I don’t know who I am without Peter. I’m lost on so many levels without him. He’s been dead as of 12:01 p.m., April 2, 2013. I know I’m a parent, a single parent. I know I’m a woman in love with several men. I know that I’m a widow, a word I have grown to hate. But who am I? Without my best friend and husband, who am I?
In an effort to know myself, I have taken every step to ground myself and seek deep spiritual knowledge. I have mined the wells of my soul and gone to the deepest and most powerful source. Not therapy. I’ve been there, done that. Not rehab. As they say, rehab is for quitters and I am no quitter! I have nursed at the teat of the most omnipotent place in the universe. The internet.
I’ve discovered a whole world of quizzes on the interwebs. I’m excited to delve in. Social media sites are the perfect place to seek knowledge and enlightenment—right? This exploration began as an innocent Facebook quiz several hours after my planned bedtime, and it was a doozie.
“Which Golden Girl are you?” I have always maintained that I was Dorothy and I would punch someone’s heart out if they disagreed. So I already know what the test results will be. The quiz is over and I have answered every question to the best of my ability; the little spinny thing moves in circles and the test is calculating. Beep, boop, beep. The results are in and I don’t even have to look at the screen but I do. “You are Blanche!” “Blanche!” I scream at my phone at one a.m.
OH. MY. GOD. I am Blanche. The description goes on to explain to me the qualities of Blanche, which I already know because I watch The Golden Girls every night as a pacifier to insomnia. Blanche is quick witted, as am I. She excels at one liners (well, not to brag), and she’s driven by a need for attention, which, the test informs me, is why I’m always late. I need attention, of course. Blanche makes every boy fall for her and she has the fearless tenacity to back it up. Yep! I have slept with several men since Peter died. Once again, OH.MY.GOD. That must be why I am so sad losing Peter—I’m obsessed with men and sex. I am a quick witted, fast talking slut that needs attention from men to survive. What a relief! Now I can proceed to the process of grieving as Blanche would grieve. Or should I say the way Blanche did grieve because she is also my neighbor in the “widowhood.”
The next day I walk around in a sleepless haze but confident in the knowledge that I’m a Blanche. My whole world has changed from black and white to color, just as I now imagine how men feel when they meet me. I’m more flirty with my boyfriend. I’m happy to openly acknowledge that I enjoy the company of boys, or as Blanche would call them … men. I need more, now! I need to know more about myself, pronto! Facebook is such a tremendous way to find these life changing quizzes, so forward I go, desperate in my need for more self-awareness. Luckily, I don’t sleep anymore. This is a spectacular life decision for me.
Every woman thinks she’s Carrie and, really, she is the Carrie of her own life. But armed with my new Blanche diagnosis, I fully expect that just like with the Golden Girls quiz, I’ll be wrong and I will indeed be Samantha. Twelve questions and three minutes later, I discover that I’m correct. Samantha it is, she is me. I wonder to myself, “But am I really proud of my sex life and my newfound sexual freedom?” Well I must be. The Facebook quiz says I am. I can’t get enough of this newfound insight.
Back to Facebook, but this time I need in-depth quizzes, something that speaks to my very core. I search for more; I casually ask my best friend if she has seen any fun or interesting quizzes anywhere. Lorie doesn’t skip a beat and casually mentions a few fun quizzes that she’s seen on Buzzfeed. Now we both take quizzes on Facebook and Buzzfeed, and since we can never do anything alone, we ask each other the questions and score each other’s tests. Man! What a blast! Look at me, talking with friends, doing something! I really am Samantha!
I’ve learned so much about myself, and these quizzes are the main reason. I’ve done an amazing job of avoid the impending pain and the sleepless nights that accompany the anniversary of my husband’s death. Screw being horizontal, crying on a therapist couch—I never really laid down anyway.
Maybe this should be my new career, creating quizzes for social media. I could start with “Which Facts of Life girl are you? Blair or Tootie? Do you enjoy motorcycles like Jo?” Then I could move on to more complex quizzes like “Are you and your best friend really secret enemies?” This is genius!
I’ve learned so many things about my newfound single self that I do a quick run-down. I know that my Ennegram personality is a loyalist and I thrive on love and my intuition. Interesting. I learned that if I were to be a yogi, balance is crucial to my well-being. Fascinating. I now also know that I will get remarried at the age of thirty-three. I am currently forty-three. I know that I am a slut that thrives on attention, especially from men, and Claire from The Breakfast Club is my spirit animal, which fits because I have always wanted to fuck Judd Nelson.
My newfound interest in the internet has provided me with the perfect distraction. I get to escape life for a brief time. I get to postpone the devastating heartbreak that accompanies the anniversary of my husband’s death. I get to pretend that I’ve found meaning in my new life without him. What could be better than that?
TANISHA PORATH was born a poor black girl in…well, actually she had a pretty middle class existence in Anchorage, Alaska, where she was born and raised. She studied photography at an art college in Seattle, the name of which, try as she might, she can’t quite remember. Soon after she graduated, she moved to Portland, Oregon, with her husband and started her career as an editorial photographer. Some of her clients have included Willamette Week, The Oregonian, and several other periodicals. She has two roommates that she happens to have given birth to, her daughter, fourteen, and her son, seventeen. She became a widow on April 2, 2013. She became a writer on April 3, 2013.
You can tell by the way his footsteps sound coming down the stairs if he’s having a grumpy morning or not. It’s okay—getting out of a warm bed sucks for you, too. Just don’t talk to each other until you’ve both had your coffee. The stronger the brew, the faster your moods improve. Talking while grumpy is always a bad idea. Kiss goodbye—a good kiss, not one of those ones you give your elderly relatives—when you separate for the day. A pat on the ass would be welcomed, too.
You can tell by the look in your child’s face how much her feelings were actually hurt. You clench your jaw so you don’t call the other kid a bad name. You know the other child’s mother might have done the same. Tomorrow they will be best friends again, and the rhododendrons are starting to bud, and your new kitten is getting so incredibly fluffy, and you plan to make a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting on Saturday. Life always goes on, but your child’s life has been too short for her to know that yet, so you must wrap her in the best furry blanket and cuddle her, until your words and touch permeate her being.
You can tell from the height of the bedside stack that you won’t ever have enough life to read all the books you need to read. There’s a sunny yellow puddle on the floor because you were too engrossed in the Abigail Thomas memoir to remember that you own dogs. Small dirty socks scatter across the floor because your children are real, not model children by any measure but the love they have for you, beyond what you’ve ever imagined receiving. The stately Mount Clean Clothes in your laundry room tells everyone you aren’t a good housekeeper. You smile when writing these words because you don’t care. Your husband is mostly silent when observing the laundry room (or any other room, honestly) so maybe he’s finally accepted that you’re not Marie Kondo or anyone like her. You can tell by your inner serenity in the house chaos that you aren’t willing to waste the life you have remaining on house perfection.
You can tell by your son’s jawline that he will be a man, sooner than can be tolerated, faster than is decent for a mother to have to endure. All you can do is hold him as long as he will allow it, patiently listen to his never-ending stories about things you care nothing about—the bad guys in Minecraft, the desire he has for a pocketknife, the funny thing his friend said which is really not funny at all, the newest Nerf machine guns that shoot foam bullets “ so super fast!” because it’s enough that he cares about them, and walk him to the basement—without complaining—to play video games because he won’t be scared to be alone forever.
You can tell by your daughter’s voice, attitude, face—all of her—that she has more confidence than you had at her age. Fourteen, and when she shrieks in laughter the entire cafeteria can hear and recognize it—no careful tittering for her. Her joy overtakes her and she roars, falls on the floor with its force, her mouth wide as the promise she holds. She stomps up to a boy who insulted her friend—not stopping her stomping until he is pinned to the wall like a fly on a corkboard—and informs him that what he did is not okay with her, and he will be apologizing now, and she claps her hands in front of him for emphasis. She radiates righteous anger. You are thrilled and you are jealous. You hope that she has more of all of it, of everything there is here, because surely no woman ever had as much of life as she deserves.
You can tell by your jeans button that you have gained weight. When you grasp your belly roll in both hands, marveling at its heft, at its rubbery texture, know that goddesses need solidity and heft, something to work with if they want to reign effectively. Just remember, you alone decide if you want to repaint or remodel your dwelling, and you alone can accomplish it. Whether the Venus of Willendorf was a fertility statue, a goddess, or ancient porn, she was made that way for a reason and so are you. Your breasts can and have nourished in more ways than one, and your children fight for your lap because it is cushioned for their needs. Praise yourself for your mightiness, for your strength, for your steadiness in a storm, knowing these things make you a sanctuary.
SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER is a Southern transplant living in Oregon, a spouse, a mother of four children, and an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her essays have been published in Hippocampus, The Bitter Southerner, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. Find her at sbweaver.com or tweet her @sarahbweaver.
Once a year or so, I drive my 2006 Prius out to the county to have it detailed. It’s a ridiculous amount of money to spend on washing a car, especially this one. The back passenger door panel is a slightly different color than the rest, and rust spots are beginning to speckle the roof. The floor mats are wearing through, and the silver paint is beginning to chip away from the steering wheel controls. We bought the car used, and I intend to drive it until it dies.
When I was a kid, my father made me wash his cars in the side yard. I used Comet on the white walls, Windex for the windows, and Palmolive dish soap for the rest. No matter how much I concentrated on swiping away every inch of grime and dust, Daddy could always find a streak of dirt after the sun sucked the finish dry—a memory of dusty roads and a sign pointing to my lack of precision.
This detailing shop gets my car cleaner than anyone could at home, that’s for sure. My favorite thing is the air-pressure tube they use to blow out miniscule bits of lint and salt and sand and dust that collect in crevices and catch my attention while I’m waiting at a stoplight. I try not to see the detritus lining the grooves of the steering wheel or the seams of the dashboard. If I think about it too hard, I’ll dig into the glove box for a plastic knife or toothpick to push along the cracks, pulling up months of grime that gathered by no fault of my own. Or I’ll drag my fingernail across the patch of crust that forms over the START button, oils from my fingertips deposited each time I start the car.
I don’t care as much about the outside of the car, because I don’t often look at it from that angle. Inside the vehicle, encased in fiberglass and metal for quick excursions across town or longer trips on interstates, I have time to notice what shouldn’t be there. I regularly remove trash—paper cups and used napkins and parking passes. I stuff my gum wrappers into a little garbage bag fastened to the back of the front passenger seat, emptying it when it gets full or when someone has crammed a banana peel inside. It’s the little bits that I can’t see at first, but amass until they are noticeable, that prompt my call to Diamond Detail on Old Padonia Road.
With little effort of my own, I’ll be rid of the thoughts I’ve had about the grime—the shards of fingernails and skin and hairs that my wife, daughter, and I have shed there. Several fellows in coveralls will spend hours going through each and every inch, inside and out, removing our waste. Filth will be sucked up into vacuum tubes and blown out of sight by pressurized air and washed into muddy puddles and pushed down drains. I won’t see it again ever and the new silt will take time to notice. After detailing, the surfaces and gaps are clean slates, ready once again for what I inadvertently leave behind in my quest to go somewhere.
My first real job out of high school was cleaning rooms at the Knight’s Inn near I-81 Exit 73. At the time, this was a new chain of motels, decorated in rich purples and dark “wood.” Guests were meant to feel as if they were staying in a castle. But, really, it was a drive-up hotel, with the thirty-nine-dollar-a-night rooms opening up to the outside, so you could keep an eye on your car. I might have stayed in a hotel a handful of times, and most of them much like the Knight’s Inn, so the place looked good to me.
I got this job because I had few real skills and because there were few jobs available to recent high school graduates in my small Appalachian hometown. Two major interstates intersected just outside of town, prompting the construction of several chain motels and restaurants and creating a small boon of low-wage service employment. Waiting tables frightened me, but running a vacuum cleaner and scrubbing a toilet were things I thought I could manage with little difficulty.
I needed only enough money to pay for my books and incidentals at college that fall. That was the deal: Momma and Daddy were paying my tuition and board, but I was in charge of the rest. Working mornings left evenings open for my boyfriend, when we milked the cows and made out in a pickup truck that smelled sweetly of manure and hay. Besides, I have always been a lark, preferring to rise with the sun. My younger sister and I applied for hotel jobs at the same time and were both hired. She quit after a few days. I stayed throughout the summer.
Mostly I loved the solitude. I could push my cart full of supplies from room to room, without talking to a soul for six hours or so. If I was lucky, I could watch a movie on HBO, starting it in one room and finishing it by the end of the row. The work was mundane and ritualistic: I began in the bathroom, then changed the linens, and finally vacuumed and dusted. This wasn’t a spot for hookups or drunks, and because the rooms were cleaned so often, they never seemed particularly dirty. But once I found a pornographic novel between a mattress and box spring.
I was drawn to the process of setting things straight. A hotel room is sparse, and each one is arranged like the last. Plastic-covered cups go to the right of the sink, and little bottles of shampoo and cakes of soap are lined up on the left. Towels are rolled and stacked on a metal shelf above the tub. Toilet paper is placed on the holder facing outward. The remote belongs in front of the television, and the one-cup coffee maker is next to the telephone. I followed the same process in each room, which appealed to my sense of ceremony. In this progression, my mind could wander, fantasize about life away from home.
I started each shift with a cart full of clean—bottles full of soapy liquids, stacks and stacks of laundered towels and sheets, a bucket of fresh rags and brushes—and ended with dirty. It was as if I had turned each room inside out, bringing it into the sun. I exchanged linens dotted with flecks of skin and swirled with hair for disinfected sheets and towels, fresh from the dryer and folded while hot. I blurred my eyesight to avoid catching a glimpse of anything gross. I learned to pull the sheets off the mattress and into the center of the bed into a ball, catching and covering what the previous guest might have left behind. If I didn’t see it, it didn’t worry me. My hands spent hours soaked in cleaning chemicals; I felt safe from bacteria.
Once in a while, I was asked to come in at night to wash and fold linens. This was my favorite task. The laundry room was lined with several pairs of washers and dryers. When they were all going, the room got steamy and loud enough to cover my singing. I brought in a tape player to blast old 1950s music or Bach’s minuets. When the dryer buzzed, I pulled out the hot linens and folded them immediately. The heat prevented wrinkles and made the cotton layers like cascading sheets of hot water. I learned to fold even the fitted sheets, with their pocket-like elastic corners. I never tired of the geometry of the process—the halving and halving again, an origami of white cotton. I appreciated the purpose of my work, the precision required to get all of the sheets on the correct shelf or to roll the towels so that they fit on the cart for the next morning. The room smelled fresh and clean, like that whole summer. I was preparing for my new life away from home, earning money and learning how to withdraw into my thoughts, to examine my life from the inside. I was a becoming a clean slate.
The first therapist I saw didn’t take. I was in high school, dependent on my parents to make the appointments and pay the fees. I found out in college that I could see a counselor on campus for free and without my parents knowing a thing. I skimmed the surface of my psyche, and the counselor sent me to a psychiatrist for pre-SSRI medications that made me drowsy and out of touch with any of my feelings.
After graduating from college, I found Bernadette in an ad in the monthly queer newspaper. I saw her for five years or so. By then my life was radically different. I was married, my wife and I living in a city far from the mountains of my childhood and the valley of college.
After my daughter was born, I stopped sleeping, and so six months later, I found a psychoanalyst. Her name was the same as mine, and her office was in a strip mall. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I figured out which car was hers in the parking lot. Once, her husband and two children burst into the office while we were in session. I felt like I was taking her away from something more important. I began taking Zoloft, along with Trazodone to help me sleep at night. I resented having to see her, so much so that once I sat in a session without speaking a single word. Because she was a psychoanalyst, she followed strict rules, and so she didn’t say anything either.
My family moved to Baltimore when our daughter was five years old. I stopped sleeping again and found another analyst. We started out in once-a-week, face-to-face sessions, but I eventually let her talk me into going whole hog: lying down on the couch and staring at the ceiling for four fifty-minute sessions each week. It was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on mental health, considering I was relatively healthy. Still this is when something inside me cracked open, like a dampened seed, and bloomed.
Having your “clock cleaned” usually means that you were beaten up by someone stronger or bigger or both. While I didn’t feel as if I had been physically hit, these sessions were emotionally bruising. The progression backwards through time—the rewinding of my clock—to reveal deeper truths and understandings was a perplexing process. I worried over choosing a topic to start with. I wondered if I was saying and doing the right things. And so my thoughts flitted to mundane details. I noticed the little paper napkin where my head rested on the couch, thinking about the person who had lain there before on his own paper napkin. I couldn’t help but internally giggle at the crack in the ceiling that looked like the profile of a breast, remembering what little I had learned of Freud in college psychology and literature classes.
My clock was getting cleaned; the detritus of my past was being reviewed and reorganized, with some bits cast aside and others polished to a shine. The use of the passive voice here is not accidental. Although I was in the room, speaking, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing, I felt removed, as if the process was being done to me. The distance between my therapist and me shifted something inside me. The gap allowed for some pain to be vacuumed up and thrown away, for some memories to be stacked together neatly and others to be tossed in the recycling bin.
I couldn’t have done this alone. I tried too often to make it work with someone else. I wanted the intimacy of face-to-face conversation within a fifty-minute time period to help me understand myself, to sift through the remnants of my past to find meaning. It turns out that I needed both distance and another person. And after several years, I could turn inward and marvel at the order of my psyche, the clean slate awaiting the next many years of pain and happiness and living to clutter me with leftovers.
Daddy needed a liver, and I was about to give him mine. Well, not all of mine, but enough that would grow to fill the space where his diseased liver was at the moment. After years of his immune system attacking it, his liver was dying. He wasn’t sick enough for a rare cadaver liver, and mine was big enough to share.
The liver is one of the body’s filters, helping to excrete toxins and unnecessary junk that builds up in the everyday process of keeping you alive. When it’s not functioning properly, the body can become overwhelmed with grossness. Blood clogs with waste, while the body struggles to metabolize fat and carbohydrates. Minerals and vitamins are flushed through the digestive system instead of stored. And old blood cells die off with fewer replacements. The liver is a disgusting organ, but so necessary that evolution has allowed it to regenerate. The half of my liver left inside me would grow to full size; the half of my liver put inside my father would too.
The night before the surgery, I had one job: to clean out my insides. Daddy and I checked into the hospital in the afternoon and were told to drink a gallon of GoLYTLY, a hellish solution that would flush everything from our digestive systems. Even with the packet of raspberry tea-flavored Crystal Light I added, the stuff tasted like sea water, so I sipped on it for hours, hoping my conservative approach get me to the finish line. By ten o’clock, I realized I was in trouble. Daddy had drunk the whole thing down and been given an enema. I was only a quarter of the way through. By midnight, the nurse got worried. I hadn’t reached the halfway mark, and I was starting to gag on the sips. If I weren’t done soon, they’d have to cancel the surgery. I began looking for alternative ways to finish the nasty solution. That’s when the nurse flippantly said, “We could put in a nose tube.” Do it, I told her.
She didn’t think I was serious, but I was. This stuff had to get into my gut, but my gag reflex was getting bolder by the swallow. I didn’t see any other way, and so she called in the intern who was on the floor. It took two tries to get the tube down my nose and into my throat, and once it was in, the nurse simply poured the liquid through a funnel and into my stomach, bypassing my taste buds. I was giddy with relief, trying to talk between the pours. Within ten minutes, my gut was full and the bottle was empty. I spent the next hour in the bathroom, letting the stuff do its job. And the surgery proceeded the next morning, on time.
The transplant was a success, but six weeks later my father died. His new liver was working like a champ, growing and filtering and making bile. It was his lungs that did him in. In a long afternoon of his body shutting down, his liver was the last organ to fail.
Within a few hours, Momma and I were in the little apartment she lived in during Daddy’s hospital stay. Because the hospital was so far from their home, he would have recuperated there, close to his doctors. We packed up his belongings: the magazines he had planned to read, his shoes, his wallet. When I came across a stack of papers detailing instructions for wound care and such, I slammed the whole lot into a big trash bin in the hallway. We packed everything into suitcases and boxes, loading them onto a brass hotel cart and rolling it down to Momma’s van in the garage. The room looked sad and empty—not quite a hotel room, not quite an apartment. Bare, metal clothes hangers dangled from a rod in the closet. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom, once jammed with prescription bottles, gawked open under a harsh, florescent light. The emptiness was shocking.
On the morning of the funeral, one of Daddy’s friends came to the house and asked for the keys to Momma’s car. He took it up to the truck stop to be detailed—washed, waxed, and vacuumed. It was all he could think of to do with his grief.
On Saturday, my daughter and I will climb into the freshly cleaned Prius and head south on a tour of colleges in Virginia and North Carolina. We’ll be on the road for nearly a week, visiting six schools and staying with family, except for two nights in a hotel in North Carolina.
Last week, I gave my daughter the rundown of our trip. “I thought we were sleeping in the car,” she said. And I thought she was kidding around. But no, somehow she’d gotten this idea stuck in her head, that staying in a hotel would be too expensive, and so we’d save cash by pulling over into a Walmart parking lot or some such, reclining the seats for our slumber. She was relieved to hear we’d have beds and bathrooms.
I have the trip mapped out in my head—not only the route we’ll take but what will happen along the way. There will be times when my daughter refuses to speak and times when she won’t shut up. I’ve saved up episodes of a podcast we both like, and we’ll talk about her college essays. The most we’ll drive in a day is three hours, so we’ll have lots of down time—time for writing: my work and her college essays. When traveling with a teenager, the trick is to keep expectations low, be willing to move in and out of her peripheral vision, be with her without needing her attention.
It’s being in that closed space for so long that made me think of having the car detailed. It’s a fresh start, an opportunity to shrug off the old stuff. My daughter is reaching for a door that will lead her to a new life. She deserves an adventure with no dust, fresh linens, space for thinking. I can’t provide much for her right now, except things that money can buy: a clean car, a hotel room, a college education. And so I do what little I can.
LAURA LAING works from her home in Baltimore, where she is writing an unconventional memoir. In a former life, she was a journalist and magazine writer. Her first literary essay appeared this March in TheRumpus.net. She is an MFA student at Goucher College’s creative non-fiction program.
When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I got a D in geography. Or maybe it was even worse—an F. I don’t remember. I do remember that when I got home and told my parents, they were not happy with me. I remember feeling misunderstood and lonely and so helpless and mad—the way only a teenage girl can. Life was so unfair. What did my parents understand about me, about school, about the world? And who cares about stupid geography anyway?
My purple boom box—double tapes!—was on a shelf right next to my desk where I was sent to do my homework. I knew exactly what would help me feel better: I popped in the tape from my favorite band, Modern Talking, and put on my headphones. I turned up the volume to full blast on my favorite song, “Cheri Cheri Lady,” and not caring who heard it, sang along as loud as I could.
It didn’t take long for my mom to burst into my room and yank the headphones from my head. I even remember what she yelled: “Cheri Cheri Lady, huh? I’ll show you Cheri Cheri Lady!” And with that she took my headphones, my boom box, and all of my tapes.
This was all before Instagram and Facebook and iTunes. Just finding a picture of the band’s two members, Thomas and Dieter, was an almost impossible mission—especially because I grew up in Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain, and they were a band from the former West Germany. Whenever a family member or a friend would travel abroad— which wasn’t that often back then—their mission was the same: passing through the Frankfurt airport, they had to pick up the latest issues of Bravo, a German music magazine.
If I was very lucky, the timing was just right and that particular issue would include an article about the band, with pictures to boot. I did hit the jackpot once— a multi-page spread with photos of Thomas’s bedroom. I didn’t even know back then why that was so titillating, but I spent hours with the magazine and a German-Hungarian dictionary. My grandmother—god bless her—sat with me for entire afternoons, pouring over the pictures, analyzing every detail, every lock of hair around Thomas’s perfect face.
Thanks to more sleuthing work and help from my parents, I had a few posters in my room: the one where Dieter is wearing a pink jumpsuit and the one where Thomas is wearing a white tee-shirt and jeans, leaning against a wall, something about his slim hips tantalizingly manly, yet feminine too, and all kinds of confusing.
I think I must have been more attracted to Thomas because he seemed soft and non-threatening to whatever was happening to my budding sexuality. Despite—or maybe because of?—the pink jumpsuit and the blond mullet, Dieter was edgier somehow. He would be the guy who would grab your butt, but Thomas would sit in your frilly bedroom and read you poetry.
I wasn’t allowed to go to their concert in Budapest. I don’t remember the reason why now—maybe my parents thought I was too young, or the tickets were too expensive. The sports arena where they performed was on the way to my grandmother’s house and we happened to visit her that evening. I later told my best friend that as we drove by the stadium, we somehow came upon Thomas’s car and I saw him get out into the rainy night. Though implausible, it felt possible, it felt like being close to someone you love was what really mattered, was close enough to the truth. If I was just right outside the stadium, sitting in concert traffic, I might as well have been right next to his car, to him.
The tears start as soon as I hear the familiar beats.
I’m slightly buzzed and excited when the members of the band take to the stage. The bass thunders in my chest, the blue and gold and red lights circle the small auditorium. His initials, TA, blink on a giant screen—he now calls himself “The Gentleman of Music.” I’m just seven rows back, with a perfect view of center stage.
And then there he is. In a black, sparkly jacket, short, graying hair, tight pants, great shoes. I am always a sucker for a man in nice shoes.
And here I am, sobbing in row G. My husband holds my hand because he can feel my shoulders shake from crying and it takes me an entire song to recover. Only then am I able to let the music take me, to let myself relax and dance and sing at the top of my lungs the words I know so well.
I’m not sure at what age exactly Thomas stopped being my imaginary dream boyfriend. When did I stop feeling that he sang his songs just for me? When did I stop believing that he was looking directly at me from the poster above my bed?
It is so easy to discard and replace a first crush. When you are young, there’s so much life still to come, and in the whiplash of time you forget how important these passions are to your survival, to your understanding of yourself. Fads come and go, your tastes change. But what you don’t know yet is that you yourself don’t really change at all.
I returned to Thomas and his music slowly over the years, as life happened, as it became crucial to have something to hold on to from the past, something that felt like home, like an anchor, a reminder of who I was and where I’ve come from. It’s funny how that happens, how everything you tried to run away from as a child is suddenly filled with meaning and memories as you age. How what you thought was disposable turns out to be an inseparable part of you. It might be buried and dusty, but it’s there.
Access is easy now—his music is on iTunes, his pictures all over Facebook and Instagram. I almost pity the youth who don’t know what it’s like to hunt for an image of their idol in a print magazine.
A few times I sit with my son and we watch some of Thomas’s more recent solo videos on YouTube, especially the one where he plays a James Bond-like spy. The tune is catchy, of course, and he is dashing in a tuxedo and Sam enjoys the sharp ping of bullets ricocheting off the glass walls in one scene.
“Did you scream like a crazy person when you saw him?” Sam asks when I tell him about the concert.
“I did, a little bit, yes,” I answer.
As a teenager just learning English, I was so eager to decipher each song, to understand the lyrics and their meaning. Because clearly, they were about me, and I had to know the secret they were revealing. Now, as his lyrics flash across the screen behind him, I am horrified to find that I have been mishearing certain lines for the past two-and-a-half decades.
Between songs he tells us that he’s been on stage for forty-eight years, since he was six. It strikes me that there’s only thirteen years between us, which, in the grand scheme of things, is not that big of a difference. It’s been at least twenty-seven years since the height of my crush—a lifetime, it seems. My grandmother is dead, the apartment that held my posters and stash of music magazines is a yoga studio, West Germany doesn’t exist anymore, and the stadium in Budapest has been demolished and rebuilt. I have loved and lost and married and given birth and moved and traveled and live in an entirely different country from where I grew up.
But when I look in the mirror, I still see me—the teenage me. In my eyes, I have not changed. But looking at him on the stage, I recognize the signs of aging in both of us: the graying hair, the double chin that’s there if you hold your head at the wrong angle, the body’s thickening outline.
I wonder what he sees as he looks into the auditorium, at us. What does it feel like for him to have watched his audience grow older, to have provided the soundtrack to so many lives, and to have been the marker for so many of when childhood ended and real life began? What has he been through? Has he lost parents or lovers? Does he struggle with parenting? Do his knees hurt after jumping around on stage? Is life on the road weary and lonely? Or does he find comfort in the anonymous silence of hotel rooms? Who provides his soundtrack?
There’s no way to return to being that little girl who rocked out to bubbly pop songs when life was hard and who believed that a handsome man could be the answer to all of life’s problems. There’s no way to bring back prepubescent hips or my childhood bedroom or afternoons with my grandmother. Those things are gone.
But on this night, in the sweaty darkness, the thump-thump of the music takes me back and I feel the familiar sweet achiness of my teenage heart. I still find myself drawn to Thomas’ dark eyes—wrinkles and all—and the next day when I’m sore from dancing and have no voice from screaming, I hope his knees and his voice are all right—and that the music will keep on playing, for both of us.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine with her husband and son and on long road trips they too sing along to “Cheri Cheri Lady.” You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin
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.