One morning, years ago, the major landmark in my town caught fire. A relic of the town’s glory days in the nineteenth century, it dominated our modest skyline, and I’d been used to passing it every day on my walk to work. I had not heard the news yet that day, and I glanced toward the monument as usual. The top part of the edifice was now a charred stump; it may even have been surrounded by wisps of smoke. But oddly, I registered nothing unusual. My brain projected normality—what it “knew” to be real—onto what I was seeing, overlaying it like a private movie. When I heard the news later—only then did I believe my eyes.
All of this is to say that I didn’t recognize I had been sexually harassed for seven years, despite having been a self-professed feminist since I’d learned what the word meant, despite having learned feminist theory at the feet of leading scholars in college, despite having been supportive of friends who had gone through sexual harassment and assault. And even after I allowed myself to understand what had happened, despite knowing of the importance of breaking the silence, and despite having been grateful to others for breaking their silence, I kept silent.
Back around 2009, I was looking for answers for some minor but annoying medical symptoms. My usual doctors seemed out of ideas, so I made an appointment with a local alternative practitioner. As I sat in his office, I noted that he didn’t have on a white coat, nor did his office seem especially clinical, but as “doctor’s appointment” was a category of the landscape of my world, as fixed as that monument in my small town, I only hesitated slightly when he asked me to remove my shirt as part of the exam. There was some plausible reason, which I now can’t remember—visual inspection of a rash, perhaps?
After the exam, he suggested that I do a patch test for some vitamin deficiency on a two-inch square of my “lateral breast tissue.” Then he added, “If you can find enough.” Then he chuckled: “Heh heh.” Trying to remember what “lateral” meant from way back in freshman biology, I must have looked confused. He repeated himself: “Lateral breast tissue. If you can find enough,” gesturing to my on-the-smaller-side (but well-formed, I had always thought with some pride!) breasts. And then he chuckled again, as if to drive home what he was saying: “Heh heh.”
If he had had spinach between his teeth that day, I wouldn’t have said anything. If he had farted during the exam, I wouldn’t have said anything. Because another fixture of my world was the personal code of conduct of a Nice Girl: always be polite and never point out when someone does something embarrassing to himself. So I ignored his comment, and then I convinced myself it had never happened, that it couldn’t possibly have been what it sounded like, a creepy evaluation of my breasts’ sexual appeal or lack thereof in the context of what had been billed as a medical examination.
I didn’t get up and walk out in outrage. I didn’t even stop seeing him (well, I did after a while, when I got sick of buying all the vitamins he prescribed). I didn’t alert the community; I didn’t expose him. And once I finally allowed myself to admit to myself what had happened, I didn’t tell anyone then either, not my close friends, not my husband, no one. I merely quietly unfriended him on Facebook.
Why? Because I was ashamed—at my silence, at my acquiescence, at my gullibility for going to someone who wasn’t a medical doctor, at my agreeing to take my shirt off, at the overall triviality of the event in the larger scheme of things (after all, he didn’t touch me; I was a grown woman; it wasn’t ongoing; it wasn’t some terrible work situation that I had to endure to keep my job—was it really sexual harassment?), even ashamed of, well, my breast size, which would have become part of the discussion if I had ever told the story. Embarrassed, too, for him, for saying what he had said. Worried about his reputation, about his livelihood. Because these are the unquestioned edifices in our society: a man’s honor, a man’s work, a man’s understanding of what happened (he’d surely deny that his intent had been anything other than innocent). I didn’t want to believe these monuments were on fire even as they burned right in front of my own eyes.
I finally told one person. This summer. And then in October, I wrote “me, too” when the #metoo hashtag went viral. Still, my doubts persist. Will I be criticized for doing everything I criticized myself for above? Will others hold me as responsible as I held myself? Above all, I think about the women throughout my life who’ve told me about being sexually harassed or assaulted: fellow undergraduates when I was an undergraduate; fellow grad students when I was a grad student; work colleagues; friends from every era of my life. I did not seem—I desperately hope—unsympathetic, but “this happens to others and not to me” was part of the landscape of my world, solid as any building, so I’m sure my empathy arrived, if it did, as if from a long distance. Today I’d look them in the eye and say, “I’m so, so sorry this happened to you, and thank you so much for having the strength to talk about it.” I’d listen, listen, listen some more, as long as necessary, forever. One of my favorite quotes, ever since I saw it on a greeting card in college, is a haiku by Mizuta Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down—now I can see the moon.” As what separates us becomes a wisp of smoke—has always been a wisp of smoke—what I see are these women’s faces.
LYNNE NUGENT’s personal essays have appeared in Brevity, Mutha Magazine, the Tin House blog, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” column, and elsewhere. Her previous essay for Full Grown People, “The Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card,” was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Find her at lynnenugent.wordpress.com.
From as far back as I can remember, I was what grownups called a verbal kid. My parents were both high school English teachers, my mother for thirty years, and I was lucky enough to inherit their predisposition to articulate speech. At this point, in middle age, I know that this articulateness is a privilege—a gift reinforced by a few beloved mentors and heaps of inspirational highbrow entertainment—but that’s not how it always felt growing up. Speaking precisely was no social advantage in the public schools I attended in suburban Wayne, New Jersey. I would much rather have been good at baseball.
Early on, I developed a tendency that, for all I know, is common among verbal kids, though I’ve never heard it mentioned. I began privately adopting certain words as my own in the secret belief that, like an ardent lover, only I fully understood their true colors, coded signals, and secret desires. I’m not speaking of what people often call pet words—favorite, everyday words that we all have, replace over the years, and tend to overuse. The words I mean are deeply lodged within our psyches and continue to move and sometimes bedevil us even as we age out of them.
I have intensely vivid memories of the circumstances surrounding my learning these words, which subsequently became totems and touchstones, seeding private jokes, tempering and organizing experiences, and affirming my core beliefs.
“Solicit.” Google definition: “to ask for or try to obtain (something) from someone.”
One day during tenth grade, I saw an enticing ad on my high school bulletin board: “Easy work. 1-3 hours after school. Earn $50 to $100 a week.” That was big money in 1974.
The job turned out to be selling subscriptions to The New York Times door-to-door on commission. The clincher was that the guy on the phone promised I’d be paid a minimum daily fee no matter how much I sold. My mother liked his articulate-sounding voice and didn’t pay close attention to details. He picked up me and five other boys in a van the following week and drove us to a leafy section of Hackensack.
We were set loose in pairs, and my partner and I were at it about fifteen minutes when we walked up to a stocky guy standing in his driveway, who asked what we wanted.
“Would you be interested in home delivery of the New York Times?”
“Are you soliciting?” Neither of us knew that word.
“We’re selling subscriptions to a newspaper.”
“So you’re soliciting.”
“We’re selling …”
“That’s soliciting. Soliciting is illegal in Hackensack.” The guy then pulled out a police badge, yelled toward his house, and asked whoever was in earshot to summon a patrol car.
Twenty minutes later the two of us (and then four, then all six) were sitting on a bench at the station, waiting for Hackensack’s finest to decide our fate. We could hear the panicked van driver being grilled in a side room. The next few hours were a gauntlet of tedium, hunger, peremptory harangues, and supercilious questions from cops half-heartedly trying to bait and shame us.
They eventually just let us go. I thought my mother would kill the driver when we got home very late, and he explained what happened. He never paid us for the day.
The dangerous and dubious edges of “solicitation,” the word’s slightly sickening aura of unfairness, has been part of my worldview ever since. When I later learned this word’s association with prostitution it made perfect sense to me. It was a name for something casually polarizing, acceptable to some, depraved to others: not just selling but unwanted, disreputable selling. Not just asking, seeking or applying but supplication, begging, the stain of importunateness always there.
I’ve collected random bits of trivia over the years about many of my words, but particularly about “solicit.” I happen to know, for instance, that the Latin root sollicitare means to disturb, rouse, trouble, or harass. I make space in my head for the fact that Samuel Beckett used “soliciting” to describe the diabolical activity of the purgatorial light interrogating the characters whose heads stick out of funereal urns in his anti-drama Play. I’m probably the only fan of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus who looks forward to the particular slur a plebeian politician uses to trigger an anti-patrician mob reaction: “He did solicit you in free contempt.”
To this day, any neutral use of “solicit” startles and jars me. If a colleague, for instance, proposes soliciting opinions or applications, I automatically regard the appeal as disingenuous and probably futile. The colleague’s motivations seem questionable purely because of the choice of word.
“Solicit” isn’t for everyday use (unless you’re a British lawyer). It’s one of those occasional words that hangs around your brain and exerts its force over time. My sense of its effect on me is that it influenced my disposition toward decorum, convention, and propriety—the whole basket of deplorable ideas that poisons the concept of respectability. Thanks to the Hackensack police, Beckett, and Shakespeare, the word is forever linked for me to all the species of exclusion and harassment that authorities soft-soap as protection: “right to work” laws, gratuitous prohibitions in public spaces, arbitrary restrictions on journalists, protesters, students. I would guess that, more than any other word, “solicit” helped make me politically liberal.
“Spontaneous.” Google definition: “performed or occurring as a result of a sudden inner impulse or inclination and without premeditation or external stimulus.”
When I was ten, I nearly set fire to my family’s house. I, like many kids, needed to test grownups’ claims, and one that struck me as particularly dubious was that gasoline was flammable since it was a liquid. Every liquid I’d ever seen meet a flame—water, soda, juice, pee—had extinguished it, and, yes, I’d done that experiment any number of times. How could anything you poured out, that splashed and sparkled, possibly burn?
One day when my parents were out shopping I rolled our lawnmower onto the driveway, unscrewed the gas-tank cap, and tipped it over—a clumsy maneuver that created a bigger puddle than I intended. Some gas dribbled toward the driveway’s edge, but it looked as if it had evaporated so I wasn’t worried. I threw a lighted match at the entrancing polychrome fluid, jumped back, and thrilled at the windy whoosh. What do you know—the adults were telling the truth!
Within seconds, however, the harmless blue flames on the pavement had spread to the bushes in the adjacent flowerbed and were snaking toward the garage. I stomped on them, waved my arms and dashed about, but the area was already too wide and I found myself surrounded by fire. Then, out of nowhere, an older boy who lived across the street—who had evidently been watching me—ran up, pushed me away, grabbed a garden hose, and doused the fire in a heart-attack minute. Thanks be for fluids that behaved themselves!
I begged him not to say anything to my parents. Then I dashed inside and dialed the Wayne Township Fire Department, asking the guy who answered: “Hey, is there any way that gasoline can catch fire without a flame?”
“Spontaneous combustion,” he shot back, declining to elaborate.
I ran to the dictionary. I didn’t completely understand its complicated definition, though the gist was clear enough and flooded me with relief: a thing could ignite on its own without heat from any external source. I’d found my alibi, and a marvelous new word. What grownup could possibly have such specialized technical knowledge?
My father saw the damage as soon as he pulled up in his Buick Electra. I babbled out my terrifying tale of having “accidentally spilled some gas” while trying the start the lawnmower, after which I was shocked to see it “spontaneously catch fire all by itself. I have no idea how!” Then he asked me to tell him what really happened.
Long story short, since he knew exactly what spontaneous combustion meant and knew it couldn’t happen out on a driveway, he confronted me. He said that if I’d admitted I was trying an experiment because I didn’t believe that gasoline could burn he would have been annoyed and probably made me pay for the bushes. Instead my lie had deeply disappointed him and had to be punished.
This is how the word “spontaneous” became inseparable in my mind from visibility and discernment. My father saw right through me; there was no hiding from him, and this incident marked the turning point in childhood when I suddenly grasped how much more adults saw about me than I’d allowed myself to perceive. All children are humored and cosseted. Adults want them to enjoy their natural curiosity and spontaneity as long as possible. But that indulgence is mostly pretense, condescension. Real respect, I realized then, can’t come from pretense. It has to be earned. I’d been expelled from the Eden of childish egoism and felt naked and embarrassed.
From that day on, “spontaneous” could never again be an index of simple or sincere expression to me. The word instead reminds me how complicated trust, honesty, and instinctiveness are. If, for instance, someone praises an actor, a musician, or a painter for the amazing spontaneity of a creative act, I might share in the admiration but I’ll also ponder the years of preparation and seasoning behind the act. If a child asks for my spontaneous reaction to something—a joke, say, or a picture, or a feat of agility—I will oblige, but I’ll also wonder what his real game is. I know something else is at stake and want to know what.
“Spontaneous” set off brain-alarms when I first noticed how overused it was in the essays of Richard Wagner. Wagner felt that his music-drama was the spontaneous expression of the will of the German Volk, and this word made his ardor suspicious well before he made clear that the German Volk excluded Jews. “Spontaneous,” ironically enough, planted cautiousness in me and reinforced my naturally analytical disposition.
The earliest word I remember adopting is “shortchange.” Google: “to cheat (someone) by giving insufficient money as change.”
On a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in fourth grade, my parents gave me six dollars to spend on lunch and souvenirs. My bill at the cafeteria, where I’d scrimped to be able to afford a dinosaur at the gift shop, was $1.83. I gave the cashier my single, searched my pocket in vain for change, and then handed her my fiver. She gave me back seventeen cents, snapped her drawer shut, and wouldn’t acknowledge or investigate the error no matter how much I protested.
My tears came, the manager came, and the upshot was that they would reconsider my claim only at the end of the business day when all the register cash was counted. A sympathetic teacher brought me back to the cafeteria then, delaying the homebound buses, and the manager handed me four dollars—“Okay, young fella. I guess you were right!” I still felt indignant since the gift shop had closed. Worse, when I showed my four dollars on the bus, a creepy little red-haired kid cracked wise that he thought I’d just been “jewing” the lady over my lunch bill.
For me this was a story of epic complication and monstrous injury. My parents—whom I never told about the bus comment, which felt humiliating—glossed it with a single word: I’d been “shortchanged!” A good word, I remember thinking, useful, self-explanatory, but too succinct for the outrageous context. It left out the condescension, the bigotry, and the still more stinging injustice that I never got a dinosaur.
Since that day “shortchange” has carried a charge of special outrage for me. It doesn’t just mean cheating, but cheating with malice, discrimination, and intolerable collateral damage. I never hear or use it without flashing back to the experience of not being believed, of belonging to a category of person (children, Jews) whose complaints could be summarily brushed off. In college, I once joined an anti-apartheid divestment campaign I’d been ignoring after receiving a flyer about blacks being shortchanged by the South African government. Recently I deleted the Uber app from my smartphone after reading a headline about the company shortchanging its drivers in New York City. The word made it impossible to believe that Uber’s error was anything but a deliberate fraud.
Even when “shortchange” is used in its softer sense of underestimate—as in, “Don’t shortchange Mitch McConnell. He’s a sly old tortoise!”—it carries a repugnant aftertaste for me, a sugarcoating on dishonesty. Someone is lying to him- or herself about the real merit of an opponent. The word is fused in my head with the principle of fairness at the core of democracy, which is no doubt because as an adult I know that bourgeois democracy, with its rational values, is what gave Jews a path to social inclusion and equal opportunity after some two millennia of exclusion. Jews esteem articulateness. For a long time they did so out of faith in the Enlightenment dream that reason would soon reign over human affairs—that the articulate, being most reasonable, could compete to best advantage on a level playing field in the brave new reasonable world.
Many people have personal dictionaries, lists of words and phrases they use and understand in idiosyncratic ways, shaped by their unique experiences and quirks. These dictionaries are usually unwritten, though a friend of mine told me that she and her siblings once wrote one as a gift for their father on his seventy-fifth birthday. It was about fifteen pages long, she said, and contained several dozen personalized definitions of not only his pet words but also the grumpy connotations, guilt-trippy subtexts, unspoken addendums, and affectionate intimations behind his expressions. The gift made him weep—the tears prompted, I imagine, from the feeling of being so clearly seen, so intimately known by his loved ones.
No one but me could compile a dictionary of my adopted words—and I could add a dozen more to these three—because I don’t use them often. They operate in my inner life as sources of knowledge and attributes of my character. They’re not quirks of speech. Even my wife of twenty-nine years didn’t know most of these stories until she read a draft of this essay. I sometimes think of these words as my deep personal myths.
Roland Barthes famously argued that myth was “a type of speech,” not merely a genre of story. He defined it as speech that treats anything (objects, ideas, people, places, words) as rooted in the natural order when in fact it reflects a very specific and contingent ethos or value system. Nations, communities, and social classes share experiences that make certain concepts appear ineluctably true, timeless, or transcendent. Loving wine, for instance, becomes a token of being truly French, loving ideas for their own sake a mark of being German, and trusting inarticulate people more than articulate ones an acid test of Americanness. Personal myths are much the same as communal ones, only subtler and more virulent in their effect on the psyche.
Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been struck again and again by the fact that the leader of my country is now a man so antipathetic to language that he might as well be my mythical enemy. Everyone can see that the communal myths that helped elect him are noxious and retrograde, even his supporters. What interests me more are the personal myths that roil and curdle and fester inside the man. These you can’t see but I imagine them to be grotesque counterpoles to mine.
Trump is a prodigy of belligerent self-absorption who hides behind a protective wall of muddled, degraded, and degrading language. Most of the words he relishes are monosyllabic fetishes (“win,” “sad,” “huge,” “weak”), and he deploys these more like punches than thoughts. I doubt many of them hark back to complicated childhood stories. Nevertheless, without getting too psychoanalytical about it, they probably all have sharp early associations with shaming by some combination of teachers, coaches, and Fred, his blunt and brutal father. One can easily imagine this rolling dumpster being set aflame with remarks to the effect that, “Whadda you smilin’ at? You didn’t win!”; “That’s a sad report card!”; or “Why such a weak swing? Choke up!”
We will obviously never know the whole truth about Trump’s myth of grievance against proper and precise language, though we can all agree it’s now a serious matter indeed. It’s one thing for an average person to heedlessly mangle and ravage words, quite another for the most visible and influential man in the world to do so.
Masha Gessen, in her wonderful “Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture” this year, carefully explained just how thorough his assault on clarity and truth is. She examined a random interview transcript and pointed out that approximately one in ten words was wholly drained of meaning. “Trump’s word-piles fill public space with static,” she wrote. “This is like having the air we breathe replaced with carbon monoxide. It is deadly. This space that he is polluting is the space of our shared reality.”
Our shared reality. That is what a myth purports to define but instead pollutes, sickens, and destroys when it is this malignant.
I’ll be candid about my own corner of this shared reality. My adopted-word myths admittedly contain fear, loathing, envy, and even aggression toward people who can’t or won’t speak well. Zadie Smith put the matter succinctly in a recent piece on the question of who owns black pain: “Our antipathies are simultaneously a record of our desires, our sublimated wishes, our deepest envies.” Yes, all those dull-witted kids who could catch, throw, and bat better than me, win more votes for student council, and get dates with the cheerleaders—they had things I wanted. Personal myths are defenses as well as weapons. At their worst, they’re a form of lamination keeping our ideas clean and utterly unreactive.
The learning moment then must be when the lamination tears. At some point, we must all hope, that will occur in Trumplandia. Some anomalous freethinkers in his ragtag army of gloating elite-bashers, pricked to attention by the jagged edges of, say, “collusion,” “rapist,” “hacking,” “laundering,” “proliferation,” “denial,” “fraud,” “fact,” “treason” or some other word that miraculously survives the wreckage, will pluck up the courage to admit their real resentments. Only then will the mythical curtain start to rend and make the driveling man behind it visible again.
JONATHAN KALB is Professor of Theater at Hunter College, CUNY. He has published five books on theater and his essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, Salmagundi, and many other publications. His blog, “Something the Dust Said,” can be found at www.jonathankalb.com.
The New York Times chastises me in a headline: “You are making your biscuits wrong.”
Seriously? There’s not enough I’m dealing with, what with everyone’s feelings about the compost bucket and the college-savings situation and the typo in my reading-series poster at work that has an event falling on the equivocal “Tursday”—I have to be scolded by a recipe?
And in the body of a different Times story: “A frittata ought not be considered a vehicle for random bits of leftovers.” Oh, ought it not? Not even last night’s home fries? Fuck you.
I have this written down as a note to myself, these two lines from the food section of the paper, and when my fourteen-year-old daughter Birdy asks me about them, I laugh and say, “They’re so judgmental. It makes me angry!”
And she says gently, confused, “Like a metaphor?”
And I say, truthfully, “I really don’t know.”
In our town library’s online system, when you click the box to push back your book’s due date, a panicky little warning screen pops up: “Are you sure you wish to renew the selected item(s)?” Um, thank you for the abundance of caution, but yes. I am. On the off-chance that the continued borrowing of a book suddenly fills me with sorrow and regret, I will go ahead and return it early. Where’s that screen when you really need it, though?
“Are you sure you wish to have a third beer(s)?”
“Are you sure you wish to pick a fight with your husband because he sighed irritably while lighting the dinner-table candle(s)?”
“Are you sure you wish to pop your pimple(s) with a dirty safety pin?”
Over an enchilada casserole, our seventeen-year-old Ben says, “Remember when we watched that one pregnant pig watch that other pig who was already in labor? How the pig in labor was just, like, shuddering and screaming, and the pregnant pig was just so tragically bug-eyed and afraid? So, yeah. It’s like that. ” He is describing junior year of high school.
Birdy is suddenly furious about a song from Doctor Doolittle. “I’m sorry, but everyone can talk to the animals. That’s really just not that special.” A little later, she says, more curious than peeved, “Everyone’s always so sad when their goldfish dies, but it’s not like anyone’s actually happy they’re alive in the first place.”
In the basement, I spray the terrible armpits of my dirty laundry with stain-remover. It foams on contact with sweat, and all of my shirts bloom into a yeasty froth like there’s anxiety embedded in the fabric, bubbling up to the surface. The spray claims to be “oxygen-based.” What does that mean? It’s made of air?
I remember once when I was pregnant and Michael was using something toxic-smelling to strip furniture inside the house. “What even is ‘denatured alcohol’?” I’d asked, and he’d said, cheerful, “I think it’s just alcohol with the nature taken out!” This was not, in fact true, hence the urgent FUMES! MAYHEM! warning I subsequently read out loud from the can.
Ben muses sleepily, a propos nothing, “Being a sunscreen vendor at a nude beach. Now that’s a busy job!”
My dermatologist, who is not famous for seeming human, gestures at my body to his nurse, who’s taking notes. “Moderate sun damage on the upper chest,” he says to her, and then to me, “That’s from not wearing sunscreen.”
“Ugh,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
And he says, “Oh, don’t be. I don’t care.”
I laugh. “I don’t think not caring is what you want to project. I mean, I’m sure you care.”
And he says, unsmiling, “I really actually don’t.” I raise my eyebrows and wink at the nurse, and she laughs.
In my dream, I’m on the toilet, toilet paper wound anticipatorily around my fist, when I suddenly notice the spectacular sunset, the sky graduating from navy to flame. “Check out the view,” I say, embarrassed, to the crowd of people that’s approaching. As it turns out, I’m taking a dump on an exposed mountaintop.
I go to the dentist with a toothache and he makes me bite on the bitey stick to determine definitively which tooth needs a root canal. It is very Little Shop of Horrors. Bite, bite, bite, PAIN—like a Jack-in-the-box, but one that jumps out and smashes an electrocuting mallet into your jaw. “Can we just, kind of, guess at it?” I say, and the dentist says, “Bite down hard.”
“Oh my god!” the queer Birdy says, waving a catalogue at me. “Finally! There’s a butch American Girl doll!” Then, a minute later, peering at it deflatedly, “False alarm. I think it’s supposed to be an actual boy.”
Someone emails to see if I want to go Bollywood dancing with a big group of women. I really do! I squint and squint at the names of the other people included in the invitation, at the name of the person who sent the email. I wrack my brain. I Google the name of the proposed venue. “I’m sorry,” I write. “I don’t think we know each other. And also, I think you live in Oregon!”
“Wrong person,” she writes back.
Ben, eating grapes, observes, “Eating grapes is just a crazy exercise in relativity. At first you’re picking out the big firm ones. You’d never eat those wrinkly, soft ones! Then you eat the soft ones, but you’d never eat the squashed ones! And then you eat the squashed ones but just not the one squashed one that’s fully moldy. Your past perfect-grape-eating self would never believe how low you’ve sunk.”
Ben asks which two animals I’d pick to accompany me if I were the sole human survivor of a zombie apocalypse. When I say, “A horse, I guess, and a cat,” he laughs and shakes his head pityingly. “I don’t think you’re very familiar with zombie apocalypses.”
I say, “Okay,” after my gynecologist asks how I am, and she frowns, stands up, wraps her arms around me.
“Just okay?” A minute later she says, from beneath my left breast, “Hello! Who’s this little dangly little friend?” It’s a skin tag. “Lose or keep?” she asks, then snips it off when I answer.
“I hadn’t realized this appointment was going to be the best part of my day,” I say truthfully.
The kids explain to me what a Skittles party is: prescription pills mixed up in a bowl, and you dip in, swallow whatever. “We should have a homeopathic Skittles party!” Ben says. “Probiotics, fish oil, Rescue Remedy. Everyone can just placebo themselves into a frenzy.”
“Pew!” we cry, then lean in to inhale more deeply when the cats yawn their stinking yawns.
While I’m putting dinner on the table, my family offers an impromptu but detailed critique of the leftover noodle kugel I’m serving. They’re very cheerful and enthusiastic about it. Michael doesn’t like the cottage cheese! Birdy, much to her own surprise, turns out to dislike pineapple in this context, even though she usually loves it! Ben’s just not a real fan of the eggytexture! They wait politely for me to finish serving them before they eat. I am wearing an actual apron. “Bon appetit, motherfuckers,” I say, and they laugh, dig in.
In my dream, my dead friend Ali is alive after all and calls me from hospice. “You haven’t visited me in ages!” she says, and I say, “Oh my god! I’m so sorry. I thought you were actually… uh. … not receiving visitors.” Her husband dreams that he’s sneaking a cigarette in the backyard and she is suddenly standing in the doorway. “Oh!” he says, hiding the cigarette behind his back. “I didn’t expect to see you!”
“Can we just dream that she’s alive and it’s good?” I ask him, and he says, “I don’t think so.”
Ben, who shares my car, has put gas in the tank. It’s like a valentine. When I see the needle point to “full,” I burst into grateful tears. “You filled my tank!” I cry, when I see him, and he smiles and says simply, “I did.”
CATHERINE NEWMAN is the author of the recently published kids’ books One Mixed-Up Night (a middle-grade novel) and Stitch Camp (a teen craft book she co-wrote with her friend Nicole), as well as the memoirs Catastrophic Happiness and Waiting for Birdy. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family.
I watch her remove the jar of Maxwell House from the top kitchen cabinet. She lets me sniff the stuff inside, the coffee, in the only form I’ll know it for many years. She spoons two helpings into her open dull-green cup, one of a set of six. Except for the colder weeks when they are used for that still rare serving of hot tea, these cups are my grandmother’s exclusive property. When the pan of water is ready, she pours and then stirs in just a bit of sugar. Often her coffee accompanies a buttered and heated slice of yesterday’s pound cake—as if any more butter were needed. More often, the coffee complements her lunch of country vegetables and meat that, when I was a boy, I couldn’t bring myself to try. Not that I try the coffee either; it will be years until, freezing to death at a ball game, I opt for coffee over hot chocolate since there won’t be any hot chocolate on this night at this little league ballpark.
Sometimes your elders are right: coffee does taste bitter. Two sips and I’m done for fifteen more years, until grad school and doctoral pre-lims and the stimulant of champions. My Maxwell House will be “fresh ground” from a can, but my grandmother will have been dead by those same fifteen years. I’ll wonder about the distance between instant and ground, between black and au lait, between us, and our tastes.
It will be another form of coffee, though, that will bring me back to her.
My Carolina Wild Dog, Max, strains at his leash. He’s smelling it now, not the collards I’m slurping but the bacon they’re cooked in. I pull out a meaty morsel and make him sit. We always sat for our supper when I was a boy growing up in Bessemer, Alabama. Unlike me back then, Max has to be asked only once to come to the table. He’ll do anything for bacon and, truly, I understand.
In this moment, coming back from a trip to visit our daughter in Virginia, we’re sitting out front of the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Virginia, in chairs provided for “wanted loiterers.” My wife nourishes herself with creamy tomato dill soup, a grilled cheese on wheat, and Coke. My pinto platter is not only accompanied by homemade chow chow, and those collards (when the waitress asked “With or without bacon?” I looked at her, at Max, at myself and wondered who’s kidding whom?) but also by a triangular wedge of cornbread, which is a little bitter because they clearly don’t use Rumford Baking Powder.
Max hovers between our chairs because it’s raining now. He might look a bit Lab-ish, but he’s no water-lover. I’m sucking my beans and greens down faster than I want because the once-drizzle is picking up now, compromising the integrity of my lunch. These collards are so fine I don’t need the pepper sauce that I ritually use. Soon the rain lets up, and so I sip my Red Rooster coffee in peace.
Old-time mountain music rains down on me from the Floyd Country Store speakers, making me think of those Saturday afternoons of my childhood, watching The Wilburn Brothers or Porter Wagoner on TV with my Nanny. While I don’t own any music like this, don’t even plan to, when I hear it, I know exactly where I am, and I relax.
Inside the store, where along with pintos and collards you can also order roasted root vegetables—rutabagas, turnips—with gluten-free bread or a cup of Brunswick Stew, I note the blue-dyed hair of one server; the punk cut of another. The man handling sales at the other side of the store sees my Alabama Crimson Tide t-shirt and offers that his grandson is a Tide fan, from Decatur.
“They’re a mighty good team,” he says, and I agree. I tell him how much I’ve enjoyed the food, and while he is gracious, I’m definitely not providing him unheard of news.
Originally, I brought us to Floyd for the coffee, and while I was upset initially that today, and any Monday or Tuesday, Red Rooster Roasters is closed, if they hadn’t been, we might not have wandered, lingered, and found a meal that transfixed me, for when I saw the words “Pinto Bean plate,” my fate was sealed. I had found “home.”
Max feels similarly when we reach the beginning of the big woods. He looks like an old “yeller dog,” a retriever of sorts, but as I said, he’s skittish of water. He yearns for mountain paths; when we take him hiking on Caesar’s Head or Paris Mountain back home, he feels a spirit that can’t be explained, only experienced, which he does as fully and heartily as I attacked those collards. He wants a good trail, and other Carolina Wild Dog owners get this. When he gets the look in his eye, all I can say to him is “It’s okay, boy, I understand.”
It’s what he’d say to me if he could when he sees me eating today.
What he doesn’t know, of course, is the memory that this meal evokes: Saturday lunchtime with my grandmother, Ellen Crowe Terry, her stooped back hunched over her plate. Early on, I didn’t understand what that meat is she’s chewing, or why the smell of those greens appeals to her. I had my home-fried cheeseburger in front of me and wondered how anyone could prefer something else, something almost unnamable.
I would have never heard of Red Rooster Coffee or Floyd had it not been for Yo Cup, a side-street coffee house that opened in my college town back in 2013 and closed this past Christmas. Originally, Yo Cup’s owners offered only frozen yogurt with various fruit and candied toppings, coffee drinks, and homemade cupcakes in both vegan and gluten-free varieties.
My college town, or more accurately the town incorporating the college where I’ve been teaching for the past thirty years, is a former mill village, populated by roughly nine thousand people. The mill closed back in the 1980s, and now there’s not much to do or see there. The town square has its Confederate monument; a train line bisects the middle of Broad Street, the town’s main artery; and while there are one or two lunch/meat and three joints and a Cuban cafe, the main food industry is clearly pizza. There is House of Pizza, Dempsey’s Pizza (formerly Pizza Inn), Pizza Hut Express, Little Caesar’s, Papa John’s, and there used to be Tony’s Pizza, but nine thousand people, including the one thousand students at the college, can consume only so much pepperoni and dough.
At the college, I teach courses in Southern Film, Modern Novel, American Literature, and Creative Nonfiction. When I started in the late eighties, I was told that people in the town didn’t exactly cotton to the professionals at the college. Town and gown, truly. At my initial interview on campus, I spied a downtown movie theater, and my first comment to the group interviewing me was my joy at seeing the old movie house.
“Well, they’re tearing it down next week,” my hosts said with attendant irony.
That told me much, but I still thought I was moving to a college town. Actually, after the interview and a couple of half-hearted searches for housing in the town, I didn’t move there, but chose nearby Greenville. That is, my wife suggested Greenville—it was at least a city that might offer her work. The town, she said, scared her. And I know better than to question her fear. Actually, I understood.
The image of any college town, to me, includes certain features: used or independent bookstores; pubs; homey cafes; alternative or vintage clothing stores; and coffee shops. This little town, though, contained none of these. Actually, there was a place called Robert’s Drive-In that had hamburger plates, and after I ate there once, I reported my discovery to my department chair who promptly informed me, again with all due irony, that Robert’s was a former Klan hangout.
How do you not tell new faculty beforehand of racist history?
I found in the end that I could live without hamburger plates, vintage clothes, and used books, but no coffee?
Our faculty lounge had an old Bunn coffee maker left there decades before by a retired dean. Supplied monthly by a new crate of individualized packets of Folgers ground coffee, complete with powdered and decidedly non-dairy creamer, what we had was not even better than nothing. Eventually, I bought my own coffee maker, brought my whole beans and ground them in my office, and stored half and half in the mini-fridge installed in the lounge.
And though I enjoyed my coffee, I felt like a snob. A snob all alone sipping coffee in his windowless office.
The town now has a McDonald’s and a Waffle House. If I lived there, I could see going to WH late for the experience. Students do that, I hear, or they go to the Sonic Drive-In. I don’t know. It all sounds sad and depressing, a far cry from the Jolly Cholly’s, Dari Delite’s, and Kollege Klubs, in Montevallo, Alabama, the college town of my undergrad years.
So when Yo Cup opened and provided several tables, couches, and piped in alternative sounds from the manager’s iPod, I thought, finally, a place to be.
It was almost hip.
They served lattes, shots in the dark, macchiatos, chai, with soy and almond milk alternatives. The chalkboard listing all the drinks, in flowing, colorful script, even contained my favorite, Café Au Lait. In most small coffee houses I have to instruct the servers how to steam one-third milk to two-thirds dark roast. Yo Cup knew its drinks, and all I said was “Café Au Lait,” and voila, a perfect blend. Just the right amount of froth in a clever design. What killed me, though, was the flavor of the coffee itself.
“What kind of coffee is this?” I asked Courtney, the owner.
“It’s Red Rooster, the Funky Chicken blend,” she said. “My husband and I found the roasting house last summer in Floyd, when we went to Floydfest.”
“Yeah, it’s this great mountain music festival every July. You ought to go.”
Over the months of Yo Cup, I sampled a Bourbon Barrel Blend—definitely hints of the South’s favorite whiskey in the brew—the Sumatra and Farmhouse Blend, and the Old Crow Cuppa Joe.
I love the Old Crow, and I understand now, given its name, the resonant reason for why I would.
My grandmother, Ellen Crowe Terry, led anything but the life of a typical southern woman of her age. At some point either she or her father changed the family surname from “Crow” to “Crowe.” Was this putting on airs, an attempt to distance the family from the common bird of nuisance, or from an almost forgotten tribe of Native Americans? If so, it didn’t work for me—I always saw that black bird when I heard her maiden name—even though I hadn’t seen the spelling change until last week in a family tree my daughter’s husband Taylor is filling in. A Crowe is a Crow is a Crowe again.
Ellen’s family came from northern Alabama, on her father’s side at least: Talladega or nearby Anniston depending upon whether you believe Ancestry.com or my mother. Whatever the town, the Crowes were rural folk, farmers, and from this area they eventually moved to Bessemer, a wide-open mining town to the southwest of Birmingham. In Bessemer, Ellen met a phone man, GC Terry who hailed from Cortland, Alabama. The Terrys were rural folk, too, as I know from family stories and from driving through Cortland once. It’s about as big as Floyd, and as my mother warned, almost every business sign I saw proclaimed that this hardware store, this transmission shop, or this used furniture place was run by a Terry. I could have stopped at any one of them. I should have stopped at least at one of them just to see whom I came from, but I didn’t. A girl in another state, a girl I used to love, beckoned.
My grandmother Ellen—I called her “Nanny”—loved to travel. Unlike my mother, Nanny saw Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, searching for and dealing in antiques.
“She especially loved Chicago,” my mother says, though I don’t remember if I ever heard why.
Before I was born and for the first few years after, my Nanny ran antique stores in Bessemer, one I remember on 19th Street, another not too far away on 9th Avenue, the Super Highway. I remember floating through the various rooms of her shops, all lavishly decorated and independent of each other. Who might live here? I wondered. It was like having another house, though, just as I was admonished in the formal living room of our own house, I was not allowed to touch anything in the shop.
Over the years, Nanny procured our family’s dining room set—mahogany table and six matching chairs—as well as my parents’ Queen Anne bedroom suite. My mother’s house still holds these and many other antiques: vases, side tables, and lamps, all from my grandmother’s wheeling-dealing days.
While those signs of her life were always evident, what was often missing from my mother’s younger days was my grandmother herself.
There’s a photo I found recently of my mother and her father at GC’s retirement dinner in Birmingham. He was wearing a double-breasted suit, tie in a Windsor knot. My mother had on an evening dress and looked so glamorous. No older than seventeen, she was her daddy’s escort at this commemorative occasion, because my grandmother was gone, traveling somewhere, finding new-old goods.
I look at the photo and wonder both about what I see and what I can’t.
In her waning years, my Nanny turned her bedroom in the house I grew up in—the house she had been living in since the 1920s—into an artist’s studio. She painted in oils. Still-life of fruit. Old country barns. Flower arrangements. Not really primitive but not polished either. I can see her, perched at the edge of her rocking chair, dabbing into her palette, scattered tubes of oil paint around her, her easel holding the picture of the day, for Nanny finished one picture per day in the summers and winters of the last years of her life. These paintings would lie under her bed, in all corners of her room, piled at her feet. Many were framed; many more stacked on top of each other.
She died in the summer of ’71, and I have no idea what happened to all those works of her mind. My mother kept a few, but the rest? It would be nice to imagine them on the walls of homes near and far, or maybe in one of those roadside antique shops in the country somewhere, near Floyd, where they appreciate the gifts of random and unknown stars.
I wish I had even one of those gifts. I can’t even tell you anymore what one of them looked like, though I can still see the scene of their creation, the spattered paint on the carpet where she worked, near her slippered feet. She always painted in nightgown, robe, and those heel-less slippers. A woman of leisure, herself a subject that no one could ever capture.
For a woman this independent and self-sufficient, even aloof—though she kissed me every night and called me her “darlin’”—you’d think her taste in food would run toward lobster newburg, filet mignon, or baked Alaska. French cuisine befitting one who travelled to large and exotic cities. Not that she wouldn’t eat any of these dishes if served, or the creole pork chops, country captain chicken, and Italian spaghetti—whose recipe my mother got from our second generation Italian neighbors down the street—my mother prepared every night.
But left to her own devices, Nanny preferred simpler fare, rural foods like hominy, baked sweet potatoes, turnip or collard greens, corn muffins, cayenne and Tabasco peppers, and fresh chow chow she’d make herself. Once, she let me try a green cayenne. She cut it open and told me to just put my tongue in its center, where that white meaty layer lurked. I learned quickly that water won’t stifle that sort of heat.
“Try milk,” Nanny advised.
Seemingly more than anything else, though, she loved backbone meat.
When I envision her at our kitchen table, sitting at the end closest to the electric stove, hunched slightly over her plate of country goodness, it’s always a noon winter Saturday. Early on in these memories, my mother might have fixed me a cheeseburger—still to this day the best sandwich I’ve ever had—fried and then with the cheese melted on top in the oven, ketchup and mustard only.
At some point on one of these Saturdays, though, I got up the gumption to try the backbone meat, maybe with some corn or fried okra. It was another cold day, the sun still shining through our multi-paneled breakfast room windows; the bare cherry tree beyond telling me the time of that season.
I discovered then that backbone meat was good, that it was succulent with brown gravy. Then I tried some short ribs, a delicacy now that farm-to-table restaurants in the South charge twenty-five to thirty-five dollars a plate to taste. I haven’t seen backbone meat hit these menus yet, and just last week I asked my mother if you could still buy it anywhere.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I saw some at Publix just the other day.”
“When you come up in a few weeks, we’re gonna have to get some so you can show me how to cook it.”
I’m almost sixty-one years old and still learning life lessons. I can fix the short ribs, braise collards, fry corn, slow-cook pintos and any other dried or fresh bean—olive oil, beef bouillon flakes, salt and/or sugar, and maybe some Cajun spices—fry green tomatoes, and bake numerous varieties of corn bread.
I can make all day meals, and though I try my hand at more sophisticated dishes—boeuf bourguignon, shrimp creole, turkey with oyster dressing, sweet potato casserole, even borsht—I feel proudest when I’ve shucked and cut and creamed my white corn; when I’ve turned slimy okra into salty, slightly-floured fried popcorn; when I’ve brined chicken in salt water and fried it to gluten-free-floured perfection. When my collards, cooked with bacon, melt in your mouth. When my lima beans or lady peas make you want to shout or cry and not worry about the gas to come. When you slice open my cornbread and melt a pat of butter inside and want to stick your face in it, too.
I’d wanted to take this Floyd route many times before, but time and distance held me back. Something kept calling to me, though, and now I see that it wasn’t just a place I had heard about. It was a link to my past. A memory of food and love that I was longing to taste again. And to share.
TERRY BARR is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother, published by Third Lung Press. His work has appeared in Vol 1 Brooklyn, Eclectica, Left Hooks, Wraparound South, The Bitter Southerner, and, of course, Full Grown People. He blogs for The Writing Cooperative at medium.com, and can also be found on terrybarr.com. He eats and lives with Nilly and Max and Morgan in Greenville, SC.
Punch the number sequence on the garage-door keypad with increasing agitation until you get it right. Slide into your supercharged Mini Cooper—red, with white racing stripes—and start it up, engaging “sport” mode so the exhaust backfires when you take your foot off the gas. You like this feature. It makes you feel like a renegade, just as when you drove your first car, a loaner from your father. You were sixteen, and he’d known you for less than a year. He hadn’t a clue about your lead foot when he handed over the keys for a 340-horsepower, four-barrel Dodge Challenger. It was orange, with black racing stripes.
Turn on the radio, harumph at the commercials, and plug in your phone. Scroll through the dozen or so playlists to find one of the only two that you ever play anymore: The Tragically Hip, whose song lyrics have replaced mitochondria in the cells of one out of every three Canadians, or Little India, a band you adore both despite and due to your nephew’s role as bass guitarist.
Crank up the tunes to drown out your next-door neighbor, who near-permanently idles on the front porch to chain smoke and cough a wretched aria that crescendos with him hocking multitudes of loogies over the edge. Sometimes he coughs so hard he vomits, and you almost vomit. Sometimes you want to swear at him, but the menace of the teardrop tattoo on his face keeps your words in check.
Throw the gearshift in reverse. Inch back until you clear the garage; hit the gas and rocket to the driveway’s end. Execute this maneuver by looking over your shoulder, a habit ingrained since your Young Drivers of Canada lessons. It strikes you as ironic that your father paid for the program; it hadn’t struck him as necessary to help with food and rent when you first fled your psychosis-afflicted mother and had nowhere to live. Your sister intervened, negotiating two hundred bucks a month from him so she could move into a bigger apartment and you could have a bed. Once you saw how it worked, you started scheduling your own appointments at his office to plead for what you needed: cash for your senior high school trip; cash to buy a prom dress; cash to see a therapist. He squirmed and flinched and cleared his throat. You took his money.
Hit the brakes hard.
Turn the music down a notch so the neighbors don’t think you’re a tool, though you’ve always loved the adrenaline whammy of operating a moving vehicle while rocking out. You even remember the song that was playing the moment the Dodge Challenger slammed into a lamp post, after your attempt to beat Mike in his silver Honda turned into a fishtail on a corner. Your father was upset that you wrecked his car. You pretended you didn’t care. Physically, you were fine, aside from glass in your hair and a bruise or two. Your cassette tape had a permanent warp at the moment of impact. It was in the middle of Black Cars by Gino Vannelli.
Avoid looking in the rearview mirror. You don’t want to be reminded of the dark circles under your eyes.
Look in the rearview mirror to check for chia seeds between your teeth. Notice the dark circles under your eyes.
Roll back past the perimeter hedge and scout for the sibling set who always seem to be traipsing past your driveway but won’t make eye contact with you. Their mother doesn’t, either. It all started one sweltering day in July, eight years ago. Your husband walked three lots south to their house and asked the patriarch to turn down his music. Its booming bass broke your concentration while you worked on the eulogy for your father’s funeral. Papa was drinking. He swore at your husband for coming onto his property without a shirt on and disrespecting him. Meanwhile, you were trying to write something that was respectful. The anecdotes all originated within the last decade; it had required that much time to cease being merely transactional with your father, for you to pull back on your condemnation of what he wasn’t and allow some acceptance of what he was. Loving is more difficult than driving, you’d discovered. But you were determined to stand in the front of the hall at his service and demonstrate—to his friends, business associates, yourself—that you’d been an attentive enough daughter to speak to his character and accomplishments.
A cursory check for traffic.
Pull out into the street. As you shift from reverse to first, let your car roll before you hit the gas so anyone who’s looking can tell you own a standard, thus putting you in an elevated category of drivers. It’s also vital to impress upon the young man across the street that middle age doesn’t equate to boring and feeble. And yes, you admit, you advance this point with your loud music, too.
Drive off, taking both hands off the steering wheel to fasten your seat belt. The German engineering in your British car makes it so it practically steers itself.
Keep the speedometer under thirty until you turn the corner, otherwise you will be one of the many your husband curses at for speeding on your street.
Head for the highway so you can push the needle on your tachometer past five as you shift into sixth. This is when you need to hang on to the wheel. Right now.
Pull out into the left lane to pass a taupe Toyota, and another taupe Toyota, and an orange Dodge Challenger with black racing stripes. The model was restarted in 2008, a year before your father died. You feel a familiar pang of regret, wishing once again that you’d dropped by a dealership with him and taken the car for a test drive, an homage to how far the two of you had come, outdistancing expectation and obligation. And yet, still not far enough. You would have appreciated the chance to rack up another hundred thousand miles with him before his engine gave out, even knowing the limits of his responsiveness: As much as you itched to bring up the old days—when you were a six-year-old at Christmas and he didn’t show up, and a thirty-three-year old on your birthday and he didn’t show up—if he couldn’t address his failings as a human, neither could you. Emotional limits have an upside, though. In your father’s shortsightedness, he didn’t see your failings.
Sing as you drive. Even if you don’t know all the words, sing. Emulate the vocal stylings of Adele mashed up with Dave Grohl, and scream and thrash your head around and drum on the steering wheel until your conscience is deaf.
LAURA ZERA’s work can be found in Catapult, Quartz, The Washington Post, and other places. She has completed a memoir and is working on a novel set in South Africa. Website: laurazera.com. Twitter: @laurazera.
The writer Janet Burroway once famously said that “in literature, only trouble is interesting,” and it’s become a truism in the world of writing. Well, I recently gave a reading where, afterward, I argued that trouble isn’t the only interesting thing in literature. (Honestly, I don’t even think Janet Burroway meant her quote the way we hear it.) And I guess I sounded like a dangerously well-adjusted person for a minute there, because the moderator followed up by asking me how I have anything to write about if I’m not troubled myself. “Doesn’t all literature come out of being miserable?” he said.
Let’s just get this out of the way:
Bupropion, three 150mg tablets once per day, prescribed for dysthymic disorder—that’s depression—usually taken with my breakfast-time glass of cold water.
Though sometimes it’s a glass of seltzer. Because who doesn’t like bubbles?
When my first collection of short stories came out (Between Camelots), a lot of readers asked me the same question:
“But why is your book so sad?”
And I had answers. (In my experience, when you ask authors about their work, we usually do have answers, but we are pretty much guessing, or offering the provisional as fact, or wishing.) My typical answer was that literature in general and short stories in particular are supposed to be sad. After all, per the Burroway quote again, only trouble is interesting. And short stories are long enough to get their characters into trouble, but not long enough to get them out of trouble again.
(This claim of mine is very obviously not true, of course. I can think of a whole lot of good stories where characters end up getting out of trouble. I can even think of a couple of good stories, off the top of my head, where there isn’t any trouble in the first place.)
And then the person would usually go on to ask me this question:
“But why is your book so sad?”
This is the place where I give you the etymology of the word dysthymia. But I haven’t looked up the etymology of the word dysthymia, so I’m going to make it up. Dys probably comes from the Greek for “not” or “can’t” or “against,” or something like that. And thymia, I’m going to say, comes from the Greek word that means “the understanding that good things, lovely things, are also possible in life.”
One thing I know is that there are two worlds: the real world and the writable world. The real world is the real world, every complicated bit of it. The writable world, on the other hand, is what the writer notices and values and sees as material.
The writable world is only a subset of the real world, of course.
In some cases—in some mental states—it’s a very small subset.
Or maybe Dysthymia comes from a single Greek work that describes something big.
I’m talking about an interior howling, a howling that starts up whenever the world reveals a little flaw or problem. You’re out walking and you see a dent in a car door, an abandoned lot, paint peeling from the side of a house, two people arguing, a stray dress shoe lost along the curb, a flush of shame crossing a person’s face. Anything. The size of the flaw doesn’t matter here. Regardless: Howling inside. A howling wind, rising to the chest, a desperate keening, in the throat, cold in the gut.
Maybe this howling—this one voice, consuming but incomplete—is your whole writable world.
But writers worry:
If I do something about my depression…
If I get a therapist, or (even more) if I take pills…
Will it kill the writing?
This can be a very scary question. For a lot of us, sitting down to write is the only thing that ever managed to quiet the howling. Not completely, and not for very long, but still—some relief there.
What if I lose the writing?
Mental illness is the worst kind of illness, it seems to me, because it’s the only kind that produces excuses and lies to protect itself. When you get the flu or break a leg or have a heart attack, you never think, “Oh I should just work through this on my own.” You never think, “Well, this is just my artistic temperament.” You never think, “But I need this problem, for my work.”
Asthma means “You should do something about this.”
Diabetes means “You should do something about this.”
Cystic Fibrosis means “You should do something about this.”
And Dysthymia means…?
You worry that writing is going to leave you.
In fact, you are so committed to writing that you’re willing to neglect your mental health just in case mental health is a threat to your work.
(Does that sound like a person who’s ever going to stop writing, with or without pills?)
Does all literature come out of being miserable?
I’d like to answer that question with a different question: What about all the literature that never arrived because of being miserable?
What would Virginia Woolf have gone on to write if depression hadn’t killed her at the age of fifty-nine? What would Anne Sexton have written? David Foster Wallace? Sylvia Plath? Ernest Hemingway?
First there were the pills that didn’t work or caused other problems—side-effects and whatnot. It took a little while to find the right ones. But now I’ve been on the right ones for something like nine or ten years.
Life is better. And I don’t just mean that I feel better, though I certainly do. I mean that I look at life and see that it is a more complicated, better thing than I used to believe.
The howling has quieted.
And it turns out I still need to write as much as I used to. Or maybe more.
I mean, it’s been a busy nine or ten years, these years of medication:
In the three-and-a-half decades before the pills, one short story collection—my book Between Camelots—was published.
In the one decade since, three more books of fiction got published—including a new story collection and a first novel this year—plus a poetry chapbook, a full-length book of poetry, and a non-fiction guide to the creative process.
This is not the story of a person who’s lost his writing.
Meanwhile, my writable world has gotten a lot bigger. I still write about the sad things, because sadness is part of the world’s truth, but it’s only part of it, so I also write about the ridiculous things, the electric things, the absurdity, the quiet beauty and the louder beauty of things.
A writer who believes that things are only sad is a writer somewhat out of touch with reality.
It’s as if I had been working for many years in a tiny room, staring at a tiny few things to write about, and now I’m working in a great big room—or, in fact, out in the open world—staring at everything, seeing things I’ve never been able to see before, seeing it all.
This also means seeing things—even stuff I’d already been in the habit of noticing—in their full complexity. It’s a bummer that the car has a dent in it, sure, but it’s still a car; it can still take people places. The house with the paint peeling is still a house; people can take shelter there. The two people argue and the other person’s face flushes because those people care about something.
Now, I’m not saying pills work for everyone. I’m not saying therapy works for everyone. (Though I think there are a lot of folks who would benefit from both.) I’m not even saying that pills and therapy solve everything. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I still need to write is that, when I don’t, I do get a bit sad again. Not as sad as before, but a bit. In other words, writing still supports me. It’s just that now it has help.
What I’m really saying is I no longer believe that only trouble is interesting.
What if your writing had more than one voice? What if it had the whole world to draw on?
After I get done with another morning of writing, I come out of my office and pour myself a glass of water (or seltzer) and start a bagel toasting, and then I open the little prescription bottle.
Bupropion pills are tiny and white and round and smooth. Even taking three at once, even in the same swallow as a B-12 vitamin, they go down very, very easily.
DAVID EBENBACH is the author of seven books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including, most recently, the novel Miss Portland. His work has been awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, the Patricia Bibby Award, and more. Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.
“Can you believe I drive a friggin’ Volvo?” I text one of my oldest friends. We trade shorthand code, the sort developed with those who have seen you through many decades and phases—the well-scrubbed-coed-ordering-amaretto-sours-without-irony phase, the hairy-armpits-and-knockoff-Birkenstocks-with-wool-socks phase, the slaggy-handkerchief-halter-top-and-bumps-in-the-bathroom-with-the-drummer-or-was-it-the-bassist-from-Metallica phase, the can-you-believe-I’m-still-bartending phase, the can-you-believe-I’m-in-rehab-and/or- jail phase, and now this, the can-you-believe-I’m-driving-a-Volvo-and-Googling-perimenopause phase.
“You in a Volvo station wagon is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of,” my friend fires back.
Now in my forties and out of the feigning street cred game, I seem by most external measures happy and stable—rooted even. I have something akin to that common domestic dream which Zorba the Greek lamented in the 1964 film: “wife, children, house, everything, the full catastrophe.” I have a devoted husband, an accountant who is also the town fire chief, a bric-a-brac of teaching and editing gigs that passes for a career, three mature lilac bushes, and 2.2 dogs. (I refuse to call them my “fur children.”) Keith and I joke that our three-year-old boxer, George, whose name is loosely derivative of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, counts as 1.2 dogs, the extra two tenths owing to his extra alpha-dog-bro-ness. This exterior sketch of my life on paper isn’t false, just thin. Anthropologists and other social scientists favor a “thick description” of human behavior, one that renders a fuller picture and which explains not only the behavior itself, but also its larger context. A thick description of my life, for example, might include a study of regional linguistics and attitudes, a family tree of mental illness, a personal history of addiction and trauma, and even what it feels like to be a sexual assault survivor during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, Groper-in-Chief. What I suppose I mean by the thick description is that the human condition is a motherfucker.
Beyond our Fisher Price town with its steepled square and mix of Colonial and Victorian storefronts winds the small river that hugs our country road. Between this river and road, farms nestle—some ramshackle, some picturesque—in the furry, coniferous hills of central Vermont. If you scrub past the rosy patina of Norman Rockwell Americana, you find ordinary America too, or perhaps ’Murrica, as some of my local students like to declare proudly: blue tarps and Gadsen flags, guns, black tar heroin, snowmobiles, high rates of domestic and sexual violence, and other assorted clichés of rural poverty and dis-ease.
Down this road a few miles sits the 1830s farmhouse that Keith and I bought last summer, flanked on one side by hay fields and on the other by the not-so-mighty, but lovely, First Branch of the White River. Because we lived in Arizona when I was a child, and swimming pools were ubiquitous, Mom plunked me in a toddler swim class at two, and I’ve been a water lover ever since. Given a chance to swim, especially in the wildness of an ocean, lake, or river, I will stay submerged for hours—until my skin is pruned. Here, in the town that we now call home of just over a thousand souls, I watch and listen to the river daily from our back deck. If the weather is warm and the river high enough, I head down to the water for a dip or to sit on a giant granite boulder, deposited as glacial moraine during the last ice age, and marvel at my luck. Calling this place, any place, home does a number on my psyche, yet here, I’m making peace with the full catastrophe. Something I can’t yet name washes over me here, or perhaps that something is finally washing away.
Nearly fifteen years ago, and six thousand miles from my apartment in San Francisco where I lived in my twenties, I sat nervously in a cold, stone office in the bowels of the stazione policia, on Via Zara in Florence, Italy. I was twenty-five and on my first trip abroad. The night before, I shared dinner with friends on the Piazza Della Repubblica, fifteen minutes by foot from the police station. The night before, I wore an outfit I bought special for the trip: tight red pedal pushers and a tight red blouse, heeled sandals, and a purple head scarf. We chatted gaily with our waiter, who joined us for Fernet Branca and Prosecco after his shift. He spoke little English, and I little Italian, but in broken Spanish and flirty eye contact, we managed well enough. My friends and I and the waiter walked over the Ponte Vecchio, but at some point while browsing the trinket shops and smoking cigarettes with our arms draped through the stone portholes over the Arno, he and I drifted from the group. At another point, I figured they’d gone back to our hotel, and he offered a “corto trayecto” on his moped. Still drunk and sun-baked from the day, intoxicated by the wafting lilac and street disinfectant, and dizzy from the ridges of terracotta rooflines undulating by, the ride exhilarated me in those first moments. But after twisting down more dusty lanes and bumping over cobblestones and emerging onto a faster, wider boulevard, my giddiness evaporated. I began to feel sick and to spin, adrift from my friends and our hotel and the center of town. He slowed the moped to a stop, hopped it onto a sidewalk in front of an apartment building, and with his strange, sweaty hand, the nice-seeming waiter led me up a flight of steps and into his small apartment.
We got here as soon as we could, my husband and I like to say—both in a literal and metaphorical sense—about our arrival in Vermont, about how we are late bloomers, about how long it’s taken to arrive at some place we might call home. We came to Vermont nine years ago, fleeing Houston, Texas, in a little hatchback packed with everything we owned. We drove past the Texas refineries and Louisiana swamps, then into the lush hills of Mississippi and Alabama, and on through the Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. When we reached the Maryland panhandle, I knew the Mason-Dixon Line was close, and once over that arbitrary boundary, my body flooded with relief, as if I had been safely extracted from behind enemy lines.
I say that we fled because at the time we felt that we had to get out of Texas if we wanted to make it. A few months before I met Keith, I got drunk and crashed my jeep into three other cars at a major city intersection. Miraculously, and despite epic vehicle wreckage, no one was killed, and only one person was hurt. After my initial arrest for drunk driving, I was charged with a felony that carried a five- to ten-year prison sentence, and the ensuing, protracted legal ordeal loomed over everything, including our budding romance. Dating tips don’t cover how to handle the “I’m under felony indictment” conversation on the first date, but Keith stayed, even as life became a two-year blur of court hearings, AA meetings, endless chauffeuring and bus rides, sporadic paychecks from temp agencies that would overlook my circumstances, pre-trial supervision, and finally, a five-day felony trial. I was more fortunate than most who get devoured by the Harris County Criminal Court system, convicted ultimately of a misdemeanor and sentenced to just 121 days in the fearsome Harris County Jail. With good time, I served sixty.
My lawyer’s early admonishment about the Texas criminal justice system proved prophetic: “You might beat the rap, but you won’t beat the ride.” While on the ride, Keith and I talked about “going home” once everything was over. Despite early years out West, I had spent much of my youth in New Hampshire, and on visits to New England Keith became enamored of the beauty, history, and landscape. He grew up in Texas, but as someone who is naturally taciturn, who loves flannel, snow, and early mornings, I suspect he was a New Englander in a past life. While in jail, and with a firm end date and real second chance in hand, we finally began to make plans in earnest. Even though it was considered contraband, I kept a photograph stuck to my bunk with the adhesive strips from a stamp book, so that I could remember what waited for me on the outside. It was a picture of Keith and me, from the trip we made to Vermont for my thirtieth birthday, standing outside in an October snow flurry. Vermont had become our new starting line.
Why did I go with the waiter? This was the tortuous refrain that ran through my mind the morning after, as I sat in the police station. I didn’t speak Italian, but I found a sympathetic translator from the American Consulate who escorted me to the station to help me file a report. Why did I go? I thought, as she mouthed the Italian words for the images that stabbed into my mind as if from a knife. The words sounded cheerful when this nice lady spoke them in Italian, the words for oral sex, for finger penetration, for erect penis, for without consent, for kick-start scooter, for champagne headache, for swarthy waiter, for slim build, for a Calabrian driver’s license, for his email address scrawled on a napkin, for No, for a partial apology in Spanish, for a cigarette afterward, for a walk over the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II, for permission to call my father, for the correct change in liras.
A movie about my twenties would begin happily. A young, quirky Ally Sheedy would star, Sofia Coppola would direct, and most of my boyfriends would be played by John Cusack. These early adult years weren’t without bumbling and angst, but for the most part, I had my act together. I lived in San Francisco, my dream city, where I was on track to complete a master’s program in creative writing. I had my own studio apartment on Russian Hill, a tight group of friends, and steady, lucrative work as a cocktail waitress, which helped me save up for my first European adventure. The itinerary dazzled me—Paris, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Italy, Provence, and finally, Spain—but I never made it past Florence. So, despite the auspicious beginning of my fantasy movie, the film would end unhappily, would tumble perilously thereafter across the screen, in a non-linear montage of depression, substance abuse, and suicide attempts, or what one shrink euphemistically called “gestures.” Not even the best film editor could suture these storylines. The jump cut was too rough.
This twist in my story has only recently, all these years later, begun to rise to a place from which I might access and write about it. It’s the story of, and here’s the problem…my rape? Or, my sexual assault? The first term I associate, technically, with penile-vaginal penetration, and the latter with euphemism. None of what happened feels technical or easily categorized, and neither does it seem deserving of euphemism, a language akin to evasion. See how the words still confound me, how the taxonomy remains fraught? I suspect that when the writer becomes a statistic, the language has to be dealt with as much as the event. Is rape what you want to call it? my father said to me in those early days. Of course, he didn’t mean harm. We don’t learn how to talk about such things in our culture, least of all men, least of all middle-aged fathers whose daughters call from payphones halfway around the world to say, Daddy, I’ve been raped. While I understand his quibbling now as an effort to make the thing somehow lesser or more manageable, or perhaps as an effort to attach language to the nightmare that we all could then live with, those words damaged me.
I felt misunderstood and silenced, as if I couldn’t be trusted to name my own experience. Though legal language varies, RAINN—the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network—defines rape as “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Even though, technically, my experience does fit the definition, the truth is that I remain ambivalent about whether to call what happened to me rape.
Not long after the incident, the translator stopped returning my emails. Over time, I got mail from the Italian court that I couldn’t read. One letter came. Then maybe another. This timeline, too, is fuzzy, mired as these months were in heavy drinking and a growing dalliance with cocaine. When I returned from Italy, I holed up in my boyfriend Mike’s nondescript apartment in the Outer Richmond, which in those years was still a working class neighborhood on the northwestern corner of the peninsula. His apartment was closer to my university and far away from my friends who lived downtown. Its location conscribed a small, anonymous circle of the city in which I could limit my travel and social activity. I felt safe only in the darkness of his apartment and zipped into the anesthesia provided by the drinking. But the safety was an illusion, and the alcohol and drugs provided only temporary relief—if anything, they slickened the slippery in-roads of my mind. Previously closed-off territory opened up, as if in a nightmarish version of Chutes and Ladders, wherein I replayed every slutty thing I’d ever done and every unpleasant encounter.
Long buried before, I suddenly remembered another assault, dredged from the depths of my consciousness like a car hauled from a riverbed, mud-caked and slick with algae. I was seventeen that time, and in my first week of college at Rutgers University in central New Jersey. Late in that first week, a junior from my dorm, a fast-talking, animated guy from Jersey City, took an interest. Now, of course, I know I should have been wary of a guy whose opening line to my roommate and me was, “Youse freshmen?”, but then I was charmed. His accent and swagger were so different from the Boston Irish guys I grew up with, and he was not just some immature high school boy, but a college student—a man. Within minutes he was showing me his Don Mattingly swing impression and inviting my roommate and me to his dorm room for movies later that night. We went, of course, and while my roommate made out with his roommate (another beefy guy from Jersey City) beneath the Under-the-Sea phantasmagoria created by a spinning lava lamp, he made a move on me. We kissed for a minute, but a hunger in his movements frightened me, and before long I demurred, asking him to “slow down.” But he was somewhere else, his eyes glazed and fixed on the wall behind me. In fact, he sped up after I said that, as if further aroused, and then rolled on top of me.
“C’mon, baby,” he grunted, grinding his erection into my thigh. I tried to push him off of me, but he wouldn’t give.
“Please stop,” I said shakily, looking over at my friend who seemed oblivious and tangled up with the roommate. I assumed happily so, but I have wondered since if she had been in trouble too. How could I know what I was seeing, having never been taught what to look for? He pulled my shirt up and took my breasts in his mouth, suckled hard and with his teeth, then cupped my crotch over my jeans, rubbing his thumb hard back and forth against the zipper, which is where I imagine that he imagined my clitoris was. Finally, I managed to wiggle free by shimmying up the bed and wriggling out from between his legs. I hopped off the bed, pulled my shirt down, grabbed my bag and shoes, and clutched them to my chest to hide my breasts, which were still loose from the bra that was now pulled around my shoulders like a sash. I hurried to the door with the man panting after me.
“Don’t leave,” he begged. “I promise I’ll be good. You’re just so sexy, baby.” But once I was in the threshold of the door, he turned off the charm like a switch, and snarled after me down the hallway, “Bitch.” It’s probably important to point out that Rutgers, a state school where most students’ hometowns were no more than two hours away, was desolate on the weekends—an additional factor that made my roommate and me, two rubes from out of state, easy prey. As I rounded the corner to the freshman wing of the dorm I heard him holler the charming words that my roommate and I later turned into a kind of revenge refrain: “You can’t just leave me hanging! You gotta jerk me off or sumtin.”
Mike worked long hours as an options trader, but I remember that one night he came home early with takeout. I couldn’t tell you whether this happened six weeks or six months after the rape, nor whether it was meant as a gesture of kindness or normalcy, or even as a gesture at all, but his early return with dinner was unusual. Without much comment, I took a plate heaped with fried rice and egg rolls and my tumbler of White Russian and plunked down on the floor in front of the television in the living room. I had gained maybe fifteen pounds since the assault, and while I was nowhere near fat, neither was I the lithe ingénue he began dating years before. We were on the outs anyway, so what he said to me then—while not untrue—didn’t penetrate my new armor.
I was fortified by then, had taken up residence in my own sad kingdom. Standing in the doorway, his arms crossed, and with a mix of tenderness and perhaps disgust, he said, “Where is my bright, beautiful girl? I don’t recognize you anymore.”
I smiled wryly, raised my cocktail as in a toasting gesture, and said, “That, my love, is exactly the point.”
I spent less and less time at my own apartment, which now seemed a place belonging to another person and time, a “before” shot from the “before and after” portrait of my own life. Through a bartender friend, I had lucked into the cute, cheap, centrally-located rental. No one I knew paid seven hundred dollars for a studio in the heart of the city, let alone one with a private garden patio that teemed with bougainvillea, lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, and the Purple Chinese Houses that looked like ornate, amethyst bib necklaces. The elderly, housebound woman who lived upstairs had cultivated the garden for decades, but since she could no longer enjoy it, the garden became my private Eden—an idyll rich with a bracing cologne of eucalyptus and herbs. But that was before. After, I preferred exile.
No one seemed to want to talk about the assault anyway, or no one knew what to say, but perhaps that characterization isn’t fair—or even accurate. Memorably, someone did say something—just the right thing, in fact. In a hand-written note on delicate ivory stationary, Jenna, a motorcycle-riding, beer-drinking girlfriend originally from Down East Maine, wrote: “You are the purest little rosebud, just beginning to flower. Please don’t let this stop your petals from opening to the sun. Remember, in the end it is harsh pruning and bull shit that makes the rosebush grow strong.” Perhaps I convinced myself that it was easier for everyone else, when I actually meant that it was easier for me, to forget the whole thing. After all, it happened a continent away, in another language even. The more that time passed the fuzzier and more distant the details became. Occasionally I would pull out the Italian paperwork from a file box. Four documents summarize my sexual assault: a report made by my friends; an initial filing made by me at a mobile police unit; a complete report made to the Florence police; and a notification I received from the court many months later, and which as far as I can make out, gave me twenty days to declare a domicile in Italy. I can read Spanish, and the languages are close, but still the documents are hard to decipher. I thought over the years about getting someone to translate them for me, but again it seemed easier to let it lie, to let the words, and therefore the event, remain a kind of secret or mystery that I kept even from myself. In a sense, then, I answered my father’s rhetorical question about what to call it by default, be deciding not to call it anything, to put the whole thing in an unlabeled box, and bury it on some godforsaken alien continent inside me.
Why did I go? I hate that I still ask myself this. I know this what-if game leads only to self-blame and shame, but I play anyway, because this is what sexual assault victims do. Perhaps I shouldn’t have worn red, shouldn’t have flirted, and shouldn’t have asked where we could get some pot. But actually, it was my girlfriend’s boyfriend who asked, and the waiter who said he had some in his apartment. He said his apartment was just around the corner, and we could ride over there on his moped. He seemed so nice, so harmless. I should never have gone, should have said “no” more forcefully, should have kicked his teeth in—something. But what magical thing would I have done? I play this game, as all victims do, because our culture trains us to blame ourselves. Instead of teaching boys and men not to rape, we teach girls and women the dubious art of avoiding rape, and yet when, inevitably, women are raped, they are abandoned, or worse, they are re-victimized by a legal system that reinforces its own bogus mythology. Every case becomes her word against his, despite empirical research that puts false reports as low as with any other violent crime. After mustering the courage to report these crimes in the first place, victims fight again to convince police, prosecutors, judges and juries, when ultimately, ninety-seven percent of rapists receive no punishment at all (this, according to RAINN). The message is clear: victims must bear their own burdens. We must learn how to survive our own rapes.
Though many of the direct memories of my assault remain sealed in drums and buried like radioactive waste or time capsules under hard-pack, I am still not safe from them. Trauma interacts with memory in complex ways, so memories of certain events—flashes—appear to me as non-linear images and sensory details. I am not unique in this. In an article for Time Magazine on December 9, 2014 on the neurobiology of sexual assault, Drs. James Hopper and David Lisak explain why rape and trauma survivors have fragmented and incomplete memories of their traumas:
Inevitably, at some point during a traumatic experience, fear kicks in. When it does, it is no longer the prefrontal cortex running the show, but the brain’s fear circuitry—especially the amygdala. Once the fear circuitry takes over, it—not the prefrontal cortex— controls where attention goes. It could be the sound of incoming mortars or the cold facial expression of a predatory rapist or the grip of his hand on one’s neck. Or, the fear circuitry can direct attention away from the horrible sensations of sexual assault by focusing attention on otherwise meaningless details. Either way, what gets attention tends to be fragmentary sensations, not the many different elements of the unfolding assault. And what gets attention is what is most likely to get encoded into memory.
Not only are my memories fragmented, but because of the nature of trauma, and despite my best efforts to neutralize them, the memories intrude in on my thoughts without warning. One moment I’m sitting by my river at home, and the next I’m back in Florence, holding my friend Bernadette’s hand, then tap-dancing on cobblestone, eating pasta, on the back of a moped. Suddenly, the man’s fingers are inside me. His tongue inside me. I am crying. His penis is in my mouth; is that right? I am crying in his kitchen, asking for a ride to the hotel. Then I’m back with my friends, outside the hotel, in relative safety under some streetlights. Bernadette and I are having a cigarette, and I am racing to tell her before the man gets back on his moped. As I tell her the story, the man is apologizing, inexplicably, to Bernadette’s boyfriend. Where’s my apology? I want to scream. I am still waiting.
Perhaps because I am just now unearthing my sexual assault, it doesn’t occur to me until all these years later, when my husband points it out, that this game, as I’ve always thought of the obsessive event replay, is a textbook hallmark of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One morning not long after moving into the house, we’re out on our deck, drinking coffee and admiring the view of surrounding mountains, meadows, and the river. The lilacs, which light up with pleasure from the same brain circuitry that alights with fear—the amygdala—are still in bloom, and the river is running high. Listening to the rush of the water, I tell Keith about the compulsion I have to replay the night over and over.
“You know what that is, right?” he asks. I shake my head, even as I guess that I do. “It’s PTSD,” he says.
I do it with the car accident too, another trauma. I’d always assumed because in both instances I was drunk, that the replay was more about getting the narrative straight, trying to fill in certain holes. Is the inability to fill in the holes trauma, alcohol, memory, or all of the above? I run the replays automatically, absently, while drifting off to sleep or walking the dogs or washing the dishes. Each starts as a kind of mental video game, with Player 1 (me) flashing on the screen, and then we’re off. Either we’re running the crash scenario in Houston, or we’re running the moped scenario in Florence, each a sort of gauntlet where I imagine I can get points if I can lock certain features in place. Perhaps I can grab a new street name, a new weapon, or a new clue. Invariably, of course, the features of the game blur. So too with the features of memory, which escape me, bringing me once again upon the giant sinkholes that open up and swallow time, matter, memory, me.
“Lex,” Keith says, waving his hand in front of my face the way we do to inquire if the other person is paying attention. And with that I come to, having been belched from the beast of my past, returning to our morning in progress.
“I don’t know what’s worse,” I say. “The sudden jerks into the past, or the fact that I can never seem to stay in the present.” I try then to settle into my chair, my body, my breath.
“Be where your hands are,” my yoga teacher says. I study my hands, my oversized mug, and the lilacs in the yard, so purple they are almost blue. With their heart-shaped leaves and from the way they cluster into crown-like bunches, they remind me of the swim bonnets worn by the elderly women at my fitness center. But the fragrance is so unique, that it reminds me of nothing but itself.
Oh, and that night in Italy.
High on adrenaline and instinct and a lifelong good sense of direction, the morning after my assault, I led the officers back to the man’s apartment, which was not just around the corner as the man had suggested, but rather, some four-plus back-switching miles from the piazza. Since I had the napkin with his name and email address, the officers matched it with one of the occupants listed in their records. “Ben Fatto!” one of the officers shouted and pumped his fist from the front seat of the little police car.
“It means good job,” the translator said.
“I know,” I said. While still parked in front of the apartment, the officer craned around to face me in the back seat. He began talking intently, passionately, and looking back and forth between the translator and me.
“He says he’s very sorry this happened to you, and this is good evidence, but these things are hard to prosecute,” she said. I nodded and thanked him. He turned forward as if to drive off, but twirled back again, this time addressing mainly the translator. I made out the last word, commune: common. I looked at the translator, and she shook her head.
“C’mon, tell me,” I said.
“There’s no precise equivalent in English,” she sighed. “It doesn’t mean quite the same thing, but he says these things happen. They are common.”
When I packed for my flight just hours later, I flattened the words on the police report in the bottom of my suitcase like a freighted souvenir, underneath the red pants and blouse and stacked heels I wore the night before. I realized then that my panties were gone, probably still in the man’s apartment. Once on the plane and headed back to California, my seatmate asked if I was going home, and I nodded, then faltered. “Well, yes, I live there,” I said, thinking home was not a word I understood anymore, not a place on any map.
The night we closed on our house, Keith and I stood in the back yard at dusk with our hands clasped. We have two dogs, a ten-year-old rescue pit bull mix named Jazzy, and George, the boxer tween we got a year after our first boxer died. As a puppy, George, white- and fawn-colored with a comical black and brown eye patch of fur, was predictably mischievous, but it was Jazzy who—upon visiting the house for the first time that evening—had gotten so excited that she arched over in the entry way and took a massive dump. We were still giggling about it as we stood in our new yard, watching George zoom around the acre in obsessive circles, doing his “racetracks.” The river was high and the lilacs in bloom, and the music from the water and the perfume from the flowers washed over us. “This is ours,” Keith said, squeezing my hand a little harder.
“Yep,” I said, squeezing back.
The common purple lilac, or syringa vulgaris, like those in the loamy northwest corner of our own yard, is a flowering woody plant in the olive family. Olives thrive in temperate Mediterranean climates so unlike the harsh, snowy winters and humid summers of Vermont that it surprises me to learn this. I know it’s greedy and provincial, but I’ve always associated lilacs with New England, which somehow made them mine. After all, the common purple lilac is the New Hampshire state flower, which I was forced to memorize in school, along with the state bird (purple finch), state fruit (pumpkin), state gem (smoky quartz), and state insect (the ladybug). But I do remember lilacs in Italy, whose fragrance stood out to me amid the other Florentine scents—amber, tobacco, lavender, cypress—as a kind of olfactory beacon of home. The family name, syringa, comes from the Greek word syrinx, or hollow tube, which refers to the plant’s shoots and their large piths, while the species name, vulgaris, means common or usual. However ubiquitous lilacs may be, nothing about their loveliness seems common to me.
Later that night, while washing dishes and looking out the kitchen window that overlooks a side yard where the previous owners had a sizeable fenced-in garden, I tell Keith about everything I want to plant. I’m excited, and the list grows absurd: star fruit, melons, Christmas trees, cucumbers, potatoes, peonies, roses, bleeding hearts, corn, lilies, bananas, chips and salsa trees, puppy seeds, and book awards. Keith laughs. I’ve never been a gardener, never planted anything other than pain, but here in my fortieth year, I want to plant something finally that can thrive.
We’ve been in the house six months now, and while unpacking the last of the boxes, I find a package marked “FRAGILE” in Keith’s neat handwriting. I can’t think of anything fragile we own—no valuables or heirlooms—but as I peel back the layers of plastic shopping bag used as wrapping, I see a box, about the size of a shoe box, which I recognize immediately as the urn containing the ashes of our first dog, Jimmy. A ninety-pound boxer, with a heart and personality to match his size, Jimmy came with us from Texas and lived here in Vermont until he was thirteen. Losing him was eased by the wonderful staff of our local vet office, who treated the loss as their own. We opted to have him cremated, and when we went to pick up the ashes, they were stored in a pine box with a handwritten card taped to the lid. The card, which had a raised, lumpy paper heart affixed to it, read, “Plant this in loving memory.” The veterinary technician, who emerged from the back to tell us how sorry she was, explained that the heart adornment contained wildflower seeds and that we could plant it. At the time we lived in an apartment and decided to hang onto the card until we found a place of our own. I show Keith the card and read the instructions out loud: “Remove adornment from card, plant in your garden and wildflowers will blossom year after year.” I ask him if he remembers the garden I was talking about our first night in the house. I hold up the card and touch the little heart adornment and say, “We can start with this.”
ALEXIS PAIGE is the author of Not a Place on Any Map, a collection of flash lyric essays about trauma, and winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Her essay, “The Right to Remain,” was a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, and she’s received three Pushcart Prize nominations. Paige’s work appears in The Rumpus,Hippocampus, The Manifest Station, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com.
It’s a Sunday morning and I’m sitting in a church, in a row very near the back, not far from the door. I like to sit near the back in church services and yoga classes in case I need to make a quick escape. Vulnerability looms larger in these settings, and I’m always nervous someone will decide I’m actually a fraud, and I shouldn’t be allowed to take communion or execute downward-facing dogs. This is irrational, I know.
The church is small and meets in a gym that belongs to a larger church. The doors are swung open to the mid-morning sunlight. A picture of Jesus hangs near the altar. He has a long, narrow nose and a down-turned mouth and he gazes at his flock with stoic indifference.
The priest’s reassuring voice leads us through the Prayers of the People. She prays for the poor and the sick and the imprisoned. “Lord, hear our prayer,” we all chime in at the conclusion of each request.
A shaggy-haired blonde child, about two and a half years old, is seated six rows ahead of me. He turns around. We lock eyes. I smile. His eyes light up. A feeling of validation washes over me. I’m not a mother, and the further I get into my thirties, the more I fear motherhood will elude me indefinitely. And so I’m flooded with relief any time I earn even fleeting approval of children. I take it as proof that I could be a mom, that I’d be a natural.
The child points in my direction. “Mommy!” he says. I look around to see who his mother is. The row is empty except for me. The child ducks under some legs and scurries toward the back of the church, toward me. He shimmies through the metal folding chairs until he is right next to me, wrapping his arms around my legs with an affectionate familiarity. I’m a little unsettled because the kid is a stranger to me. I freeze, waiting for his parents to come whisk him away. No one comes.
We finish the Prayers of the People and I gingerly sit down. He crawls into my lap. He’s pretty at ease around me, so I start to loosen up too. I let my heart melt just a little. His curls brush against my neck as he adjusts his toddler form into a more comfortable position, his head on my shoulder. I look down at the tiny adorable stranger in my arms, completely bewildered, wondering why has he chosen to bestow his affections on me, a strange lady.
“Mommy, do you have any snacks?” Wait. This kid really thinks I’m his mom. I take a mental step back to examine my hold on reality. Potential explanations for what is happening here:
1) I’m suffering from amnesia and don’t remember that I’m a mom.
2) I’ve entered an alternate dimension in which I am, in fact, a mom.
3) I’m hallucinating.
4) Noting my biological clock, God has simply dropped a child out of Heaven for me.
5) The kid is confused.
I assume it’s option #5. Which means I have a choice to make: I can correct him, or I can go with it. If I correct him, I risk him feeling some sort of misplaced maternal rejection, which could be quickly remedied if I just knew which mother to shuttle him toward. But I do not. If I go with it, his sense of alienated disorientation will only increase once he finally realizes I’m actually a stranger, not his mom. Both seem like potential Freudian nightmares.
But I know what I want. I want to go with it. I want to assuage, if even temporarily, the fear that motherhood will elude me indefinitely. I want to quench my maternal thirst. I want to sink deep into the mother-child blond like a sugar fiend taking a spoon to a can of frosting in the middle of the night.
“No snacks,” I whisper.
He sighs deeply and twists his neck around to look at me. “Mommy, can we go home?”
“Not yet,” I say.
The priest is breaking the bread: “The gifts of God for the people of God.” I carry him in my arms up to the altar for communion. No one stops me. I actually feel like a mom. And it’s wonderful.
The child plays with my purse straps while the priest gives the benediction. My heart grows tentative, knowing I won’t be a mom for much longer. My thirty-five minutes is almost up.
A tall man who’s been playing music for the service at the front of the gym approaches me. “Sorry,” he says, “his mom’s home sick today.” He chuckles. “You look a lot like her.” The child looks up as the realization hits him. He bursts into tears. I feel terrible.
“You see! I’m a fraud!” I want to yell. Instead, I give a nice smile and say, “No problem. We had a nice time.”
The reality is that I live in Los Angeles. The reality is that I live alone. The reality is that I have no husband, no children. But I act in TV commercials and so, on occasion, live outside of that reality.
Some commercial producers have decided I don’t look like a single woman in LA at all. In fact, I look like a woman living in suburban Nashville with two kids and a husband, the kind of woman who might spend her vacation days at a place like Dolly Parton’s Tennessee theme park, Dollywood. And since they’re offering money for this down-home interpretation of my likeness, I pack up my bags and head to Nashville to shoot.
In Nashville, I have a blonde son and a redheaded daughter. My husband is burly and bearded and looks nothing like anyone I have ever dated. They give him a snug winter-white sweater to wear, which makes him look like a gruff Bing Crosby. They give me a denim skirt and a button-up blouse with a vaguely Western motif. The director is going for Wes Anderson quirk. The client and ad agency are going more Smoky Mountain-chic. The result lies uncomfortably in between.
In the suburban house where we film, there’s a framed painting of a Confederate soldier and a guitar signed by Alan Jackson. I change in the gun closet.
When the kids are taken to set, my husband and I follow them downstairs to watch. The process is agonizingly slow. The girl doesn’t take direction well. The director is visibly frustrated. My husband leans over and snorts, “This is why W.C. Fields said never to work with children or animals.” We go back upstairs where I manage to fit in two naps on the overstuffed couch.
I keep wondering when they’ll bring all of us together to film the big reveal scene—me, my husband, and my kids. But it never happens. As soon as my husband and I are shuttled on set, our kids are shuttled away. We never film with them at all. But in the edited version of the commercial, the four of us are all in the living room together. The four of us are happy. We look like a real family.
It’s two in the morning and I’m sitting with my boyfriend in my Honda at the foot of his driveway. Technically, he’s not my boyfriend, but he was at one time, and we’ve been attempting over the past few months to see if we couldn’t put things back together. This attempt has been fraught with uncertainty. In the time since we broke up, a jungle of confusion and hurt feelings has grown wild.
I love him anyway.
And tonight, it feels like we’ve come to a clearing in this jungle. We’ve taken our machetes and sliced through heavy, swinging vines of miscommunication. It feels spacious and safe in the clearing. I’m already eyeing trees we can cut down for timber to use for building us a little cabin. This is working. We’re making this work.
He looks away from me, out the passenger side window. “There are still some things we need talk about.” He pauses, somberly. “And I’m nervous to talk about them.” Nervous, why? I don’t ask.
“We’ll get there,” I say, “We’ll talk about everything. It’ll be fine.” I am sure it will be fine.
He turns back toward me: “You’re my family, you know…” His face is soft. “And pretend I’m not saying this,” he turns away again, then looks back, “but remember how I used to say I wanted to have kids with you? I still think about that. I think about having kids with you all the time.”
But I cannot pretend he’s not saying this. A match has been lit in the dark and I feel like I can finally see again. I refuse to snuff it out. This is what I want. Us. A family. I feel high. In the clearing, I can see the cabin built already, smoke coming out of the chimney, a baby laughing inside.
He holds me with an earnestness that I think will break both our bones. “I love you,” he says. “Do you hear me? I love you.”
He gets out of my car and I watch him walk up the driveway. This will be the last time I see him. A week later, without warning or explanation, he will stop returning my phone calls. He will simply pack up his machete, walk away from our little clearing, and disappear into the jungle.
ANNA ANDERSON is a writer in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Bustle, among other publications. You can find her website at annaaanderson.com.
I don’t know who I am without Peter. I’m lost on so many levels without him. He’s been dead as of 12:01 p.m., April 2, 2013. I know I’m a parent, a single parent. I know I’m a woman in love with several men. I know that I’m a widow, a word I have grown to hate. But who am I? Without my best friend and husband, who am I?
In an effort to know myself, I have taken every step to ground myself and seek deep spiritual knowledge. I have mined the wells of my soul and gone to the deepest and most powerful source. Not therapy. I’ve been there, done that. Not rehab. As they say, rehab is for quitters and I am no quitter! I have nursed at the teat of the most omnipotent place in the universe. The internet.
I’ve discovered a whole world of quizzes on the interwebs. I’m excited to delve in. Social media sites are the perfect place to seek knowledge and enlightenment—right? This exploration began as an innocent Facebook quiz several hours after my planned bedtime, and it was a doozie.
“Which Golden Girl are you?” I have always maintained that I was Dorothy and I would punch someone’s heart out if they disagreed. So I already know what the test results will be. The quiz is over and I have answered every question to the best of my ability; the little spinny thing moves in circles and the test is calculating. Beep, boop, beep. The results are in and I don’t even have to look at the screen but I do. “You are Blanche!” “Blanche!” I scream at my phone at one a.m.
OH. MY. GOD. I am Blanche. The description goes on to explain to me the qualities of Blanche, which I already know because I watch The Golden Girls every night as a pacifier to insomnia. Blanche is quick witted, as am I. She excels at one liners (well, not to brag), and she’s driven by a need for attention, which, the test informs me, is why I’m always late. I need attention, of course. Blanche makes every boy fall for her and she has the fearless tenacity to back it up. Yep! I have slept with several men since Peter died. Once again, OH.MY.GOD. That must be why I am so sad losing Peter—I’m obsessed with men and sex. I am a quick witted, fast talking slut that needs attention from men to survive. What a relief! Now I can proceed to the process of grieving as Blanche would grieve. Or should I say the way Blanche did grieve because she is also my neighbor in the “widowhood.”
The next day I walk around in a sleepless haze but confident in the knowledge that I’m a Blanche. My whole world has changed from black and white to color, just as I now imagine how men feel when they meet me. I’m more flirty with my boyfriend. I’m happy to openly acknowledge that I enjoy the company of boys, or as Blanche would call them … men. I need more, now! I need to know more about myself, pronto! Facebook is such a tremendous way to find these life changing quizzes, so forward I go, desperate in my need for more self-awareness. Luckily, I don’t sleep anymore. This is a spectacular life decision for me.
Every woman thinks she’s Carrie and, really, she is the Carrie of her own life. But armed with my new Blanche diagnosis, I fully expect that just like with the Golden Girls quiz, I’ll be wrong and I will indeed be Samantha. Twelve questions and three minutes later, I discover that I’m correct. Samantha it is, she is me. I wonder to myself, “But am I really proud of my sex life and my newfound sexual freedom?” Well I must be. The Facebook quiz says I am. I can’t get enough of this newfound insight.
Back to Facebook, but this time I need in-depth quizzes, something that speaks to my very core. I search for more; I casually ask my best friend if she has seen any fun or interesting quizzes anywhere. Lorie doesn’t skip a beat and casually mentions a few fun quizzes that she’s seen on Buzzfeed. Now we both take quizzes on Facebook and Buzzfeed, and since we can never do anything alone, we ask each other the questions and score each other’s tests. Man! What a blast! Look at me, talking with friends, doing something! I really am Samantha!
I’ve learned so much about myself, and these quizzes are the main reason. I’ve done an amazing job of avoid the impending pain and the sleepless nights that accompany the anniversary of my husband’s death. Screw being horizontal, crying on a therapist couch—I never really laid down anyway.
Maybe this should be my new career, creating quizzes for social media. I could start with “Which Facts of Life girl are you? Blair or Tootie? Do you enjoy motorcycles like Jo?” Then I could move on to more complex quizzes like “Are you and your best friend really secret enemies?” This is genius!
I’ve learned so many things about my newfound single self that I do a quick run-down. I know that my Ennegram personality is a loyalist and I thrive on love and my intuition. Interesting. I learned that if I were to be a yogi, balance is crucial to my well-being. Fascinating. I now also know that I will get remarried at the age of thirty-three. I am currently forty-three. I know that I am a slut that thrives on attention, especially from men, and Claire from The Breakfast Club is my spirit animal, which fits because I have always wanted to fuck Judd Nelson.
My newfound interest in the internet has provided me with the perfect distraction. I get to escape life for a brief time. I get to postpone the devastating heartbreak that accompanies the anniversary of my husband’s death. I get to pretend that I’ve found meaning in my new life without him. What could be better than that?
TANISHA PORATH was born a poor black girl in…well, actually she had a pretty middle class existence in Anchorage, Alaska, where she was born and raised. She studied photography at an art college in Seattle, the name of which, try as she might, she can’t quite remember. Soon after she graduated, she moved to Portland, Oregon, with her husband and started her career as an editorial photographer. Some of her clients have included Willamette Week, The Oregonian, and several other periodicals. She has two roommates that she happens to have given birth to, her daughter, fourteen, and her son, seventeen. She became a widow on April 2, 2013. She became a writer on April 3, 2013.
You can tell by the way his footsteps sound coming down the stairs if he’s having a grumpy morning or not. It’s okay—getting out of a warm bed sucks for you, too. Just don’t talk to each other until you’ve both had your coffee. The stronger the brew, the faster your moods improve. Talking while grumpy is always a bad idea. Kiss goodbye—a good kiss, not one of those ones you give your elderly relatives—when you separate for the day. A pat on the ass would be welcomed, too.
You can tell by the look in your child’s face how much her feelings were actually hurt. You clench your jaw so you don’t call the other kid a bad name. You know the other child’s mother might have done the same. Tomorrow they will be best friends again, and the rhododendrons are starting to bud, and your new kitten is getting so incredibly fluffy, and you plan to make a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting on Saturday. Life always goes on, but your child’s life has been too short for her to know that yet, so you must wrap her in the best furry blanket and cuddle her, until your words and touch permeate her being.
You can tell from the height of the bedside stack that you won’t ever have enough life to read all the books you need to read. There’s a sunny yellow puddle on the floor because you were too engrossed in the Abigail Thomas memoir to remember that you own dogs. Small dirty socks scatter across the floor because your children are real, not model children by any measure but the love they have for you, beyond what you’ve ever imagined receiving. The stately Mount Clean Clothes in your laundry room tells everyone you aren’t a good housekeeper. You smile when writing these words because you don’t care. Your husband is mostly silent when observing the laundry room (or any other room, honestly) so maybe he’s finally accepted that you’re not Marie Kondo or anyone like her. You can tell by your inner serenity in the house chaos that you aren’t willing to waste the life you have remaining on house perfection.
You can tell by your son’s jawline that he will be a man, sooner than can be tolerated, faster than is decent for a mother to have to endure. All you can do is hold him as long as he will allow it, patiently listen to his never-ending stories about things you care nothing about—the bad guys in Minecraft, the desire he has for a pocketknife, the funny thing his friend said which is really not funny at all, the newest Nerf machine guns that shoot foam bullets “ so super fast!” because it’s enough that he cares about them, and walk him to the basement—without complaining—to play video games because he won’t be scared to be alone forever.
You can tell by your daughter’s voice, attitude, face—all of her—that she has more confidence than you had at her age. Fourteen, and when she shrieks in laughter the entire cafeteria can hear and recognize it—no careful tittering for her. Her joy overtakes her and she roars, falls on the floor with its force, her mouth wide as the promise she holds. She stomps up to a boy who insulted her friend—not stopping her stomping until he is pinned to the wall like a fly on a corkboard—and informs him that what he did is not okay with her, and he will be apologizing now, and she claps her hands in front of him for emphasis. She radiates righteous anger. You are thrilled and you are jealous. You hope that she has more of all of it, of everything there is here, because surely no woman ever had as much of life as she deserves.
You can tell by your jeans button that you have gained weight. When you grasp your belly roll in both hands, marveling at its heft, at its rubbery texture, know that goddesses need solidity and heft, something to work with if they want to reign effectively. Just remember, you alone decide if you want to repaint or remodel your dwelling, and you alone can accomplish it. Whether the Venus of Willendorf was a fertility statue, a goddess, or ancient porn, she was made that way for a reason and so are you. Your breasts can and have nourished in more ways than one, and your children fight for your lap because it is cushioned for their needs. Praise yourself for your mightiness, for your strength, for your steadiness in a storm, knowing these things make you a sanctuary.
SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER is a Southern transplant living in Oregon, a spouse, a mother of four children, and an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her essays have been published in Hippocampus, The Bitter Southerner, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. Find her at sbweaver.com or tweet her @sarahbweaver.