The Vermillion Thread and the End of the World

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

By Sara Bir

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

POLICE STATE

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.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

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My Brother’s Face

Photo by Bharat Ram/Flickr
Photo by Bharat Ram/Flickr

By Jennifer Lang

“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 Judaismthe 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.

Tender

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

By Brian Goedde

“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.

The Mark I Chose

Photo courtesy Pennie Bisbee Walters
Photo courtesy Pennie Bisbee Walters

By Pennie Bisbee Walters

I tried to talk my sons out of getting tattoos. To me, tattoos seemed like something for circus performers or punk rockers: a way to mar lovely, pristine skin. They were ugly, in design or placement, sometimes both, like the one of a snake I’d seen creeping up the cheek of a man’s face at the beach. I’d been noticing more and more tattoos during our summer beach vacations. Military sayings like Semper Fi stretching across a young man’s shoulders, the black words stark against his sunburnt skin. An intricate lacy sleeve of bright flowers and ivy covering a barista’s arm from wrist to shoulder. The odd trail of pink stars on the calf of the mother holding her toddler’s hand.

Snakes. Someone else’s words. Flowers and ivy. Colored stars. They were all unnecessary and permanent, I told Tim and Sam. What design could you get that you’d never regret? Don’t forget. You have a tattoo forever. But kids are all about the here and now. Tim, who was sixteen at the time, talked about getting a tattoo of Pittsburgh’s skyline or the small black-and-tan outline of our family dog. Sam, who is nearly four years younger, wanted a tattoo of the Coca-Cola polar bear, but with a bottle of Mountain Dew instead of the cola, claiming to be a rebel. I didn’t know if they were serious or just trying to provoke me, but I hoped the urge would pass before they turned eighteen and could get one without my assent.

•••

The idea first came to me while skimming through a small tabloid newspaper while I waited at a restaurant. Maybe it was the colorful ads for punk band concerts and head shops or the small brown tattoo of an owl on the back of the hostess’s calf that my daughter Meg pointed out. Something made me turn to her and say, “I’d like to get a tattoo someday. One of Tim’s birthdate or name or something.”

Meg snickered, then said something like, “Oh you’d never do that.” But my sister Kim said, “Yeah, that would be a nice thing to do. To remember him.”

•••

After getting a haircut one bright afternoon in August, I walked the four blocks to a Starbucks for a mocha, a drink that, in my grief, had become a staple—something about the warmth of it in my hands and its decadence. Allowing myself that indulgence was, in a weird way, a self-kindness that was still hard for me. I had to remind myself I was worthy of it. Like I reminded myself kids with good parents were dying every day. From cancer or car accidents maybe, though not drugs. Maybe I had been a good parent. But despite the number of drug overdoses—in Pittsburgh and everywhere else it seemed—it was still something I didn’t believe.

Kayla was standing beside the tattoo parlor three blocks down from my hairdresser, her head shaven except for a small blue tuft above her forehead. One side of her skull boasted her newest tat: a black tarantula beside the pink open bloom of a flower. Weeks before, I’d seen her photo on Facebook and thought, as a mother would, Oh Kayla, what are you doing to your body? That tattoo was just the latest in a series that spread across her chest and legs and arms. What led her to get one after the other after the other? Wouldn’t she someday regret at least one of them?

“Hey,” she said.

“Hi, how are you?” I walked up and hugged her. I remembered the card she sent to me after. I remembered all of them.

“I’m good. You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m doing okay.” I noticed the blue lipstick around the filter of the lit cigarette dangling in her hand. Blue lipstick looked so natural on her. The tattoos probably helped with that. “Hey, I’m thinking of getting a tattoo. Of my son’s handwriting. Can they do that?”

“Oh, that is so cool. What a great idea.” She dropped her cigarette to the cement and ground it out with the toe of her shoe. “Come talk to Ed about it.”

Ed was tall and in his forties, with a long gray ponytail and tattooed arms. His stencil machine could make an exact tattoo of Tim’s handwriting for just fifty dollars—what seemed a pittance. Before the parlor door even closed behind me, I knew that I would do it. It would go on the inside of my right wrist because he was right-handed. I could peek at it whenever I wanted to. It would be my secret.

•••

I made myself go into his bedroom, hoping to find his handwriting on a school paper in his desk drawer or a page of his Narcotics Anonymous workbook, if I could bring myself to read through it again. I’d read it the day after he was found, but remembering anything from those first days was like pulling something out of the ocean’s center, bottomless and dark. Some memories were just gone. I was thankful for that.

As soon as I stepped onto the dark blue shag carpet, I took a deep breath. This room still held things from his good years, before he got sick, before things went so far they could never be the same. Baseball trophies, bobbleheads from Pirates games with his brother and dad. The faceless brown bear I’d named Bruno before Tim could talk. The thin white poster board covered in pictures of him. Of us all together. After the viewing, I’d propped it up against the mirror of his dresser, unable to pull the pictures off.

And now I wanted the tattoo there on the inside of my wrist. To look down and see it throughout the day and night. We had lost so much of him. He left his belongings on buses or at friends’ places where he’d stayed briefly those days he had nowhere else to go. And items I suspected he’d sold for drug money—his Xbox 360, my favorite Laurel Burch earrings, Meg’s nano iPod. Other things had probably been stolen by roommates when he lived at three-quarter-way houses after rehab, things we’d bought him before realizing just how much shit we were in, things that were cheap but desirable to someone who had little: the e-cigarette we bought him to keep him from the real, more dangerous kind, the black rainproof jacket with the warm fur lining, the silky soft throw because he loved the feel of soft things against his skin. All those things had gone missing, along with the son I’d known.

•••

When I couldn’t find anything with his handwriting in his room, I remembered the Mother’s Day card he wrote to me when he was seventeen and still living at home. It was a bright shade of yellow, an oddly cheerful color for him to choose then; he always seemed to be somber, even sullen. The front of the card read “from your son. Mom, because of you, I grew up a healthy, well-mannered person who always tries to make the right decision,” and the inside read “As far as You know anyway.” Those words mocked me, since I knew he was already smoking marijuana then. Arguments about it had replaced civil conversations between us, despite the therapists and doctors, despite my pleading. Below the typed words “Happy Mother’s Day!” were the handwritten words, “From Tim!” that he’d scratched out and replaced with “Love, Tim!” when my husband Ken pointed out “From” was unnecessary. Tim sometimes needed to be reminded of what was obvious, lost as he was in the outer-space regions of his teenage mind.

•••

My tattoo would be monochromatic and simple: the words Love, Tim! in black ink. What my son wrote to me. His printing. His words. I imagined seeing them whenever I turned over a soapy dish in my hands or spread lotion that smelled like oranges and ginger across the dry palms of my hands. I’d linger in those tasks, seeing the black, block handwriting that wasn’t yet there. I could feel him write the words, his hand twisted around the pen, face tight with concentration. He had hated his handwriting homework, even before the torture of writing cursive letters began, but now those shapes he hated drafting seemed to be all I had left.

•••

On my fifty-fourth birthday, I felt like a switch had flipped inside me. I had to get the tattoo that night. The urgency I felt was a wave pushing me along. I didn’t resist.

“Hey there. What can I do for you?” Ed said. He was the only one working at Jester’s Court Tattoo that night.

“Hi. I was here before. I’m Kayla’s friend. I wanted to have a tattoo made from this card.” I opened it and pointed to Tim’s words.

“Oh yeah, I remember. Just words, right? We can do that. It’ll be fifty dollars.”

We stood together looking at the card, and I explained how I wanted to include the exclamation point but not the thin underlining that Tim had drawn under his name. Meg and I had debated in the car whether to include those extra markings. At first, I thought I’d just include his name, but then decided that Love was an equally important word, since I knew in my heart that it was true. Despite how things had ended.

One of our last phone conversations had convinced me of that love, relieved me of a little bit of my guilt. That talk had been an absolution, a gift, though I didn’t see it at the time. Love, however powerful, was not, it turned out, strong enough to cure or rescue or tame. But love lived on in spite of death, of heartbreak, of a parent falling short. I had learned that much.

Meg liked the punctuation mark because it showed the exuberance and energy he had then. I liked the idea of a marker that showed who he once was, before the addiction took full hold. Thinking of him adding the exclamation point made me smile, although it made me feel sad, too. Every memory had those two opposing sides: happiness and sorrow. Glad to have known him, so sad that he was gone. I lived a dichotomous life now.

“Take a seat here and get comfy. I’ll be back in a flash,” Ed said, walking to the stencil machine. When he returned and handed the card back to me almost gingerly, like he knew its value, I slipped it carefully back into the plastic sleeve I’d brought it in and laid it beside me on the chair. He rubbed my wrist down with alcohol and then a milky lotion to help the stencil ink stick to my skin. He showed me the stencil first, then peeled the back of it off and held it parallel to my wrist, ink side down.

“I want it tilted so I can read it.”

He shifted the paper, waited for my okay, and then pressed it onto my skin for several seconds, rubbing it once with his thumb. When he peeled the stencil back, Tim’s words were left behind.

The needle, when he took it out of sealed plastic wrapping, was longer than I’d imagined and reminded me of the IV needle the nurse had pushed into my skin the night I went into labor with Tim nearly two weeks early. I’d felt so unprepared to parent him.

I watched Ed feed the needle into the top of the small machine and turn a stubby knob until the needle was in place. Holding the gun in his hand like a pencil, he dipped the needle into a cup of black ink the size of a thimble. I heard a thick buzzing noise as he tested the machine, operating it through a small pedal on the floor near his feet. He bent over my wrist and I heard the buzzing again as he began at the top of the letter L. I watched as the needle punctured the skin on my wrist, leaving ink on top of the purple stencil markings. When I asked Kayla what getting a tattoo felt like the day I stopped into the parlor, she said like a cat scratching your sunburn. For me, it was just a subtle scraping, dull and somehow distant, like it was imagined or in the past. Maybe I wanted to feel Tim so badly that I welcomed the feeling of his words being etched into my skin, my body that had held him for those eight and a half months, kept him safe. Maybe the tattoo really didn’t hurt much. Maybe it did, but I was too numb to feel it. Or maybe I wanted to feel pain to feel him again, I don’t know. I only know the needle felt light and quick.

When we left the tattoo parlor, my wrist wrapped with bright purple tape, I was euphoric, a feeling little known to me since Tim’s death. I felt lit and warm and accompanied in a way I hadn’t when I walked in. My skin was now home to a secret kinship, a shelter for a part of my tender, vanished son, suddenly found.

•••

When I’d seen him last, his hair had grown shaggy and wild again like when he first started using. He mostly wore black cotton t-shirts that hung on him like a tent and bore the silhouettes of Notorious B.I.G. or Big Pun. I’d grown used to those XL shirts that swallowed up his five-foot-eleven frame, his narrow hips and shoulders, as if he wanted to hide, his pants so long and wide-legged they billowed up around his bright green and white skate shoes. His clothes were more than a fashion statement: He didn’t want anything pressing in on him.

•••

For weeks, I babied the skin of my right wrist, following Ed’s instructions carefully: wash three times a day with an antibacterial soap, pat it dry with a paper towel, then rub in a fragrance-free lotion and let the tattoo get some air. I enjoyed the ritual of it, the patting dry with a gentle touch, the feel of the lotion, cool and soft.

•••

When I first considered the tattoo, imagined the script carved into my wrist, I kept going back to my penultimate conversation with Tim. I said before it was a gift, though I spent much of the call pleading with him to listen, to hear me, when—I see it now—he was no longer capable of it. The addiction had suppressed his ability to listen, the way that other diseases suppress your immune system, leave you unable to fight. Maybe if I tell you what he said, you’ll understand. Even without having been in my shoes those six years. Maybe it will be enough to recount his words that day.

I had been at my office with a stack of pages to edit, but I was getting little done. Most days were like that for me then. A struggle to focus, to care about work when my son’s life—and therefore mine—was becoming a natural disaster. He’d been texting me for forty-five minutes, seeking my approval, my acknowledgement that his plan for the immediate future held merit.

Here’s what he was planning to do just weeks after his second overdose and week-long hospitalization: move into an apartment with Jake, a young man about his age whom he met at rehab. Two addicts who thought the occasional use of marijuana or can of beer would be no problem. Two addicts still living in denial, unable or unwilling to face the reality of their disease.

When the phone rang, I considered not answering. I had so much work to do, and debates with him took a circular path, his reasoning so illogical there was no possible resolution. Afterward, I had trouble retracing the tangled branches of his thought. It was, I suppose, a symptom of his drug use, his brain struggling to follow its own thoughts, the connections numbed or diverted. But I knew I had to try.

“Hi, Tim,” I said, doing my best to not sound annoyed and probably doing a poor job of it. I was lousy at hiding how I felt, especially with him, especially when I felt afraid or angry—two emotions he always seemed to bring out in me.

“Hey, Mom.” His voice always sounded monotonic, flat and emotionless, his mind forever planted firmly somewhere in the middle of happy and sad. I wondered if he ever felt anything anymore without drugs.

“Tim, I think you need to go back to rehab now. It’s what you need. Not moving in with Jake.” When he didn’t respond, I kept going. “You almost died. Again. Tim, you need help.”

“Mom, it’s okay. I’m done with that shit. Jake and me are gonna get an apartment and it’s gonna be fine. I got my job now, and he’s working. We can afford it.”

“Jake is an addict, Tim. He’s a nice guy and a friend, I know, but he’s not good for you. Remember what they said at rehab? That you need to change your friends, your habits, your hangouts. It’s the only way. You need to find friends who are clean and have been that way for a while.”

“It’s fine, mom. He does a little marijuana now and then, but that’s okay. We can do that. A lil marijuana or a beer ain’t gonna hurt. I’m off the hard stuff, I promise.”

I swung my chair away from my desk until it faced the window. Hearing him talk that way was scaring me. Most of my knowledge of addiction came from the Sunday family sessions at rehab, and I remembered what the counselor said every week: Addicts had to leave their old friends behind. Old friends led to old habits and old habits led to relapse.

“Mom, did you hear me?”

“Yeah. You know you can’t drink at all anymore, Tim. Or use any drugs.”

“Mom, it’s okay. I can do it once in a while.”

“No, you can’t. Mel was clear on that. You can’t. You have to stop it all. And you have to get new friends.”

“Mom, I can’t. And I don’t want to. I have a job now, and I want to be out on my own. I can do this.”

I stood up and looked at the sky, at the single bird gliding toward the building just a hundred feet away. Tonight, when I was locking my door and heading out, the whole flock, black and busy, would be gathering on its rooftop. “Tim, you can’t. It’ll happen again and this time—” My voice fell into my throat and I started to choke up, my voice suddenly thin and wispy. “Tim, you can’t. You won’t survive it again. You…you will die. And I can’t take that, I can’t.” I started to cry. “I can’t let that happen, Tim. I love you. You have to do what you can to stay clean.”

“Mom, I love you too, but it’s my choice. I can’t go back to rehab. I just can’t do it again. I’m gonna move in with Jake, after I get a few more paychecks.” He paused, and I watched the lone bird land on the rooftop, his black silhouette clear against the darkening sky.

“And Mom, no matter what happens…if I die, it’ll be my fault, not yours.” The quiet between us thinned and stretched out, but I was too terrified to speak. I could hear the ticking of my office clock, the blood rushing in my ears. I began to sob openly, holding a wet Kleenex to my face.

“Mom, I know you and Dad love me. You guys are the only reason I’m still alive.”

•••

Looking back, I knew. The way he was talking, there was only one way things could turn out. He wouldn’t go back to rehab. He wouldn’t stay clean. He would make what few choices he could, decide the few benign things that drugs had left him control of, like it or not, without my help.

Today I wonder, was he saying goodbye to me? Did he know it, too? To leave me with those words I’d cling to just weeks later, words full of his love for me and Ken, proof that he knew all we had done to try and save him.

I don’t know the answer. But the word Love—the way he wrote it—on my wrist above and just to the left of his name—is how I remember that call, his words, uttered to me with all the certainty his numbed heart could feel, a mark of his love for me, true.

•••

PENNIE BISBEE WALTERS, who works as a technical writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is currently working on a memoir about loving and losing a child who suffers from the disease of addiction. Her poems have appeared in Voices from the Attic.

Knee Jerk

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

By Amy E. Robillard

When the birds wouldn’t stop shitting on our new patio furniture, I tried everything and then I called our friends who have guns. I asked them a) if it was legal to shoot birds within the city limits and b) if so, did they want to help us get rid of the birds who were making a mockery of us.

It’s not like this was just a pile or two of dried bird shit. No. I’m talking about multiple fresh globs of shiny white liquid bird shit. So many that they bled into one another. The birds weren’t flying overhead and shitting from the air. They were coming specifically to our furniture, resting on it, and shitting. The chair at one end of the table seemed to be a particular favorite. They were using our new teak furniture as their personal toilet. And the stoop right outside the sliding glass door, what we called Essay’s perch, where she liked to lie and sun herself.

We thought we had solved this problem two years earlier when we’d just moved into this house. At the old house, we kept two bird feeders, and my husband Steve diligently refilled it when it ran low. This was his project. I didn’t hate the birds the way I do now, but I didn’t participate either. When we moved into this house and the birds we were feeding began to show their gratitude by shitting all over the patio and our furniture—not quite as nice as the new teak, but not the point—I suggested moving the bird feeders to the back of the yard. When that didn’t help, we removed the bird feeders altogether. When they continued to shit, we bought a bobble-head owl and a falcon and staked them into the yard, moving them each time we mowed the lawn. Problem solved.

Until this spring. Looking back, I think it may have had something to do with the two dead birds we found in the yard within the space of three weeks. Were the birds who wouldn’t leave our airspace—the ones who constantly flew overhead cackling and cawing and landing on our end chair to shit—actually grieving? Was there a mourning period they had to observe before they could move on to shit in someone else’s yard?

To the branches of the trees I tied shiny reflective tape specifically designed to detract birds. It looked like we were gearing up to have a party. Festive streamers blowing in the wind. The damn birds flew right past them.

I ordered plastic snakes from Amazon. When they arrived a couple days later, I was pleased with their life-like slithering tongues sticking out of their pebble-sized heads, satisfied that they might make even me jump if I happened to forget that they were fake. I distributed them on the patio and on the furniture, paying special attention to the favored end-chair toilet. Steve and I ate dinner that night on the patio beneath the stars with three rubber snakes at the other end of the table.

I ordered yellow eyeball balloon detractors from Amazon. Three balloons per package. Except they’re not really balloons. They’re more like beach balls decorated with six red “eyes” that are supposed to resemble the eyes of predators and cause birds to redirect their flight patterns. When they arrived, I went to the basement to find the foot pump. I came back up to the kitchen, attached the silver stickers to the six red circles on each of the balloons, and set to pumping. Both dogs cocked their heads, puzzled by my project. By the time I got them inflated and hanging from the branches of the trees in the yard, I was sweating, my hair was falling loose from my ponytail, and I was desperately thirsty. But before going inside, I stepped off the footstool to admire my handiwork.

From each of the biggest trees hung reflective streamers, two per tree, each five or six feet long, and one yellow inflated balloon decorated with six red eyeballs. A bobble-head owl and a falcon each staked its claim to the lawn. A dozen rubber snakes littered the patio and the table. The overall effect might be described as quasi-festive, and I could imagine a newcomer backing away slowly upon entering, wary of the invisible traps surely hidden strategically throughout the yard. I may have lost my sense of perspective.

•••

I have never once shot a gun. I’ve never held a gun or even a bullet and I’ve never had any interest in doing so. We do have three guns in the house, all given to Steve by family and all kept in cases primarily as family heirlooms. Two are shotguns and one is a Winchester rifle and I wouldn’t be able to name the differences among them if my life depended on it.

We have friends who hunt. They’re gun enthusiasts, you might say. One day Steve and AJ got to talking about Steve’s guns, and AJ asked to see them. Steve told him about their history, and AJ offered to teach Steve how to clean them. They set a date to do so, and they spent hours taking the guns apart, AJ showing Steve the tiniest details and intricacies of cleaning them. The one he couldn’t quite get apart, though, was the Winchester. “Okay if I take this home with me and ask a buddy to help me figure this out?” he asked Steve.

“Of course. No problem. Do whatever you can.”

“And then I’ll bring it back and one of these days I’ll teach you to shoot.”

I had been teaching most of the time they’d been cleaning the guns, but I was back home by this point. AJ looked over at me and chuckled. “And Amy can join us.” He looks at me. “If you want.”

“Yeah, I’m thinking I’d probably shoot my own foot off or something.”

When AJ returned a few weeks later with the Winchester reassembled and cleaned, he also brought with him his AK-47 to show Steve, who has an avid interest in military history. It was a monstrous case. He heaved it up and lay it on our kitchen counter, opened it up, and I saw, in my home, an honest-to-God military-style assault rifle. I had never seen one before. I took a quick look and backed away, uneasily, as if it might jump out of its case at me. I made a joke about knowing some people I’d like to use it on, and even as the words escaped my mouth, I was shocked. But I kept going. “I now have access to an AK-47,” I said. “Somehow that makes me feel better.”

I think sometimes we don’t have control over the words that come out of our mouths. Maybe they come from the most primitive part of our reptile brains, the part responsible for regulating our breathing and our balance. My words were a knee-jerk reaction, and while we commonly think of a knee-jerk reaction as something we say without thinking, it is also something that literally provides balance with little conscious thought. Our knee jerks out reflexively to keep us standing when we might otherwise collapse. The words that come from our reptilian brains, the deepest parts of ourselves, are those that keep us balanced, the ones that help us maintain equilibrium.

The family I grew up in did not communicate well. We were not taught how to express our emotions and we were not affectionate with one another. We isolated ourselves from one another, my mother with her soap operas in the living room, me with my books in my bedroom, and my siblings with who-knows-what in their bedrooms. We walked past each other on the way to the refrigerator at home and in the hallways at school. My sister expressed her own frustration and anger by beating me. “As soon as Ma leaves, you’re dead. I’m going to kill you.” I stored my anger inside for years, feeling it solidify into depression and shame, and ever so very gradually, as an adult, working to alchemize it into a tentative and ultimately confident belief that I have a right to my own feelings. Some days I still have to work at it.

What I am trying to say is that, though I make my living teaching others about the value of language, the power of the written word, the lingering, life-or-death effects of the words we choose to speak, I understand that sometimes we don’t choose our words and sometimes violence just seems easier, so much more efficient.

•••

When I teach undergraduates about the concept of ideology, I ask them to think about it using the metaphor of marinade. As products of an ideology, we are the meat that is being marinated. The marinade is the ideology—the coherent set of values, beliefs, and ideals that guides our thoughts and actions, that shapes our perception of reality, and that largely remains invisible. When a piece of meat has marinated in a mixture of seasonings and sauce for a long time, the marinade becomes part of the meat. It infuses and is therefore inseparable from the meat. One can no more easily remove the marinade from the meat than one can remove the brain from the body. And a piece of meat needs time to marinate. One cannot marinate a piece of meat in five minutes, just as one cannot subscribe to a new ideology in a week.

The marinade I grew up steeped in was this: Your life is not valuable. Nothing about you is valuable. You’re fat and ugly and stupid. I’m going to kill you.

You’re dead. You’re dead. You’re dead.

My life was not precarious because my life was not valued. I have never been afraid to die. I am still trying to understand that most people value life. Most people love their families. Many days there’s still a mental hitch I have to get past when I consider this. Infused in me is a belief that I am not valuable. I marinated in it for too long a time when I was too impressionable. Beliefs can change. Of course they can. But the original beliefs, the original flavor of that first marinade is still there. It cannot ever be removed. It can only be masked.

There’s a certainty for me in sadness. I know sadness. I know boredom. I know depression and I know fear. I’m comforted by disappointment because I know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond to good fortune. It’s not where I live.

I have always felt most comfortable in discomfort. I learned from my mother that when things were calm, when nothing was unsettled in the house, the way to make it so was to pick a fight. What are you thinking about? Why don’t you ever talk to me? Why don’t you ever fill up the sugar canister when it gets low? Why am I always the one who has to do the grocery shopping? You don’t really love me, do you?

Bring what’s inside out: the self-loathing and the bottomless insecurities. Share them so that you’re not so alone loitering in your despair.

•••

When the birds would not stop shitting on our patio furniture, I wanted to shoot them. I thought of AJ and how I had access to guns now. I tried shooing them off using the jet setting on the hose nozzle, but that didn’t work. It didn’t stop me from trying. Picture me standing there in my yard on an early summer evening, on a quiet street in a quiet city in the Midwest, in my shorts and tee-shirt, no bra, among my plastic birds of prey and my predator eyeball balloons, shooting the jet spray straight up in the air, onto the roof and into the dense branches of the trees, cursing under my breath at the birds who would not leave us alone.

Knowing that I had access to an AK-47 changed my thinking when I couldn’t get rid of these nuisance birds. I was being reasonable. I was doing all of the things the internet told me to do. They were still in our airspace. “This is a no-fly zone!” I yelled at them as they flew by. My rational approach wasn’t working and I knew something that would. Shoot the motherfuckers.

Not that I would actually use an AK-47 on the birds. Of course not. I would ask AJ to come over and use whatever kind of gun one uses to shoot birds. I had figured out that these weren’t random birds. It seemed to be just four or five birds who kept coming back to the yard to shit, stopping on their way to our neighbor’s yard for food. This strengthened my theory about their being in mourning. Maybe it was a family.

After the horrifying shooting in Orlando, I decided to give blood not because I thought it would help anybody there, but because I felt helpless after signing the petitions to ban military-style assault weapons and imploring Congress to do something about terror suspects’ access to guns. Doing something physical felt good. While going through the preliminary health screening, the technician was surprised to find that my pulse was just fifty. “Is it always this low?” she asked me. I shrugged my shoulders. “I have no idea.” A pulse of fifty is the Red Cross’s minimum for blood donors, so I just made the cut-off. Usually it was my iron level that was a cause for concern.

Later, when I told Steve about my pulse, he remarked that that’s the heart rate of an athlete. It means I’m really healthy, that my heart doesn’t have to work very hard to pump the blood throughout my body. “Maybe it’s all the walking I do with the dogs,” I said. “Or maaaaaybe it means I’m dying.” This was a familiar trope in our home. I was always turning the slightest problem, the tiniest bump or bruise, into a life-threatening disease. I was always dying. I am always dying. I have never really learned how to expect this life to continue, to believe that what I do matters, to think of any of it as permanent.

Just the other day I read a piece in the New York Times about therapists’ developing understanding of depression being rooted not in past traumas but in an inability to anticipate a positive future. And it occurred to me how much of my life I have spent unable to anticipate a future. Yet here I still am.

I heard a rumor a few months ago that one of my colleagues has a gun and he wants to use it. This comes to me fourth- or fifth-hand, so its veracity is anybody’s guess, but though my response when I heard it the first time was an exaggerated disgust, I think I understand that desire. When you have something shiny and new, you want to use it. It occupies your thoughts. You shape your actions and plans around it. You think, When I get home, I’m going to switch my old purse for my new one right away. You think, I can’t wait to find an outfit that works with these new shoes. You think, I can’t wait to try that new lens on my camera. You think, I can’t wait to use my gun.

Possession of a shiny new object changes your thinking. Likewise, knowing you have access to that object changes what is possible. This knowledge affects the ways you troubleshoot problems.

Writing this makes my pulse go up a little. It scares me to think of myself as somebody who professes to believe in the power of language but at the same time sometimes understands the will to violence.

I recently lost respect for somebody in almost an instant, and it occurred to me just how long it takes to build up respect for somebody, how long it takes to earn somebody’s respect, and how quickly we can lose it. Respect is earned slowly, over time, in tiny increments, through actions that show again and again what kind of person one is.

•••

The bird shit all over our brand new patio furniture was the ultimate sign of disrespect, day after day. At first it seemed so trivial. I mean, I was being driven to distraction by bird shit. But each morning, before I could go outside to enjoy a beautiful early summer morning with a cup of coffee on the patio, I’d have to get a roll of paper towels and the spray cleaner, grab a plastic bag, and gag my way through cleaning up globs of fresh shiny liquid white bird shit. I could feel my pulse rising. I took it personally. Why this yard? Why this furniture? Why us?

I wanted to reason with the birds, to show them that I’m really a good person, that we’re good people, that my dogs are lovely, that we deserve a little bit of peace. I’d have to do it slowly, over time, but birds don’t understand language. I knew I couldn’t really shoot them.

Violence is a perceived shortcut to respect. And a gun is nothing if not a symbol of violence. To have a gun or have access to a gun is to have near-immediate respect. A gun says, You will respect my power to snuff out your life in an instant.

A gun says, I don’t have time to earn respect. Instead I demand it.

A gun says, Look at me. Now.

A gun says, I don’t have time to persuade you. What if I can’t?

A gun says, I am afraid.

•••

My knee-jerk reaction to other people’s families, to animal families is to believe that they love one another. I never experienced that love, and I can name dozens of friends who have similar experiences with their own families, yet still I simply assumed, when considering why it was the same four or five birds flying over our yard, that it was probably a family in mourning. It seems that at the same time that I’d been marinating in the belief that I was worthless, that nobody loved me, I was also receiving and holding on to the message that other families were not like ours. Other families love one another. That’s what a family is. Never mind the stories you hear about domestic violence. Never mind the stories you hear about husbands shooting wives. Never mind your own experience.

I want to use this new understanding. It’s shiny and new, like a gun. It will not always seem so.

This new understanding says, Family members do not necessarily love one another.

This new understanding says, Blood is thin. It runs in times of danger.

This new understanding says, You were not alone.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays have also been published on The Rumpus and in Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Creative Nonfiction.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

The Changeling

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

By Lillian Ann Slugocki

Lucinda shows up in Wisconsin, on September 25 by way of North Carolina—our half sister from another mother. She is the younger, better version of me in every way, but I’m the only sibling that she talks to—there are three others.

She arrives after a twenty-five-year absence in our brother’s life; a seeker, a philosopher, convinced she can carry the weight of his impending death, that she could, in fact, be his angel of death. Like Charon, she has the gold piece for passage in her teeth at all times. She is both midwife and doula for the dying. Our first night together, at the all-night grocery store, Mark wears flannel pajama bottoms, white socks, flip-flops. His eye sockets are purple under the canopy of fluorescent lights. She’s Martha Stewart on crack:

Pro biotic for your belly. Score! Fresh ginger, for nausea, Ooooh, I like this soap, it’s organic, it’s lavender! I love these fruit cups! I love mandarin oranges! We’ll have lasagna for dinner tonight.

And he’s in absolute thrall to her: a school-boy crush, for this paragon of love and light. My god, so much light, so much energy—it crackles from her skin like static electricity. This girl is lit up. I trail behind the two of them; so animated, so colorful, it’s like watching a passion play. He willingly hands over all his power to her. I am completely stupefied, silenced, erased. Back at his apartment, breakthrough pain! Lucinda calls her mother, who is not our mother. Mark takes the phone, turns his face to the wall. He might be crying. I don’t know. I can’t bear to see him like this. It unhinges me. I smoke at the window in another room. Lucinda enters, crying—she takes my hand. She wants to be the doula for my pain and grief, too. But here’s the thing. It’s not what I want from her, at all.

I want her to get out of my way; I need her to shut up, be humble, bear witness, and respect a bond she knows nothing about. But she’s too high on her mission to help, to fix, to redeem—and doesn’t see this, or if she does, chooses to ignore it. I’ve been dispossessed in my role as the oldest sister, his oldest friend. She is the changeling who replaces me, and then tries to help me. When he’s passed out on his pain meds, she wants to go to a salon and get a pedicure, go shopping for new clothes, sample cheese curds, go for a drive. I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep, too. This is not a vacation. And does it really matter if your intentions are pure, and your compassion is real, but your actions ultimately create even more chaos? Who can really tell when times are so fraught?

I can see her mind working: He’s a cool guy, after all, full of flaws, like we all are, but also charismatic and funny. And I see her guilt and her regret, for ignoring him all of her life, but I can’t fix it for her. I can’t fix it for anyone. And I don’t want to. I don’t have the bandwidth. I have my own path to walk—this is my mandala. Go find your own.

At the V.A. clinic the next morning, his doctor examines him. He sits on the table, emaciated, yet still very much in his power, in his body, and still very hip, a rocker—in his black hat, purple hair, and Tibetan beads. We’re in an air-conditioned, windowless room, beige walls and tiled floors. Lucinda and I sit on folding chairs, facing them, doctor and patient, as if it’s a performance. And he’s the star of the show. At one point, the doctor says to him, So yes, you could die in your sleep, and that’s when Mark got up and left.

As I leave to follow him, I hear Lucinda still with the doctor: He needs a higher dose of Fentanyl, now. Today.

In the parking lot, in the sunlight, Mark leans against her neon blue rental. His beads are loose around his wrist and his neck. We don’t say anything. It’s too much; I try to hold him, but we both pull away. What if Lucinda sees? But also the idea of his death is just too crazy. We try to square up to his mortality—the white clouds roil in the sky above our heads. It’s a perfect September day. The leaves are just starting to turn. We’re on the south side of town, in a neighborhood I don’t recognize. He has six weeks to live. Lucinda triumphantly emerges from the clinic,

The patches, she announces, one thousand milligrams, will be in your mailbox, tomorrow! Fed-exed, baby.

Back at his apartment, she draws up a complex schedule for his complex meds, puts it in a spreadsheet, gets it printed, and tacked to the refrigerator. Also tacked to the refrigerator are all her cards and letters to him—spanning the entire length of their relationship, almost six weeks, including a selection of her favorite quotes from their time together:

Screw break out pain!

You’re like a real sister to me!

And taped to the purple wall in the hallway is a hand-painted birthday card from her son. It hangs next to a Xeroxed copy of a prayer by Tecumseh, a Shawnee Indian chief, which reads:

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

•••

In the kitchen, she heats up the lasagna, and I pour vodka into a green plastic cup. Mark eats a tiny sliver of his dinner, and then they’re off to the dunes of Lake Michigan, so he can smoke his evening joint .I don’t go. It’s not my ritual. It’s theirs. I pour more vodka into the green plastic cup, which I drink in silence and utter confusion in his empty living room. The hospital bed is to my right, Tibetan prayer flags overhead, courtesy of Lucinda. When they get back, she kisses me on the cheek, says, I love you, and is gone. She sleeps at my aunt’s house. She’ll get her hands dirty, but not that dirty. I’m happy that I’m getting out of here tomorrow.

In the morning, I’m confident, at the very least, she’ll give me some space to say goodbye to him. I have to go home. I have a full teaching load. I have a dog. I pay New York City rent.I’m at the limit of how many classes I can miss before my pay is cut. In his bedroom, I’m packing; she arrives precisely at ten a.m. to take me to the airport. She picks up my hair brush, and pulls out a new one from Walgreens: Look! I got it for you on the way over! The old one is so gnarly. She marches into the living room, calls out his name:

Mark! Honey, hi, you up? Did you take the anti-nausea meds? Let’s look at the schedule.

He’s been avoiding me all morning, will not talk about how this might be my last morning on earth with you. I don’t want to go there either, but I do want five minutes at some point in the day, before I get on the plane, to say goodbye. Because it might really be goodbye. So, will you, Lucinda, will you give me that space? But it’s not looking good. I stand in the shadow of The Changeling, a sister he never really knew, who now controls everything. Because in the land of dying, everything is upside down. Everything is topsy-turvy. It’s like the circus has come to town. Lucinda and Mark make plans to eat lobster, in downtown Milwaukee, after they drop me off at the airport.

And I see as I get in the back seat, and they get in the front, that this is the way he wants it. He’s not going to say goodbye to me. It’s a much smoother ride with The Changeling in charge. It’s easier on him. He hardly knows her. He basks in her reflected light, as they talk cornfields and lobster rolls. I’m in the back still holding out hope—two minutes alone at the airport, that’s all I’m asking. This is all I want. And Lucinda is an exceptional woman. We’ve been friends for 20 years. She will honor this connection, which doesn’t include her, and step aside, but when we are pulling into the entrance for my airline, she says,

Let’s take a family picture!

She gets out, helping me with my bags, I whisper furiously to her,

I do not want to take a family picture.

And I can’t even manage to sound like a sane person. I’m acutely conscious that my head might explode. She wants a picture to post on social media? My brother looks terrible. I look terrible. I don’t want a digital snap shot, or simulacrum of any kind, of this day, this moment. This moment can burn in hellfire, the second I don’t need it to move to the next. Mark stands at the curb, says, What’s wrong? Lucinda, on the verge of tears, replies, She doesn’t want a family picture, and points at me. I pick up my suitcase and throw it at her. It’s too big and too heavy to make much headway, but I make my point.

I’m out of control.

Mark calls out to me, as I walk away, You’re coming back, right?

In the lounge, at my gate, I call my younger brother of the same mother, and tell him what has just happened. I stand in front of a row of floor to ceiling plate glass windows, overlooking a 747, illuminated by a brilliant afternoon sun. I’m center stage, on the red carpet, in the brightest spot in the room, practically blinded by the light, and I weep. It is such a relief to finally be the despairing, messy, breaking-down woman that I’d been holding back for so long and so hard. Everybody in the terminal watches me cry. It’s the happiest, and most satisfied I’ve been in weeks.

•••

The next time I fly back, The Changeling has vanished, for good, dethroned when my brother didn’t want to go along with their suicide plot. She said it was time, and he said, no. He texted me: She’s Dr. Kevorkian! Tell her to stay away! She got on a plane anyway. She called me from Atlanta. I knew her heart was breaking. I told her, don’t go. Turn around and head home. She didn’t listen. She didn’t know him. When he says no, he means it. She pounded on his door. Crying. Let me in. But it was over.

This long-lost half-sister brought him, for a brief time, what he needed—organization to the chaos of his dying. This must’ve been a relief, and maybe it even promised a different ending, a kind of redemption. But in the end, she didn’t prevail. She was banished. Two weeks later, I flew back into town, at his request. Left to our own devices, we watched movies and smoked pot with cousins and siblings, ate frosted cinnamon muffins for breakfast, and a candy bars for lunch. I didn’t try to fix him, redeem him, or help him.

I bore witness, and believe me, this is infinitely more difficult because it’s acknowledging that you are helpless, and power greater than you is in control. I tried to stay longer, but he said, no, go home. I knew better than to argue. He died a few days later.

He died like a hero going home.

•••

LILLIAN ANN SLUGOCKI has been nominated twice for Best of the Web, a Pushcart Prize, and was winner of the Gigantic Sequins prize for fiction. She’s been published by CCM, Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, Spuyten Duyvil Press, as well as Vol 1: Brooklyn, Bloom/The Millions, Salon, Entropy, The Nervous Breakdown, Hypertext Magazine, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Manifest-Station, The Forge Literary Magazine, BUST Magazine, Angels Flight, literary west, and others. Her latest book is: How to Travel with Your Demons (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2015). She founded BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers, a reading series @KGB Bar. @laslugocki

How to Tell Without Words

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

By Sarah Broussard Weaver

You can tell by the way his footsteps sound coming down the stairs if he’s having a grumpy morning or not. It’s okay—getting out of a warm bed sucks for you, too. Just don’t talk to each other until you’ve both had your coffee. The stronger the brew, the faster your moods improve. Talking while grumpy is always a bad idea. Kiss goodbye—a good kiss, not one of those ones you give your elderly relatives—when you separate for the day. A pat on the ass would be welcomed, too.

You can tell by the look in your child’s face how much her feelings were actually hurt. You clench your jaw so you don’t call the other kid a bad name. You know the other child’s mother might have done the same. Tomorrow they will be best friends again, and the rhododendrons are starting to bud, and your new kitten is getting so incredibly fluffy, and you plan to make a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting on Saturday. Life always goes on, but your child’s life has been too short for her to know that yet, so you must wrap her in the best furry blanket and cuddle her, until your words and touch permeate her being.

You can tell from the height of the bedside stack that you won’t ever have enough life to read all the books you need to read. There’s a sunny yellow puddle on the floor because you were too engrossed in the Abigail Thomas memoir to remember that you own dogs. Small dirty socks scatter across the floor because your children are real, not model children by any measure but the love they have for you, beyond what you’ve ever imagined receiving. The stately Mount Clean Clothes in your laundry room tells everyone you aren’t a good housekeeper. You smile when writing these words because you don’t care. Your husband is mostly silent when observing the laundry room (or any other room, honestly) so maybe he’s finally accepted that you’re not Marie Kondo or anyone like her. You can tell by your inner serenity in the house chaos that you aren’t willing to waste the life you have remaining on house perfection.

You can tell by your son’s jawline that he will be a man, sooner than can be tolerated, faster than is decent for a mother to have to endure. All you can do is hold him as long as he will allow it, patiently listen to his never-ending stories about things you care nothing about—the bad guys in Minecraft, the desire he has for a pocketknife, the funny thing his friend said which is really not funny at all, the newest Nerf machine guns that shoot foam bullets “ so super fast!” because it’s enough that he cares about them, and walk him to the basement—without complaining—to play video games because he won’t be scared to be alone forever.

You can tell by your daughter’s voice, attitude, face—all of her—that she has more confidence than you had at her age. Fourteen, and when she shrieks in laughter the entire cafeteria can hear and recognize it—no careful tittering for her. Her joy overtakes her and she roars, falls on the floor with its force, her mouth wide as the promise she holds. She stomps up to a boy who insulted her friend—not stopping her stomping until he is pinned to the wall like a fly on a corkboard—and informs him that what he did is not okay with her, and he will be apologizing now, and she claps her hands in front of him for emphasis. She radiates righteous anger. You are thrilled and you are jealous. You hope that she has more of all of it, of everything there is here, because surely no woman ever had as much of life as she deserves.

You can tell by your jeans button that you have gained weight. When you grasp your belly roll in both hands, marveling at its heft, at its rubbery texture, know that goddesses need solidity and heft, something to work with if they want to reign effectively. Just remember, you alone decide if you want to repaint or remodel your dwelling, and you alone can accomplish it. Whether the Venus of Willendorf was a fertility statue, a goddess, or ancient porn, she was made that way for a reason and so are you. Your breasts can and have nourished in more ways than one, and your children fight for your lap because it is cushioned for their needs. Praise yourself for your mightiness, for your strength, for your steadiness in a storm, knowing these things make you a sanctuary.

•••

SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER is a Southern transplant living in Oregon, a spouse, a mother of four children, and an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her essays have been published in Hippocampus, The Bitter Southerner, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. Find her at sbweaver.com or tweet her @sarahbweaver.

Read more FGP essays by Sarah Broussard Weaver.

You’re My Only

Photo courtesy Linda Kass
Photo courtesy Linda Kass

By Linda Kass

On the day my father turned eighty-eight—just over six years ago—my mother shuffled down the hospital corridor to visit him after surgery. Her five-foot stature diminished by degenerative arthritis and a series of falls, Mom had been the needier of my parents; my dad her loyal caretaker, driver, friend and, most of all, loving husband. She slowly pushed forward her walker, a metal substitute for my father’s arms that until then had always been there for her. This was the first time in their sixty-two-year marriage that she had to manage without him.

At the elevator, Mom stopped to sign a birthday card my sister bought for her to give to my dad. My husband gave her a book to steady the card and a pen.

She grasped the pen and, without pause, began to write. I looked over her shoulder and read her words.

You’re my only.

•••

I watched Mom sit in the chair at Dad’s bedside and gaze at his face. His decision to get knee replacements was part of his plan to keep the two of them together, to live independently. His bowed legs were failing him. By getting new titanic knees, he could continue taking care of my mother. As he slept, Mom held his hand in hers.

They were always holding hands. I’d often meet them for lunch at our neighborhood cafe. After we kissed goodbye, I’d watch them shuffle along the sidewalk to their car, Mom bent over, her eyes focused on the ground; Dad, a foot taller when they were younger, stooping to clutch her hand and support her weight. This image always left me wondering if it would be the last one I would see of them together.

•••

My parents were born within six weeks of each other in 1923, both to Jewish families—my father in the “waltz city” of Vienna, my mother in rural eastern Poland. Dad’s family immigrated to the United States in 1938, narrowly escaping the Nazi take-over of Austria. My grandmother wanted to live in the mainstream of American life, in a university town, in a place of opportunity. Dad was fifteen when they settled in Columbus, Ohio.

He finished high school and was halfway through college at Ohio State when, in 1943, he was drafted into the army. He served first with the ski patrol in the 10th Mountain Division located at Colorado’s Camp Hale. He contracted rheumatic fever there and, because of his understanding of the German language and culture, was transferred to an infantry unit and placed into military intelligence school at Camp Ritchie in Hagerstown, Maryland. His unit was redeployed to a military camp in Manchester, England, and assigned to the 63rd Division, with which he remained throughout the war.

From September of 1944 until April of 1945, Dad was part of a regiment in Paris during the time when Germans had infiltrated that city after the Battle of the Bulge. Reaching the level of staff sergeant, he assisted in the Alsace Mission, top-secret work involving the translation and analysis of captured papers on the German V-2 rocket, and helped locate installations at the Ziegfrid line, the defense demarcation between Germany and France. For his war efforts, he received a Bronze Star. Back in the U.S., he finished college on the GI Bill.

During this time, my mother’s family was fighting oppression—first, at the hands of the Soviets, then the Germans. When Mom was sixteen, her mother was deported to a Siberian work camp. Later, my mother and her father hid in a bunker underground to escape a Nazi concentration camp. Mom’s family reunited after the war, travelling to Krakow then Vienna, where my mother spent a year in medical school. Finally receiving affidavits of support to sponsor them, Mom and her parents set sail for America and settled in Atlantic City.

Shortly after their arrival in 1947, an aunt and uncle from Columbus invited my mother to live with them. Mom could resume her education at Ohio State, they said, quickly adding an even more persuasive argument to the parents of a single, twenty-four-year-old Polish daughter: a nice and handsome young man from Vienna finishing his degree at the university worked for them in their small office supply business.

A match was made.

•••

Other than feeling self-conscious about their foreign accents, I never thought much about my parents’ dramatic entries to the only country I knew. I took for granted their journey toward freedom and didn’t grasp the struggle that must have been part of their legacy as I was growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s. Now, I can only imagine the challenges for an immigrant woman still wrestling with a new language and culture, married with two young daughters—a former medical student turned Midwest suburban homemaker in an era when the work of being a wife and mother carried such urgency and social expectations.

I grew up thinking my mom hadn’t accomplished anything, all those afternoons she was waiting for me at the door, fixing me a snack, and making sure my sister and I understood the importance of an education. I watched my dad strive to build his business and spend many evenings doing volunteer work, part of his commitment to repay the kindness of a stranger—a Chicago businessman—who took a calculated risk on a Jewish family and sponsored their entry, a journey from Trieste to Ellis Island that spring of 1938. I didn’t know then that in the coming months and years, the war they barely escaped would destroy my father’s Viennese home, along with so many other residences, businesses, and synagogues.

Like most children and teenagers, I was in my own world and trying to fit in as one of very few among my peers who were first-generation Americans. I went on to college unaware of the deepening renewal of my parents’ commitment to each other. Their union seemed an anachronism back in the early seventies. During my twenties, while developing my career, I lived in Detroit and New York and was in a marriage that produced a son and ended in divorce. After I remarried at thirty-three and returned to Columbus, I was able to see my parents with fresh eyes. I used my journalism background as a license to ask detailed questions about their pasts to collect family history.

Over time, I gained a different lens, one that revealed two young European immigrants who found one another through quite distinct journeys but shared a deep desire for a safe haven in the middle of their new country. Shutting one door, opening another, and never looking back.

•••

Two years before Dad’s knee replacement surgery, my sister and I helped my parents move out of their condo to an apartment building with assisted-living and dining services. My sister was already at the condo when I arrived on the first day of what became a six-week process of thinning out the belongings of a lifetime. Mom sat in a chair wrapped in a white linen shawl that had turned up earlier that morning.

“Don’t be so quick to throw things out,” she said, watching my sister rummage through papers in the kitchen drawer. “Let me see them first.”

As I scanned the handwritten lists of names and phone numbers covering the desk, and the brief reminders scratched out and rewritten, my vague observations morphed into a troubling realization of the secret that our father had kept from us. It was confirmed as we later found Dad’s cell number scattered throughout the condo, neatly written on no less than three-dozen pieces of paper.

Mom had also saved countless birthday, Mother’s Day, and anniversary cards. Dad came through the kitchen as I was trying to gauge the sentimental value of one particular card. “Throw it away. It’s from our neighbor.” Muttering, as he walked away, “He’s dead.”

As we uncovered photos and albums from as far back as the early twentieth century, my sister and I realized that Mom had kept every card, every photo, every newspaper article, every memento. To her, everything mattered and she wanted to remember it all.

On the afternoon I planned to wade through Mom’s closet for giveaways, Dad went with my husband to watch the Buckeyes play Northwestern. My dad never used to miss Ohio State’s fall football season; I remember attending games with him throughout my childhood. But as Mom’s needs rose, attending a football game moved farther down his list of priorities. Left alone for hours with my mom, I took her to lunch and looked at old photos. I wasn’t prepared for the greeting I witnessed when Dad’s key turned the doorknob. Their eyes lit up for one another as if they had been separated for months.

•••

While Dad’s knees were like new, Mom’s physical condition continued to deteriorate. She had frequent falls. Her memory lapses became more numerous, although she continued to call forth the most obscure details of decades past. Dad still drove, played bridge, and voraciously read magazines and books—and continued as Mom’s loyal custodian. But in the fall of 2015, both of them ninety-two, he began admitting that taking care of my mother—something he’d considered a life’s mission—was no longer sustainable. For the first time in their enduring union, they would need to live apart.

A new memory-care facility opened just fifty yards from their apartment building. Mom became its first resident. For nearly a year, Dad visited almost all day, every day. I’d often come by and find my parents in Mom’s sizable room—she in her wheelchair and he sitting on an ottoman close beside her. They were holding hands and watching television, the sound blasting down the hall. She cared little for what was on the screen. The man at her side was the source of her happiness.

When she left this world last May, eerily on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mom and Dad were one month shy of celebrating the sixty-eighth year of their love affair. Instead we celebrated Mom’s life, and buried her on Mother’s Day. Dad had brought over Mother’s Day cards that he’d picked out weeks earlier, one for each of the moms in our family. I found a sealed envelope among his stack with my Mom’s name front and center, a heart drawn around it. I slipped the card from the pile and, later, unsealed the envelope, as if opening it for Mom. After the printed message from husband to wife—that she was the woman he would marry all over again—came three words in Dad’s shaky handwriting: “To my treasure.”

While Dad was heartbroken, he did what he always did in life. He pressed on. At Mom’s funeral, he told my best friend that he needed to “reinvent” himself. He added a fourth bridge game to his week, attended a few more Columbus Symphony concerts with friends from his senior residence, and even took a trip with my husband, our daughter, and me for part of my book tour in the Florida Panhandle. He engaged more deeply with friends and family. Always a realist, he knew life was precious and was determined to live fully for whatever days he had left.

When a nodule showed up on a lung CAT scan during an ER visit prompted by a fall last October, Dad handled the news with his usual pragmatism. He was uninterested in pursuing medical interventions.

“I’ve lived a long life,” he said. “A good life.”

By November, pneumonia and a lung infection left him weaker, and he developed an uncontrollable cough. Still, he’d get up around seven a.m., shower, put on a nice shirt and pants, a handsome sweater, and go down to breakfast. He continued to play bridge and would win most games. He read when he could. Right up to his last days, he possessed his gift of connection, a fellowship he’d built for a lifetime: with his business associates, with innumerable colleagues encountered through volunteer work, with his growing family from whom he took great pleasure, and with his network of friends.

Just eight days before he died, Dad had a nonessential physician appointment on his calendar that he had made months prior—to see his ear doctor. He seemed bent on making this visit to get his ears cleaned and have his hearing aids checked. He was extremely weak that morning and had trouble standing up with his walker. I told him I didn’t see how I could take him out that day. He was terribly disappointed—the appointment was on his calendar and Dad always showed up for every commitment he made. This one was no different.

So I called the doctor’s office and asked them to let me know if they had an opening in the afternoon. The receptionist phoned two hours later. They had a 3:45 p.m. cancellation and I took it. Dad rallied, as he often did, his will and determination pushing through. My sister came over as reinforcement and, together, we took him to the appointment. In the waiting room, we laughed; we shared personal stories. Dad voiced his impatience even though we were early and told him so. We laughed more. When finally in the treatment room, he chatted with the doctor and staff. My rather fast driving even got him back to his residence in time to have dinner with his friends. He was happy, grateful. He’d had a victory—one more in a life that he saw as so full of them.

•••

I keep going back to that March day of Dad’s first knee replacement, our trek with Mom to the fourth floor of the hospital. Except for the slightly glazed look in Dad’s eyes from pain medication he preferred not to take but did, he was alert, lying in a slightly reclined position, a serving table hovering over his lap. We placed his favorite Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream pie in front of him. On cue, the nursing staff came in to sing happy birthday. As they filed out, Mom handed Dad her special card, bending to kiss him. My camera in hand, I automatically pointed and clicked to capture the moment.

•••

LINDA KASS worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications, such as TIME and The Detroit Free Press, early in her career as a journalist. She currently serves as an assistant editor at Narrative, an online literary magazine. Her debut novel, Tasa’s Song, inspired by her mother’s life in eastern Poland during World War II, was published in May 2016. She is working on a novel of linked stories, this time inspired by her father’s life. She is the founder and owner of an independent bookstore, Gramercy Books, in Bexley, Ohio.

Lift

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

By Jennifer Richardson

My grandfather Woody occasionally picked up hitchhikers. We only knew about it when he mentioned it in passing. He certainly never did it when my sister or I, his only grandchildren, were in the car with him. This is not to say he was overly conservative in our company. A swig from an airline bottle of Smirnoff while driving was on the acceptable end of his personal scale of safety around kids.

Woody would drop news of his latest lift into casual conversation as if it was no big thing, because to him, a child of the Great Depression, it was no big thing. The two defining stories of his personal mythology were both Depression-related and he told the first one with tremendous pleasure at every family gathering. It was the story of how he, along with his parents and siblings—Burl, Vernyl, Leonard, Pauline, and Helen—headed west from Arkansas and the Dust Bowl along a wood plank road in a used hearse. Mistaking them for a funeral procession, other cars on the road would stop, the passengers doffing their caps. The other story is that he picked cherries for a penny a pound when he eventually made it to Redlands, California. He told this story less often and, when he did, there was no nostalgia.

In the intervening years of the mid-twentieth century, he achieved the American dream that still exists today, even if it’s largely unattainable, rising to middle-class wealth as a salesman for the gas company. His childhood of grinding poverty stayed with him, surfacing in the stories, his pleasure in growing his own food in his backyard vegetable garden, and the combination of fearlessness and empathy that occasionally led him to stop and pick up a stranger on the side of the road.

My grandfather’s circumstances when I came to know him were a world away from those when he arrived in the Golden State; my own experience at that age overrode any knowledge I had of his past. That experience, as a child of the eighties, was hysteria over mall kidnappings that had ingrained into me to never get into a car with a stranger. The thought that someone would actively solicit getting into a car with a stranger and that my grandfather might be such a stranger was wildly illicit and dangerous and strange. I wanted to know everything.

I would, however, learn nothing. My grandmother Willie’s dagger-eyed distaste for my grandfather’s disclosures always cut the conversation short. Her reaction was not one of concern for his safety, although that may have been the pretense, but rather a cool disdain for his violation of bourgeois norms. She had also come from severe hardship, first in the panhandle of Texas where the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 orphaned her before she was one, then in Oklahoma before finally making it to California. She was a career woman, working her way up to head the San Bernardino County DMV, and, together with my grandfather, had achieved a standard of living that included flocked wallpaper in the guest bathroom and membership at the Arrowhead Country Club. Willie, understandably, had no interest in behavior that lacked alignment with this hard-earned status.

•••

Both my grandparents have been gone for years now, but my husband’s recent foray into driving for Uber reminded me fondly of my grandfather’s predilection for providing transport to strangers. When Doug first broached the idea about a year ago, I reflexively resisted. Surely our insurance wouldn’t cover it—a drunk person would vomit in the car, think of the wear and tear! Hiding just under the surface of my purposefully reasonable objections was a smidgen of my grandmother. My protests turned out to be unnecessary. Our 2004 Volvo was too old to meet Uber’s standards.

This was not the first time my own bourgeois hang-ups had led to discomfort about my husband’s job. Early in our marriage, after a decade working in the entertainment industry and the heady early days of the internet, he had turned down a non-optional work transfer to Dulles, Virginia so that we could stay in Los Angeles. In the aftermath of that decision, he bobbed around some start-ups before landing part-time work at Los Angeles International Airport, employed by an acquaintance who had a contract to maintain the airport police’s computer systems. One of his jobs was cleaning out the keyboards in airport police cars. He had no qualms about his menial tasks, although he did find the depth of seriousness exhibited by one of his colleagues amusing. This colleague, who had been charged with training my husband on his first day, had presented him with a PowerPoint in which he declared with characteristic post-9/11 American earnestness, that, armed with tiny canisters of compressed air, their mission was to “save lives.”

We bonded over this joke, but the subtext for me was that he was working with losers and, well, you are who you surround yourself with. To put it another way, at this point in my life I was unclear on the distinction between who you are and what you do for work. (Fifteen years later, it’s something I’m still teasing out.) My husband seemed less concerned about the potential for disastrous Svengali-ism at the hands of Mr. Saves Lives. In fact, he was downright relaxed. Much to my annoyance, I often found him in a state of repose on our couch when I arrived home from work. He had been in full-time employment since he was seventeen, he occasionally reminded me. He deserved a nap.

•••

Late last year Uber relaxed their rules and our old Volvo, affectionately known as Virginia, was in. Deterred by my earlier reaction, Doug didn’t tell me about his first drive until after it was done. He need not have been concerned. My qualms had subsided, which I attribute in part to the life-changing magic of not giving a fuck—to borrow the title of a bestseller—that comes with every hard-won year of my middle-age. My ease was also a product of our financial security relative to the position we had been in when my husband worked at the airport. This time we didn’t need the money, a fact that served as a psychological buffer. It was an updated version of my grandmother’s flocked bathroom wallpaper, only this time it gave license to take the stance opposite of hers. She and I were two generations apart, bonded by our adherence to two sides of the same snobby coin.

It also helps that Doug dabbles in other more conventionally middle-class pursuits, most recently interning as a marriage and family therapist. He’s a Gen-Xer, but he has a millennial’s predilection for the gig economy which is handy, since apparently, we’re all going to be working multiple part-time jobs till we die. In addition to Uber and the intern hours working towards the therapist license, he does freelance project management and offers his services as a pet-sitter on Rover.com. Sometimes the dog he watches semi-regularly, a pit bull/Australian cattle dog mix, comes along with him when he drives Uber, which has gone down surprisingly well with his customers. I think there’s more potential synergy to tap between my husband’s varied vocations: micro-therapy sessions for the length of your ride, uberPOOL as group therapy.

After all, people love to talk in an Uber. (I know, I’m one of those folks recently lampooned on SNL who always asks my Uber driver how long he or she’s been doing it.) The company may go down in history as the poster child of the on-demand economy, but that is missing the more interesting sociological point. Uber may be a smartphone app, but the experience it facilitates feels like one of the last places left where strangers still speak to each other. I’ve never been on either side of the hitchhiking equation, but I imagine the dynamic, assuming nobody is committing murder, is more akin to Uber than cab.

In just two weeks, my husband’s Uber stories top anything I’ve heard at the corporate watercooler in twenty years. His first passenger’s boyfriend packed parachutes for people about to skydive solo for the first time, a stranger’s life literally in his hands. His second was a neurosurgeon from Ecuador who lives in North Carolina, with whom he discussed the convergence of psychology and neuroscience. Then there was the wheel-chair bound young man who declined assistance as he folded up his chair, explaining that six months earlier the hydraulic lift had broken while he was working on his car, paralyzing him from the waist down. In Santa Barbara, a Manhattan couple got a ride to an anti-Trump party in a mansion in Montecito. On inauguration day, a military man on his way to Port Hueneme explained he would be watching the ceremony because “I voted for him.” That afternoon two gay Latino brothers, both high as kites, got a lift to the TGI Fridays in Oxnard to meet up for drinks with friends.

My husband claims the part of Uber he finds most interesting is the technology, fascinated by the algorithms of supply and demand. But every day that he drives he tells me his best stories with obvious relish, and I listen to these tales of strangers with vicarious delight. These are the stories I never got to hear from my grandfather, the ones he took to his grave.

•••

JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her husband now drives for Lyft, and she’s yet to convince him to pick up a hitchhiker. Find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.

Read more FGP essays by Jennifer Richardson.

The Other Jacob

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

By Jacob Westlin

This past Sunday night, nine o’clock, did you know where your kids were? In Saint Joseph, Minnesota, one family thought they did. But, their eleven-year-old son on his way back from a nearby convenience store was abducted by a masked gunman. For four days, a massive search has been underway. This terrible crime has brought terror to the country’s heartland.

•••

My dad and I sit together at the dining table. It’s a staple of the rarely used room—in place for years, rarely seeing guests. I study its light oak veneer, thinking it’s strange that while sofas and chairs and headboards and cabinets from thirty years ago almost always loudly proclaim their distinctive 1980s style, classic wood tables fit in any era. It doesn’t stand out, unlike the yellow and yellowing linoleum floor in the kitchen.

My father, sitting across the table from me, grips and re-grips the outside of his drink glass, spinning it maybe thirty degrees each time he does. I do this, too. Maybe it’s the condensation. Or maybe it’s some kind of nervous genetic twitch we both have.

It’s unusual, just the two of us drinking. Typically, however, our wives join us, but tonight they both reluctantly went to the same family baby shower. We were going to spend our Saturday night at the bar anyway, just us, but his arthritic foot is troubling him. Staying in doesn’t bother me. I rather enjoy an evening in the dining room—it reminds me of Christmas as a kid. I’m nostalgic like that.

The row of low-level cupboards beneath the buffet catches my eye and I chuckle.

“Do you remember when you bought us a Nintendo? What, 1986 or something? We played it right here on a little ten-inch TV.”

My dad smiles and turns around to face toward the kitchen, as though looking at the empty shelf where a video game console used to reside will jog his memory. I guess it did for me.

“I do remember! We didn’t really play, though. I took a five-second turn, and then you played for twenty minutes.”

“Yeah, I don’t get it. How could a little boy who never played video games be better than a thirty-three-year-old man who never played video games?” It wasn’t uncommon for me to tease my dad. Actually, it wasn’t uncommon for anyone in our family to tease my dad. It’s probably because he exhibits less vanity and egotism than anybody I’ve ever met. He not only doesn’t mind the casual ribbing but—particularly when it makes his sons or wife look better than him—embraces the barbs.

“Seriously. You kids pick up things way faster than I ever did,” he boasts.

“But check it out. Do you remember when I was lying down right there, playing Mario, with my feet on the glass cupboard?”

“And you kicked it out and shattered it?”

“Yes! And you never replaced it, look! Why didn’t you ever get new glass?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Maybe we cut our losses, figuring you kids’d just break it again. We had to be smart about that kind of stuff. Remember, bacon or bowling.”

His signature phrase.

“We could only afford one or the other when you were a kid. Your mom and I had to pick every week—bacon or bowling. We couldn’t have both.”

Fathers have a way of forgetting that they’ve told you the same thing monthly for a decade.

“I know, Pop.”

•••

Last week an eleven-year-old boy named Jacob was kidnapped from the streets of Saint Joseph, Minnesota. The effect on Jacob’s family has been obvious, but his kidnapping has also torn the tightly knit social fabric of the entire town.

•••

Just this year, my dad installed a flat-screen television above the fireplace. It doesn’t really fit; it’s mounted in front of cabinet doors, trapping inside more dusty, old dishware. My mother could’ve squashed the plan with a single sternly worded sentence, and she knows that. But now she gets the best of both worlds: when someone voices their objection to its poor placement, she can say, “I know, it looks ridiculous, right?” But she also gets to watch the Vikings while warming herself by the fire.

The TV is the only thing separating today’s dining room from the one in which I left cookies for Santa a generation ago. It certainly modernizes the cozy space, an apt symbol that distinguishes my folks’ current financial stability from the less certain future envisioned in the eighties.

The way Americans interpret wealth and socioeconomic position has always puzzled me. We display an inexplicably energetic pride when discussing how poor we used to be. People fight with one another, arguing passionately about who was the least well-off—as if the sheer act of having no money is commendable. And it seems to apply only to one’s past.

We love the idea that bad things in our past become good character-building foundations of our future. Maybe it’s true. Empathy and understanding are born from experience, I suppose. Isn’t it possible, though, that shitty situations are just that—shitty? Nobody would imagine telling a destitute family, unable to pay their bills and on the cusp of starvation, that they should really cherish these moments because they help establish essential personality traits.

I guess it’s easy to discuss the hardships of the past from a distant position. After all, we made it. Americans hold dear the rags-to-riches narrative, even if “riches” simply means you’re still breathing. We love to fit ourselves into some patriotic myth involving bootstraps and the like, despite rarely being applicable.

“What do you think of the TV?”

“It’s nice.”

•••

Posters of the abducted boy are reminders of an evil that is all too real. We have to protect our kids and we can’t take things for granted anymore. Now we have a new deadbolt on our door, and we lock it when we’re in the house as well as when we’re not.

•••

A muted baseball game is playing on the television. We aren’t really watching; it’s just flickering background to our boozy banter.

I freshen my beverage in the kitchen and sit back down at the table. In our conversational lull, between discussions of the bizarre election season and our fortune at not having to attend the family function, we both notice the ten-second local news ad at the end of the commercial break: an image of the other Jacob’s parents, sadly embracing, as the words “Jacob’s Remains Found: Confession Obtained” flashes beneath them.

The silence in the room morphs from an empty lack of words to a pregnant disquiet. Not an awkwardness, exactly, but an abruptly heavy moment weighed down with the unexpected drumming up of simultaneously personal and shared experiences.

If you lived in Minnesota during the eighties and nineties, the case was naggingly omnipresent, a horrific event that framed the way families understood danger in their own neighborhoods. A small-town boy, an hour northwest of the Twin Cities, was biking back from the video store when, on a dark road, he was kidnapped—that panic-inspiring buzzword that engulfed the media and terrorized parents.

That was 1989. And, despite instant wood-scouring, sweeping national attention, and law-changing influence, the case was never solved. Until, it seems, today.

My dad and I are not particularly sentimental. The pragmatic emotional sterility of the men in our family irritates our wives, oftentimes with good reason. We don’t often passionately connect to news-story victims.

The stillness in the dining room now suggests a rare and unforeseen exception.

•••

They’re going through the nightmare of not knowing, and hoping that sometimes, in a rare incident, a child has gotten back that’s been gone for a long time. But all of the people sitting there today know the harsh reality: that lots of kids that are taken are not taken by some caring person and taken to Disneyland. They’re taken by someone who is into sexually assaulting children and, if you’re lucky, you’ll find the body in a field.

•••

Proximity to tragedy is a peculiar thing.

If you’re close enough to have a relationship with the victim, it’s all about them—as it should be. To know somebody personally affected by something as heinous as an unsolved kidnapping leaves no space for any emotion except withering sadness for the family.

On the other hand, if you read a news bulletin about a hurricane or flood or earthquake or uprising half a planet away, you’re granted—if not altogether legitimately—a certain disconnection and the ability to simply mutter, “That’s too bad,” before eating dinner.

There is also, however, a third middle ground, a grayish terrain where genuine grief or emotional detachment gives way to narcissistic self-preservation.

The immediate response in Minnesota after the kidnapping case was truly touching. I remember natural anguish and heartache, leading to volunteer search parties, songs, and the genuine coming together of community residents. There was real statewide concern for this boy and his family.

What happened simultaneously, though, was an almost palpable wince, a stiff shrug that transformed empathy for others into locked doors for yourself.

Displaying compassionate warmth for the parents and taking safeguarding precautions against potential dangers are not mutually exclusive. But sometimes, with just the right adjacency, the flesh-and-blood victims become caricatures and the nebulous threats blossom irrationally.

“How could this happen here?” was the frightful inquiry of the day. The incident materialized an already sensational perception of safety, or lack thereof. Dramatic movies of the week, a bygone favorite of network primetime television, assured us that unscrupulous predators lingered around every corner, waiting for the right guard-down moment to strike a randomly targeted stranger. And, before the Saint Joseph abduction, it was easier to dismiss these crimes as confined to New York or California—not wholesome flyover country. Maybe the world was a scary place. Maybe ABC was right.

“I remember that so vividly.” My father breaks the silence with an altogether appropriate cliché. In my trance I had momentarily forgotten I wasn’t alone.

“You’re telling me.”

“You remember it? You were only five or six years old.”

He queues up an interesting point. Because my nostalgia lobe is monstrously oversized, and because I spend so much time contemplating the changing cultural conditions of my boyhood versus those of my as-of-yet unborn children, I often view things from a skewed and manufactured perspective. I wasn’t a parent in 1989. But, as a child during the regional hysteria, I did, in this situation, have a very intimate and unique relationship to this case.

•••

We’re not really going to let Jacob walk to school by himself, are we? I know he’s done it for months, but with everything that’s happened, I don’t think we should. I’ll walk him there. At least for the next few weeks. To make sure nothing happens.

•••

Until first grade, I had a forgettable name. Jacob Westlin was just the name of another average-looking white kid. Then, in October of 1989, as the other Jacob was victimized in the most infamous crime in Minnesota history, it became something else entirely. It became close enough.

Overnight, classmates began pointing at me and yelling clever quips. “Found him! Found him!”

The entire state was in a frenzy over this missing child and I, sixty miles away and with no more connection to Jacob than sharing the first seven letters of his name, became his tease-able avatar—the ceaseless butt of adolescent jokes.

At first it was kind of surprising and funny. But, as the case continued to receive pervasive coverage and word spread about my coincidental name, the casual taunting rapidly devolved into relentless mockery and rejection. One boy was particularly brutal, the unofficial leader of the witch hunt, soliciting support from willing classmates: Ian. But he didn’t pronounce it ee-an. No. It was eye-an. I’ll never forget.

He made sure, at least during a few harrowing months at the end of 1989, that nobody would come near me on the playground. “Stay away from that kid, everyone, or you’ll get kidnapped!” And everybody would play along, in this case by not playing with me. Kids in groups are not unlike adults in groups, turns out. Easily led astray by one mouthy facilitator.

I remember being very upset, trying to apply kiddy logic to a completely illogical and visceral problem. “I’m not that Jacob, guys! You know that, right? Come on!” This proved useless.

“Do you know what hell I went through in first grade?” I half rhetorically ask my dad.

“No, what do you mean? Because you were afraid of being abducted?”

It’s such a fatherly response, anxious to protect his son from the overtly conspicuous dangers of the world when the real soul-altering crises are almost always more intimate and invisible. But it’s not his fault. I never told him about the tormenting.

“No. Everyone made fun of me because my name sounded so much like his.”

My dad half scoffs and leans back in his chair. “Well, that’s dumb.” Indeed, as I cite the ridicule aloud, maybe for the first time in decades, I realize how absurdly innocuous it sounds.

“Uh, yeah, of course. I knew there were more important things going on with that kidnapping than my silly sadness,” I lie, stumbling over my words in embarrassment. I lie because I’m ashamed of feeling sorry for myself. I lie because the other Jacob was sexually assaulted and murdered, and I was subtly picked on. I lie because people have a way of ascribing wildly inaccurate nobility to previous behavior, built upon years of hindsight and experience. And newly discovered shame. The truth is that, in my childish mind, I was the victim. I didn’t know this other Jacob and I was angry at him for being taken.

Young minds have a remarkable proclivity for tunnel vision. It would be reasonable to expect children in this hysterical climate to become terrified of the lurking hazards all around them. The reality is that while kids are the targets, and adults go to painstaking lengths to construct in their sons and daughters a skeptical guard against strangers, most of them leave worry to the parents.

I was never afraid of being taken. I was afraid of having no friends.

Authentically remembering events from years ago is a trickier pursuit than re-experiencing the emotions they spawned. I remember very few actual teases and hardly any of the kids that painfully avoided me. But I do recall the paralyzing aloneness, feeling like my tiny world was caving in through no fault of my own.

I do, however, distinctly recollect lying in bed, thinking I had a choice. I could keep fighting or just embrace the joke—show these kids that it didn’t bother me and that I was a fun, normal boy.

•••

Hey, guys! Let’s play hide and seek—try to find me! You know the police couldn’t!

•••

Jacob didn’t get a choice. The other Jacob. I think about this for a while.

My dad adjusts in his chair, likely reading my discomfort and probably feeling bad for disregarding my infantile problems. He would never intentionally dismiss something important to me, and he now perceives his cavalier response as inappropriate.

“I’m sorry. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”

He didn’t need to apologize. He’s my father, and I’ll always give him the benefit of the doubt. Also, he wasn’t wrong.

“No, it’s fine. It’s just funny, isn’t it, the things you remember? It’s like, I should be feeling so terrible for the family, and I do, really, but seeing them just makes me think about—you know, my own shit. I don’t know, sorry.”

My dad nods, making eye contact this time, almost overly engaged. He doesn’t say anything for a while after that, eventually averting his eyes down to the table with one hand again spinning his drink glass. He’s deep in contemplation and I study his face. People have this view of their parents as stoically static.

My father uses quantifiable milestones to mark my maturation: graduation, college, moving out, starting a career, finding a wife. None of these markers exist for me to assess my dad. He evolved from a probably frightened twenty-nine-year-old father to the veteran rock he’s becoming without me even noticing. He’s always just been Dad, and the lack of lifetime-accomplishment receipts now, for the first time, bothers me. It’s like an absent parent’s lamentation at missing their kid grow up—I feel an odd regret, like I’ve failed to appreciate my own dad’s evolution while being so enthralled with my own.

He was not, and will never be, a complete and infallible adult. None of us will. I am struck now with the simultaneous profundity and triviality of this realization.

“Twenty-seven years later, they close the case,” he finally says. “A lot’s changed.”

“What do you remember about the whole thing?”

He perks up.

“Oh, man. It was mortifying, as a parent. But we still had to raise you right, you know?”

I didn’t.

“What do you mean? Did it change the way you and Mom parented?”

“Oh, we had our own uncertainties, for sure.”

•••

He’s going to be fine.

But what if he isn’t?

He will be! I’ve had enough of this! How is he ever going to learn independence, or believe that the world is anything but a nightmarish place full of maniacs looking to kill him, if we bring him to school, hand in hand, until he’s seventeen?

But—

But nothing. Let him go.

•••

“I give your mother a lot of credit,” my dad blusters, as he often did—not incorrectly. She’s a tough lady, a good mother who was always willing to make hard decisions if it meant raising responsible men.

“The right balance between independence and smothering. We had a hard time with it. You know me—I worry about all the stupid details. Your mom, rightly so, made sure you had your space—saw the big picture. I feel like that was a big deal, even though you probably don’t remember it.”

I didn’t. But I listen intently, enraptured by this completely new information. I realize, at this moment, for the first time, that the monumental event that so influenced us individually had never been spoken about collectively. I don’t think it’s because we were purposely withholding information. Maybe it just didn’t seem relevant until now, even if the relevancy of who we’re becoming as human beings is all around us.

•••

JACOB WESTLIN is a writer, copyeditor, and humanities professor from Minneapolis. He has numerous publications—including a book titled Poker Players are Narcissistic Sociopaths, a collection of tongue-in-cheek poker observations—though this is among his first forays into creative nonfiction.