There are magical days for fishers, unique because they are both rare and mysterious. These days are also accidents, and they don’t fit naturally into the pattern of causes and effects, so they must somehow be turned into stories.
Last August, Richard and I drove up to McCall, Idaho, and decided to fish the Brundage reservoir. This was a trip we both needed. Richard’s wife was dying, though her medical team continued their attempts to stop the growth of cancerous lung tumor, which had doubled in size in a year. Death struggles cannot be contained; they send their tremors in every direction, and Cheryl’s condition made my own marriage seem vulnerable, a feeling I had not expected or had ever felt before. Richard had lived long enough with an ailing partner that the idea of losing her—and of being alone—wasn’t as terrifying to him as it seemed to me. He was an attentive caretaker, and when I proposed that we take a day to fish, he said he would love to. “But let’s see how Cheryl is doing,” he said. She encouraged him to go.
Reservoirs hold the visible memory of the land they flooded. There are the naked stumps of decaying timber, particularly in low water, and the rise and fall of water often scores the shore with impossibly straight ridges, each a few feet apart, which could be steps one might descend to reach the river that once flowed through there.
Idaho was burning last summer—historic fires in both the desert and the mountains—and the air was filled with smoke, even in McCall, which is at around six thousand feet elevation. Here in the West, gaining elevation is the solution to a lot of problems—heat, inversions, and one hoped, smoke. But when the high country burns, the smoke stays where the fires are. Unlike fishers, firefighters hope for smoke because it helps suppress the fires. It was a sunny day, but the haze created a pewter wash over everything, especially the water on the reservoir, and all else was drained of color.
We launched our small kickboats, and in the morning the fishing was pretty good. I trolled small streamers, and I landed and released five or six fish in a few hours. They were pretty fish, many of them rainbow and cutthroat trout hybrids—“cutbows”—with scarlet backs and golden bellies and sides. But after lunch, the fishing slowed. Kickboats are quietly propelled by flippered feet, freeing the hands to hold the rod, and one of the great pleasures of these small boats is the comradery of trolling with a companion. When the fishing goes south, Richard and I often found each other on a lake, kicking along in unison, and talking now and then. In light of everything—Cheryl’s suffering set against the somber and smoky gloom of that day—those moments together, floating high above a lost streambed, seemed especially poignant to me.
When the conditions are right, the aquatic insects that flyfishers imitate with their feather and fur flies erupt in a hatch—a sudden blizzard of bugs that emerge from the water at once. When this one started, I heard the fish first, rising to take the flies, and then trout were all around us, swirling and splashing, hungrily working the surface. I quickly switched over to a dry fly line and put a big bug on—grasshopper-like with rubber legs. Tying knots when fish are rising around you triggers a desperation that makes knots harder to tie. The mind focuses on one thing—getting the fly to the feeding fish. Meanwhile, the hatch intensified.
“Have you looked up at the sky?” Richard said. When I did, I saw a rolling cloud of flies. They were big black bugs with yellow-orange bellies that defied classification—they weren’t mayflies, or stoneflies, or caddis, or any of the usual aquatic insects that flyfishers typically imitate—and yet they seemed to emerge from the water, hovering around us and nowhere else on the reservoir. Soon I was casting to the rising trout, my fly landing on a carpet of floating bugs. The takes varied from violent to lackadaisical, and before long we were tying into nice fish, nearly all fifteen inches or more. These were thick, well-fed trout that rose hungrily from the bottom of the reservoir. The hatch continued around us for more than an hour, and the feeding and catching continued, each of us pulling fish to our boats and quickly unhooking them to begin again. From time to time, Richard and I would turn to each other and comment on the magic of it all—two men alone together in small boats in the middle of an eruption of flies and fish.
When the hatch finally waned, we floated together for a little while, exhausted but still wondering if somehow the magic would continue. For a few minutes, the sun wanly broke through the smoky sky, but the reservoir’s surface went slick, unbroken by rising trout. For that hour, though, Richard had a break from his death watch. It was an hour filled with life—the golden flash of rising fish, the frantic flight of insects, and the steady, back-and-forth beat of our forearms as we hurled our fly lines out and away to where the fish were. Cheryl died a few days later. But when we returned to Boise that night, tired and exuberant, she was waiting for us on the back deck at Richard’s house, lying in the dark on a chaise lounge and wrapped in a white blanket. Cheryl could not get up to greet me, and yet somehow, in my mind, I see her rising, again and again.
BRUCE BALLENGER, a professor of English at Boise State University, is the author of seven books.
The smell hits the moment you walk through the back door into the kitchen—damp wood, mildew, and sadness. In just a few minutes, it is possible to acclimate to all three.
My sisters and I have come with my mother to The Mountain House, a sturdy little family vacation home in western North Carolina, built up on a ridge that is said to be haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Heaton. We’re here, as my mother says more than once, to “tear the house apart.”
But first, the ghost story: This ridge was the property of the Heatons years ago, and greatly beloved by Mrs. Heaton. When financial hardship hit, Mr. Heaton, less emotionally wrapped up in the land, wanted to sell. Mrs. Heaton, whose name may or may not have been Loesa Emmalie, resisted. The years went by, the times got tougher, and one day Mr. Heaton made a sneaky trip into town and sold the land without telling his wife. He didn’t have to—by the time he got home, she had hanged herself from a tree, and an enormous white owl sat in the branches above her nodding head, screaming “like a woman,” the storytellers always say.
To placate the ghost of Mrs. Heaton, whose white owl still screams in the night, or perhaps to honor her memory, the inhabitants of the vacation homes that now dot the hillside have representations of owls on their placemats, hand towels, coffee mugs, everywhere. My own mother collected hundreds of tiny owls, and we all abetted her habit because a souvenir owl was a small and convenient gift for her when we traveled or hunted for stocking stuffers. An owl for Mom, from Turkey or Kenya or Lake Tahoe. Bookshelves laden with owls made of stone, glass, crystal, and porcelain are partly why we have come. It’s time, we have decided, to save anything we care about from the encroaching damp. We are rescuing our treasures from the future. If we have learned anything from the mountains, it is that appearances to the contrary, not even they are eternal. We are here to make one last stand against that reality.
The owls belong to my mother, but the ghost of my father sits in every corner of this house, in the barn wood paneling, fine rugs, bird prints, and odd collectibles. We lost him once already, seven years ago, and we dread losing him again to creeping mildew and anonymity.
I’ve been coming to these mountains and tolerating the stomach-churning hopelessness they inspire in me since I was two years old, long before The Mountain House was built. Every summer—every goddam summer—my parents would load my three sisters and me into the car in Louisville, Kentucky, and drive seven hours over the mountain roads while I lurched and puked in the back of the station wagon. The way, way back. This began before there were seatbelts. Once we arrived, there would be warm ginger ale to quiet my heaving guts while we settled into our cabin at the High Hampton Inn and Country Club, a worn, sprawling establishment well over a hundred years old that prizes tradition and simple virtues and has now added a spa and some llamas (llamas being indigenous to the Blue Ridge Mountains).
Our regular cabin was a wooden structure with twin beds, soft, thick linens that never felt completely dry, and a lovely veranda overlooking the lake. The place smelled of boxwood—subtle, sweet and green—and my normally spider-fearing mother loved it so much she suspended all her fears when we arrived. The mountain air reassured her. Not me.
The lake our cabin overlooked was still, small, and—to me—fathoms deep. Potential death lurked in its depths, and there was said to be a dam that you shouldn’t paddle your canoe too close to, although when I found it as an adult I realized the silty pool at its base was hardly lethal. But even now that lake, which I have swum in, and paddled over, and hiked around, can fill me with dread. The memory of my pale legs dyed green by the murky water, my vulnerable white body suspended over god knows what dark threat, and my forcing my teenaged self to dive down and swim out to a tethered float, causes an internal quake when I’m sitting on my own dry porch in Pittsburgh miles away.
During those family trips, my sisters and I were habitually shunted over to the Children’s Program, and since I’m the youngest, I was rarely with any of them. My happiest day was when I cut myself on a rusty nail in the donkey barn and one of my sisters had to rescue me and take me to my mother, once she had finished on the golf course and was available to tend to my wound, and perhaps to worry about me a little. My unhappiest day was the evening hayride (this happened frequently, this unhappiest day) in a wagon filled with prickly bales and noisy children, pulled by a mean woman on a tractor. I remember ghost stories I took very seriously, and kids only a little older than me singing songs I didn’t know. I remember feeling powerless, and suffering the necessity to either pee in the woods or wet my pants, and not knowing which was worse.
There was no reason to have been so miserable. My mother and father were loving and attentive enough. I know now that parenthood means a gentle pushing away, and that the only time one can encourage dependence is during the first months of breastfeeding. Apart from that, it’s all “you can walk across the room unaided, you can survive a morning at preschool without me, you can sleep at a friend’s house, go to college, go to France.” But what did I know, at age four? The mountains made me then, and make me now, feel irresistibly lonely, pressing-on-a-sore-muscle lonely.
Somehow the eternal mountains embodied impermanence and loss. My oldest sister, the one who was my surrogate mother much of the time, was found sleepwalking toward the lake one night when she was fourteen, and the story was presented as a near tragedy. My father caught her just in time, before her pale foot was sucked into the black greeny goop and she was lost to me forever, becoming the next ghost story. The image of her small figure in a white nightie (she would have needed one, if she was to haunt the lakeside), foot extended from the slippery rocks along the shore, rocks alive with snakes and toads, entered our own family lore, those unsettling tales on which the mountains depended to keep you from feeling too comfortable as you sat in a rocker and digested a doughy mountain dinner. The lake was peaceful and silent, we swam in a little fenced off part during the hot humid afternoons, but the grabby mud bottom was never trustworthy.
The summer I was nineteen, my father got me a waitress job at the resort. I don’t remember being given an option about that. The owners couldn’t say no to him, either—he’d been a patron there for years, had bought that piece of property on the ridge they owned that overlooked the resort, and was building himself a house. And perhaps most important, my father was one of those charming, friendly people that strangers took to on first sight and never had reason to change their minds. When he was dying, the mail carrier came in to say goodbye. His funeral was standing room only. Naturally, the president of High Hampton Inn agreed that I could wait tables in the creaking sunlit dining room.
I felt the old lurch of nausea and loss as my father drove away at the beginning of that summer. His natural optimism (along with his desire for me to stop being such a lost puppy) convinced him that I would manage. He had been mostly abandoned by his own father at age five and sent off to live with relatives to save money, and he turned out just fine. He knew I would meet this minor challenge and I did, befriending another summer hire and convincing her to let me share the trailer she had rented—housing was not included in our stingy wages.
And there I was, stuck in a place of fear and loathing, zipped into a gold polyester dress and ferrying glasses of iced tea to guests in my section. It was an easy job, and I managed to pay my rent in tips and send my paycheck home to my sister in Louisville, who put it in the bank for me. By August, I had more than enough to buy the electric typewriter on which I would write my senior thesis in college.
In the meantime, my trailer-mate and I sat on our tiny porch, listened to the radio because there was little else to do, smoked (or I did, again because there was little else to do), and necked (or I did, see above) with the boys across the driveway who were also there for the summer. When we got off work, we grabbed sleeping bags and ran up the various mountains to spend the night, no tents, no food, no supplies. We went into work the next morning needing a shower and a good nap and convinced that we were living much more intensely than the middle-aged people waiting for me to pour their coffee. Being middle-aged myself now, I know that that was true.
My parents came to spend their customary week in the mountains that summer and check on the construction of their new house, and one day during the long afternoon break, I saw my father sitting on the lawn in a shaded Adirondack chair. I invited him to go with me to, as I put it, “see something pretty,” and luckily for us both, he accepted. I drove him to my favorite waterfall, a big one that rushed thirty or forty feet over a cliff, reachable by an easy path from a rough parking lot. Above those falls, I had camped and swam and slid into the pools in a game that terrified the older waitresses at the resort, who knew of people swept to their deaths doing that. I had slept on the flat rocks at the very top, rocks that were surely submerged when the water was high. The waterfall was mine, and I wanted to share it with my father.
This outing led to further discoveries as my parents began to find more in their summer vacation than golf and cocktails. The new house acquired some new dimensions, and the family a veneer of rustication. We hiked in the mountains and provided our own names for favorite spots (Toe-Mash Creek was one). We picked thumb-sized blackberries from the brambles down the hill from the house and made jam and pie. My father bought a small used pickup truck.
High Hampton Inn had its charms, with the grease from its famous fried chicken embedded in the pine walls along with the odor of loneliness, but the mountains themselves acquired characters wholly separate—blooming, gray, and fearsome. People do die there—my own father slipped on moss once, reached for my hand, said later that I had saved him from a fatal fall. I did not remember it that way, but that didn’t help. To love the mountains the way Mrs. Heaton did is to wordlessly accept the inevitability of loss, all kinds of loss.
Years passed. One summer, the wild blackberry brambles were mowed to the ground and never grew back. If we had known they were a temporary pleasure, they would have become too precious and we would have enjoyed them less.
The rough parking lot at my waterfall was paved and a map installed, and I felt it like abandonment, like my old secret lover was openly dating other people. Trails were marked clearly, construction and condos were everywhere, and the hidden pools and perfect little glens were all discovered. Now when you hiked in a place that felt deserted, you came across used tissue and empty Perrier bottles. The town of Cashiers that provided High Hampton with a mailing address grew from a minimal crossroads to a town center with shops devoted to baskets (just baskets) and delis, and cuteness. There was more to offer a nineteen year old—artisanal coffee, for example—but none of it felt relevant anymore.
My family’s own history unfolded at the Mountain House. It wasn’t any messier than most, just the run-of-the-mill ending of marriages, illness, disappointment. And into this soup of memory and history we have come, to tear it all to pieces in a hopeless attempt to rescue the parts we want to save. The Audubon print has mildew behind the glass – it needs to be taken to dryer quarters and re-matted. Is there any way to remove the spots on the silk hanging from China? The big rug in the living room smells musty. Something must be done. So we go round robin in a civil exercise to say what we really want, what we can’t live without, and we try to be generous. “I gave Mother and Daddy that, but I’m so glad you want it.” Of course the thing we want—do we?—is to undo some of that passage of time, to go back to the miseries of childhood, to put the past in a box as though that meant not losing it.
I took my own children when they were small to see the donkeys and feed them carrots and crackers, and if my urban kids recognized the sadness in the donkeys’ faces, they did not let me know. There was no need for a salutary cut on a rusty nail for them—I was right there, and rightly or wrongly I had no plan to send them on any hayrides. They have their own vulnerabilities, their own dark lakes that are not to be found at High Hampton.
At the end of the weekend, I say goodbye to my oldest sister, and tell her I love her, and she looks at me questioningly and I know that we have not said everything there is to say and that we never can. If we sit in a circle in the living room now stripped of the colorful rug and travel mementos, the walls bare of pictures, and we acknowledge what we have done, we will be devastated. We can’t turn and look the sadness in its face, we can’t tell my mother it’s all over, which at ninety-one, she understands well enough. Here in the stoic, silent mountains, it is better not to say.
ELLEN S. WILSON lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Carnegie Magazine, and other local and national publications. She is proud to have her first essay in Full Grown People.
My dishwasher broke. So I’m standing at my sink, hand-washing all of the dirty dishes I’d rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher the day before, plus the rest of what had accumulated since. Doing the dishes always means looking out the kitchen window. In the warm weather, with the window open, I can hear the bullfrogs and waterbirds from down in the creek. Today I’m washing and watching, my rubber-gloved hands warm in the soapy water, Joe’s work-gloved hands lifting broken cinder blocks and chunks of concrete off of the back lawn and onto the trailer, which is hitched to the back of the John Deere.
His arms still bear bruises from the beating he took changing the John Deere’s blades the week before. His shins are scratched from mushroom hunting in shorts deep in the woods, and his right knee is scabbed over from where the guardrail on the bridge gouged him impressively as he tried to climb over it. Last week, he took a weedy thorn to the front of his nose, and it bled and bled and bled, but he said he wasn’t hurt. Now he’s outside my kitchen window, in the fenced-in part of the back yard, bending over and righting himself, lifting and moving one jagged hunk at a time. His black gloves say CAT in big yellow letters. After he has removed the blocks, he mows inside the fence. I go upstairs to get some work done on my laptop, the push mower sputtering in the background. After a while it’s quiet, and he comes in to ask for a burger. I’ve learned to keep ground beef, Swiss cheese, and buns on hand at all times.
I head back to the kitchen and open the fridge, hunting and gathering, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, provolone, that brown mustard that he likes, butter for the cast iron skillet and to toast the buns. I look out the window to see the shorn lawn out back, and Joe in reverse motion now, heaving new cinderblocks off the trailer into a tidy little octagon in the grass, his yellow-lettered CAT hands swinging with each heavy hoist. I quickly pat the beef into concave disks and set them on a smear of butter in the pan. For nearly two decades I was a vegan, but today the sound and smell of sizzling fat and flesh make my mouth water without compunction. Outside, Joe stands back to admire his work: We have a sweet new fire pit in the back yard now. He comes in, washes up, and sits down to his burger and a Gatorade. Purple, low-calorie. His favorite.
There are always a million repair projects around my property. Or maintenance. Sometimes I lose track of the difference. And there are upgrades too. Things that work perfectly well but are ugly or old or otherwise undesirable. I don’t expect Joe to take on everything all on his own. I make calls, set appointments, take care of the household business. I need to have the heating vents cleaned. And several stumps ground out of the front yard to make it easier for Joe to get the mowing done. It’s a part time job, the mowing. A few hours a day, a few days a week, in season, to keep everything sensible around here.
And I had a painter come out the other day to give me a quote on several smallish jobs: My kitchen ceiling has that horrible popcorn texture on it and it’s impossible to clean, so it has this greasy little beard on it right over the stove. Twenty-three years of the detritus of cooking here, ten of them mine. My son’s bedroom needs painting too, and then there’s the trim on the inside.
It used to be that I would come home from work in the late evening to find the house a wreck, my husband and son still in their pajamas, homework incomplete, no dinner or bath or bedtime stories in progress. Upstairs in the master bedroom, my husband would proudly show me the fruits of his day of labor: tiny, elaborate, repeating patterns of flowers and leaves and berries that he had painstakingly painted on the wooden trim around the windows and doors and the crown molding framing the room. He would spend the hours I was at work on a stepladder in the bedroom, choosing and mixing paints and delicate brushes, dabbing dots of gold and silver highlights on his acrylic flora, all the while neglecting the real plants on our small farm and the real boy pinging off the walls downstairs wondering what would ever be for dinner.
The kitchen ceiling and the boy’s room are easy enough problems to solve. The trim is another story. “You could sand it and prime it and paint it,” explained the man through his fuzzy gray beard, “but you’d still be able to see it.” I nodded. “Some days the light will hit it just right, and even with a few coats of paint, those patterns will make themselves known to you again.”
I could imagine exactly what he meant, and there was no way I was going to pay someone to do all that work only to still see those flowers in relief just refusing to die in the afternoon light.
“Call Kevin,” he suggested. “He’ll come in and redo that trim for you, and it’ll be much nicer than what you have now. Get those corners right with a miter saw.”
I think to myself, Joe’s such a real man to be able to lie with me in my big marital bed with that shitty trim and the painted ramblings of an unbalanced mind insistently outlining the bedroom.
My first divorce hearing was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2014. We were still living together, but my husband had moved himself to the guest room in the basement. The night before the hearing, the tension in the house was horrific. There was screaming and wailing and it was so, so dark. It finally simmered down to a wretched and tearful talk in the kitchen, just outside my son’s bedroom door. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, wanted to be out of my son’s earshot, for crying out loud. I excused myself from further conversation. My husband responded sorely, “I hope you sleep well in the bedroom I made beautiful for you.”
Like my divorce, all these repair projects always cost more than I think they will, and at this point it’s all money I don’t have. In the nineteen months since the sheriff removed my husband from the house, I’ve had to put in a new water treatment system and a new barn door. I bought a new used car on credit—appropriately enough, a Ford Escape. Bought a new doghouse and a new compost bin too.
I put in a security system after my husband broke in. I guess that’s an upgrade, though, not really a repair. I’ve had to replace siding and remove birds’ nests and repair both garage door openers after a bad windstorm. Fixed the refrigerator once and the dishwasher twice; now it’s not working again. I should’ve just replaced it the last time. Sometimes things aren’t worth repairing; it’s cheaper to get a newer, more efficient model than it is to keep sinking money into something that just doesn’t work. I know, I know, that’s how our landfills get full: planned obsolescence. Things don’t always last like they should.
Once Joe moves in, money will be a lot less tight. It’ll be different having a second income in the house after all these years of family breadwinning by myself. He’s not afraid of work. He brings in good money and he’s handy. Strong, incisive, good at figuring out how everything works: people, machines, plants, animals, electronics, toys.
I’ve never once heard him holler at things that get in his way, not even the stump that took out the blades on the John Deere. “There’s no point,” he says. “You can’t reason with inanimate objects.” This property has long felt to me like just a lot of work, but Joe says he’s always wanted to take care of a place like this. I can see that it satisfies him. I hope it stays that way. I’m trying everything I know to make sure that he feels like it’s his home too, even though it’s technically my house. I call it Our House, in the Middle of Our Street. I ask him to help me pick out area rugs and bedding. I’ve made space literally and figuratively: cleaning out closets and dressers, and learning to stop hosting him when he’s here because then he feels like a guest. But nothing that I do or don’t do is really key, because the thing that makes him feel most at home here is working on the place. He likes that John Deere. He was proud of those bruises.
I’ve been known to tell people that owning a home is a lot like being in love: At the outset, it’s all spacious and bright and airy. It looks and feels perfect and seems worth all the sacrifices you had to make to get it. But then you move in and you start to fill it with your crap and you notice its flaws. Spaces fill up. Cracks start to show. New things get old. The dust settles, and one day you look around your place and realize that it’s not only not perfect, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Everything needs repair or maintenance or replacement. So you sand and you prime and you paint, and one day the light hits things just right and those old patterns just make themselves known all over again. An adult lifetime of monthly payments starts to seem a lot longer than it once did.
I also tell people that this home is a dream home, but it was someone else’s dream. I’m a city girl, a third-generation Angeleno. I lived in Paris and Chicago before I married, and I thrived. I never really even imagined myself paying a mortgage, let alone paying for a stump grinder or a John Deere or a barn door. I never dreamed of this place: a big pine-log home with a pitched metal roof and skylights, perched atop hilly green acreage in the rural Midwest. This winding road runs between two small central Illinois towns, and all my neighboring farmers—real farmers—have gone organic.
This place is beautiful, no question, when I take a longer view, when I can see past the claustrophobia of repairs and projects and dust. Out front, I have a porch swing and a healthy ecosystem and a pretty good sunset almost every night. There is no time of year that the view out my bedroom window is not breathtaking, if I look beyond the framework of florid trim. When it’s winter and the air is frozen clean, the early twilight colors the snow on the ground periwinkle blue. It happens every year. I’ve spent a decade in this house all told, long enough to see the patterns emerge.
My husband had two favorite lies, and he told them louder and more frequently the closer I got to divorcing him: One was “you’ll never be able to take care of this place without me,” and the other was “no one else will ever love you.” I’m in my seventh season on my own here now; soon Joe will move in and that will change. It’s a good change, I think. The light is hitting everything just right, and from my perspective, it all seems to be in good repair.
GINA COOKE is a linguist working toward her second graduate degree, a pursuit that has spanned half of her adult life. She lives and works on a small farm in the rural Midwest with her son and her dog. She typically writes about spelling: word histories, word structure, and word relatives. This is her first foray into the personal.
My girls like rocking out in the car to “Uptown Funk,” “Shake It Off,” “Insane in the Membrane.” One knows all the bad words now, the other still mispronounces the same words she did as a toddler, her Rs coming out, adorably, like Ws. I worry, worry, worry about them as much as I try to enjoy them and remember how fleeting this all is. I want for them to experience some kind of unorchestrated magic in this life.
When she was alive, my Mom used to complain every year at Christmas that she wasn’t feeling it, wasn’t feeling the magic like she used to. It used to annoy me—why couldn’t she just feel it?—but now I get it. I’m rushing too much. I want it to be all home-made snowflakes and fresh-baked sugar cookies for the girls, for me. But my to-do list is long, my grocery bags so heavy, and I don’t have a plan for Christmas cards yet. It’s not magic, it just is.
I read about this scientist who studied serendipity, that crazy pleasant insight or experience that can happen when you wander off script. She classified people into three categories, from those who were most likely to find happy surprises—the meandering super-encounterers, to those who were least likely, the boring, to-do list-bound non-encounterers. And even though I sound pessimistic and unfun and may be exaggerating a tiny bit to make a point when I say this, it seems to me that many of the skills related to good parenting place me in the latter category.
When you get up each day and say this is how the day is going to go and then your day goes that way, you’re not going to find much magic. And yet, as parents of young children, that’s kind of what we have to do—to measure out our days in routines and activities and downtimes to achieve maximum happiness and flow as opposed to crankiness and someone chucking her bike helmet from the back of a moving bike. It sounds mechanical, but it’s absolutely prophetic.
For those of us who are hard-wired to move through our days with a semblance of organization, to wake up and say, Today I will soak the beans and finish the scarf and write the thank you’s, well, having kids sort of reinforces that tendency. Their nourishment and well-being depends on your ability to keep their dresser drawers in seasonal clothes and to get the burritos on the table at a relatively similar time each day. Which is funny, really, because most kids I know don’t move through their days like structured beings at all. They stop to read every word of the signage and inspect pebbles and stuff oak galls in their pockets and build homes for baby snails. They resist rush in the most wondrous and infuriating ways.
How we let our stories and theirs write themselves while also keeping everyone on some kind of schedule is maybe the best flow. As we hunker down in the grayest, rainiest of indoor months here in Oregon, I find that the most difficult. Wintertime, especially where we live in the Northwest, is when we settle most into our routines.
Sure, it’s easy to be spontaneous in summer or on a vacation. But in winter, I know what our days will be like. There will be card games and mancala and lentil soup. There will be a couple of trips up to the snow, where we will forget something, where we’ll be ill-equipped for the wet cold, and then a damp ride in the car back to Eugene, with our lukewarm cocoa and the girls falling asleep in the safe womb of our rattly minivan. In February, I will desperately Google discount flights to Mexico.
One of my favorite people is my friend Diane, a true super-encounterer. I lived with her during the summer of 1995 while I interned at a small newspaper on Whidbey Island. Diane was in her fifties then, splashed her face with a little rose water every morning, wore charcoal eyeliner, and cut-off shorts, Birkenstocks. She always had red wine on hand, toasted with every fresh glass, quoted Shakespeare, ate chips and salsa for dinner, let the chickens come in the house, which was comfortable, full of dusty children’s art, dog hair, sand everywhere.
I’d never known a free spirit before, but I was drawn, and whatever parts of me that leaned that way were magnified, justified, made sense. Diane’s a vegetarian—a very persuasive one—and so I became one. I wore a batik dress and every morning I gathered the chickens’ eggs in its folds. I took the two unruly dogs to the beach, bought wine and loaves of bread from the Star Store, kissed the reporter from the local alternative paper, listened attentively to Diane’s many, many stories involving serendipity and new friends. Diane and I walked the beach downtown one night to the Clyde Theater to see “Muriel’s Wedding,” which we thought was hilarious. On the way back, the tide had come in, so we had to wade, waist-deep, all the way home. We sang ABBA in the moonlight, and I don’t think I have ever been so happy.
Even meeting Diane was serendipitous. I had applied for an internship at her local paper because I’d been turned down for a more coveted internship in a city that I loved. After moping around in my college apartment for a few days, I applied to Whidbey on a whim, thinking it might be soothing to sleep on an island for a summer. After I got the job, a columnist for the paper told me about her neighbor Diane, who needed a roommate for the summer, and then I found her eating chips and salsa and drinking wine on her sun-soaked back deck with a friend.
I met my husband around then—also serendipitously—and I think he’s sometimes disappointed that I’m not that long-haired girl anymore. Sometimes, I am, too. When I’m on Facebook too much or rushing the girls through errands or spotting a conflict on our calendar that’s three weeks away.
I’ve been trying to remember one of the things found by that the scientist studying serendipity. You can cultivate the magic. You can actually train yourself—and hence your kids—to notice more: to read the appendix or investigate the birds hanging out in the branches of the tree in the parking strip. Or maybe you get small doses of unexpected joy in a mixed tape, a snow day, a Goodwill find. That tall Dad getting down to bhangra in the elementary school gym at the diversity conference—just totally letting go amid a sea of kids and moms. That time when I was passing through Portland and called an old friend to see if she could recommend a family- friendly brew pub in the neighborhood where I was lost and she said, “I’m at a family-friendly brew pub in that neighborhood right now.” A small serendipity, for sure, but if I hadn’t been lost, if I had Mapquested my way through my trip as I sometimes do, I wouldn’t have spent a fun afternoon with my friend.
My girls love a road trip just about as much as I do. They seem to recognize that it means anything is possible, like ice cream in the middle of the day or gum balls at the rest area or pooping in a field of wildflowers. They’re still talking about the time we hung out on a beach in Northern California and when we went to fly our kite and a crow stole some of our picnic bread. We’d also seen the Redwoods that day and had rolled up our pants and jumped in the waves, but that crow is what they talk about when they talk about that trip.
And so, waking up from our winter slumber two years ago, the girls and I got a three-week housesitting gig in San Francisco. We were to watch two dogs, three cats, and four chickens who resided at a bungalow in the Outer Mission. We took our friends Chloe and five-year-old Lucien with us, and we drove all night to get there. The house was smallish, dusty, full of children’s art and games, familiar.
The trip was tough sometimes, especially synchronizing our different parenting styles, and glorious other times: dim sum in a big ballroom, a butterfly exhibit in Golden Gate Park, listening to one of my favorite bands play a concert in an old mortuary, marching the kids up and down hills in search of another park or mural, another ice cream shop. Once I found myself caught in the rain with all three kids as we walked up Mission Street looking for a bus stop. I don’t know why, but they decided to pound on the plate glass window of a wig shop and they wouldn’t stop. The shopkeepers came out and scolded them but they continued to pound more and more riotously until I bribed them with pie, which was very good and gave us a place to rest and for them to poop—the triple public restroom poop being an excruciating specialty of theirs when we were out and about. Our days in San Francisco were like that; there was something wonderful every day and something difficult, or three dozen difficult things.
Not surprisingly, we went a little off the rails. One morning we took the bus to the Gay Pride parade, but it was so crowded that we couldn’t see much of anything—a few rainbow wigs, the back of Nancy Pelosi’s head. After an hour or so, the kids, who’d been promised thrown candy and trinkets, revolted. There was a little scene on the sidewalk where a glass bottle was thrown precariously close to someone’s head. Chloe and I couldn’t agree on a plan and so we split up for the rest of the day. We were all tired, I think, worn out from so many different days, so much wonderful.
At the house in the Outer Mission, we left behind a broken plant pot, a torn curtain, a clogged drain, and a garbage bag full of the siding the dogs have gnawed off of the house. It had been a challenging and surprisingly cold and damp few weeks; I’d gotten three parking tickets. But the next spring, I contacted the homeowner to see if she wanted us back.
JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews, and essays have been published in The New York Times,theatlantic.com, The Sun, Utne Magazine, and Oregon Humanities Magazine, among other places. Her last essay for Full Grown People was “A Mild Suspension of Effort.”
On Saturday night, October 10, around 11:45 PM, I almost became Trayvon Martin.
After a pleasant evening enjoying decadent cheesecake in Midtown Sacramento with my friend Nicole, she drove me back to Woodlake, where I have stayed with friends for over three years. She parked her bright yellow car across the street from the house.
I have lived in this middle class, predominantly Caucasian neighborhood since April 2012, staying with Caucasian friends while I looked for permanent employment. As we sat in Nicole’s car, I told her about the apartment that I had looked at in another part of town. I mentioned that I had never felt comfortable in Woodlake and had always felt like an unwelcome outsider. We talked and listened to music, prolonging our nice evening. A Mustang drove by and pulled into a nearby driveway. We continued to talk while the young male driver got out of the car and walked into the house.
While we continued to talk, the young man came out of the house and stared in our direction. “I wonder what he’s looking at,” Nicole commented. A calico cat sat on the sidewalk near him.
I wondered if he was watching something that the cat had caught. Sometimes, the friend I stayed with walked around the neighborhood at night, looking for grubs for her turtles. We watched as the man went back into the house.
A minute later, he came out of the house again, this time with a large baseball bat. He started coming toward the car. “What are you doing here in my neighborhood?” he shouted at us, holding the bat aloft menacingly. Nicole quickly rolled up the windows and locked the doors. We were getting scared.
“I live here!” I shouted through the closed door, but he continued to come toward us, holding the bat as if he planned to break windows of the car—and maybe continue with our heads.
“I’ve never seen you,” he responded. Hate dripped from his voice like sweat. An older man came out of the house and stood in the yard watching. Was he going to hurt us too?
Nicole called the police on her cell phone. “Someone is threatening me and my friend with a baseball bat. We are sitting in my car on Fairfield Street. We are terrified. My friend lives here, but she is afraid to get out of the car.”
I called the friend that I stayed with and told her what was happening. She had lived in the neighborhood for over twenty years and knew everyone. She could vouch for my right to be there. She came out of the house a few minutes later and walked down the sidewalk to talk to the older man.
Nicole and I watched as they had a heated discussion and the young man was convinced to move away from the car. Finally, I felt safe enough to get out. My friend brought the older man over to us. He said that his son thought that someone was threatening the neighborhood, as several cars had been vandalized recently. I told him that I had lived there since 2012 and he said that he had seen me but had never met me. “Do you have to meet every one who lives on this street?” I asked.
He admitted that he did not. He said that his son had anger issues and that they were “working on it.” He said that he would have stopped his son before he “went too far.”
Too far? What would have been “too far”? Breaking the windows? Bludgeoning us to death? I thought of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Like Zimmerman, this was a young Hispanic man claiming that the term “Neighborhood Watch” gave him the right to take action against any unfamiliar face, especially if the face was black.
But we were not Trayvon Martin. Instead of a lone teenage boy, we were two adult women. Nicole was the supervisor of a nearby branch of the Sacramento Public Library. In September, she was featured in a full-page profile in Sacramento Magazine. She was very active in the community and had made presentations to the Woodlake Neighborhood Association. I’m a social worker for Sacramento County, working with victims of domestic violence and assisting people in danger of becoming homeless. I am also a freelance writer. Last year, Nicole and I were commended in the Woodlake neighborhood newsletter for a tour of the Del Paso Boulevard murals that she had organized. I assisted her by giving a dramatic reading of the poems incorporated into each mural.
We were two well-educated, professional women enjoying a Saturday night. But all that the youthful vigilante saw was a black face in a car. A black face can only mean one thing—a dangerous perpetrator, a foreign, dangerous presence. Perhaps an escapee from the “other” side of Arden Way. Like George Zimmerman, he only thought of violence. He did not see two harmless women—one black, one white—who could have been his librarian or his social worker. He only saw a black face, reason enough to take lethal action.
Once I entered the house, my friend tried to say that the incident wasn’t racially motivated. But Nicole and I knew better. If it had been a lone white woman in a car, I doubt if the young man would have come outside brandishing a weapon. Fear caused adrenaline to course through my body for several hours. Neither of us could sleep and we texted back and forth for an hour. We realized that if the young man had picked up a gun instead of a baseball bat, we would have been killed. We would have been like Trayvon, additions to a long time of victims killed because of their color or because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It only takes an instant to end a life, even in Sacramento. Even in Woodlake.
I sure hope that I get that apartment.
BEATRICE M. HOGG is a writer and social worker in Sacramento, California. A coal miner’s daughter from Western Pennsylvania, she has a MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BA in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. Her novel, Three Chords One Song, was published as an eBook by Genesis Press in 2012. She writes a monthly column, “Financial Graffiti,” for the online publication The Billfold. Her blog, “Marvellaland,” can be found at www.marvellaland.wordpress.com. She is currently working on an essay collection about her experiences with long-term unemployment and homelessness. She got the apartment.
I hoped to say goodbye to it in 2015. But the year ended and I was still here.
So many factors revolve around being homeless. I can look at the factors all day long, and we as a society can engage and look at the factors all day long. But the truth of the matter is I can only look at myself.
I was always uneasy with looking at myself in the mirror, even as a child. But I find it even harder to do now. I may glance at myself for a minute to make sure my cornrows are neat and well kept, but when I look in the mirror—I mean really look in the mirror—I see the embarrassment of the adult I’ve become. I see an embarrassment to the little girl I was, who grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, New York. I haven’t been fair to the little girl who loved to create, create something, and create anything that would lead her away from the harsh reality of the projects. Her imagination was her key to unlock her way out, her creativity the strength to push open the door. To a world of possibilities, or so she thought.
I’m watching myself in the mirror, standing over a sink and trying to squeeze enough water out of my washcloth to quickly wash before someone in the church (where I will stay tonight out of the cold) needs to come in. I monitor the door and try to finish up, and I think about how I got to this point in my life. Especially with two college degrees. I didn’t think an A.S. in Theater and a B.A. in English were so great, but down here where I am located, it’s like a prize just to finish high school.
Someone bangs on the door and curses that they need to use the bathroom. Sighing, I turn off the water, dry off, and put fresh clothes on (especially underwear, since they’re scarce around here for women). Opening the door, I walk past a young guy who is looking at me all angry. I ignore him as I walk over to my mat, squinting my eyes in the semi-darkness. On several other mats, some people are whispering in conversation, others cough, and some have settled down for the night.
I finally spot my mat that has a small red blanket on it, and my heart soars with relief, thankful to be indoors from the cold. Except for the hardness of the mat, it’s okay. It’s much better than sitting in an airport, hospital, or stairway building all night. Removing my dirty sneakers that already have holes formed in them, I step onto the mat and lie on it, but not before trying to find a comfortable spot. When I do, I adjust my now-dirty cross bag like a pillow and lay my head on it.
Immediately my mind starts to wander back to a time—eight years ago, in another state—when I sat at a bar in a strip club. I don’t want to go there; I often pray I don’t. I fight hard to move on from that chapter of my life as well as other chapters, but the human brain is fascinating at recapturing things you don’t want to remember.
This was not my first time being met with homelessness. You’d think after years of knocking on doors for jobs, jobs in my field, any kind of jobs, I would be settled by now. But, it hasn’t worked that way. I’ve run around town, dressed in my best interview clothes, and talked in my proper professional etiquette, and I’ve had years of experience working in corporate office setting. How many closed doors in one’s face can one take? No criminal background, no drugs, no illegal history of any kind. That would hinder me to getting that “dream” job that I dreamed since I was a child. Timing? Maybe. Years of inquiring, and still knocking, honing skills needed the best as I could.
I was weary. I fell into a deep dark depression, and I couldn’t see my way out of it. Usually I could, but this time, it was like a black hole that sucked me in deeper each day. Destructive habits were starting to resurface, ones I had long tried to suppress, work on, or pray about. But they found a way back, a door open, and a trigger. Growing up in a family full of destructive habits, it was easy to fall into the same pattern.
Not able to meet a motel room I stayed in briefly, I headed down to the local city shelter. It was place that was surrounded by all kinds of people that were destructive on many levels. Strangely enough, I felt at home. I felt a kind of high being there. This was my first time in one. Feeling alone and abandoned by family, church, and friends, I didn’t care. Old thoughts of sexual abuse as well as other abuse I faced as a child kept popping up in my mind. Years of trying to “let it go” had not worked for me. Suddenly it was like a gulf overtaking me, the years of rejection gnawed at me.
I guess it made sense—I was just rejected by a guy I was semi-getting to know a few weeks ago. I felt the need to prove myself and show him I was what he wanted.
All around me I heard bits and pieces of conversation about local strip clubs in the area. The idea to feel beautiful and sexy at the same time and become every man’s fantasy was alluring. Not to mention, I heard if you were “good” at what you did, the money rolled in rather quickly. Naive to this, I didn’t understand all of what “good” meant.
A woman who was a former stripper said to me, “You’re not ready,” when I asked her about it. She briefly schooled me on the basics of the “business,” and the more she talked the more excited I became. It sounded like a glamorous lifestyle. I was feeling desperation and a need for attention from this guy, so I took what I wanted from our talk and ignored the rest. After all, it was only one night. What would it hurt? I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t get any lower than where I was.
I had heard about amateur night at this local club everyone knew about, where all you wear is a bikini and dance for money. Sitting at the bar, I watched a nude woman with stilettos on stage dance, surrounded by colored lights. I was mesmerized by how this woman boldly worked the pole, dancing in sync to the hip hop and R&B music, moving in time with the music. Men threw money gracelessly at her feet. Excitement building in my chest, I wanted to be like this woman, who was not only attractive but had men falling at her feet. I felt self-conscious about my apparel: no bikini, but jeans and sneakers. Not to mention my puffed-out relaxer and slight odor from not being able to use the showers at the shelter that day.
I turned towards the bar and ordered a Hennessey and Coke. I took a sip, enjoying the way it tasted on my tongue. I wasn’t a drinker, but this was what I needed. As I sipped my drink, I causally chatted with a guy who sat next to me. I held onto my drink and watched him carefully. He encouraged me to get up on stage and said I could do it.
Insecurity settled on me like a familiar blanket, and I again scanned the room to see women in bikinis and thongs handing out drinks to guys at the tables. Their hair and makeup fixed in sexy styles, neatly done, they skillfully walked in stilettos. I kept wondering what was I doing there. These women were gorgeous. They had an art to dancing and working the pole that I would never master, I thought.
I ordered another Hennessey and Coke. I felt like I was inside a dream, a hazy dream. The pulse of the music sounded out sexual and raunchy things to be done. Time was going by quickly. I wanted desperately for the guy to call me back and say, “Shorty, I am on my way.” (He always called me shorty). But in the whole hour, his phone just kept ringing and going to voicemail. Left messages. No answer. Glancing at the door now and then, I still expected him to walk through the door. I was frustrated and hurt. I stopped calling. I imagined he must be laughing at me with his chick. Taking another sip, it went down my throat easily again.
A couple of drinks later, I felt myself loosen up as I relaxed and waited for them to call us new girls to the stage. All the while I felt myself falling into a deeper depression. If this was it for me, I at least wanted to enjoy the night. Death was on my mind. I felt it all around me. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to live anymore. Consumed with my thoughts as I listened to the music, a loud voice snapped me out of it.
“IT’S AMATEUR NIGHT LADIES! TO THE STAGE!” I looked up at a short guy with a booming voice. The guy in the seat next to me waved me on and winked. I grinned slightly at him. The music was lowered a bit. My favorite song by rapper TI—”You Could Do Whatever You Like”—was playing.
I asked the female bartender, “Is it time?”
My head felt woozy as my heart beat against my chest. I steadied myself on the bar stool.
“Yeah,” she said eyeing me briefly, before she gave the guy next to me a quick glance. I quickly jumped off the seat and followed behind a group of girls to a back room. I noticed everyone else had their bikinis on, and I didn’t have anything.
“Here.” A girl threw a bikini set to me. It landed easily in my hands. “Keep it.” Nodding, I rushed to the bathroom and tried to wash myself.
Doing the best I could with a small piece of soap and paper towels, afterwards I changed into the bikini, so small the thong part showed my butt cheeks. I guess this was supposed to be the desired effect. Adrenaline pumped through my veins—just the excitement of it was like drug.
Before I hit the stage, I tried to straighten out my semi-afro with my fingers and some water. I really wished I had found someone at the shelter to cornrow my hair for me. For free. Glancing at myself one last time, I looked down at my shoes. Church shoes, it looked like, with a heel. Not cool. But this was all I had. Everyone said it was okay. It was just “amateur” night. This was to see if they really wanted to keep you.
“Okay, ladies, let’s go!” a woman said outside the bathroom.
I took a deep breath, walked out, and headed to the stage with the other girls. At first, I danced with the other girls as a group, my nerves and fears getting the best of me.
It was different from what I had imagined. When it was my turn, I danced solo. My name was “Candy, and as I danced, I felt some money hit my leg and foot. Pleased, I kept moving until my turn was up.
Backstage, the lady who worked at the club grabbed my arm and said, “You gotta fix yourself up more, then you’ll have a chance.” I nodded and went to change. I knew I shouldn’t, but the wheels in my mind kept spinning as to who I could find to do my hair and coach me some more.
It was an early October morning and dark outside. I prepared to stay in the club until daylight when a big, built guy with glasses appeared in front of me and asked if I needed a ride. “Sure, thanks,” I said, uncomfortable.
“Come on.” He waved me outside. I followed as I tried to push away the advice the lady at the shelter gave me a few days ago.
I hopped in the black Jeep and slammed the door. He made small talk along the way. His car swerved the car a bit as we rode down the dark road. “I liked your dancing,” he said, taking turns eyeing me and the road.
I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in him at all. I laughed, smiled, and flirted a bit to try to buy time.
“You live around here?”
“No.” I shrugged my shoulders coolly. “With a friend downtown.” I held tight to the twenty-five dollars he threw at me on stage.
“I really liked what I saw. You’re sexy,” he said, staring at me in the dark car as we sat waiting for the light to change. We were almost downtown. My heart was doing flip-flops. I was for this ride to be over.
“Let me give you my number,” he said.
“Yeah, let me get it,” I said calmly, with a giggle in my voice.
We were finally downtown, and he quickly wrote down his number. “Call me.”
“Let me get a hug, shorty.” Expectation still lingered in his eyes.
I moved over and hugged him, and he squeezed as he hugged me. Smiling, I told him, “I’ll call you.”
We moved away from each other and I quickly grabbed the handle and got out of the Jeep. With one finally smile and a wave, I walked away quickly around the comer. Leaning against a wall, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I waited for my breathing to return to normal. Then I opened my eyes and walked the few steps towards Landmark Diner, my favorite diner. I went inside and ordered my favorite meal.
As I ate, I thought about the events that took place. I was happy I had tried this new thing. A surge of excitement passed through me as I quickly pulled out my phone and redialed the guy again.
He picked up. “I see you’re answering your phone now,” I told him. I was nervous about what he would say next.
“What happened?” he asked a little too calmly. I went over the details with him. We stayed on the phone briefly because most of the time I was jotting down information he was giving me. He seemed impressed by my “attempt” at stripping so far and gave me a club to go to the next day and he said he would meet there. Although I was doubtful he would, my hopes still soared. This one would at least be closer to the shelter downtown.
I left the diner and headed back to the shelter. Things were busy as usual there, people trying to get help with getting placed, men standing outside looking for a hustle. People on in wheelchairs, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes, women with children, women with baby daddies by their side. Impatient, sometimes grumpy, social workers.
I walked into the nearest bathroom ready to take a shower after getting a paper pass to do so. All that ran through my mind was getting ready for tonight. I’d find someone to do my hair to make it look halfway descent and find a sexier bikini this time and find someone to do my make-up. The excitement was building, the attention, the need to make more money, the glamor of it all.
I was about to step into the shower when, all of the sudden, I fell. My right ankle slammed against the floor hard. Not noticing the pool of water in front of me, I started to get up when the ankle or leg couldn’t hold me and I fell to the ground again. I cursed aloud, and I saw my right ankle begin to swell.
A lady who came in the bathroom, said, “Don’t move, honey. Someone gonna call the ambulance.”
She rushed out the bathroom. I sat there silently in shock, upset. My plans to self-destruct weren’t exactly working out as I had hoped. All I thought about was the guy I wanted to impress and how I wanted to be in his arms again. Really be in his arms, not some quick trip seeing me at a hotel room and that was it. I wanted to be his ride-or-die chick. I wanted to have his baby—I told him many times.
But I guess that wasn’t going to be. These thoughts went all around me, and that was more devastating than that my dreams of becoming a dancer were over.
I didn’t hear from the guy anymore. And when I did call, it was brief and or voicemail or a female who answered.
I wanted to die. I wondered why God had let me live. I hated my life. Not only was I homeless, but I was in a boot, walking around in crutches. I was reduced to nothing; the women in the shelter called me “Crutch.” What‘s up, Crutch?, You doin okay, Crutch? or Go, Crutch, as I struggled down the hall.
As time went on, I stayed at different shelters for my ankle to heal—in the snow, rain and sleet at times—going out, to get clothes, documents needed, as well as information. That all basically led to nowhere. I was worn out, tired, hurt and confused.
People didn’t understand—that I would expect them to—that I wasn’t just homeless to be homeless. It was a reason behind it. I was struggling in life to get my life together. I was thankful I wasn’t in a corner of a shelter, rocking back and forth in a seat talking to myself, or receiving disability, or waiting for it to come, or waiting on child support. Or drug addicted. These were real problems to the shelter system people.
Not some woman who was clearly educated and so they thought she was trying to take advantage of the system. What was I to do when I pushed myself for years to get a better job more stability?
I still was with family until now. I don’t know, but maybe it wasn’t important. Maybe it wasn’t a big thing that my grandmother lived in a senior building, and for years the manager has been harassing me and her because the only people are supposed to be there are seniors. It doesn’t matter if I help her or go shopping for her, and still look for work and a place to stay for myself. It doesn’t matter that each day, I am on my grind. Doing what I have to do. Doesn’t matter that they threaten her if I continue to stay overnight with her. Where I have to try to sneak in and out just to have a place to stay. And after a while I am told I have to leave.
I guess it doesn’t matter or mean anything that I can’t stay with my mom in the projects I grew up in because the front door always locks to keep drug dealers and users out. And the only people who have the key are the people on the lease. Maybe it doesn’t matter that my mom has kicked me out of her apartment (if did get inside) and cursed me out and yelled at me and has physically put her hands on me.
Maybe that doesn’t matter to people because I am a grown woman and should be on my own. Not their problem. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the rest of my family doesn’t care. Again not their problem. I don’t know.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that I’ve traveled to another place to make a better life for myself and people seem kind at first, but then there is no money rolling in from you, and they tell you to leave. Or you return to their place at after looking for work all day and you can’t get in the house, or the key they gave you doesn’t work.
But in order get “help” from one of the shelter programs, you have to be literally homeless. If that was the case, then why couldn’t I get help when I was sitting in a chair in the airport, or sitting in the city hospital all night, or sitting in a stairwell of a building hoping no one would catch me just so I could be off the streets for the night? Then to go back to the local woman’s shelter to shower and eat lunch, but at three p.m., I have to leave, only to do this all over again until the shelter program for the week at a church opens up. Where I can lay on a floor on a mat. It wouldn’t bug me so much if I wasn’t still dealing with this right now in my life.
Yes, I am still dealing with this.
I am grinding every day to find work, more than temp that I’ve done many years now so I can at least secure a steady place to stay of my very own. I have to catch myself many times.
That child that once dreamed in the projects of Brooklyn still resurfaces a lot especially times like this. I have to tell that child, you’re an adult now—stop fantasizing about winning that Oscar and having your favorite actor by your side as you receive it. I try not to think about how I want to complete this novel I’ve tried to work on for years so I can make my grandmother proud. That how she took care of me most of the time was not in vain. I try to tell that little girl on a day like today when depression sets in, and I know she’s crying inside of me thinking about the abuse she suffered and the physical violence she witnessed and experienced. I tend to her for a minute—just for a minute—because if not she’ll want to live in the past and this is not the time or day to be stuck in the past.
This is not for people to feel sorry for me. I don’t like that. It’s to know and try to understand that not all homeless people are the same. But as I’ve sat, eaten, and slept with the homeless, I see that I have things in common with the women. The need to be loved and cared for, broken pain now and in the past, needing to get our lives together.
The only difference is I can say I am here because of God. No other reason. Why, I don’t know. But all I can do is stay on my grind one day at a time and hopefully make something wonderful happen out of all this pain and suffering. Maybe.
CHAREEN IBRAHEEM is a writer living in Portsmouth, Virginia.
I was on my way home from a writers’ conference. I was about to get on the highway when I noticed it was a three-lane parking lot. So I kept going, That’s when the GPS started freaking out, trying to turn me around. I put my turn signal on, until I realized it was taking me back to where I’d started.
“No! I will not turn around. I will not go back.” I was white knuckled, jerking my father’s pickup truck around unfamiliar roads in the middle of Ohio. I clicked off the screen, tossed the phone in the console, and started looking for a place to pull over to consult a map.
“Damn it. I fucking hate Ohio!” I screamed in frustration as no shoulder wide enough to keep a Dodge Ram safe from passing traffic appeared.
I’ve been in these situations before, unsure of where I am, just driving forward, fear growing in the pit of my stomach. It rises to just below my ribcage and sits, nagging, anxiety pushing my pulse higher no matter how many times I count to ten.
“When you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, take a moment to stop, find your center and breathe,” the yoga instructors always say, calm, peaceful, so fucking Zen you want to push them over and hit up a pastry shop.
Which may be why I have never actually been able to find that rock-solid island in the middle of adrenaline- and coffee-fueled chaos.
But for some reason, as I started to feel the blood pounding behind my eyeballs, I simply stopped. Not literally, because I was still cruising through cow-infested verdant fields of summer green, dotted now and then with absolutely adorable farmhouses, many with hearse-like black buggies next to cherubic boys in dark pants, white shirts and wide-brimmed hats, standing like tiny undertakers all in a row.
But for a single, blissed-out moment I didn’t care if I was lost, or where I was going. The truck said I was going east. That was good enough for me, because I needed to be in Ithaca, New York.
The fields sped by in my peripheral vision. Farmhouses, barns, buggies all started to look the same; I worried I was just going around in circles. I thought about life: Just because the scenery changes doesn’t mean you’re going forward. Or anywhere at all.
Was I going anywhere? What the hell was I doing anyway?
I’d spent nearly a decade taking dozens of road trips with my husband, Sean. We’d driven between Pennsylvania and Virginia more times than I could remember, the most epic when we headed south pulling a newly-purchased twenty-nine-foot travel trailer. This was before either one of us had smart phones―maps and calls to my mother-in-law had to suffice for directions or information on where to get a half-decent cup of coffee―and well before our best efforts at making a life together imploded.
Now, he was in Philadelphia in a full-blown crash and burn―the countless calls and text messages I’d received over the course of the conference confirmed that. He was broke, out of work, homeless, and battling addiction. He blamed me, his mother, and anyone else who, in his mind, had let him down over the course of his life.
I know the fairytale grown-up world I thought existed when I was in my teens , where my―of course, British―rock star husband provides me with enough disposable income to chase whatever creative muse might flit by. I’m cool with working my ass off in conjunction with an equally driven partner. But that’s not how things had turned out.
We’d gone to hell and back during the recession, but we’d managed to finally eke out a somewhat decent existence. He’d returned to masonry with a small company outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and I had lucked into a job as a screenprinter—finally utilizing my BFA—after nearly a year working retail for eight dollars an hour. I’d also found an amazing group of creative, talented friends. I’d never imagined anywhere below the Mason-Dixon could feel like home, but it was tolerable, considering I was northeast born and bred.
“I can’t do what I want here,” he’d started saying from almost the moment we moved to C’ville. “No one here plays the kind of music I do.”
His musical talent is unmatched, so I was sympathetic. I don’t feel that way because I married him―I wouldn’t have married him had he been mediocre. Cold, yes, but if I were going to fully support his creativity, I had to believe in it. He was the real deal. I wanted to see him succeed.
“What do you want to do?” I asked with some trepidation when his misery finally reached a fever pitch three years into our foray in the south.
“I need to move back north.”
He’d made several weeks-long trips to Philadelphia that year to practice and play with his band, which consisted of the same guys he’d been in a previous band with before I met him. He’d handed me their CD shortly after we met―I put it in my car’s player knowing that if it sucked I’d have to break up with him. They were amazing, with the kind of chemistry that doesn’t come around often.
“Well, so, what do you want to do?” I repeated. “What’s your plan?”
It seemed straightforward enough: He’d move back to Philly, where we’d met and lived before the recession kicked us south. I’d stay in Cville and continue working, providing a steady stream of income, stability, and health insurance. He’d get settled, and then I’d pick up stakes and move north.
It fell apart almost from the get-go. He said he couldn’t hold it together without me, and he sank into addiction. I found myself repelled by his neediness. I saw my life with him as a trap. So instead I moved further north. It wasn’t a plan so much as a reaction.
I felt like an asshole, like I’d somehow abandoned him. The guilt still burned red hot as I navigated the winding Ohio roads a full year after he’d packed up a rented van and driven north, away from our cramped, aged camper and onto a completely different life. He wasn’t my kid, he wasn’t a child—he was a full-grown man who refused to take responsibility for his actions. His mother and I had spent countless days and dollars to keep him afloat until it became obvious no amount of assistance would ever be enough. Yet I still felt like a jerk, and I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know if the guilt would ever go away.
And I was sad. I knew in my heart that, in the end, we’d go our separate ways, but it’s not that I didn’t care about him. It didn’t stop me from feeling paralyzed, plodding through life’s motions under a heavy weight. It felt like just another failure, another way I’d managed to veer off life’s path, whatever that was supposed to be.
In many ways the hardest part was the external judgment, which just added to my uncertainty about what I was doing, or should be doing, or should have done. It was almost like the second Sean fell down, those around me headed my way with knives out. They’d been holding back, barely, their disdain, but all bets were off. I found myself putting up walls, forcing my own disdain at what had been, so completely, my life, as if by swearing it off I could convince the world—and those around me—I wasn’t like him.
“I always knew he was bad,” they’d say. “What were you thinking?”
And I’d nod my head in agreement—“Yeah, what was I thinking?”—afraid that if I defended him, they’d judge me harshly, too.
Thing is, he wasn’t actually a bad person. He may have looked like your typical bad boy, and he most certainly embodied the stereotypical rock and roll persona. He was tall, thin, his body angled in sharp lines from hard living and hard labor. He smoked like a chimney, swore off whiskey and the rages it put him into, and sported one—intentionally—amateurish tattoo: a skull and crossbones with the words “fuck off.” He was wholly, unabashedly, loudly uncouth. But he was also a voracious reader and a constant questioner of the kinds of things most people just accepted as fact, which the journalist in me found a kinship with.
When the financial sector collapsed and everyone I knew turned their backs while we struggled, we only had each other to rely on. Losing my ally, my—albeit damaged—champion was like another floor dropping out. He may have been alive in the corporeal sense, but I wasn’t sure the real Sean was ever coming back. And if I waited to find out? How many second chances could I give him before it was too late? I hated myself for even thinking this way, and I hated him.
He’d dropped out of school at sixteen, lived wherever he could find a place to lay his head and was, for the most part, married to music, his second wife. I was his third. Drugs were, and always had been, his first.
I wasn’t sure about moving north, but winter was coming fast and the camper was falling apart. I had to make a decision. I had family in Ithaca, but for all intents and purposes I was broke and alone, save for my two terriers. I was forty-four, not a single possession worth calling my own. Even my own truck, which I’d left for my dad to drive if needed when I headed to Ohio, was a slap in the face: I had a car I loved somewhere along the east coast, which I’d been forced to leave after its water pump quit. Sean was supposed to drive from Philly to Virginia to get it after I moved, and we’d trade in the spring―I’d headed north driving what had been our tow vehicle, our Behemoth, a ’97 Suburban. I had no idea where my car was, or whose dubious possession it might be in, along with the rest of my belongings. So I was limited to very local trips considering the advanced age and state of disrepair of the tow beast.
Which is how I wound up driving more than four hundred miles each way to Ohio in my father’s pickup. I’d attempted to rent a car, but was turned away when it was discovered I was a nomadic ne’er do well.
“My dad’s going to pay for everything,” I said sheepishly, handing over my driver’s license at the rental counter. I was, after all, well beyond the age of my father paying for anything. But he’d offered, and I was in no financial situation to say no. I’d taken a part-time job in Ithaca with the same chain store that had plucked me from jobless perdition in Virginia just to make sure I didn’t go without work. But the pay and hours provided little more than spare change in the adult world I had once been accustomed to living in.
I’d spent thousands of dollars on this particular car rental company; I had no reason to think there would be a problem. They’d gained my loyalty when the engine of my Volkswagen Golf self-destructed in 2010, melting to a puddle of oily, metallic goo on the side of Route 495 in Delaware, leaving me, Sean, and our puppy stranded as traffic zoomed by. Their gimmick was they’d come get you. We’d needed a car. I’d wound up renting from them for well over a month.
So it was a shock when they rejected me.
“If you don’t have a major credit card, we need proof of income and residence,” the woman behind the counter said. “And you’ll have to pay for everything yourself. No one else can pay for you.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, still not comprehending the situation. “Why can’t he just rent the car and add me on as a second driver?”
“Because we need the same information from all drivers, so even if you’re a second driver and you don’t have a major credit card, you still need to prove income and residence.”
My cheeks grew hot, my pulse started to race, and my favorite feeling―enraged embarrassment―took over. I could prove my pittance of an income but not residence. I hadn’t had an actual, legal address in years. By federal law, even as a full-time RVer, I was considered homeless.
“This is outright discrimination,” I stated, digging my fingernails into my palm. “I do not have proof of residence, and why, exactly, do you need proof of income?”
As if I didn’t know: Because if you’re on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, you’re a lazy, shiftless thief. Because people without credit cards don’t work. Because being chosen to hold credit certifies you are an actual citizen in the eyes of the rest of society. That’s what matters―money. Anyone who doesn’t have it is scum and banned from normal activities. Like renting a car to attend a conference. Because lazy impoverished scumbags don’t go to conferences. They’re too busy collecting welfare and doing drugs.
It makes even the strongest-willed person want to crumble. Which is why I can almost understand Sean’s compulsion to numb himself no matter the consequences. Almost.
It’s no secret: I bought into the lie that as an educated person I deserved to live a life of comfort, free from things like being turned away when trying to rent a car. But the life I’ve lived and its choices—some made by me, some hoisted upon me—have shown me that there’s really no escaping the mess that is life.
But I was neither a total failure nor the victim, but something in-between. I loathed working retail and the pittance I earned, but I also hated working seventy-hour weeks in uncomfortable shoes so some CEO could feel impressive and buy something else. I’d been given the chance, an existential Scrooge story in reverse, to decide what, exactly, had to change. Would I keep pushing forward until I found my way? And if it all went to shit, if the traffic stopped moving, was I agile enough to veer off and figure it out without crashing again?
I figured I needed to find the fine line between living in the moment and looking at the long-term ramifications of what I was doing. I’d been cruising along for decades, certain I’d always find another on-ramp and everything would work out for the best. There’s merit in that approach, but also some nasty potholes. Getting hitched in the basement of a bland, brick apartment complex with no witnesses and celebrating afterward with a cup of Dunkin Donuts might have been a place to start thinking about the path I’d been on. But I hadn’t. I needed to find balance. I dreaded becoming stuck, but the other option—full-on hedonism—was also something I couldn’t even bear witness to, let alone indulge.
With the conference behind me, and its amazing writers inspiring me to just get to fucking work, I had to accept I was alone, wandering on the eastern edge of the Midwest. The guilt, the hurt, and the anger still burned in my gut, and probably always would. But was anyone else’s happiness my responsibility? Was it okay to put myself, my ambitions, first?
I’d been taking the most circuitous routes my entire life, but they were mine. I owned them. The writing conference was just another start, a way to meet people like me, wake the muse up and keep going. It wasn’t fucking up so much as it was just life. Could I cut myself some slack? Should I? And more importantly, could I stop feeling sorry for myself and everyone else and do what needed to be done?
“Aha!” I hollered as I spied a sign for the highway. I could see it off to my left, cars and semis flying along. “So there!” I exclaimed, slapping the wheel in triumph, shaking off the melancholy.
ERICA S. BRATH is a non-fiction writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She works as a graphic designer and editor, and has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing her experience living full-time in a travel trailer during the Great Recession. Her website is esbrath.com.
I didn’t actually think I was going to be eaten by the wild, but you never know. For the past fifteen years, I’d been living in Hamtramck, Michigan, where the “natural” landscape consisted mostly of pigeons and broken streetlights. An abandoned axle factory. Railroad tracks. But I’d recently moved to western North Carolina to take a teaching position at a small college in the mountains, and, here, in Swannanoa, Mother Nature touches everything. The fairytale-like shadows of infinite forests. Kudzu crawling up the sides of farmhouses.
Out here, there are seasons possessed by swarms of one strange insect, followed by seasons possessed by swarms of another strange insect. And then there are the black bears, which in this part of the state are seemingly everywhere. They’ll rip through your trash at night. They’ll climb trees to take down bird feeders. (They love birdseed). They’ll block traffic when they lumber down the road. I have a friend who even saw one walking through the Target parking lot. If you don’t see them, you still know they’re there. The darkness of the western North Carolina night is immense, and when you peer into that darkness, you can only imagine what thunders through it. I tend to imagine things with teeth and claws. They prowl behind the shadows, just beyond the small perimeter of light that circles my house. Or maybe they watch me from afar charting my movements and recording my actions on a clipboard. Or they clean a grill in their backyard, look over recipes, and invite guests to an exclusive dinner party.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment I had to make was not to the actual presence of the natural world, but to people’s attitudes toward that world. I think bears are terrifying, but this is not a widely-held belief in these parts. Anthropomorphization is the act of assigning human-like qualities to nonhuman entities, and it’s fairly common for people to do this with animals. Regarding the bears of North Carolina, I’ve heard people say, “The bears, here, are so friendly” and “they have such gentle spirits” and “they are beautiful and peaceful souls” and “it’s possible to be their friend—they really like people.” I appreciate these ideas. But I don’t really believe them.
In his stand-up special, Oh My God, comedian Louis C.K. says, “I don’t know if we fully appreciate the fact that we got out of the food chain. That is a massive upgrade. Because for every other living thing, life ends by being eaten.”
I don’t know why I imagine bears hunting me with poison-tipped spears, while other people imagine them burning incense and dancing through a massive drum circle of love, but one of my favorite things about working at a college is that I’m surrounded by people who are smarter than me. People with knowledge about the world. People who know how things really work. Perhaps someone here can explain the true nature of animals and—you know—tell me I’m right.
I bring my query to the science department, where Dr. Jessa Madosky, a conservation biologist, says, “Strict animal behaviorists might say we should never anthropomorphize animals and claim they have feelings. I tend to be more generous in my thoughts about that, but there are a lot of images in the media that can give people the wrong impression about animals. There’s one commercial that has polar bears drinking bottles of Coke, wearing scarves, and acting like human families.”
And I say, “So you’re saying they don’t do that?”
And she says, “Yes, as far as I can tell,” then laughs, but cautiously, and I secretly wonder if she’s trying figure out how it’s possible that we could both be employed at the same institution of higher learning.
Speaking of polar bears, whether they’re drinking cola or not, they’re not exactly affable and kind. They’re carnivorous, known to be aggressive, and not only kill people, but occasionally eat them as well. In other words: they’re dangerous. But in 2009, a woman had to be rescued from a polar bear attack at the Berlin Zoo after jumping into their enclosure and swimming toward them. Occasionally, when bears aren’t acting like people, they act like bears.
Even the panda (undisputedly, the most adorable of all bears) is still a bear. In 2006, in Beijing, a panda named Gu Gu ripped apart a man’s legs when the man jumped into the bear’s enclosure. Reportedly, the man wanted to hug the bear. In 2008, a panda named Yang Yang attacked a student at another zoo. The victim was quoted as saying, “Yang Yang was so cute and I just wanted to cuddle him.”
We got out of the food chain, but it’s possible to apply for readmission. No cover letter, CV, or letters of recommendation are necessary. Your materials will be processed quickly. Look: they’ve already completed the paperwork. Congratulations, your application has been accepted.
There’s a black bear in the poem “Twilight” by Henri Cole. The speaker of the poem sees a bear in an apple tree and says, “Come down, black bear,/ I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.”
“Indifferent” might be the best description I’ve come across. Despite my tendency to imagine bears as vicious hunters and my neighbors’ tendency to picture them as joyful hippies, there’s the possibility that bears actually don’t give a damn. They’re animals who just want to eat berries and roots and occasionally fish. And then be left alone. Still—
I too want to learn the faith of the indifferent. To eat what I want and not care. To be left alone because I’m the swiftest, most powerful animal among these trees. At night, I go to the grocery store. It’s open twenty-four hours and everything shines in neat little rows. I’m the strongest thing in the wild. I buy onions, potatoes, and jalapenos. I take it all home. There’s a skillet. There’s a flame. There’s always salt. Everything is fine, I tell myself. I eat what I can, because I still can.
MATTHEW OLZMANN is the author of two collections of poems: Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013), and Contradictions in the Design, which is forthcoming from Alice James Books in November, 2016. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Necessary Fiction, Brevity, Southern Review, and elsewhere.
The first time I got the instructions for how to avoid burning in hell, I was five.
I sat on my older sister’s bed as one of her friends asked me, “Are you saved? Because if you’re not saved, you’ll never get into heaven and you’ll burn in hell forever and ever. It’s easy to be saved though. Just close your eyes and repeat after me: I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. Just do that and you won’t burn in hell. See? Easy!”
I looked at her skeptically through half-closed eyes and only mumbled the words, hedging my bets because that’s what children do when told things by older, supposedly wiser people but don’t fully buy it. I was a naturally suspicious kid, I suppose, and her curly perm and blue eye shadow didn’t inspire confidence. Afterwards, she nodded her head and popped her gum loudly, satisfied with her work. My teenage sister, having had enough of me crashing her space, kicked me out of her room and changed the record on the white stereo system I coveted. I clearly remember not understanding what had just happened, but I hung onto the words “Jesus” and “hell,” those two things feeling like the most critical parts of whatever lesson I had just learned.
I grew up in a non-religious family in one of the most religious places in America. Lynchburg, Virginia in the 1980s was an Evangelical Christian mecca that is second only to Utah for the religious devotion of its residents. The disaster smash of the Reagan years and the rise of Evangelical Christianity in the political arena happened literally in my backyard as an influx of thousands moved into my town to be closer to Moral Majority rock star Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church and his freshly minted Liberty University. Our once-quiet street was suddenly three deep with cars on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. When people couldn’t get into the too-packed services, they’d sit parked at our curb and listen on the radio, completely overdressed for their Pintos and Datsuns, smiles plastered on their faces as they sang along to the hymns and nodded to their preacher’s words.
It was impossible to get away from the proselytizing. After-school clubs at friends’ houses always started with bowed heads and a prayer, and random teenagers would ask the status of your soul while you swung on the swings at the playground. As the church grew, it steadily bought up the beautiful old brick houses on my street and filled them with missionaries, families from other towns with five, six, ten kids who were homeschooled and who went door to door passing out small cards with bloody fetuses on them warning of the evils of abortion and whom to a fault could barely read. I never understood why they didn’t have to go to school, but I played with them because we were kids and they were fun and I just always ignored the warnings of what would happen to my eternal soul if I didn’t accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior. You get used to being told you’re going to burn in hell. After a while, it’s just static.
But it was a static that itched and was omnipresent. We did not go to church, but everyone we knew did. As I got older, there were lock-ins and youth groups, and Scare Mare, the Thomas Road Baptist Church–sponsored horror house that is still a Halloween tradition in my town. Before it turned overtly political with rooms like The Abortion Room and The Drunk Driving Room, it was actually pretty fun, a generic scary house with strobe lights and people jumping out at you in masks, harmless and spooky and something to do in a town with not a lot to do.
The last room of Scare Mare was always the scariest because it was after you’d left the haunted house completely. Puffed-up young men in polo shirts and crew cuts would line the path back to the parking lot with flashlights repeating in a disturbingly stern unison “Last room of Scare Mare, folks, last room of Scare Mare…” as they ushered you into one in a very long row of musty old army tents. It was always clear that this room was not an option. All attempts to skip it and just go back to your car felt forcibly cut off. I never knew anyone who got away with avoiding this last room even though we always talked about how we were totally not doing that, there’s no way they can make us go in there, the entire time we waited in line.
I was around twelve when my sister and her boyfriend took me with them the first time. As we left the haunted house and were funneled into the ancient army tents, my sister’s boyfriend just kind of shook his head in a “let’s get this over with” fashion and we took our seats in the metal folding chairs. My experience sitting in a church service was wholly limited to the rare Easter Sunday with my grandpa, some light singing and a short service and he’d slip me candy bars he’d sneaked in in his pocket. I was unprepared for the frothy and furious young man who stood at the front of the tent shouting at us and regaling us with the horrors of a forever in the fiery pits. “DO YOU WANT TO SPEND ETERNITY IN A PLACE LIKE THAT???!!!” He screamed at us, reminding us of the perversions and terror of the haunted house we’d just exited. “IF YOU DON’T ACCEPT JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR SAVIOR, THAT IS YOUR FUTURE!”
He went on and on about pain and death and depravation and was generally terrifying and foamy-mouthed until my sister’s boyfriend, recently home from the Marine Corps, and generally very strong and in-charge looking, spoke up and cut him short mid-sentence. “Hey!” he shouted. “You need to calm down. There’s kids in here.”
Slightly chastened, the lunatic preacher man slowed his roll and transitioned into the final part of the whole experience. “I’d like everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads…” He then gave a much quieter but no less passionate description of heaven and the story of Jesus and how he’d died for us and if you were a grateful and good person you’d just thank him for that by accepting him as your lord and savior so you could spend eternity among the peace and goodness of heaven and be happy forever and thank you for coming to Scare Mare folks, God bless you all, drive home safe.
I’d peeked through my eyes when our heads were supposed to be bowed and seen that, for the most part, everyone was doing as he’d told them to do, but I did spy a few hold-outs like me, others who were sneaking a look and just waiting for their chance to escape. I marveled then at the braveness of my sister’s boyfriend to challenge the preacher. You mean you can do that? You can tell people like that to stop yelling at you? If you can do that, then does that mean we don’t really have to come in here? Do I not have to bow my head even though people are always telling me to? I had questions.
Despite years of being told I’d burn in hell if I didn’t Accept Jesus Christ as My Personal Savior, I never decided to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Even as a kid I saw the fallacy of the whole process. If he’s so nice, why would he send people to burn in fiery pits forever just because of some loophole clearly based on vanity? That never sounded like something a personal savior would expect from you. Beyond that, though, I steadily became aware that there was always a streak of fear and smallness that ran through the hundreds of exchanges I’d had with the True Believers in my life. It was nothing I wanted to be a part of. I can still count on two hands the number of families that consider themselves Christian who actually act in a way that the Christ I’ve read about would be proud of. Two hands in this town of thousands upon thousands of families.
I grew up with what I now know is a siege mentality, this feeling that my universe was occupied by hostile forces who were not only not on my team but who openly and publicly proclaimed that terrible things were going to happen to me and my kind and good-hearted family if we did not jump through their very specific hoop. It’s a terrible thing to be told repeatedly in public and in private and by strangers and friends alike that you are not worthy and will be punished horribly for it. That does something to you down deep; it changes you and others you in a very specific way. I’m not sure at what age exactly that it finally happened, but at some point I embraced this “otherness” and made it my own. I have no religion, I don’t want a religion, and I am completely comfortable telling anyone that.
Home is home. though. That nightmare Halloween house is staged on the grounds of the long-gone cotton mill where my grandfather’s people all worked and lived and raised their babies. The community of Cotton Hill is still a vibrant one, where people share stories of the weaving room and the mill nursery and birthday parties on Carroll Avenue. Our memories are long. Despite the tidal wave of evangelical Christians that poured into my town starting in the eighties, I’ve always been quick to claim ownership. Though so often it seemed like I didn’t fit, here I refused to be run off. “It’s them who don’t fit,” I’d think, “I was here first.” So, like my own parents, I parked my little family right behind Thomas Road Baptist Church where for a long time after old Jerry still preached and dared all comers to try to make me feel less than, try to make my children feel less than, woe unto those who might try.
Walking my eight-year-old son home from school the other day, he said, “Michael asked if I believe in God and I told him no, and he said I was going to burn down there forever.” I looked at him and he was pointing to the ground with a smile on his face. We laughed about it because I have done my best to make my children bullet-proof in this city we live in. I have prepared them so they know that there will be people out there who will tell them mean and untrue things so it doesn’t bother them like it did me when I was small.
“Well, that wasn’t nice of him. But you know it’s not true, and you know he can’t help it. He just doesn’t know any better.” My son smiles and nods at me but he always looks bummed when this happens, because it happens and happens and happens, as it happened to his older sister, too, and it will to his younger sister as well. He is a kind boy and he would never assume awful things to happen to others for no good reason. A god like that makes no sense to him. He figured out the falseness of it long before I did.
Homeschoolers keep their kids out of our public schools because, ostensibly, it’s my children they should be afraid of. My godless, secular humanist children and their evil ways. But I learned a long time ago and I continue to see now that the pressure so often moves in only one direction. I am certain that my children aren’t roaming the halls of their schools shouting, “God is dead! God is dead!” The lack of love and generosity extended to those of different sexual orientations or religious beliefs or other ways of life is still blatant and harmful. But call them out on their unwillingness to just let others live their lives as they choose and you’re persecuting them for their religious beliefs, as if a religion based wholly on the persecution of others is a religion at all.
But not all is lost. Whenever my kids come home and tell me the latest story of how they’re going to burn in hell, I don’t just remind them of the falseness and foolishness of the statement. I also take time to remind them of the Christian families we know who are good and love us and all others without reserve, those who’d never tell us that we’ll burn in hell. It took me a long time to realize that those Christians really are out there, and if I believed in a god, I’d thank him or her for them. Because those are the people who remind us of the possibility of good in a world that so often promises us otherwise. Who remind us to not pick up and throw back the stones we so often find at our very own feet, who would never ever force us into a musty old army tent to shout.
JENNY POORE writes about parenting, public education, politics, and occasionally things that do not start with the letter “P”. Her work has most recently appeared in xoJane, Mommyish, Dame Magazine, and Role Reboot. You can follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Poore and at her blog, Sometimes There are Stories Here.
January 2012: Staring back at my husband’s pixilated face, I purse my lips and remain silent on my end of our Skype conversation. His sadness, shaved head, and obnoxious mustache (trimmed to fit perfectly along his upper lip, but no further than a quarter inch, according to Navy regulations) make my husband sound and look so different; they make him seem that much further away.
I don’t know, Tom finally says.
I’m a pretty good rambler, one who’ll blabber on about anything to avoid awkward silence, but it’s times like this when I too have nothing to say. So instead, I question.
We can’t just get up and leave. Can we?
Again he has no answer or at least not one I can write here. There’s a lot he cannot tell me, and then there’s what he can tell me but has asked me not to say. Instead of giving a concrete answer, he lays out the pros and cons, going back and forth, back and forth, just like the commentators on NPR. Everyone seems to be asking the same question: after over ten years of war, shouldn’t we, as Americans, know exactly why 89,000 American troops are still in Afghanistan?
Tom cradles his clean-shaven cheeks in his hands, then rubs his palms over closed eyes, pulling the lids sideways as they move across his temples and finally rest behind his ears.
Can we talk about something else?
The desperation in his voice surprises me, a flip from the excited reaction he had after the big phone call—the one when he pulled to the side of the road and Sir, yes, Sir’ed that he was ready to deploy, while my heartbeat matched the cadence of the cars I watched whizz by.
I think I’m going to head to bed, Tom says.
No, not yet! I say, but I struggle to find anything new to talk about, something interesting enough to keep him on the line.
He sighs, rubs his eyes again.
You look so tired, Love.
Barely a month into his deployment and already his sense of adventure is flickering. Deep lines I’ve never seen before have etched into his forehead. I resist asking if his skin is still painfully dry, if he’s using the face and hand moisturizers I sent. Neither do I ask about the dark circles under his eyes. I know. He’s been working sixteen-plus hour days. Every day. I don’t know how to respond when he wonders aloud whether all this work will have any lasting consequence.
I know what you should do, Love.
What? he asks flatly.
You should just come home right now! I say with a big, epiphanous smile, like a child egging him on to join her world of make believe. But my goofy grin goes unreturned, save for a slight rise in one corner of his lips. The same half-smile I’ll earn every time I try this line, like the half-answers I reap in response to my perpetual questions: Why are we still at war? What more can we accomplish? Change how a society has been functioning for thousands of years? … Can’t you just come home?
People keep asking me about the war as if my recent connection to it through Tom’s deployment makes me somehow privy to the untidy details—the how and why, when I’m still fuzzy about the other four Ws. I’m tired of answering, “I don’t know.” Tired of feeling stupid. Ignorant, really, which feels more worthy of blame.
Since the ten-year anniversary of the war passed in October 2011, I’ve been re-asking the same questions as everyone else, all umbrellaed under one question—how’d we get to where we are?
And since Tom deployed last November, I’ve only become more confused. Each time I listen to or read the news, there are too many answers, too many variables, too many voices for me to fully understand why we are still at war, much less why we ever went. I thought I knew—retaliation for the 9/11 attack, right?—but if I’m honest with myself, I have not religiously followed the news about the war in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq. I’ve kept up with the world outside my microcosm via NPR snippets on my drive to and from work. When the war took over most of the programming again in connection to the ten-year anniversary, I was taken aback. Had it really been that long?
As a high school English teacher, over the years I’d taught lessons linked to the Middle East and Afghanistan, and during those times, I dug a little deeper, but soon after we pressed on to the next unit, my brain tucked the specifics along with other dusty facts, like when to use semi-colons rather than commas in a serial list. I feel a bit guilty every time I have to consult Strunk & White. I majored in literature and took linguistics classes. Grammar rules are what I know. Or should know. And now that people are asking me about the war, this similar guilt rises. Our country is at war and has been for a third of my life. As an American citizen, especially one married to a Naval officer, especially one currently deployed in Afghanistan, shouldn’t I know why?
But like the guilt of having to source the nuances of semi-colon usage, the guilt of having basic, watered-down answers to this question has always been easily pushed aside by more pressing things, like grading papers, planning lessons, buying groceries, and avoiding laundry, until my Tom received that phone call. Now, I want answers.
But this new craving has only sparked another question—would I be hungry for this information if Tom had never gone to war?
I wish I could answer, “I don’t know” to this question too, but I do know, and it’s this guilt that motivates me to search. Late one night, alone in our bed, I start browsing headlines on newspaper archives online. Search September 12, 2001, and find our nation’s first reactions to the Twin Towers attack. See again our confusion, anger, sadness, and fear shout in capital letters on front pages across the nation and around the globe. Shudder at the sight of New York City’s skyline swallowed in a cloud of smoke, ash, and dust. WAR, TERROR, DARKEST DAY repeat headline after headline.
“America’s Bloodiest Day: ‘This is the Second Pearl Harbor’” (The Honolulu Advertiser)
“FREEDOM UNDER SIEGE: World Trade Center Collapses, Pentagon hit Bush vows retaliation for ‘cowardly actions’ Thousands feared dead beneath the rubble” (Times Union)
That catastrophic day, there was no way to know what else could possibly happen the next second—planes flying into buildings? on American soil?—much less how our next steps would lead to our next steps would lead to where we are, fighting a War on Terror without end.
How was I to know that the curious draw I felt toward this lip-pierced, spiky-haired guy I met two days after the attack would lead to love and marriage, and that this person I exchanged vows with would not pursue real estate investment or music production or working for a law firm, that he’d instead trade in his lip ring for a uniform that he’d wear in a warzone while I try to live my life as close to normal as possible?
There was some comfort, I realize now, in knowing that Tom had raised his hand, on multiple occasions, to deploy. As if his desire to go somehow made it more like an adventure, not a duty. But I’ve realized I was wrong, about a lot of things.
More research: Back in December 2009, when President Obama refocused the war effort in Afghanistan, he ordered a surge of 30,000 more troops, aiming to defeat the resurgence of al Qaeda (now scheming from safe-havens along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border), reverse the Taliban’s regrowth in Afghanistan, and train the Afghan military to defend its country on its own. During his controversial Afghanistan strategy speech at West Point, Obama promised that 33,000 troops (3,000 more than the surge he ordered) will return home by the end of 2012, and that troops would continue returning until all combat operations are completely pulled out in 2014.
For Tom these dwindling numbers had translated into dwindling opportunities. A history major with an interest in Middle Eastern studies, he saw serving in Afghanistan as not just a career enhancing opportunity, but a meaningful life experience that he’d like to have. It just seemed crazy to me. Even crazier was his hope to work with the SEALs or the Marine Corps. To be honest, I was glad when he was assigned detainee operations. He’d be behind the “wire,” protected on base, doing legal work with Taliban or al Qaeda or terrorist suspects that were captured and held in the detention center on Bagram Air Base.
But on base is exactly where Tom did not want to be. If sent to Afghanistan, he wanted to actually experience the country and be in the villages amongst the people, not in some high security office. In my mind, his work with the accused insurgents, providing some sense of due process, seemed less dangerous, more useful; less violent, more peace-driven. Less like war.
But I had it all wrong.
He isn’t working with Afghan judges and lawyers establishing a stable justice system. Neither representing the Afghan detainees nor the American government, Tom is what they call a neutral recorder. He compiles and presents evidence collected about each prisoner to a board of American senior military officers who then decide if the detainee actually meets the criteria for remaining detained—not as a prisoner of war, but as what the Bush administration called an “unlawful enemy combatant” and what President Obama’s administration now calls “unprivileged enemy belligerents.” In other words, people accused of participating in or aiding the Taliban or al Qaeda or other enemy forces.
When it’s been a while since we’ve talked, Tom visits me instead in my daydreams. I imagine him in the prison preparing for a board and watch as he walks into a plain room then stands in front of board members dressed in beige camo. I turn to look at the prisoner accused of being an enemy combatant and do a double take, then try to shake off the image of Osama bin Laden’s face and the faces of his cronies, their long beards, white robes. These TV images are all I know to imagine.
What do the prisoners look like? I ask Tom one day on the phone.
Not prisoners, detainees.
Okay. What do the detainees look like?
Well, how old are they?
Some are young, but they all look old. The conditions in Afghanistan are harsh. Their beards and weathered skin make them all look older than they are. But very few of them actually know their own age—they often don’t know what year they were born.
I imagine blowing out candles as a child, the white and rainbow confetti cake my mom baked for all of our birthdays, how despite having the same flavor cake as my three siblings and the same song, when I blew out those candles, I knew that moment was mine alone.
So why are they there? I ask, though I already know his response —
I can’t say.
During trials, do the detainees ever look at you?
Boards. Some stare me down.
Yeeesh. Are you ever afraid?
Maybe a little intimidated at first, I guess, but never afraid, he says.
He has no real interaction with the detainees: he never speaks with them directly, only through translators. As a writer and reader, I believe in the power of words—of true dialogue—to wage peace, but sometimes words take longer, especially when passed on through a multi-lingual game of Telephone.
January 9, 2012: We’re fortunate (I’ve been told repeatedly by spouses who didn’t hear from their partners for months, if at all, while they were deployed) that Tom and I are able to stay connected through emails, phone calls, even face-to-face on Skype, GChat, or FaceTime. Sometimes Tom’s voice is too distorted to understand; sometimes I see his face for over an hour. Don’t take this for granted, I remind myself whenever my phone or computer wakes me up or rings right when I finally start the work I’ve been avoiding all morning.
I’m finally getting into a groove when, with impeccably bad timing, Tom’s face — miniaturized in the Skype icon — appears on my computer screen, accompanied by a techno style ring, all upbeat and cheery.
Again? I groan. My shoulders drop. Then, realizing, my stomach follows suit: how could I be bummed he’s calling?
I click the green video icon, wait for my husband’s grainy smile to appear, and get excited when it does, despite his creepy facial hair.
Seriously, Tom. The mustache?
It’s fun! he says, eating up my mustache-hate.
Can’t you find another type of fun?
Unfortunately, there’s not much of that around here, he says. Winning.
Tom smiles again playfully and rests his head on the dinosaur pillowcase from his childhood that his mom gave me to send him. He’s wearing his headlamp, completing the image I prefer in my mind: a boy at play, on an expedition, a fossil hunt.
Thinking about my to-do list again, I hesitantly continue.
Love, you know I want to talk to you and see you whenever I can, but … is there any way you can try me right when you get off work?
I did just get off work.
Wince. Though mid-morning here, the sun set long ago there.
And you complained when I called early and woke you up.
I wasn’t complai…whatever. You just keep magically catching me right when my fingers hit the keyboard. It’s just really hard to start up again —
My voice fades, begins to shake.
His face blurs momentarily: a shaved head, hazel eyes, and mustache in pixilated lines.
What? he asks, not hearing what I said.
I shake my head. I can’t repeat what I already feel guilty about saying aloud. I’m getting so good at forgetting where he actually is, but sometimes I accidentally let myself remember, let it sink in. The shaved head. The dinosaurs. The goofy mustachioed grin. All I want is to touch his face, to feel the curve of his smile in my hand.
Bre, are you okay?
I shake my head again. Like a weather goddess, I command a drought, but my eyes don’t dry that easily, nor does the bulge in my throat unknot. I don’t want him to add worry about me to what he’s already going through.
The timing, I manage, while still shaking my head, trying to signal I’m changing the subject. Don’t worry about it, okay? Don’t turn it into a water chestnut thing.
But you don’t like water chestnuts, Tom says with a mischievous smile, and I can’t help but laugh, relieved by the comfort of an inside joke. He always stole those white, crunchy morsels from my plate our first few years of dating. No, not water chestnuts, I hate bamboo! I’d say and slap his fork away with my own. Each time he’d get embarrassed, only to forget and steal them again the next time. While Tom’s effort to take away anything I dislike is charming, sometimes he misconstrues things or takes chivalry too far. I knew I shouldn’t have said anything. Now I’m afraid he won’t call at all.
I know it’s hard, he says, his face shifting to serious.
All day I want to talk to you, but I can’t call you. I still have to live while you’re away. Just can’t wait by the phone. What am I saying? I think, then backpedal. I mean, I will, if that’s how it has to be… Forget everything I’ve said. I like your calls. I hate bamboo.
But you don’t like water chestnuts, he says, attempting a confused expression that breaks into a burst of laughter that I join in on. Soon our shoulder-shaking guffaws subside into a ripe silence, filled with only what our eyes say as we stare back at each other and share a smile.
Call me anytime, I say. Call me anytime, okay?
More research: President Obama’s proposed plan—to pull our troops out by 2014—seems implausible. A month after our invasion, a UN-led meeting of Afghan leaders created a five-year road map to rebuild the country, devastated and disorganized after decades of corruption and war. At first, according to a Gallup poll, “eight out of ten Americans support[ed the] ground war in Afghanistan.” Now, a decade later, according to CNN, just over a third of Americans still support the war effort, an all time low.
If polled I would struggle to bubble just one answer. Though I didn’t want Tom to join the military much less go to war, I still cling to the hope that his work will help build a secure justice system in Afghanistan. But the process of forming a democracy will take much more than another two years. That is, if all our troops actually pull out in 2014. The two-year plan could double like the initial five-year plan. Two years, then four years, then … Will we ever leave?
(President Obama announced the formal “end of the combat mission in Afghanistan” on December 28, 2014. Yet troops linger, training and supporting the Afghan security force and working on counter-terrorism efforts. Already the initial withdrawal plan has slowed. In late March, 2015, President Obama announced that 9,800 troops will remain until the end of the year. “We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed so we don’t have to go back,” the President explained. Considering the rise of ISIS in Iraq, I understand that military withdrawal is more complex than simply asking should we stay or should we go.)
But who will pay the price if we stay? An All Things Considered article reported, “Just one-half of one percent of the American population has served on active duty during the last decade.” I remember Tom mentioning a similar statistic before he deployed, one of the many conversations we had that summer and fall on our back patio after dinner, watching the flames dance in our fire pit as we danced around the pain of his imminent departure, failing to convince the other that his career was the right or wrong direction for our lives.
I hear Tom’s argument echoed in the words of the military ethics interviewee who said, “It becomes much more easy to deploy U.S. forces in tough environments for long periods of time because the vast majority of Americans don’t feel they have any skin in the game”: exactly why Tom decided to join the Navy. He’d never mentioned this sense of duty before that night.
When Tom first talked about applying to the JAG Corps, we were a few years into our marriage. I thought this Navy idea was just another phase he’d get through like his former blue hair and piercings, like his knack for doubling whatever dares his friends concocted, the last stunt ending in a broken ankle, his foot flipped sideways. Tom was never one to follow orders. I figured he would complete his Navy internship, graduate from law school, then work for a firm or maybe a nonprofit.
In hindsight, I guess he had revealed the military tradition of his family, but I never thought anything of it in connection to our own lives. Before applying, Tom touted the prestige of the Navy JAG Corps, how difficult it would be for him to even get in. We were fresh out of college when we married; underlying our vows was an unspoken agreement to encourage each other to pursue our dreams. He’d supported my summer spent doing a teacher exchange in Uganda, hadn’t he? And, with the odds stacked against him, I figured why not let him at least apply? Again. And again.
But then he got in. And thrilled he was for the life change I never thought we’d actually have to make. For four years I’d dedicated my life (and soul, he protested) to teaching. Four years, now, he’d serve.
Tom never mentioned this moral dilemma until after he’d joined. In resolving his own, he sparked mine. Love, grace, and peace are the values I aim to live by; non-violence naturally falls into my paradigm. Now, whenever I allow it to sink in that my life is funded by the military, I cringe: my very comfortable life is funded by the antithesis of who I say I am.
Yet Tom felt he had to join, asking if more of us were involved, would our country be as willing to go war? I’d never thought about it this way before. That night by the fire, my moral dilemma doubled. Simultaneously I felt guilty for being connected to the military and for not.
More research: I pause and then reread a New York Times editorial written by Abdul Matin Bek, an Afghan whose father Mutalib Bek—an Afghan Parliament member and former Mujahedeen fighter—was assassinated by a suicide bomber. Bek says he feels the need to speak up: “The line between a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan and absolute chaos is thin,” he warns. “The nature of its political climate will have ramifications for the whole world, as has been shown in the past, yet the multiplicity of Afghan voices has been lost in the fog of this war.”
January 28, 2012: “Obama’s Bagram Problem How Afghanistan’s Prisons Complicate U.S. Withdrawal” (Foreign Affairs).
I’m confused, I tell Tom on the phone after reading the article about the detainee review boards he’s doing. I thought the boards gave the detainees some sort of due process. I don’t get why the article critiques them. Aren’t they like trials?
They’re hearings, not trials.
But the article says a lot of information remains classified. Do the detainees really not know why they’re being held in prison?
It’s not something I can talk about.
Ugh. Okay. But I just don’t understand why they can’t see all of the evidence used against them. Is it like the identities of witnesses? You’re afraid the witnesses will be killed?
Bre, it’s not something I can talk about.
My stomach tightens. Forehead wrinkles. I imagine Winston’s hideaway. The secret police, secret cameras, everywhere. We’re Big Brother?
I want to trust my husband, our government, and the Enduring Freedom part of the Operation’s name. I want to trust that there is a reason why the information remains classified, that revealing this information would endanger our national security so heavily that we have no other choice, but the article makes a strong case: the board is a façade of due process if the accused can’t defend himself against evidence he knows nothing about. I imagine Lady Justice struggling to under the weight of imbalance.
It’s like people forget we’re at war, Tom finally says, passion fueling his voice for the first time in a while. In World War II, when German POWs were captured, we never stopped to hold trials to figure out if they were actually Nazis. What we’re doing has never been done before. We are fighting an enemy that wears no uniform, that simply shoots then blends into the civilian population.
A piece of American history, he is living. A piece too abstract and convoluted at present for us to fully understand. History others will make obvious sense of in future books. Complex issues summarized, spelled out in neat straight lines. I’ve tried to understand, yet I still can’t decide what is right. Though I’ve always thought of myself as one who would’ve run part of the Underground Railroad, paraded with the suffragists, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., I live as a beneficiary of others’ picketing signs. Besides these words I write, the only action that speak my beliefs is riding the fence. I remain absorbed in my work and creative writing studies, asking questions when deep down I know the only answer I truly want is for my husband to come home.
March 11, 2012: I’m driving to the commissary supermarket on base in Newport when I hear the BBC Newshour report on the radio. Before dawn, an American soldier snuck alone off base and murdered sixteen Afghan villagers as they slept. Nine of the victims were children.
No! I scream, then slap the steering wheel. No, no, no, I yell and slap and slap and slap in time with the march of my pleas.
My jaw remains dropped as the translator relays the victims’ neighbor’s trembling account: “It was 2 a.m. We heard the gunfire and dog barking—they shot the dog dead and entered the house and opened fire on the children and making martyrs of them. … After they killed them they set fire to the bodies. Is a two-year old baby a Taliban?”
Chills run up my spine.
“I swear to god we have not seen a Taliban in five months!”
My sight too overcast to clearly see, I have to park. How could we let this happen? As I sit and listen to the report, the woman’s desperate question echoes in my mind.
Fear she had for the Taliban she now has equally for us? I look around the base parking lot, longing to be anywhere but here, but I can’t drive away. I can’t do anything but sit and listen.
Since Tom left, whenever I hear news of our service members losing their lives, I feel more than ever before the need to pause, to honor their loss, to honor the family mourning the loss I pray I never have to feel. The same guilt and sadness swirls in my stomach as the report continues. An Afghan official says they’ve lost all trust in us.
The innocent have no one to trust? But with no way to know, especially at a glance, who’s an insurgent and who’s not, our service members likewise don’t know who to trust. And this changes hour-to-hour, day-to-day. Distrust breeds distrust, violence breeds violence. Again my mind is clouded with questions, a multiplicity of voices lost in the fog of war: Is the two-year-old a Taliban? Should we stay or should we go? And if we leave will we return? A war on terror without end? Can’t you please just come home?
Tom returned home safely in July 2012. This essay is an excerpt from a book project in which BREAWNA POWER EATON wrestles with the question: how did we—as a nation and a couple—wind up tangled in our country’s longest war? For more of her travel stories, features, and essays visit Breawna.com .