The writer Janet Burroway once famously said that “in literature, only trouble is interesting,” and it’s become a truism in the world of writing. Well, I recently gave a reading where, afterward, I argued that trouble isn’t the only interesting thing in literature. (Honestly, I don’t even think Janet Burroway meant her quote the way we hear it.) And I guess I sounded like a dangerously well-adjusted person for a minute there, because the moderator followed up by asking me how I have anything to write about if I’m not troubled myself. “Doesn’t all literature come out of being miserable?” he said.
Let’s just get this out of the way:
Bupropion, three 150mg tablets once per day, prescribed for dysthymic disorder—that’s depression—usually taken with my breakfast-time glass of cold water.
Though sometimes it’s a glass of seltzer. Because who doesn’t like bubbles?
When my first collection of short stories came out (Between Camelots), a lot of readers asked me the same question:
“But why is your book so sad?”
And I had answers. (In my experience, when you ask authors about their work, we usually do have answers, but we are pretty much guessing, or offering the provisional as fact, or wishing.) My typical answer was that literature in general and short stories in particular are supposed to be sad. After all, per the Burroway quote again, only trouble is interesting. And short stories are long enough to get their characters into trouble, but not long enough to get them out of trouble again.
(This claim of mine is very obviously not true, of course. I can think of a whole lot of good stories where characters end up getting out of trouble. I can even think of a couple of good stories, off the top of my head, where there isn’t any trouble in the first place.)
And then the person would usually go on to ask me this question:
“But why is your book so sad?”
This is the place where I give you the etymology of the word dysthymia. But I haven’t looked up the etymology of the word dysthymia, so I’m going to make it up. Dys probably comes from the Greek for “not” or “can’t” or “against,” or something like that. And thymia, I’m going to say, comes from the Greek word that means “the understanding that good things, lovely things, are also possible in life.”
One thing I know is that there are two worlds: the real world and the writable world. The real world is the real world, every complicated bit of it. The writable world, on the other hand, is what the writer notices and values and sees as material.
The writable world is only a subset of the real world, of course.
In some cases—in some mental states—it’s a very small subset.
Or maybe Dysthymia comes from a single Greek work that describes something big.
I’m talking about an interior howling, a howling that starts up whenever the world reveals a little flaw or problem. You’re out walking and you see a dent in a car door, an abandoned lot, paint peeling from the side of a house, two people arguing, a stray dress shoe lost along the curb, a flush of shame crossing a person’s face. Anything. The size of the flaw doesn’t matter here. Regardless: Howling inside. A howling wind, rising to the chest, a desperate keening, in the throat, cold in the gut.
Maybe this howling—this one voice, consuming but incomplete—is your whole writable world.
But writers worry:
If I do something about my depression…
If I get a therapist, or (even more) if I take pills…
Will it kill the writing?
This can be a very scary question. For a lot of us, sitting down to write is the only thing that ever managed to quiet the howling. Not completely, and not for very long, but still—some relief there.
What if I lose the writing?
Mental illness is the worst kind of illness, it seems to me, because it’s the only kind that produces excuses and lies to protect itself. When you get the flu or break a leg or have a heart attack, you never think, “Oh I should just work through this on my own.” You never think, “Well, this is just my artistic temperament.” You never think, “But I need this problem, for my work.”
Asthma means “You should do something about this.”
Diabetes means “You should do something about this.”
Cystic Fibrosis means “You should do something about this.”
And Dysthymia means…?
You worry that writing is going to leave you.
In fact, you are so committed to writing that you’re willing to neglect your mental health just in case mental health is a threat to your work.
(Does that sound like a person who’s ever going to stop writing, with or without pills?)
Does all literature come out of being miserable?
I’d like to answer that question with a different question: What about all the literature that never arrived because of being miserable?
What would Virginia Woolf have gone on to write if depression hadn’t killed her at the age of fifty-nine? What would Anne Sexton have written? David Foster Wallace? Sylvia Plath? Ernest Hemingway?
First there were the pills that didn’t work or caused other problems—side-effects and whatnot. It took a little while to find the right ones. But now I’ve been on the right ones for something like nine or ten years.
Life is better. And I don’t just mean that I feel better, though I certainly do. I mean that I look at life and see that it is a more complicated, better thing than I used to believe.
The howling has quieted.
And it turns out I still need to write as much as I used to. Or maybe more.
I mean, it’s been a busy nine or ten years, these years of medication:
In the three-and-a-half decades before the pills, one short story collection—my book Between Camelots—was published.
In the one decade since, three more books of fiction got published—including a new story collection and a first novel this year—plus a poetry chapbook, a full-length book of poetry, and a non-fiction guide to the creative process.
This is not the story of a person who’s lost his writing.
Meanwhile, my writable world has gotten a lot bigger. I still write about the sad things, because sadness is part of the world’s truth, but it’s only part of it, so I also write about the ridiculous things, the electric things, the absurdity, the quiet beauty and the louder beauty of things.
A writer who believes that things are only sad is a writer somewhat out of touch with reality.
It’s as if I had been working for many years in a tiny room, staring at a tiny few things to write about, and now I’m working in a great big room—or, in fact, out in the open world—staring at everything, seeing things I’ve never been able to see before, seeing it all.
This also means seeing things—even stuff I’d already been in the habit of noticing—in their full complexity. It’s a bummer that the car has a dent in it, sure, but it’s still a car; it can still take people places. The house with the paint peeling is still a house; people can take shelter there. The two people argue and the other person’s face flushes because those people care about something.
Now, I’m not saying pills work for everyone. I’m not saying therapy works for everyone. (Though I think there are a lot of folks who would benefit from both.) I’m not even saying that pills and therapy solve everything. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I still need to write is that, when I don’t, I do get a bit sad again. Not as sad as before, but a bit. In other words, writing still supports me. It’s just that now it has help.
What I’m really saying is I no longer believe that only trouble is interesting.
What if your writing had more than one voice? What if it had the whole world to draw on?
After I get done with another morning of writing, I come out of my office and pour myself a glass of water (or seltzer) and start a bagel toasting, and then I open the little prescription bottle.
Bupropion pills are tiny and white and round and smooth. Even taking three at once, even in the same swallow as a B-12 vitamin, they go down very, very easily.
DAVID EBENBACH is the author of seven books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including, most recently, the novel Miss Portland. His work has been awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, the Patricia Bibby Award, and more. Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.
“Can you believe I drive a friggin’ Volvo?” I text one of my oldest friends. We trade shorthand code, the sort developed with those who have seen you through many decades and phases—the well-scrubbed-coed-ordering-amaretto-sours-without-irony phase, the hairy-armpits-and-knockoff-Birkenstocks-with-wool-socks phase, the slaggy-handkerchief-halter-top-and-bumps-in-the-bathroom-with-the-drummer-or-was-it-the-bassist-from-Metallica phase, the can-you-believe-I’m-still-bartending phase, the can-you-believe-I’m-in-rehab-and/or- jail phase, and now this, the can-you-believe-I’m-driving-a-Volvo-and-Googling-perimenopause phase.
“You in a Volvo station wagon is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of,” my friend fires back.
Now in my forties and out of the feigning street cred game, I seem by most external measures happy and stable—rooted even. I have something akin to that common domestic dream which Zorba the Greek lamented in the 1964 film: “wife, children, house, everything, the full catastrophe.” I have a devoted husband, an accountant who is also the town fire chief, a bric-a-brac of teaching and editing gigs that passes for a career, three mature lilac bushes, and 2.2 dogs. (I refuse to call them my “fur children.”) Keith and I joke that our three-year-old boxer, George, whose name is loosely derivative of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, counts as 1.2 dogs, the extra two tenths owing to his extra alpha-dog-bro-ness. This exterior sketch of my life on paper isn’t false, just thin. Anthropologists and other social scientists favor a “thick description” of human behavior, one that renders a fuller picture and which explains not only the behavior itself, but also its larger context. A thick description of my life, for example, might include a study of regional linguistics and attitudes, a family tree of mental illness, a personal history of addiction and trauma, and even what it feels like to be a sexual assault survivor during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, Groper-in-Chief. What I suppose I mean by the thick description is that the human condition is a motherfucker.
Beyond our Fisher Price town with its steepled square and mix of Colonial and Victorian storefronts winds the small river that hugs our country road. Between this river and road, farms nestle—some ramshackle, some picturesque—in the furry, coniferous hills of central Vermont. If you scrub past the rosy patina of Norman Rockwell Americana, you find ordinary America too, or perhaps ’Murrica, as some of my local students like to declare proudly: blue tarps and Gadsen flags, guns, black tar heroin, snowmobiles, high rates of domestic and sexual violence, and other assorted clichés of rural poverty and dis-ease.
Down this road a few miles sits the 1830s farmhouse that Keith and I bought last summer, flanked on one side by hay fields and on the other by the not-so-mighty, but lovely, First Branch of the White River. Because we lived in Arizona when I was a child, and swimming pools were ubiquitous, Mom plunked me in a toddler swim class at two, and I’ve been a water lover ever since. Given a chance to swim, especially in the wildness of an ocean, lake, or river, I will stay submerged for hours—until my skin is pruned. Here, in the town that we now call home of just over a thousand souls, I watch and listen to the river daily from our back deck. If the weather is warm and the river high enough, I head down to the water for a dip or to sit on a giant granite boulder, deposited as glacial moraine during the last ice age, and marvel at my luck. Calling this place, any place, home does a number on my psyche, yet here, I’m making peace with the full catastrophe. Something I can’t yet name washes over me here, or perhaps that something is finally washing away.
Nearly fifteen years ago, and six thousand miles from my apartment in San Francisco where I lived in my twenties, I sat nervously in a cold, stone office in the bowels of the stazione policia, on Via Zara in Florence, Italy. I was twenty-five and on my first trip abroad. The night before, I shared dinner with friends on the Piazza Della Repubblica, fifteen minutes by foot from the police station. The night before, I wore an outfit I bought special for the trip: tight red pedal pushers and a tight red blouse, heeled sandals, and a purple head scarf. We chatted gaily with our waiter, who joined us for Fernet Branca and Prosecco after his shift. He spoke little English, and I little Italian, but in broken Spanish and flirty eye contact, we managed well enough. My friends and I and the waiter walked over the Ponte Vecchio, but at some point while browsing the trinket shops and smoking cigarettes with our arms draped through the stone portholes over the Arno, he and I drifted from the group. At another point, I figured they’d gone back to our hotel, and he offered a “corto trayecto” on his moped. Still drunk and sun-baked from the day, intoxicated by the wafting lilac and street disinfectant, and dizzy from the ridges of terracotta rooflines undulating by, the ride exhilarated me in those first moments. But after twisting down more dusty lanes and bumping over cobblestones and emerging onto a faster, wider boulevard, my giddiness evaporated. I began to feel sick and to spin, adrift from my friends and our hotel and the center of town. He slowed the moped to a stop, hopped it onto a sidewalk in front of an apartment building, and with his strange, sweaty hand, the nice-seeming waiter led me up a flight of steps and into his small apartment.
We got here as soon as we could, my husband and I like to say—both in a literal and metaphorical sense—about our arrival in Vermont, about how we are late bloomers, about how long it’s taken to arrive at some place we might call home. We came to Vermont nine years ago, fleeing Houston, Texas, in a little hatchback packed with everything we owned. We drove past the Texas refineries and Louisiana swamps, then into the lush hills of Mississippi and Alabama, and on through the Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. When we reached the Maryland panhandle, I knew the Mason-Dixon Line was close, and once over that arbitrary boundary, my body flooded with relief, as if I had been safely extracted from behind enemy lines.
I say that we fled because at the time we felt that we had to get out of Texas if we wanted to make it. A few months before I met Keith, I got drunk and crashed my jeep into three other cars at a major city intersection. Miraculously, and despite epic vehicle wreckage, no one was killed, and only one person was hurt. After my initial arrest for drunk driving, I was charged with a felony that carried a five- to ten-year prison sentence, and the ensuing, protracted legal ordeal loomed over everything, including our budding romance. Dating tips don’t cover how to handle the “I’m under felony indictment” conversation on the first date, but Keith stayed, even as life became a two-year blur of court hearings, AA meetings, endless chauffeuring and bus rides, sporadic paychecks from temp agencies that would overlook my circumstances, pre-trial supervision, and finally, a five-day felony trial. I was more fortunate than most who get devoured by the Harris County Criminal Court system, convicted ultimately of a misdemeanor and sentenced to just 121 days in the fearsome Harris County Jail. With good time, I served sixty.
My lawyer’s early admonishment about the Texas criminal justice system proved prophetic: “You might beat the rap, but you won’t beat the ride.” While on the ride, Keith and I talked about “going home” once everything was over. Despite early years out West, I had spent much of my youth in New Hampshire, and on visits to New England Keith became enamored of the beauty, history, and landscape. He grew up in Texas, but as someone who is naturally taciturn, who loves flannel, snow, and early mornings, I suspect he was a New Englander in a past life. While in jail, and with a firm end date and real second chance in hand, we finally began to make plans in earnest. Even though it was considered contraband, I kept a photograph stuck to my bunk with the adhesive strips from a stamp book, so that I could remember what waited for me on the outside. It was a picture of Keith and me, from the trip we made to Vermont for my thirtieth birthday, standing outside in an October snow flurry. Vermont had become our new starting line.
Why did I go with the waiter? This was the tortuous refrain that ran through my mind the morning after, as I sat in the police station. I didn’t speak Italian, but I found a sympathetic translator from the American Consulate who escorted me to the station to help me file a report. Why did I go? I thought, as she mouthed the Italian words for the images that stabbed into my mind as if from a knife. The words sounded cheerful when this nice lady spoke them in Italian, the words for oral sex, for finger penetration, for erect penis, for without consent, for kick-start scooter, for champagne headache, for swarthy waiter, for slim build, for a Calabrian driver’s license, for his email address scrawled on a napkin, for No, for a partial apology in Spanish, for a cigarette afterward, for a walk over the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II, for permission to call my father, for the correct change in liras.
A movie about my twenties would begin happily. A young, quirky Ally Sheedy would star, Sofia Coppola would direct, and most of my boyfriends would be played by John Cusack. These early adult years weren’t without bumbling and angst, but for the most part, I had my act together. I lived in San Francisco, my dream city, where I was on track to complete a master’s program in creative writing. I had my own studio apartment on Russian Hill, a tight group of friends, and steady, lucrative work as a cocktail waitress, which helped me save up for my first European adventure. The itinerary dazzled me—Paris, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Italy, Provence, and finally, Spain—but I never made it past Florence. So, despite the auspicious beginning of my fantasy movie, the film would end unhappily, would tumble perilously thereafter across the screen, in a non-linear montage of depression, substance abuse, and suicide attempts, or what one shrink euphemistically called “gestures.” Not even the best film editor could suture these storylines. The jump cut was too rough.
This twist in my story has only recently, all these years later, begun to rise to a place from which I might access and write about it. It’s the story of, and here’s the problem…my rape? Or, my sexual assault? The first term I associate, technically, with penile-vaginal penetration, and the latter with euphemism. None of what happened feels technical or easily categorized, and neither does it seem deserving of euphemism, a language akin to evasion. See how the words still confound me, how the taxonomy remains fraught? I suspect that when the writer becomes a statistic, the language has to be dealt with as much as the event. Is rape what you want to call it? my father said to me in those early days. Of course, he didn’t mean harm. We don’t learn how to talk about such things in our culture, least of all men, least of all middle-aged fathers whose daughters call from payphones halfway around the world to say, Daddy, I’ve been raped. While I understand his quibbling now as an effort to make the thing somehow lesser or more manageable, or perhaps as an effort to attach language to the nightmare that we all could then live with, those words damaged me.
I felt misunderstood and silenced, as if I couldn’t be trusted to name my own experience. Though legal language varies, RAINN—the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network—defines rape as “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Even though, technically, my experience does fit the definition, the truth is that I remain ambivalent about whether to call what happened to me rape.
Not long after the incident, the translator stopped returning my emails. Over time, I got mail from the Italian court that I couldn’t read. One letter came. Then maybe another. This timeline, too, is fuzzy, mired as these months were in heavy drinking and a growing dalliance with cocaine. When I returned from Italy, I holed up in my boyfriend Mike’s nondescript apartment in the Outer Richmond, which in those years was still a working class neighborhood on the northwestern corner of the peninsula. His apartment was closer to my university and far away from my friends who lived downtown. Its location conscribed a small, anonymous circle of the city in which I could limit my travel and social activity. I felt safe only in the darkness of his apartment and zipped into the anesthesia provided by the drinking. But the safety was an illusion, and the alcohol and drugs provided only temporary relief—if anything, they slickened the slippery in-roads of my mind. Previously closed-off territory opened up, as if in a nightmarish version of Chutes and Ladders, wherein I replayed every slutty thing I’d ever done and every unpleasant encounter.
Long buried before, I suddenly remembered another assault, dredged from the depths of my consciousness like a car hauled from a riverbed, mud-caked and slick with algae. I was seventeen that time, and in my first week of college at Rutgers University in central New Jersey. Late in that first week, a junior from my dorm, a fast-talking, animated guy from Jersey City, took an interest. Now, of course, I know I should have been wary of a guy whose opening line to my roommate and me was, “Youse freshmen?”, but then I was charmed. His accent and swagger were so different from the Boston Irish guys I grew up with, and he was not just some immature high school boy, but a college student—a man. Within minutes he was showing me his Don Mattingly swing impression and inviting my roommate and me to his dorm room for movies later that night. We went, of course, and while my roommate made out with his roommate (another beefy guy from Jersey City) beneath the Under-the-Sea phantasmagoria created by a spinning lava lamp, he made a move on me. We kissed for a minute, but a hunger in his movements frightened me, and before long I demurred, asking him to “slow down.” But he was somewhere else, his eyes glazed and fixed on the wall behind me. In fact, he sped up after I said that, as if further aroused, and then rolled on top of me.
“C’mon, baby,” he grunted, grinding his erection into my thigh. I tried to push him off of me, but he wouldn’t give.
“Please stop,” I said shakily, looking over at my friend who seemed oblivious and tangled up with the roommate. I assumed happily so, but I have wondered since if she had been in trouble too. How could I know what I was seeing, having never been taught what to look for? He pulled my shirt up and took my breasts in his mouth, suckled hard and with his teeth, then cupped my crotch over my jeans, rubbing his thumb hard back and forth against the zipper, which is where I imagine that he imagined my clitoris was. Finally, I managed to wiggle free by shimmying up the bed and wriggling out from between his legs. I hopped off the bed, pulled my shirt down, grabbed my bag and shoes, and clutched them to my chest to hide my breasts, which were still loose from the bra that was now pulled around my shoulders like a sash. I hurried to the door with the man panting after me.
“Don’t leave,” he begged. “I promise I’ll be good. You’re just so sexy, baby.” But once I was in the threshold of the door, he turned off the charm like a switch, and snarled after me down the hallway, “Bitch.” It’s probably important to point out that Rutgers, a state school where most students’ hometowns were no more than two hours away, was desolate on the weekends—an additional factor that made my roommate and me, two rubes from out of state, easy prey. As I rounded the corner to the freshman wing of the dorm I heard him holler the charming words that my roommate and I later turned into a kind of revenge refrain: “You can’t just leave me hanging! You gotta jerk me off or sumtin.”
Mike worked long hours as an options trader, but I remember that one night he came home early with takeout. I couldn’t tell you whether this happened six weeks or six months after the rape, nor whether it was meant as a gesture of kindness or normalcy, or even as a gesture at all, but his early return with dinner was unusual. Without much comment, I took a plate heaped with fried rice and egg rolls and my tumbler of White Russian and plunked down on the floor in front of the television in the living room. I had gained maybe fifteen pounds since the assault, and while I was nowhere near fat, neither was I the lithe ingénue he began dating years before. We were on the outs anyway, so what he said to me then—while not untrue—didn’t penetrate my new armor.
I was fortified by then, had taken up residence in my own sad kingdom. Standing in the doorway, his arms crossed, and with a mix of tenderness and perhaps disgust, he said, “Where is my bright, beautiful girl? I don’t recognize you anymore.”
I smiled wryly, raised my cocktail as in a toasting gesture, and said, “That, my love, is exactly the point.”
I spent less and less time at my own apartment, which now seemed a place belonging to another person and time, a “before” shot from the “before and after” portrait of my own life. Through a bartender friend, I had lucked into the cute, cheap, centrally-located rental. No one I knew paid seven hundred dollars for a studio in the heart of the city, let alone one with a private garden patio that teemed with bougainvillea, lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, and the Purple Chinese Houses that looked like ornate, amethyst bib necklaces. The elderly, housebound woman who lived upstairs had cultivated the garden for decades, but since she could no longer enjoy it, the garden became my private Eden—an idyll rich with a bracing cologne of eucalyptus and herbs. But that was before. After, I preferred exile.
No one seemed to want to talk about the assault anyway, or no one knew what to say, but perhaps that characterization isn’t fair—or even accurate. Memorably, someone did say something—just the right thing, in fact. In a hand-written note on delicate ivory stationary, Jenna, a motorcycle-riding, beer-drinking girlfriend originally from Down East Maine, wrote: “You are the purest little rosebud, just beginning to flower. Please don’t let this stop your petals from opening to the sun. Remember, in the end it is harsh pruning and bull shit that makes the rosebush grow strong.” Perhaps I convinced myself that it was easier for everyone else, when I actually meant that it was easier for me, to forget the whole thing. After all, it happened a continent away, in another language even. The more that time passed the fuzzier and more distant the details became. Occasionally I would pull out the Italian paperwork from a file box. Four documents summarize my sexual assault: a report made by my friends; an initial filing made by me at a mobile police unit; a complete report made to the Florence police; and a notification I received from the court many months later, and which as far as I can make out, gave me twenty days to declare a domicile in Italy. I can read Spanish, and the languages are close, but still the documents are hard to decipher. I thought over the years about getting someone to translate them for me, but again it seemed easier to let it lie, to let the words, and therefore the event, remain a kind of secret or mystery that I kept even from myself. In a sense, then, I answered my father’s rhetorical question about what to call it by default, be deciding not to call it anything, to put the whole thing in an unlabeled box, and bury it on some godforsaken alien continent inside me.
Why did I go? I hate that I still ask myself this. I know this what-if game leads only to self-blame and shame, but I play anyway, because this is what sexual assault victims do. Perhaps I shouldn’t have worn red, shouldn’t have flirted, and shouldn’t have asked where we could get some pot. But actually, it was my girlfriend’s boyfriend who asked, and the waiter who said he had some in his apartment. He said his apartment was just around the corner, and we could ride over there on his moped. He seemed so nice, so harmless. I should never have gone, should have said “no” more forcefully, should have kicked his teeth in—something. But what magical thing would I have done? I play this game, as all victims do, because our culture trains us to blame ourselves. Instead of teaching boys and men not to rape, we teach girls and women the dubious art of avoiding rape, and yet when, inevitably, women are raped, they are abandoned, or worse, they are re-victimized by a legal system that reinforces its own bogus mythology. Every case becomes her word against his, despite empirical research that puts false reports as low as with any other violent crime. After mustering the courage to report these crimes in the first place, victims fight again to convince police, prosecutors, judges and juries, when ultimately, ninety-seven percent of rapists receive no punishment at all (this, according to RAINN). The message is clear: victims must bear their own burdens. We must learn how to survive our own rapes.
Though many of the direct memories of my assault remain sealed in drums and buried like radioactive waste or time capsules under hard-pack, I am still not safe from them. Trauma interacts with memory in complex ways, so memories of certain events—flashes—appear to me as non-linear images and sensory details. I am not unique in this. In an article for Time Magazine on December 9, 2014 on the neurobiology of sexual assault, Drs. James Hopper and David Lisak explain why rape and trauma survivors have fragmented and incomplete memories of their traumas:
Inevitably, at some point during a traumatic experience, fear kicks in. When it does, it is no longer the prefrontal cortex running the show, but the brain’s fear circuitry—especially the amygdala. Once the fear circuitry takes over, it—not the prefrontal cortex— controls where attention goes. It could be the sound of incoming mortars or the cold facial expression of a predatory rapist or the grip of his hand on one’s neck. Or, the fear circuitry can direct attention away from the horrible sensations of sexual assault by focusing attention on otherwise meaningless details. Either way, what gets attention tends to be fragmentary sensations, not the many different elements of the unfolding assault. And what gets attention is what is most likely to get encoded into memory.
Not only are my memories fragmented, but because of the nature of trauma, and despite my best efforts to neutralize them, the memories intrude in on my thoughts without warning. One moment I’m sitting by my river at home, and the next I’m back in Florence, holding my friend Bernadette’s hand, then tap-dancing on cobblestone, eating pasta, on the back of a moped. Suddenly, the man’s fingers are inside me. His tongue inside me. I am crying. His penis is in my mouth; is that right? I am crying in his kitchen, asking for a ride to the hotel. Then I’m back with my friends, outside the hotel, in relative safety under some streetlights. Bernadette and I are having a cigarette, and I am racing to tell her before the man gets back on his moped. As I tell her the story, the man is apologizing, inexplicably, to Bernadette’s boyfriend. Where’s my apology? I want to scream. I am still waiting.
Perhaps because I am just now unearthing my sexual assault, it doesn’t occur to me until all these years later, when my husband points it out, that this game, as I’ve always thought of the obsessive event replay, is a textbook hallmark of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One morning not long after moving into the house, we’re out on our deck, drinking coffee and admiring the view of surrounding mountains, meadows, and the river. The lilacs, which light up with pleasure from the same brain circuitry that alights with fear—the amygdala—are still in bloom, and the river is running high. Listening to the rush of the water, I tell Keith about the compulsion I have to replay the night over and over.
“You know what that is, right?” he asks. I shake my head, even as I guess that I do. “It’s PTSD,” he says.
I do it with the car accident too, another trauma. I’d always assumed because in both instances I was drunk, that the replay was more about getting the narrative straight, trying to fill in certain holes. Is the inability to fill in the holes trauma, alcohol, memory, or all of the above? I run the replays automatically, absently, while drifting off to sleep or walking the dogs or washing the dishes. Each starts as a kind of mental video game, with Player 1 (me) flashing on the screen, and then we’re off. Either we’re running the crash scenario in Houston, or we’re running the moped scenario in Florence, each a sort of gauntlet where I imagine I can get points if I can lock certain features in place. Perhaps I can grab a new street name, a new weapon, or a new clue. Invariably, of course, the features of the game blur. So too with the features of memory, which escape me, bringing me once again upon the giant sinkholes that open up and swallow time, matter, memory, me.
“Lex,” Keith says, waving his hand in front of my face the way we do to inquire if the other person is paying attention. And with that I come to, having been belched from the beast of my past, returning to our morning in progress.
“I don’t know what’s worse,” I say. “The sudden jerks into the past, or the fact that I can never seem to stay in the present.” I try then to settle into my chair, my body, my breath.
“Be where your hands are,” my yoga teacher says. I study my hands, my oversized mug, and the lilacs in the yard, so purple they are almost blue. With their heart-shaped leaves and from the way they cluster into crown-like bunches, they remind me of the swim bonnets worn by the elderly women at my fitness center. But the fragrance is so unique, that it reminds me of nothing but itself.
Oh, and that night in Italy.
High on adrenaline and instinct and a lifelong good sense of direction, the morning after my assault, I led the officers back to the man’s apartment, which was not just around the corner as the man had suggested, but rather, some four-plus back-switching miles from the piazza. Since I had the napkin with his name and email address, the officers matched it with one of the occupants listed in their records. “Ben Fatto!” one of the officers shouted and pumped his fist from the front seat of the little police car.
“It means good job,” the translator said.
“I know,” I said. While still parked in front of the apartment, the officer craned around to face me in the back seat. He began talking intently, passionately, and looking back and forth between the translator and me.
“He says he’s very sorry this happened to you, and this is good evidence, but these things are hard to prosecute,” she said. I nodded and thanked him. He turned forward as if to drive off, but twirled back again, this time addressing mainly the translator. I made out the last word, commune: common. I looked at the translator, and she shook her head.
“C’mon, tell me,” I said.
“There’s no precise equivalent in English,” she sighed. “It doesn’t mean quite the same thing, but he says these things happen. They are common.”
When I packed for my flight just hours later, I flattened the words on the police report in the bottom of my suitcase like a freighted souvenir, underneath the red pants and blouse and stacked heels I wore the night before. I realized then that my panties were gone, probably still in the man’s apartment. Once on the plane and headed back to California, my seatmate asked if I was going home, and I nodded, then faltered. “Well, yes, I live there,” I said, thinking home was not a word I understood anymore, not a place on any map.
The night we closed on our house, Keith and I stood in the back yard at dusk with our hands clasped. We have two dogs, a ten-year-old rescue pit bull mix named Jazzy, and George, the boxer tween we got a year after our first boxer died. As a puppy, George, white- and fawn-colored with a comical black and brown eye patch of fur, was predictably mischievous, but it was Jazzy who—upon visiting the house for the first time that evening—had gotten so excited that she arched over in the entry way and took a massive dump. We were still giggling about it as we stood in our new yard, watching George zoom around the acre in obsessive circles, doing his “racetracks.” The river was high and the lilacs in bloom, and the music from the water and the perfume from the flowers washed over us. “This is ours,” Keith said, squeezing my hand a little harder.
“Yep,” I said, squeezing back.
The common purple lilac, or syringa vulgaris, like those in the loamy northwest corner of our own yard, is a flowering woody plant in the olive family. Olives thrive in temperate Mediterranean climates so unlike the harsh, snowy winters and humid summers of Vermont that it surprises me to learn this. I know it’s greedy and provincial, but I’ve always associated lilacs with New England, which somehow made them mine. After all, the common purple lilac is the New Hampshire state flower, which I was forced to memorize in school, along with the state bird (purple finch), state fruit (pumpkin), state gem (smoky quartz), and state insect (the ladybug). But I do remember lilacs in Italy, whose fragrance stood out to me amid the other Florentine scents—amber, tobacco, lavender, cypress—as a kind of olfactory beacon of home. The family name, syringa, comes from the Greek word syrinx, or hollow tube, which refers to the plant’s shoots and their large piths, while the species name, vulgaris, means common or usual. However ubiquitous lilacs may be, nothing about their loveliness seems common to me.
Later that night, while washing dishes and looking out the kitchen window that overlooks a side yard where the previous owners had a sizeable fenced-in garden, I tell Keith about everything I want to plant. I’m excited, and the list grows absurd: star fruit, melons, Christmas trees, cucumbers, potatoes, peonies, roses, bleeding hearts, corn, lilies, bananas, chips and salsa trees, puppy seeds, and book awards. Keith laughs. I’ve never been a gardener, never planted anything other than pain, but here in my fortieth year, I want to plant something finally that can thrive.
We’ve been in the house six months now, and while unpacking the last of the boxes, I find a package marked “FRAGILE” in Keith’s neat handwriting. I can’t think of anything fragile we own—no valuables or heirlooms—but as I peel back the layers of plastic shopping bag used as wrapping, I see a box, about the size of a shoe box, which I recognize immediately as the urn containing the ashes of our first dog, Jimmy. A ninety-pound boxer, with a heart and personality to match his size, Jimmy came with us from Texas and lived here in Vermont until he was thirteen. Losing him was eased by the wonderful staff of our local vet office, who treated the loss as their own. We opted to have him cremated, and when we went to pick up the ashes, they were stored in a pine box with a handwritten card taped to the lid. The card, which had a raised, lumpy paper heart affixed to it, read, “Plant this in loving memory.” The veterinary technician, who emerged from the back to tell us how sorry she was, explained that the heart adornment contained wildflower seeds and that we could plant it. At the time we lived in an apartment and decided to hang onto the card until we found a place of our own. I show Keith the card and read the instructions out loud: “Remove adornment from card, plant in your garden and wildflowers will blossom year after year.” I ask him if he remembers the garden I was talking about our first night in the house. I hold up the card and touch the little heart adornment and say, “We can start with this.”
ALEXIS PAIGE is the author of Not a Place on Any Map, a collection of flash lyric essays about trauma, and winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Her essay, “The Right to Remain,” was a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, and she’s received three Pushcart Prize nominations. Paige’s work appears in The Rumpus,Hippocampus, The Manifest Station, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com.
It’s a Sunday morning and I’m sitting in a church, in a row very near the back, not far from the door. I like to sit near the back in church services and yoga classes in case I need to make a quick escape. Vulnerability looms larger in these settings, and I’m always nervous someone will decide I’m actually a fraud, and I shouldn’t be allowed to take communion or execute downward-facing dogs. This is irrational, I know.
The church is small and meets in a gym that belongs to a larger church. The doors are swung open to the mid-morning sunlight. A picture of Jesus hangs near the altar. He has a long, narrow nose and a down-turned mouth and he gazes at his flock with stoic indifference.
The priest’s reassuring voice leads us through the Prayers of the People. She prays for the poor and the sick and the imprisoned. “Lord, hear our prayer,” we all chime in at the conclusion of each request.
A shaggy-haired blonde child, about two and a half years old, is seated six rows ahead of me. He turns around. We lock eyes. I smile. His eyes light up. A feeling of validation washes over me. I’m not a mother, and the further I get into my thirties, the more I fear motherhood will elude me indefinitely. And so I’m flooded with relief any time I earn even fleeting approval of children. I take it as proof that I could be a mom, that I’d be a natural.
The child points in my direction. “Mommy!” he says. I look around to see who his mother is. The row is empty except for me. The child ducks under some legs and scurries toward the back of the church, toward me. He shimmies through the metal folding chairs until he is right next to me, wrapping his arms around my legs with an affectionate familiarity. I’m a little unsettled because the kid is a stranger to me. I freeze, waiting for his parents to come whisk him away. No one comes.
We finish the Prayers of the People and I gingerly sit down. He crawls into my lap. He’s pretty at ease around me, so I start to loosen up too. I let my heart melt just a little. His curls brush against my neck as he adjusts his toddler form into a more comfortable position, his head on my shoulder. I look down at the tiny adorable stranger in my arms, completely bewildered, wondering why has he chosen to bestow his affections on me, a strange lady.
“Mommy, do you have any snacks?” Wait. This kid really thinks I’m his mom. I take a mental step back to examine my hold on reality. Potential explanations for what is happening here:
1) I’m suffering from amnesia and don’t remember that I’m a mom.
2) I’ve entered an alternate dimension in which I am, in fact, a mom.
3) I’m hallucinating.
4) Noting my biological clock, God has simply dropped a child out of Heaven for me.
5) The kid is confused.
I assume it’s option #5. Which means I have a choice to make: I can correct him, or I can go with it. If I correct him, I risk him feeling some sort of misplaced maternal rejection, which could be quickly remedied if I just knew which mother to shuttle him toward. But I do not. If I go with it, his sense of alienated disorientation will only increase once he finally realizes I’m actually a stranger, not his mom. Both seem like potential Freudian nightmares.
But I know what I want. I want to go with it. I want to assuage, if even temporarily, the fear that motherhood will elude me indefinitely. I want to quench my maternal thirst. I want to sink deep into the mother-child blond like a sugar fiend taking a spoon to a can of frosting in the middle of the night.
“No snacks,” I whisper.
He sighs deeply and twists his neck around to look at me. “Mommy, can we go home?”
“Not yet,” I say.
The priest is breaking the bread: “The gifts of God for the people of God.” I carry him in my arms up to the altar for communion. No one stops me. I actually feel like a mom. And it’s wonderful.
The child plays with my purse straps while the priest gives the benediction. My heart grows tentative, knowing I won’t be a mom for much longer. My thirty-five minutes is almost up.
A tall man who’s been playing music for the service at the front of the gym approaches me. “Sorry,” he says, “his mom’s home sick today.” He chuckles. “You look a lot like her.” The child looks up as the realization hits him. He bursts into tears. I feel terrible.
“You see! I’m a fraud!” I want to yell. Instead, I give a nice smile and say, “No problem. We had a nice time.”
The reality is that I live in Los Angeles. The reality is that I live alone. The reality is that I have no husband, no children. But I act in TV commercials and so, on occasion, live outside of that reality.
Some commercial producers have decided I don’t look like a single woman in LA at all. In fact, I look like a woman living in suburban Nashville with two kids and a husband, the kind of woman who might spend her vacation days at a place like Dolly Parton’s Tennessee theme park, Dollywood. And since they’re offering money for this down-home interpretation of my likeness, I pack up my bags and head to Nashville to shoot.
In Nashville, I have a blonde son and a redheaded daughter. My husband is burly and bearded and looks nothing like anyone I have ever dated. They give him a snug winter-white sweater to wear, which makes him look like a gruff Bing Crosby. They give me a denim skirt and a button-up blouse with a vaguely Western motif. The director is going for Wes Anderson quirk. The client and ad agency are going more Smoky Mountain-chic. The result lies uncomfortably in between.
In the suburban house where we film, there’s a framed painting of a Confederate soldier and a guitar signed by Alan Jackson. I change in the gun closet.
When the kids are taken to set, my husband and I follow them downstairs to watch. The process is agonizingly slow. The girl doesn’t take direction well. The director is visibly frustrated. My husband leans over and snorts, “This is why W.C. Fields said never to work with children or animals.” We go back upstairs where I manage to fit in two naps on the overstuffed couch.
I keep wondering when they’ll bring all of us together to film the big reveal scene—me, my husband, and my kids. But it never happens. As soon as my husband and I are shuttled on set, our kids are shuttled away. We never film with them at all. But in the edited version of the commercial, the four of us are all in the living room together. The four of us are happy. We look like a real family.
It’s two in the morning and I’m sitting with my boyfriend in my Honda at the foot of his driveway. Technically, he’s not my boyfriend, but he was at one time, and we’ve been attempting over the past few months to see if we couldn’t put things back together. This attempt has been fraught with uncertainty. In the time since we broke up, a jungle of confusion and hurt feelings has grown wild.
I love him anyway.
And tonight, it feels like we’ve come to a clearing in this jungle. We’ve taken our machetes and sliced through heavy, swinging vines of miscommunication. It feels spacious and safe in the clearing. I’m already eyeing trees we can cut down for timber to use for building us a little cabin. This is working. We’re making this work.
He looks away from me, out the passenger side window. “There are still some things we need talk about.” He pauses, somberly. “And I’m nervous to talk about them.” Nervous, why? I don’t ask.
“We’ll get there,” I say, “We’ll talk about everything. It’ll be fine.” I am sure it will be fine.
He turns back toward me: “You’re my family, you know…” His face is soft. “And pretend I’m not saying this,” he turns away again, then looks back, “but remember how I used to say I wanted to have kids with you? I still think about that. I think about having kids with you all the time.”
But I cannot pretend he’s not saying this. A match has been lit in the dark and I feel like I can finally see again. I refuse to snuff it out. This is what I want. Us. A family. I feel high. In the clearing, I can see the cabin built already, smoke coming out of the chimney, a baby laughing inside.
He holds me with an earnestness that I think will break both our bones. “I love you,” he says. “Do you hear me? I love you.”
He gets out of my car and I watch him walk up the driveway. This will be the last time I see him. A week later, without warning or explanation, he will stop returning my phone calls. He will simply pack up his machete, walk away from our little clearing, and disappear into the jungle.
ANNA ANDERSON is a writer in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Bustle, among other publications. You can find her website at annaaanderson.com.
I don’t know who I am without Peter. I’m lost on so many levels without him. He’s been dead as of 12:01 p.m., April 2, 2013. I know I’m a parent, a single parent. I know I’m a woman in love with several men. I know that I’m a widow, a word I have grown to hate. But who am I? Without my best friend and husband, who am I?
In an effort to know myself, I have taken every step to ground myself and seek deep spiritual knowledge. I have mined the wells of my soul and gone to the deepest and most powerful source. Not therapy. I’ve been there, done that. Not rehab. As they say, rehab is for quitters and I am no quitter! I have nursed at the teat of the most omnipotent place in the universe. The internet.
I’ve discovered a whole world of quizzes on the interwebs. I’m excited to delve in. Social media sites are the perfect place to seek knowledge and enlightenment—right? This exploration began as an innocent Facebook quiz several hours after my planned bedtime, and it was a doozie.
“Which Golden Girl are you?” I have always maintained that I was Dorothy and I would punch someone’s heart out if they disagreed. So I already know what the test results will be. The quiz is over and I have answered every question to the best of my ability; the little spinny thing moves in circles and the test is calculating. Beep, boop, beep. The results are in and I don’t even have to look at the screen but I do. “You are Blanche!” “Blanche!” I scream at my phone at one a.m.
OH. MY. GOD. I am Blanche. The description goes on to explain to me the qualities of Blanche, which I already know because I watch The Golden Girls every night as a pacifier to insomnia. Blanche is quick witted, as am I. She excels at one liners (well, not to brag), and she’s driven by a need for attention, which, the test informs me, is why I’m always late. I need attention, of course. Blanche makes every boy fall for her and she has the fearless tenacity to back it up. Yep! I have slept with several men since Peter died. Once again, OH.MY.GOD. That must be why I am so sad losing Peter—I’m obsessed with men and sex. I am a quick witted, fast talking slut that needs attention from men to survive. What a relief! Now I can proceed to the process of grieving as Blanche would grieve. Or should I say the way Blanche did grieve because she is also my neighbor in the “widowhood.”
The next day I walk around in a sleepless haze but confident in the knowledge that I’m a Blanche. My whole world has changed from black and white to color, just as I now imagine how men feel when they meet me. I’m more flirty with my boyfriend. I’m happy to openly acknowledge that I enjoy the company of boys, or as Blanche would call them … men. I need more, now! I need to know more about myself, pronto! Facebook is such a tremendous way to find these life changing quizzes, so forward I go, desperate in my need for more self-awareness. Luckily, I don’t sleep anymore. This is a spectacular life decision for me.
Every woman thinks she’s Carrie and, really, she is the Carrie of her own life. But armed with my new Blanche diagnosis, I fully expect that just like with the Golden Girls quiz, I’ll be wrong and I will indeed be Samantha. Twelve questions and three minutes later, I discover that I’m correct. Samantha it is, she is me. I wonder to myself, “But am I really proud of my sex life and my newfound sexual freedom?” Well I must be. The Facebook quiz says I am. I can’t get enough of this newfound insight.
Back to Facebook, but this time I need in-depth quizzes, something that speaks to my very core. I search for more; I casually ask my best friend if she has seen any fun or interesting quizzes anywhere. Lorie doesn’t skip a beat and casually mentions a few fun quizzes that she’s seen on Buzzfeed. Now we both take quizzes on Facebook and Buzzfeed, and since we can never do anything alone, we ask each other the questions and score each other’s tests. Man! What a blast! Look at me, talking with friends, doing something! I really am Samantha!
I’ve learned so much about myself, and these quizzes are the main reason. I’ve done an amazing job of avoid the impending pain and the sleepless nights that accompany the anniversary of my husband’s death. Screw being horizontal, crying on a therapist couch—I never really laid down anyway.
Maybe this should be my new career, creating quizzes for social media. I could start with “Which Facts of Life girl are you? Blair or Tootie? Do you enjoy motorcycles like Jo?” Then I could move on to more complex quizzes like “Are you and your best friend really secret enemies?” This is genius!
I’ve learned so many things about my newfound single self that I do a quick run-down. I know that my Ennegram personality is a loyalist and I thrive on love and my intuition. Interesting. I learned that if I were to be a yogi, balance is crucial to my well-being. Fascinating. I now also know that I will get remarried at the age of thirty-three. I am currently forty-three. I know that I am a slut that thrives on attention, especially from men, and Claire from The Breakfast Club is my spirit animal, which fits because I have always wanted to fuck Judd Nelson.
My newfound interest in the internet has provided me with the perfect distraction. I get to escape life for a brief time. I get to postpone the devastating heartbreak that accompanies the anniversary of my husband’s death. I get to pretend that I’ve found meaning in my new life without him. What could be better than that?
TANISHA PORATH was born a poor black girl in…well, actually she had a pretty middle class existence in Anchorage, Alaska, where she was born and raised. She studied photography at an art college in Seattle, the name of which, try as she might, she can’t quite remember. Soon after she graduated, she moved to Portland, Oregon, with her husband and started her career as an editorial photographer. Some of her clients have included Willamette Week, The Oregonian, and several other periodicals. She has two roommates that she happens to have given birth to, her daughter, fourteen, and her son, seventeen. She became a widow on April 2, 2013. She became a writer on April 3, 2013.
You can tell by the way his footsteps sound coming down the stairs if he’s having a grumpy morning or not. It’s okay—getting out of a warm bed sucks for you, too. Just don’t talk to each other until you’ve both had your coffee. The stronger the brew, the faster your moods improve. Talking while grumpy is always a bad idea. Kiss goodbye—a good kiss, not one of those ones you give your elderly relatives—when you separate for the day. A pat on the ass would be welcomed, too.
You can tell by the look in your child’s face how much her feelings were actually hurt. You clench your jaw so you don’t call the other kid a bad name. You know the other child’s mother might have done the same. Tomorrow they will be best friends again, and the rhododendrons are starting to bud, and your new kitten is getting so incredibly fluffy, and you plan to make a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting on Saturday. Life always goes on, but your child’s life has been too short for her to know that yet, so you must wrap her in the best furry blanket and cuddle her, until your words and touch permeate her being.
You can tell from the height of the bedside stack that you won’t ever have enough life to read all the books you need to read. There’s a sunny yellow puddle on the floor because you were too engrossed in the Abigail Thomas memoir to remember that you own dogs. Small dirty socks scatter across the floor because your children are real, not model children by any measure but the love they have for you, beyond what you’ve ever imagined receiving. The stately Mount Clean Clothes in your laundry room tells everyone you aren’t a good housekeeper. You smile when writing these words because you don’t care. Your husband is mostly silent when observing the laundry room (or any other room, honestly) so maybe he’s finally accepted that you’re not Marie Kondo or anyone like her. You can tell by your inner serenity in the house chaos that you aren’t willing to waste the life you have remaining on house perfection.
You can tell by your son’s jawline that he will be a man, sooner than can be tolerated, faster than is decent for a mother to have to endure. All you can do is hold him as long as he will allow it, patiently listen to his never-ending stories about things you care nothing about—the bad guys in Minecraft, the desire he has for a pocketknife, the funny thing his friend said which is really not funny at all, the newest Nerf machine guns that shoot foam bullets “ so super fast!” because it’s enough that he cares about them, and walk him to the basement—without complaining—to play video games because he won’t be scared to be alone forever.
You can tell by your daughter’s voice, attitude, face—all of her—that she has more confidence than you had at her age. Fourteen, and when she shrieks in laughter the entire cafeteria can hear and recognize it—no careful tittering for her. Her joy overtakes her and she roars, falls on the floor with its force, her mouth wide as the promise she holds. She stomps up to a boy who insulted her friend—not stopping her stomping until he is pinned to the wall like a fly on a corkboard—and informs him that what he did is not okay with her, and he will be apologizing now, and she claps her hands in front of him for emphasis. She radiates righteous anger. You are thrilled and you are jealous. You hope that she has more of all of it, of everything there is here, because surely no woman ever had as much of life as she deserves.
You can tell by your jeans button that you have gained weight. When you grasp your belly roll in both hands, marveling at its heft, at its rubbery texture, know that goddesses need solidity and heft, something to work with if they want to reign effectively. Just remember, you alone decide if you want to repaint or remodel your dwelling, and you alone can accomplish it. Whether the Venus of Willendorf was a fertility statue, a goddess, or ancient porn, she was made that way for a reason and so are you. Your breasts can and have nourished in more ways than one, and your children fight for your lap because it is cushioned for their needs. Praise yourself for your mightiness, for your strength, for your steadiness in a storm, knowing these things make you a sanctuary.
SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER is a Southern transplant living in Oregon, a spouse, a mother of four children, and an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her essays have been published in Hippocampus, The Bitter Southerner, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. Find her at sbweaver.com or tweet her @sarahbweaver.
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.”