The Thing About Love

soup
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofia McMullin

My mom is standing by the kitchen sink, squeezing pimples on a chicken. This is the 1990s in Hungary, when chicken still come with remnants of what makes them poultry: feathers, dry skin around the heel, nails that once scratched dirt on a farm.

Behind her on the kitchen table are carrots and parsley and celery root. She is making soup—maybe it’s a Sunday, or maybe it’s a regular Thursday and I just got home from school. It all looks complicated to me and, frankly, disgusting—the gizzards of the chicken in a plastic bowl at the edge of the sink.

“I can’t imagine ever, ever learning how to do this,” I tell her.

She rinses her hands under the running water. “Oh, you will,” she says. “When you love someone and they are sick and all they want is some chicken soup, you will learn.”

I think about this conversation when my son is sick and I am rinsing slimy, plump chicken livers in a colander. He loves chicken livers in his soup, so I buy them in a small tub at the grocery store and freeze them in batches. I feel certain that I would not do this for anyone else, even for myself.

I plop the livers into the water next to the chicken breast and the carrots and the parsnips and the celery. My mom was right: I did learn how to make soup.

•••

My grandmother writes letters to me in college on thin, see-through sheets of paper. Airmail from Hungary to the U.S. is expensive. I get one sheet in each letter, maybe two, filled with her fancy, cursive writing, usually in blue ink. I like getting the letters, I am sure, but I don’t remember them eliciting any sort of emotional response. I might even be disappointed: “Oh, it’s just another letter from grandma.” I keep them anyway.

When I look at them some twenty years after they were written and two years after my grandmother died—still neatly folded in their envelopes—I am knocked off my feet. They make me feel loved—cherished, even—like I never felt back then, not like this, not this explicitly and deeply. I suddenly see everything it took to write them—the process of purchasing the thin wax paper and the airmail envelope and the stamps at the post office, the writing of the letter with her arthritic wrists and fingers—in her armchair next to the radiator, right under her bright window filled with plants —the walk to the post office to mail them.

I can only read one before the tears start—written on my twenty-third birthday, seventeen years ago. She was proud of me. I had a car. And a job. And an apartment.

My grandmother taught me to iron and I used to think of her every night when I ironed my husband’s shirt for the next day. Now it’s all non-iron, synthetic, fake fabrics. And where’s the love in that?

•••

There are people who are clumsy at love. Who say the right words but have trouble putting them into action. Who don’t call. Or write. Or remember. Who don’t think the way I do, that for love you do things—real things: see that action movie, eat at that restaurant, sit with the in-laws at Christmas, listen to quiet fears in the middle of night, scratch the itchy spot in the middle of the back. Iron. Make soup.

That’s the hardest thing, loving someone like that. Someone who lets themselves be loved but cannot return it for whatever reason. They give you little glimpses of what it is like to be loved by them—and it is fucking brilliant and just enough to keep you coming back for more.

•••

I don’t love my baby right away. I know that this is not unusual, but it surprises me. I am happy that he’s here, and that he’s healthy, but beyond that, I feel very little. I don’t let him starve or cry too long or stay in a dirty diaper. I linger with him in the rocking chair and marvel at the fact that he has no eyebrows and the skin on his nose still looks unfinished somehow, almost translucent. I notice his features as if looking at a doll—a strange, antique doll with a porcelain face—that I can just set back on the shelf once I am done.

It’s funny that I don’t remember falling in love with him. It’s not like romance, where you get that initial tingle around the heart. It’s not a lightning bolt or a big spectacle. It happens at two a.m. when you are cleaning up poop. It happens at the playground. In the rear-view mirror of the car when he’s finally fallen asleep. In the middle of a temper-tantrum when both of you are crying and there’s snot on your hands.

•••

Things I love:

Brushing my teeth.

The way the birds go crazy around four a.m. in the spring.

Landing in Europe after a trans-Atlantic flight.

Whipped cream.

The smell of tomato vines.

Rainy October days.

Shoes.

Stationery.

Skypeing with my brother and not noticing that an hour went by.

Budapest.

The jingle of bracelets on my wrist.

My mom’s soup.

•••

My husband’s first heart attack happens in August, we think. We are in London and he wakes in the middle of the night to horrific back spasms. He has a bad back, but nothing like this has ever happened. He’s sweating and can’t catch his breath from the pain. I call an ambulance. They take him away and I sit by the window of our hotel room, staring at the street below until the morning, until our son wakes.

We take a cab to the hospital in the rain and sit with him as the doctors check his blood and re-check it again and again. In the end they rule out a heart attack. We fly home a few days later. He gets a muscle relaxer from his doctor for future back issues.

After he collapses in November and the surgeon threads a catheter through his arteries, he is fairly certain that what he had in London was not a back spasm.

I guess you can walk around with your heart broken on the inside.

•••

I once ask my mom about how you know that you have found “the one,” that you are really in love. Maybe that wasn’t my exact question, but something along those lines. Maybe I am asking her about marriage, about long-term commitment, what that is like. She says that if even after all the years you’ve spent together it still feels good to cuddle up close together at the end of the day, then you are in business.

I remember this on those evenings when we are both exhausted, when I feel just a tiny bit resentful that he is in bed, listening to music, while I finish up bath time and story time and get a glass of water and give another back rub. I stumble into bed and I don’t really want to talk or be touched or be seen. I want to be angry and stomp around like a child—and sometimes do.

I pretend to read and he reaches over to rub my shoulder. I melt into his touch, his warm palms. I put down my book so that I can be in full contact with his body, smell his chest and the spot behind his ears, to rub my nose in his beard.

I am so mad at him, damn it.

•••

When my son wants to tell me that he loves me, he switches over to Hungarian. That’s our language, our secret love code. The words are sweeter, more melodious, melancholy. “I love you” is such a throwaway phrase. “Mama, te vagy a szerelmem,” he tells me and I know it’s true. That we are each other’s loves. We are walking to my car and I hold his hand and feel him holding on, his palm almost as big as mine.

I like that our love is so uncomplicated.

•••

Isn’t it crazy that you can never really know that another person loves you? That you can keep something like this a secret? Maybe there is someone you see every day—at work or at the playground or at school dropoff—and have no idea that they have a crush on you. That they think about you during their day, when they are sad or bored. That they plan ways to run into you, to talk to you. That they imagine this whole other life with you, with you at the center—as their center. You could have this wild affair, this crazy romance, if only that person would speak up, make a move.

But we never do. Nobody ever does. We shuffle back to our desks, hide in our phones, pull forward in the dropoff line.

•••

We kiss past the crust of the morning. The wet spot on the pillow, the gunk in the eyes, the sour breath. We wipe away sweat and dreams from brows. We dip hands into hidden folds and curves, underneath, where it’s dark and heavy and damp. We lick and swallow and we spread and moan. We pinch and scrape and knead. We release—our hands smelling faintly of love all day.

•••

Things I want to learn to love:

An achy heart.

Being awake at two a.m.

Letting go.

•••

My husband does not like soup. When he’s sick, he wants to be left alone: no juice, no tea, no lemonade or honey. No soup. This is confusing—how can you not want chicken soup? My chicken soup. And if you don’t want chicken soup, what can I do for you? Is doing nothing a sign of love?

I stop making soup for a while. Then just make it for myself. Then for our son. You can’t just make a little soup. I offer it up on cold winter days and on sick days for years. “Nothing against your soup,” he says. But no thank you.

I resign myself: he is a no-soup person.

Fifteen years and four kitchens later, on an average Tuesday he suggests that I make soup for dinner. “But you don’t like soup,” I say.

“I could live on your soup,” he responds and I say nothing to hide my shock. Later there is crusty bread on the table and wine and the cooked carrots and parsnips in a separate bowl from the shredded chicken meat. He adds hot sauce and hot pepper flakes and dips his bread.

He makes my soup his own.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine—again!—where her soup-making skills will come in handy this winter. You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin

Read more FGP essays by Zsofi McMullin.

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The Uterus Must Go

candies
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofi McMullin

I’ve always had this fantasy that one day I would find a baby. I’d be driving down the road, or walking on the street, and a bundle would catch my eye—nobody else would notice it but me. Maybe there is a small toe sticking out, or an arm, and I know immediately that it’s a baby. I call the police, of course, but they just hand it to me to take home. Finders keepers.

Everywhere I go, especially when I am driving along long stretches of highway with so much trash littering the side of the road, I keep an eye out. Every discarded tee-shirt or tarp or trash bag could potentially hide a baby. I never slow down, or actually check, but I carefully consider whether a certain pile of trash would be big enough to harbor one.

I sort of forget how small babies are.

•••

My last period is a bit dull—I can’t even remember now its start or end date, or how many days it lasted, or whether it was heavy or light. This is a bit disappointing, especially after all of the drama and fanfare it put me through over the past few months.

The most memorable was the time I passed a blood clot the size of my hand during our vacation in Aruba—it just slipped through my fingers as I was taking a shower. It landed with a splat at my feet and I stared at it for long minutes, letting the water run over my back. The clot was the shape of an embryo. You know those science books with the pictures taken inside the woman’s body—the translucent embryo floating in the blackness of the womb? This one would have been at the stage when the arms and legs are just tiny stubs, with a square-ish head and a body. I poked the thing with my toes and it slowly dissolved in the water and slipped down the drain.

I stood there a bit longer, considering whether it actually could have been an embryo. But no, no, there was no way.

•••

I am fascinated by those shows on TV where women think they have food poisoning, go to the hospital, and push out a baby. How do you not know that you are pregnant? How is it possible to not know what’s going on inside your body? My boobs started to ache the day after my doctor injected me with my husband’s semen. It was Mother’s Day. I was getting a pedicure with my mom.

•••

My fibroid feels like a pregnancy. It feels heavy and low in my abdomen and there’s a constant feeling of something—cramps? twinges? contractions?—in my belly. I feel it the most at night, when I am no longer moving around, going about my day. If I lie on my back, I can feel its weight pushing against my bladder, and my lower back aches. “It’s a good size,” my doctor tells me and holds up his closed fist to demonstrate—he has small hands for a man—and he means that as assurance right before he examines me. And anyway, how big is my uterus? It’s hard to know whether something the size of a small man’s fist in my belly is cause for concern.

The thing has to come out. My surgeon is an older man and he looks at me with sad eyes when he says, “But you are so young.”

•••

At forty, I am too old for the following things:

Non-supportive bras.
Non-supportive friends.
TV shows about college and/or single women.
To be noticed by the young men at the pool in Aruba.
Face lotion without SPF.
Tacky jewelry.
Holding grudges.
Bad haircuts.
Artificial sweeteners.
Anything that takes too long.
Cheap clothes.
Cheap shoes.
Cheap makeup.
Cheap wine.

Not having a uterus? Maybe, yes, I am too young for that.

•••

“Are you sure?” the surgeon asks one last time during my pre-op appointment.

How is one ever sure about these things? We do the best we can, with the information we have available at any given time. Right now, it’s this: I am in pain and hemorrhaging every month. I drink iron supplements by the gallon to keep up. Our son is six. My husband has a bad heart. The freaky blood clot ruined my vacation.

I think about all the babies I could have had—with the blond boy I loved with the sparkly smile, with the Palestinian with the olive skin and dark eyes, with the dancer with the smooth hips and long fingers.

At some point, life has to go on. You tally all of the things that could have, should have, would have happened, and you say “fuck,” and then you move on. The uterus must go and let me live my life.

I am sure.

•••

The uterus is not an organ you think about too much. It has one job, really, and once it’s done that, what is there to think about?

Until now, I never thought about mine. I knew from my OB that it was “tilted”— whatever that means—but other than that, I never paid much attention to it. But now I think about it all the time. I think about the space it occupied in my body and wonder what’s in its place now. I think about how my son referred to it as his “hotel” when I was explaining to him where babies come from. I think about it being sliced in half and pulled out of my body. I think about it in the specimen bag as it’s carted over to the pathologist. I think about practical things like where does my vagina end now? And if there’s no uterus and no fallopian tubes, what’s holding up my ovaries? Are they just hanging out there, in the pink sliminess of my insides?

These are things I should really ask my doctor about.

•••

I am vaguely aware of the pain in my vagina when I wake from surgery. But everything hurts, everything is tender and sore, so I don’t pay it much attention.

The doctor mentioned before the surgery that he might take my uterus out through a small cut in my lower belly, or through my vagina. He couldn’t say for certain—it just depended on the size of the fibroid.

As the anesthesia wears off and I drag myself to the bathroom to pee, it definitely feels like I have just given birth to a baby. “Why does it hurt so much down there,” I ask my husband. “Oh,” he says. “The doctor told me he had to give you an episiotomy. Your uterus didn’t fit through your vagina.”

Even in my dopey, drugged-up state, sitting on the hospital toilet, holding on to an IV pole as I try to relocate by bladder, the irony does not escape me: I gave birth to my uterus.

I would laugh.

But it hurts too much.

•••

You can never really be sure that you are done having babies. You can list all of the logical reasons why you “should” be done with babies: your age, the state of your marriage, finances, your love of sleeping through the night, and not having to wipe anyone’s butt anymore. These are all great reasons.

Then you see an announcement on Facebook—or several in a week, as it happened—and it suddenly feels like someone punched you in your non-existent uterus.

Rationally, I know I don’t want another baby. But there is nothing rational about this urge—it was not excised along with the offending organ. I mourn the ability, the possibility, the what-if.

I have never known anyone who found a baby on the side of the road. I don’t even think I’ve ever heard about something like that in the news.

But it’s possible. It could happen.

•••

ZSOFI McMULLIN is a writer living in Maine. Her essays have been published by Motherwell, The Butter, Paste Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and several other publications. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, where her Pushcart-nominated essay “This Body” appeared. You can see all of her work at zsofiwrites.com and find her on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.

 

Read more FGP essays by Zsofi McMullin.

This Body

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofi McMullin

The first time the trainer tells me to put my hands on my side and feel my abdominal muscles work, I can’t help but laugh. The only thing I feel are rolls of fat and loose skin. This is not really a surprise—I haven’t exercised in a good decade or more and expecting any muscle activity in my middle region seems silly. For weeks on end, I don’t even feel the effects of doing sit-ups or crunches. It’s like there are no muscles there to feel sore.

Recently I’ve been pushing my body—I am not even sure why. I’ve always hated exercise. I never felt the rush of adrenaline, I never enjoyed the sweat, the effort, the hassle. But something clicks this time around—is it turning forty? Is it fear that the achy knee every morning will lead to more serious issues? Is it wanting to run and swim and climb with my six-year-old? I suppose it is a bit of everything.

I feel my body go into that zone—not entirely under my control, pushing beyond what my mind would encourage under normal circumstances. My mind is more likely to whisper “go, sit on that couch, and have a piece of chocolate and a glass of wine.” But this body pushes on, struggling, jiggling, losing balance, and unglamorously dripping in sweat.

I still hate the sweat and the hassle. But the trainer on the videos is not entirely hateful and her mantras soon take on meanings beyond exercise: “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” “Don’t wish for it, work for it.”

•••

The night before Sam is born, I feel like an animal. I spend the night curled up in an armchair, leaning forward to take the pressure off my aching back. I build a small fort, placing pillows around me and on the coffee table in front of me so I can rest my arms and head. I stay like this for hours, not asleep but not fully awake either, just conscious enough to record the start and end of each contraction.

My friends who are pregnant at the same time have elaborate birth plans that involve doulas and hot tubs and yoga balls and no drugs. My birth plan includes getting through the whole ordeal feeling as little of it as possible. I want every possible drug and intervention.

Sam is born fast—no time for an epidural or any other drug to take effect. It is the last day of the year—a snowstorm kicks up outside; the sky is eerily pink and it is a Blue Moon.

My body takes over and I feel terrified by the force and inevitability of muscles contracting, skin stretching, ribs being kicked and pushed from within. There is nothing I can do to stop this baby from violently forcing its way out of me. I can breathe and push—or not—the result will be the same. I am terrified of pushing, but I can’t help it. My body does it for me and all I can do is hold on and look at the snow and bare my teeth at the nurse who is yelling at me to push harder.

But weirdly, there is no pain. At least none that I can remember now. Or not pain like a pulled muscle or a headache or a sore throat. The pain is bigger than that, almost beyond feeling. And then so much relief when it’s finally, finally over. In a haze after my baby emerges, I ask the nurse to see the placenta—she reaches into the bucket on the floor between my legs and lifts up the entire sack that my baby lived in for nine months. I am almost more fascinated by it than by the baby lying so quietly in his warming cot—the baby who is no longer a part of my body.

This body grew the one thing to nurture the other.

•••

In my exercise videos the trainer always tells you what exact muscles to engage during certain exercises. The core muscles to protect your back; the biceps to help out your shoulders, the calves and knees to support you as you lift heavier weights.

It takes time to learn to locate all of these muscles. This is news to me. How do you know when your “pelvis is tucked” or whether you are “squeezing your glutes” or “engaging your back” or “exploding through your arms” or “shooting energy through your calves,” when these are not things that you do on a regular basis?

But I do feel the difference—suddenly, I feel pain where I am supposed to, or “feel the burn,” as the trainer puts it. Muscles tighten, sweat drips, breath quickens—even though you are supposed to slow down and control your breathing. When you are in pain, you know you are doing it right.

I wonder if it works like that for the heart. Can I choose to engage it or not? Can I learn to flex or tighten just certain parts of it at certain times to protect it from injury? When it hurts, does it mean I am using it correctly, that all of its muscles are fully functional, aligned, doing what they are supposed to be doing?

•••

I miss being unaware of my body. I can’t remember when that was—maybe in my twenties?—when my body just did what it was supposed to do and I never gave it a second thought. I didn’t think about my weight or about being healthy or eating healthy, or whether I should exercise or not. I didn’t think about whether my stomach was too big to wear that shirt or if those jeans will make my butt look big. My body was just there, doing its thing. It never protested, it didn’t put on ten pounds in one stressful year. It didn’t ache, it didn’t bloat, it didn’t feel heavy and stiff in the mornings. It just was.

I appreciate that blitheness now when I try to run up the stairs too fast or when I lift my arm and there is that extra bit of jiggle or when I run my fingers across the stretch-marks on my belly and that little extra pooch that’s there from having a baby—next to the other little pooches from too much Haagen-Dazs.

Why keep doing something that is painful? Why does the body want to stop so badly and why am I trying to convince it to not stop? Is it to build a stronger core, hoping that it will hold me up—longer, straighter, leaner? “It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger,” says the peppy trainer and I want to believe that she is right.

•••

By the time I cross the bridge over the Main river in Frankfurt, I have a good rhythm. I see the old church tower in the distance, my destination, and I focus on it step after step. My skin prickles against the cold, damp day. My cheeks feel flushed and my hair whips around my face. I pick up a chestnut at the foot of the bridge, under a tall chestnut tree, and I roll its smooth skin between my fingers in my pocket as I walk.

Maybe it’s the jetlag, or maybe it’s the cold, or maybe it’s the excitement of walking in a foreign city—suddenly I am aware of my body moving through these streets. I feel the cobblestone on my soles through my sneakers, my calves stretching, knees bending, thighs tightening. I feel the cold air rush into my lungs. I think of how odd it is that just twelve hours earlier I was in New York and now I am walking here, a half a world away, across this river.

Just twenty-four hours ago, I was snuggled in bed with my son—warm and sleepy. Just before that, I was in bed with my husband; just before that, at work, or exercising, or having coffee with a friend or walking down the aisles at the grocery store. And days and months before that, my body was walking on sandy beaches and shady hiking trails in Maine; along busy streets in London and Budapest and New York.

And years and years before that, my body was caressed by lovers, cut open by surgeons; it rested and moved; it developed breasts and curves; it grew tall with solid bones; it learned to walk, to crawl, to sit up. It emerged from my mother.

But on this day, this body is walking on gray, misty, medieval streets, carrying along all of its experiences. I feel it all rush past me and through me and I try to imagine where this body will be in a few hours, days, weeks, months, years.

•••

One morning Sam sits on the floor and plays while I huff and puff away during my thirty-minute workout in the living room. He watches me, then the screen. When I’m done and I flop on the couch with my water bottle, he curls up to my side. He is still in his PJs—it’s a Saturday. His long, thin body has filled out over the summer, but he still somehow finds the right position to tuck himself as close to me as possible. His hand is on my belly, one leg across mine.

“Mama,” he starts, “are you going to be as straight as those people on the TV?”

It takes me a moment to realize that he means “skinny.” “Well, no, probably I will never be as straight,” I answer. “But I will be straighter, hopefully, if I keep up the work.”

Sam seems pacified for the moment. “Okay, because I want my mama to be soft and round and warm.”

•••

Change is hard to detect—the definition of muscle against flab; the way inches melt off; the way things become tighter, lifted, lighter. It is discouraging, really, that so much work produces such little effect at first. “You have to take it one day at a time, one pound at a time,” the trainer announces cheerfully. And I do. I really don’t have a choice.

On Facebook I’m part of a workout challenge group and I look at sweaty pictures of other women and watch their transformation from before to after. I don’t take any photos of my body and I definitely don’t post them, but I’d like to think that the same is happening to me, even if it is imperceptible to my eyes.

And I wonder whether eventually the downfall of my body will happen like this as well—one freak, aging cell at a time, unnoticeable to the naked eye, but inevitable and out of my control, just like giving birth.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and several other online publications. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Zsofi McMullin. (And, hey, this very one is nominated for a Pushcart Prize!)

We’ll Always Have Frankfurt

clouds w:plane
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofi McMullin

I took the last fortune cookie that came with our bill at the dim sum place near my office. My friends and I were celebrating the end of a long week, and we were all loud and slightly buzzed from our cocktails. The thin slip of paper fell into my lap as I crumbled the cookie between my fingers, and I almost simply tossed it on my plate amongst the small pools of soy sauce. Instead, I wiped my fingers and straightened out the strip. I laughed at a joke half-heartedly, not taking my eyes off the words in front of me.

“An old love will come back to you.”

“Well, you are going to have to be more specific,” I joked after I read my fortune to my friends. But I really only had one old love in mind.

The last time I had seen Peter was thirteen years ago when he flew halfway across the world to show up at my office, unannounced, two months before my wedding to another man. We had lunch, then later that afternoon we met up at my apartment and talked for maybe an hour about … I don’t even know what. Definitely not about our six-year, mostly long-distance relationship—by now more of a friendship rather than a love affair—or what was about to happen to that relationship. I think back and wonder why he was there, why he drank tea with me in my kitchen, why he told me that his girlfriend was looking at wedding magazines. Was he looking for a certain reaction from me? Was he there to change my mind? Or his?

We held each other and he kissed my forehead. Then he walked away.

We stayed in touch through infrequent e-mails and occasional phone calls through this thick, juicy part of life filled with marriage and children and careers. Somehow our friendship deepened over the years despite the distance, and our interactions always buzzed with that faint undercurrent of lovers who fell victim to time, distance, circumstance. We could have been. But we aren’t. And now we never will be.

The good thing about meeting up with an old love after a long time is that there are no expectations. When I first fell in love with Peter, I wanted desperately for him to rescue me. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college, and all I wanted from life was to graduate—although I think I would have given that up for him too—marry him, have his babies, and iron his shirts. Everything else in life seemed too scary, and loving him was very easy. He was irresistible—all blond hair and blue eyes, easy humor, and cool confidence. I fell in love with him the moment I heard his name—one of those pit-of-your-stomach, butterflies-around-your-heart, love-at-first-sight, unexplainable affairs that I believed only happened in very cheesy movies. It sounds ridiculous now, but I remember the feeling clearly—giddy and out of control and all-consuming.

When I saw him a few months ago for the first time after thirteen years, I had no expectations of our time together. A nice dinner, maybe. Pleasant conversation. But that was it. I know now that I don’t need to be rescued. I have a baby. I have shirts to iron. I have love that is giddy but not all-consuming or out of control.

What I didn’t expect was that the moment I saw him, I would constantly have to remind myself that I can’t touch him. I can’t just take his hand in mine. I can’t run my fingers through his hair. I can’t wrap my arms around his waist as we wait to cross the street. But even after all these years, some weird reflex compelled me to reach for him. We used to kiss and caress and grab and now here we are, trying to find this restaurant in the rain and the darkness and I can’t take his arm, so I don’t lose my balance? Seems ridiculous.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” we told each other when we first awkwardly embraced. I know we both said it to break the ice, to acknowledge the absurdity of standing face-to-face after all these years.

But it’s a lie.

We have changed. Maybe not the basics, maybe not the important parts. But we are softer around the edges, maybe a bit tougher on the inside. We’ve seen things and we’ve done things that we never thought would happen to us: dead babies, illness, disappointment, messy relationships. Our bodies are plumper with age, scarred from surgeries, birth, accidents. The hairs are finer, dusted with gray; the eye crinkles are deeper, a bit sad. We have loved and fought and bought cars and houses. We changed diapers and stayed up all night with sick kids. We have savings accounts, retirement funds, houses, employees, vacation time, car-pool duty, in-laws.

We are grown-ups.

We are nineteen.

Sitting across from him at dinner our time apart didn’t feel that long. Then the thought hit me: if we wait another thirteen years, he will be fifty-seven. I will be fifty-one. A lifetime gone, pretty much. How many more thirteen-year chunks do we have left?

Dinner was a blur—catching up after so much time is hard work and it takes concentration. It’s possible that I drank my wine a bit too quickly. My mind had trouble catching up with what my eyes were seeing: HE was sitting right across from me. He had the steak. I had the veal. We took bites of each other’s desserts. Like it was no big deal.

After dinner we walked slowly in the cool, rainy darkness to my hotel. Not yet ready to end the evening, we circled each other once we got to my room, our conversation suddenly faltering. Here he was, amongst my things—my travel-weary suitcase, my patent-leather shoes under the desk, my coat on the back of the chair, my jewelry spilling out of its case, my work notes and business cards in a neat stack on the desk, next to my keys from home.

“You drive a Honda,” he noted, and I laughed and said it was a soccer mom car. He asked “May I?” and rifled through the stack of papers and magazines and the flowery notebooks and postcards I’d bought.

I remember that when I first loved him, I always wanted a piece of him. Something that belonged to him. I would have given anything to be able to stand in his room like he was in mine now, surrounded by the things he touched every day. Once when he visited me in college I hid his white undershirt from the previous day under my pillow. The shirt smelled of him for a couple of days after he left and I hung on to it for years, even after his scent was gone. Another time I stole a pair of his socks—blue, with little teddy bears on it. I don’t know if he ever noticed—I doubt it. But I still have that pair of socks and, now in that hotel room in Germany, I thought I should have brought it with me, given it back to him. But then again, that’s probably the only piece of him I’ll ever have.

The next day we walked the cobblestoned streets of the city together—sometimes arm-in-arm, but mostly not. We talked; he took a couple of work calls and walked away from me as I sat on a bench. It was a Saturday; there were weddings at the town hall and we watched as happy couples took pictures in front of medieval buildings.

We wandered into the church on the main square and in the quiet, musty hall we walked our separate ways. I lit a candle, but it was just an excuse to stand still for a moment and breathe. I knew we’d have to say good-bye in a couple of hours and that the countdown would begin on our next thirteen years. I wandered over to the tomb of a German prince and his wife and felt jealous of their eternal togetherness. I looked around to find him and saw him across the church, writing something on a piece of paper to be pinned on the church’s prayer wall.

I never asked what he prayed for.

Over the candles I prayed for strength and composure, but neither of those things were granted that day.

“We were able to pick up right where we left off a lifetime ago,” he wrote in a text after we said good-bye. And he was right. The slow burn, the thrumming background noise of our past was right there, ready to spill over.

When I got on the plane the next morning to head home to my husband and little boy, I felt suspended between my nineteen-year-old self and my current life. Somewhere over the Atlantic, settled down by the plane’s gentle rocking and the clouds passing outside my window, my twenty-one hours with Peter started to feel otherworldly. My destination on the plane’s map became clear, a fixed point on the horizon, comforting, promising.

I thought about how, in the end, the fortune cookie wasn’t exactly correct. Old loves don’t just “come back.” They visit, they haunt, they poke around in the sensitive flesh right around the heart with their deft, nimble fingers. Old loves are beautiful and tempting and so, so delicious. And for a moment it seems like yes, yes, a comeback is possible. A moment of weakness. A look. A shared memory. But then… life. The real one. The one waiting at the airport.

I stared at the little “x” on the map for a while as the plane flew through some turbulence and thought about how the engines just keep on whirring and pushing forward, no matter what shakes them.

We wait out our thirteen years and then for a couple of hours we lie and pretend that nothing has changed. We keep walking on cobblestones, through crowded streets; stop to eat chocolate, to watch weddings and street performers. We stand under an awning during a quick rain shower and we wind our arms together as one of us peeks out, looking for a small break in the clouds.

[This essay has an equally excellent companion. Read Zsofi’s other essay about the old love here. —ed.]

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, and Kveller. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Inked

tattoo gun
By DaMongMan/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

I could sort of make out the outlines of the tattoo on my husband’s arm on the small photo on my phone. He took it in front of our bathroom mirror, holding up his right forearm in front of his face. I had to turn my head to the side to see that there were sun rays and a sword and a heart—some Masonic symbols that I don’t understand and perhaps I am not even allowed to understand. The tattoo stretched from wrist to elbow and wrapped all the way around his arm.

When we got married thirteen years ago, Drew did not have a single tattoo. I don’t think we ever talked about his desire to have one. Now he has four, with a fifth one in the plans. The first ones were modest, easily covered up by shirts and forgotten. I was away on a business trip this time and I knew that it was “tattoo day,” but the size and scope of this latest ink caught me off guard. I scanned myself for a reaction: how am I supposed to feel when my spouse turns from a baby-faced, soft-haired man into a bald, tattooed dude? I know how his mother feels about his tattoos and, when I think about my own sweet, soft-skinned baby boy getting inked when he is older, I completely sympathize with her. But Drew is not my child—he is my husband. So I should be supportive, right? I want to be—and I am—but I can’t help but stop for a moment to acknowledge the unease in the pit of my stomach. Is it the tattoo itself that makes me pause? Or the change that the tattoo signifies? Does it signify a change? How do I know?

•••

Drew and I met at work a year or two after graduating from college. We were in the same class and, in fact, he is in some of my graduation photos, sitting a couple of rows in front of me. But we never met while in school. When he got a job at the same newspaper where I was working, I was dating one of his good friends. When my heart was broken, Drew was right there, ready to comfort me with late night conversations and trips to the mall and movies. We spent long afternoons in his car, driving around rolling Pennsylvania hills and forgotten small towns. We ate bad food at bad chain restaurants and then over drinks we shared the contents of our wallets. His: foreign currency—just in case—cash, credit cards, EMT certification cards. Mine: Hungarian ID, cash, and a handwritten note from my college roommate: “The map is not the terrain.”

I don’t think it was love at first sight—we even joked about how we weren’t each other’s soul mates—but it was definitely comfort and friendship at first sight. I didn’t want any more friends with privileges or long-distance boyfriends who never called. I wanted someone who was there and who wanted me. Drew was—is—a grounding force: solid, steady, warm. He has a way of simplifying life down to its essential elements: “You love me, I love you. We are a family. What else do you need to know?”

We first kissed on a summer afternoon in my apartment. He brought in a bowl of apricots from the kitchen and told me to close my eyes. He split the fruit in half with his fingers and slowly fed one to me, wiping juice from my chin with his thumb. I heard the clink of his glasses as he put them on the table. The next bite was not an apricot.

We got married in Budapest the following January. We giggled through the ceremony and our vows, and the next morning in our honeymoon suite overlooking the Danube, we drank champagne for breakfast and watched as people on the street below us hurried to work. We felt content and close and didn’t take this whole marriage business too seriously.

•••

What do we promise when we say “I do?” Sure, we promise for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. But life rarely comes down to such stark choices, especially early in a marriage. We never really have to make a conscious choice to stay married when the other person is seriously sick. Or when money runs out. Extremes happen, sure, but rarely.

When they do happen, it’s obvious that it’s one of those big, life-defining moments where one’s job is to stand by and be supportive. Your husband calls to tell you that he is in the emergency room because he burnt off half his arm in a firefighting accident. His father has a brain tumor. His father dies. He gets the job. He doesn’t get the job. These are clear-cut cases. You know what to do about them. You know the right amount of alcohol to pour into your evening cocktails. You know that a rare steak and chocolate cake will bring comfort. You know what words will spur the other person to action or to a different way of looking at the situation. You know when to shut up. Or take your clothes off. Or just get lost for a couple of hours. You know that whatever the thing is, it will pass.

What nobody mentions before marriage is the vast gray area between rich and poor, sick and healthy. That there can be shifts and trembles and almost unnoticeable movements and changes in your life together. When your spouse is going through something personal, a little crisis or journey—one that you are not necessarily invited to. And that’s okay, because you do not want to be invited to everything, but still. This person lives with you and you’d like to know where he is going. Will the tattoos lead to a Harley? To a girlfriend? A sports car? Or are they just tattoos? Does he even know for sure?

Looking at the picture of his new ink, the skin around it still raw and red, made me think about my own scars—the ones on my belly from an exploding gallbladder, the ones around my breasts from my breast reduction surgery, and we are not even going to go into the scars and flab and rolls of fat left behind by pregnancy and childbirth. It’s easy to forget about those, and even easier to forget about the invisible scars left behind from what everyone goes through in life: becoming a mother, losing loved ones, trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in a career, figuring out friendships, lost loves, family. It’s easy to not look at my own path, to just blindly go on, day-by-day, not glancing back at the big picture. It’s easy to not stop and consider how the shifts in my life made an impact on the person I promised constancy to. The heart and the dagger and the rays of sun on Drew’s arm made me look at all of that, and I realized that I am fooling myself if I think that he is living with the same woman that he married.

I also realized how it’s possible to know someone so well, and yet not at all. How everyone’s life is full of topsy-turvy roads and blind spots and how sometimes the person we think we know best is the one who will surprise us the most. Sometimes the person we love wants lots of tattoos.

•••

Our son is five and has a very vivid imagination and his pretend-play is very complex, detailed. He always wants us to play with him, but usually it’s hard to follow where he wants a particular scenario to go. He just wants us right there, sitting on the floor with him as he lines up his toy soldiers. I am really not playing with him; I just serve as the audience. He leans on me, touches my hair, or gives me a kiss between battles. He sits on my lap for a while, then just holds on to me with one hand while he rattles on and on. It’s obvious that he has a clear picture in his mind about where things are going, who will win the battle, who will capture the castle.

That’s how I’ve been thinking about our marriage lately. Our careers have taken off. We are out of the trenches—or in-between trenches—when it comes to parenting. We have a comfortable life. There are no life of death decisions immediately in our future—hopefully. But on any given day, I remind myself, one of us is on the floor, lining up soldiers. We are off, battle plans in our heads, fighting on, figuring out the next steps. All that we can do for each other is ask questions, listen, and sit there, in case the other one needs a soft, comforting embrace, a hand to hold.

•••

Even before his latest tattoo, Drew’s been gently teasing me about getting one too over a small scar on my right shoulder. The scar has mysterious origins—for a long time I thought that it was from a childhood immunization, but my mother told me that happened on my other arm. It looks like a pink bite mark—two distinct, uneven spheres right next to each other. I know exactly what my tattoo would be: a pink peony, the flower that bloomed every spring in front of our summer cabin when I was a child. They somehow became “my” peonies, and even after I moved far away from home, I would get timely reports from my grandparents and parents about the size of their early buds, their expected bloom date, their dark pink color, their fragrance filling up the garden.

So I would have this pink peony over my scar on my shoulder. I think about it every now and then, talk to Drew about it, but deep down I know that I am never going to do it. Whatever Drew is expressing through the pictures on his body is his alone and I know that eventually we’ll both understand their meaning in his life—what they are covering up, what they are exposing. I help him apply lotion on his arm in the evenings and make sure that he can be free to go for his next appointment with the tattoo artist to finish the work. That is all I can do.

In return, I know he will tuck our son in bed and bring me tea—or wine, depending on the night—so that I can write these words, perched in bed, listening to the two of them laugh and read. I know that later he will come to bed, smooth his hands over the scar on my shoulder, over my breasts, belly. The skin on his forearm will be still rough under my fingers as it heals. We’ll hold on tight to each other so we can battle on. “I love you. You love me. What else do you need to know?”

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, and Kveller. She has a son, a husband, and, as of press time, still no tattoos. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @hunglishgirl. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

The Accidental Immigrant

budapest stamp
By Laszlo Ilyes/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

My twentieth high school reunion was held at a restaurant right across the street from my former school in Budapest. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to be there so badly. I didn’t love high school—who does?—but what’s worse is that I barely remember it. I have no memories of, well, of anything really from that time, except for one boy I had a huge crush on for four years.

But this story is not about that.

I was repeating the tale of what I’ve been up to for the past twenty years for about the fifth time that evening—this time to a former teacher—when he asked me, “So, did you just decide one day to move to America?” At first I wasn’t sure why the question shocked me. But then I realized that it was because it assumed that there was a decision involved, a moment in time when I said “no” to staying in Hungary and “yes” to becoming an American.

But really there wasn’t. My trip to America wasn’t driven by war or famine, by financial difficulties, or political unrest. I didn’t have to come to America. And I certainly didn’t have to stay.

I was eighteen when I came here and, looking back, it’s hard to imagine how I had the courage to do this. Actually, it’s hard to imagine how my mother had the courage to let me go. She worked at the American Embassy in Budapest and when the question of college came up in my junior year of high school her colleagues encouraged me to apply to American schools. I am sure my parents thought about and discussed the pros and cons of sending me off to another continent. I am sure. But I don’t remember my own thought process, my actual decision about going ahead with the plan. And even if there was a decision, I certainly never considered the possibility that it would have an impact on my life twenty years later. You just don’t think of that when you are eighteen.

Mountains of paperwork, a full scholarship, and a trans-Atlantic flight later, my mom and I were driving through the woods of Pennsylvania to the school where I would spend the next four years. We spent the night in my new dorm room drinking iced tea from the vending machine and arranging furniture. My mom left me there the next day and after she drove off, I went to the bookstore to buy thumbtacks for my new posters.

My one-year scholarship turned into four years. Graduation turned into a job. My job led me to my husband and marriage. Pennsylvania turned into Maine and Connecticut. Jobs, a child, friends, a life.

And now, twenty years later, in that half-lit restaurant in Budapest, I realized that I have become an immigrant. I don’t even like to call myself an immigrant. That word to me somehow means desperation, flight, the life of a fugitive. I became an immigrant just by living my life, doing whatever comes next.

•••

When we arrived in Budapest just a few days before the reunion, there was nobody there to greet us at the airport. My parents moved to the U.S. a few years ago, and so they weren’t there to pick us up or drive us around during our visit. With no close friends or relatives, we were left with a grumpy taxi driver who gave us curious glances hearing me speak Hungarian to my son and English to my husband. We were tourists.

If you didn’t know me, you would never guess that I am not an American. I don’t have an accent. I write and dream in English. The pull I feel to my homeland is invisible to everyone else. It’s a faint tugging feeling in my chest, something empty and burning. I go through life, day by day, even feel happy most of the time. It’s only when I am quiet that I get that uneasy vibe, that feeling that something is not quite right. Something is out of place.

Whatever. Move on.

There is a life to live, things to do. No time to wallow.

I assume all immigrants feel this no matter why they are away from home.

The cruel thing about all of this is that going “back home” does not make you feel better. Suddenly you are a stranger not in one place—your new, chosen land—but two places.

The first thing I did after booking our plane tickets to Budapest was to buy a map of the city. It’s stupid really, because I know—or used to know—the city and its streets by heart. As a teenager I went everywhere by myself—on trains and trolleys and buses.

But suddenly I felt unsure about whether I would find my way from the hotel to the metro station, to the store, to my old high school, to a friend’s house. It was all unfamiliar territory and, like a tourist, I stood on street corners with this little crumpled map in my hands, drawing lines with my fingers from street to street.

Of course, it all came back after a day or two but with a sense of strangeness at every corner: I tried to pay with a bill that’s been tucked in my wallet from our last trip, only to find out that it’s been out of circulation for over a year. Bus stops have moved. Shops closed. Neighborhoods fell and rose. Buildings crumbled. There were new parks and fountains, coffee shops, hip bars.

People have moved on. It was hard to find things to talk about with my former classmates and not just because so much time has passed. I couldn’t really imagine what their lives were like and I assume they felt the same. There were the inevitable questions about America: “So, does everyone really own a gun?” And there were the personal ones about how much money I make or what kind of car I drive—both very American pursuits to the outside world, I assume.

And despite all of that—the feeling of being a stranger in your homeland, the loss of friends—there is a comfort to being “at home.” Old reflexes return, memories surface, the empty, burning feeling of homesickness is suddenly gone when I am on the streets of Budapest. I have no reason to feel at home, yet I do. And more than just feel at home—it all feels right. Settled. Comfortable.

•••

My late grandmother’s apartment in Budapest had a long, narrow hallway leading from the front door to the living room. One the left side of the hallway was the kitchen, a wall with a mirror and coat hangers, and a smaller hallway leading to the bathroom. On the right side of the hallway were three floor-to-ceiling cabinets.

It was a tradition during my childhood that my parents and my grandma would harvest the fruit growing in the garden of our summer cabin, haul it in big wooden crates to our apartment in Budapest, and make jam. For a few days each summer, our small kitchen would smell of apricots or plums or peaches—whatever was in season. Jars boiled in huge pots on the stove, and the floor was sticky with the juice dripping from our fingers as we peeled, sliced, smushed.

Once sealed in jars, most of the jam would make its way to my grandma’s apartment and to her pantry cabinets for storage. She would bring a jar or two with her every week when she came to visit, or she’d use the jam for baking.

When she died last year, her cabinet was still full of jars—carefully labeled with a mysterious system of letters and numbers. For example “08P” might mean plum jam cooked in 2008. On some jars, the writing faded and only after carefully removing the tight lid would we be able to tell what the jar held—the color of its contents darker with age, but the scent of the fruit still potent and unmistakable. Ah, apricots! Is this cherries, maybe? Let’s taste it.

On a recent weekend we were sitting around the breakfast table with my parents, my brother, and my son. This particular breakfast table happened to be in Maine, a world and lifetime away from the summers of jarring jam in Budapest. But there they were: two jars of jam that my parents brought with them when they cleaned out my grandma’s apartment. One jar of apricot and a jar of cherry and sour cherry mixture.

My son preferred the sugary, sickeningly sweet grocery store jam. But the rest of us used long spoons to carefully spread grandma’s jam on buttered toast and savored every bite.

I couldn’t help but think back to the person I was at eighteen—to the people we all were twenty years ago. When my grandma tightened the lid on these particular jars just a few years ago, she already knew that her son and grandchildren would be eating it somewhere far away.

But I didn’t know how much it would taste like home.

•••

I think that when people say that America is a melting pot, they don’t actually mean it. It’s not a huge vat of gooeyness that’s all blended together, uniform, smooth. It’s more like a tossed salad—chunks and bits and pieces of this and that thrown in. It’s easy to fit in—it’s just as easy to stand out. I think that most of us immigrants alternate between those two options—embracing what makes us different, but just as happily disappearing into the crowd.

I have to admit that there is some comfort in the limbo I feel when I am trying to decide where I belong. I can be a bit exotic, a bit different, slightly off-kilter and blame it on my Hungarian-ness. I wonder if this is what I have become, if this is my “thing” now: being different, being from nowhere and everywhere, being two people in one body. Should I let it define me?

But maybe that is the lovely thing about America: no definitions needed. I can be defined by my memory of cobblestoned streets, jars of jam, first kisses along the banks of the Danube. I can also be defined by the life I built here out of nothing really, just the two suitcases I brought with me twenty years ago.

I had hoped that as the anniversary date of my arrival in the U.S. gets closer this summer I would feel more settled with my American-ness and less conflicted about the eighteen-year-old me making this huge decision without realizing what she was doing. But maybe it’s time to embrace all of it—the homesickness, the uncertainty, the double life.

Maybe it’s time to plant some trees and start making my own jam.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN lives in Connecticut with her husband and son and blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Real Estate

house and sky
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Zsofi McMullin

For days after we sold our house, I felt uneasy. It felt like the house was still somehow attached to me like a phantom limb—heavy and itchy and restless—and I had to remind myself constantly that it was none of my concern anymore. I didn’t have to worry about shoveling the snow in the driveway or fixing the leaky window in the dining room, and I no longer had to grumble about the cold, creaky wooden floors.

We bought our house eight years ago, just weeks before the housing market collapsed. I don’t think it was love at first sight, but more like comfort at first sight. We could see ourselves living there, hidden among the trees of our wild backyard. We could imagine our furniture in the living room, our pots in the kitchen, our bed upstairs, a crib in the second bedroom. Our small family—not yet in existence—would fit in this small house neatly, comfortably.

Right before we signed the papers to buy the house, we ran into its owner, a middle-aged woman who inherited it from her mother. She lived there with a huge, white dog whose fur we’d keep finding in the most unusual places even years later. “This place really needs a young family,” she told us, waving towards the gray house behind her. I had never owned a house, but I knew what she meant. I knew that this was the place where it was all going to happen—where we would become a family, where we would settle down and be happy.

And it was mostly true. We were mostly happy, mostly settled. We battled with the wild raspberry bushes in the yard, with the ice leaking through the old roof, the paint chipping off the shingles. But the place was ours and I was surprised by how much that mattered to me and comforted me. I felt anchored, secure.

Then we decided to move to another state for a new job. The house was on the market for what seemed like decades, various strangers walking through our rooms critiquing everything from the ceilings, to the size of the kitchen, to its location. I felt insulted and protective of our little nest but also a bit resentful of its stubbornness. Why couldn’t it just let us go? Yet when we finally received an offer on the day the moving truck arrived to pack up our boxes, I felt no relief, no joy. The financial burden was lifted, the responsibility gone, the worry relieved.

Our tether gone, we were free to go. And yet…

I walked through the empty rooms one last time the day of the closing. I only cried when I got to my little boy’s room where he and I spent so much time awake in the middle of the night. I was taking the little boy with me obviously—he was sitting in the car outside—but I felt like a part of me was left behind among the soft yellow walls and the baby blue closet, and the view of the yard.

•••

I grew up in a large, cold, crumbling apartment in the center of Budapest. At one point my uncle, his wife, and their new baby lived with me, my brother, my parents, and my grandfather. There was nothing unusual about this—a lot of my friends lived with their extended families. Once my uncle and his family moved out, my brother and I no longer had to share the tiniest bedroom and my parents did not have to use the living room as their bedroom. These changes felt like huge luxuries, and my brother and I reveled in our new furniture in our bigger—still shared—bedroom. Our desks faced each other and we passed notes and giggled as we did our homework each evening.

My mother grew up in this apartment, rented from the local government. At one point each floor had just one apartment that was later chopped up into three. We lived on the third floor, in one of the larger places. The rooms had tall ceilings and windows and big, double doors. The bathroom was heated only by a gas heater on the wall, so whoever was the unlucky first person in the bathroom in the morning had to turn it on and wait for the temperature to become bearable for a shower. The kitchen was heated only by the oven so we always had to dress in layers for meals in the winter.

During the political changes in Hungary in the 1990s, our apartment building became sort of a no-man’s-land. The government no longer cared for it, but the occupants didn’t own their apartments yet, so maintenance was non-existent and the building declined slowly, paint chip by paint chip. I remember giving this explanation to many visitors before they figured out a polite way to ask about the state of hallways, the elevator, the courtyard.

My parents purchased our apartment after my grandfather’s death. That was the first time that my family owned real estate. Now at least the crumbling walls belonged to us.

When my parents moved to the U.S. a few years later, they first rented out the apartment then put it up for sale. It’s still on the market, along with dozens of similar apartments on our street. I think about it often—I think about buying it, renovating it, living there in some other life, finding comfort in the familiar neighborhood. But the place is a burden on my parents right now, and I wish for them to be rid of it. I wish I could be certain that selling it will feel like a relief—a lifetime of history and stuff packed up, thrown out, passed on to a stranger who can start there anew.

•••

“Is there anything you want out of your grandmother’s apartment?” my father asked a few months ago as he was distributing her belongings among his cousins and other relatives. She died the year before and, by the time I arrived to Hungary for her funeral and saw her apartment for the first time after her death, her clothes were already donated, including what I wanted the most: her red, flowery scarf and her big fur winter hat.

It seemed silly at the time to make a fuss about this—and it still does because I know that what I truly, really want can’t be mine: the smell of Wiener Schnitzel wafting from her apartment into the hallway on Sundays; the scent of freshly ironed linens as she opened a cabinet to pick a tablecloth for lunch; the tap-tapping of her slippers as she walked back and forth to the kitchen down a long, skinny hallway; the clinking of her china on the table; the gurgling of her ancient coffee pot; the cold air that swooshed into the apartment when she opened the balcony door to retrieve the fruit salad that she kept cold out there.

I couldn’t pack up any of these things.

Her apartment in Budapest sold almost the same day as my house in Maine. My parents traveled there to sign the closing papers, and I watched them unpack their suitcases just a few days later when they returned to Maine to their small, rental condo: Ten bottles of homemade jam, a metal key hook, a couple of framed drawings, books, a ceramic trivet, a decorative plate that used to hang in the kitchen.

•••

Lately I think a lot about these three pieces of real estate and about how they came, went, and yet somehow always stayed in my life. Are the walls they held around me just that? Does the weight of owning these walls matter? Do they just hold our stuff, or are they places where our life collects, that place where babies come home from the hospital, where dinner is cooked, where parties are held, where nothing or everything happens? Is there freedom to be had by not being attached to these structures, or does their absence weigh heavier?

I like our new—rented—apartment. It’s modern and much bigger than our little house was. Groundkeepers shovel the snow, salt the driveway, fix clogged pipes. Our furniture gets lost in the big rooms and under the tall ceilings. It’s easy to live here, detached from history, from responsibility, from what comes next.

But I miss the weight, the burden tying me firmly to one place to call home.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a recent transplant to Connecticut. She works in publishing and blogs at www.zsofiwrites.com.

Five Pounds of Flesh

lingerie form
By The Lingerie Addict/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

The surgeon sat between my legs on a low stool, his left hand gently cradling the curve of my right breast as he drew dotted lines and circles on my skin. I was sitting on a hospital bed, my feet dangling off the side and I wasn’t sure where to look. His touch was measured and medical, but the intimacy of the moment took my breath away.

“This isn’t awkward at all,” I joked, trying to break the silence in the small examining room. The surgeon laughed with me, but never broke his concentration on the measurements—between collarbone and nipple, the space between breasts—mapping out where cuts and sutures and skin will go.

He quietly explained his strategy for the surgery to the resident sitting next to him, but he continued to focus on my breasts. I was in danger of breaking out in giggles and making his precise lines go wiggly, so I tried hard to concentrate on something else … anything. His wispy, graying hair. Sun-kissed, rugged cheeks. Blue eyes. Broad shoulders, sculpted arms, big, secure hands. Concentrating on him clearly didn’t make things easier. His breath smelled like chocolate.

This, I found the most reassuring.

•••

I am not sure when I realized that I have big breasts. And not just big breasts, but really big, bigger than big should be. I’ve always had this body and you get used to seeing yourself every day in a certain way. Sure, it changed with puberty, and the Freshman Fifteen, and the Married Ten, some weight loss here and there, and with pregnancy. But its essence—round belly, curvy hips, soft thighs, and big boobs—never really changed.

I got my first bra when I was twelve. At the time we lived in China because of my dad’s job, and I remember my mom gently suggesting that I should try on a bra. I was a bit surprised that she happened to pack one that fit me. I only started to wonder later whether it was actually one of her bras.

So that’s how it started and the sizes just kept going up and up. After we returned home from our Chinese adventure I got a couple of soft, cotton bras with pink hearts on it. Later my mom steered me to more supportive styles with wide straps and that awful beige-y hue that old ladies wear.

There are a lot of humiliating things about having unnaturally large breasts. The stares, especially when you are too young to handle such attention. The difficulty in finding clothes that fit, a bathing suit, or not being able to walk around without a bra, unless you want to look really, really ridiculous. But the thing that always got to me was shopping for bras: in almost every store—even in ones that seem to cater to larger women—you have to look in the very back and the very bottom of every display rack to find your size. I don’t know how many times I found myself shedding coat and purse and actually kneeling on the store floor to find what I was looking for. If, I could find what I was looking for.

•••

The first time I got naked with my first serious boyfriend, he was very nervous about taking his shirt off. I didn’t really understand until he finally pulled his t-shirt over his head. There were small scars around his nipples and he quietly admitted that as a teenager he’d had breast reduction surgery.

I thought about him as I was getting ready for my own surgery and about how he liked to compare my breasts to fruits: apples, oranges, peaches. “They’re more like melons,” I corrected him once, and I remember the shocked look on his face before we both burst into laughter.

There were men who were afraid of my breasts, hesitating about touching them, maybe intimidated by their heft. There were men who worshipped and treasured them, removing my bra last as if to save the best for last. There were men who didn’t really care or notice or comment.

But as I got older, I found that I cared and noticed more and more. I don’t think my breasts have ever held me back from doing things or made me more timid or shy. But, of course, it’s hard to say now because I can’t relive my younger years with small breasts for comparison. Could I have been more popular? More active and sporty? More outgoing, outspoken, confident? Would I have been more adventurous when it came to trying new things or going after things? I’d like to think that I was never defined by my breasts, but I am sure I was to some extent, at least in my mind. And who knows how others have thought of me? Was I ever “that girl with the rack”?

After I gave birth to my son I thought, finally, my boobs can do something good. But their size didn’t ensure that they would also produce enough milk, and it was actually harder to maneuver my nipples into the tiny, waiting mouth without smothering him. So not only was it impossible to find a pretty bra, or wear tank tops, or run, or just feel like I am not all boob, but now they couldn’t even feed my baby?

As the pain in my back and shoulders intensified each year, I finally made the decision: It was time for them to go.

•••

I found out my true bra size in a very posh lingerie shop in London a couple of years ago. Our kind B&B owner told me that I must go there because they are sure to carry my size. At the time, I thought that was a bit forward, and frankly I was just so sick of the humiliation of it all. But I was also curious. So I dragged my husband along and he walked around the neighborhood while I browsed. A woman who was about my age and was also fairly well endowed, pulled me into a dressing room. Even before I took my shirt off she said, “You are a 40H. I’ll be right back.” The number sounded impossibly foreign, especially because I realized that the bras I was squeezing myself into were two or three sizes too small.

She came back with a black lacy bra with no wires, and she quickly pulled off my old bra, which poked and bulged in all the wrong places. She put the black piece on me, adjusting me without any hesitation or permission and boom: there were the ladies, all tight and firm, lifted, separated, in place, and happy. The bra cost two hundred dollars. I bought it without hesitation. I wore and treasured that bra for years and years, washing it by hand, air-drying it, until it slowly, slowly fell apart.

•••

The pain was excruciating when I woke up from the surgery. My nipples were burning and my chest felt heavy and somehow hollow at the same time, as if my chest cavity were scooped clean.

As a new dose of pain medication took effect and the anesthesia wore off, I took a quick peek under my hospital gown. I couldn’t really see much—just bandages and an ugly surgical bra that was way too tight. The nurses and the surgeon were obviously very excited about the results. “They removed five pounds,” one nurse informed me. It was clear that it was a big deal.

The next day at my follow-up appointment to remove drains, the surgeon made a special point to stop by and help the nurse working on me. He thumbed my nipples to see if I had any sensation—yes, I did, thank you very much—and marveled at his own handiwork. It took me a while to work up the courage to look at them without the bra and without the bandages.

If they had removed five pounds of flesh from my stomach or from my thighs, I don’t think the experience would have been that emotional. But I couldn’t quite speak or put feelings into words when I saw my breasts—small, white, firm, and even with the bruising and the swelling and the specks of blood and blue ink left over from the surgery so, so very beautiful.

“We are so excited for you,” the nurse said. “This is going to make a huge difference in your life.” The surgeon put clean gauze around my incisions and held gauze pads to my breasts as the nurse eased a clean surgical bra over my shoulder and around my chest. He squeezed my hands as he left, clearly touched by what he had done for me; I wasn’t really sure what to do with his enthusiasm. I wanted to say something witty about how excited I was, or how certain I was that my life would change, or how I really, really understood the significance of what I have done.

But I really didn’t—not then and maybe not even now. And maybe there isn’t a greater meaning to any of those five pounds of fat and tissue. The body that was mine for all these years is no longer, but I carry its history and experiences inside. Now that there is no more pain, the swelling is gone and my skin has smoothed out again, everything else about me remains the same – the belly, the hips, the hair, the nose, the stubbornness, the introversion, the indecision, the writing, the chocolate, the four-year-old.

I am still me.

Still, when I look in the mirror every morning, I feel giddy.

•••

The lingerie shop that opened near my office is one of those places where I never would have thought about shopping just a few months ago. It is not a store that carries special sizes. There are three mannequins in the window wearing lacy, gauzy bras and panties, silky robes. Behind their headless bodies is a large room with neat racks on the walls—no digging around on the floor here.

A very young, tall, and skinny salesgirl shows me to a dressing room. I try not to be too obvious about checking her out when she mentions that she sleeps in a bra because she has large breasts. I can’t see what she is talking about.

She measures me and announces my new size. “You are between a 38 F and a 40 DD,” she says and quickly leaves the dressing room to pick out some bras for me. I am a bit bummed. Those numbers still sound incredibly big to me, but when I look at myself in the half-light of the dressing room what I see is teeny-tiny compared to my old self. I try hard not to concentrate on those numbers and letters. Just like weight, height, or age, they are just numbers after all.

The first bra I put on is light purple with black lining and lace. The straps are ruched and skinny, with just two hooks in the back and a small, rhinestone heart and a black silk bow in the front. “It fits like a glove,” the salesgirl says as she adjusts the straps, and I am too busy checking myself out to respond. I try on three more and I really can’t believe that all of this delicate and tiny silk and lace can be mine.

Whatever this surgery will come to mean in my life, whatever change it will bring—or not—almost doesn’t matter. This is a pleasure in life: to feel normal, to feel pretty, to have soft, luxurious fabric against my skin, to look at myself and not turn away. The salesgirl asks if I want my husband to come in and take a look. I tell her no. He will get his turn, but this moment is all mine.

I don’t check the price tags. I buy them all. The ladies and I waited a very long time for this.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN was born in Budapest and lived there until she turned eighteen. She became a “full-grown-person” over the past nineteen years spent in the U.S. She lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and her four-year-old son. Her day job is in publishing, but she spends all of her free time between four and five a.m. every morning imagining that she is a writer.

Young Love

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By ljfullofgrace/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

My phone buzzes just as I drain hot pasta over the sink with Sam hanging on my leg and my husband talking about the mortgage or some electrical issues in our basement or something else house-related. I try to nudge Sam away from the boiling water and towards the dining room table—with a quick stop to wash his sticky little hands. I hear my phone again, impatiently beeping and buzzing, and I recognize that someone is trying to send me a message over Skype. It could be my mom or my brother, so I settle Sam, serve dinner, and quickly glance at the screen.

It’s not my mom. It’s not my brother. It’s Him. It’s a short message and it’s written in German and despite not having spoken one word of German in oh, about fifteen years, I know and understand every single word immediately. “I was at a charity event tonight and I don’t know why but I’ve been thinking about you all day.”

That’s it.

That’s it and I am nineteen again.

That’s it and I am back in his small, dark college dorm room, lightheaded from one too many fuzzy navels and giddy with excitement. I am sitting on the floor across from him, cross-legged, but all I can think about is how much I want to wrap my legs around him and pull him even closer. We are both wearing flannel, and Whitney Houston is playing in the background. A friend of ours stops by for a few minutes, but quickly realizes that he is interrupting whatever it is that’s about to happen. He laughs and rustles my hair as he gets up to leave, like he is happy for me.

I feel happy and confident when he finally kisses me—I’ve done this before, I know what comes next, but I am amazed that it is actually happening to me. I mean, he is so cool. So blond. So blue-eyed. So dreamy and smart and worldly and, oh my God, that accent. I am a chubby Jewish girl from Hungary—I don’t get swept off my feet by sparkly-eyed blonds. Ah, but I am now, and we quickly make our way to my room—my roommate is away for the weekend.

There is some confusion about whether I am a virgin or not, but after I reassure him that he is not about to deflower me, he is tender and hungry and talks to me in German the whole time. I wake up in the middle of the night, squished between him and the cold cement wall and spend the rest of the night in the lounge of my dorm building, watching bad TV and thinking that what I have just done was so cool and so grown-up and so sophisticated. And so very unlike me. I don’t see him leave in the morning, but he leaves a note on my bed. “You are a wonderful woman. See you soon.” And his initials: PD. I realize in a panic that I have no idea what the “D” stands for.

It’s March now, and he is graduating in two months. It quickly becomes clear that our night of passion does not guarantee me any privileges when it comes to seeing him, or talking to him, or eating together in the cafeteria. It does not gain me invitations to the cool parties he attends or to the spring dance. I think we go on one date maybe—a movie and an uncomfortable dinner.

It doesn’t matter. I am in love.

It’s easy to think back and say that I was young and stupid and confused sex with love. It was probably true. He was doing what handsome German students do during their study-abroad year. I was doing what bookish lonely girls do when said handsome German students pay attention to them. It is all so dull and obvious now, but it was so tragic back then and it would have stayed like that in my memory if our story had ended there.

But it didn’t. In fact, our story is still not over and that’s an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach every time his name shows up in my inbox.

After our (well, mostly my) tearful goodbye on a cool May morning before I headed back home to Budapest for the summer, I was convinced that I would never see him again. But for once, I was pleasantly surprised. He came to visit me that summer and the next, flew to the U.S. to see me at college several times. We talked on the phone and e-mailed all the time, and we met up at international airports for quick, furtive rendezvous in business lounges. Most memorably, he showed up at my office, unannounced, a month before my wedding.

Through all those years of not seeing each other much, we somehow became friends and moved on from our beginning as a tipsy one-night-stand. I think we both found it easier to open up when we were so far apart from each other, yet just a phone call away. The heart and the mind are so easy to reveal in a quick e-mail, a brief message, a silly card. There was always something easy between us, something natural and light-hearted. He was six years older than me, already weighed down by starting a career and figuring out what grown-up life is about, and I think for a long time—and maybe even now—I represented a carefree and happy time in his life. It was a comfort to both of us to recall our haphazard romance and to share a laugh about our youth and naïveté.

We never really talked about it, but obviously we both dated other people and I got married first. When he showed up at my office on a cold November morning, my heart stopped because again, this was not something that happened outside of movies—a scandal before my wedding? Did he come to take me away? To confess—finally!—that he is truly and madly in love with me? Did I even want that anymore?

He made no confessions. He came to say goodbye—I suspect that by then he was in a serious relationship with his future wife and had to put an end to whatever was going on between us. We held each other for a long time. He kissed me on the forehead and brushed his knuckles playfully across my chin before he left my apartment. I watched him walk down the long stairway leading to the street from my front door and for a moment I almost—almost—called him back. But I knew that would have been a mistake and that neither one of us were the kind of people who would do that before our weddings.

We stayed in touch for the next decade, exchanging a few phone calls, a few e-mails about birth, death, jobs—the big stuff of life. There was always so much tenderness and so much history in our exchanges, assuring us that we weren’t alone in navigating all of this uncharted grown-up territory. It felt like we were finally on equal footing—I didn’t feel like the chubby Jewish girl anymore, and he didn’t seem like that shiny, untouchable person I remembered him to be. We were just two people who knew each other from way back when, who built a friendship out of an ill-fated college romance.

So here we are now, almost thirteen years later. Here is this message on my phone, beeping and wanting attention. I want to give it attention, because it’s …well, because it’s Him. I am a practical person: I believe that love is a choice every single day; that marriage is a choice every single day. No matter how hot the passion is in the beginning, to sustain a life together the passion must cool and every morning must begin with a choice—to be present, to be kind, to be understanding, to iron shirts, to cook a favorite meal, to listen.

But whatever this other thing is, it is not my choice—and it never has been. Whatever pulled me to him on that March night when I was nineteen is still in me—irrational, unexplainable, unstoppable, and I assume never-ending. I have felt this stupid love-like-thing for this man for the past eighteen years of my life and I have no reason to think it will change.

The next morning he e-mails me to say that he is thinking about what the rest of his life holds for him, how to handle the responsibilities thrust upon him and still find happiness. “Right now, but also for the past few years I wish I had you by my side,” he writes. “For many reasons.”

I know that, years ago, a message like that would have had me in tears of joy. And I am in tears now too as I look at my iPad screen in the early morning darkness. But it’s not joy I feel. I want to scold him. I want to be angry. Has he not learned how easy it is to believe that life would be different—better, more exciting, sexier, easier—with someone else? Does he not know that if he did have me by his side, he would not write me lovelorn notes in the middle of the night? I would be the nagging wife who only has time for the kids and I would not be the young love that got away.

I turn off the iPad and try to go back to sleep. As I drift off, I think about how I don’t want our story to be a sad one. I don’t want it to be about regret, or the road not taken, or opportunity not seized. I don’t want it to be about making the wrong choice or picking the wrong person. I am not sure what our story is about, but I can’t let it be about those things. I want it to be about possibility, about love that endures in whatever shape it appears in life. I want it to be about making a choice and sticking with it.

I want it to be about that little corner of the heart where I tuck away what I treasure most: an old friend with sparkly blue eyes, the smile of my baby, the reassuring weight of my husband in bed next to me.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN was born in Budapest and lived there until she turned eighteen. She became a “full-grown-person” over the past nineteen years spent in the U.S. She lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and her four-year-old son. Her day job is in publishing, but she spends all of her free time between four and five a.m. every morning imagining that she is a writer.