My body’s immersed in the warm bath water. But instead of feeling relaxed, I’m in pain. The pain throbs across my body, eats up my mind, but mostly, pierces through my heart.
I replay the images from last night in my mind—flashes I desperately want to forget.
The rage in his eyes, so unfamiliar. As if I were staring into the eyes of a stranger and not the eyes of my brother. My brother—a pastor, my role model, the spiritual leader of an entire congregation. My brother who has known me and, although imperfect, has loved me my whole life.
Lips curled in fury, his face unrecognizable. And then the chokehold. Flying across the room. Hitting the wall. Feeling my body land in an unnaturally distorted position.
Looking up from down below, everything was out of focus. Upside down.
When he came to me while I was still on the ground, I knew right then and there that nothing would ever be the same again.
I was right. Things have never been the same.
In Korean, “Oppa” means “older brother” from a girl’s perspective. The perspective of a little sister.
These days, “Oppa” is commonly used as a flirtatious term popularized by k-pop and Korean dramas.
But when I was growing up, “Oppa” was a serious term of respect. I was never allowed to call my brother by his given name.
Oppa and I learned to grow up fast as children of first-generation Korean store-owner immigrants. After a successful stint as convenience store owners, my parents would often leave us at night to go work at their clothing factory—a new business venture they were exploring. Oppa would go through my bedtime routine, put me to sleep. He would guard the phone at home. Three rings, a pause, another ring. That was the code my mother taught us so that we would know when to pick up the phone.
Left at home, too often by ourselves, we had a love-hate relationship; we fought viciously, made up, fought again and made up.
We couldn’t live with one another but couldn’t live without each other.
My childhood memories are entangled with images of his face, his expressions, his mannerisms, his lectures, his embraces.
Growing up, he was the closest person to me in my life.
There were signs, of course.
His flashes of rage. The holes in the wall from his punches. We placed calendars over each hole and excused every outburst as teenage angst.
When Oppa went to high school, he struggled with his weight and consequently, his self-confidence.
Although I had my own personal angst, something about him, his vulnerability, his sensitivity made me feel protective.
Likewise, Oppa personified all the tell-tale behaviors of an over-protective older brother.
There were years of miscommunication and distance.
By the time Oppa went to college, we had re-kindled our friendship. By the time I went to college, we were so close that he gave me The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and told me that he would always be there for me.
He was the one I turned to over and over again with each dramatic incident of my teenage years, for each critical decision I made in my years as a young adult.
He was truly my Giving Tree, and the most influential person in my life.
In the summer of 2007, I was visiting California to meet my boyfriend’s parents. We were planning to get married.
I had been visiting California since Oppa attended Fuller Theological Seminary. Oppa was now the Pastor of an English-speaking ministry at a local Korean American Church. My boyfriend attended that same church.
That morning, Oppa and I had a big fight. He was complaining I wasn’t spending enough time with him, that I was spending too much time with my boyfriend.
He’d become so angry, hurtful, since I had started dating my boyfriend.
I came home early that evening. I was staying with Oppa and my sister-in-law in their two-bedroom apartment. The fight from the morning seemed inconsequential. I was ready to make up.
But that night, something snapped.
I saw true rage in Oppa’s eyes. Was it really because of my boyfriend and Oppa’s over-protective stance as an older brother? Was it because I was about to launch my legal career and Oppa had always wanted to go into law but hadn’t? Was it because my parents already loved my boyfriend and were considering him as their son when Oppa had always struggled with self-acceptance as the eldest son of a traditional Korean family?
Is there ever a reason or justification?
This time, there is no making up.
I’ve always prided myself on being an advocate. I consider myself a woman of action. I protest. I march. I fight.
I’ve always loved arguing, the heat of debate. In law school, I specialized in criminal litigation and international human rights—always one of the few Asians in my classes.
I’ve always been told how “non-Asian” I am; how I break the stereotype of a submissive, quiet, well-mannered Asian woman. I am loud. Confident.
Never would I have imagined myself to be so submissive…so Korean…so silenced.
I’ll never forget the panicked look of my sister-in-law as she forced the phone out of my hand when I was trying to call the police. I’ll never forget the sound of my weeping parents begging me not to call the police. Instead they told me to roll an egg on my bruises to make them go away faster.
I underestimated the power of my subconscious need to obey, to comply, to help my parents in sweeping this messy incident under the rug. The driving force to save our family’s reputation was also clouded by my internal voices of justification. This was my brother, after all. He loved me; I loved him. Surely this was not something I could send him to jail for, ruin his entire career, ruin our entire family. I felt forced to do nothing.
Me, an English-speaking lawyer-to-be with a background in advocacy and activism.
I’ll never forget the self-loathing and shame I felt as I retreated within myself, my voice silenced. Oh, the hypocrisy. And I called myself a lawyer? An advocate?
To this day, my father claims that what happened that night was not a big deal. So an Oppa hit his dongsaeng, little sister. He’s always wondering why I’m being over-dramatic. We were family. We loved one another. Why couldn’t I just get over it and move on?
So, I did nothing. I moved on.
That night, my boyfriend picked me up and took me to a nearby hotel. He held me as I sobbed. He gently placed ice packs and eggs on my bruises.
He also went, the very next day, to hear my brother preach.
He, too, is Korean.
I did nothing. In 2007 nor in all the following years.
But there were moments of clarity, of progress.
When I found out I was giving birth to a little boy, I cried. I was anguished that I should give birth to a little boy that could become a man who could potentially hit another woman. But I found strength in my husband, a good man, in knowing that we could raise our son differently.
Within a year after my son was born, I joined the Board of Directors for a specialized clinic for women experiencing violence. In my application to join the board, I shared, for the first time, openly about what my brother had done to me.
It was cathartic. Empowering.
I now have a daughter. And with the dismal statistics of women experiencing domestic violence in North America today, I want her to know that she can have a voice. She needs to have a voice. I need to raise her so that she, unlike me, will not be silenced.
I get out of the bath water, unsure of what to do next.
I look in the mirror. I don’t even recognize her—such uncertainty in her eyes. That can’t be me.
When I look up close, at the bruises, she’s even more unrecognizable. I take out my makeup bag. I cover up my bruises. I put a smile on my face. I meet my boyfriend’s parents.
A year later, we get married.
I won’t go into the details of my depression and journey of spiritual healing and revival after the summer of 2007.
I won’t go into the decade-old disappointment towards my brother and my beloved well-intentioned parents who have never acknowledged the criminality of what Oppa did to me.
It wasn’t until recently that I finally found the strength to publicly share my story.
Surprisingly, this strength came in the form of an unexpected phone call from a police investigator conducting a background check for my brother who had applied, of all things, to become a police officer.
As I shared my story, ten years later, to this random police officer, I did feel a refreshing sense of vindication. Oppa should have never become an ordained pastor, an American citizen, a Navy Chaplain. He should have received court-mandated counseling. I should have received a restraining order.
Then he wouldn’t have dared to threaten me again. Which he did, five years later, causing me to cut him off completely.
And my parents, first-generation immigrants. To this day, condoning my brother, asking me to be the bigger person, to think of the family’s reputation. To this day, asking me how they can choose between Oppa and me.
They don’t realize that by choosing to protect my brother, they gave up their daughter. The broken trust and abandonment I felt in my deepest moments of pain have never left me.
I know what I experienced is nothing compared to the unspoken tragedies of domestic and family violence in too many households across North America. But that’s why I need to tell my story. This story.
I loved my Oppa. I love my parents. But Oppa hit me.
SYLVIA KIM is a lawyer and human rights advocate currently residing in Southern California. Although it took her much too long to publicly share this story, she hopes this will encourage other women, particularly from cultures where domestic and family violence is highly stigmatized, to share their stories as well. Sylvia is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and usually writes on international human rights issues, racial justice, and politics.
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,Avidly, The New Orleans Review, The Morning News, and The Millions. He now lives in Benshonhurst, Brooklyn. Find him on twitter: @stewsinclair.
Is it weird to anyone else that so many of the processes of our body occur in the dark? In my mind’s eye, I’m watching things happen the way they would in an educational film in high school science. Everything: digestion, oxygen exchange, salivation, ejaculation, menstruation.
I mean picture it: a woman releases an egg, it travels down the fallopian tube, if no sperm find it, it dies and passes through the body with the rest of the uterine lining. If it’s fertilized, that egg changes, grows, and moves into the uterus and usually embeds in the right spot. Now imagine that in the dark. How the hell does this happen?
Hormones. Temperature. Luck. All regulated by biochemistry and stuff I can’t see at all. Why do I care? Is it because I’m logical and scientific? Is it because I run a little anxious?
The corpus lutem is a little watchmen that waits for any sign of a fertilized egg implanted in your body. It’s the part of the ovary that the egg bursts out of. It waits in the dark for a wave of heat—estrogen—to signal that the uterus should hold on to its lining if you are pregnant. You know the rest: the mystery of life and really if you think about it, death. Something happens and cells thrive or something happens and cells die and it all happens inside us.
It’s embarrassing how hard I tried to have a baby. How badly I waited. I thought I would be laid back and spontaneous. Finally, we can just have sex and not worry. Like Sally Albright, I thought we’d bang on the kitchen floor whenever we wanted but the truth is, it really is a cold, hard, Mexican ceramic tile and super uncomfortable. I really did take the fun out of it.
In every month, you spend three weeks waiting to find out. Waiting to ovulate, waiting to find out if you are pregnant and waiting to start again.
I had months and months of starting over. I wasn’t medically outside of normal limits. We were told that getting pregnant within a year of trying is normal. I absolutely break for people who endure this for years.
After six months and eight cycles, I woke up in the middle of the night. I felt like I was riding the tiniest tidal wave of heat. I felt a vibration—like a buzzing, happening in me. I sat wide awake in the dark and smiled. This was unusual enough, chemical enough, that I absolutely knew I was pregnant.
I was right. The next day, a few days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and yep, two lines, that little heat wave was the start of a baby.
I rode other waves too. Like the nausea wave. That is no joke. I texted my Dad who had recently stopped chemotherapy for what we had just learned was terminal throat cancer. We joked about puking first thing in the morning, how much we puked, how gross it is, all the different weird words for it: Puke, barf, vomit and his favorite an onomatopoeic RAAAAAALPH.
But at my first OB appointment I found out, I would be starting over again. My baby had no heartbeat.
It’s a thousand tiny deaths … all those steps from there to here. Cell death. Death of what you thought would happen. The death of your father.
When they showed me the tiny form on the screen, all I could think was that it was dark inside my womb. I didn’t want my baby in there alone and unseen when they turned the monitor off.
The body works along, without our consent whether living or dying.
I endured a few very hard weeks hoping for a natural miscarriage and, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I scheduled a D&C.
I found myself really curious about how the D&C procedure is performed. I asked the doctor to explain the approach in detail to me. Why does a physician go in blind when they remove the fetal tissue? Wouldn’t it help to have the procedure guided by ultrasound? Why do you do it in the dark? Why can’t you see?
When I asked the OB these questions, a lady I had never met but had already spoken to on the phone, she seemed offended and sort of scuffed when responding. “Um, I’ve done this before. We don’t use an ultrasound because we don’t. We know how to do it.”
Is it so much work to educate a patient about your methods, about the risks? I pressed on. “How are your outcomes? What are the risks?”
Again, annoyed and terse. “They’re good. There is a small risk of puncturing your uterus and therefore of bleeding, of hysterectomy, and, of course, even death.”
“So I could wake up without the ability to have children?”
“It’s possible, but what else are you going to do?”
She actually said that to me.
The first nurse couldn’t get an IV in. Another nurse came in and got it. She offered her condolences to me. The office was plastered with pink and red hearts. Fresh roses sat proudly at the nurses station. It was Valentine’s Day, after all. My husband offered a thankful nod and the nurse left. He held my hand and waited with me, assuring me it would be okay. He was an ocean of calm.
A small-framed man walked in, the anesthesiologist. We pulled his chair close to mine and started with this:
“My wife has sat where you are sitting five times. We joke that we have two only-children because there are nine years between our first and second living children.” He had kind eyes and a friendly energetic voice. “I’m going to talk you through the risks of anesthesia. The procedure involves sedation, no intubation or ventilation but there is a risk, less than a lightning strike, that I would need to intubate you, okay? It’s safer to do this than to drive home. You could have a bad reaction to the medication but again, these are old meds, very well studied and I am an excellent doctor.” He went through a few other risks, including the tiniest risk of death, which he said was like suffering two lightning strikes in the same day and told me I’d wake up a little groggy.
He consistently addressed me before addressing my husband. He put his hands on mine and said he was so sorry I was suffering and he wished me well, hoping that I would fare better than his wife. As he was leaving the room he turned and said “After this, you can start over and try again.”
I wrote him a thank you note later. That man is why I let them wheel me into the room, let the somewhat rude OB scrape the baby out of my body without even looking.
He was right. I did get another chance to start over. Two months later, they peeked again and saw a strong heartbeat and a tidal wave of heat with their machines. I was ten weeks along when Dad passed away in the dark of morning. And the mystery of that baby growing in the dark accompanied the grief, the way the sun rises even if you didn’t sleep great. I had a daughter that December, she has my Dad’s curls.
I got to try again two years later and have a son. We named him after my dad. He was born as fast as a lightning strike into a unlit hallway of the birth center. The midwives turned on the lights later and we all laughed at the trail of blood I left from the lobby to the spot he emerged. “That looked a lot better in the dark,” the midwife said. That was true. When I play the video of his birth in my head, I see nothing. I don’t need to see it. I had gone through enough life and death by then to trust what I can’t see.
I feel the power of his body moving through me. The weight of him leaving me, the people bustling around me, I hear myself yelling out, I hear splashes of liquid hit the floor. A nurse tells me to squat, which I ignore and deliver him standing up. I don’t even see him yet, he is just pressed against my abdomen screaming. I hold him to my belly. I feel his squishy shoulders, his tiny frame. At that point, we didn’t know it was a boy. I did have to move out of the dark hallway to confirm that.
CARLY BERGEY is a Speech-Language Pathologist, singer, and writer currently crafting a memoir about her work as a voice therapist. Her creative and academic writing has been published in Intima, Pulse, the ASHA leader, ENT Secrets and CHEST. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her family.
On our fridge, there’s a pair of grainy black-and-white ultrasound stills, held up with a small plastic duck magnet and looking back at me and my husband every time we open the door for half-and-half or orange juice. In the photographs, our baby looks like a fuzzy cashew. A lima bean. A smudge on a window you could wipe away with Windex and a rag. It’s hard to believe this is where we all begin.
You may be daydreaming about having a boy or a girl, but the external genitals haven’t developed enough to reveal your baby’s sex. (Try our Chinese gender predictor for an early guess!) Either way, your baby—about the size of a kidney bean—is constantly moving and shifting, though you still can’t feel it.
I am going to be a mother, and all I can think about is my father.
My dad and I haven’t talked in nine years. But I’m the one it seems to bother. Closer to a decade than not. No phone calls, but also no letters, no emails, no texts. Not that I can imagine my dad—or the practical, literal, somewhat-adverse-to-technology engineer who was the father I used to know—texting. When I was a teenager, he was morally opposed to call waiting; in my early twenties, I alarmed him with my fumbles at blogging. I’m not alone in this—my parents had three daughters, and my younger sisters don’t have contact with our father either. It’s been so long since we’ve last talked that I have to stop and count, skip back like I’m flipping through a photo album in reverse, tallying up the times we missed. Graduations. Christmases. Birthdays. Father’s Days I avoid thinking about by giving the card section at Target plenty of distance starting right after Memorial Day.
It is surprisingly easy as an adult to go through everyday life not talking about the person who contributed half of your genetic makeup. When other people talk about their fathers, I smile or nod and hope the conversation moves on to weather. Or I talk about my father-in-law, or I cast my mind back to some time when my dad and I were talking, the more distant and innocuous memories papering over more recent unpleasantness. It’s as if I have one half of a family tree and simply painted over the other side. As if I’m walking around tilted, weighed down by one branch heavy and rich with boughs and leaves and fruit, and on the other, there’s nothing but air.
There are some big no-no’s when it comes to activities for expecting moms. Some of them are pretty obvious—no bumper cars, no new tattoos, no hot tubs—but others may surprise you.
I tell my mother I’m leaning toward sending my dad a letter. I have specific reasons. A letter is quieter. It does not demand but asks. Informs but does not interrupt.
And then, of course, I make excuses not to write it—I’m busy with grading, with talking to my students about their writing, with planning a friend’s wedding shower. In early March, I wake up, and before I can change my mind, I write to him, still in my pajamas, standing up in my kitchen, early spring light bathing the wooden countertops as I blow toast crumbs off the page. What I have to say is short and straightforward, more of a note, really, scrawled on a bright green handmade paper card from a long ago Christmas stocking. The paper feels fibery, alive, like skin; I think this card will be good luck. This feels like a special occasion, the right time to use it, but I have to use two because I ruin the first by splashing tears onto the ink.
I tell my father if all goes well, he will have a granddaughter around Labor Day. Maybe I make a bad joke about planning my pregnancy that way, evidence of a nervous tick I can’t seem to avoid even when I have the chance to edit it out. I write that I am thinking of him. That I don’t expect anything in return.
But the truth, of course, is I do expect something. I can’t not expect something even as I try to let him go. The letter itself is an extension of a hand, even if it is hesitating and trembling and uncertain. In that small envelope, I have sent part of my heart.
Your pregnancy: 15 weeks! Your growing baby now measures about 4 inches long, crown to rump, and weighs in at about 2 1/2 ounces (about the size of an apple)…although her eyelids are still fused shut, she can sense light. If you shine a flashlight at your tummy, for instance, she’s likely to move away from the beam.
Each Monday, cheery pregnancy email newsletters arrive in my email inbox comparing our baby’s growth to something edible: this week your baby is the size of a kumquat, the size of a mango, of a rutabaga, of an ear of corn. One week, my husband will receive a digital bulletin comparing our growing child to a pot roast. I’ll get an eggplant.
Included in these newsletters is no advice on how to talk to your estranged father.
My father and I stopped talking for reasons that now make us both look foolish. Maybe we have that in common. Perhaps I can stash this away in the basket of traits I’ve inherited from him: overly thick and unruly dark hair! hazel eyes! stubbornness and the inability to admit we’ve been wrong about something!
I’m sure, too, he has his own version of events, but here is how I remember it. Nine years ago, my youngest sister was graduating high school. To celebrate, my mother’s family planned a party. What my father said after he was invited: he was just there for the ceremony, flying down from New Jersey for that and only that. What he didn’t say: he had done the calculus, the return-on-investment, and the three children from his first marriage were not on the winning end. I remember pleading with him outside the newspaper where I worked at the time, my face hot and sweaty from being pressed to my cell phone. I paced up and down between hydrangea bushes, attempting to appeal to his most logical side, what rhetoricians, or people who study language and communication call logos, as in logos = a waste of time and money to fly five hundred miles only to sit in a hotel room. And then, because this was always a second and often less successful tactic with my dad, I attempted to appeal to his emotions (pathos = come on, it’s his daughter, my sister, we’re talking about here). He was unmovable as a boulder, which made me a foaming, irrational kind of furious. He grew calmer. I grew angrier. Mistakes were made, as they say. He cancelled plans to come at all. Maybe he mailed me a card, maybe followed up with phone call or two—all of this is lost in the fog of anger and hurt I was determined to wallow in—and after that we settled into a firm standoff of silence.
Here’s an addendum. The way my husband recalls it, I was also trying to persuade my dad to stay a few days longer. I was proud of the life we were building: the old bungalow we were renovating, our careers, our promise. We had 401(k)s! We had health insurance! What more can you ask of your adult children, especially if you happen to be into logic? He declined. He had to get back for Father’s Day, he said, to spend the day with my two younger half siblings.
Even now, right now, when I Google these dates and re-Google them, I’m shaking my head thinking, no, no, memory, you have it wrong. Memory may be slippery but a calendar isn’t. In 2008, my sister’s high school graduation ceremonies were on June 14. Father’s Day was the day after.
Your pregnancy: 16 weeks! Get ready for a growth spurt. In the next few weeks, your baby will double his weight and add inches to his length. Right now, he’s about the size of an avocado: 4 1/2 inches long (head to rump) and 3 1/2 ounces. He’s even started growing toenails.
The pregnancy newsletters are silent, too, on when you will know you’re bonded with your unborn child. Will it be when they are the size of a turnip? Of a butternut squash?
Early in my pregnancy, I hope I wake one day and find my instinct to be a parent waiting for me beside my bed with my glasses. Instead it feels as if I’m walking around with a low-grade flu for two or three months. It’s a malaise that spreads to my head and my heart. My body changes but not in a way that delights me; most mornings, it’s time for another nail biting game of “what clothes will fit me today?” The first and only time I enter a maternity store, I ease around racks of tee-shirts declaring in chubby script “Happiness is On the Way” implying that, at least to the wearer, happiness had never existed before and indeed could not without the prospect of becoming a biological parent. “It’s a miracle,” a friend says of my pregnancy. I shrug. Isn’t it just nature?
Science assures me indifference is normal. According to anthropologist Meredith F. Small, prenatal bonding usually happens during the second trimester. This is when mothers begin to feel their babies move; the moving it seems, makes things more real. The attachment changes with experience, too. In one study, women who have given birth and raised a child for one year felt a stronger bond with their offspring than when they were still pregnant. And this attachment isn’t solely a matter of sharing a body. It leaves room for fathers and non-biological parents to bond with their children because they want to, not because they have to. Logically, this all makes sense. Still, I study the grainy image of the cashew on the fridge and try to name what I’m feeling, testing it like it is a twisted ankle. Is it love yet? Now? Now?
What is messy and confusing about with my relationship with my father is that there is so much good I can’t wipe from my hard drive. It isn’t possible for me to just pack these childhood memories away, like old books or toys or faded clothes that really should be taken down to the Salvation Army for a donation. I replay them even when I don’t want to: the tree house he outfitted with a crate and pulley system so I could haul up my books and less compliant passengers, such as my cats; the handle he engineered out of duct tape and cardboard so I could carry cupcakes to school without squishing them; the eight-foot tall bookshelf he designed and built me after college. The nights when I had a stomach bug and he sat with me on the bathroom floor, holding back my hair as I wrapped my arms around the cool, slick sides of the toilet bowl. The wide-mouthed Cheshire cat faces he sketched in red marker on paper bags when he packed my lunch, or the songs he made up to sing to me when I had nightmares. The time, more than a year after I graduated college and should have been better able to take care of myself, when I called him from the side of a Pennsylvania interstate because my ten-year-old Nissan Sentra’s alternator had given out and I had no idea how I was going to pay for the towing let alone the cost of repairs.
Perhaps we all keep a running tally of how the people we love the most hurt us. And our parents, because they often are our flesh and bone and blood and the first humans we know, they are the ones destined to be at the top of that list. A plus in the black here for something that makes us feel loved. A row of red minuses for the things that really tick us off. Are we ever really even? When do we understand our parents as people?
Your pregnancy: 20 weeks! Your baby weighs about 10 1/2 ounces now. He’s also around 6 1/2 inches long from head to bottom and about 10 inches from head to heel—about the length of a small banana. You’ve made it to the halfway mark in your pregnancy, so celebrate with a little indulgence. Need some ideas? Try a new nightgown or pajamas, a prenatal massage, professional pictures of your pregnant self, a beautiful frame for your baby’s first picture after birth, or a piece of clothing that makes you feel really good.
For years, I thought a letter was the key to crack the silence. It was all I needed to pick this lock: a handful of magic words, a password, just like in a fairy tale. But now that I’ve sent it and it’s gone and nothing comes back, a letter also gives me license to imagine what could have been and what might have happened. What if it got lost? I wonder if I should email instead. I wonder if I even still have his email address, if he is even still working where he worked eight years ago, if he is working at all, because he could be retired. What are other ways of reaching out to your estranged father? Hallmark doesn’t make cards for this. I weigh the emotional pull of an ultrasound, the possibility of a birth announcement. “Should I send another letter?” I ask my husband. “What about certified mail?” I’m not even sure how certified mail works; will he have to go to a post office to sign for it? It seems aggressive, to send a letter that way. Demanding to be read, or least to be seen. The certainty appeals to me, though. How else do I know he knows?
What I did not write my father: I didn’t tell him it took me a long time to get pregnant, longer than I thought I should have to wait, as if becoming a parent was my right. At first, we told ourselves all the things other people were telling us: to be patient, to not worry, which, as the anxious among us know, worrying about worrying is really the most futile game a human can play with their mind. After two years, we began to see doctors. I didn’t tell my father I tried to see my life without being a mother even as we were so bent on having a child we were on the verge of starting in vitro fertilization. And we knew—we didn’t talk about this much but we knew—once we opened that box we would keep throwing money we didn’t have into it, as bottomless as it might be.
I didn’t tell my father, either, how friend after friend gave birth to one kid, then another, in the time we were trying for just a first. The few I knew were struggling, I avoided like they had a disease I could catch. How, when I heard one couple was starting IVF with an egg donor, I scoffed out loud it was going too far but inside, I was envious of their choices. I didn’t tell him what it was like to be jealous of your friends’ miscarriages, because, if you miscarried, at least you knew you could conceive. I didn’t tell him how I stopped going to baby showers. How I laid on the crackly, tight paper of an exam table at my infertility doctor’s office gazing at a poster of a Caribbean beach taped to the ceiling. There, I waited three separate times for a nurse to insert a catheter loaded with my husband’s sperm and three separate times it was in vain even though the sperm and the egg were right there, we were setting them up on a date and pulling out all the stops, a view of sugar white sands and palm trees and everything, so how could this not happen?
I didn’t tell him how infertility tests showed nothing wrong. How, for me and my husband, trying to make something together began to feel like it was cracking us apart. How we blamed each other and then when we were tired with that, we turned back to blaming ourselves. How phantoms hovered over our bed as we tried, again and again, to bend our bodies to our will and create the image of a family fixed in our heads.
How when I missed my period just after Christmas, I took five pregnancy tests over a week, so uncertain I was by then that my body could even do this.
If I could say something to my dad now it would be that I’m lingering in the doorway of parenthood, peering down the hall and trying to see down its dimly lit walls and understand where to walk and what to do. A letter, I realize now, also gives us an exit.
Your pregnancy: 23 weeks! With her sense of movement well developed by now, your baby can feel you dance. And now that she’s more than 11 inches long and weighs just over a pound (about the size of a large mango), you may be able to see her squirm underneath your clothes. Blood vessels in her lungs are developing to prepare for breathing, and the sounds that your baby’s increasingly keen ears pick up are preparing her for entry into the outside world. Loud noises that become familiar now—such as your dog barking or the roar of the vacuum cleaner—probably won’t faze her when she hears them outside the womb.
By the middle of my fifth month, my belly has the tight, round heft of a basketball. If I lie very still on my back, I see my skin vibrating like a drum. The pregnancy updates remind me this may be my baby hiccupping. I picture her turning and tumbling in her amniotic sea, flipping like a fish. As soon as nineteen weeks, the prenatal newsletters suggest, a fetus can start to perceive sounds outside the womb. Talking or singing to your baby is encouraged. Instead, I talk to my father. I tell him how I think I see my husband’s nose on our child in a more recent ultrasound, how she was leaning on her right arm and the ultrasound technician whacked my belly to get the baby to move so she could be sure that arm was there. I tell him I am scared. Not just of labor but of what happens after, of trying to be a good teacher and a writer and a mother and still hold onto myself, my adult, fully-formed-if-flawed self who drinks a little too much bourbon and stays up a little too late reading in bed and probably doesn’t eat enough vegetables, even at thirty-seven. I tell him there are things you hope for your child, and in my case, in addition to all fingers and toes, I hope she doesn’t inherit my anxiety and my deep desire to please and fix. I tell him how I hope she will be braver and better and more curious than me, and I wonder if every parent feels that way, if that’s why we keep on going.
I ask him what he hoped for me, when I was a piece of stardust, floating peacefully inside my mother.
I also ask my father questions. I start with the normal kind of questionnaire-like, the catching up conversation starters you might ask a college roommate you’ve fallen out of touch with. Do you still go to Maine each summer? Do you still run? Do you still love trees and know how to identify them by their leaves as well as their bark? Did you ever make that trip to the Grand Canyon? Am I even remembering that right, that you wanted to go there? If and when you went, were you as disturbed by the herds of gawkers with selfie sticks as I was? Because if so, here we can pause, laugh, hold onto something we have in common. We can take another sip of our beers before we move on to the more difficult questions, the ones he will never answer. In complete sentences, please consider how can a parent just give up talking to his children. For extra credit, what does my stepmother think of all of us? Does she urge you to contact us? Or, because it’s the easier thing to do, because that would open wounds and vulnerability, does she just not talk about it, as you surely do not talk about it, nor encourage my half siblings to talk about it. What are my half-brother and -sister like? Do you text them? Come on, really? You can’t not text with a teenager now. Do they wonder about us? Do you see us in them? What, to you, is family?
I tell him I want the lightweight freedom of forgiveness—for me and for him—but I’m mired in the thick, dark mud of anger. I tell him we can see each other’s broken places now, the cracks all of us as adults try to glue back together. The places where cracks have become invisible parts of us, the scaffolding that carries us through life with resilience and experience. The places where the workmanship was more hasty.
Your pregnancy: 30 weeks! Your baby weighs almost 3 pounds (about the size of a large cabbage). You may be feeling a little tired these days…you might also feel clumsier than normal, which is perfectly understandable. Not only are you heavier, but the concentration of weight in your pregnant belly causes a shift in your center of gravity.
At a friend’s wedding in April, surrounded by a circle of new spring leaves, she and her new husband turn to each other and to his two teenage children from his first marriage and then all four of them pledge to love and support each other. It is the opposite of trite—it feels true and real, a very public way of making a new family. Later that month, I stop by my neighbors’ house, a lesbian couple who have each had a baby within a year and a half. I am there to go through hand-me-down baby clothes. In their living room, I fold tiny shirts the size of my hand, socks smaller than my thumb. The two mothers sit cross-legged on their polished wooden floor and ease their babies into their laps and at some point they both begin to breastfeed. So here is another kind of family. One block over, there’s a family with two white parents, one from France and one from Indiana, and two adopted black teenagers, and that is another kind. There is my middle sister, who has lived with her boyfriend for years. My single friends who bought houses for themselves and their dogs. Divorced couples with kids who still make a point of eating some meals together, or buy houses close enough for their kids to walk between, or don’t. All of these are families.
A few weeks later, my husband and I drive across the country. I am headed to write for a month at a residency in Washington State and we combine it with a route through the Southwest and then up the California coast. We stop in Los Angeles, and my aunt, my father’s sister in-law, insists we stay with them. They are good and generous to us; my uncle, my father’s younger brother, keeps saying, “We’re all family here,” and each time he does my heart opens and breaks all at once. Maybe the boughs on one side of my tree aren’t dead. Maybe they are leafing out. My husband likes my uncle, appreciates his collection of antique corkscrews and bottle openers, his home brewed beer, his stories and photos of camping and traveling with his kids throughout the West. I wonder what kind of father-in-law my uncle will be someday. What kind my father would have been.
Your pregnancy: 37 weeks! Your due date is very close now…While you’re sleeping, you’re likely to have some intense dreams. Anxiety both about labor and about becoming a parent can fuel a lot of strange flights of unconscious fancy.
I sometimes forget what is happening to my body in these final weeks but then I will be doing something ordinary, like getting dressed, and I catch myself in the mirror, all round and curve, and I’m surprised what I’m now feeling in my heart and my womb is so physically evident to the rest of the world. My immediate future is written for all to see—motherhood, parenthood—inviting speculation and soothsaying from strangers. She’ll be a princess, she’ll be sweet. I just want my daughter to be. I trace my fingers down my linea negra, the dark, pigmented line that appears on many pregnant women’s stomachs, dividing their bellies into two tidy halves like the neat crease of a peach. My daughter inside, her head down low near my pelvis, positioned to eject. The scrape of her arms, the lean kick of her limbs. She’s becoming more fully formed each day. She is no longer a fish; she is a human with all her parts still safe inside, still unwounded, unbroken, unscarred. Still all possibility.
Your pregnancy: 39 weeks! Your baby is full term this week and waiting to greet the world! He continues to build a layer of fat to help control his body temperature after birth, but it’s likely he already measures about 20 inches and weighs a bit over 7 pounds, about the size of a mini-watermelon.
On the late August day when my daughter is officially full term, a short letter from my father arrives sandwiched between a West Elm catalog and a Home Depot credit card offer. In romantic comedies and beach reads, this might have caused me to go into labor. Instead, I leave it unopened on the dining room table for a few hours while I pace around the house, making up things to do. When I finally tear open the envelope, I see his familiar tight, tall script, the handwriting of the Cheshire cats, the handwriting I’ve known since I could read. He says he has been meaning to respond, that he has been carrying around my letter. Happy for us. Small steps. Send details when you are ready.
Instead of a resolution, I’m left with more questions. Is it is too late to be a parent at any point? When is the damage done, or when can the relationship between a parent and a child be saved? Does forgiveness have an expiration date? When can I stop looking for hurt and harm?
Sometimes when we decide to have a child, we put a lot of faith in its power. We impose incantation on what is really just biology. Foolishly, we think it can save a marriage. Make us stronger. Make us kinder, more empathetic, more patient, into people we aren’t really, at least not all the time. We all know this in our hearts this isn’t true, and yet, as a species, we do this again and again. I knew having a kid would mean I would be a parent. But I also thought it would be the spell to have both my parents in my life. But even this, this growing person inside of my body, all these cells dividing and folding and weaving their way into someone new, a beautiful magic chronicled by ultrasounds and fetal heartbeat readings and genetic tests where we breath hope toward that deep, dark salty sea inside of me—even this isn’t enough to repair my relationship with my father.
The truth is I want to turn to my own parenting now, to my daughter and my chance. I want to push into the future rushing toward us like a wave. When people ask if we are ready, I am now saying yes, and yes, and yes. Yes, in that her crib holds a mattress and yes, her car seat is installed and inspected, and yes, we have built a fort of readiness out of diapers and pacifiers and tiny hand-me-down onesies, but also our hearts are ready, so ready, so open. Yes and yes and yes.
There is so much I don’t know about being a parent right now. I’m pausing here on this curb of pre-parenthood, waiting to cross a busy street to the other side, a street I will never cross again and corner I will never return to. But I carry this image in my head in these last hours and minutes. It’s of me and my daughter together working in the garden on an early spring day a few years from now. We dive our bare hands into the soil, turning over the dirt to wake it up. We knead in compost. We count earthworms. Then we feel bad and nudge them back into their dark homes. We rip into colorful paper packages, the seeds inside as small as periods at the end of sentences, all these tiny promises of radishes and lettuces and peas. We sprinkle them with a soft blanket of soil as if we were putting them to bed.
I will tell my daughter each seed is like a little wish for the future. I will tell her we plant them, and we hope, and then we just have to wait.
LAURA GIOVANELLI is an essayist and writing teacher. Her other personal writing can be found in The Washington Post. She was a newspaper reporter for nine years and has an MFA from NC State University. She now teaches at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
I got the call at ten-thirty at night. It was typically dramatic, as my family was at that time. “They found him,” said my mother. I hung up and shook my boyfriend awake. I let him know I needed to drive to California with my mother tonight. I was meeting her at midnight in the parking lot of the House of Pancakes in Salem, Oregon. We were going to get my brother.
Adrian was twelve and his face could be found on cartons of milk with the giant words “MISSING” on them. He’d been listed as a kidnapping victim since my stepdad (Adrian’s real dad) had driven off with him eight months ago. He’d actually been gone for a while before that, but these were the questions I imagined the police asking my mother.
He’s with his father?
You had custody?
You had custody but you allowed him to live with his father?
You’re not sure of the date he actually went missing?
You’re the one who left the marriage?
You have how many children? Five?
Said or unsaid, these questions delayed the process. Officials put that file on the bottom of the pile.They were questions I still had myself. The weeks had gone on. My mother began taking anti-depressants. I was in college, reveling in books, falling in love and pretending that I had a stable family who didn’t kidnap each other.
My oldest son, Logan, is telling me a very long story that has something to do with Minecraft. As I put away the dishes, I listen to him with about twenty-five percent of my brain. I say, hmm mmm and yeah, and that’s funny, when I realize that he’s just told me something that’s supposed to be funny, although I have no idea what it was. With my remaining seventy-five percent I’m planning what to put in the kids’ lunches and preparing for the eight-thirty meeting I have at work. Adrian used to talk about comics like Logan talks about video games. When Logan finishes his story, he looks at me expectantly. I laugh, hoping that was the appropriate response. He wraps his gangly arms around me for a spontaneous hug, which is something he does still, even though he’s nearly twelve. I run my hand through his thick hair, which needs another cut. He is almost as tall as I am.When he was younger, I sometimes called him by my brother’s name.
My mother had custody of Adrian, but rather than force Adrian to move with her and his three younger sisters into a two bedroom apartment with new stepbrother and stepdad, he was allowed to continue living with his dad and me in our mobile home in Camano Island, Washington. My mother was choosing her battles. I was just starting my senior year in high school, so my mother, thankfully, had left me there as well. Adrian and his dad wiled away the days eating ice cream from the carton and watching Tron. I tried to drag Adrian out of bed so I could drive him to sixth grade, but he was too big and stubborn for me. I gave up, leaving them both sleeping. This went on until my stepdad and Adrian moved to their own apartment and I was the only one left at home, finishing high school. I went to school, worked at the grocery store, sautéed mushrooms for dinner and listened to the silence of the house, telling me it was time to go.
After my first semester at college, I spent Christmas with my brother and my stepdad at their apartment. We ate pizza and they both fell asleep early on Christmas Eve. I stayed up reading Adrian’s X-Men comics, carefully replacing them back in their plastic sleeves when I was finished. Shortly after that Christmas, my stepdad quit his job passively, by not showing up, stopped paying his rent and disappeared with Adrian.
Last summer, Logan went to an overnight camp for a week. He had been excited when we signed him up, but the week before it was time to leave, he insisted he didn’t want to go. His stomach hurt. He couldn’t sleep. I showed him videos from the website of kids around the campfire smiling broadly. I talked about camp games, bonfires and horseback riding. I assured him he was going to love it, so he reluctantly rolled up his sleeping bag. But the camp rules didn’t allow phones and as the week approached, I tried to stifle my own fears. What if some of the kids were cruel to him? What if something horrible happened and he didn’t feel like he could call me? Outside of the letters I wrote ahead of time for him, I would be unable to reach him. By the time a handwritten letter from him arrived in my mailbox, he’d be home. While he was gone, I dreamed when I went to pick him up, he wasn’t there. Kids were reuniting with their parents all around me, but no one knew where he was. I tried to call the police, but over the line the officer said things like you left him there in the woods with a bunch of strangers? and he didn’t want to go, but you pushed him into it?
I left my car at the House of Pancakes. As I climbed in next to my mother, she handed me a thermos of coffee. We pulled onto the freeway. She was all business, filling me in on the way. They were in a small town in northern California. The policewoman who called her had suggested that she just go back to sleep and come get him tomorrow. Adrian was fine so there was no rush. My mother said she’d been looking for her son for eight months and he’d been found, so how could that stupid woman tell her to go back to sleep? She’d come and get her son right this instant, thank you. Adrian wouldn’t have to spend one more night with that asshole he had for a father. I sipped my lukewarm coffee, extra sweet like my mother always made it, so it tasted less like coffee and more like a melted candy. I wondered how we got to be so dysfunctional. I was in a small, private college that I’d bullied my way into with good grades and multiple phone calls and I didn’t see anyone around me with families like mine. I was nineteen and not yet done being embarrassed about my entire life up to this point.
We drove into the night, up through the curving hills of the pass, often silent. I knew I was supposed to be helping my mom stay awake, so I tried to talk about my classes, my friends, my boyfriend, but she didn’t ask many questions. I knew her focus was elsewhere. As we pulled into a lonely open Chevron in the Southern Oregon town of Grants Pass, she said, “I should have never left him with his dad.”
“How were you supposed to know he was going to take off?”
“I should have known. But I’m getting him back now. He’s going to be part of our family again.”
I didn’t mention that her new family with my second stepdad was not my idea of our family and probably wasn’t Adrian’s either. None of us kids knew what our idea of family was anymore. She gripped the wheel tightly as we drove south and the shadows of the trees flew past.
Eventually, she told me to go ahead and lie down in the back. The back seats had been turned down so there was a space large enough to curl into. I pulled a blanket around me. Adrian had never called while he was missing, causing my mother to go frantic with worry. I had figured he was safe. My stepdad had never hurt him. Not physically anyway. However, I also knew my stepdad was a broken and twisted man, one with dark wounds inside. I couldn’t be totally sure of anything about him. Before he disappeared, he’d written me letters describing the futility of life. He was giving away what meager things he had left. I watched the darkness through the window and wondered why my brother had never called. When I woke three hours later, the sun rose over the mountains of northern California.
Logan complains loudly and frequently about school. He tells me he’s bored and he’s learning nothing. In the morning I wake him and he rolls over, whining do I have to go? As if I ever tell him anything different. Yes, you have to go. If he were allowed, he would eat ice cream out of the carton and watch Tron all day. I make him go to school. I get dressed, make lunches and make myself go to work. I don’t call in sick to stay home reading all day and watching bad movies for hours, complaining that going to work is just buying into the system and letting corporate American run your life. I am not my stepdad. I am my mother, who forced herself to finish her last term in college while Adrian was missing, made lunches for my sisters every day and tried to create a family, as complicated and exhausting as it was.
I took over the driving and a couple hours later we rolled into Ukiah, where my brother had been living for the past few months. My mother had closed her eyes, leaning her head against the window, but she had not slept. I longed to grab coffee, but my mother was not stopping. We pulled into the police station parking lot to get Adrian. I wondered if my dad was in jail and if I’d have to see him there.
Inside, I was unnerved by the police officers and the official feel of everything. It was as though I was in a world where I didn’t belong. My mother told the attendant at the front who she was and we were asked to wait. Nobody seemed to be in much of a hurry. After a while, a man came out to shake our hands, introducing himself as an officer. He led us back to a small room where we sat at a round table.
“Where is my son?” my mom demanded, embarrassing me with her aggressive voice.
“Adrian is just fine,” the officer said in a placating voice. “You can get him shortly. I just need to go over some paperwork with you.” In the conversation, the officer said things like, just needed to get away for a while, didn’t mean to cause a big problem and were just getting on their feet. When he told my mother that Adrian had been allowed to go back with his dad yesterday to their apartment for one last night, my mother flipped her lid.
“You allowed what?” My mother had that hysterical tone she got when she was about to throw something. I hoped she wouldn’t. My mother had thrown glass plates, laundry baskets and toys, although generally not at any person. Once she threw a plastic Sesame Street mug so hard it chipped the Formica counter, leaving a vivid reminder to stay out of the way of her wrath. My mother pounded her fingers on the paperwork, stood and slapped her purse down on the table, demanding to know why, when my brother had been kidnapped and missing for so long, he was allowed to go home with the person who kidnapped him. I wondered if I should move the stapler out of her reach.
Even I could tell my stepdad had gotten to this officer. I’d only just recently begun to separate myself from my stepdad’s manipulation and to recognize it for what it was. It was just a year ago that I’d secretly arranged a visit between him and my three younger sisters, against my mother’s wishes. He always seemed so sad, such a victim of circumstances, such a victim period. Nothing was ever his fault. Emotional wounds. Neglect. He twisted things to where I found myself forgiving him, feeling sorry for him, blaming someone else. Sometimes myself.
My mother was having none of it. The officer looked at her as if her hostile behavior proved everything he had suspected. I wished I had slept more. I wished I had coffee. I wished I was at home eating breakfast with my boyfriend. I had a philosophy paper to write. I wished I was anywhere else but here. The officer finally broke in. He told my mother that Adrian could be picked up now. However, he suggested strongly that my mother shouldn’t go, since she was obviously volatile and would likely upset the household. My mother looked like she might upset the entire police force in about five seconds. “I’ll go, Mom,” I said quickly. “I’ll get him.”
Logan and I read together every night, still. He knocks on my bedroom when he’s sick, his lanky form a shadow in my doorway. When he’s in trouble with his dad, he brings his tears to me. When he is pushed or punched at school, he eventually confides in me. He curls his thin body against mine when we watch Harry Potter. I can’t imagine him being without me for eight months. I can’t imagine what I would do or say. What I would throw.
The apartment was one in a row of one-bedrooms on a street with cracked sidewalks with tufts of struggling weeds in the yards. My stepdad opened the door when I knocked, giving his small, sad sigh. “Sorry,” he said, “that you had be here.” He kicked a few empty Chinese food cartons out of the way as he shuffled to the kitchen. His dark hair flopped in his eyes. He wore jeans and a ripped tee-shirt. I doubted he was working. Probably doing advertising copy for the local paper occasionally and calling himself a writer. My brother came in from the hallway, lugging a box of comic books.
“Hi, Nomes,” he said. His hair was greasy and unkempt and he was distinctly taller than I remembered, with ankles showing under his too short jeans. He smiled at me awkwardly, then looked at his dad.
“I’ll get your bags,” my stepdad said, heading down the hallway with a hangdog look.
Adrian and I put his comic books in the car. “Can I have a hug?” I asked and he leaned in. He needed a shower. As we separated, I felt the weight of the trip, my mother sitting back at the station, steaming mad, the months of waiting. As we looked at each other, I crumpled into tears. “Why didn’t you call?” I asked, covering my face with one hand, the other gripping the trunk.
He looked at me, surprised. “Dad said we might as well wait to call until we got our apartment and knew where we were going to be. And he said if I called then I’d never be able to see him again.” He leaned over to pat my arm as I continued to cry. “It’s no big deal. I was fine,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.” He repeated it, “It’s going to be okay, Nomes.”
My mother and I took Logan to the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. It’s an incredible museum full of twists, turns, nooks and crannies. Kids climb up in a tube through the walls and into the ceiling to spy on the people below. Dark and sneaky spots lurk throughout. I thought Logan was right ahead of me, but I lost him. I tried to keep calm, telling myself he was just in one of those dark corners, sorting out a spy code, looking over a watch with a secret blade. I had left my mother choosing her spy name. I walked quickly back through the entire museum, scanning all the crowds. I hurried through the rest of the exhibits, not noticing anything but the fact that he was not there. When I reached the gift shop a second time, I counted back. He’d been missing maybe twenty-five minutes. If he’d been taken, he’d be twenty-five minutes down the road now.In some unmarked van. A lot can happen in twenty-five minutes. I found a security officer and trying not to look like I was hysterical, I described Logan. He radioed out to the other staff and we began walking back through the museum. Thirty minutes? Thirty-five minutes? My breath shortened as I realized that this could actually be happening. The thing that terrifies every parent.We turned the corner to see a different security officer standing with Logan. “Hi Mom,” he said. I started crying. Surprised, he reached over, patting me. “It’s okay,” he said, “I was fine.”
What I remember is Adrian arguing with my mother on the long drive home. He hadn’t been to school the entire time he’d been with his dad so he’d have to repeat sixth grade. Adrian’s protests went on and on as the miles distanced us from California. Insisting he didn’t want to go to school. Demanding his own room. Informing her that his stepbrother was jerk. His stepfather was a sellout to society. My mother tried to reason with him until she finally argued back, in frustration. He was twelve years old, she was his mother and by god, he would be living with her and following the rules of her house. That’s what I remember.
My mother remembers none of that. She only remembers being so grateful, so relieved, so happy, as the road took the three of us back up north through the long afternoon and into the night.
NAOMI ULSTED is a fiction and memoir writer. Her work has been published in Salon, Narratively, and Luna Luna. She is currently working on a middle grade urban fantasy, with help from her son. She lives with her two boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, where she is also the director of a Job Corps center training program for at-risk teens.
Do you ever have one of those days where nothing feels like what you want to be doing? Like when you said goodbye to your twenty-one-year-old son who is visiting you and your wife in Connecticut where you’re staying temporarily, and he’s heading over to New York City, by train, to experience the city on his own terms? And you are nervous—like old times?
Do you remember saying goodbye to your son as he went into the first inpatient treatment center? Do you remember leaving that day sobbing swimming pools worth of jagged tears? Ear-shattering howling when you were in your car. You thought you’d lost him forever. He blamed you for all of it: the drugs, the anxiety, his unhappiness. You saw the other boys. You’d see this again. You knew about the bullying, imagined the fear, intuited the sense of aloneness. Perhaps he was still hating, while desperately missing you, his mom. Trying to run away and wanting to climb into bed with you. He was still tethered but the line was frayed.
Once you left him at summer camp and he was the one who would not stop crying, who would not stay on the bus while other kids gave quick hugs and skipped happily away for the summer. Later, you might wonder if you should have turned yourself in to the Child Protective Services because you insisted he go. After all, you had plans, he was going with your friend’s son and you couldn’t just send her boy without your son. Then he sent that letter—you know, the please, Mom,rescue me now before it’s too late letter. And when you called, he told you he was okay, not to come. Later you wondered: were they threatening him with something?
Did you know that worms fly onto your car and manage somehow to hold on even as you drive rapidly down the freeway? What makes them cling so steadfastly to the windshield? What are they doing there? Is it fun? Is someone scared for them? Are they saying Wheeeeee!!!
There is a man, Mark Hostetler, who calls himself a “Splatologist” and studies the “bloody show” that appears on windshields. He wrote, That Gunk on Your Car: A Unique Guide to Insects of North America and will tell you what are the most common insects to splat and leave road kill on a windshield.
Another article by Forest Health tells us about Canker Worms on windshields when I see a picture it looks like the worm on our windshield this morning. We—my wife, my son, and I—all wondered about that worm during the twenty minute drive to the train station to drop off my son where he’d take a train to New Haven and another to New York City.
My son’s dad, who I divorced long ago, was nostalgic about departures in a particular way that I can relate to—like saying goodbye to a loved one in a train station. But he was talking about an ex-girlfriend, “the one that got away.” And how you know that’s the end when you hug goodbye and say, I love you.
When my wife and I said goodbye to my son this morning, we knew he was coming back on Monday, and we know that we will see him again before he goes back to California. But what if someone murders him, or rapes him with a steel pipe, or really anything in the youth hostel? And what if he’s so tired and jet lagged (remember, he said he couldn’t sleep all night) and he loses all his identification? And he gets picked up and put in immigration detention indefinitely because he looks so much like he’s from the Dominican Republic, or Ethiopia, or Brazil. What if he’s racially profiled and accused of something that justifies a taking down by police, then he’s arrested, and he ends up on Riker’s Island?
The worm must have lost the battle and been blown off from his sticky spot on our windshield or crawled off as if nothing fazed it. But it’s no longer there. I looked it up and I’m quite certain this is that sticky worm from North Carolina. How did it get there on our windshield here in Connecticut? I was in Charlotte two weeks ago but didn’t go by car. Did the worm come back with me? Come out of my suitcase, my clothes, my hair? Or maybe I ingested it by mistake and it came out in my poop.
Saying goodbye to my son this morning hurt my heart. There are so many things I wanted to do, to be, to give, as a mother. I wanted to leave my son with the ability or means to have financial security, a house (but my second marriage and recession killed that), with a sense of self worth and safe refuge always (although, my wife and I don’t even know where we’ll be physically living in some years). And of course I wanted to be the all-encompassing earth mother.
I can say that he knows I’ll always be there for him. But always calm, I didn’t make the grade. My list of regrets is long and it’s more like an A –Z essay of all the ways I failed.
Thinking and feeling: Worms have a brain that connects with nerves from their skin and muscles. Their nerves can detect light, vibrations, and even some tastes, and the muscles of their bodies make movements in response.
So they have a brain. Does it cause them pain—do they use it to torture themselves?
What about a heart? (This same article says they have five hearts!)
My son wonders what would it be like to be that worm—would life be simpler, easier, less painful?
What does it mean when my son imagines it easier to be a worm then to live his own life?
I get it; I’ve thought about being a cow.
But if a worm has five hearts and each heart can be broken many times in a lifetime, do worms live in constant grief?
My son says his cousins (my sister’s two kids) are just perfect. I ask him to consider himself an amazing person: passionate, creative, with a great sense of humor and justice. To consider all that he is—partially because of what he went through—who created him/his family, and the experiences positive and negative. His recovery that helped solidify the spiritually sound young man he is. I tell him, again, that he has a big life ahead of him. He didn’t have a ready answer but said he thought he knew what I meant. I tell him I love my niece and nephew, but my time with him, well, I didn’t have the right words, but it’s a real three scoop banana split, maybe strawberry, pineapple and hot fudge, without the calories, and more. It’s joyous I tell him, my life with you, or when he sends me a link to a song or movie and watching it makes me cry. The posts on FB where he tells me that he is proud of my graduating from my MFA program. At fifty-seven.
My son has sometimes seemed like he wished to be someone else. Or that his name be Joe, instead of Raphael. When he was about five, a young girl he went to preschool with would come over to play, and one Friday afternoon they fought over the possession of a worm. Don’t worry, they regenerate, they’ll repair themselves my mom told me when I said I imagined they would rip it in two soon. My mom knew these things; she scored the highest in biology (Regents exams) in New York in her day. Raphael wanted to bring that worm to Shabbat dinner. This is not something my sister’s mother-in-law would have appreciated. I was odd enough already—single mom, lesbian, biracial child, financially…variable.
If worms can regenerate, I wonder if they become two brand new beings?
Do people regenerate themselves; do parents secretly hunger for this, an ability to create a second chance for all the earlier screw-ups? Do they live through their children and then try again with the grandchildren, employing entirely different strategies?
I couldn’t regenerate my business and I’m happy to say I finally traded it away to write for pennies or a kick in the pants. Worries fill my head in a way I doubt would happen as a worm but I suspect at ninety- or one-hundred-years-old, I’ll look up and say, And I went all this time without being homeless or hungry.And my son was just fine. God, I hope I don’t live that long. I just want to be a good enough person for the rest of what life I have. And maybe someday spend time with a grandchild or two.
My wife seems to have no desire to be reborn a worm on a windshield. She says she hates people and rails against every living human in her most curmudgeonly times. She doesn’t wish for regeneration, only rest. Once when I wailed about my stockpiled fatigue to my son’s dad, When do I get to rest? he said, You rest when you die.
My son used to cling to me and we seemed inseparable. And then, in his early twenties, it became time for my son to separate from me, and he had to pull away in a manner that felt almost violent in its starkness. When he was in his teens, drug addiction tore him away from me while at the same time we were still fiercely, unhappily intertwined. In recovery, for almost two years, our relationship under repair and thriving, I saw and spoke with him far more regularly than my friends did with their kids who went away to college. They sobbed tears of empty nesters while I was grateful for getting back my loving son. Then it was time for him to move out of the young man’s recovery house and get on with his life. And his young sober social life was more alive then what most of us experienced (not sober) at that time in our lives. Out there enjoying himself, without the same contained structure of the recovery house he’d lived in for almost two years, after we’d been together so intensely all his young life, he sometimes didn’t return a call or text for a few days. He acted like a “normal” twenty-year-old. I got my first dose of empty nest. He was really leaving home, leaving me, and in a healthy way.
I felt gutted. I just remember his little boy head falling over my shoulder when I carried him, asleep. Warm, soft, muggy sweaty lovey heavy feeling.
I remember his little baby lips moving in his sleep, nursing, leaving little milk blisters from sucking so much. And I remember how many ways a mom is split in half each time we say goodbye to our children: at birth, the rare moments one of us sleeps, at preschool where he feels torn away and you wonder whether he sat alone playing in the sand all day like you found him, or at the last residential rehab where there were more drugs inside then outside? I don’t know if we regenerate or not. Or if we are left unmoored. With only phantom limbs.
When my son left for New York this morning, he seemed ready. And tired. He said we snored and his long lanky body was too big for the sofa. My wife and I argued over whose snores kept him awake. And I wonder, will I hear from him today? That he arrived safely and is living his dream of traveling alone in New York City?
He probably has forgotten about the idea of being a worm right now. I miss him.
And I know that I can’t be the sticky worm on his windshield though; I’d fall right off.
All five of my hearts are breaking.
CARLA SAMETH is a writer and mother living in Pasadena. Her story, “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which ran in Narratively, was selected by Longreads for “Five Stories About Addiction.” Carla was selected as a fall 2016 PEN In The Community Teaching Artist, and teaches at the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP) at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA). She is a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets. Carla has an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University. Learn more at carlasameth.com and on Twitter: @carlasameth.
We arrive at the cottage at night, feeling for the gate latch in the dark. Then, with our arms tightly around the two boys, we slowly make our way down the stone stairs through the patio garden. Kamal, my husband, uses his cell phone to light our path in a single, glowing square. A wolf spider freezes above the screen door, and because the kids are with me, I pretend there’s nothing scary about opening a door in the dark when one enormous spider and who knows how many others hidden outside the cell phone light hover within touching distance.
“Do you have the key?” I whisper to Kamal.
“I’ve got it,” he says in his normal voice, the volume exaggerated over the gentle chorus of night bugs chirping from the forest behind us. We all have loud voices in our family: Kamal, Oscar, Simon, and me. In the dark, standing before the empty cottage, Kamal’s voice booms.
“Can I choose my room?” Oscar, our eight-year-old, asks.
“Shh shh shh,” I say, uncertain of being there until we’re inside.
Kamal unlocks the door.
“Ho, ho, here we are,” he says, punching along the wall to flick the light switch.
The inside smells like baked wood, warm air that hovers without circulation. Here we are. Mingling with the ghosts of my family.
My great-grandparents purchased the cottage on Quaker Lake in 1906 and named it Forest Lodge. The story I know is that the cottage was built as a boarding house for the laborers who constructed the first homes around the lake. Before my great-grandparents bought it, the boarding house was split in two, with one half moved onto a neighboring plot of land. Our family’s half has the Great Room: a heavy, smoky space with a floor-to-ceiling fireplace built from the large stones mined around the lake. The Great Room staircase is made of birch logs, the papery bark curling where it has torn, just like the trees outside. Each bedroom has its own corner sink with only a cold water faucet, so small that it takes just the gentlest of fingers to work it. The wood around the sinks blooms in red water stains from a century of washing.
My great-grandparents died when my grandmother was young, but she still spent every summer at the cottage with her older brother and their commanding Grandfather Sisson. When my mom was a child, she and her sister spent one month every summer at the lake; their cousins enjoyed the house for the other month. By the time it got to my generation, we visited Quaker Lake to celebrate milestones: my grandparents’ fortieth and fiftieth wedding anniversaries, the one-hundred-year anniversary of Forest Lodge.
When Kamal and I were first dating, he joined my family at the lake for a weekend before my college graduation in nearby Ithaca, New York. The water was so cold; the spring ice had just recently melted. Kamal loves to swim. He had his bathing suit on that first afternoon, so of course I had to follow, wrapped in my oversized towel, shivering in bare feet on the stone walkway down to the lake. Before I had time to even dip my fingers in to gauge the temperature, Kamal dove off the stiff diving board, large bubbles escaping from his nose underwater. When we returned to the cottage together a half hour later, damp towels hanging heavily around our bare shoulders, Kamal’s black hair tousled every which way into spiky needles, my grandfather greeted us on the porch, rocking on a wicker chair with a golden old fashioned in his hand.
“Kamal, good job,” he said. “You got her in.” My grandmother was in the kitchen, puttering around with dinner preparations. “In every couple, there needs to be someone who helps us more reserved folk have a little fun.”
My teeth chattered. The sun behind us was weak.
“Papa, I just don’t like being cold,” I said.
He smiled at me. “But you had fun, didn’t you?”
My mom’s cousin, Tom, and his wife, Wendy, have owned Forest Lodge for the past twenty years. Tom inherited it from his father, my grandmother’s brother. They are in their late seventies. Owning the cottage is becoming burdensome for them, but they would like to keep it in the family. Kamal and I live in Pittsburgh, a six-hour drive away. Having the house at Quaker Lake would be a dream come true for both of us. We’ve been talking about the specifics over the phone with Tom and Wendy since January. They invited us to spend this week before Labor Day to test it out. Our assumption is that we will buy the house from them in September.
We drop our bags on the floor in the front room and go immediately to the dock to stare across the black water where my grandfather used to dive, where my aunt lost her engagement ring. Outside, the air is still and cool and the kids are finally quiet. Kamal lies on his back on the carpeted boards and searches through the Milky Way, the stars stretching above us in wide, dusty swatches. We go back inside, brush our teeth in the little corner sinks, and fall asleep cocooned within the deeply stained wood slats that make up the floors, walls and ceiling of the second floor.
The last time we were at the cottage, just months earlier, it was a short visit to deliver my mother’s ashes to the family mausoleum in Binghamton, New York. My stepfather saved the last handful to sprinkle into the lake water. Before the sun dropped over the pastured ridge, two perfect rainbows bent across the white sky. Oscar, our older son, had been so in love with my mom that he often misbehaved in her presence. He and I sat silently in our kayaks on the darkening water and watched those rainbows until the moment they were no longer there. I have no belief in God, spend no time in spiritual inquiry. Those rainbows, however, hit me hard, reminding me that there are things in the large, large world we don’t understand. Connections hidden in physics, in chemistry, in the metaphysical. A perfect double-rainbow.
When I wake in the morning, steam is rising off the lake. Simon, our younger son, and I take our breakfast onto the front porch and wrap a fleece blanket around our legs. Oscar and Kamal fish off the dock. They pull something glittery out of the water, and Oscar’s bare feet slap against the stone walkway, then up the porch steps.
“We caught a fish!” he announces, then runs back to the dock. The sun has burned through the morning steam. He and Kamal grasp the slippery body, and Kamal removes the hook. Oscar uses both hands to toss the fish back in the water. He runs back to the porch.
“Can we buy this house?” he asks. “Please?” His front teeth are coming in, squeezing out the space of several lost baby teeth. I love how his tongue smacks thickly in his mouth when he speaks. In September, he will start fourth grade, which was my favorite year in school.
Simon puts down his toast on the blanket. “Please? Can we buy the house?” he asks. Simon is growing his hair long; silky brown chunks hang past his ears. He’ll be in first grade soon. Under the blanket, his skinny legs are warm next to mine.
From the porch, I watch my husband on the dock. He stands still, looking out. A fracking truck rumbles down the narrow road on the far end of the lake.
We told the kids we would make our decision at the end of our stay, that we wanted to enjoy our visit to Quaker Lake without spending the whole vacation thinking about something as huge as buying a house. But of course we’ve already decided.
“I don’t know,” I tell the boys. “Daddy and I will tell you when we get home to Pittsburgh.”
“I think we should buy it,” Oscar says.
“We have to buy it,” Simon says.
The one thing I had been uncertain about was whether I might be scared at the cottage. Whether, without grandparents and parents and my sister and cousins, it would feel too lonely. My mom and grandfather both died during the past year, my grandmother just a few years before them. But it’s not ghosts that I feel at Forest Lodge. Instead, it’s the certainty of history. My family history. And now, looking into Oscar and Simon’s faces, I see it’s their family history. It’s so clearly our futures, too.
We make tacos for dinner. The gas burner ticks and then catches, the flame chasing around the circle until it’s well-controlled. Kamal browns the ground beef while I dice grocery store tomatoes, and we talk quietly about the cottage.
“The drop ceilings have to go,” he says, speaking of the kitchen.
I nod my head yes. “But I don’t want to change the feel in here,” I say. “It’s dated. I love that.” The light wood cabinets have brass fixtures; the countertops are pale yellow laminate threaded in splotchy amber veins. One of the cutting boards is a polished piece of a neighbor’s old diving board. “I remember sitting at the table with Gam and Papa, shucking corn. Eating tuna fish on white bread and drinking 7-Up.”
We count things. Weeks of paid vacation. Weeks of unpaid vacation. Years until retirement. The miles from Pittsburgh. We brainstorm how to spend as many days at the lake as possible.
Tom and Wendy call us after dinner.
“We just want to check in. See how everything’s going,” Tom says. He and my grandmother grew up in Binghamton, only a half-generation apart. Over the phone, he sounds just like her, taking time with his vowels.
“How are you?” Wendy asks, almost in a whisper, like telling a secret she wants to take back.
“The cottage is great,” I tell them. “Just like I always picture it. The boys love it.”
“I’ve asked Jeanie Coughlin to stop by this week to say hello. She was great friends with your mom growing up,” Tom says.
Kamal writes me a note on a pad of paper by the phone. Tell them we’ll make arrangements for me to fly out to Binghamton next week. We can hire a lawyer to draft the sales documents. He’s ready.
Simon comes down the stairs in his fleece skull-and-bones pajamas. He can’t fall asleep. I hold back relaying Kamal’s note to Tom and Wendy. We can figure it out in a few days. After Simon is settled in his bed, Kamal and I tuck under our down comforter. We have to stretch across the king-size mattress to find each other.
On our last morning, we take turns swimming the quarter mile across the lake. I swim first. Kamal ties a rope between a boogie board and the rowboat and pulls Simon, in his bright yellow life vest, behind him as he rows. Oscar paddles his own kayak.
I’ve swum across the lake a handful of times, always an event when we gather at Forest Lodge. Like every other time, I’m nervous before heading out. The water is cold. I push off from the algae-slick ladder and curl up my legs until I’m past the waving underwater plants. I know the fish won’t nibble at my skin as long as I keep moving.
Kamal rows beside me. Oscar shouts he wants to paddle ahead. Simon sings an adventure tune from his board. I do the breast stroke with my head above water, like always. My hands meet in front of me, my arms white beneath the surface. Scoop and glide. I blow out through my mouth but the glacier smell of the water still makes its way into my nose. It’s untouched, primeval. I have swum this length with my mom and my sister, with my stepfather. With my aunt in the rowboat, towels piled on the bench seat beside her.
Before Oscar was born, I had a miscarriage. I was pregnant for thirteen weeks, the second half of the short pregnancy spent holding my stomach against waves of nausea. I bled and then cramped and then lost what had been growing inside me. The depth of loss took me by surprise.
“I don’t understand how I can miss something we never had,” I cried to Kamal from the toilet, blood clotting between my legs.
He kneeled next to me, his fingers stroking the palm of my hand.
“It’s because we’ve lost the future,” he said.
When we get home to Pittsburgh, I email Tom and Wendy to tell them that we absolutely want to buy the house, become the next owners of Forest Lodge. Kamal reaches out to our local real estate agent to understand what needs to be done, even though she won’t be part of the final transaction. I don’t hear anything back from Tom and Wendy, so I wait a few days and try again by email.
Kamal’s schedule at work is pretty open. He can book a flight to Binghamton next week. Does that work for you?
The next night, Tom calls.
“I’m sorry to say we’ve changed our minds,” he says.
On the extension, Wendy speaks at the same time. “It’s just too much, you see.”
“It’s my fault,” Tom continues ahead. “I hadn’t talked clearly with Wendy. It turns out, we aren’t ready to sell the cottage.”
I scan my memory, racing through the many, detailed conversations we’ve had over the past eight months. Tom going over phone numbers for the handyman, for the pest control. Tom and Wendy telling us about the families around the lake, suggesting a summer camp the boys will want to try. Both of them certain that our family will love the lake as much as they have.
Tom slips in, almost as if I won’t hear it, “You see, we decided we couldn’t sell it when our granddaughter visited for the fourth of July. She just loves it too much.”
“But our visit was at the end of August,” I say, finally part of the conversation.
Wendy explains, “We were hoping you wouldn’t like it. Then we never would have to tell you we changed our minds.”
I go through a period of mourning. I don’t know if the loss is more difficult because my mom died the year before, or whether I should know better, having lost my mom so suddenly, that a house is just a house. It’s difficult to tell the kids we will not be buying Forest Lodge. That Quaker Lake is not our home after all. There is an emptiness that precedes me through the parts of each day. It is a painful autumn. November is the anniversary of my mom’s death.
“I could see our retirement,” I say to Kamal. The Steelers game on our neighbors’ TV flickers across our living room windows. This time of year, Tom and Wendy are closing up the cottage for winter. “We’d be there, sitting on the porch, looking across the water while the sun goes down over the ridge.”
“I could see it, too,” he says.
MILENA NIGAM is a Pittsburgh-based writer and a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She was a finalist in Cutthroat Journal’s Rick DeMarinis 2014 short story contest, and her work has appeared in Slice, The Fourth River, Lunch Ticket, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs and has recently completed a collection of short stories.
Washing dishes in the kitchen, I hear the click-clack of our dog’s claws approaching. Half border collie and half Jack Russell, he’s always on the move, forced to herd humans indoors when sheep and the outdoors were unavailable. The floors throughout our small house are hardwood, so Scooter’s whereabouts are constantly audible. At first his clacking drove us crazy, but as the months wore on we grew accustomed to it, and it became a comfort, a manifestation of a happy family idyll.
Turning from the sink to Scooter, I notice a thin, shockingly red trail lead from under his furry body out into the living room. Is he bleeding? He wags his tail and gazes at me placidly from his shiny black eyes, unfazed. Dogs are usually unfazed, which is why people have them.
Directly under his belly I spot a bundle of thick vermillion embroidery thread, which he must have dropped. Scooter isn’t wounded—he’s gotten into my things again. The scamp! He’s six, yet still lapses into puppy-like urges to destroy, and narcissistically prefers soft, small, fuzzy targets.
I follow the thread’s scarlet trail into the living room and then find its terminus in my office, where I also keep my sewing things. I realize Scooter poked his muzzle into a paper grocery sack full of notions I’d picked up at a craft swap the day before. Unraveled, the thread seems impossibly long, as if it stretches out to a hidden dimension, an implication of a path whose visibility would soon dissolve. I’m more upset with Scooter’s impishness than the loss of the thread itself, which I nabbed simply because it was free and maybe someday I’d use it for something.
For socks. That’s what is used it for. Our friend Matt had asked me to embroider socks for him to wear to the airport. Matt is a thinker but also an incurable stirrer-upper. He got a quickie Universal Life Church online ordination to officiate our wedding—he did an excellent job—and in his opening remarks he predictably cited Nietzsche. Shortly after that my husband and I moved to another state, and we carried on our friendship with Matt via emails and a thing we call mail art, which is us sending each other lumpy envelopes stuffed with amusingly bizarre odds and ends (or, more truthfully, garbage).
His sock concept was thus: as he went through security, his shoes in a plastic bin being x-rayed, he wanted the toes of his stocking feet to read
It was an unwise decision to enable this scheme of Matt’s. I hated to think of the socks causing a ruckus. This was at the tail end of the George W. Bush era, and the often arbitrary-seeming protocols of the Transportation Safety Administration were still freshly stinging to both civil liberties and personal convenience. Matt would be flying to his hometown with his young son to visit his family, his first trip back east since his wife had divorced him six months earlier. It was an acrimonious split. Always eccentric, Matt’s actions had taken an erratic, wounded bent since.
But in the quiet of my office I stared at the thread, Scooter laying by my side, and it called to me. I cut it into three knotty segments and wound it into three balls. Scooter whined; he wanted attention, or the thread, or both. He was still new to us at the time. My husband and I found him at the Humane Society, where, technically, he was on sale because his first adoptive family had returned him after two days. He was lovable and gentle but hampered with serious abandonment issues, and he demonstrated his resentment at being ignored by peeing or chewing on absorbent, valuable items. When we first spotted him, he had a tennis ball lodged in his mouth, like the apple in the jaws of a roast suckling pig.
Scooter’s fur was immanently touchable, soft and silky and peltlike. His insistence on being near me at all times struck a chord with my vanity, too. If I read on the sofa and Scooter sidled up next to me, his tiny, warm body lounging right against mine, I had to occasionally put the book down, so overcome was I with waves of contentment.
About thirty blocks from our house was a lovely, large park on an extinct volcano. I’d suit Scooter in his blue nylon harness and jaunt past the drug dealers next door, then past the used car dealerships and the broad-daylight sex workers on the corner. We crossed over to the nice side of the neighborhood, where the yards had well-tended flower beds and wooden play structures and elaborate handcrafted lawn ornaments. Then we’d go up the hundreds of steps to the top of the expired volcano and be above everything.
Sometimes at night, I walked Scooter a few short blocks after dark. His white fur glowed with an icy blue tint under the streetlights and his black leash melted against the backdrop of the asphalt, and he appeared to swim into the darkness, moving forward unceasingly into space, into oblivion.
Sometimes on walks my mind melded with Scooter’s and we journeyed together aware of nothing but what was around us at that moment. Usually I mulled over silly things, though, like the challenge of how to embroider letters on tube socks. It was very gratifying when I had a breakthrough, enough so that I ignored my instincts to refuse the project. My brainstorm was to embroider POLICE and STATE on two while felt patches, which Matt could Velcro or glue to the socks himself.
I had plenty of important things to do—get my Oregon driver’s license, complete my music column, write a card to my best friend to welcome her new baby into the world, look for a better job.
I didn’t do those things. I seized the red thread. I sewed the stitches and sealed the deal.
Scooter was our baby. We needed him to fill the holes in our American dreams. I yearned to raise intelligent, sensitive children who would someday be soldiers of reason in this pre-Apocalyptic world of ours. Periodically, searing waves of resentment befouled my mood then retreated into a sea of resigned acceptance. I had crappy insurance, and no coverage through work. I had no sick leave, either. We couldn’t function without two incomes, but my income was dwarfed by what solid child care would cost.
We did it anyway. We had the child. It was selfish, really; there was no way we could afford to raise a kid in the middle-class manner we assumed was our birthright. “We’ll make it work!” I’d insisted. We named her Frances. She eclipsed Scooter.
He did not take it well, and he chewed up two quilts, a handmade Winnie-the-Pooh, and various other lovingly crafted baby shower gifts. Every day after work when she was young, I buckled Frances into the stroller and clipped Scooter’s leash to it with a carabiner, and we went on a million aimless walks through our neighborhood, up the volcano and down again. Scooter stopped to poop and I collected his petite turds in narrow blue bags that the newspaper was delivered in. It gives me a strange satisfaction to imagine those turds preserved in a landfill for thousands of years, nestled right next to Frances’s pee-saturated disposable diapers. I hated having to buy them, but was proud of myself for finding the ones that cost the least per unit. They were called Cuddle-Ups, and were the store brand at the twenty-four-hour grocery outlet where I obsessively compared prices on bulk products and produce sales. I liked Cuddle-Ups for not having cartoon characters on them and not smelling like a baby powder explosion. I always got unscented baby things because I adored Frances’s default baby smell, the one she came with. Every case of Cuddle-Ups gave me dozens more opportunities to bury sodden time capsules of my daughter.
I still like the way Frances smells. She often wakes up in the middle of the night and staggers robotically to our big bed and slides in next to me, and when I wake up I nuzzle the top of her head and I take in the nice plain smell of her little girl hair. Another parent might be doing the exact same thing as their house gets bombed. Another parent might miss the smell of her little girl’s hair because her daughter was killed or taken away by an evil that’s steadily creeping its way to us. Another parent might have no comfort but the notion of his child’s pee in a diaper in a landfill outlasting life on earth.
Frances has been peeing in toilets for ages, and her current contribution to landfills is the plastic packaging of the plastic crap all kids in America seem to accumulate against the wishes of their parents, even though usually it’s us parents who buy it for them. Scooter is sixteen now, we think. He’s slower but continues to shadow me all over the house. There’s no way he could make it up the volcano these days, and he can’t rally the enthusiasm to chew anything but his food. I carry him up the stairs and am thankful for his compact size.
Nothing bad happened when Matt bared his embellished socks in the airport security line. That happened later, and gradually. Matt now has two ex-wives, and he’s not allowed to see his kids. The reason isn’t as awful as you might imagine, but the preposterousness of the situation is beyond imaginable and thus incredibly awful. Essentially, he did a bunch of little things demonstrating poor judgment, amounting to a pile of POLICE STATE socks that were used against his favor.
But I am equally guilty of lapses in judgement. I embroidered those socks; I lavish more attention on our dog than I do on the man I am married to; I scowl at people who buy bottled water while I myself get those cans of fruit-flavored fizzy water; I tap on icons on my phone and dive into digital wormholes while the entire natural world churns on, hobbled from my gas emissions and industrial runoff, without me noticing or caring. I board airplanes as a white, American-born woman and don’t have to consider if my nationality or skin color might lead to my forced removal from an overbooked flight or the denial of my reentry to the country. “We’ll make it work!” I still insist. I choose to be ignorant because I am arrogant.
The bed Frances crawls into is a king-size bed, the epitome of living large. My husband and I are slender people, and there’s no decent reason for us to have such an upgrade, but my sleeping patterns have improved slightly since we bought the thing. Even so, I get nudged awake by Scooter or Frances in the middle of the night and find myself unable to slip back into slumber. Unresolvable blockades in my mind force themselves to the center of my thoughts, things that are ultimately of little consequence: overdue bills, overdue writing assignments, teaching appearances, or roller derby bouts I have coming up. The stillness of the evening turns menacing, and even as I remind myself the world will not end if I don’t turn my cookbook manuscript in on time, I suspect the cookbook or the overdue bill is an innocent front for a universal menace. Why did we have a kid when I sincerely believe human existence will be vastly, miserably altered in our lifetimes? Why do we spend so much emotion and energy—so much—on this one goofy dog, when around the world, societies collapse? Why does it feel like no big deal as our society collapses?
In the midst of these episodes, I consider the peace of having Joe and Frances and Scooter so close to me, and how perhaps experiencing that is as good a reason as any to have been alive for even a minute. Our king-size bed is a chunk of pack ice breaking off from a polar ice shelf, the penultimate level of an epic video game, and every night we will it to float us into the abyss of our destiny, the frigid ocean waters as black and sleek as obsidian. And we are together and it’s kind of okay.
I step outside of our lives and see us sliding deeper into the ocean lurking in our unassuming house. The vermillion thread winds a path all through the rooms and up the stairs, unspooling as Scooter trots ahead into the shapeless distance with an inexhaustible wad in his mouth, leading us to a land with no exit. We reach out and grasp the thread and yieldingly follow it where it takes us, into the closet down a rabbit hole to the end of the world, and the thing that I mind the most is that we don’t seem to mind much at all.
SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Her first cookbook, Tasting Ohio, comes out in 2018. Currently she is working on a cookbook about foraged fruit.
“Are you related?” a woman at the wedding asks me. When I tell her the father of the bride’s my brother, she says, “You look just like him.” As much as we resemble one another physically—deep-set eyes, crinkly smile, and fair, freckled skin—we couldn’t be more different emotionally.
My only sibling looks like a stranger, his belly protruding over his pants and a once reddish beard now grey. For his twenty-year-old daughter’s wedding, he dresses in black trousers, pressed white shirt, solid tie, and black hat covering short payot, or sidelocks, tucked behind his ears. He wears a long, black, silk robe, reserved for special occasions. This modern-day Jerusalem affair could be a Hollywood movie set of a seventeenth-century Polish shtetl.
I observe my brother at the bedecken ceremony where my niece sits like a queen in a special chair, her upper body pitching forward and back, as she feverishly mumbles words to God and awaits her groom’s arrival. The couple hasn’t seen one another for a week. In their Ultra-Orthodox community, where males and females eat, dance, and celebrate separately, divided by a makeshift wall, men escort the groom into the women’s section so he can verify the bride is the correct woman then lower her veil, a tradition of Jewish males since Jacob wed a veiled Leah in error.
Mike identifies as Haredi: an Orthodox Jewish sect characterized by strict adherence to Jewish law and rejection of modern secular culture and the state of Israel. I’m secular. Tonight, dressed demurely in a long-sleeved dress that hugs my hips and hits my knees, considered sexy and off-limits in his world, I decline to wear a hat for modesty.
We are two California-born Jews living in Israel, but the chasm between us is wider than the Red Sea. Often, over the past thirty years, I’ve wondered how siblings with the same DNA can be so different. How, after being raised Reform, which emphasizes ethics and behavior over belief, can a brother and sister end up embracing such opposite lifestyles?
Growing up, I’d beseeched my parents for a baby—someone younger to cuddle and carry, to play dolls and draw with, to love me unconditionally. “Please, I want a little sister!” I pleaded throughout grade school. My brother, three years older, had never sufficed.
Sometimes he and I skied off-trail at Northstar or played Battleship in the basement. Mostly, we occupied our own orbits: me with Barbies and coloring books, him with his rock and comic collections. My friends and I devised dance routines to Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” while he and his friends fled to the backyard treehouse. I yearned for heart-to-heart conversations and emotional closeness. He communicated through sarcasm and jibes.
In middle school, after reading Judy Blume’s Forever, my mother delivered the verdict: “My tubes are tied. Our family’s complete.” Then why, I wanted to scream, did I feel so incomplete?
Mike left for college during my sophomore year. The quiet house hurt my ears. My father worked long hours at his law firm, while my mother’s graphic design business dominated her time. They proposed we host a female American Field Service student for a year perhaps to assuage their guilt.
The following August, Lee, a seventeen-year-old South African Jew, arrived. Every night, we stayed up late, analyzing our siblings’ deficiencies and confiding our latest infatuations. We shared tee-shirts and sundresses. We had spit fights while brushing teeth in the bathroom sink. We fought about emptying the dishwasher or folding the laundry. We introduced one another as sister. By Thanksgiving, she called my parents Mom and Dad.
I no longer missed my brother or ached for his attention.
The following year, when Lee returned to Cape Town and Mike spent junior year abroad in Jerusalem, I busied myself with college applications, youth group, and a new boyfriend.
“Have you called Mike lately?” my father sometimes asked. His sister lived in New York, my mother’s brother in Los Angeles, and while they’d been distant as kids, they became closer as adults, reinforcing their friendship with visits, especially on milestone birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs.
During my freshman year in college, Mike’s senior, I flew from Chicago to Manhattan to see him. He introduced me to friends, showed me the Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Met, and took me to Gus’s Pickles on the Lower East Side. Later, he visited me at Northwestern, where we ate Giordano’s deep-dish pizza with friends and strolled through Lincoln Park Zoo. Still, our conversations remained superficial.
That summer, Mike packed his worldly possessions into two large suitcases, boarded a one-way flight to Israel, and immigrated. I cried during our farewell parting outside our parents’ house, my eyes red and swollen with sadness. I felt distraught, like I’d run out of chances to be friends with my brother, losing my only sibling to a far-away land.
The following winter, during my junior year in Paris, my parents and I met in Jerusalem. Mike greeted us at the airport in his khaki green army uniform, an Uzi over his shoulder, a scraggly beard and a colorful, knitted kippah on his head. I admired his decision to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces, but since when had he become a God-fearing Jew? We’d grown up in a culturally rich Jewish family as staunch Israel supporters, but God, his commandments, and ancient customs had never been the focus.
Throughout our visit, my brother mentioned studying the basic tenets of Judaism—the laws of Shabbat and kashrut—with an American rabbi. Mike began talking in should and should nots, coulds and could nots, Rabbi Eddy said this, Rabbi Eddy said that. His holier-than-thou attitude made me cringe.
A year later, I flew home from Chicago over winter break for my father’s fiftieth birthday. I donned my best Parisian blacks—mini skirt, leather bomber jacket, pointy flats, and a paisley scarf. My mother tinkered in the kitchen. My father and I listened to Suzanne Vega’s latest album in the living room. The bell rang. We glided to the front door.
“Surprise,” boomed a familiar voice. “Surprise,” he said again.
My brother stepped into the foyer. My mother snapped a picture of my expression, a mixture of disappointment and resignation. With Mike around, our family’s easygoing time together exercising, eating sushi, and watching movies would be overshadowed by his newly acquired religious restrictions.
That night we met my grandparents for dinner at an upscale French-Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco. I hadn’t seen them since leaving for school in September. All attention was focused on Mike. “Oy gevalt,” Boba shrieked when she saw my brother. Zeida embraced his eldest grandson, the Zionist, with pride.
Dressed in one of my father’s blazers, a button-down shirt, tie, and trousers, my brother resembled a college professor. In addition to his thick, wavy, reddish head of hair, he sported a moustache and beard. His large, round glasses reminded me of Elton John’s. But this time he wore a kippah under his hat. He couldn’t show the beanie publicly, he said, lest a religious Jew see him and think the restaurant kosher. I’d never seen him wear a kippah in America.
As soon as we were seated, Mike said, “I really don’t want to eat here. It’s not kosher.” He’d already harangued us during the car ride over the Bay Bridge. Didn’t he understand he was the party crasher? “I need to go to the bathroom.”
Once out of earshot, my mother hissed. “I wish he’d take that hat off inside.”
A new family dynamic was emerging: Mike said or did something inconsiderate or insolent, my mother overreacted, and my father sided with his son, so my mother spewed her anger toward me, her safest ally. Her disdain for Mike’s new lifestyle fueled my rage and resentment. He didn’t appear to care how we felt, but I digested every word.
Mike returned. One waiter filled our water glasses, then uncorked a bottle of wine. Another delivered a warm, freshly sliced baguette. My father approved the wine. Zeida reached for the bread. My brother, still standing, bent his elbows and flapped his arms like an injured bird trying to fly. My mother and I looked at one another and back at him. Why the pantomiming? Mike sat, snorted, jabbed his finger in the air, furrowed his brow and grunted so loud diners nearby turned.
“What do you want? The bread?” I asked. He nodded. He took the baguette, muttering something under his breath, words I couldn’t decipher, then bit it.
“Finally. Thank you,” he said. “But it’s a problem the bread’s been warmed in a non-kosher oven.”
Mike explained he’d gone to the bathroom to wash his hands and wasn’t permitted to talk until he’d recited the prayer and bitten the bread. If he’d explained that beforehand then maybe we would have understood. Or maybe not. His new ways were alien to all of us. Even to my Eastern European grandparents.
As my brother plunged into Ultra-Orthodoxy, my parents’ friends offered backhanded condolences: “At least it’s Judaism and not some weird sect. Imagine if he’d become a Hare Krishna or joined a crazy cult.” I wanted to say, “But he did join a crazy cult.”
My brother asked for the chef to discuss his order. Was it okay if they wrapped the salmon in aluminum foil before putting it in the oven? Silver cutlery or plastic? China or paper? They spoke quietly, nodding their heads. My mother elbowed me under the table. I heard her snicker.
I thought about how much Mike had changed since he’d left his American life. Now, he refused to eat from my parents’ plates in their non-kosher kitchen. He checked the labels on every food item in the pantry for a kosher symbol. He was loud, judgmental, and disrespectful. His extreme fanaticism had become the focal point of our family gatherings, causing me to retreat inside, wishing he’d never come.
Upon his return to Israel, Mike probed deeper into the texts, laws, and interpretations of rabbis, scholars, and God. He began sentences with “Baruch Hashem” (Thank God). Every day he recited countless prayers and blessings upon waking up; when putting on a tallit, a poncho-like garment with a hole for the head and special twined and knotted macramé-like fringes known as tzitzit attached to its four corners; when inspecting the tzitzit; after wrapping the tallit around the body; while laying tefillin—a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah—on the arm, on the head, and around the middle finger. He recited blessings during the ritual washing of the hands upon rising in the morning and again before eating bread, before eating grain products, before drinking grape juice or wine, before eating fruit, before eating non-fruit produce, before eating other foods, and after every meal.
Oftentimes, when asked food- or family-related questions, he said, “I have to ask my rabbi.” His rabbi, I was convinced, paid no heed to the fifth commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. Because if he had, the communication about my brother’s needs and chosen lifestyle would have been better, perhaps reducing the tension between him and our mother, maybe even him and me.
Despite the emotional strain and geographical distances, my parents, particularly my father, continued to attempt family togetherness. For my mother’s fiftieth birthday the following year, he invited us to meet them in Manhattan, to surprise her. Since I was living in Paris, my brother stopped en route to visit. When he called about logistics, I assured him I lived down the street from several kosher restaurants and near a handful of synagogues. He could eat anywhere, pray any time of day, and sightsee.
I agreed to host my brother but felt ill-prepared to face him. I worked as a bilingual assistant for a Jewish non-governmental organization. Since relocating to Europe, my world had opened in unexpected ways. I befriended people from different backgrounds because of my hard-earned fluency. Mike’s world had shrunk, making him more close-minded. I fretted about his reaction to my French boyfriend.
On Mike’s second day, I broached the conversation. “So I wanted to tell you I’m seeing someone. And he’s coming to Manhattan.” We faced each other in my sun-drenched studio.
“Okay. Is he Jewish?”
My mouth opened in shock except I wasn’t shocked at all. I’d anticipated this question and mustered up my strength to stand up to him. “No, Christophe’s Catholic.”
He sputtered. “What did Mom and Dad say?”
His forehead creased as if trying to solve a calculus problem, his favorite subject in high school. My floor slanted, and I felt its unevenness.
“They don’t know yet. It’s still new, not so serious.”
“If it’s not so serious then why is he—this goy—coming? It’s Mom’s birthday!” He turned his back to me. We fell silent. He spun around and bore his eyes into mine. “I have no intention of meeting whatever his name is, and if you try to introduce me, I won’t look him in the eye or shake his hand.”
How dare my brother spurn my boyfriend without knowing anything about him? His refusal to acknowledge another human being because he didn’t share our religion incensed me. No wonder countries and cultures still fought religious wars in Israel, Ireland, Iraq, and elsewhere. No wonder Eastern and Western Europe remained separate and so unequal. No wonder my brother and I had never been close.
“And what would you say if I really were serious with Christophe, or some other non-Jew? What if we decided to get married?”
“You know you’ll never even be able to marry a Cohen if you sleep with a goy.”
“I couldn’t care less if I ever marry a Cohen, or any Jew for that matter!”
The next day, we took separate trains to the airport. Once stateside, Mike refused to be in Christophe’s presence. My folks blamed me for making them choose sides. Sensing the pressure, Christophe packed his bags, broke up, and bolted. I worried that my brother and I had ruined my mother’s birthday, and she might never forgive us. But, perhaps still immature and self-centered, I felt less remorse toward her than rage toward him. I struggled with anger and found forgiveness difficult. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever forget Mike’s behavior.
For the next two decades, Mike and his shtick dominated our get-togethers. Until, one Thanksgiving weekend, I snapped.
In my early forties, married and a mother now, I stormed out of a three-generation reunion in Manhattan, not far from our house in White Plains. Every year, we divvied up the planning; everyone pitched in except Mike since, he decided, his family lived abroad. My duties involved organizing one field trip and two Shabbat meals—ordering, paying, and coordinating food delivery long before Friday sundown. After extensive research, Mike nixed Saturday’s lunch from a kosher restaurant, claiming it no longer met his standards, forcing me to cancel last minute. Then, he arrived an hour late to Sunday brunch because of services.
“Why is it okay for Mike to do whatever he wants?” I yelled. “Dad, why are you so silent? Are you afraid to stand up to him, to put him in his place?” My relatives stared, stunned by my outburst; usually I behaved as the accepting, younger child.
“It’s okay, honey—we understand why you’re upset,” said my aunt, a social worker. I left.
I may have sounded like a spoiled, second child clamoring for attention, but what I sought was ease during our inherently tense family gatherings. I despised kowtowing to Mike, eating at ultra-kosher establishments and prohibiting TV in his children’s presence. I especially loathed my family of origin’s chain reaction. Following my tantrum, I wrote him and my parents a letter proposing we each start therapy and, when visiting one another, we attend together.
Before parting ways, Mike initiated a meeting. We rendezvoused, a week after our Thanksgiving debacle, at a suburban Starbucks, where, according to his rabbi, the tea was kosher. We barely spoke as the baristas concocted our drinks. We carried our tea to a table in the back corner.
“You start,” I said. I had one hour before carpool.
“Okay, I know you’re angry with me. And I’ve been thinking about how we grew up. I think Mom and Dad paid more attention to me. Maybe you felt slighted. I think Boba and Zeida did the same with Dad, making Auntie Mona feel second best. It’s like a family trend.” I wrapped my hands around my cup and inhaled the faint smell of bergamot.
“Sorry, but that’s not it,” I said. “When someone tells me something that’s hard to admit, I get teary. But what you’re saying doesn’t make me emotional. I don’t question or doubt Mom and Dad’s love or my relationship with them.” I sipped my Earl Grey. “I’m angry because your laws and adopted religious lifestyle make you difficult to deal with. You hide behind Judaism and other arbitrary rules. You use them as excuses, why you can’t spend Shabbat somewhere or eat something. I’m sick of dealing with you.”
Mike remained silent, pensive. He nodded. He listened. He didn’t defend himself or cut me down with his usual sarcastic comebacks.
I pointed out our flawed family dynamic. How my mother had pressured us to attend his eldest son’s bar mitzvah in Israel, making my eldest miss the first ten days of middle school and my youngest, kindergarten. How, a decade earlier, for our firstborn son’s bris on Rosh Hashanah, Mike didn’t attend due to logistics like finding a shul and food for the long holiday in Haifa. My parents never intervened.
“I didn’t know Mom pressured you. I would have told her to stop. It’s your decision, not hers. She’s doing that to make Dad happy. If she does it again, tell me. I’ll tell her to back off.”
When our hour ended, I faced a difficult truth. One I couldn’t admit aloud. While I felt bound to my brother because of our shared gene pool, I didn’t like him as a person. I wouldn’t want to be trapped alone with him on an island. I wouldn’t choose him as my friend. How could I tell him I’d contemplated cutting off our relationship to preserve myself? Each time the thought had crossed my mind, I dismissed it because breaking ties takes just as much energy as maintaining them. I’d also considered my kids. He’s their uncle, his children their first cousins. Despite Mike and me, their bonds are strong.
My brother and I bundled up in our winter coats. I accompanied him to the train station. He hugged me.
“I love you,” he said, turning my face toward his. “Don’t ever forget that. I’m on your side.” It reminded me of our curbside goodbye in California when he left for Israel twenty years earlier.
Over winter vacation, my family flew to San Francisco to see my parents. I accompanied my folks to the therapist they’d started seeing upon my suggestion. During a ninety-minute session, we spent seventy-five discussing my brother. After endless conversations starting with “When Mike this” or “Mike that,” the therapist interrupted.
“Hold on, please. Mike isn’t in this room. Jennifer is. Look at Jennifer and talk to her.” It took my parents several tries before they addressed me, without mentioning my brother.
At the end of the session, the therapist drew an unforgettable conclusion. “No one in any one family should have so much power. Mike shouldn’t hold this much power,” he paused. “And you,” he said, looking at my parents, “you gave it to him.”
I felt affirmed, validated. As if this man gave me words I hadn’t possessed and my parents an opinion they could no longer ignore. But the question became how, forty-five years later, do you reclaim this power?
Maybe Mike and I had never been chummy due to a clash in personality or communication style, and his fervent Judaism only made matters worse, widening our rift. But, I realized during that session, my parents played their part, especially my mother. She hadn’t just started whispering in my ear when Mike found Hashem, Hebrew for God, in Jerusalem’s Old City, immersing himself in the religion of our ancestors. Whenever our sibling strife had struck—whether I was ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years old—she always said, “Your brother reminds me of mine. And we were never friends.”
In that room, I faced my mother. “Please, I beg of you. Stop talking to me about my brother, behind his back. My relationship with him is hard enough.”
My brother approaches his daughter, and I attempt to catch his movements and expressions on camera, to try to understand his need for all-encompassing rules and pre-ordained boundaries. Does he cling to Hashem to avoid making decisions? Does he cleave to the laws because he felt unmoored as a boy, with too many freedoms? My mother remembers feeling challenged by his wit, as if he outsmarted her, while my father stood on the sidelines, only fueling her indignation.
Mike folds his hands on his stomach. He maintains distance from his second-born as he whispers in her ear. Is he allowed to touch the bride? To kiss her? Or does that aspect of their relationship, in their Haredi circle, disappear as soon as a young girl menstruates or announces her impending marriage? Did he consult his rabbi or did he know the answer?
My niece stops rocking to listen to him. Is he gushing over how beautiful she looks, telling her how proud he is, or how much he loves her? Or is he quoting some scholar’s words on marriage, some Jewish proverb about love, or the weekly Torah portion, passing down other people’s knowledge to avoid expressing his own emotions?
I stare at my brother’s face through my lens and recall the familiar words of friends, telling me he might never change and to stop expecting it. “The only thing that can change is the way you react,” they say. One friend whose husband has a huge extended clan shared her trick to surviving family get-togethers: look for the good in each person.
Mike is a devoted father, an uncle who emails my kids jokes and asks about their army service, which his children avoid as Haredi. Would his children think the same of me? Am I a caring, involved aunt or unapproachable, detached? I fear the latter. He might not be the brother I always dreamed of, but I’m probably not his ideal sister either. I remain aloof, removed from him and his offspring. I harshly judge them, their lifestyle, and their decision not to eat in my home. I find them intolerant, but, in fact, I’m equally so.
Yet no matter how challenged I am by our relationship, he remains steadfast—the first to call after recent surgery and on every birthday. He is and will always be the only other person who’ll remember and reminisce about our parents’ foibles and follies and the household in which we were raised.
Mike knows I write about him, about us. Whenever I ask questions, he answers reluctantly, saying, “I don’t want to know why you’re asking.” He doesn’t like digging up the past. I cannot imagine him willingly reading my words, but, if he did, he might surprise me and say, “I’m sorry you feel this way. Because I love you. Remember, I’m on your side.” Like he did nine Thanksgivings ago in the New York train station parking lot.
JENNIFER LANG’s essays have been published in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Honors include a Pushcart Prize and a Best American Essays nomination and finalist in the Crab Orchard Review’s 2017 Literary Contest. Currently, she serves as CNF Editor for the Flexible Persona literary magazine. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she’s been obsessing over every word in her first memoir. Look for her in Raanana, Israel, where she teaches writing at http://israelwritersalon.com/.
For privacy reasons, Jennifer’s brother’s name was changed. —ed.
“How big should I make it?” I asked my tattoo artist, a fashionably underfed hipster in a tiny, spotless shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was probably ten years younger than he looked—the image I was hoping for with my first tattoo. I had just graduated from college and was living on Avenue C in the late ’90s. I was still far too baby-faced to look the part I thought I was playing. I wanted to look like I had experience, like I had a story.
He said, “Big enough so the people at the other end of the bar can see it when you lift up your shirt to show it off.”
It was good advice for a twenty-two-year-old. Now, almost two decades later, I’m more apt to wonder how it looks as I wade into the YMCA family pool, following my two-year-old daughter and my five-year-old son, where I’m less inclined to show off my body than submerge it from sight. Like most of the fathers in my company, my body is succumbing to the undertow of the parenting years: a slack at the chest, a collection at the waistline—story that I’d rather lose. My tattoos now show not the look of experience, but of inexperience, of youth.
I’ve gotten three tattoos while being only a son, and one as both a son and a father. As a son—which is to say, as someone who has tumbled into the world and seeks his place in it—I still like my tattoos. Getting them has felt as essential as the body they’re inked on. My tattoos have stamped something permanent onto my life, which has otherwise confirmed itself to be uncontrollable—even unknowable. It’s an exhilarating power, and, I believe, the primary allure of getting tattoos. In the face of so much mystery I can say, with this ink on this skin, I know this much—I am this much—at least.
The image itself doesn’t so much matter, which is why so many tattoos appear to be so meaningless. I have a heart with an arrow through it on my arm, and a star on my shoulder: why do I have them, instead of not have them? It is assertion, and assertion alone, in response to some other questions I often ask: why do I have to be so white? Why male? Why such average height, why this mop of hair? I don’t know, but I can say that one day, at the foot of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a young man wore a surgeon’s face mask and, holding my arm, inked perfectly straight lines and acute angles on my shoulder. The tattoo is both the most meaningless and precise thing about me.
Incidentally, it also gets the most attention at the YMCA from the swim-diaper set. Every so often I feel a poke on my shoulder and turn to find a toddler saying, “Star!”
“That’s right,” I say, and smile. The parent glides over to fetch his or her child, and gives a smile to say “sorry.” I smile back to say “no problem.”
We’re all smiles, and mine is the most awkward. When I became a father I felt as though I had re-entered the world—tumbling still, and now holding a newborn. Even now, I don’t know my place in the world, but I know my purpose—fatherhood—and to this purpose, my tattoos are all dreadfully embarrassing. I’m embarrassed for all of us, bobbing into the YMCA family pool with our marks of youthful inexperience, images that look more to the taste of our kids than to the parents we’ve become: dragons, fire, dice, swirly lettering, abstractions in black, and yes, stars. Why have them instead of not have them indeed. Now I often think of the question my own dad asked me when I pulled up my shirt to show him my first tattoo.
“It comes off?” he said.
“No, Dad, it’s a tattoo.”
“But it’s not real.”
“Well…” My stepmom searched for her words. “You’re… expressing yourself.”
My dad said to himself, aloud, “And on Father’s Day.”
So it was. We had all met at the beach for a June family reunion. Instead of letting people notice and say something (or more awkwardly for me, not say something), I thought I’d just make the announcement about my new tattoo.
My parents have been less than enthusiastic about my tattoos, which I can understand, now as a parent myself. A decision like this must look like guaranteed regret. When I showed them my fourth and final tattoo, the only one I have gotten as a father, my stepmom said, “Well, I… I liked your arm the way it was.”
“An illustrated man,” my dad declared, again keeping his distance from voicing an opinion.
Oh, well. You learn to live without approval from your parents. I had hoped that this was a tattoo they might have liked, however, as it involves our family. My sister, an artist, drew it as part of the wedding invitations she made for my wife and me. There is a single-story pagoda-like structure in black, at the edge of water, whose currents are shown by dark grey swirls. Above it, in teal, are tiny check marks, Xs, circles, diamonds, and a crescent moon all appearing to be in motion—a kind of swirling cosmos that corresponds to the water below it. In this swirl there are three small rowboats in black, their oars set in their locks but hanging slack. One rowboat is gliding toward the house, one is at the house, one is headed upward and away, at the edge of the cosmos.
The pagoda to me is home, and the boats show the three stages of a cycle that was apparent to me on our wedding day, held at the farmhouse where my wife grew up, and continues to be apparent as I have become a father: it’s a return home to leave it again, and it’s a departure from home, even as far as the edge of the universe, that foretells a return.
“You can never go home again”—yes, but also true is that I never really left, not in any permanent sense. In raising children, I constantly reflect on my own childhood. In being a parent, I constantly recall my own. Having my own kids has also brought me back to the family I came from because there’s a new relationship I’m now obliged to foster—that of the grandparent and grandchild. My parents want to feel like they “know” my kids, and, being grandparents who spoil them rotten—by which I mean give them junky little plastic toys, dubious gummy treats, and unrestrained joy and affection—our kids want to know more of them.
In our wedding ceremony, the minister gave a “blessing to the parents” in which she said, “They are of you, and now they move beyond you.” What I have learned in the years since is that “moving beyond” doesn’t mean I’m no longer “of.” In fact, being “of” my parents has only intensified in having supposedly “moved beyond” in marriage and parenthood. My past, my upbringing, my youth, my sense of inexperience has all become more vibrant in adulthood, in contrast to the tattoos that represent them, whose colors have begun to fade.
“I want a tattoo,” my son says, looking at the one my sister drew. A part of me is happy to hear it. I’ve learned to live without the approval of my parents, at least as it pertains to my appearance, but now I’m struck by how much I want the approval of my kids. Another part of me, the protective father, is, well … concerned. I don’t want my son to do something he regrets.
“Okay,” I say, “but not until you’re a grown-up.” He’ll be of me and not beyond me for many years to come. “You can get a temporary tattoo. One that comes off.”
My two-year-old daughter hasn’t said much, but in the YMCA family locker room recently, as I wiggled her into her swimsuit, she touched my chest and said, “Daddy, you have a name.”
I smiled. On my left pectoral muscle, just above the heart, where a name tag is sewn on a shirt, in Times New Roman typeface, black, all lower-case, about 40-point font, is my first tattoo, a word that described me then and, sometimes in spite of my most sincere wishes, describes me now: tender.
As a young man on Avenue C I wanted something to show great virtue and great fault, something that shows conflict, and the conflict I have now, eighteen years later, is to determine whether it was an act of virtue or fault to get it. I was—and am—sympathetic, gentle, impressionable: tenderhearted. I also was and am perpetually unprepared for the world, especially in parenthood, as each new phase highlights my embarrassing inexperience with it. I’m not so baby-faced anymore, but I’m as tender-footed as my kids are. As a twenty-two-year-old I was attracted to the irony—what kind of man has “tender” tattooed on his chest? I knew it would be a provocation to my future self, and, duly, as a father I am provoked.
Does all this spell “regret”? Yes, and no, and not simply either. I would never get this tattoo now; my taste for this kind of daring irony has since far softened. Yet, it suits me perfectly, then as now, and I’m glad my former self had the temerity to mark me. As a friend of mine said, “People regret tattoos because they once thought they looked cool but no longer do. This is a tattoo you know you should regret. So you probably won’t.”
“Yes, I do have a name,” I said to my daughter, in that chirpy parenting tone, proud of a toddler’s perception. But I said it under my breath, as I hoped not to explain it further, not while I fussed with the diaper, socks, pants, shoes, shirts, towels, goggles, lock, and the bags, and not with all these other people around.
BRIAN GOEDDE teaches writing and literature at the Community College of Philadelphia.