okay?
The next three tests will last about four minutes each.
The pole towers over a deep, bottomless ravine, swinging wildly from wind, and I balance in a chair on top like a character from the Doctor Seuss book Daddy read to me before bed. Lurching awake saves me, though the nightmare pounds inside. I’m frowsy and blowsy, and lace ruffles down the front of my flannel nightgown. The gold wall-to-wall carpeting stretches down the hallway into my parents’ bedroom. Mom’s beehive hair, flattened on the side from sleep, is either real or lifted from pictures I’ve seen, but the warm, safe smell of her perfume leftover from the day is real. The curving ivory edges of my parents’ monumental headboard remind me of animal tusks. I never liked that headboard. (Mom tried to give it to me during a cleaning spree and told me how expensive it was as a selling point, but I didn’t take it.) Mom lifts the edge of the sheet, and I curl into her and listen to her breathe. In and out. And then I listen to my own child’s breathing, in and out, while she cuddles into me and jackhammers attack the street outside the apartment window.
How are you doing?
You moved during one of the tests, so we’ll have to do it again.
What did I move? I didn’t think I moved anything. I sound defensive. I don’t mean to; defensive is just the way it comes out.
The monitor tells me you moved something, but it doesn’t say what. It could be that you rearranged your hand, or a toe.
It was my toe. I must not have bitten my tongue in time. I’ll try to do better.
You’re doing great. It will only be three and a half minutes.
Why always a half? What can they possibly tell from that extra half a minute that they can’t detect from the first three? I bite my tongue, so my toe won’t move. I try to go back to the safe spaces, with nightgowns and mothers and deeply sleeping, trusting little girls. I open my eyes and shut them again, but I can’t seem to return to my childhood home or our old apartment where my entire little girl fit into the pocket of my body curving around her. I’m alone and powerless inside a plastic tunnel, strapped down with my feet taped together. When my girl leaves for college in the fall, I can’t drown out the jackhammers or conquer the nightmares for her.
That’s it. You are done. I’m coming to get you out of there.
The original rhythmic sounds re-emerge. The saxophone, the bass, the brush against cymbals abruptly stop, and the platform moves like a forklift delivering rubble onto a pile. The technician removes the tape from my feet. I’m free. My hip is stiff, my mother is old, my child has grown, and we mostly wear pajamas instead of nightgowns now—except for Mom. Her light cotton nightgowns with pleated fronts must be forty years old, and they’re still her staple. My daughter has switched to 100% pajamas. She told me once the pink princess nightgown is in her room somewhere. She’ll probably leave it behind when she moves away for college. Moving forward, always forward, and here I was going backward for some reason, when I should’ve been moving forward too.
I’m afraid you owe $150.00, the receptionist tells me. These tests used to be free, but now the insurance. The receptionist is nice about it.
I limp out of the hospital and drive home with my good leg pressing the pedal then I pump the brake when the car begins moving too fast. I wish my hip would heal already, so I can walk properly. We will take that graduation trip. Hannah will leave. I’ll grow old like my mother, but I’ll wear pajamas. Maybe I should’ve taken that giant, ugly, valuable headboard when Mom offered it. Maybe I should search for the little pink nightgown folded in the closet of Hannah’s vacated room when she’s gone. I’ll keep moving forward, but sometimes it feels too fast, with no button to press in case of emergency, no break to pump.
Mat asks, How did it go?
Is it weird that I almost enjoyed my MRI? For forty and a half minutes, my only responsibility was to hold still while voices sang something wonderful and asked Are you okay? My mother protected me. I protected my daughter. Then the machine shut off, and the world started up again, the world where my daughter will leave, as children do.
JILL MARGARET SHULMAN is a freelance writer, parent of teenagers, college essay coach, and works seasonally in college admissions. Some of her recent essays have appeared in The New York Times, Family Fun, Good Housekeeping, Parents.com and O the Oprah Magazine. Visit her website at http://www.otherwords.us/ for college essay coaching inquiries and links to more of her writing.
I take my first shaky step and see my eight-year-old son standing on the same thin rope one hundred feet above the ground as he takes a step in my direction. “Raphael! Are you okay?” I ask, panic edging my voice.
Raphael looks directly at me from what seems like an insurmountable distance across the tight rope. He stands still for a moment, balanced. “Mom, I’m okay. You need to just think about yourself now,” he says.
I see my son’s intent gaze, long eyelashes, café-au-lait–colored skin, the face of my father, the face I know better then my own. I am barely holding steady and realize that in order for me to make it across and hug him briefly, as instructed, for this trust-building exercise, every last part of me needs to be focused. I need to let go and be in my own moment in order to reach Raphael.
We are on a challenge ropes course at Camp Tawonga, near Yosemite, at a special family camp weekend for multi-racial, Jewish, inter-faith families. I’ve tried a couple different family camps and it’s hard to find one that fits our family: LGBT, “Keshet” (rainbow), inter-faith, biracial, single parent. I’m hoping for “spiritual renewal,” to find kinship, perhaps some answers, by connecting to similar families, or maybe just some rest, when Raphael spends time with his father or other kids. But much of the time Raphael is clingy, not wanting me to be far away, often not wanting to participate in the camp activities. So when he enthusiastically demands we do the ropes course, I know I have to go.
We have on harnesses, but for me, it’s still terrifying. I’ve only stepped up because Raphael asked it of me, knowing that this exercise is not something his dad would ever participate in—the heights, the tightrope. His dad and I have been separated since Raphael was eight months old, but he agreed, warily, to travel with us for this family camp weekend. It’s still a time in our lives that we sometimes attempt to be a family, though not together as a couple. Perhaps he too is hoping to find examples of families like ours to look to for a model to co-parent together. He is down below, looking up at us, standing alone.
Raphael and I walk towards each other. I am utterly present; to do otherwise, I’d fall. My worries slip away—financial, mother-son tug of wars, ongoing tension with his dad. The still uncut umbilical cord propels us closer, step by step. With one big step, we meet, hug, and somehow find the coordination to move as if in one graceful motion as we edge past each other to the opposite side, and then go down to the ground. We hug again, longer. “I love you,” we say to each other.
It’s October 9, 2015, about eleven years later after the ropes course we did at Camp Tawonga. In the near future, Raphael will move out of the recovery house that he will have been in for almost two years, since January 2014, when he was just short of eighteen years old. During that time, he’s graduated from a local high school, found his first real job, gotten sober, and managed to turn his life around; he’s excited, following the plan of moving out to an apartment with two other graduates of the recovery program.
I’m suddenly terrified. The scaffolding of the young man’s recovery house, the “New Life House” will still exist as a place to go for support, but in reality it’s time for him to go out and live his life. He’s only nineteen, soon to be twenty, and I’m fucking scared.
I have spent the last three weeks spinning out of control myself, worried perhaps I won’t graduate from school, the long awaited book and MFA maybe not completed. Perhaps I won’t be able to support myself in the world as I get older. Perhaps I’ll lose my mind like my mom. Seeing my mom as we knew her vanish adds to my sense of shakiness, utter lack of control, as I prepare for Raphael to go out in the world.
My mom talks about fairies that might come rescue her from the assisted living residence she calls prison and take her home to the Bronx where she hasn’t lived for more than sixty years. Recently she was questioned by a social worker to determine if she still had dementia and qualified for her long term care plan: “I can’t tell you how old I am. But I can tell this—I do exist,” she said.
Five years ago, when I was fifty-one, I decided that I needed to make a visible statement and get a tattoo. Hineni: I am here. I had the Hebrew words tattooed on me. My brother in his Mr. Spockian way said, “I am here? Is this a map?” (Like “you are here.”) I have a Hamsa (to ward off the evil eye) on my back and Hineni in Hebrew letters is inscribed below. Very tiny Hebrew letters, because after all, I don’t want to be a target.
For years I contemplated a tattoo and went over what I’d want and where. I researched the rules on Jews and tattoos and found out that it’s urban legend about the ban on tattoos, and in fact, in Israel, some very high percentage of people, ages, say, nineteen to forty, have tattoos. And you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I went to a tattoo artist who turned out to know me and my son from a co-op preschool that our kids went to in Sierra Madre many years ago.
The place I went to get my tattoo was called Shangri-La, and it looked like that, vines of bright scarlet, purple, and orange bougainvillea intertwined with Province Blue Morning Glory, and sweet-smelling jasmine. The studio was in the backyard of the tattoo artist, and I felt as if I were walking into another dimension. After I approved a mock up of the tattoo based on my ideas, she started her work, turning her needle buzzing quietly into my skin, while she explained that the natural endorphins would kick in after a bit of pain.
At first I did feel intense jabs of pain. (I’d asked a woman getting a tattoo in Old Pasadena which hurt more—getting waxed or getting a tattoo—and she had said waxing for sure.) But the pain was sharp enough that I gasped and I asked the tattoo artist to tell me a story about herself and how she decided on her profession. Her dad, a biker and also a rocket scientist, suggested it to her as a way of making a living; she’d been trained as an artist and illustrator.
And then miraculously those endorphins did kick in as she was asking me about myself. I told her all about me, about the recent episode getting my nose broken by a sheriff’s deputy when I couldn’t immediately find my metro ticket, and about losing everything because of my marriage break up and unblended family. (I didn’t yet know what more I might lose or have the potential to lose because of addiction). But at that point I’d decided I had survived. By the time, I got to the point in my story where I was saying that I was now okay, “and that’s what happened,” she’d put the finishing touches on my tattoo.
In the last three weeks, I thought that now I had the freedom to go off the deep end myself because my son seemed to be doing beyond well and my step-daughter had stopped talking to me and everyone else for a bit. So I felt free to obsess, agitate, and generally neglect my own wellbeing. I’ve thought about using heroin—for real—and for the first time. I’ve “self-harmed.” I dug a hole in my leg with my fingernails as I tried to feel, to give a face to the pain that wracked me following an argument with my girlfriend. My first cutting like incident at age fifty-six. Is there a support group for older onset cutters?
I’m glad the black and blue mark, the jagged scar/scab, remains so I can remember. I did that. I went there. I knew I was bleeding inside and I wanted the red, the injury, to be visible. Then perhaps the pain would stop: I would be seen. But perhaps I’m only seen as insane. I’ve also contacted my old ex—“mi Chiquita”—via text, and I’ve cut it off, seemingly for good. She’s my heroin and I’ve had to stop.
I started looking at violent Internet porn, something I’ve got control over, unlike my dreams. Throughout my life, I’ve often dreamt of being raped and I have an orgasm while still resisting. It reflects the real-life complications of my sexuality, how many times I have been aroused in my life by what seems to be something, somebody so wrong, and yet some kind of twisted sexual friction is created, a Pavlovian response that I imagine began when I was around eleven or twelve and was sexually abused by my piano teacher back in the woods where the Jewish Temple was being built.
We’d recently moved to the hated suburbs outside of Seattle—Bellevue—from the inner city where I had been a tough tomboy: “Sammy Boy.” Now we were outcasts in the WASPish land of what we called ultra-suburbanite snobs. In those days we stayed out all afternoon and evening playing increasingly complicated games with the local kids where I tried to teach them about spying, starting a gang which was a cross between my “West Side Story” (which I had memorized in entirety) and my old rough playground.
I went back to the woods with another piano student, a girl from the neighborhood who was developing already, popular with the sleazy guys for her breasts and willingness. We walked into the woods with our nineteen-year-old piano teacher, who was crater-faced with bright, inflamed pimples. I can’t remember how we first began these walks out to the woods, the same woods where the older kids would sneak out late at night to play spin-the-bottle and smoke pot. Did we think it odd that our piano teacher wanted to go back into the woods alone with him; did we do this after our piano lessons? We walked through the path in the woods and it was probably already dusk. It gets dark early in the winter in Washington and we must have walked back there, the trail behind our neighbors’ house in the fading light, surrounded by moist, lightly rained upon ground and trees. The hammers of the workman who were building a Jewish Temple could be heard in the distance, but they would soon cut out for the day. Did we take a flashlight?
I remember once out there sitting down with him and perhaps one of us asked him about what was the lump in his pants—or did he guide one of our hands to it? Or did he just start talking about “his handkerchief” as he moved our hands and we felt it through his pants first? I began to get a funny sick feeling in my stomach. “Touch it, it’s soft,” he told us. He moved our hands on his pants where the crotch went from being soft and full to feeling much harder after he moved our hands back forth and then he pulled it out—a big wide fleshy penis; it seemed enormous and swollen, the color reddish purple, not exactly like the large pimples that covered his neck and face. I imagined he touched us too because I remember starting to wonder, to even be curious to see what it would be like to have that penis inside me. “It would bust you wide open, so we have to wait,” our piano teacher told us.” Some days we stayed out there kind of late, almost dark, dinnertime, but I always made it back before my dad would come looking for me.
I can’t remember what happened exactly that last time, only the sound of my dad entering the woods, his flashlight, annoyance in his voice as he called out for me, and the sudden rush of shame and fear as the three of us stood up and walked quickly out of the woods.
I’m guessing I was sexually aroused because I sense that was when those dreams and those feelings started. And thinking about the possibility of having been aroused as a child, when I was being sexually abused—a memory which makes my stomach churn, now even as I picture the bright blistery pimples on his face—offers a clue as to why I might turn to something completely wrong, like the violent porn I had begun watching for the first time.
Until someone more knowledgeable than me said, “Stop—it’s an extremely difficult addiction to break.” After the post-menopausal drought of libido, and the despair I had been feeling but not understanding, my body was beginning to respond to the rough, sometimes even brutal sexual images, almost like a drug. All my past years of being sexual with the wrong” person, getting driven by those intense pulsating hormones and endorphins that immediately turned to shame after an orgasm and resulted in so many twisted, dangerous, near-rape and actual-rape experiences. This was coupled with my inability to keep feeling sexual with someone who felt safe. My feelings changed so quickly to shame and inertia that I’d rather just sit and watch videos, eat, ruminate, or anything else other than try to rouse my shut-down body.
The thing that has held solid for me now for so many years is writing, and I finally thought I’d made the space to concentrate on it. But I found myself focusing on everything else but the writing. I was yanked away by the rip currents of my mom leaving us as the mom we knew. Moving her close to her children in Southern California from where she had lived more than forty-five years in Washington, propelled her into a much more advanced state of dementia. Now we have to wipe her butt, try to get her to take her medication, and leave her as painfully as leaving a pleading toddler.
I’ve just simply been thrashing about. I still long for something that I don’t believe I have—complete freedom to write and the belief I’ll be okay. In reality I could decide to believe that I have that kind of choice and abundance. Then again, I might never write another intelligent word or decent story that anyone will read. Over the years, I’ve painstakingly eked out some writing here and there while attending to the more urgent needs of others: son, step-daughter, work, aging parents. After witnessing how fragile life could be, watching my mom start to lose her mind and my son almost lose his life, I decided I couldn’t put off seizing my time to write. But it’s hard, this business of focusing on and believing in oneself.
For many years, I held an image of sitting in the woods, head leaning against a long-haired woman. She was comforting me, perhaps stroking my hair and singing and our child was in my lap.
I held onto this image as I lost baby after baby and endured rage after rage and suffered my own rages and bouts of craziness flailing about in my desperation to “be seen.” (And what the hell does that mean anyway?) What was that urgent despair that demanded I be a mother, I carry a baby, I create this safe haven, this nurturing and nurtured family? That I didn’t actually create—or rather what I did create was so distorted, it didn’t look like that safe home in nature. But I did create something, something solid, a strength my kids know exists. They know I’m there day after day; my family and my friends know that in my so-very-imperfect mode of being in the world—messy, interrupting, inconsistent at times—I’m a person who loves unsinkably, solidly loyal. Now it’s time to look that love in the mirror.
I’ve felt secure enough in my son’s recovery, his sobriety, to believe that I was free to go back to my old ways, the self-torture, rumination, all the anxiety I was raised with by my family, in particular my dad. Instead I discover I must be vigilant. Lack of gratitude will cause life to simply slap the shit out of me. If I don’t enjoy or at least appreciate every moment I have on the earth with a living, vibrant life-loving son out in the world, well, I’ll get kicked in the butt. Even if I can’t always sing with gratitude, I need to stop this genetically ingrained journey to the hellhole of regret and worry. And when I remember Raphael staggering about with his eyes rolled back of his head, saying he didn’t have much more time, then I need to remember how lucky I am that he does exist, that he’s found a spirituality, a core of inner strength, and support system that I alone could not create for him.
I want there to be some kind of “letting go” ceremony. “It all happened too quickly,” one friends says, lamenting the absence of her two sons finally gone off to live their lives, university and beyond. I remember my son saying to me so long ago on the tightrope walking that rope’s course we did together, “Mom, I’m okay, I will be all right. Worry about yourself now.” I’m not so sure I’m ready to let go. I’m not so sure I’m ready to worry only about myself.
CARLA SAMETH is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several anthologies and has appeared in online and print publications including Mutha Magazine, Narratively, Pasadena Weekly, Tikkun, La Bloga and forthcoming in Brain, Child. Her story “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which originally appeared in Narratively, was also selected for Longreads, “Five Stories on Addiction.” Carla was awarded a merit scholarship from the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program in 2014, and is currently an MFA candidate with the Queens University of Charlotte in Latin America. She has helped others tell their stories as co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project, through her business, iMinds PR, and as a writing instructor/mentor with WriteGirl working with incarcerated youth. Carla is working on a memoir of her non-traditional journey as a single mother to two children, born four months apart, now twenty years old.
This is how I used to explain my ex-husband. “The thing about C is,” I’d say, “if he was washing the dishes, and he heard someone call out for help—one of our kids or, really, anyone—he would drop what he was doing immediately, his hands covered in soapy water, and would run to help that person. As for me,” I’d add. “I’d take just a couple extra seconds to dry off my hands on a towel.”
This story always delighted me, so certain was I of its simple truth. I believed that it made C the better person, selfless, urgently devoted, able to react better in an emergency. It was not until our marriage ended that I began to see the flaw in this description of him, the fact that, in his rush to help whoever needed helping, he would track soapy water all over the kitchen floor (and possibly all over the house) with his still wet hands. And that later someone would come back to the house and maybe, exhausted from whatever emergency had just been attended to, would slip on the wet, soapy floor. Or would simply look around at the disaster of the kitchen and feel defeated.
This, I eventually realized, was a symbol of our marriage, the fact that he was always dashing off to do things and was living entirely in the moment, and I was always thinking ahead, whether it was seconds ahead or a lifetime ahead. The fact is, I would take those few seconds to dry my hands, even in an emergency, because I never stopped thinking about what was around me and how I and the rest of us would come back to it.
I was raised to think that extravagant gestures meant love. When my older daughter was just nine months old, we were waiting for the results of a medical test (which would eventually turn out to be fine), and, expecting the results the next day, I drove with my daughter to my mother’s house, two hours south. But just as I had driven away, the doctor called with the news and C called my mother to tell her. (Like all stories of the past, this would have ended differently if we’d had cell phones.) This phone call was, for some reason, not enough for C and so, deciding he wanted to be the first person to tell me the news, he jumped into his car, barefoot, and drove eighty miles an hour down the Taconic, so that he was waiting at my mother’s house when I got there. My mother was dazzlingly impressed, which was no surprise. I will never forget this, she said. I suppose she never has.
Dramatic love was the only kind of love, according to my mother, and when, for example, my stepfather drunkenly punched a hole into our bathroom wall, she put a nice framed picture over it. Problem solved. My stepfather loved my mother so much that he often became furious with her in public, so certain that she was flirting with every man in sight. This wasn’t exactly incorrect though. They were quite a pair.
Back when C and I were not yet married, I told a friend of mine about a fight in which C had torn a twenty-dollar bill in half. It was a fight about money, I added, helpfully.
My friend looked at me for a minute. Then he smiled carefully and said, “You really have a passionate relationship, huh?” I smiled back, thinking this was a compliment.
The time that C slammed our back door so hard that the glass shattered became a story about how he, wonderfully, returned an hour later with some new glass and carefully replaced what he’d broken. Sure, he had a bad temper, but he could fix things so well! I was careful not to mention the other doors and objects that he had broken in anger over the years. One was enough for a story.
At a diner one afternoon toward the end of my marriage, my friend Erin looked across the table from me and said, “You do know that not all men yell at women, right?”
I nodded yes, as it was at the same time slowly dawning on me that I actually did not know this, that I had taken it as truth my entire life.
When things were good, and I pictured C, I imagined myself running toward him, which to me proved that this was the love I had been meant for. He would protect me from anyone, except, of course, when I needed it most, from him.
And now, four years into the very last relationship of my life, I wonder about how my boyfriend would react to someone calling out for help while he was washing the dishes, and I realize that I have never even considered this because emergencies are no longer in the forefront of my mind. I don’t picture the dishes, the soapy floor, any of it. There is no longer any drama, any extravagant gestures.
In fact, the story I might tell of him involves the early days of our relationship when, on a weekday morning, we’d sit side by side in the living room, with ambient music on in the background, holding hands and taking sips from our coffee, and simply the perfect stillness and calm I felt during those early mornings, which has become the symbol for how I pretty much always feel with him. No one is racing off to start some impossible new project that will never get finished or to demonstrate undying love as a kind of fury. Instead, the dishes will get done, we’ll dry our hands off, and then we’ll most likely get into bed together and read.
This kind of love is no less fierce, but where it once was like being smack in the middle of a storm, now it is like watching a storm from the safety of your porch, all that beautiful swirling energy, as thrilling as ever, but bringing with it only the feeling of comfort, never harm.
Here’s something funny: Back when I was a kid, Porter Wagoner was one of biggest stars in country music. Hell, he was one of the biggest stars in American entertainment. Wagoner had his own TV show from 1960 to 1981. It became even more popular when he added the then unknown Dolly Parton as his duet partner.
If you don’t remember Wagoner right off, look up a picture of him on the internet. He was known for wearing Nudie suits, garish looking things with rhinestones and flashy colors. The suits were made by Nudie Cohn, a Ukrainian-born Jew who landed in Los Angeles and somehow became the tailor to country and western stars and others until his death in the 1980s. Wagoner was a big customer, but so was Elvis, Elton John, John Lennon, and even Ronald Reagan. While that is odd, that’s not the funny part.
Back in 1973, Wagoner released a self-penned tune call “George Leroy Chickasha.” It wasn’t one of his biggest hits, but it charted. The song was about a mixed-race man who was so anguished by his identify that within two minutes and forty-three seconds (the song’s running time) the title character is dead. “I have no race or creed, I pray to die,” Wagoner sings for his protagonist. The message is clear: a mixed-blood life is not worth living.
I teach at a mid-sized state university in rural Pennsylvania. Sometimes one of my departmental colleagues goes on about the woes of our students and the barriers to their success. Often I reply, “Tell them to suck it up. They got nothing. I was born a half-breed bastard in a coal-town orphanage.” I’m only half kidding.
It’s true. I’m the product of an affair between a married woman, who was the granddaughter of a Pennsylvania German farmer, and a Baltimore black man. Or that’s the best I can figure. All I have to go on are lore, half-truths, lies, and best guesses. I know that a woman named Charleen gave birth to me in March 1960 at a Catholic maternity hospital and orphanage in Dunmore, a northeastern Pennsylvania coal town next to Scranton.
Charleen signed papers that gave up her parental rights. Someone signed papers as the father, giving up his parental rights. I don’t believe that man was my biological father. I can almost state that as fact, but I have no evidence. I do have lore. Rose, the woman who adopted me, told me once that one of Charleen’s brothers signed those papers. All this must have been done with a wink and a nod on the part of the Church. Surely no one believed that farce, that an infant with obvious African ancestry was the natural child of two white people.
Some months later—five I’ve been told—Rose adopted me. Rose is the elder sister of Charleen. Rose and her husband Bill married at the end of the war. Rose had several miscarriages but still longed for a child. Five months. I’m not sure why there was a wait. I am even less sure why Rose thought adopting her sister’s half-breed baby was a good move. I was a constant reminder of something that should not have happened. Charleen remained married to her husband for several more years, despite the affair, despite me. In fact, they had a child, their first and only son together, less than a year after I was born. As we grew up, he and I grew as close as brothers.
Rose and Charleen were part of a large extended family. Their mother, Wilhelmina, had three sons and three daughters, one of each to three different husbands. Wilhelmina was the anchor of the family. She was married at least four times, the last time past child-bearing age to a man who helped raise her youngest daughter. The rumor I heard that she was married briefly one other time, as a teen girl, and had a stillborn child. As a consequence of all these husbands, there were lots of halves in Wilhelmina’s family: half-brothers and half-sisters. I was the only half-breed.
Here’s another funny thing: It was not until 1967, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Virginia v. Loving, that Maryland repealed its anti-miscegenation laws, first enacted in 1692. For nearly three hundred years the law of the land was no race mixing. I am the product of an illegal act.
To his credit, Charleen’s husband treated me well. He always acted like a friendly uncle despite my sordid history that was unknown to me at the time, but certainly not unknown to him. I can’t imagine those holiday dinners where young Chuck, Charleen’s other son, and I would play amidst the other cousins, listen to older kids’ 45 records, run up and down the hallways even though we were told not to, and generally act like the wild boys we were. What the hell was on Charleen’s mind then? Or Rose’s? Who thought it was a good idea to bring me into the fold? Of course, I was not completely in it. I always also told I was adopted, but not the whole circumstance, not until much later. I grew up thinking my half-brother and sisters were my adoptive cousins, that I had no blood kin within that family.
This even I find funny: Everybody wants me, at least everybody of a certain type. This semester I have three Dominican girls in a first-year seminar. They insist that I am Dominican. I joke with them in busted-up Spanish, handing back a graded essay, shaking my head and saying muy mal. Once I wore a sports coat and ball cap during a fall day. These girls spotted me walking across the quad and later in class said this outfit proved I was Dominican because that’s how all the election officials in the DR dress. When I dress in all black with a white t-shirt showing at my throat, I joke with them that once I was to be a priest, a Dominican priest. Their eyes light up like I am letting them in on a secret that the “American” kids don’t understand.
I lived on the South Shore of Massachusetts for several years in the 1980s and 90s. There’s a large Cape Verdean population in the region, brought in decades before, to work the whaling boats and later the cranberry bogs. On some Saturday mornings I would rise early and go the Laundromat at Scituate Harbor. Someone would always start speaking Portuguese to me.
Once, only a week or two after I moved there, a woman speaking in a mix of Portuguese and English came over to me, cursing me out for my actions at a party the previous evening, threatening to slap me. I was so perplexed, I could not muster a reply. She grew frustrated with me and stomped out the glass front doors and into the foggy morning. I had never seen the woman before that moment and had spent the previous evening alone in a rented beach house watching TV. I was stationed at a nearby Navy base and, because I’d only recently moved there, I knew not a single soul in the town. Best I could figure, my doppelgänger had caused some damage at a house party the night before. A few years later, after I left the Navy, I was a newspaper reporter in the same area, often covering crime stories. Cops are often hardnosed, but even Louie Lopes, a serious-minded police captain of Cape Verdean descent, joked that he could be my father.
A woman of Middle Eastern descent, a psychologist at the college I taught at just after graduate school, insisted that I was of North African ancestry. A devout and modest Muslim woman, she talked to me about Islam and got me to order materials from the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., not so much to convert me, but for me to learn about my heritage. A Spanish professor at the university where I now teach once told one of my English department colleagues how proud she was of me, how I had learned English so well that I had become a professor of English. Again, it was another Dominican claim.
I have passed this legacy of ethnic ambiguity on to my own children. My son, now in his early twenties, tells me white kids are often unsure, but black kids always know that he is partially black. My daughter, a college student in Pittsburgh, told me of how after a long interview for a campus job her middle-aged white male interviewer said he had only one more question: “What nationality are you?” She didn’t think that was funny.
Rose followed in her mother’s footsteps, but only partially. She had only two divorces. She and Bill split after I finished first grade. Later she married a man named Ronald, and part-way through fourth grade, we moved to southwest Florida. We moved just before Christmas, which I always thought of as odd timing. Rose got the timing of the year a bit better. It was only that fall that the Lee County Public Schools desegregated. We obviously lived in a white neighborhood. Black kids were bused north across the Caloosahatchee River from the Dunbar neighborhood of Fort Myers proper to suburban Tropic Isles Elementary School nestled in between planned developments and a shopping district off Pondella Road. Of course, not everything was desegregated. The local barber refused to cut my hair. I was nine. It didn’t matter to him. “I ain’t never cut no colored’s hair and I ain’t fixing to start,” he said. His shop was within sight of my elementary school.
Bill is the man I have always considered my father, despite losing him after divorce. I lost him because those days were different. Both Bill and Rose remarried others soon after the divorce. Bill and I were close. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the two of us riding in his truck on Saturday mornings, heading into the small town of Danville to make the rounds. We lived a few miles outside of town in a small house built on a corner of my great-grandfather’s farmstead. Bill and I would go to Jack Leighhow’s barbershop where one or both of us would get a haircut while Jack talked about his luck at the horse track that week and smoked an ever-present cigar. We would also stop at the Washies, which is what everyone called the Washington Volunteer Fire Company. A peculiar Pennsylvania institution, many small towns have several volunteer fire companies that have full bars and short-order grills, social halls that are rented out for wedding receptions and illegal gambling in the form of punch boards and poker machines. Dad would often stop in the Washies, and sometimes the East End Fire Company, to drink a quick draft with guys he knew. I liked stopping at these places because someone would always buy me a soda and a bag of chips. Sometimes I would get a quarter and go shoot pool by myself. I developed into a decent pool player at a young age.
After they separated, Bill took me for a ride one Saturday morning. He had already introduced me to his new girlfriend and her daughter. He said he was going move in with them in a big brick house in Danville and that he wanted me to live with him and them. In the end, I chose to live with my mother. And even if I had wanted to live with Bill, he probably would not have gained custody given the customs of the day. It would have been rare for a father to have been given custody of a child except under the most extraordinary of circumstances.
For a while after he moved to Danville, Bill would come get me every few weeks on a Saturday, but I was now living in Sunbury with my mother and we no longer made the rounds. Sometimes I would sleep over in the new house he and his new wife built outside of town. Those get-togethers became less frequent and then halted altogether after we moved to Florida. In those days, working-class people didn’t make long distance phone calls. Raised during the Depression, people of my parents’ generation considered long distance prohibitively expensive. Bill also never wrote me a letter during the years I lived in Florida. Rose said he didn’t write that well, since he never graduated high school in order to join the army during the war. I saw Bill a few times when we would travel back to Pennsylvania during summer vacation, but as I approached my teenage years, those visits stopped. When Rose and I returned to Pennsylvania after her second divorce when I was sixteen, I never bothered to contact Bill. He never bothered to contact me either, though surely he heard though the grapevine that I had returned. He came to my high school graduation and gave me a card and a check for fifty bucks, which was a decent amount for the time. We only talked for a minute or so. I was eager to go out and celebrate with friends. After, I thought that I should have talked longer. Or promised to call him and set up a time to visit, and followed through. I didn’t.
Within a year after I had gotten my current teaching job at a university only five miles from my childhood home, I read Bill’s obituary in the local paper. I was listed with my given name (Arthur) and it stated I was living in Massachusetts, which I hadn’t been for nearly four years.
I went unannounced to his funeral at the Wesleyan church a few blocks from the university. His second wife greeted me warmly and insisted I stand beside her in the family line to greet the funeral goers. She sometimes, though not always, introduced me as Bill’s adopted son. She told me how fond Bill was of his grandson, his stepdaughter’s child. I thought of how close Bill and I had been and how that was lost. Bill never met my two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom I love dearly. My son was the age I was when Bill and Rose divorced, my daughter a few years younger. I sat with the family during the service. The wife invited me to accompany them in the funeral car to the gravesite burial and then the reception after. I declined and went home to my children.
Leona Jones was Rose’s closest friend since they were girls. Leona lived up the hill from our house out in Cooper Township in Montour County, the smallest county in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Leona and her husband, Don, were my godparents. I often stayed over at their house on Saturday nights and went to church with them and their teenage daughter, Donna Rose—named after her father and my mother.
I loved going to the Jones’s house on Saturday. In the warmer months we would go to May’s, a local drive-in, for pizza. Afterward we would head about a quarter-mile down the road to the Hi Ho. The Hi Ho stayed in business until only a few years ago. Though another drive-in, the Hi Ho was known for its specialty, the Hi Ho itself, a sort of thick shake with bits of chopped ice disbursed throughout. It was perfect for a hot, muggy summer evening in river valley towns in a time when most folks did not have air conditioning.
Sometimes we didn’t go out to eat, but we went to the Selinsgrove Speedway. The dirt track oval featured midget racers and stock cars, and French fries. They had great fresh-cut fries served in a paper cone and sprinkled with vinegar.
The restrooms at the race track were in concrete buildings under the grandstands. The restroom attendants were older black men. They were likely the first black people I ever saw in person. Perhaps I had seen some black people on television, but given the times, that isn’t a certainty. There was something I recognized in them. When I would go to the restroom, these men would give me a silent nod, acknowledging our connection. Though I could not have articulated my feelings at the time, the exchange made me feel uncomfortable. Just from observing the people around me, my family and others, I knew that “coloreds” were not like us and somehow inferior.
Here are two other funny things: 1) Don had a couple of hunting dogs he kept in a pen at the back of his property and Leona had a couple of cats. Her name for one of the cats, the all-black one, was “Niggy,” her variant of nigger. 2) Once, when Bill and I were outside playing catch, he caught me picking my nose. He said, “You’re just like Abraham Lincoln, freeing the boogies.”
At the time, these things made me feel odd, unsettled. It’s obvious that they bothered me to remain clear memories all these years later. How could two people who loved me, whose job it was to protect me from the abuses of the world, use such slurs in front of me?
Sometimes black people claim me. That would seem obvious, given the variety of skin tones and body shapes within the African-American community. However, it is not obvious. I have few markers of black culture. I have never lived amongst black people and have had only a handful of black friends throughout my life. It took me years to learn to give the silent, almost imperceptible nod to a black person gives to another when passing on the street in a predominantly white area.
Here are two other funny things: 1) Rose once told me a story about how some of her friends in high school tried to get her to go out with the only black boy in the school. She told me she refused because she did not feel that dating a “colored guy” was right. 2) Rose used the term “colored” up until she died in 1993. This was even after we finally had a difficult talk when I was twenty. She acknowledged that Charleen had given birth to me, though this was something I had already known for years, and that a man who sounded like a “colored guy” had called on the phone for her a few times after Charleen returned from Baltimore pregnant. The talk was precipitated by me coming home half drunk and pissed off because someone in the bar I was in made racist comments about me. I’m not certain how we got on the topic—probably Rose was upset about my drinking, which was often frequent and heavy back then. When I told her what the guy said, Rose said I must be “awfully sensitive.”
Because I knew being black was bad, I used to avoid listening to black music and had a fevered hate of disco during its heyday. I liked Dylan, Neil Young, and, most of all, Bruce Springsteen, the hero of working-class white boys who, when they had fathers, did not get along with them, and who longed to move from their small towns to a place where they could make a better life. Although Springsteen often included black people in his band, especially his longtime sax player Clarence Clemons, his audience was, and remains, primarily white. Like disco, I ignored Motown and soul music, and traditional songs. When I got invited to a few mainly black gatherings as a new college professor, I faked my way through “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written by brothers James Weldon Johnson (words) and James Rosamond Johnson (music), a song that is a staple in black churches and was once known as the “Negro National Anthem.” I had no clue.
Still there were times when black people claimed me, like during a ninth grade driver’s education class in Florida. On days when the driving instructor took a trio of students out for longer road drives, the remainder of the students had to sit in the cafeteria. I usually sat by myself, close to no one else, and read. One day, the only black kid in the class came over. I’d known him since middle school. We’d never talked before except for one other time outside of school. My Boy Scout troop, sponsored by a Catholic church, volunteered to hand out school clothes to needy families at a St. Vincent DePaul Society building over near Dunbar, the black neighborhood. I was going into ninth grade then and this same kid came through the line. He asked me if I got free clothes for helping. I probably mumbled something about the Scouts, even though I was in uniform.
In the high school cafeteria, he came over and asked about my test score for the written portion of the class. We talked for a while, and he returned each day to sit with me the rest of the term. I don’t remember what we talked about. I must have been a puzzlement for him. I lived in the wrong part of town, had only white friends in all my other classes, and even came from the North. Virtually all the black kids at that high school were native Floridians. After the term ended, I don’t remember ever talking with that kid again.
Years later, when I had my first abortive attempt at college, I made friends with an outgoing guy who had lived in Harlem all his life. The school was small, and most people knew everyone else. Derrick was particularly outgoing, but he and I struck up a genuine friendship. I am sure I was a puzzlement to Derrick as well. He knew I was from a small town in Pennsylvania, and probably assigned some of what he perceived as my quirkiness—such as my profound fondness of Springsteen and my lack of knowledge of Afro Sheen—to that. “You’re a funny nigger,” he once said to me while we were hanging out. Later I invited him to come to my hometown for the weekend. He did. He met Rose. He met some of my other relatives and a few of my hometown friends. While he was there, he never saw one other black person, and virtually everyone he met told him a story about the one other time they had met a black person. Derrick never called me a funny nigger again.
Here’s something funny that’s not really funny at all. George Banks killed his children. I’ll tell you about George Banks in a moment, but first let me tell you this. After two years of college, I dropped out. I came back to small-town Pennsylvania and floundered. After a few months, I landed a job up near Wilkes-Barre, perhaps a bit over an hour’s drive from Sunbury. Not wanting to commute, and more to break the bad habit of hitting the bars every night in Sunbury, I looked for a small apartment or room to rent. Time after time I would go check out a place only to find it had just been rented, or that the owner would let me know later, only I never got that call. This kid Gary, a coal region kid with long hair and a penchant for death metal bands, also worked in the office that I did. He clued me in. He asked for three or four numbers I had recently called and been told the place was rented. He called. Each one was available.
A couple of years ago I ran into Tony, a guy I knew from a few years earlier when I used to attend church in a different town. Tony runs a bed and breakfast out in Vicksburg, a post-stamp sized town in central Pennsylvania. Big into social justice, Tony related a conversation he had with man when he was on a business trip in Wilkes-Barre. Tony remarked to the man that for its size, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area had an exceedingly small black population. “We didn’t need niggers,” the man said. “We had Polacks.”
I kept the job in the Wilkes-Barre area for a while, but grew tired of it. Not wanting return to Sunbury full time, and not knowing what else to do, one day I walked into the Navy recruiter’s office and asked, “How soon can I leave?” About a month later I was gone.
That fall in Wilkes Barre, on September 25, 1982, George Emil Banks killed thirteen people including seven children, four past and present girlfriends, and two other adults. Now George Banks was and is as crazy as anyone can be and what he did was horrific.
Banks’ father was black and his mother was white. He was a mixed-race person, a half-breed. At the trial, the defense argued that the constant racism Banks faced throughout his life in Wilkes-Barre as a mixed-race boy and then as a man drove him insane. Banks, the defense said, wanted to spare his own children, ones he fathered with the girlfriends, from the painful experience of racism. In the end, Banks was convicted. Banks has sat in solitary for decades, judged too mentally deranged to be executed.
A few weeks ago I drove past Rockview, a large state prison near Bellefonte in the center of the state. I was picking my daughter up from college. As we drove along in the interstate, the low-slung prison buildings spread out in the pink-yellow light cast by dozens and dozens of streetlamps illuminating the complex. I thought about George Banks sitting in his cell on a lonely, late winter night. I thought about how perhaps racism could drive a person crazy, make him do the unthinkable. I could almost understand. There is nothing funny about that.
JERRY WEMPLE is the author of three poetry collections: You Can See It from Here, which won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, The Civil War in Baltimore, and The Artemas Poems. He is co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. His poems and journals appear in numerous journals and anthologies. He teaches at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
I wish I could count on both hands the number of times Annabelle had gone missing, the number of times I’d found myself standing in the middle of a street or a stranger’s yard or a cemetery yelling her name, sometimes with a hint of irritation, sometimes with raw desperation. But I can’t. It happened too often.
She was my first dog and, as is true with so many firsts, I measured all dogs that came after against her, believing that all dogs possessed this mischievous streak, that all dogs were whip-smart, devising ways to test the limits of their person’s love as they chased squirrels and cats and bunnies and the occasional opossum. Some years later now, I know that this isn’t so, that Annabelle was something special, that she was an old soul, wise beyond her years, able to love and know me in a way I’m not sure I’ll ever experience again. Annabelle was not a people-pleaser, though she loved affection and was particularly sensitive to my moods. The one or two times I made the mistake of crying in front of her, I stopped when I realized she was scared to death and shaking. She didn’t like being hugged, but she was just so huggable. When I’d get down on my knees and put my arms around her and squeeze, she was the perfect size. When Steve met us and saw the way I hugged her, he always said she looked put out. But I couldn’t help myself. I just loved her so much.
To be put out by another’s love: to acquiesce to the affection of the ones who cared for and cherished you. This, I think, is what Steve meant when he said Annabelle always looked put out when anyone tried to hug her. I did most of the hugging, of course, and he’s the one who had the best view of the look on her face. After she died and we’d gotten to the point where we could laugh at the funny things she did when she was alive, Steve and I recalled the look on Annabelle’s face when she was put out, and he uttered the line that captured Annabelle better than any I could ever come up with. “Annabelle,” he said, “made acquiescence into an art form.”
Annabelle was a black lab mix, all black with some white speckles on her chest, her toes, and her nose. She had a white tip on her tail, as though she’d dunked it in a can of white paint in order to dash off a quick letter home. Steve and I had been dating for almost two years when I called him late one weeknight, frantic, because Belly had gotten loose and I’d called her and called her and she wasn’t coming back.
He hopped in his car and came over right away to help me search for her. As I walked along the sidewalk in the dark calling her name, I nearly brushed up against the hideous opossum that was surely the cause for her darting off when I went to bring her in for the night. The house I rented had a fenced-in yard, but there were stairs and a couple feet separating the back door from the fence gate. Lately I’d become lax with her and just opened the gate to let her walk back into the house. I’d begun trusting her to come to me because she’d shown me enough times in a row that I didn’t need to lead her by the collar. This opossum sat frozen on the top of the chain-link fence and I shivered and instinctively pulled away when I recognized what it was. Ugly little thing.
We were fifteen, Hillary and I, walking together to her boyfriend Gary’s house when we spotted the flowers. Hillary and I did a lot of walking together—our houses were six or seven blocks apart and, even as we got older, we had no access to our own transportation. So we walked or rode the bus. This time we walked from her house to Gary’s, though I cannot, all these years later, recall why we were going there together. Hillary’s attraction to Gary bordered on obsession, but then, that was typical for us. When we found somebody we liked, we went all in. In the days before email and texting, we wrote endless notes to our loves, even long after our loves were no longer interested, had broken up with us, had told us to please stop. Some might call what we did a mild form of stalking. We called it devotion. Dedication.
Belly had gotten loose in this neighborhood before, but it had always been daytime. And more often than not, as I’d gone out searching for her, she’d found her way home and would be waiting for me on the front porch as I made my way back around to the house. But this was different. It was 11:30 at night. It was dark. She was black. We lived a block away from a street with heavy traffic.
Steve arrived and I got in the passenger seat of his car. He drove very slowly around the streets of the neighborhood, both windows open, listening carefully for her bark—she was a vocal dog—in between calling her name. The neighborhood was made up of a number of one-way streets, so our route was somewhat restricted, but we regularly made our way back to my house to see if she was waiting for me on the front porch. After fifteen grueling minutes of this, I was losing my grip on what little hope I had that she’d be okay. She was a black dog. It was nighttime. Nobody would be able to see her. I was utterly dependent in that moment on chance, banking on nobody being out driving at the very spot Belly was running. I kept waiting to turn the corner to see a big black splat in the middle of the road. My Annabelle. My Bug. The love of my life.
The first object of my devotion was Gerry. I believe I ran over his mother’s foot while rushing to escape his dead-end street after spying in his basement window. I didn’t yet have my license. I’m pretty sure she was fine.
As we were walking to Gary’s house, we passed a family-owned restaurant. Flower boxes on the windows held colorful bouquets of plastic flowers. Why not bring some to Gary, we thought. We walked on over, picked some like we owned the place, and kept walking until we heard a woman yelling at us to get back here. Young ladies! Get back here! Those are not your flowers to take! Hillary and I looked at each other. We really had no choice. What were we going to do, run?
Heads down, we shuffle back to the restaurant, which we now see is only the front of what is actually a very large home. The woman calls us up to her porch and tells us to stand and wait while she calls the police. We’re not going to just get away with this, she tells us. We can’t just steal something that doesn’t belong to us and walk away. She goes inside the house to make the phone call and her children peek at us from behind the screen door. We are an example for them. What not to be.
What made us stand there? Why didn’t we run?
Steve continued to hold onto hope, reassuring me that she was going to be okay, that we’d find her safe, that she was just out on one of her adventures. “You know how she is,” he said. Perversely, the part of me that endlessly worried that I was never able to give Annabelle the amount of exercise she needed felt relief that when she did come home, she’d be good and tired.
As we were driving very slowly up one of the one-way streets, we realized that a police car was behind us. We pulled over so he could pass, but we signaled to him to roll down his window. “We’re looking for our dog. She’s black,” I called over to him.
“What’s her name?”
“I’ll keep an eye out for her,” he said, and he drove off slowly.
The police officer arrives and we’re whisked away. I recall his making some remark about the silliness of the whole thing, but that could just be me looking back. But let’s say he did say something like that. We took Hillary home first—her house was closer. I stayed in the car while he escorted her up the stairs to her older sister. Her mother wasn’t home. The officer came back, asked me where I lived, and drove me home. When we got to my house, I had to wake Ma from where she was sleeping on the couch, the tissues she’d stuffed between the cushions falling to the floor. Groggy. “What is it!”
“Um, Ma, there’s someone here,” I said, gesturing to the policeman, his presence dwarfing us both in the small dark living room with its wood paneling and its console TV that seemed never to be off.
He apologized politely for having woken her, told her why he’d brought me home, and promptly left. Ma didn’t blink an eye. She barely lifted her head from the couch. I called Hillary and we went back out.
Our search continued ever so slowly, up one street, down the next, calling and calling in between attempts to keep myself from completely falling apart. We drove by the house again. No Annabelle on the front porch. The streets were so quiet. My stomach felt so sick. Around the block again. Up and down the one-way streets. Back around to my street, in front of the house.
That’s when Steve heard it. The faintest sound of Belly’s bark. “Did you hear that?”
I froze. Turned my ear to my window. And that’s when we both saw Annabelle booking it down the street perpendicular to ours, slowing down just enough to take the sharp corner onto our street, and then speeding up again into my long driveway. Steve stepped on the gas. I jumped out of the car and ran up the driveway. She stood there near the back steps panting, tongue hanging down, body shaking, and I held her. I was so mad at her but I was so happy to see her that I just held her and hugged her and told her how much I loved her. Not two minutes later, the police car pulled up in front of the house, and Steve went out to talk to the officer. It turned out that the officer had seen Annabelle running the streets and, keeping his promise to us, rolled down his window and called her name. That was all it took to send her running home.
To put out is also to extinguish. What had extinguished Ma’s ability or willingness to rein me in, to set boundaries? Perhaps it was just the same old story: I was the last of five children. She was tired.
Or maybe she felt put out by the love and affection her children tried to show her until they finally gave up because something had extinguished it in her.
Or maybe it had something to do with the possibility that the last time she’d seen a police officer standing in her living room, he had been trying to comfort her because she had just learned of her husband’s death. Eleven years earlier, he had left her to finish raising all five of us by herself. She’d been put out in ways I still cannot imagine.
Or maybe all of this is nonsense. Maybe this is what we do as adults. We make gross and inexact comparisons between what our mothers did with us and what we did with our beloved dead dogs and we try to find a through line, a way to make sense of it all while making ourselves seem the more ethical party, the more mature actor. But in the end what we’re really doing is grasping so desperately and so terribly transparently at a way to understand how to make sense of the things we cannot bring home because we never lost them because we never owned them in the first place.
AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley Field, and one named Essay. They all love the Cubs.