Coming Home

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Hema Padhu

As I saw my mother walk out of the international terminal at the San Francisco Airport barely able to push the cart stuffed with two enormous suitcases, I hardly recognized her.

The mother of my childhood was a stout, severe-looking authoritarian. “Don’t just sit there wasting your time—do something!” was her favorite mantra. She played the role of a mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, and career woman with a sort of zeal that was impressive, intimidating, and almost always exhausting to watch.

Now my eyes rested on a short, drooping woman in her late sixties. Her shoulders curved in weighed down by some invisible burden. Her once long, dark hair, turned salt and pepper, was gathered in a small bun at her nape. White sneakers stuck out conspicuously, at odds with her festive silk saree and the bright red bindi on her forehead. She blinked nervously, scanning the crowd for my familiar face. When exactly did my mother, the invincible superhero of my childhood, shrink into this fragile, vulnerable person? The transformation felt both rapid and stealthy (hadn’t I seen her just a few years ago?). I was not only unprepared for it, I was suddenly aware of the role reversal and unsure of how to navigate this new shift in power.

I hurried towards her, trying to mask my surprise, and gave her a hug, breathing in the familiar smell of Ponds cold cream and coconut oil. I felt her papery lips kiss me on both cheeks and sensed in her touch both excitement and trepidation as if she couldn’t believe she had crossed the ocean to visit her daughter in America. The country I had chosen over my birthplace. The country I now called home and to which she had lost me almost fifteen years ago.

•••

When I left Madras for Chicago, I was twenty-five and too old to be living at home with my parents, but this was the early nineties and Brahmin girls like me left home either married (usually arranged) or dead. Neither option was particularly appealing to me. Luckily, I wriggled through a loophole that middle-class India, especially Tamil Brahmins, couldn’t resist: education. I headed to Northwestern University to get my master’s degree.

That day, our home was a tornado of activity, and my mother was at the eye of the storm with a single-minded goal—sending her oldest daughter safely to America. Dad reconfirmed my flight, and my brother was dispatched for the third time to check on the taxi’s arrival. My sister, with rising exasperation, was stuffing my suitcase with things my mother deemed necessary, if not critical, for my life abroad: rice, lentils, spices, pickles, a pressure cooker, and an Idli steamer. I, of course, had no say in the matter whatsoever. “When you land in Illinois”—my mother enunciated the s at the end with a hiss—“and want to make sambar, you’ll thank me.”

I was raised in a traditional “Tam Bram” (short for Tamil Brahmin) home, and my mother had decided that her primary duty was to equip her daughters with skills essential to fulfilling their life’s mission: finding a suitable husband and raising a family. This included learning to cook all the traditional South Indian dishes, studying classical Indian music and dance, and learning the bafflingly nuanced rites, rituals, and superstitions that came with an orthodox Tamil Brahmin way of life—touch your right elbow with your left hand while lighting an oil lamp, prostrate two or four times (not thrice!) at the feet of an elder, and my favorite, when you leave the house never shout, “I’m leaving,” say “I’ll be back.”

I watched my mother juggle the binding responsibilities that accompanied a woman born into an orthodox Brahmin family and a career in banking (unusual in those days) with only a high school diploma. She could have a career as long as she didn’t neglect the duties and obligations of a good Brahmin woman. This meant she was the first to rise, often as early as four a.m., and the last to retire. She kept up with all the rituals and traditions expected of her, tended to the needs of our five-member household while advancing her career and doggedly pursuing her various interests that ranged from learning Sanskrit to playing the violin. Like a bonsai tree, she found a way to grow within her established confines and she somehow made it all seem effortless. She had, without explicitly intending to, passed on her independent, ambitious spirit to me.

My mother careened between pride and despair as the days of my impending journey neared. Part of her was deeply dismayed about sending me to a country thousands of miles away, one she had only seen on TV. She worried that the conservative values she had so painstakingly instilled in me wouldn’t withstand the liberal assault of the West. Part of her was very proud and excited that I was making this westward journey—a first for our family and a woman, no less. She had dreamed of becoming a doctor but had to give up her education to care for her sister who had been incapacitated by polio. She married my father at the tender age of nineteen and had me at twenty-one. My siblings followed shortly thereafter. Her life was never carefree, and she wanted more for her daughters. She wanted us to live freely without societal expectations clinging to us like a petulant child.

I, on the other hand, was already in Chicago. In my mind, I had left the familiar landscape of my Indian life far behind to stroll the streets of Evanston, drive along Lake Shore Drive, and soak up campus life. After years of living under the iron fist of a highly competent but controlling mother, who had either directly managed my affairs or influenced my life decisions, I couldn’t wait to leave it all behind and start fresh in a new place. A place she couldn’t get to easily.

My mother responded to my excitement with an equal measure of fire and ice—one minute sending the household into a tizzy with her rapid-fire marching orders to prepare for my departure, and the next sulking in the prayer room with her books and prayer beads. When friends or neighbors threw a party for me, she would make excuses not to attend. I was annoyed by what I misjudged as petulance (she should be happy for me!). I failed to understand that my eagerness to get away from the home and family she had worked so tirelessly to create only substantiated the fact that I could leave. She couldn’t even if she wanted to.

Three weeks later, as I was navigating the aisles of the local grocery store in Evanston, I stood there, teary-eyed, unable to choose from among the numerous brands of neatly stacked shelves of tea. My mother would have picked out just the right type of black tea to make that perfect cup of chai. My sambar never tasted like hers, and my kitchen could never smell like hers—a seductive mix of sandalwood, turmeric, and curry leaves. I missed her strength, her confidence that everyone’s problem could be solved with a good home cooked meal, her remarkable faith in some universal power that would make things work out just fine for everyone, especially her children. I missed her rare and awkward display of affection (“you’re so thin, eat some more” or “don’t be out in the sun too much, you’ll get dark and then who’ll marry you?”) I even missed her marching orders.

•••

Fifteen years had passed since I left my hometown and a lot had changed in both our lives. My sister married and moved to Malaysia. My brother followed me to America. Suddenly, empty nesters, my parents were nearly strangers. Their marriage, a brittle shell they both chose not to shed. A marriage that was once bonded by children was now held together by familiarity and obligation.

My mother followed my life from afar, reading and hearing about it through snippets in e-mails and static-filled phone conversations: graduation, new jobs, new homes, new adventures in new cities with strange names. Each step forward in my American life seemed to drive a wider wedge between us. The more independent and confident I became, the less I relied on her. She had a life scripted for me: a successful Western life on the outside—respectable education, career advancements, and professional success—and a traditional Eastern life on the inside—a successful (preferably wealthy) Indian husband, a couple of adorable kids, a suburban home where I kept all the Tam Bram traditions alive. I couldn’t blame her—it was what she wanted for herself.

While I happily embraced the former, I resolutely rejected the latter. I married a kind artist who lived modestly after abandoning his career as a geologist to pursue his passion in filmmaking. Although a South Indian like me, his Tamil was terrible. He could barely sit crossed legged on the floor (a basic requirement for a Brahmin) let alone be well versed in all the Tam Bram traditions. Neither of us wanted to have children, which bitterly disappointed my mother. She was convinced that I was missing out on a defining life experience. I refused to blindly follow the Brahmin traditions, declaring myself spiritual and not religious. With every passing day, I was becoming more of a stranger to her. She struggled to understand my new life and the different set of values I was embracing. Yet secretly, I wanted her approval, wanted her to accept my choices, even as I defied her traditional wisdom.

When my husband and I separated amicably after seven years, I agonized for days about sharing this news with my mother. This was yet another first in our family and not a first to be proud of. I had to share this news across a transcontinental phone line, not an ideal medium for such a personal conversation. I mentally prepared myself for her reaction. How would I respond if she reproached me? What would I do if she hung up on me? What if she started to cry or scream at me? I had replayed all these scenarios over and over in my head and crafted “mature responses”—take the high road, I told myself—for each of these potential outcomes.

Finally, one morning I gathered the courage to call her. She listened patiently. After I finished, there was a long pause. Just when I thought that she had hung up on me she asked, “What took you so long?”

It was the one scenario I wasn’t prepared for. Surprised, I blubbered incoherently and she said simply, “I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to spend a minute longer in a life where you are not happy.”

She refused to let me dither about in self-doubt and pessimism and with her trademark unflappable spirit she reached across the ten-thousand-mile divide—I could almost feel her hand on the small of my back—to guide me gently yet firmly towards a brighter future that she was certain was waiting for me. She was in my corner after all. In fact, she had never left.

Over the next few years, our bond, which had floundered due to distance and years of separation, strengthened. I found myself sharing fragments of my life I had never dared to share with her: my fears and anxieties, my stumbling dating life, my travel adventures and misadventures, my hopes of rebuilding my life after my divorce. In the beginning, she mostly listened, but slowly she started to open up. About her own dreams, disappointments, failures, and joys.

I felt privileged. Singled out from my siblings. Her confidante. I remembered a time, not too long ago, when we couldn’t have a conversation without either one of us bursting into tears or storming out of the room. We argued incessantly about everything from hairstyles to grades to boys. After years of mother-daughter strife, we found ourselves embracing our strengths and vulnerabilities, instead of being repelled by them. We were connecting as adults, as women from different generations trying to find our own place in this world.

Now she was finally here. I would have her all to myself for three whole weeks. Our past stood between us both binding and dividing us. My life here continued to puzzle her and I was just beginning to piece together hers. Somehow we managed to establish a connection between our divergent worlds and we found ourselves clinging to it. Each day provided an opportunity to strengthen that fragile bond. As I walked her to my car, my arm around her thin shoulders, I felt that same anticipation that I felt years ago when I left her home. Only this time, I couldn’t wait to bring her into to mine.

•••

HEMA PADHU is a writer, professor, and marketer. Her writing has been published by Litro Magazine and American Literary Review. She lives in San Francisco and is working on a short story collection.

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I Don’t Know if These Are Metaphors

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Catherine Newman

The New York Times chastises me in a headline: “You are making your biscuits wrong.”

Seriously? There’s not enough I’m dealing with, what with everyone’s feelings about the compost bucket and the college-savings situation and the typo in my reading-series poster at work that has an event falling on the equivocal “Tursday”—I have to be scolded by a recipe?

And in the body of a different Times story: “A frittata ought not be considered a vehicle for random bits of leftovers.” Oh, ought it not? Not even last night’s home fries? Fuck you.

I have this written down as a note to myself, these two lines from the food section of the paper, and when my fourteen-year-old daughter Birdy asks me about them, I laugh and say, “They’re so judgmental. It makes me angry!”

And she says gently, confused, “Like a metaphor?”

And I say, truthfully, “I really don’t know.”

•••

In our town library’s online system, when you click the box to push back your book’s due date, a panicky little warning screen pops up: “Are you sure you wish to renew the selected item(s)?” Um, thank you for the abundance of caution, but yes. I am. On the off-chance that the continued borrowing of a book suddenly fills me with sorrow and regret, I will go ahead and return it early. Where’s that screen when you really need it, though?

“Are you sure you wish to have a third beer(s)?”

“Are you sure you wish to pick a fight with your husband because he sighed irritably while lighting the dinner-table candle(s)?”

“Are you sure you wish to pop your pimple(s) with a dirty safety pin?”

•••

Over an enchilada casserole, our seventeen-year-old Ben says, “Remember when we watched that one pregnant pig watch that other pig who was already in labor? How the pig in labor was just, like, shuddering and screaming, and the pregnant pig was just so tragically bug-eyed and afraid? So, yeah. It’s like that. ” He is describing junior year of high school.

•••

Birdy is suddenly furious about a song from Doctor Doolittle. “I’m sorry, but everyone can talk to the animals. That’s really just not that special.” A little later, she says, more curious than peeved, “Everyone’s always so sad when their goldfish dies, but it’s not like anyone’s actually happy they’re alive in the first place.”

•••

In the basement, I spray the terrible armpits of my dirty laundry with stain-remover. It foams on contact with sweat, and all of my shirts bloom into a yeasty froth like there’s anxiety embedded in the fabric, bubbling up to the surface. The spray claims to be “oxygen-based.” What does that mean? It’s made of air?

I remember once when I was pregnant and Michael was using something toxic-smelling to strip furniture inside the house. “What even is ‘denatured alcohol’?” I’d asked, and he’d said, cheerful, “I think it’s just alcohol with the nature taken out!” This was not, in fact true, hence the urgent FUMES! MAYHEM! warning I subsequently read out loud from the can.

•••

Ben muses sleepily, a propos nothing, “Being a sunscreen vendor at a nude beach. Now that’s a busy job!”

•••

My dermatologist, who is not famous for seeming human, gestures at my body to his nurse, who’s taking notes. “Moderate sun damage on the upper chest,” he says to her, and then to me, “That’s from not wearing sunscreen.”

“Ugh,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

And he says, “Oh, don’t be. I don’t care.”

I laugh. “I don’t think not caring is what you want to project. I mean, I’m sure you care.”

And he says, unsmiling, “I really actually don’t.” I raise my eyebrows and wink at the nurse, and she laughs.

•••

In my dream, I’m on the toilet, toilet paper wound anticipatorily around my fist, when I suddenly notice the spectacular sunset, the sky graduating from navy to flame. “Check out the view,” I say, embarrassed, to the crowd of people that’s approaching. As it turns out, I’m taking a dump on an exposed mountaintop.

•••

I go to the dentist with a toothache and he makes me bite on the bitey stick to determine definitively which tooth needs a root canal. It is very Little Shop of Horrors. Bite, bite, bite, PAIN—like a Jack-in-the-box, but one that jumps out and smashes an electrocuting mallet into your jaw. “Can we just, kind of, guess at it?” I say, and the dentist says, “Bite down hard.”

•••

“Oh my god!” the queer Birdy says, waving a catalogue at me. “Finally! There’s a butch American Girl doll!” Then, a minute later, peering at it deflatedly, “False alarm. I think it’s supposed to be an actual boy.”

•••

Someone emails to see if I want to go Bollywood dancing with a big group of women. I really do! I squint and squint at the names of the other people included in the invitation, at the name of the person who sent the email. I wrack my brain. I Google the name of the proposed venue. “I’m sorry,” I write. “I don’t think we know each other. And also, I think you live in Oregon!”

“Wrong person,” she writes back.

•••

Ben, eating grapes, observes, “Eating grapes is just a crazy exercise in relativity. At first you’re picking out the big firm ones. You’d never eat those wrinkly, soft ones! Then you eat the soft ones, but you’d never eat the squashed ones! And then you eat the squashed ones but just not the one squashed one that’s fully moldy. Your past perfect-grape-eating self would never believe how low you’ve sunk.”

•••

Ben asks which two animals I’d pick to accompany me if I were the sole human survivor of a zombie apocalypse. When I say, “A horse, I guess, and a cat,” he laughs and shakes his head pityingly. “I don’t think you’re very familiar with zombie apocalypses.”

•••

I say, “Okay,” after my gynecologist asks how I am, and she frowns, stands up, wraps her arms around me.

“Just okay?” A minute later she says, from beneath my left breast, “Hello! Who’s this little dangly little friend?” It’s a skin tag. “Lose or keep?” she asks, then snips it off when I answer.

“I hadn’t realized this appointment was going to be the best part of my day,” I say truthfully.

•••

The kids explain to me what a Skittles party is: prescription pills mixed up in a bowl, and you dip in, swallow whatever. “We should have a homeopathic Skittles party!” Ben says. “Probiotics, fish oil, Rescue Remedy. Everyone can just placebo themselves into a frenzy.”

•••

“Pew!” we cry, then lean in to inhale more deeply when the cats yawn their stinking yawns.

•••

While I’m putting dinner on the table, my family offers an impromptu but detailed critique of the leftover noodle kugel I’m serving. They’re very cheerful and enthusiastic about it. Michael doesn’t like the cottage cheese! Birdy, much to her own surprise, turns out to dislike pineapple in this context, even though she usually loves it! Ben’s just not a real fan of the eggy texture! They wait politely for me to finish serving them before they eat. I am wearing an actual apron. “Bon appetit, motherfuckers,” I say, and they laugh, dig in.

•••

In my dream, my dead friend Ali is alive after all and calls me from hospice. “You haven’t visited me in ages!” she says, and I say, “Oh my god! I’m so sorry. I thought you were actually… uh. … not receiving visitors.” Her husband dreams that he’s sneaking a cigarette in the backyard and she is suddenly standing in the doorway. “Oh!” he says, hiding the cigarette behind his back. “I didn’t expect to see you!”

“Can we just dream that she’s alive and it’s good?” I ask him, and he says, “I don’t think so.”

•••

Ben, who shares my car, has put gas in the tank. It’s like a valentine. When I see the needle point to “full,” I burst into grateful tears. “You filled my tank!” I cry, when I see him, and he smiles and says simply, “I did.”

•••

CATHERINE NEWMAN  is the author of the recently published kids’ books One Mixed-Up Night (a middle-grade novel) and Stitch Camp (a teen craft book she co-wrote with her friend Nicole), as well as the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family.

Read more FGP essays by Catherine Newman.

Crosswords

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Melissa Ballard

Remember that time you went to a therapist because you were having vivid, disturbing dreams you were convinced were part of a past life, but you ended up talking about shopping with your mom for your prom dress in 1970?

On the rack of springy pastels, you found the perfect dress: empire waist with puffed sleeves, the white top covered with white daisies, the rest a soft brown. You and your mom stood in that tiny dress shop on Lorain Road, where the owner remained in the back pretending she couldn’t hear anything, and your mom said, in her outside voice, “Why do you always have to be such a Plain Jane? What will people think if you wear a brown dress to prom?” You hated when your mom used your middle name, Jane, to make fun of you, and you cared a lot what about what people thought, though you’d never admit it. But brown was your favorite color, the dress fit you perfectly, you refused to try on anything else, and, finally, your mom gave in.

Remember that time you wrote an essay about your grandparents, and you asked your mom for stories? And she told you that she bought a beautiful black and white two-piece dress for her at-home wedding, but your grandmother had a fit and said, “No daughter of mine is wearing a black dress to her own wedding. Take it back.” And your mom did. She bought a cream-colored dress. When she told you this story, you said, “Did you like the second dress?” She thought for a minute before saying, “It was okay.”

Remember that time you and your husband were eating dinner out after spending time at your mom’s house? In between bites of blackened salmon and roasted vegetables you were gulping your wine and recounting the hurtful things she’d said to you, and your husband said, “She’s competing with you,” and you said, “That’s ridiculous. We’re nothing alike. There’s nothing to compete about.” And you ordered a second glass of wine.

Remember the time the women in your extended family got together, and you and your mom stayed in a hotel suite together? And every morning while you took a shower, your mom started to do the crossword puzzle in USA Today. While you were making your coffee, she read clues out loud to you. “What’s a three letter word for ‘Yale student’?” she asked, and you answered “Eli,” not telling her you only knew that because you watched Gilmore Girls. When she asked for longer words, you said, “I have to see it, Mom.” Then she gave you the puzzle, and you tried to finish it as fast as you could, between sips of coffee, so you could plunk the completed crossword down on the counter like it was no big deal, because words were your thing, not hers.

Remember when your daughter said her two-month-old was “verbalizing,” and you corrected her and said “vocalizing,” because you’d studied language development in college for five years and it still comes back to you sometimes? She has jokingly mentioned this since, and that makes you think of all the times you said the wrong thing to her, or used the wrong tone of voice, or said something when you shouldn’t have, or didn’t say something when you should have. And you hope you haven’t irrevocably damaged the delicate ecosystem of your mother-daughter relationship.

Remember when you finally realized your mom said nice things about you, just not to your face?

Remember when you and your husband were cleaning out your mom’s condo, after she died? You were sorting everything into piles: “donate,” “trash,” “take home to sort through later.” And, at the bottom of an antique trunk filled with drawings your daughter, an artist, had made, you found a zippered portfolio case, which you assumed contained more drawings, but when you opened it, you found a copy of everything you’d ever written, including the terrible poem in your high school literary magazine and letters to the editor? You started to have trouble breathing, so you looked away from those pages you were holding, and all around you at the boxes, and piles, and trash bags.

You had so much left to do, and you hoped you wouldn’t forget anything.

•••

MELISSA BALLARD has written essays for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things, Under the Sun, and other publications. She writes far too slowly to even consider regular blogging, but you can read her work here: https://melissaballardsite.wordpress.com/

Read more FGP essays by Melissa Ballard.

Schrodinger’s Sister

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Stewart Sinclair

My oldest sister’s birthday passed in the beginning of June. I didn’t call her. I was afraid to. Instead, I sent her a direct message on Facebook: a compromise—I told myself—between an impersonal public wall post and actual conversation. I told her Happy Birthday. I told her I love you. I didn’t say anything else. It was almost midnight, and my message just barely went through in time for me to be able to say that I hadn’t forgotten or ignored her. It was also (conveniently) late enough that when she replied I could ignore her response, which came through about twenty minutes later. I made sure not to go back on Facebook for the rest of the night to keep up the appearance that I had just fallen asleep.

But I didn’t sleep for a long while. I stayed up thinking about her message, and the last time we spoke, when I had promised to send her grocery money—a promise I ended up going back on when I realized that I didn’t know what she would do with the money. It was one of several times when I hadn’t kept that kind of promise. I once told her I wanted to buy a painting from her, and gave her some idea of what I was looking for. She tried to offer me one of her other paintings that she had already finished. I never answered. I didn’t have the guts to tell her that as much as I loved her paintings, I was really trying to pay her to make something new. In other words, to pick up a paint brush, charcoal, pastels, RoseArt crayons, anything that would make her put down the needle. I’d give her my entire paycheck if I knew it would accomplish that.

Eventually, I fell asleep, but I didn’t sleep well. I knew that I’d have to look at the message tomorrow, and that there were only two options for how she’d reply. She’d either just say I love you, too. Or she’d ask me for money. Whichever way she answered would tell me how she was doing.

Jane* has always been a fiercely independent person. She left home when she was sixteen and slept on the beach under the promenade for much of the time in the following two or three years. But even when she was technically homeless, she worked. A gallery near our hometown post office hung her paintings. She got a job as a line cook at a restaurant downtown. She graduated from high school. She was by any estimation undeniably beautiful, brilliant, and talented. The world would have offered itself up to her. There wasn’t a boy in our hometown who didn’t fall in love with her. There weren’t many girls who didn’t harbor some secret or overt jealousy toward her. She could have married for love or for money. She could have ignored men entirely, gone off to college and disrupted some urbane avant-garde scene.

But Jane didn’t want any of that. She hopped trains across the country, settling at various times in Austin, San Francisco, New Orleans, Taos, and wherever else she rolled off the line. In each of these places some other boy fell in love with her. At home, it was Xander. In San Francisco, it was a guy named Elvis. In Austin, it was Dutch. After I finished my freshman year of college in Santa Fe, she and I decided we would take a road trip back home. I went to the train station in Albuquerque, and she snuck up on me and gave me a big hug, and then introduced me to a gnarly, six-foot-four, tatted up man carrying her bags. He looked like a mix between Hank Williams and one of the bouncers from Roadhouse.

“This is Christ,” she said. “He’s a good dude. We’re gonna get him to his long-lost brother in Vegas.”

So, we did. In fact, I handed Christ the keys to my 1989 Crown Victoria and he drove us all the way from Albuquerque to Las Vegas. The only portion I drove was across the Hoover Dam, because every vehicle crossing the dam goes through a police checkpoint, “and I ain’t got a license,” Christ confessed.

It’s just the type of thing that happens when Jane’s around. A mix of insanity, spontaneity, fuck-it-let’s-see-where-this-train’s-headed, and an almost saintly amount of compassion for her fellow travelers. Christ was an intimidating figure, but it was beautiful to seem him wrap his bulky, tatted arms around his brother for the first time in twenty years.

All this is just to say that Jane doesn’t like to rely on anyone else. She’s staked her entire reputation on being able to survive in situations that have cost other men and women their lives. So when she asks for money, I know that I’m not talking to the person I’ve known my entire life. I’m talking to a need, a desperate little itch in the arm, a series of unfortunate events wrapping around the psyche of a strong woman. It makes her weak, it makes her helpless, it makes her all the things that she has never really, truly, in her heart of hearts, been.

I opened her Facebook message the following afternoon. She said, I love you, too. But then came the rest. Can you help me out with birthday money, or buy that painting? She wanted two hundred dollars. She told me she’d been living out of her car and hadn’t eaten anything but donuts for months. She reminded me that I said I’d help her out a while back, but she knew I probably forgot because I’m busy, and that was okay. She said, I love you again. Then she said all the other reasons she was in a tight spot. If I didn’t have money, she went on, maybe I could use my credit card to fix her car so she could get back on the road.

She listed every reason in the world except for the one I needed to hear: that she had a problem.

I’ve lived away from home for a long time, roughly three thousand miles from most of the immediate crises that my family has come up against. I find out about them through conversations with my mother, sad phone calls with my father, and Facebook. Three very dear friends of my family have died in the last year, and I haven’t been to a single funeral. Each time, I spend about twenty minutes or so putting together as delicate a Facebook message as I can, trying my best to make a digital eulogy that would let my family know that I care, that I grieve, that it hurts. I lie to myself and say that I’m there and that I’ve dealt with the grief. That’s why it’s cathartic to come home. I meet my new nieces and nephews, who I had only known from the photos my sisters share on Facebook. I find out what’s really been going on behind the public façade of social media. And I remember that instant communication can only make us feel like we’ve been part of our distant families. Coming home makes me realize just how much life I’ve missed.

Like last Christmas. It was going to be the first time in over ten years that my four sisters and I would be in the same room at the same time. Even my stepsister flew out from Texas to be with us. Eleven of my fourteen nieces and nephews were there opening presents on Christmas morning. Everyone was there except for Jane. My other sisters called her, texted her, went by her house, but she didn’t show. We didn’t see her until the next day, when she showed up at a family trip to the Santa Barbara zoo. I was so happy to see her, to give her a hug, to have all of my sisters with me. But at the same time, I wanted to run away, break down, and cry.

My oldest sister has the remarkable ability to look beautiful even when she looks bad. And she looked so bad and so beautiful that I didn’t know what to do about it. A zoo just isn’t the right place for an intervention. And, like a skittish pet, I didn’t want to frighten her away just when she’d come out of hiding. But it was on that day that I realized that there had to be some sort of bottom, some sort of end to the long independent crusade she’d been on. I wanted her to complete that narrative arc, where the artist spends her early years wildly crisscrossing the country, chaotically traversing the polls between strung-out desperation and the unforgettable highs of being a free-wheeling, cosmopolitan tramp. When I thought of her, I thought of a mix between John Muir, Georgia O’Keefe and Timothy Leery. I thought about Will Rogers, who said you can’t break a man that don’t borrow, because he can look the world in the face and say, I don’t owe you a thing.

But she was over thirty now, and the window for change was closing.

As I thought about Jane’s birthday message reply; I thought about how I should respond. In the past, I would have just ignored it. Eventually, I would have counted on it becoming a small, bitter resentment between the two of us that neither of us spoke of. We’d sweep it under the rug, woven from the fibers of that love between her and I that had always seemed the most important thing in the world. We’re family, after all, and family means burying shit deep down and then forgiving each other our trespasses on the day that we die, or sometime thereafter.

But I didn’t want to do that this time. I decided that this time I would tell her how I felt. I told her I didn’t have any money—which was true—or any credit—also true. But more importantly, I told her that even if I did have it I wouldn’t give it to her. I told her that I was worried about her, that I knew she was in a rough spot, and that every single person in her family would give her anything she needed to get better, but that I didn’t think getting better was what she was going to do. I told her that I believed she was an artist, and that art is one of those enigmatic industries where smashing directly head first into rock bottom can even be a benefit, if you can just pick up the pieces. I told her, You’ve been struggling and hurting long enough. You’ve earned a break. I love you.

Social media gives you just enough information to draw most any conclusion that you want. My message went through, but Jane didn’t read it. I watched as the timer underneath her name ticked away the hours since the last time she logged on. It’s something I’ve often done when checking in on her. If I see that she’s online, I can be fairly certain that she’s alive. But the hours passed. One hour, five, ten, one day, then it just listed Sunday as the last time she logged on.

When she’s not online, I conceive of her as both alive and dead. She is at the same time actively trying to kick her habit and quietly slipping away in the back seat of a broken-down car, too high to even know that she’s dying. I picture an artist mixing paint. I think of the giant cloth canvas she once made for me, a rendering in color of Louis Armstrong and his wife at The Pyramids of Giza, except that she portrayed them in Mardi Gras masks. And then I try not to picture a sunbaked body in a car with the windows rolled up, a sleeping bag balled into a pillow, a sketchbook on the floor with a few last thoughts scrawled into it, unaware that they are even last thoughts.

Come Wednesday, I finally see that she has been online. I know, for the moment, that she’s alive. But I also know that she could have read my message, and that she has chosen not to. As much as I knew that she was going to ask me for money, she must have known that I was going to plead for her to get help. The message is both read and unread. The plea is known and unknown.

That’s the blessing and curse of our connectivity. I am there, immediately, in a phone in my sister’s pocket next to some cough drops, a handkerchief, and a tied up little baggie of cheap heroin. But at the same time, I’m no closer than I ever was. I’m still three thousand miles away. I’m still just waiting for the veil of uncertainty to lift, for the message to be opened, and for her to tell me she loves me, and that she’s going to be okay, for real this time.

•••

*Her name has been changed.

STEWART SINCLAIR is a writer from Ventura, California. His work has been featured in Guernica, AvidlyThe New Orleans ReviewThe Morning News, and The Millions. He now lives in Benshonhurst, Brooklyn. Find him on twitter: @stewsinclair.

Am I Married?

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sue Fagalde Lick

I arrive at Timberwood Court carrying our wedding album. It’s our twenty-fifth anniversary. I sign in, punch the code, and walk into the activities area. Fred is sitting on a sofa in the front row of the residents listening to an accordion player and a guitarist. He’s leaning forward, neck muscles straining as he sings along, making sounds that aren’t exactly words but close.

He looks at me, then looks away. An aide brings a chair and I sit next to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge my presence, even though I smile, say hello, and kiss his bristly cheek. He continues to focus on the music, occasionally glancing at me with a look that seems to say, “Who are you and why are you sitting so close to me?”

My husband lives in a memory care facility in Albany, Oregon, seventy-two miles inland from where I live on the coast in the house we bought together twelve years ago. He has Alzheimer’s disease. We’d been getting along at home with occasional twenty-dollar-an-hour aides until he fell and hurt his back. Suddenly he couldn’t stand up on his own, and all the doctors said I could no longer take care of him. He dominoed from one institution to another until he landed at Timberwood Court. He can walk now, but he shuffles and stumbles. His cognitive functions have deteriorated to the point where even if he could run, he could not live with me.

He doesn’t know my name anymore. For a while, I wore a nametag. But it was just a collection of letters. It didn’t really matter as long as he still knew we loved each other.

The first time he didn’t recognize me happened a few months ago. He looked at me with the eyes of a stranger. I bit my lip and pretended to be cheerful, struggling to find funny stories to tell him about the dog or something that I saw on the road. He thanked me for coming as if I were someone he had just met. I held my tears until I got to the parking lot.

The following week, he knew me again, but I can’t count on it anymore.

Now the activities director hands me a card that Fred’s son sent to him. I show it to Fred. He traces the words with his stubby index finger. They have no meaning for him. I explain that it’s our wedding anniversary. He seems confused.

“I’m married?”

“Yes. To me.”

It doesn’t register. He goes back to singing while I fight to hold back my tears.

The music seems to go on forever. When my thigh touches Fred’s, he moves away. I stare at his left hand on the arm of the sofa, the ring that matches mine shining gold in the soft light.

“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…”

Pauline, who spends all day wandering like a ghost, brushes past me and walks straight toward the musicians, easing between them like ectoplasm. Sometimes she’ll lift a foot in a quick dance step as she goes by, but most days she’s like a windup toy that goes until it hits something, then turns and goes again.

“I been workin’ on the railroad…”

Usually I sing along, providing harmony to the guest musicians and to Fred’s rich bass voice. Today I can’t move any sound past the lump in my throat.

“Roll out the barrels…”

Finally they finish. Fred applauds while I nod at the musicians and watch them fold up their music stands. Now what should I do?

I tell Fred I have something to show him, and we go to his room. Sitting in his mother’s old mauve easy chairs, I open the photo album and start going slowly through the pages, explaining everything.

“This is our wedding day. Remember, we set up canopies in the back yard? See, here’s your folks.”

He nods, yeah.

“Look, here we are.”

He points to me in my white dress, a crown of white flowers around my curly hair. “She’s pretty.”

“That’s me,” I whisper. He looks at me, disbelief in his eyes.

I keep turning the pages. He puts a finger on my mother’s picture. “How is she?” he asks.

I swallow. “Honey, she passed away.” Eight years ago. He was there.

The hours here are dog hours. I thought about bringing a cake, creating a party for everyone, but now I’m glad I didn’t. When an aide brings us plastic bowls of vanilla ice cream, I’m grateful for the distraction. Snack time. Halfway to dinner and my escape.

Fred glances at the anniversary card I picked out for him but shows no interest. How different from those years when we would exchange cards, softly kiss and promise another year together, when we would dress up and go to a fancy restaurant, feeding each other bites of lobster and chocolate cake, so in love it was disgusting. One anniversary he picked me up at work and took me to a posh hotel where he’d filled our room with roses and photographs. We made love… Oh God, I can’t think about that now.

I just want to go somewhere private and cry. I’m about to leave when the woman who runs the facility hands me a form to fill out. POLST: Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. In English, it’s the form that asks what we want done in case of a medical crisis: CPR? Transport to the hospital? Tube feeding? Life support? Of all days to make me answer these questions. Struggling to control my hand, I try to remember what Fred wanted when we filled these out before, right after his diagnosis. He was only sixty-five. I had just turned fifty.

I leave the form at the desk and hurry out the door. Usually I make it to the car but not this time. Sobbing in the car, I startle as the director knocks on my window. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says. I missed a question. I don’t care what I write. Pull the plug. Kill me, too.

I cry so hard on the way home I’m afraid I’m going to crash the car. I feel as if my chest is going to crack from neck to crotch, as if I could not possibly survive this, as if I ought to park and call 911. But I can’t stop on this mountain road. It’s getting dark.

•••

Returning a week later, I see Fred long before he sees me. I see his balding head, his white goatee, his neck stretched awkwardly forward as he sits on the couch watching a black and white TV show from the ’50s. Beside him, Jean is slumped over sideways, sleeping. On the next sofa, Rachel babbles to herself, shaking her massive bony hands at me. From one of the bedrooms, a woman cries, “Help me! Somebody help me!”

I ease into the empty space beside Fred, saying, “Hi.”

He looks up, blinks for a moment. I hold my breath, praying he will recognize me today. He smiles and begins to laugh. He holds out his hands like a child wanting to be picked up. I lean into him, kissing his soft cheeks, putting my arms around him. Heat comes at me from the thin undershirt he wears. I can feel bumps on his back. He smells of sweat, urine, and decay. But for this moment, I sigh and let myself fall back into being Fred’s wife.

He introduces me to his new friend Beverly. “This is my wife, Ann.”

That’s not my name, but I guess it doesn’t matter.

•••

SUE FAGALDE LICK is a writer, musician, and dog-mom living on the Oregon Coast. Her books include Childless by Marriage and Unleashed in Oregon. A former newspaper reporter and MFA graduate from Antioch University, Los Angeles, she is working on a memoir about her journey with Fred through Alzheimer’s. Fred passed away a few months after she wrote this essay.

 

Head Inside the Head

Photo by Stefan W/Flickr

By Hedia Anvar

It’s summer of 1996. At twenty-seven, you are a child but don’t realize it. You go away on vacation. You go away to vacate your life, your job, your worries. You go to vacate yourself. But Italian anarchy turns your trip into the kind that keeps you inside your head, dealing with difficult baggage and train schedules and hotel reservations.

You’ve been to Rome time and time again. Rome is like a hidden-away dirty lover you obsess about while going through your proper daily motions. This time you max out your credit card and buy the trip for two, hoping to save your relationship with Emanuel, your boyfriend and real lover—although less frequently now.

You’ve always had a secret prerequisite—if they don’t love Rome and black licorice, then they can’t love you. But already, he’s not into Rome. He finds it polluted and chaotic. For you, it’s a divine chaos. Think of the Pantheon and Fontana di Trevi in the middle of bus-strike induced traffic. So you rent a Vespa, deciding to make him love Rome by handing it to him in ribbons of asphalt.

Emanuel is more the obscure Wagnerian opera type than a motorcycle guy, so you don’t bother deferring to his maleness, and drive the Vespa yourself. He clutches your back in terror. You discover a natural knack for Italian driving, you just go—at roundabouts, making turns, whatever. No need for mirrors, signals, or brakes. You ride by cobblestoned piazzas where tourists and young Italian men on the make sit at tables drinking espresso, and caricaturists collect money for drawing misshapen versions of passersby. You whiz past ancient ruins plopped like stage scenery right there amid urban excess, mobile communication and designer transaction.

You’re an extension of the Vespa, and through the friction of the road, the asphalt is an extension of you. Speeding along its routes, you are Rome. This is the best way to get a place under your skin and troubles out of your hair. Noise and exhaust fumes whirl around the Roman baths, dose after dose of the sublime co-mingling with the cosmopolitan to have a narcotic affect on your perception. You’ll always return to Rome like an addict, except on the Vespa, it’s you flowing through Rome’s arteries. And there to the right, twin babies Remus and Romulus of legend, raised by wolves to become founders of Rome, spout water out of stone mouths.

You drive Emanuel’s stiff, white-knuckled body for the greater part of the day. Circling the Vespa around the Colosseum, your skin sheathed in warm air, you come closest to leaving yourself on this trip. He pleads with you to stop, but you pretend not to hear over the motor.

The reason you eventually park in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral, that immense and intricate monument to god, is only because it’s a dead-end. The off-limits Vatican City lies behind it. Unfortunately, now your boyfriend’s pleas reach your ear with no more room for doubt and you can’t very well turn around and whiz off again. Not right away.

You’ve never been big on visiting churches. And when staring up at the biggest one of all, which apparently took one hundred fifty years to build, the image that comes to mind is not of thousands of worshipers but thousands of tourists. You briefly think of the slaughter that has gone into religion over the centuries in the name of god—your kind and equitable god. But mainly your thoughts linger on the Vespa and getting back on it as soon as possible.

Emanuel can barely stand. Creases blackened with exhaust fume mark the tension in his forehead. He looks plucked. Later in the hotel room, you’ll observe his narrow buttocks to be covered by two flower-shaped sores from the moped seat. You decide to do something on foot for his sake—visiting St. Peter’s is an act of mercy on your part. Anyway, you’ve been anxious to cram all aspects of Rome into him.

The guards won’t let you into the cathedral because you’re wearing a tank top. You’re pleased with the tank top, because riding around in the sun has made your shoulders glow nicely. You feel cozy. But after the Vespa, you also feel unexpectedly weighted—it’s weird to be slowed down to your own two feet.

You and Emanuel step to the side and alongside the bohemian types proceed with the business of undressing and exchanging clothing. He takes off his blue button-down shirt then the tee-shirt underneath, and standing bare, white and slim-chested in front of St. Peter’s, he hands you the latter and puts back on the button-down—no way were you going to wear the dopey blue shirt. So, instead stinking of Emanuel’s terror in his tee-shirt, you walk into the cathedral and wonder if god finds body odor less offensive than bare shoulders.

Inside it’s dark and enormous. There are probably magnificent statues and stained glass, but you won’t remember them. You will vaguely recall extremely tall vaults or apses or columns. You recognize the cross-shaped floor plan of cathedrals from college art history. So this is where Charlemagne was crowned, according to the brochure. At least Emanuel is impressed.

Once outside again, you notice a line of people. It turns out you can take a lift into the actual dome and climb the basilica to the view from the top. Now that’s worthwhile—seeing all of Rome at once. Up there you’d inhale the city in one gulp, whereas with the Vespa, you wrapped it around yourself. Up there, instead of an ant crawling along Rome’s edges, you become a bird hovering over it. Rome, doing Rome, your favorite city in the whole world from all positions…

A sign next to the ticket window for the dome warns that after the lift there are 326 steps to climb. You are young and suffer from no heart conditions that you know of, and proceed.

This is what happens on those 326 steps when you have an uncertain relationship and a messy head.

You are in a dome, like in a head, inside a skull, the way you are inside your own head. There are dozens upon dozens of yellow, narrow stairways as if out of a Dali painting. There isn’t simply one set of 326 steps leading to the top—there are as many sets as fit around the inside of the rotunda, and the enormity of the rotunda just doesn’t compute through your human senses. The ascent itself is more a zigzag than a climb. The bizarre placement of the incline must be due to some unknown structural requisite and throws off all equilibrium, winding widely around other sets of stairways, then slanting narrowly into the inward curve of the dome head. There the concavity hovers over the side of your head—one head against the inside of another.

The stairways are like suspended bones, forming together an intricate skeletal system without visible support—the Vatican’s Chamber of Horrors. You wonder who cleans those steps, when, and how often. Is this where they send sinners? Maybe as punishment they leave food for prisoners in a different spot every day, trading one set of dizzying steps for another and causing the victim perpetual circular confusion. Emanuel does not laugh at this speculation.

The nightmarish quality of the stairs reminds you of a book you read in grade school in which a handful of teenage-orphans-turned-lab-experiments were trapped in a space of apparently infinite stairways leading nowhere but to other stairways. Except while the series of stairs in the book implied space, the stairs in the dome are a claustrophobic’s Orwellian fear. A mind might grasp multiple—straightforward—sets of steps spiraling up into the same space and narrowing with the ascent. But inside the dome, there’s no room in your head to sort it out as you swing around one corner and then its opposite, on to the center, then back to the side, all the while bypassing haphazard stairways overhead or walking at a tilt to avoid collision with the dome head.

There is the metallic odor of the steps themselves, mingled faintly with vomit from the weak-constituted and dizzy. Emanuel has a green tinge rising in his own complexion, but the thought of his outburst on your cherished Vespa leaves you unconcerned with his queasiness. He wanted to be on foot and on foot he is.

On the walls there’s unimaginative black graffiti—idiots leaving their mark. Funny, you’d inject Rome into yourself intravenously if you could, but others feel compelled to scribble on it. As if anyone cares, god or otherwise, that they hauled themselves up 326 steps with a black magic marker. Really, it’s the only place all day where god hasn’t been present. God definitely rode the Vespa with you around the Colosseum. Until, of course, Emanuel’s sour lack of enthusiasm kicked him off. Climbing inside his house now, you wonder what god would think of you tormenting your boyfriend with the force-fed gift of Rome. Isn’t that like religion, doing bad things in the name of good?

You and Emanuel curse the stairs all the way up. The only solidarity the two of you share nowadays is during times of mutual complaint. There are inklings of the paranoid in you while inside the dome. What if you get trapped in there? Seriously, what if? More pestering, why do you feel like you’d deserve it? Your head spins as much with your thoughts as with the winding stairs. You are the head inside the head, the little person sitting inside the big person and orchestrating thoughts, poking away at the hapless giant from the interior. What happens to love, where does it go?

Panting and sweating, you and Emanuel finally reach the 326th step. You pat each other in meek triumph. Then you link arms, step out of the dome, and onto unimaginable release.

No brochure can capture that specific unburdening once you step out and find yourself standing on the narrow terrace encircling the dome tip. Let’s say the interior of the dome and its stairs are the equivalent of Dante’s first and second circles of the Inferno. Outside on the tip then, with its offering of light and relief, equates the foot of the Purgatorio.

You’re both incapable of speech. You just can’t be so high that you see all of Rome and its haze-lined orange rooftops, ancient limestone and shimmering traffic at once. You certainly can’t have gotten there via that round interior, defying all orientation. You always associate this sort of height with modern engineering—airplanes, the Empire State Building. But this is old. And round. Height is supposed to come from length. Even the climb up wasn’t up—it meandered. Leaning over the low railing, you see the tops of birds in flight instead of their bottoms—you are higher than birds fly! You and Emanuel breathe greedily like the air might be made up of tiny diamonds, and indeed, your pores feel the way aqua minerale sparkles.

Above the city, there is a sort of quiver expanding over the pollution and concrete. It reaches beyond the old stones and gingery shingles, and extends farther than the scaffoldings of excavations and restorations. It’s somehow separate from and in addition to the immediacy of present day Rome and its undercurrent of the ancient, as if this Rome of modern decay, even conjoined to the past, is more than the sum of its parts.

Of course, back in New York, in a matter of weeks the two of you break up. But on that terrace, god who rode with you on the Vespa, joins you both in one heavenly flicker. It’s as if god had his eyes shut while you clambered in the darkness of the dome, but opened them outside along with yours, and so shedding light on all the world.

Graced with that one perfect moment, you are now vacated.

In the next twenty years, you will not visit Rome again. A whole generation will have passed, and more astounding than the changes taking place in you is all that remains the same about you. You’ll still be self-absorbed but now you will know it.

Nothing will dismay you like the description of the new Rome—not the burden of two decades on your skin, not your failures. Over a catch-up coffee, it will be your ex-boyfriend who tells you about his recent visit to Italy and how he finally loves Rome.

After the two of you discuss the Vatican’s progressive new Pope, Emanuel will speak of gleaming facades, glistening cobblestone and a newly closed-to-traffic pedestrian walkway around the Colosseum. Your mouth will go slack, as if hearing the junkie artist lover of your youth has become a Wall Street executive.

All those worlds away, when you were young and found tragedy romantic, you could have overdosed in the arms of Rome with a smile on your lips. Instead, you’ll smile above your decaf cappuccino at Emanuel without really seeing him.

What you’ll see is you on a Vespa, riding the Colosseum before they scrubbed up Rome.

•••

HEDIA ANVAR is a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles by way of Iran. In between, she lived in France and Italy, which either expanded her world-view or culturally befuddled her. She is currently working on a novel and writes about her case of “chronic dichotomy” gunmetalgeisha.com. You can find her on Twitter at @ravnah, on Instagram at @hediaanvar, and at facebook.com/gunmetal.geisha.