About a year ago, I was editing a behavioral psychology book when I came across the following sentences: “Special receptors also provide proprioceptive information, letting us know where our body parts are, and their position in space. This awareness is called proprioception.”
I stopped reading. I stared into space. I don’t have proprioception, I thought.
In fact, had this been a movie, there would have been a dissolve from my face, with its look of slowly dawning realization, to a series of scenes from my life playing themselves out in rapid succession: me constantly banging my legs into the low shelves around our living room, the collective disgusted sigh of a group of girls as I once again completely failed to make any contact with the volleyball coming right at me, my toe breaking as I sped from one room to another and failed to clear the wall entirely, repeated scenes of me stepping out of my car to discover it somehow parked two feet from the curb, me walking through various stores with my arms firmly at my sides, terrified of knocking into anything, certain that I would.
This moment of revelation really was like the proverbial apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head and, considering how often I have misjudged and banged my head, the metaphor is especially apt. I realized that not only have I had this problem my entire life, but I have also been compensating for it my entire life, convincing myself that nothing was out of the ordinary.
Funny enough, I vividly remember reading an essay by Sloane Crosley about ten years ago about her serious problem with spatial awareness. Did I feel even a glimmer of recognition? Not at all. I actually chuckled to myself, wondering how someone could possibly get by with such a poor sense of direction. I prided myself on my (falsely understood) excellent sense of direction. Didn’t I read the part about her getting lost in a large box store and did I not recognize that this happened to me regularly? When I read the words, “To counterbalance my deficiency, my visual memory became stronger,” did I not realize that this is how I’d been managing my whole life? No, I did not. And yet, that essay struck me somehow and stayed with me all these years, perhaps stored away as something I might want to revisit at a later date. I suppose this is what they refer to as denial.
The thing about spatial awareness is that it extends way past your body and out into the world. For example, I cannot tell north from south. If I am walking in Manhattan, I picture myself on the street my dad lived on until I was nearly thirty and then picture which way the street numbers went up and which way they went down, and adjust myself accordingly. I thought this—which I have never admitted before—was totally unremarkable. One afternoon, when I was maybe ten, and before I figured out this trick, I asked my father how to get to Vinnie’s Pizza, a now long-gone but beloved pizza place on the Upper West Side (Amsterdam between 73rd and 74th Street). He told me to head west out of the building and then, after a block, to head north. Much as I tried to explain I didn’t know how to do this, he refused to offer any alternatives. He was of the belief that children learned things by simply doing them. What I learned was never to ask my father for directions again. I headed out of the building, choosing a random direction, making sure to note any visual details that would help me trace my way back. This being New York City, I eventually ended up at a pizza place, but it was definitely not Vinnie’s. As I sat there, eating a highly inferior slice and disgustedly watching a couple of flies hover over the pizzas that had just come out of the oven, I thought, This is probably what I deserve.
Because, in fact, I always realized that I had difficulties, but I had no way to explain them. My mother constantly yelled at me for knocking into things, and I often had bruises on my legs or my hips, but I didn’t actually feel clumsy. It’s just that I wasn’t able to see what was often right in front of me or below me, and I didn’t realize the wall or the coffee table or the glass on the counter was so close.
As for driving, I always assumed I had difficulty with parking because I started driving late; I didn’t have the experience. In fact, the only way I can parallel park is to tell myself to deliberately ignore the warning signs my brain is trying to send out. When I start thinking, Oh my god, the car is too close to the curb! I just keep backing in. But this takes enormous concentration, and when I don’t do it, the car ends up inevitably two feet from the curb. Or some unacceptable distance; I don’t really know for sure. Because this is another aspect of having spatial awareness problems: I can’t judge distances at all. I’ve always accepted this as a fact about myself, but when my older daughter was about eight years old and said something like, “Oh, it was about fifteen feet ahead of me,” I actually asked, “How do you know what fifteen feet in front of you looks like?”
And yet, I managed to live forty-six years without really knowing what was wrong with me, without quite realizing that something was wrong with me. I have always had a remarkable visual memory for things. I can find things in my house by picturing where I last saw them. When I was once accidentally dropped off at my private elementary school on a day the school was mysteriously closed, I managed to walk home just by recognizing the streets I had passed each day in the car and retracing them back home. I had been compensating just fine.
This whole realization happened to coincide with an ordinary visit to the optometrist, in which the optometrist, using an instrument new to that particular office, noticed that I had enlarged optic nerves. This being a sign of glaucoma I was immediately directed to an ophthalmologist, and after a battery of eye tests that culminated in my eyes being held open (not unlike like the famous scene in A Clockwork Orange minus the Ludwig Van) and bright lights shined in them, it was determined that I did indeed have enlarged optic nerves.
But six months later, my enlarged optic nerves were exactly the same, and it was thought that perhaps they were just like this naturally. More (horrible, nauseating) yearly tests would determine this. And then, back for another ordinary visit to the optometrist, I casually mentioned to her my recent realization of the spatial awareness problem I’ve had my whole life, which, I was beginning to realize, involves poor peripheral vision. She was delighted! This was definitely related to my optic nerves! They must have been enlarged for most of (or all of) my life, thus affecting my peripheral vision all this time! It probably had nothing to do with glaucoma at all!
So there it was. I had spent a lifetime struggling with something that wasn’t even my fault, that a simple eye test could have detected years ago, but somehow never did. This realization also brought with it a flurry of memories: panic over having to make split-second decisions of left versus right, panic over a Frisbee coming straight toward me, panic over driving in the dark when I can no longer see the lines that keep me from drifting too far to the left. I felt exhausted just thinking about it.
And yet. There was also a sense of great relief. There was now a medical explanation! My problem was neurological! I’m off the hook for everything!
And yet. There was something about this realization that was sad, too. In all my reading about spatial awareness difficulties, I couldn’t help noticing that there are easy ways to detect the problem (I had every single sign) and that there were ways to improve it (this was never attempted). I’d been dealing with this as best I could all my life, but (and I knew already that the answer was definitely no and that this question needed to be buried with so many other questions from my painful childhood) couldn’t things have been made just a bit easier for me?
A couple of months ago, my sixteen-year-old daughter started driving lessons. Once, after a lesson was over, her driving teacher said to me, oh so casually, “She’s doing really well. She has a really great sense of how much space she takes up. It’s actually something called proprioception.” I smiled. In my head, I translated this into “Your daughter is not you,” something that I didn’t know I needed to hear until I heard it.
When we went driving together, I asked her to bear with me because I was panicking every single second. This was only because, since I have no sense of where exactly the car ends, it appeared to me that she was driving in the shoulder. But she was not. I watched with amazement as she calmly navigated us down country roads (with no dividing lines!) and then on to the highway. This person who was once inside my body, and then basically hung all over my body for many years, now distinctly had a sense of her own space. She was better at this than I was. I was just figuring it out.
REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer and editor living in Chatham, New York. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. You can read more of her writing at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.
It’s been about two years since I decided I wanted to paint a chicken. Maybe three. It’s not the kind of thing I would have put on my calendar to fact-check later.
I was in a small restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Its sign was topped with a huge, pink pig sculpture, but this was no barbecue joint. They did serve pork but with Madeira sauce and mashed rutabagas. They served some items that were good ideas, like jalapeno-cheddar hushpuppies, but also some items that seemed like bad ideas, like chicken and duck liver mousse. It was the kind of place where the wait-staff might indulge you if you asked what farm your quail came from, even if they didn’t know the answer.
The restaurant also served as exhibit space for local artists. Several paintings of chickens caught my eye. They weren’t folk-art chickens. They weren’t realistic renditions. They weren’t exactly whimsical. They were in that chicken sweet spot: colorful, not too silly, but also not taking themselves too seriously.
I don’t understand what makes me respond to certain artwork. Sometimes it seems like my brain is wired in a way to be receptive to a certain artist or musician and when I encounter that art at the right time it fits into my brain like a LEGO snapping into place. Looking at those chickens made me feel happy. Maybe it was as simple as that.
I texted my husband: “I have decided that I will paint chickens.”
Stan texted back something like “hahahaha.”
“I’m serious,” I texted. “I’m going to paint chickens.”
And I was serious. When I got home I reiterated that I planned to paint chickens and he asked a lot of questions. Too many questions. Questions like “Watercolor or acrylic?”
It was difficult for me to answer questions like that because I didn’t know anything about painting, so I couldn’t evaluate the pros and cons of watercolor versus acrylic paint.
He also tried to be helpful in other ways. Whenever he came upon a painting of a chicken (and, in all likelihood he was actually googling “chicken painting” because otherwise why would he even come across chicken paintings?), he’d text me the image and I’d text back “No, not that kind of chicken.”
All I knew was that I wanted to paint chickens like the ones in the paintings in that restaurant in Chapel Hill, but I couldn’t exactly remember what they looked like.
I talked about painting chickens a lot. When Stan, who actually can draw, would mention something he was planning to draw, I’d say “And I’m going to paint chickens.”
Our son was in the final stretch of high school. Sometimes we talked about what our lives would look like after he left for college, how we’d fill our time and find fulfillment.
“That’s when I’ll paint chickens,” I’d say.
I told my friends that I was going to paint chickens. Sometimes it took a minute before they understood that I meant I was going to paint pictures of chickens, not apply paint onto actual chickens. But, to be fair, both activities probably sounded equally improbable.
One thing that I did not do during my two or three years of wanting to paint a chicken was to actually try to paint a chicken.
The main thing stopping me was the fact that I’m not good at art. I have two pictures that I’ve repeatedly drawn since I was a child. One of them is a cartoon chicken. (The other is a frog playing the banjo.) I can draw it now, almost exactly the same way I drew it when I was twelve. And I was afraid that if I painted a chicken, no matter how I envisioned it when I started, it would end up looking like my standard chicken drawing.
This is the way I draw a chicken:
What scared me was failing. As long as I didn’t try to paint a chicken, I had something beautiful that was all mine—a dream of painting a chicken. But if I tried to paint it and hated the result, then not only would I not have a good chicken painting, but I also would no longer have the dream of painting a chicken.
But last week I came across a picture of a rooster on the website of a local painting studio. It was one of those studios where a whole class of people learns to paint the same picture, like maybe a beach, or a cactus, or the Eiffel Tower. I’ve always thought those classes were not teaching real art. Everyone’s paintings looked pretty much the same at the end. Where was the creativity?
On the other hand, this wasn’t a beach or cactus; it was a rooster. And the rooster reminded me a lot of the chickens I had seen years ago at that restaurant. If I could learn basic rooster-painting skills in this class, then I could go on to paint my own chickens or roosters.
I texted my husband that I was going to sign up for a rooster-painting class.
He texted back, “I can try to help you if you want.”
I replied, “Help me paint the chicken? Step by step?”
“There’s no step by step in art!”
“The studio I’m looking at does step-by-step instructions and two hours later you have a rooster.”
I signed up.
I told my friend Sharon that I was finally going to paint a rooster.
She asked, “Would it be too much pressure if I went too?”
I told her that it wouldn’t be too much pressure, but that she should know I wasn’t going there to socialize. I was going there to paint a rooster.
When I got to the studio, a yoga class was finishing up, which seemed like a good use of the space between painting sessions. I learned that the studio sold wine and beer to people who weren’t serious about painting roosters. I also learned that Sharon and I were the only two people in the rooster-painting class. I was happy about that because it meant I’d get a lot of individualized instruction.
Here’s how you paint a rooster:
You start with the background. You use a big brush, and paint Xs to get started. This is not precise work. You can think of it as an icebreaker, just to help get you acquainted with the paint and the canvas. As you go up on the canvas, mix a little white in with the paint to lighten it, and gradually blend it, so the bottom is darker and the top is lighter. You could stop right there, and it might look pretty, depending on what colors you chose, but you wouldn’t have a rooster.
Once you have the background painted, you draw the shape of the rooster with chalk. At this point I realized that I had very little idea of what shape a chicken was, despite having seen many chickens and having a completed painting to use a reference. The instructor said that this didn’t have to be precise either, because we’d just be painting over it, but I had a feeling she was wrong, since the chalk would tell me where to put the paint. I was afraid that if I messed this up I’d end up with my standard chicken drawing. (See above.)
But what helps, I learned, is to not think of the rooster as a rooster at all. Just look at sections of the painting, one at a time. So you draw a curved line here, a triangle there, without really considering how the lines together make a rooster. The lines I drew would result in my rooster being really skinny, but I wouldn’t realize that until later, when I compared my malnourished bird with Sharon’s plump one.
Then maybe you start painting feathers. Not one by one, but feathery areas. You do this by starting with your paintbrush on the canvas and then sort of swooping it really lightly down in the general direction that the feathers should go, and lifting it off the canvas at the end.
This was the most natural thing in the world for me. I had no way to explain to Sharon the art of feather-painting, because you just have to feel it. I could have painted feathers all night.
But other parts of rooster-drawing didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t understand the rooster’s face at all. I found it complicated to parse. None of us, including the instructor, knew what the parts were called, so we called them things like the “the stuff hanging down around the neck” and “the thing on top of the head.” The face is the hardest part of a rooster to paint, and once you’re done it’s best to look at it only from a distance.
When you paint the rooster’s legs, the trick to making them not just look like brown sticks is to paint a little streak of black on the back of the legs and white in the front. I don’t know why that works, but it does.
Roosters’ legs are very thin. After Sharon painted her roosters’ legs I told her I thought they were too thick. The instructor interjected that they were fine, and I got the impression that we weren’t supposed to be giving each other constructive criticism. I also wondered a little bit if my painting was as good as she’d been saying it was.
My rooster’s legs were not too thick, but when I got home I realized that I had forgotten to paint its feet. So the legs just ended in points, and I wished that someone had given me constructive criticism before I took it home.
Overall, though, I liked my rooster. I thought that Sharon’s was better, but I was satisfied with mine, even with its lack of feet. Maybe I’ll add them later. I bought paint and some canvases and I’ve been googling “chicken paintings” to get ideas.
I’m not afraid to paint chickens anymore. I’m not worried about how they’ll come out, because even if one is awful you can just paint another one. I keep thinking of the way it felt to paint those feathers, with such a light touch that they seemed to float off the canvas at the end of the brush stroke. I want that feeling again. And maybe it’s as simple as that.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
I’m fortunate to have a child who shares my aptitude for schoolwork. Before my Yale cohort and I had children, we probably assumed they would all resemble us in that regard. After all, it was our defining characteristic, our common denominator, the reason our disparate selves had been gathered at Yale from across the country and the economic spectrum. But I don’t recall that we thought about children for a nanosecond during our “bright college years” in the mid-seventies, caught up in our studies and each other—not to mention feminism, gay rights, all the rapidly changing social mores and dwindling turmoil of the sixties. Also we expected, as Dylan nasally wished for us from every turntable, that we would stay forever young.
Well, we didn’t, and for most of us, children eventually took center stage in our lives. And in the way of children, they exploded our assumptions and insisted on becoming their own unique selves. By now, three decades later, many are interesting grown-ups, making contributions, passionate about their work, etc., but not all are scholars. I’m guessing from anecdotal evidence that the regular percentage has coped with learning disabilities. But some of us—those who somehow passed down the gene that enabled us to fill in the right circles on the SATs and forgo the dubious thrills of teen social life to stay up late perfecting a proof—open a new chapter in our relationship with Yale: Parent of Prospective Applicant. So we return with the precious offspring in tow and set out on the Admissions Tour. As we revisit the scenes of our youth, compulsively checking for similarities and differences (Did frosh still streak? Was that an actual Women’s Center?), we wonder if the scholarly child would flourish among them as we had. Or had we? Had I?
We all know of alums who center their lifelong identity on their Alma Mater. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, one of those too occupied with family and house and work, work, work to dwell on college memories and youthful folly (the bad boyfriends, the risky behaviors, the squandered time). But on the tour with my son last April, it all came flooding back: I could have navigated blindfolded and backward from Commons to the Sterling Library Periodicals Room, had such a stunt been required. Yet the campus key that I’d illegally preserved as a quasi-religious relic would, in these days of magnetic strips, no longer unlock the quads’ wrought iron gates. I was no longer a native but a visiting ex-pat, anonymous in a mob of photo-snapping tourists and non-alum parents escorting their own high-achieving offspring, who, in the way of teens, were pretending not to know us.
New Haven’s blocks surrounding Yale were all spiffed up. The corner where I remember being pelted with bottles by local youth expressing their sentiments about town-gown relations was now thick with cappuccino bars. But the campus itself seemed unchanged; like the Grand Canyon, the cathedrals of Europe, or The Rolling Stones, it had maintained its aura of timeless magnificence. Here still was the carved, buttressed, and gargoyled no-expense-spared beauty that had long ago promised me, like some shimmering Emerald City, a richer world than the flimsy ranch houses and malls in which I’d spent my childhood. The maze of courtyards, the gargoyles and crenellations, looked genuine, not one of those camp imitations in theme parks and Vegas; one didn’t question what Oxford-and-Cambridge was doing here off I-95. Perhaps that’s because these stately gothic buildings evoked Learning, stood as a solid tribute to an enduring intellectual tradition that bridged the pond. And like Daisy’s voice in Gatsby that sounded like money, their class credentials were solid gold.
However, partway through the tour the skies opened and drenched us, despite the garbage-bag ponchos the Admissions rep passed around, as if enacting a pathetic fallacy of dampened and disposable hopes: So few of those touring would actually “get in.” The residential colleges seemed to turn their spiny, mullioned backs as we trudged the grid of puddled streets to dutifully ogle the next tourist destination—from outside, or at most, the lobby.
Our student guide—more poised and polished in boots and beret than I remember any of us ever being, given our slavish devotion to tees and jeans, which to us warded off Caulfield’s phoniness—kept tossing off astonishing statements: We’re standing over the underground recording studio. If you’d like funding to go count birds in Guatemala, just ask. After your seminar with the former PM of England, you’ll head off to your poetry workshop with the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The buildings might look much the same, but in inner sanctums inaccessible to us hoi polloi, apparently, Yale glittered more than ever. It was the court of the Medici, Versailles under the Sun King, the Manhattan Project, and the Brill Building all in one, an astonishing concentration of talent, resources, and power. The endowment, now a staggering nineteen billion, had mushroomed until it dwarfed the budgets of many countries. All to be expended on an select few, if any, of these ordinary, gawky, blank-faced youths withdrawing into their cell phones. It was unjust. It was obscene. Someone had said callously of the community colleges, of urban high schools, Let them eat cake. But what good to refuse to participate on principle? No sense in making an ineffectual one-person social statement on the back of my fledgling son.
Yale had been rich in my day—but not this rich. Still, even then, Yale with its regal formality had the power to make you feel self-conscious about being ordinary. Somehow a bowl of cornflakes had felt like an insult to the carved beams and proud banners of the magnificent dining hall. How could the mind wander off Plato or Rousseau onto a roommate’s rebuff while you were ensconced in a leather armchair in Sterling Library’s towering cathedral? And of course there was that omnipresent nagging doubt confided in late-night bull sessions: Had the Admissions Office made a mistake? I suspect that insecurity still haunts many of us who have gone on to an unglamorous middle age, who bend double to clean our own bathtub. Have we been worthy of the privilege once heaped upon us? Done enough? We’ve been tattooed on the forehead with a blue Y in invisible ink; it shows only in certain lights. At times it gives us entry into not-so-secret societies of privilege, but at times it’s a mark of difference that we hide, like Harry Potter’s scar, under our forelocks, when we fear accusations of being “elite intellectual snobs” or pointy-headed, Parsel-tongued double agents. Yale’s legacy is a mix of buoying self-confidence and corrosive self-doubt: It’s as if at the end of our lives, instead of having to account for ourselves to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, we’ll face the Dean of Admissions. Did I want Yale’s curious combination of boost and burden for my child?
And what was Yale really like these days? After the tour, when we paused for lunch, Commons, with its lofty ceiling disappearing into shadows illumined by constellations of winking chandeliers, seemed like the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Mounds of food catering to every preference, ethnicity, and allergy appeared as if prepared by invisible house elves. The Hogwarts analogies (as on any Gothic campus) kept accumulating. The place was magically rich. Training the young wizards in the spells that would release power and wealth and happiness. Lumos et Veritas. For wands, they had their smart phones. But there is a Voldemort lurking, and his name is Stress. As I watched the young Hermiones, and doubtless a few Dracos, nourish their corporeal selves, memory supplied a reality check.
A former student of mine, now attending, had emailed that he lives on “coffee-drip life support.” His homework tends to be on the order of, read all of Karl Marx for tomorrow, then War and Peace for the day after. And that’s for just one of his five courses. But how to fit it in? He rushes from tea with The Tiger Mother to a seminar with Gaddis. He churns out articles for the prestigious Yale Daily News, known as “The Shark Tank” and a career pipeline to the New York Times. He added that elsewhere everyone’s very nice, down-to-earth—even if they just bought weed with a celebrity’s namesake or “weekended” with the son of an international playboy…but of course my young friend seldom has time to write at all. Voldemort has him and his cohort fully occupied with training for life on the Dark Side, the high-speed, eighty-hour-week rat race that passes for success.
Was it so different when we were there? The tales of the workload sound familiar—stressful and stimulating in the extreme. I too would have described my friends as down-to-earth, but I felt I’d lucked into an extraordinary sub-group—confident, ethical, funny, accomplished yet unpretentious people—for me, they formed a more enduring and valuable legacy than whatever I absorbed in the lecture halls. (Not that there weren’t pompous pricks around, and, more surprisingly, colorless blobs my parents would have dismissed as “nebbishes,” but these could be circumvented.) During my child’s “application process,” as I compared notes with my friends, I was surprised when one volunteered, “I didn’t take advantage”; another mused, “A smaller school would have helped me personally and professionally”; and, “I should have gone where a professor cared to know my name.”
To the extent it was impersonal like that—is it still? I was bamboozled by the morés of Yale’s predominant upper-class WASPs, whose academic skills, social graces, and stiff upper lips, not to mention sportsmanship and social drinking, had been shaped in private academies with weird secret-lingo names I was apparently supposed to revere but couldn’t pronounce or spell. (Choate?) I still remember my queasy disequilibrium at a reception for incoming students, when I first encountered people with last names for first names, ski-jump noses and lank light hair, smiling fixedly and exchanging banalities around a punchbowl of a yellowish fluid that fumed like Lestoil, but which apparently, unlike the students imbibing it, had a proper name: Tom Collins.
But no one at Yale cared to meet me where I was; no one felt any responsibility for helping a kid like me to adjust, academically or culturally—learn to write an essay, for example, much less eat an artichoke or cross-country-ski. (I would eventually flounder to competence in these vital life skills; by now I bet I could perform them simultaneously.) Yale had an Outward Bound approach, abandoning you in the woods and letting you find your own way, whether or not you’d brought your own internal compass. Maybe that toughens you, teaches self-reliance, but now that I’ve been a teacher for a long time, I’ve come to believe that those charged with adolescents’ development should calibrate the independence dose. I’d like to imagine that Yale’s teaching and advising have evolved in keeping with more nurturing modern values, but again and again, current students, their parents, and college counselors tell me, today’s Yale still works best for students assertive enough to take advantage of it. Otherwise, it can be now as it was for those of us who were unprepared then: overwhelming—and lonely. I recently heard stories of two students who retreated to their rooms for the first year or so, because they just couldn’t figure how to navigate.
Did I want all this for my child? He had the schoolwork gene, yes, but I wouldn’t say drive and initiative were his strong points. Would acceptance at Yale for him be a mixed blessing, a poisoned chalice, the gift of a white elephant, too much of a good thing? Wouldn’t he thrive in a smaller school, where his professors might not be ex-prime ministers but might care to know his name?
The prospective-student tours tout the school and woo applicants to boost the US News and World Report rankings, to earn that coveted acceptance rate of below 7%. One Yale friend’s teen loves to needle his father, You’d never get in now. And it’s probably true for most of my cohort; I’m surprised I “got in” then, and that was before high schools required what for me would have been impossible stunts of physics and calculus, and admissions competition came from round the world. The acceptance rate in my day—not that we were much aware of it, in contrast to today’s applicants—was one in ten, not one in thirteen, and those ten were a much more local crew. Another Yale friend tries to tell people, going there back in our day was normal. You were a smart kid in high school, you got A’s, you applied, you got in. That matches my experience.
You filled out your application in ballpoint pen at the kitchen table. Maybe you doodled through a few questions in an SAT practice booklet—until you got bored and wandered off to watch I Dream of Jeannie or Get Smart. Once there, you studied and you played Frisbee. That contradicts what I wrote above, I know—but both were true. It was a Big Deal—and it wasn’t, not from moment to ordinary moment, and certainly not relative to today. And of course for my father-in-law’s generation of Old Bluesfrom the 1930s, it was entirely different—before the democratization of the student body in my era, you went to a feeder prep school and then—if you weren’t unlucky enough to be Jewish or female, not to mention being labeled, like a paint can, with a color—you went. My father-in-law reports that once there, a lot of studying wasn’t strictly necessary; he enjoyed many a gentlemanly game of dorm-room floor hockey between sailing excursions and cocktails at Mory’s.
On the rare occasions nowadays that I must divulge that long ago I went to Yale, people who are only aware of current admissions standards tend to do a double-take: I don’t look like some combination of Einstein and Bill Clinton. I suspect they conclude I’m like a former child star who has lost her dimples. So how are the current students affected by knowing they are, in this golden moment of their youth, the Chosen, the Select, the less-than-seven-percent solution? Does it make them feel arrogant—or humble? Talented or unworthy? Lucky or intimidated? Does it distort them, like fame did Michael Jackson and Elvis? Do they know how ridiculous it is to measure the worth of a person by high school grades and test scores? How crucial emotional intelligence is—not to mention kindness? And luck?
At first the Admissions Office courts you, plying you with colorful brochures. In the lobby, as you wait for the info session to begin, a dazzling Bollywood-style video plays in an endless loop: happy, beautiful, multiethnic undergrads cavort in unison on a verdant hilltop and harmonize over swelling chords, “And that’s why we cho-o-ose Ya-a-ale!” On tours the guides flaunt the magnolia-hung cloisters, the “cloud-cap’d towers,” of the gorgeous campus. And then the tables turn. They solicit your application so they can reject you. We all know it’s bait-and-switch, seduce-and-abandon. But still, would a rejection of my son from my Alma Mater hurt—or rather, how much? Exacerbate my own lifelong sense of inadequacy over having once, long ago, been invited, for not very evident reasons, to the ball? Even worse, would my son be rejected not for his own credentials, but for mine—because I hadn’t been a “good enough” alum? Hadn’t donated a bell tower or a gym, hadn’t accrued enough accolades that redound to Mother Yale’s glory? That double-edged legacy of security/insecurity, that sick game of ranking self and others, lived on.
Well, rejection was what my son and I expected, given that’s the fate these days of over 93% of the twenty-seven thousand applicants. Of these, Yale accepts two thousand to fill fifteen hundred freshman seats. The odds seem better of going from cardinal to Pope. The Dean of Admissions claims he could fill a second class, and even a third, without a drop in academic “quality.” Although that’s not entirely what it’s all about. You don’t get in just because you are smart. For all the talk of the best and the brightest, the actual selection, for better and worse, as we all know, is controlled by multiple competing factors: athletics, geography, interests, gender, legacies, parental fame, affirmative action: “balancing the class.” Admissions can’t risk ending up with two dozen male bassoonists from North Dakota and no goalie for women’s lacrosse. A friend who is an Ivy professor reports a surprising range of academic ability in her classes, explicable in part by athletes with 550s on their SATS having unseated applicants with scores of 800. I myself interview applicants from among the one-hundred-twenty-five or so hopefuls spawned annually in my small city, of whom maybe one or two are selected. Many of my interviewees impress the hell out of me, having volunteered in senators’ offices, won science prizes, founded Ultimate teams, mastered microeconomics on their own, etc., but Yale doesn’t want to overstock from our outpost, and none of mine has ever made the cut. From them I have a small sense of how impossible the Admissions officers’ task is, making micro-distinctions among these superabundant deserving. Among these meritorious rejected could well be my son.
Fine. But the next step gets complicated. The Admissions Office might or might not choose my bright child to balance out the class in some mysterious way, but should he choose them? Would I even want my son to be tattooed with that blue Y?
Well, of course. Yale is fabulous. Incomparable. If the glass slipper fits, you marry the prince. You don’t look the gift horse in the mouth.
But what if it’s a Trojan horse? What if the prince is a jerk?
Why “choose Yale”? I recall only the Bollywood-style dancers’ conclusion in the chorus but not the supporting detail in the verse. In retrospect, I’m not sure I “chose” it at all; rather, I stumbled into it by dumb luck. My immigrant family had barely heard of it; my suburban public high school, as intellectually barren as the malls surrounding it, offered no college counseling. In a way that seems impossible to imagine now, I was entirely unaware of Yale’s cultural cachet: perhaps I offered Admissions a chance to fill out its ignorance quotient. I picked Yale from the Barron’s catalogue because the SAT scores matched mine, I didn’t need to take a plane, and—this was the clincher—I wouldn’t have to take math. And when I visited, I saw that the campus was pretty. And I was so fed up with being ostracized at school and belittled at home for being a smart girl, that I was pumped to prove that dammit I really was just as smart as boys—so Yale’s newly coed status appealed.
But once admitted, and somehow lasting through to graduation, did I end up reaping benefits from my accidental good fortune? For me as for some of my friends, going to Yale actually held us back professionally. For example, no professor would sponsor my thesis on contemporary women’s poetry, and no campus organization would support my summer research into the effects of The Hyde Amendment. My “women’s interests” put me outside the fold. And when I contacted the famous professor tasked with advising about grad school in English, in a phone call that lasted under a minute, she didn’t feel obligated to find out anything about me, including my name, but just delivered a boilerplate “Don’t.” Well, I tunneled under those roadblocks—found a grad student to supervise my thesis, for example, and had a grand time in grad school anyway—which perhaps was character-building. But it wasn’t optimal— it wasn’t “just ask” or the Old Boys Network or the door-opening letter from a Big Name—wasn’t the one-way ticket to opportunity that a Yale acceptance implies.
Subsequently, has the prestige factor affected my career? “Yale” on the CV has served as a handy shorthand for “smart” and “competent” when needed—maybe when applying to grad school or jobs, or needing acceptance from future in-laws, themselves Ivy grads and skeptical of my “Joisey” background. But it has also been interpreted as meaning “over-qualified” and “snooty.”
Every place I’ve worked—and granted my career had been spent in the un-prestigious, woman-heavy, underpaid lower levels of publishing, academia, and education—my colleagues have gone to a variety of colleges. How well or poorly we do our jobs doesn’t correlate with where we received our diploma. The “Ivy Effect” seems to wear off minutes after graduation—or at least with the subsequent credential of grad school or first job. A savvy friend, however, tells me that if you want to work at Goldman, you must go to Harvard—that certain schools and frats are still feeders for certain firms. So maybe if my son were to undertake a career in such a field, where he went to college might make more of a difference in his work-life than it has in mine. But among his cohort, anybody in the biz knows there aren’t enough chairs in the Ivies for those who on paper deserve them—and that plenty have spilled over into other institutions. Paradoxically, the absurdly competitive admissions rates should make the label mean less and less, since to a certain extent it’s obtained not by merit alone, but by chance.
And yet…you spend formative years with all those bright people, among all that sculpted stone and old leather and leaded glass, with ready access to Old Masters and the Gutenberg Bible; you get fed lines in every speech about how you are a future leader—and without realizing it, you imbibe the brew from the punchbowl—or at least inhale the fumes. A voice you are ashamed of starts whispering poisonous things you want to ignore; on some level you start to believe Yalies really are the smartest. The snobbery has infected you, but you struggle to turn a deaf ear and let the child find his own way.
The Admissions Office’s noncommittal response to his carefully crafted application? Waitlisted. The limbo between the alleged heaven of acceptance and hell of rejection. In which 1001 lost souls are condemned to languish, possibly until the last trump shall sound, in far-off August.
If you’re waitlisted and you want to “get in,” you are supposed to demonstrate your “passion,” your undying yearning for admission. Should he? Should he continue to struggle to find the magic formula, the Open Sesame, that would open the door to the treasure cave? Should I prove I was a loyal alum by walking blindfolded and backwards from Commons to the Periodicals Room, penitently holding my ancient key aloft, since I couldn’t come up with a bell tower? Is this a case of beware-what-of-you-wish-for? On the tour, the windowless Secret Society buildings had looked like tombs. What kind of crazy world even needs Secret Societies? Especially with ghoulish names like Skull and Bones? Should we turn and run screaming?
Yale, I’d wait-list you too; I’m not sure about you, either. Not sure I want to leave my first-born on your temple steps, to be brainwashed into worshipping your narcissistic god.
Given my own experiences, that is. From this great distance, peering back through the thickening fog of years: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was wonderful; it was awful. I felt connected for the first time in my life, at last among fellow geeks, dorks, grinds, and nerds—a whole tribe of my gung-ho people: student council presidents, editors in chief, musical leads, team captains, teachers’ pets, Most Likely to Succeeds.
I also felt miserably alone, as a lower-middle-class Jewish girl in an upper-class WASP and historically-male institution. As an artsy-intellectual dreamer, in a sea of pragmatic, goal-oriented future doctors (forty percent), lawyers (forty percent), and businesspeople (ten percent). I was thrilled, I was entranced; I was anxious and alienated, but in the throes of adolescence, I might have felt that way anywhere. Even if a professor had wanted to know my name, I might not have wanted to tell it; on some days, I might not have been able to summon it up. Even if I’d gone someplace where the professors cared more to teach than profess, where a woman writer or two had been deemed worthy of a place in the English Department intro syllabus.
Elitist, sexist, snobby, cold. On a rainy day like that of our tour, the campus’s stone walls can look like an impregnable fortress, a prison.
On the other hand, when I am with my Yale friends, I feel lit up along all my synapses. How much they love to talk, learn, joke, explore. To extract all possible information out of every conversation, every situation. How much they do, how fully they live. Not that other people don’t, of course—my own non-Yalie husband, for example—but the concentration is high in this particular group. And even in circles beyond them. When I volunteer at the local food bank on the annual Day of Service with teams of Yalies of all ages, the clients benefit from the food, but I’m fed by the talk. While we’re bagging lumpy yams rejected by supermarkets, or stacking sacks of almost-outdated frozen chicken, the talk ranges from local linguistics to firehouse norms to recent biographies to civil liberties to critiques of the flawed food-bank system in which we’re participating. Talk that bespeaks passionate engagement with wide worlds beyond the immediate and personal.
I’d grown up with talk that turned on venting personal grievances, so I’d quickly had to pick up two foreign languages at Yale. I don’t mean the French and Italian I mangled in class: I mean Small Talk and Big Talk. If I’d at first recoiled from punchbowl Small Talk—which I came to understand as the art of revealing nothing while jockeying for dominance—I’d immediately thrilled to Big Talk. I had first basked in Big Talk from the professors, those distant stars shining on their lecture platforms. How I’d thrilled to their precise, informed, wide-ranging eloquence. I took notes as fast as I could, eager to have their brilliant locutions pass through my hand, as if doing so would incorporate even a spark of their energizing fire, their blazing intellectual vitality, into my forming, nebulous self.
But as for what I’d call teaching, there hadn’t been much. It was rather like watching a TED Talk online.
My son’s fortunate facility with schoolwork earned him acceptance at several outstanding liberal arts colleges, where the focus is on teaching undergrads as well as research. I know he could get a fine education and meet wonderful friends at any one of them. We do elite private colleges well in this allegedly meritocratic country; those fantastical, top-heavy, unfair endowments ensure both fabulous resources and financial aid for the fortunate few. From where I sit deep in middle age, it all sounds idyllic: Four years of not having to mow your own lawn or clean your own toilet or even make your own lunch, much less earn your own living. Four years of learning for learning’s sake. Four years of dancing along the Brownian zigzag of your own evolving interests, contemplating big ideas, exploring impractical subjects. Of imagining that the future is bright, that you’ll live forever, that you matter—if being young or some more random catastrophe doesn’t get in the way. (For now I’m averting my eyes from the dark underside—the hook-ups, the frat-party assaults, the beer pong, those toxic side effects of competition and stress, of worries about the future in a warming, overcrowded, debt-ridden, terrorist-haunted planet. On top of dislocation and that state of temporary insanity called youth.)
But despite—or perhaps because of—his mother’s poorly-concealed preference (formed not because of my own irrelevant experience, I keep hoping, but because of who he is) for him to attend one of these smaller, allegedly more nurturing schools, my son has decided not to withdraw from Yale’s waiting list.
“Mom,” he says, “when I visited, I felt like I fit in.” He assures me that he is accustomed from his rigorous prep school to managing a stressful workload and taking initiative. He applied because he was attracted by Yale’s emphasis on service, which my student confirms, writing that “Yale consciously grooms public servants, so that to those whom much is given, much is expected”—which, to whatever extent it’s true, is surely a far better reason than mere prestige, not to mention pretty architecture and the lack of a math requirement. So while we wait, I try to remember that whom you marry, who your children turn out to be, how everybody’s health holds up, how the economy fares, whether history leaves you alone…are all far more important to your happiness, to shaping your life, than your Alma Mater is.
And yet…although I still suspect high-powered Yale would be wrong for my son, despite his assurances and sound reasoning, part of me can’t let go of the idea that if he is lucky enough to get in, he just can’t refuse.
Do graduates of other colleges have this problem—or rather, do they have it this bad? While seeing all the flaws, the occasions on which the emperor has no clothes, can they too still not let go of the brand loyalty, the fatal attraction, the blind patriotism that defies every avowed principle? While it’s hard not to be blinded by Yale’s glitter, I have to wipe the stardust from my eyes. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter so much which of these great schools he attends. It’s really all about match, not prestige—about where he can flourish, where he can most readily locate those nutrients that will help him become himself.
I know that, and yet…
Yale’s a smart place, but it makes you stupid about one thing. The worst of its complex legacy, I realize, is snobbery about itself.
I don’t know if my son will get in, or if he does, what he’ll decide to do. This story ends with a cliffhanger.
JUDITH SANDERS, a writer and former English teacher, lives in Pittsburgh. An update on how it all went down: “In June, my son received a letter from Yale informing him that the incoming class was now full, so his application was no longer being considered. As we discussed this outcome, I mused that it was ironic that he, more academically talented and better prepared than I had been, couldn’t go while I could. ‘Well, Mom,’ he said, ‘different times.’ Wise kid. He’ll be fine.”
You are, of course, supposed to give a fuck about important things like voting and the environment and healthcare and your kids. But the thing, now, is that you’re simultaneously not supposed to give a fuck about lots of other things. Giving fucks takes a lot out of a person. You can’t afford to give them away pell mell or there’s no you left. We get this aspirational message:
Be the person who only gives fucks about the things you give fucks about.
Let your fucks tell the story of who you are.
Choose your fucks wisely.
Don’t be everyfuck.
Basically, adulthood is figuring out which fucks to give.
It’s just not always that simple. I don’t give a fuck about chaperoning school trips, cellulite, celebrities, cars, the wrinkles on my forehead, or people who judge my handbag and shoes. I do not even buy the seeds that would let me plant fucks on those topics. So those things never grow into fucks I might give.
I do have a bag of fuck seeds involving my hair, though. And when you have the seeds, no matter how ambivalently they came into your possession, you find yourself planting them, and then they sprout, and there you are, at harvest time, giving a fuck.
Maybe you have an opinion about whether hair is a worthy thing to give fucks about. Maybe you’re picturing gray hair. Or thin hair. Or too curly, or not curly enough. Or, if you know that I had cancer, you are, perhaps, thinking that women who’ve had chemotherapy can be sensitive about losing their hair. But nah, it’s not any of that. I’m not even talking about head hair. I’m talking about body hair.
Specifically the hair on my left breast.
Fortunately, my husband was down with my hairy breast right away, because mammary depilation was the last thing I could deal with when it sprouted. He is good about hair in general, meaning not that he tolerates the fact that I am a hirsute gal, but rather he digs it, enjoys evidence of my mammal-hood, thinks it’s awesome that I am a beast. He occasionally pets my forearm hair for comfort.
I like that about him. I recommend picking a partner who’s into whatever kind of animal you are.
Let me clarify that he was also cool with my original hairy breast which, back in the day, meant that from time to time one or two stray hairs would appear around the areola, and they were brunette, like me, and since I am really farsighted, I couldn’t see them, so sometimes they didn’t get plucked instantly.
But that kind of hairy breast is nothing. It is the pee-wee T-ball league and I ended up in the World Series.
I say Hairy Breast v.1.0 was “nothing,” but looking back, it totally wasn’t nothing, which is why I plucked those fuckers when I did spot them. For American, white, cis, hetero women, hair that’s not on your head or in a perfectly arched brow or eyelash, is taboo. In my day job, as a lactation consultant, I examine breasts, and unlike the ones in magazines and movies, they come in all shapes and sizes and, yes, hairstyles. I have worked with mothers with more chest hair than my husband has. And yet, once, a colleague stated publicly that seeing one client’s hairy areola made her feel like vomiting, and another colleague agreed. I was floored by this squeamishness—these are otherwise body-positive clinicians. I had never heard any of them criticize any other aspect of a client’s body—yet hair got a big reaction. That’s what a taboo is.
Mammals grow hair. It facilitates thermoregulation; without it, we wouldn’t be able to cope with living in a range of weather conditions. The weather doesn’t affect only our scalp. Hair isn’t gross.
And yet, even writing this, I feel the urge to pluck out references to my own hair, and write, instead, a smooth commentary on American squeamishness that doesn’t portray me as ugly. I change “my” to “the” in the sentence above about stray hairs appearing around the areola. My areola. It’s a challenge not to give a fuck about a hair on your areola. It’s a challenge not to give a fuck that you just told the world about it.
I didn’t need to be taught to rid myself of the hair we consider unbeautiful; the message was part of my culture, something I had memorized before I was even aware of it, like the lyrics to every Eagles song. Did Brooke Shields have hairy legs and pits when she got busy in the Blue Lagoon? No. She took care of that shit on the QT and didn’t make anyone look at it.
My mother got me a razor when I was nine. Other girls were open about shaving their legs. A girl named Jeannie authoritatively set forth the rules: “shaving,” first of all, meant calves and pits. Taking a razor to any other part of your body would cause you to become sown with the darkest, blackest, fastest growing, and embarrassing hair, instantly. Moreover, you were not to shave more than once a day, or the hair would start growing faster, and it would come in thick and black. “Like an ape,” she said. A girl named Amy concurred, intoning that even if you shaved 23 hours and 59 minutes later, it was dangerous. I absorbed this wisdom without question.
Knee hair was not mentioned, though I was dying to know how all the older girls’ knees were smooth.
It was also, by college, acceptable to mention depilation of your “bikini area” (which, then, meant removing hair that encroached out of bathing suit and into thigh crease, but leaving the triangle intact; Brazilian wasn’t a thing yet), but few dared mention the appearance and grooming methods for pesky hairs that grew on the big toe, side burn, or, god forbid, chin. I was forty before friends openly discussed facial hair removal.
Oh, I was aware of who had what. One friend had a blond beard that extended almost to her eye sockets. Another had nipple hair she obviously shaved, based on the thorny way it grew in. This one had butt hair. That one bleached her mustache, and it practically glowed. People were silently giving fucks, but none of it was discussed.
I grew a stripe of hair that marched downwards from my navel, and, boy, did I give a fuck about that. Those mofos needed to be dealt with on the regular; as soon as I shaved them, they were returning. The Stripe showed if my t-shirt rode up. Worse, although I’d heard of “leg wax” and “bikini wax,” who even had hair on their belly? What even was that? And it was not a stray, like I’d occasionally get on nipple or toe, but a parade of coarse hair, marching down to my privates.
I thought about it, first, whenever I thought I might get sexy with someone. When low-rise pants became a thing, my first ten thoughts were, “Will The Stripe show?” Each of these thoughts bloomed full flower, in the field of fucks I was cultivating.
Somewhere in the midst of learning to groom and prune, and to not discuss it, I also learned to be meta and loathe the hair-hating regime because it was misogynist and racist and generally problematic.
Some friends stopped shaving to protest The Patriarchy. They tended to be people whose ancestors came from Scandinavia. I hated hearing female hair described as disgusting, but I was in no-man’s-land: though I quietly admired the audacity of all those exuberant follicles, I was too hirsute to be normy. Yet, for removing hair regularly, I was not a good enough feminist.
I envied blond, smooth friends whose waxes lasted all summer. I envied “statement” hair that amounted to a soulful wisp of curled armpit fronds. One friend got everyone’s attention by outrageously leaving some stray, blond, pubes visible out her bathing suit, causing a collective frisson among every single one of our friends. But you had to be sharing a beach towel with her to see it. My unwaxed pubes would have been visible from the beach parking lot. They are voluminous enough that you could shoot me in the vulva and the bullet would probably bounce off. And it would be cool as fuck if I were a badass who pranced the beach in a red bikini and more upper thigh hair than your husband has, but that would not simply be making a feminist, mammalist statement. It would make my public persona about hair. Leaving it au natch—on my face, on my legs, under my arms—would be choosing to make my life about this issue in spoken and unspoken interactions. In job interviews, at parties, with strangers, at the grocery store, everywhere.
Could I do it? Could I stop giving fucks entirely about this and be the face, literally, of a different kind of beauty and sexuality than western white folks normally see? Could I push people through their discomfort to appreciate that mammals are hairy, and it’s hot?
Is it wrong to choose to pass when you can?
I don’t know.
But I didn’t choose to make my life a statement on this issue. I did the less brave thing: I keep some of the hair, enough to make a tame statement perhaps, but remove lots. In summary, I give fucks about normy body hair rules.
But I stopped being young, and with age comes a phenomenon known as The Law of Conservation of Fucks. This means that when you have a marriage and a career and kids and, as Zorba said, the “full catastrophe” of adult life, many things compete to be the fucks you give, and inevitably some fucks get neglected. I found, in time, that I spent less precious energy tending the hair-fuck-seeds. Hairs grew in unseemly locations and I made them go away, but often I didn’t give a full 100% of a fuck about it. Sometimes I barely gave half a fuck, and this was great progress.
I got breast cancer when I was forty-three.
I needed a mastectomy and learned there were a few ways to do a reconstruction. After much debate, I selected a procedure called the “stacked DIEP flap” where they transplant a fat pad from your belly to make a new boob. It isn’t at all a matter of vacuuming out belly fat and blowing it in upstairs like insulation in the attic; they actually remove a four by ten inch segment of your belly – the skin and, beneath it, the entire pad of fat with blood vessels. Then, using a microscope, they attach the veins and arteries to those in your chest wall and somehow fold it into a breast-ish shape and then sew it all into the place where they removed the breast. It’s a transplant, and the new breast is alive. It doesn’t have the everlasting-perkiness of the more common implant reconstruction, but it’s warm, and has some sensation. And, since it’s jiggly with fat, it looks more like the uncancerous breast to its right, which, at forty-three, did not look anything like a silicone boob job.
A week after the surgery, my sister asked to see the new breast, so I unveiled the thing. It was a thrilling piece of medical technology but not a beaut: swollen, nipple-less, and punctured in multiple places with surgical drains, covered by a four inch circular scar, and what looked like plastic-wrap sealing the wound. Across my abdomen, hip to hip, a twelve inch scar marked where the material had been harvested; my abdomen now stretched so tight it hurt to stand up straight. A new belly button had been “made,” higher than the original one.
My sister exclaimed at the talent of the surgeon and the miracle of modern surgery. They can make a belly button. They can make a breast. Shit is impressive.
Then she leaned in. “Um?” She said, tentatively, examining the new breast, “I think that’s some hair growing on it!”
I squinted down but even with glasses, my own breast is too close for my farsighted eye to see. I took a selfie. A breast-selfie. A brelfie.
I enlarged the photo and saw what she could see with her naked eye: a few short, wispy, black hairs, beginning to form a line across the breast.
The Stripe was coming back. Transplanted to my boob.
Welcome to Hairy Breast v.2.0.
How had I not realized this would happen? I knew where the new breast material was coming from. I had shaved my legs and The Stripe the morning of the surgery. I simply hadn’t thought about it.
Additionally, the surgeon must have sewn the belly flap on sideways. The Stripe now pointed east to west. A path to paradise, destination: armpit.
“Fuck,” I said.
My sister pointed out that this was an excellent sign that the transplant was successful. If my body was growing hair, the new breast was truly alive.
What an excellent, supportive, scientific comment.
“Fuck,” I said again.
Because no matter how far you’ve come, a hair stripe across a boob is fucking Miracle-Gro for your unnecessary fuck-seed garden.
A month passed and the hair grew in, lush and dark and strong, just like before.
A hair stripe. Across my nipple-less boob. On top of cancer.
And I look terrible in horizontal stripes.
I spent that summer and fall in chemotherapy, a particularly toxic cocktail that causes total body hair loss. I was told I’d be bare as a naked mole rat in twenty-one days. I became an artist of eyebrows. I learned to apply makeup to resemble eyelashes. My pubes dwindled until they looked like the remnant whiskers of a nonagenarian hermit. My lusciously hairy arms were almost bald. I had to remind myself that they were mine.
But not even Red Devil Chemo could defeat Hairy McBoob. The Stripe stayed in place, right across my new breast, through sixteen weeks of chemotherapy. And every single doctor and nurse who examined me commented on it, in case I needed reminders that it’s weird to have what looks like pubes growing in a line across your tata.
Cancer treatment is a bitch. After they cut you apart and sew you together, they poison you for months and you’re still not even done: after chemo I needed radiation. Every day for six weeks I lay down in a giant machine that shot x-rays at my tit and pit to kill any remaining cancer that wasn’t sliced off or poisoned to death. It’s a drag. Fortunately, The Stripe pointed directly at the armpit that had housed the cancerous lymph nodes. I am sure that was very helpful for the radiation oncologist.
The irradiated area develops what looks like a big sunburn, and every hair follicle became red and inflamed, even the ones that didn’t have hair growing. It had been a long year. In place of a lovable and beloved breast, I now had a sunburned, red-polka-dotted, hairy, nipple-less orb.
Cancer treatment fucks with your mind and your body. It makes you ask big questions about life and death, but also the ones about who you are. I’ve been crazy healthy all my life. Was I still me if I was sick? Without a left breast? With chronic arm pain from the surgery? I had always arranged my schedule around exercise but now I could no longer even manage yoga. I was sometimes so mentally foggy that even the adrenaline of working couldn’t keep me focused. Was I still me without even my mind?
What, at base, made me ‘me’? Who was this person with scars and no eyebrows, with bare arms and wispy pubes, with a numb, red, polka-dotted, nipple-less boob and no functional memory?
Weeks passed. I barely thought of normal life. I was often asleep right after dinner. Possibilities receded. I was only the basic shape of me, drained of hue.
And somewhere in there, in the colorless trudge through cancer treatment, day after day of being blitzed by radiation, I found I just didn’t care about The Stripe. I didn’t feel proud of it; I didn’t feel like hiding it. I thought only about finishing my motherfucking radiation and being with my family, and I just didn’t give a single fuck about anything else.
My unnecessary fuck seeds were irradiated into oblivion.
Months passed. Many of the months were terrible. After the primary cancer treatment ended, I was overwhelmed with awareness that what I’d been through had been really hard. Once I held a head of broccoli in the grocery store and thought, “I let them take my breast,” and the truth was so potent and so horrifying that I couldn’t move, and stood, immobile, for several minutes. There were days I cried until I started vomiting.
Eventually, I began to come back to myself. The sunburn subsided. One day, in early spring, I noticed that the hair on my breast was gone. (I confirmed with multiple brelfies.) I don’t know when it happened. The follicles, it seems, were destroyed by the radiation. Even now, long after the rest of my body re-sprouted, the new breast remains as smooth as a cue ball.
I don’t want The Stripe back. But I give a fuck that it’s gone.
MEREDITH FEIN LICHTENBERG lives in New York City where she is a prenatal and parenting educator and a board-certified lactation consultant. Her writing has appeared in Full Grown People’s first anthology, as well as The Washington Post, Brain, Child, Kveller, Paste, and elsewhere, and she can be found online at www.amotherisborn.com.
It was a sick joke between me and my two closest friends.
“I know you’re busy, so you don’t have to call. Wouldn’t want you to feel obligated.”
“I know you have a ton of stuff going on, so don’t feel obligated to come to my kid’s recital.”
“Don’t feel obligated to attend my birthday party.”
“I just broke up with my boyfriend, but don’t feel you have to check on me.”
I don’t remember how the joke started. Somewhere in our college years, but it always made me vaguely uncomfortable. They were my best friends. Weren’t we supposed to go out of our way, not out of obligation, but out of love? Every time Fran or Karen cracked that joke, I wondered if that was their way of asking for space. It was no secret that I could be intense. I loved them fiercely—and wasn’t afraid to show it, which could be unnerving to most folks. My desire for sisterhood was borne out of having no close girlfriends in high school. It was from years of growing up with an older sister whom I yearned to emulate and befriend but learned to outshine when I realized how much she resented my existence.
So when teased about obligation, I held back. I was not the first one to arrive at the party. I did not call after a break-up. When Karen’s mom was diagnosed with cancer, I waited. But I may have waited too long.
When someone tells you to leave her alone, you comply. Especially when that person’s mother is dying, something no one has said explicitly, but it is strongly implied. Despite your instincts or concerns, you stay away. It would seem cruel otherwise.
But if you joke about obligation, it could mean the opposite; it could be a cry for attention. Or it could mean what it implies: you are welcome to come, but not too early, and don’t stay to clean up. With Karen, I could never be too sure which way she was leaning on any particular day.
Fran and I got her mother’s initial cancer diagnosis—and subsequent update—from Karen over text. It became her preferred method of communication, which was understandable. She could cry while typing. She could sit by her mother’s sleeping side and send updates. She could be as terse or verbose as she needed or wanted. Luckily she had upped her data plan before her mom’s diagnosis. I was always very careful with the amount I texted her, the memory of the time she chided me about my multiple texts, explaining her data plan could not support me. I felt as if my mom had slapped my hand but only after offering me cookies from the cookie jar.
Of course I wanted to call Karen. I wanted to call every day, but I didn’t. I held back. I checked in with Fran instead. “Have you heard from Karen?” She had not.
Instead I stalked Karen on Facebook and Instagram. She infrequently posted about her parents, given her natural private tendencies. Out of the three of us, Karen was the least dramatic, the most pragmatic, and the least likely to overshare—or even share. When she first started to date her now-husband, she casually informed us that she would share all her problems with him, not us, thank you very much. She made it clear that it was her and him, no longer her and us.
Her posts showed an otherwise happy family, daughters in swim meets, plays, concerts, horseback riding—and trips with other families, two in particular. That gutted me in a way that made me feel nineteen years old again. After years of living on opposite coasts, I finally found myself in the same state as two of my best friends. And one of them had dying mom and asked for space, yet seemed to be hanging out with everyone but me.
The three of us have seen each other through every major milestone in our adult lives. We hung out in Karen’s new condo the night before her wedding. We were bridesmaids for each other. They called me from their hospital beds after the birth of their first children, often waking me up in the dead of night. Karen was the second person I called (after my husband) when I unexpectedly went into labor. She drove straight to the hospital and stayed with me for hours until my husband could fly home. It was the most amazing thing anyone has ever done for me. I had always doubted her love for me throughout the years, but after that, to doubt would have been offensive. And when I returned home with my new bundle and a huge case of post-partum depression, she and Fran were waiting for me with food. They washed my dishes, folded my laundry, and helped me through my fog.
When I moved back East, I had fantasies of hanging out every weekend with my friends, becoming an aunt to their children and watching their kids become best friends with mine. Only part of that came true.
We managed to establish little traditions such as annual apple picking and group dinners and the like. As the kids grew older, we became busier. My children became invested in their school activities and I became head of the PTA. Still, we were never as busy as Karen seemed to be. Maybe it was because her children were older. Maybe it was because she was keeping up with the Jones, the Smiths, and the Reynolds. Whatever the reason, every query to meeting up was met with hesitation, a glance at the calendar, and then a litany of what they already had planned with other families. Sometimes we would get a “no” only to see that the week after, they had gone somewhere with someone else.
It was hard not to be jealous, especially when it seemed to be the same families. I found myself justifying the actions, but at some point, Fran plainly stated, “They don’t make time for us. It is just the way their life is.” Unlike me, Fran is accepting, calm, and Zen. Or maybe she already figured out what Karen needed and was waiting for me to get on board.
Instead I went on the defensive. I stopped making Karen and her family a priority, giving their time slot to new families in our community. I stopped asking if Karen wanted to join whenever we saw Fran’s family. It was easier to assume she was busy than to hear once again how she could not fit us into her schedule.
Her mom received a bone marrow transplant. She seemed to get better. Then she got worse. Then she did not leave the hospital at all.
The end came a little over two years later. I had received scant details: little bits I could glean from the occasional conversation. Maybe she thought she had told me. Maybe she did. I felt intrusive even asking how her mom was doing. Sometimes we had whole conversations about everything but her mom.
A couple of weeks into the new year I received a text from Karen’s husband, Sam. He said Karen had been by her mom’s side continuously; her brothers were flying in. The end was near. I waited by the phone for days. They said it would probably happen on Monday. Nothing. Tuesday passed. On Wednesday I texted Sam, not wanting to bother Karen. When I finally heard from Sam, her mom was gone. The funeral would be early next week.
My husband was out of town, and my sitter offered to stay late. I drove north to meet up with Fran and her husband Josh. I didn’t have to ask; Fran automatically waited for me in the parking lot to walk in together.
Karen and her brothers were standing by a white casket in the front with their father. I hadn’t seen them since her wedding almost fifteen years ago. I reintroduced myself, but they remembered me. Or if they didn’t, they faked it really well.
Karen smiled through her tears. She had curled her long hair and wore a very flattering dress that I learned later was on loan from a neighbor, who had marched into her house, like the Today Show ambush makeover with stack of garment bags. I had assumed Karen had the ubiquitous little black dress to wear with the standard black cardigan. I was startled to learn that she did not—and uncomfortable that I was learning about it so late in the game. We used to swap shoes and clothes all of the time in college. Karen’s friend Jane made some comment about how she wanted to bring dresses over, but her dresses would’ve been too large since she was so much taller than Karen, yet she should’ve known Karen needed a dress because she had been in Karen’s closet so much over the years, blah blah. Jane looked at me as she said this. I wanted to punch her in the mouth.
Josh and I hung out with Karen’s sisters-in-law and their children and Karen’s daughters in the back room. We made jokes, helped one of the girls find a lost earring, both of us uncomfortable with not knowing what to say or do. Probably more me than him, since Josh lost his own father ten years prior.
There was no eulogy, per Karen’s mom’s wishes. Just well-wishers gathered to pay respects to the family. The family invited everyone across the street for a Korean style wake. They had reserved several tables: older generation on one side, younger on the other. I sat with Fran and Josh with Sam’s friends and their wives, whom had become close to Karen; the group included Jane and their friend Mel. We had all known each other in some capacity since college. I love Korean food, so this was a treat, but today it felt wrong. I noticed both Sam and Karen picked at their food, glancing every so often at their daughters eating with their cousins at the next table. In comparison, Karen’s dad ate and drank, the onset of loneliness not fully felt until everyone left town a few days later.
It was Jane who reminded me of how much space I had given Karen—and that maybe I had given too much. Jane had known Karen almost as long as I have. They met the summer between our freshman and sophomore year of college at a Korean American program in Seoul and stayed in touch even though Jane was in Indiana and we were in Pennsylvania. It was during a time when Karen and I were on one of our “outs.”
As a result, there seemed to be an unspoken competition between Jane and me. I saw Jane an interloper, always trying to be closest to Karen, jealous of the bond Fran, Karen, and I shared—and making sure I knew it. In hindsight, we were both insecure, but at the time, she was annoying. I remember especially during Karen’s wedding, there was a showdown of sorts among the bridesmaids. Out of the five of us, only Jane had attended a different college. Jane, who had been chosen as the maid of honor because anything else was Sophie’s Choice, was in charge of the bridal shower. But two weeks prior, we still had yet to hear from her. As it turned out, Jane was on vacation and had arranged for a friend of hers to contact us, including soliciting money for a shower that we were sure had not been planned yet. Naturally the rest of us leapt into planning mode, and it resulted in many hurt feelings; Jane went on the defensive, and we wondered why she just didn’t tell us about her plans and ask us to help. In the end, we all agreed to keep this from Karen, least the poor bride become more stressed. We college pals did not want Karen to feel badly that her besties were fighting, but Jane told her everything the minute Karen returned from her honeymoon. Jane explained she wanted to be transparent. I said she wanted to cover her ass.
I always suspected Jane wanted to fit in, desperately. She dated two of Karen’s good friends and later went on to marry one of Sam’s best friends. There was always an unspoken competition between the two of us: who knew Karen better. At Karen’s mom’s funeral, she was winning. And she let me know it. After all, she was not the one who gave Karen so much space that I was practically shouting over the chasm.
Karen’s recollections started small. Soon they increased in page count, emotion and frequency. They became missives with an agency of their own. I had reminded her of the memoir type narrative she had sent me two months after her first daughter was born. She had been in the throes of post-partum depression, something I hadn’t realized when I was childless and living in California at the time. A couple of weeks after her mother was laid to rest, I sent Karen what she had written. She obviously remembered the events, but not writing it—or even sending it to me.
Each of her emails carried the weight of grief mixed with the pressure of moving forward and holding her remaining family together. She didn’t want me to respond, just wanted to send it out there, she said. It was another variation of “don’t feel obligated.” I tried to say something each time my mailbox filled up, a penny for her thoughts, a wish for peace, but I knew she wouldn’t want something long. So I kept it short. In some cases, I said nothing at all.
The most recent missive chronicled her mother’s last days. I couldn’t read it—at first. I started to, but by then I had moved back to Seattle, a place that had unhappy memories, and I was mourning the wonderful life I had smashed in order to chase some dream of extended family that probably would never come to fruition. I couldn’t handle any more sadness. Seeing my sons’ faces filled with disappointment and longing was already too much.
When I finally made myself read Karen’s most recent email, I knew it would be the last of its kind. It was not only the last of her mother, but Karen’s way of purging those feelings to make room for her father’s growing complexities. Perhaps that is why I resisted reading it. Or maybe I was just being a bad friend. I told myself this was space. I was giving her space. Or maybe I was withholding to punish her for pushing me away. When I finally read it, it was raw, but very detailed. Calm, a little haphazard, but very Karen. It was straightforward, chronically. I read it and felt ashamed. Sorry that I still had a mother and Karen did not. Ashamed that I was not there for her. Angry that others were there instead. Bitter that they knew what was going on and I did not because I had been asked to give her space. Did others not give her space? Or maybe she only wanted space from me?
Grief is a funny thing, but one can say that about friendships as well, especially the long, old kind that never forgets, always forgives, and is ever-changing. I don’t know the depths of Karen’s grief; there is no way for me to know. I understand there is a mother-shaped hole in her being, a devastation that she will never recover from. She will instead find a way to live with it, alongside it, accept it as a part of her new life.
There are other things she is accepting too, some better than others. Some welcome, most often not. When I sat down with Karen at a diner somewhere between our homes on a rainy summer day, two weeks before I left for Seattle, I wanted to ask her about us. But only an asshole would be so petty to bother a grieving person. Yet, here I was about to embark on my own journey of grief, mourning the happy life I had created that I was about to leave behind.
Strangely enough Karen had a story about three neighborhood friends who had been close, but were now feuding. Choosing one over the other, friends who had been together for thirty years. They sounded very much like us. In the parking lot, I asked tearfully if she thought that applied to us.
“Are you worried that will happen?” she asked incredulously. I don’t know why she was surprised. She knows me well enough that I would worry about this. She hugged me. “No! That’s not going to happen.”
You could say we’ve been friends for too long. You could throw every cliché in the book at us and say it applies. But it’s true. We have been friends too long for this, but space is also the nature of old friends.
What does one say when one reads her friend’s broken heart on the page? I couldn’t ask Karen out for coffee. I couldn’t help her choose flowers to plant on her mother’s grave. I couldn’t bring her a casserole. I was already—physically—so far away.
I had asked Karen to be my oldest son’s godmother, a position she gladly accepted. After we moved to Seattle, she flew out for a whirlwind weekend to participate in the ceremony. It was rainy, but that did little to dampen our spirits. The baptism ceremony was lovely, and the dinner after was lively. Karen and I stayed up late at night to talk and talk and talk. Drink tea and talk. It was then I had my friendship epiphany.
Apparently I wasn’t the only person who felt Karen had abandoned them. Jane and their friend Mel had felt slighted over pretty silly reasons. Karen had missed a few of their outings and they felt rejected. They were being petty and jealous. Karen felt defensive and exhausted.
I practically shouted that they’re the ones who see her all of the time, but I should have realized that social media lies. They were the ones posting about the amazing times they had. Karen’s priorities—her daughters, her husband, her father—hadn’t changed. All of us had misread her, horribly.
It turns out that space was what Karen needed. And wanted. She was thankful that I had given that to her, to allow her to navigate this new, unwelcome existence without her mother.
Karen left Seattle with an uncertain future and I watched her go, worried about her, but I felt the most secure in our friendship ever. So now I call her. I call Fran. We text, sometimes we group text. Sometimes Karen calls me. And we never ever mention obligation.
J. LIN has been a twice resident fellow at Hedgebrook and a waiter at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Her work has appeared in the book Philly Fiction, SoapNet.com, ABC.com, Seattle Weekly, MetroKids Magazine, York Daily Dispatch, AsianAvenue.com, haveuheard.net, and forthcoming in 2017 Women of Color Anthology: All the Women in My Family Sing. She was also part of the Emmy-winning writers’ team at “One Life to Live.” She lives in Seattle with her husband and two sons.
The nurse looked at my chart. “I see you’re allergic to Basilhefflinne?” Basilhefflinne is a made-up word because to this day I don’t know what she actually said.
“No,” I said. “I have no idea what that word is.”
She wrote something on my chart. I was afraid she wrote, “He doesn’t know what that is.”
“Should I?” I asked. “Know what that is?”
She didn’t say.
“How would I know if I was allergic to that?”
She wrote something else on my chart.
I quit talking.
She prepared me for the surgery. It was a simple procedure, they had said—outpatient, performed in the doctor’s office. I had something on my lip, embolus, cyst, something, and they were going to remove it. Simple.
So simple I hadn’t cancelled my afternoon classes. I was teaching composition at a small private liberal arts college. In the South. In North Carolina. In a large city. In Charlotte. It’s Queens. Queens University. Queens University of Charlotte. Though technically at the time it was Queens College. Without the “of Charlotte,” which they added when they upped it to university, afraid students would think they were in New York, I guess.
The doctor came in. I had been referred by my GP, which was mainly what he did, that and told me to bike to work. This doctor was also a cosmetic surgeon—he told me this so that I wouldn’t be concerned about the effects of the operation on my face, any fears about disfigurement. I was instantly afraid of disfigurement.
“We’re going to use another anesthesia,” he said, “because I see from your chart that you’re allergic to Basilhefflinne.”
“I’m not. I have never heard of that. At least I don’t know if I am.”
He wrote something on my chart. And then he stuck me with a needle in the mouth, the lips, and the face. The nurse put on Motown. I was instructed to lie down. There was a little towel that he put on my face at the nose and above—“to keep the light out of your eyes.” There was a contraption that went in my mouth. My face was numb. The doctor tugged on my lip. It was only when something warm ran down my chin onto my neck that I realized it was blood and he had been cutting me.
I’m not sure how long it lasted, but I was in and out in around an hour, so not long. Right at the end, he gazed at his handiwork and said, “Perfect. No one will know once it’s healed. Beautiful job.” And he was right, no one does know now, but saying that out loud was still kind of arrogant, right? “You’ll need this for when the anesthesia wears off.” It was a prescription for hydrocodone. “You’re not allergic, are you?”
“No.” Was I?
Dorothy Parker, Algonquin Round Table wit, left Martin Luther King, Jr. her estate without ever having met him. After King was assassinated, the estate went, again according to her wishes, to the NAACP. In that same will, it said she was to be cremated but failed to spell out what was to happen to those ashes. Lillian Hellman, her friend and executor, not wanting to pay fees to the funeral home for storage, had them moved to the estate lawyer’s office. Dorothy Parker’s ashes remained there in a filing cabinet for seventeen years. Today, they are interred next to the NAACP’s headquarters.
While filling my prescription, I marveled at my face in the pharmacy bathroom mirror. It was horrible. I was disfigured. My lip was black and swollen, and the stitches made me a kissing Frankenstein. I was not going to teach my classes later that day—this decision I made strictly out of vanity before realizing taking the hydrocodone meant I wouldn’t be doing much of anything.
I called the College of Arts and Sciences admin. She was one of the kindest people in the world, but she also refused to learn Excel, and so she did classroom assignments by hand using some arcane hand-drawn charts on taped together legal paper, which meant we spent the first two weeks of the semester moving classrooms. She also had a habit of God blessing her/him/it, which meant that person or thing was not living up to expectations. I told her I had outpatient surgery, and it took more out of me than expected (God bless me), and could she put notes on my classroom doors saying class was cancelled. She was happy to and told me to get better.
Then I made one more stop at the library. I had recently discovered you could check out movies for free from the public library, and so I freaked out several story-time-going young children with my face as I looked for a video I hadn’t seen. I was on a personal mission to see every single one of the “Greatest Films of All Time” (as defined by anyone who happened to make such a list) and figured I could use the drugs to help me get through some of the tough movies that I had been putting off. So I took the copy of Singing in the Rain and the hydrocodone back to my apartment.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of that high school student bedeviler The Scarlet Letter—that is, used-to-be bedeviler; as I understand it now, they mostly read business emails. Hawthorne died in his sleep in the White Mountains, the same day his son was initiated into a fraternity by being put blindfolded into a coffin. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the pallbearers, wrote of Hawthorne, “I thought there was a tragic element in the event, that might be more fully rendered,—in the painful solitude of the man, which, I suppose, could no longer be endured, and he died of it.” For a man who wrote an essay called “Friendship,” Emerson was a real jackass of a friend. Though I guess the two weren’t actual friends, but neighbors. There are lots of journal entries of Emerson dissing Hawthorne’s writing and reports of Hawthorne hiding when Emerson would be headed down the path to his house. Emerson was buried in a white robe.
My frenemy came to visit me at my apartment that afternoon. We’d met when I started as an adjunct at the university where he was a lecturer. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is huge, at least to my reckoning, with over twenty thousand undergraduates. It is a monster of education, a bloated blob of learning. The English department had to staff all the English 101 and 102s for all the first years, though their class numbers were actually ENG 1101 & 1102s—that’s how big they were. I started as an adjunct but was offered a lectureship there and Queens at the same time. Ultimately, I chose Queens, and it has made all the difference. But for a while I taught at both—six to eight classes in total.
Before I left, I had gotten to know my frenemy around the office. We’d see each other at the coffee shop or at the bookstore or at the arts district. And then, somehow, we just hung out.
He was the worst kind of handsome man, the kind that hadn’t realized it until recently. Free of a long-term relationship, he was terrorizing women like a condo-bound lab unleashed in a dog park. Before this breakup, we used to watch Blind Date in his apartment, a reality show where snarky potshots were taken at couples on blind dates. Now I was watching Singing in the Rain on hydrocodone alone.
“It doesn’t look so bad,” he said. He said it with part disappointment and part aggravation, as if I’d misled him about my disfigurement.
“You didn’t have to come over.”
“I wanted to bring you some bread. It’s banana.”
The only kind of bread I hate is banana bread.
“And it was on my way to the shelter.” He taught creative writing to the homeless. He used orange juice on his cereal like milk because he was vegan. He was unbearable.
“Thanks for coming,” I said.
“I know you’d do the same for me.”
Sherwood Anderson died from accidentally swallowing a toothpick. I could never get into Winesburg, Ohio. Tennessee Williams supposedly choked to death on the lid of an eye drop bottle but actually died instead from a drug and alcohol overdose. Writers seem prone to that one. Poe, for example, allegedly died a drunk—but it turned out that was an invention of a prohibitionist, using Poe’s celebrity as a warning. We can only guess at the real cause, and speculation has included anything from rabies to cooping, the practice of voter fraud where victims are drugged or forced to drink and then made to vote over and over—these repeat voters sometimes dying in the process.
My other friend wanted to come over as well—I had the capacity for about two friends at the time, this being before Facebook, which has increased my capacity to around seven hundred. She wanted to bring me things, like soup, and she was very insistent on a vitamin E rub. For the scarring.
I didn’t want her help because I had been raised on twenty-one acres in the rural underbelly of North Carolina by people who believed in doing it all themselves. I had interpreted this self-reliance to mean: if you don’t do anything for me, I don’t have to do anything for you. I’m pretty sure that’s also what Emerson meant. I shared my theory with my frenemy, who was a big Emerson fan, but he only sighed. Then I told him Emerson was buried in a white robe and was a real jackass to Hawthorne.
So I didn’t want my friend bringing me soup and vitamin E because then I would have to bring her stuff when she was sick. I already owed my frenemy a visit and some kind of bread he didn’t like.
Mark Twain died twice. The first time was a mistake. Foreshadowing our own media outlets that rush to report without any verification, a newspaper printed Twain’s obit when it was his cousin, also a Clemens, in London who had died. Twain responded to a member of the paper asking about the mix up: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Only later, polishing his rejoinder for retelling, did it take it on its more famous form: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
The email came later that night. I read it, I think, between getting up from the recliner, the TV blank from the autostopped VCR, and going to bed, leaving the TV on. Or maybe I read it in the morning after turning said TV off. Either way, I didn’t respond.
The subject line read: The rumors of your death…
The message said: Are greatly exaggerated. People thought you had died. The dean had to get involved, but we straightened it all out. Hope you’re well.
It was from the director of composition—my immediate boss. When I returned to Queens, I would suffer through the Mark Twain quote innumerable times. But it was apt, because the rumors of my death had been significantly exaggerated.
Here’s what happened as far as I could piece together: the admin put up my cancelled class signs. Groups of students eager to learn gathered by the signs in disappointment. Among this group, one student—and I know who, or I assume I do, to be a terrible person, one of those students who makes you wonder why you’re bothering to teach at all, other than to barely survive—this person said something to the effect of: “Class is cancelled because he’s dead.”
I tried to put a positive spin on this: “He’s such a dedicated teacher that he’d only cancel class if he were dead.” Though, I suspected it was more in the spirit of: “I hope they cancelled class because he’s dead.”
Another student, someone with less guile and not attuned to sarcasm, overheard this line and believed I had died. In her next class, she was visibly upset, God bless her. I imagine her with fat tears rolling silently down her cheeks. At the time, my death would have been a “That’s so tragic,” as opposed to now which would be more “That’s too bad”—I’m hoping to get to a “We all have to go sometime.”
The professor of the grieving student asked what was the matter.
“My English teacher died.”
“Who’s your English teacher?”
Queens is still a small place, but then it was tiny. A thousand students, maybe. Class size at ten to fifteen. Everyone knew everyone. If UNCC was an impersonal educating machine, Queens was a learning family, with all the good and bad that implied. I was shocked when I first realized that Queens students knew one another outside of class. Back at the behemoth, I had to spend time getting them to know one another, but here I was having to deal with their social lives infecting the class, all the fights and romances and gossip. Lord, the gossip. It spread like gossip.
So that first professor, concerned about my wellbeing and/or eager to gossip, asked other faculty who in turn asked people in the English department, until someone finally asked the admin. She, God bless her, must have taken medical confidentiality very seriously and thought for some reason I wouldn’t want anyone to know about my outpatient procedure. So when asked if I were dead, she said, “I can’t talk about that right now.” Which, of course, meant, yeah, he’s dead.
The dean was finally consulted before the admin would tell them I had called in sick. It was an embarrassing way to draw attention to my flub, especially considering I hadn’t been working there very long. Here I was called out in front of the entire college for not planning ahead or possibly playing hooky.
The dean didn’t hold it against me though—he was formerly a philosophy professor and I had impressed him by talking about Jeremy Bentham’s headless mummified body, which is actually just his skeleton in clothes padded with hay. Bentham, one of the founders of utilitarianism (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”—the Spock doctrine) and also an atheist, willed his body for dissection on the condition the remains be preserved in an “Auto-Icon,” still housed by the University of London. His mummified head was deemed too grotesque a topper and so the Auto-Icon has a wax sculpture head, the real one sitting covered between his feet. For a time, I was obsessed with the death of writers and philosophers.
The dean had pictures.
Shakespeare is supposed to have died on his birthday. Twain, when he died the second time for real, fulfilled a kind of prophecy because beforehand he had said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” A couple days after Halley’s Comet’s closest pass to Earth, he died of a heart attack.
I told my frenemy the whole story about my death misunderstanding as we graded comp papers in the strip-mall Starbucks.
After taking it all in, he said, “Why do some women want to talk dirty in bed? Isn’t regular sex good enough?”
“I don’t know. Pretty crazy though, right? Over a minor operation.”
“It’s barely noticeable,” he said. “I wouldn’t even notice it.”
“Right,” I said. “That’s why the story. Strange, right?”
“I wouldn’t even bring it up.”
I don’t anymore. And I also don’t see my frenemy anymore—we’re not even Facebook frenemies.
My other friend brought me the vitamin E despite my protests, and I used it and the scar went away. And I let her call me late at night, three or four in the morning, whenever she had insomnia and we talked. She was worried about death and knew I was too. I’m not sure she was specifically worried, as I was, about the story aspect, every life having to end like every story. There are lots of ways to stop, some intriguing, some forlorn, some bizarre, but some just end.
The day that I returned a loaner car to an auto dealership, I didn’t know that I had become a stooge in an automobile heist.
Here’s how it went down.
A recall was issued for my car. It was a safety issue. It turned out that the airbag’s inflator, a “metal cartridge loaded with propellant wafers,” sometimes ignited, spraying metal shards throughout the passenger cabin.
Lots of cars were affected, and the replacement part was in short supply. It was going to take weeks to get it. The dealership offered me a rental car, on the manufacturer’s dime, until the replacement part could be obtained.
The rental car was a lot nicer than my car. It was a Honda CRV with just 1,500 miles on it. I’d never driven a car that new. I know there’s new car scent that they can spray in any car but this new car smell was legit. Straight from the factory new car smell. Like the sweet smell of a baby’s head. Only car.
A couple weeks later I got the call that the part came in for my car. I parked the CRV in the lot. When I went into the service area to return the key, the service advisor made a joke. He showed me the invoice for my car and said, “I hope you brought all your money, cause this is gonna cost you!” And then he pointed to the amount due, which was zero. I laughed politely.
I handed him the key to the CRV and he handed me the key to my car, along with the invoice. I went out to the lot, got into my car, which was parked across from where I had parked the CRV, and drove home.
This should have been the end of a story too boring to retell, but here’s where things got weird.
Around a week later a manager from the dealership called me. He had some questions.
“Do you remember where you parked the rental car?”
I told him.
“What color was the car?”
This surprised me. They didn’t know what color the car was? They were having a little trouble finding the car.
The next day he called me again.
“Do you remember who you gave the keys to?”
“I don’t know. A woman,” I said. Then I thought some more. “No, it was a man.”
“Do you remember his name?”
“No, I never knew his name.”
“Do you remember what he looked like?”
And it was at this point that I realized that I’m the most visually unobservant person in the world. I am not face-blind but I’m at least face-visually-impaired.
“Well, I think he was kind of tall. Maybe thin. His hair wasn’t really dark. Or maybe it was dark.”
“Did he have facial hair?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
But I had a feeling I was making that up, inventing a face. I thought of that toy where there’s a picture of a clean-shaven bald guy and you use a magnet to drag little pieces of metal around to give him hair, or a mustache or a beard. A lot of times he ends up resembling one despot or another, depending on the shape of the mustache. Then you shake it and the metal shavings fall to the bottom and you start over again with a clean slate. Mentally I gave him a mustache, a goatee, a five o’clock shadow. I had no idea. The more I thought about it, the more removed I was, mentally, from the actual face of the service adviser. He had been replaced by any number of versions of him, all created by my imagination.
“You know what I can tell you? He was a white man. He was a joke-cracking kind of guy. Does that help? Do you have a jokey white man who works there?”
A few days later there was a third call. This time he told me not to be alarmed if a police officer called me to ask some questions. They still couldn’t find the car and had to file a police report so that they could put in a claim with the insurance company.
I started to get worried. Nobody had seen me return that car. The service adviser, whoever he was, hadn’t gone out to walk around it and check for scratches. I got out the invoice he had given me and I discovered that the paperwork was just that: an invoice. It was just for the repair done on my car. There was nothing about the return of the rental car. I had no proof that I had ever returned that car.
It was crazy, right? That I could be a car thief? But I had recently watched a lot of crime dramas on TV. And I realized that I could legitimately be considered a person of interest. I was pretty sure I could not be convicted. But still. It was disconcerting to think that someone might consider me a potential criminal. I’m pretty harmless looking. People tend to trust me.
A week passed and no police officer called me so I mostly stopped worrying. Then the service manager called me again, asking the same questions as before. This time the police officer was at the dealership, taking the report.
“Do you want me to come in?” I asked. “I could show you where I parked.”
When I got to the dealership I sat in an office with two service managers and the police officer, a young, stocky guy with straight dark hair. (At this point I was making an effort to be more visually observant.)
Again, I was asked to describe the service adviser who I had talked to, and I just repeated what I said the first time. I didn’t think I could identify him, but maybe he was tall and thin, with light to medium colored hair, and with no facial hair.
I said, “He made a joke when he gave me the invoice.”
The police officer wasn’t too interested in that bit of intelligence, but one of the service managers, Jill, was playing detective.
“What was the joke?” she asked me.
“He said ‘I hope you brought all your money because this is gonna cost you!’”
The two managers looked at each other and then one said, “We only have two white guys working the service desk.”
He stuck his head out of the office and called for Matt.
“Is this him?” he asked me.
He was short with a solid build, with dark hair and a beard. Pretty much the exact opposite of my description of him. I didn’t recognize him at all.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What joke do you make when a customer gets the recall done?” Jill asked him.
“I say ‘I hope you brought all your money because this is gonna cost you!’”
“That’s him,” I said.
“That’s my schtick.”
The working theory, I was about to learn, was that Matt had dropped the key on the rental counter and someone walked away with it. That’s why Matt had been so forthcoming with his seemingly incriminating joke. He wasn’t the prime suspect.
I went outside with Jill and the police officer to show them where I had parked the CRV.
I still had a nagging feeling that I wasn’t in the clear yet. They had their theory about how it happened, but based on my experience watching TV, it’s the most unlikely suspect who probably did it. Not the new employee at the rental counter, or a shady looking customer, but the suburban lady pushing fifty, who hasn’t even been pulled over for speeding in fifteen years. She looks like your mom, not a criminal.
I finally asked the question that had been on my mind for weeks.
“You’re not thinking I did anything, are you?”
“Oh no, sweetheart!” Jill said and laughed as if it was the silliest thing she’d ever heard.
The officer said, with mock seriousness, “I believe you’re innocent!” and then he laughed too.
We all stood in the parking lot laughing at the idea that they could have suspected me of being a car thief. Because in real life you don’t do something totally innocent like drop off a rental car and then find yourself embroiled in a criminal case that you knew nothing about. That’s something that just happens on TV.
So the story had a happy ending, just like deep down I always knew it would. Me, the service manager, and the cop, outside the car dealership, underneath the cloudless Carolina sky. Just three white people having a good laugh.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
I used to beg to go to McDonald’s. I wanted my Happy Meal. My fries. I wanted lime-green pickles stuck to the bun. Little onion pieces poking through ketchup. The smell that made my mouth cry. The cardboard box. The toy.
Of course, the toy. It was the distraction, the reward, and most important. Mom was sure they were going to be worth a lot one day. So when everything was wrong, when I felt alone, or sad for some reason I didn’t know, I at least had it. Usually, the girl one was what I wanted: a mini-Barbie, a Catwoman, a pony. Other times not. But if it was, I geared myself up to say it. Despite the scary feeling, taught myself to say:
“Hey, Mr. Person?”
The man behind the counter would turn around. Four- or five- or six-year-old me, blue eyes with curly brown hair, looking up.
“Can I help you?” he’d ask.
“Um, can I have the other one?” I’d say, holding out a car, a Transformer, a rocket.
Then the worker, the adult, the Santa-for-now, after some thought, but not much, would reach under and swiftly come back up.
“You mean this?” he’d confirm. Or she. (A little cheer in the voice if she.)
And nodding my head, it was understood that indeed I did. I wanted this, and I’d give back the other in its plastic, knowing suddenly, with things right, that the day would be good.
School and other kids weren’t there. Home and fighting weren’t there. Confusion wasn’t there, and I could now sit down with my toy and my food and purely think to myself:
I’m a happy, normal boy.
It’s four in the morning and I want a goddamn burger.
I knew this would happen. I knew I should’ve eaten before, but I never learn, do I? Every time I go hunting for my one-night white knight, it’s the same sick story. Now, if I stop to eat, it’s going to take a million more excruciating seconds to get home, and I’ll fall asleep on the express bus, ending up at the ass-end of New York City, never to be seen again.
I’m starving, though, so there’s really no choice. Just like there was no choice in spending that much money at the bar. In circling it and three others round and round for the past eight hours. In going week after week, searching for some ridiculous validation, some salve for the years of suppression/oppression/depression from this dismissal, this doom they say is supposed to “get better,” but not all better, just not-as-bad statistic better, or law passed by the skin of its teeth better, or Brokeback Mountain in faintest rear-view, better.
But all right, that’s enough self-pity bullshit.
Where’s the fucking McDonald’s? I wonder.
Barely for a moment though, because of course the golden arches pop up almost immediately and I hurry inside. I don’t even mind the fluorescent blare because the lights tell me to wake up. To convey my order with words from my throat, and that if I do so, I will be served, like anybody else. Served, and grateful, and complete.
Should I order a Happy Meal? It’s really the cheapest way to get a burger, fries, and a drink—all my necessary items, plus maybe even get the cute—
“That’s not what I ordered!” a shout suddenly rings out.
I look at the counter where an old man is irate. The scene looks wrong as a green-skinned orange.
“Don’t you know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?” he continues, gesticulating madly. I want to cover my ears. I want to crouch down and shout, “Shhhh!”
“Here you go, sir,” the man behind the counter says, all ready with the replacement milkshake. I can’t help but be proud of his swiftness—a sense of déjà vu.
“Oh, there you go, finally!” the old man reacts. “Now, was that so hard?”
The worker is heavy-lidded, accentuated by the cornrows pulling slightly at his temples, but clearly alert. “No, it wasn’t, sir,” he says back. “Have a nice night.” This kind of thing must happen a lot at this hour, I realize.
I watch as the customer goes to the condiment counter for a straw, and glad the episode is over, I go back to looking at the menu. Sucking air into my cheeks, and still feeling the acid from the alcohol, I decide on a Number 2 meal. I bargain that it’s essentially a Happy Meal with an extra burger, and that maybe I can even—
“You’re not really a man, are ya?”
My throat clenches when I hear it. I feel chilled.
Am I standing with my hands on my hips again? I thought I took care of that habit. Or did someone, somehow, hear my voice? I look slowly to my left and see the old man again, fiddling with his straw.
“Look at you, stuck behind your counter. You’re not a man!” he shouts. “I can say anything to you and nothing will happen!”
At first, I’m relieved—that it’s not about me, that I can stay hidden. But the feeling dissipates quickly as I look back at the worker and see it: the unmistakeable pain and confusion in his eyes. The rest of him stays stoic, strong, and polite, hands holding the register. I know that move too well, though; I feel the break. The crush of having an idea that venom is coming your way, yet still be struck when it happens.
This is part of life. It may even be a part that makes you stronger. But this is not the place, I decide. And a young McDonald’s worker? A young, black McDonald’s worker? No… that is the wrong goddamn person.
I plan. There’s only a smattering of people sitting around behind—no one will catch the damage. All I need to do is dart over, take the milkshake, and pour it all over the old man’s head. “Nothing will happen to you, huh? Can say whatever you want, huh?” I’ll taunt while dodging his flailing arms. Then I’ll quickly bounce the cup off his decrepit face and run out the door.
I’m still tipsy and brave, but my breathing gets heavy. My adrenaline begins to rise as I prepare. Meanwhile, I can faintly hear the old man laughing through the ringing in my ears, “Fifteen dollars an hour you think you should get? What a joke. What a joke you are. You and all you little fast food babies.” I look around and see I’m still the only one paying attention to the worker who’s staring into the middle distance. The old man then relishes in slurping his drink, practically daring me with it.
I exhale heavily out my mouth to activate my parasympathetic nervous system, like my therapist said to do when my anxiety is up. I do it again and again. Then I move my feet like they’re in mud up to my calf. I step steadily and with great purpose.
And soon enough, with a few more steps, my feet turn away and hit the cement out the door, leaving the situation totally behind. Leaving it having nothing, at all, to do with me.
It’s an eerily smooth bus ride back to my home where I still live with my mother, where I’m a comfortable grad student, able to quit my fast food job after one teenage summer. “You did the right thing,” my ex-boyfriend texts, when I tell him what happened. “It wasn’t worth the trouble.”
But I know for a fact it was worth the trouble. I know it would have simply been correct to have the old man’s reaction result in an equal and opposite reaction. Worth anything to have that employee, eternally dumped on, know he is appreciated for doing his job and for doing it well. That he’s definitely a man and should never, ever be made to feel ashamed. Sure, there’s the possible slips, injuries, and arrests that may have ensued from my retaliation—but I know deep down nothing would really happen to me. After all, don’t I know the difference between chocolate and vanilla?
Fine, maybe it was for the best. Perhaps the worker would be embarrassed, feel patronized. Maybe he just wanted the problem to go away, or it was all a projection; I can’t know completely what it’s like. Still, the sound of silence is a horrible one I can’t shake. Because now, not only was the young man behind the counter perhaps deprived of his special prize, of some sense of support in a vulnerable moment, but also I’m forced to open my drawer—the one full of McDonald’s toys—and know that despite what my mom thought, and despite how much good they’ve done for me once upon a time…
They’re worthless now.
MICHAEL NARKUNSKI is working on his MFA and book of essays at Stony Brook University. His writing has appeared in Out, Narratively, The Advocate, Hippocampus Magazine, and on stage in NYC. You can follow his constant existential crisis @lampshadenark
This is a story about drugs, but not only about drugs. It was the night before the Y2K glitch was supposed to happen. Do you remember it? It was three hundred fourteen big news stories ago, just a blip now but back then, end of 1999, it was the big one. The idea was that there was a decent chance we’d all wake up on January 1, 2000 to computers freaking out, banks failing, planes falling. We, the five of us, thought watching for the apocalypse would be a fun thing to do while on drugs, and so, after work, we drove from the city to the beach. We were twenty-two and thought ourselves very clever.
We loved ourselves, is the truth, loved each other, even if we couldn’t have articulated it like that at the time. It was merely where we lived, this fragile, warm world we’d built, as taken for granted as air. We’d all, by then, had a look around and we’d chosen each other, is what I’m saying.
I was the fifth wheel on this beach trip, which is better than being the third wheel, by a little. It was Dave, who was my best friend and roommate from college, and his girlfriend, Julie, the two of them newly in love, always touching. And there was Alis, a girl I also cared a lot about, and her boyfriend, Skeet, the two of them no longer, I think, so much in love, touching a bit less. What we did that night, in that fierce way, was listen very closely to Radiohead songs, afterward only smiling, sure everyone really got it. Though I’m not saying we were the only clever twenty-two-year-olds who’d ever had this kind of love, and though it comes and goes, comes and goes, we had it, and still do.
And we were doing drugs. We were doing ecstasy, which I don’t think is called that any longer, which tells you a little about how old we all are now. We had a hotel room, two beds, where the couples would sleep, and a couch, where I’d sleep. We drank a little, smoked a little, and then we took the pills we were there to take. We listened to more Radiohead, wrote some bad poetry, smiled some more, said oh my god a lot.
Peaking, bundled up, we went to the beach. There was no one else there, of course. I remember there was crusty snow on the part of the beach where the ocean didn’t reach. I was clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth so much that I had little white pockets of foamy spit at the corners of my mouth. I know because there’s a picture of me from that night, pupils huge. And in that photo with me, our arms around each other, to all the world brothers, is Alis’s boyfriend, Skeet.
Skeet and I were never great friends, and probably we were never more than two guys who cared about the same girl. But there we were, ecstatic, walking along that magical line where water meets sand, retreats, and then meets it again, forever. The others had found something else that delighted them and were well behind us.
And maybe it was that repeat-repeat-repeat of the waves, but I remember, just before we saw what we saw, Skeet was talking about the universe, how he was sure the Big Bang was just one of an infinite number of Big Bangs, how eventually the universe would stop growing, race in upon itself and collapse to a point until it again exploded in yet another Big Bang. We were merely, Skeet was saying to me—just me, on that beach—living in a moment between Big Bangs. Soon, everything would collapse, and explode. Collapse and explode. And I thought: Holy fucking shit, he might be right. There’s a reason people take drugs, is what I’m saying. Drugs have their moments.
I saw it first. Skeet was still talking, but my eyes were fixed on a cluster of bright, very bright lights, maybe a mile up the shore, softly expanding, collapsing, expanding, coming from what looked like yet another beach house, three stories, decks, the whole thing so bright against that black night. Then he stopped talking. He’d seen it, too. The light, yellow, orange, shimmered, moved, rose. We had the same thought at the same time.
“Is that building on fire?” I asked him.
“Fuck yes, it is,” he said.
Do you remember sprinting? When was the last time you sprinted? Have you ever sprinted toward what you think is a building fully engulfed in flames, the thought, unspoken but as alive as your blood, that once you got there, you just might be able to do something about it? If you have, you’ll know that there are four stages.
At first, you are a catapult, released. You just fire, and go, and after the initial awkwardness in your thighs, the stiffness in your hips, you are convinced you can go, screaming through the cold, dark night, forever. After that, not yet tired but muscles now accustomed, you settle into a groove. This is by far the most pleasurable part. You merely run, free, fluid. Third comes the onset, gradual at first, of the burning of the lungs. You slow, not because you want to, but because your body makes you. Fourth, finally, chest heaving, legs on fire, stomach ready to rebel, you stop, because you cannot go on without some essential part of you failing. And that’s what happened to us. We stopped running, exactly at the moment that we got close enough, heads no longer bobbing, to see the truth.
“I think,” Skeet said, “that those are Christmas lights.”
“I think,” I said, “that you are right.”
In that blackness, our friends catching up to us, also breathless, Skeet and I found the other’s eyes, laughed and then coughed, the black Atlantic Ocean behind us, swelling and retreating, over and over again, both of us knowing, I think, that all of it, the ocean, one day would die. And we would die. But not this, somehow, not this.
SETH SAWYERS’ writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Millions, Salon, Sports Illustrated, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Morning News, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He has been awarded scholarships and residencies to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Writers@Work, and VCCA. He is working on a novel about two ten-foot-tall people who find each other in the time just before the internet. He is online at https://sethsawyers.wordpress.com/.
The teacher cleared her throat, aligning her sharp pencil nib to our printed names on the class register. “Isabelle Lee Shi Qi … Daniel Teo … Lim Jia Ying…” As I raised my hand, she paused and lingered over my name. I bit my lip. Was I about to be singled out on the very first day of class?
She pursed her lips. “There’re two of you named Lim Jia Ying in this class. What are we going to do?”
Another person with the exact same first and last name? My name wasn’t exactly the Asian equivalent of John Smith, and last names were usually the differentiator. I glanced around until I caught the gaze of the person whose face was attached to the torso that was attached to the other raised hand. There was a pregnant glance of equal parts solidarity and wariness.
This situation would not do. How would teachers refer to us in these two years with us in the same classes, how would we write our names on our homework assignments and report cards and parental consent slips? The conclusion was this: because I was eleventh on the class registration list, I was now christened as “Jia Ying 11”. Because the other Lim Jia Ying was twelfth on the list, and life is unfair, she would simply be “Jia Ying”.
When I told my parents after returning home, they indignantly demanded to know why I couldn’t be the one just called “Jia Ying.” I shrugged.
I didn’t mind. I’m still using the same “limjiaying11” email username now. It’s true that when I see her posts on Facebook, I sometimes wonder if that could have been me doing and writing those things. As if her name meant we possessed a common essence, that we were interchangeable. I wish I could report that our identical names forged a unique bond that endured and transcended all our differences and soldered us together forever. But it was just another thing that happened in the year I first had my period, the year a boy first shakily confessed a crush on me, the year I met a true friend who’d remain so for the next fourteen years.
I hadn’t even been that shocked that the name “Jia Ying” was also claimed by another. Chinese names basically meld two distinct words with prosperous or auspicious meanings. Many of my female friends were named after beauty, feminine gentleness, happiness, floral motifs. The chosen pair of words anchor and harbor and shelter the buds of outsized hopes and dreams and over-expectation of new, eager parents.
Apparently my name was chosen from options conjured by a wizened old man with a sharp chin who looked at my birth date and various other vaguely random factors like the weather. (Such superstitions are normal among my mother’s five sisters, who spoke mainly Mandarin and prepared feasts of fresh food and folded paper objects to pray to their ancestors.) In Mandarin, “Jia” 佳 means good (or excellent, beautiful, fine). “Ying” 颖 means clever (or gifted, intelligent, smart).
No name better encapsulates the chronic fear of losing (kiasu, a commonly professed national virtue) and drive for attainment of the Singaporean. At least three of my Facebook friends are also called “Jia Ying”. I used to constantly discover new “Jia Ying”s during role call in Chinese class, sneaky Jia Yings that usually went by their Western names instead. My mother likes to recount the time she signed me up for art classes, and the receptionist informed her that there were already ten other students named “Jia Ying”.
Sure, I could never find my name on those personalized souvenirs at gift shops, though that never stopped me from trying. I will probably never experience the thrill and instant affinity of encountering a fictional character that shares my name (or maybe that’s because I do not read and probably cannot understand Chinese books). I spell out my name habitually when ordering lattes or making a reservation. But there were Jiaqi’s and Jiaxuan’s and Jiawen’s and Jiaqing’s and Jiawei’s, and there were Yingying’s and Shiying’s and Peiying’s and Cuiying’s and Liying’s. So my name was no anomaly.
My name served as a pre-emptive hedge against the willful renouncement of my Chinese heritage. My parents had nothing but the deepest condescension for people who gave their children Western names, or as they called them, “Christian” names, especially as these names would come first before their last name and Chinese name. (Christianity was their synecdoche for the West, something I would also have to delicately navigate when I became a Christian: another story.)
When we were ten, appalled that my sister and I had named our dolls Elizabeth and Georgina and Louisa and other names lifted from the pages of Enid Blyton, my mother warned darkly, “Remember, you don’t want to become a ‘banana’ all right.”
My sister and I would roll our eyes with as much gusto as we could muster without injuring ourselves and mutter, “Yes, yes, we know. It’s just a game.”
(A banana may be pale white or snow white or stark white on the inside, but remains stubbornly, unchangeably, yellow on the outside.)
“Don’t be like X, who married an angmoh (Singaporean slang for red-haired man)! Don’t be like X who doesn’t even go to hawker centers anymore but only eats brunch. Don’t be like X who can’t even say hello to her grandparents because she simply forgot how to speak Chinese.” It seemed there were endlessly available examples of “bananas” to serve as cautionary warnings, as I refused to voluntarily speak Chinese and devoured unhealthy amounts of English books and movies and decided I wanted to study in America.
They warned ominously against my choosing a Western name for myself, as some of my friends had done. I once unwisely complained that my name was always forgotten. They were savage: “If you deserve to be remembered, you will be remembered.”
But “Jia Ying” was abruptly unpronounceable once I stepped foot in college in New York. I watched as my name was promptly forgotten during those orientation icebreakers and self-introductions. Some people wouldn’t bother ever speaking to me again (or maybe that was for other reasons—who knows). Some people would try to call me or get my attention without revealing that they had forgotten my name, out of that habitual American politeness. The more earnest and well-meaning would frown, stumble over it, ask me to repeat it, try to repeat it but end up saying it the exact same way, ask if that were better, and I would nod encouragingly with a forced smile.
What was the point of a name like that?
First I collapsed it into Jiaying, so people wouldn’t call me Jia, thinking that “Ying” was my middle name.
I’m not sure why I thought that would make a difference.
Then I caved. “I’m Jiaying—but you can call me JY. Like, the initials JY.” I would smile, slightly ironically. “It’s easier that way.”
Practically, renaming or naming yourself may be advantageous. We can legally change our first name, neglect or adopt a last name, or choose a new one altogether. Names are flimsy, insubstantial representations. The wrong name sabotages, closes doors, lowers pay, diminishes workplace opportunities. Professors cannot call on you if they do not remember your name. Networking contacts cannot provide a referral if they forget how to spell it, especially if a Henry or a Jack or a Jessica pop into mind as well. These are the more benign examples that exclude actual racism.
But why does it feel so disingenuous to choose a name for yourself? I considered choosing something other than “JY”, but balked.
A name is an identity that extends beyond temporary capitalist gain. It reveals, defines, categorizes. Just as we don’t choose our family, we usually don’t choose our first names. There’s a weight to the given name. Names don’t feel real until they are bestowed, whether by your parents or loved ones or through ceremonial rites of baptisms. Naming yourself is too radical and too literal an act of self-definition.
I suppose “JY” worked for a bit. The most common response was the approving observation that it sounds like a rapper’s name. I suppose it does. I just never quite evaluated the aesthetics of my name that earnestly: It was a utilitarian move, my way of secretly preserving my actual name (for those who knew what JY stood for) and truncating it to the point where it could fulfill the functions of a name: it could be pronounced, remembered, and used.
I’ve considered other names, sometimes as an idle fantasy, sometimes as stimulating dinner conversation fodder. My only condition was that I wanted a name with two syllables, because my cardinal rule was that it sounds better when the first name is a different number of syllables from the last name (Lim). That seemed to leave many two or three or even four-syllabled names for the picking. But, turns out everyone has an opinion of what a Joy or Catherine or Ruth should look like. Also turns out that there are many people I do not want to share a name with.
During my brief summer stint at a business newspaper, I was Sofia. Or at least, I became Sofia for the sake of my email address, because there was a full-time hire with the exact same first and last name (again!). Being the lowly intern, I was naturally instructed to somehow obtain another name. In the five-minute conversation with human resources, I chose Sofia. I liked that Sophia meant wisdom in Greek. And I didn’t want it to be spelled like the “Sophia”s I knew. And I had recently read a few novels on Eastern Europe and had always wanted to visit Bulgaria after reading about it.
But everyone who mattered, like my mentor and my fellow interns that I shared lazy afternoons and countless waffles and ice creams with, still called me Jia Ying. I would always take a few seconds to realize that the person calling the name Sofia was actually referring to me, Sofia!
But I became friends with a fellow freshman named Sofia (did I become good friends with her partially because we shared the same name? I will never know.) We met up regularly, lived together for a semester, laughed and cried through breakups and academic failures. It would be too weird to be a second Sofia. So now, I’m still just JY.
I doubt the rapper name JY is the best partner to plunge into the working world with. It seems unbefitting an actual adult, which I was pretending to be.
But what will I use on my Facebook account, if old college friends try to locate me or newfound ones try to add me? What will I use when I write? What will I get baptized with? What will I use at my wedding? I want continuity and I want pronounceable-ness and I want functionality and I want something that I like.
Now I’m flirting with simply “Jia.” It should function well for these few years of living and working away from Asia, away from home. It should be easy to remember. (Or easier. I’m not over-optimistic here). It’s the name my emails are already addressed to, since most companies assume “Ying” as my middle name. It’s one half of the nickname my boyfriend calls me. It’s minimalist and pretty slick and if people cannot pronounce that single word then they will just have to deal with it on their own.
“Jia” is a compromise. It’s my name, spliced brutally into half. It’s part of me. It’s not something entirely new and foreign: how could I possibly name this foreign, ill-defined, mysterious, and incomprehensible being?
But it’s also a whole new identity to be “Jia” instead of “Jia Ying,” as I begin working and living and eating and breathing in America, after the reassuring structures of college as “JY,” sans family and old familiar friends as “Jia Ying” or even “limjiaying11,” a twenty-hour flight and twelve-hour time difference away from home. I preserve a fraction of myself, I relinquish a modicum, and I gain something else in exchange.