Loz in an Elevator

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

It starts with a song. Maybe it’s on the radio, maybe on TV. It could even be the artwork on the cover of an album. Or it could be an interview.

Initially I’d not even liked the band, and the first time I saw them play, I left the all-ages music hall early—it was a sparsely attended weeknight lobby show—and fled with a friend to a scuzzy bar a few blocks away. I’d moved to Sonoma County because I wanted to be a wine writer, but that all went out the door when I discovered the area’s extensive indie band scene, complete with its own tabloid-sized free magazine published cheaply on newsprint with ink that left telltale smudges all over readers’ hands. Something about it all resonated with me, this hidden but vital world of scrappy bands thriving among the vineyards and bucolic golden hills.

Later, I shoehorned myself into working as the magazine’s managing editor for free. The editor gave me a copy of the band’s demo and after listening to it once out of duty, I was surprised to find I couldn’t stop. I played it every morning, usually twice in a row. The songs were soundscapes, heavy with blissed-out distortion, and I liked how they set the tone of the day I wanted to have. At one of the magazine’s weekly editorial meetings at a mediocre coffeehouse that also served beer and sandwiches, we decided to run a short profile of the band in the next issue, and they dispatched me to interview them.

The house where the band rehearsed was on a poorly lit rural road, easy to miss. Like many dumpy rental houses that play host to various band members over the years, it had a name: The 116 House. Inside, it was dim and there were about five old couches in the living room. They guys welcomed me in and we all sat on the couches and did the interview. I recall little else about it, though I still have the microcassette recording.

It was the night I met my husband. Joe was the band’s drummer, and he’d said just a few words that evening. He still has a drummer’s predilection for staying in the background.

•••

We liked a lot of the same bands, as it turned out. Joe and each I had Ride CDs separately before we coupled, and our devotion to Ride is still such that we can’t bear to part with the duplicates. I shelve our CDs alphabetically by artist, and the Rs—I also love The Ramones—are disproportionately gnarly. In its purest sense music does not take a tactile from, but in a practical sense I adore the plastic and vinyl flotsam of albums and their colorful sleeves and inserts. Even if the music isn’t on the stereo, I like knowing it’s there twice.

Some of the guys in Ride were still teenagers when (to deploy a trite phrase of music journalism) their band exploded onto the British music scene. It’s almost criminal how fully realized their sound was at such a young age. Listen to Nowhere, their first album proper, and it’s still fresh and epic. Their music was noisy and angelic and gorgeous but always had a solid pop sensibility at its core. Unimportant to Joe but very notable to me, they were also really fit. That, my friend, is arty chick bait. I was an easy mark.

Even so, there was little evidence of Ride’s physical deliciousness on Nowhere, the cover of which is a blurry image of a cresting ice-blue wave, so the songs themselves had to be the heartthrobs. I got into Nowhere my freshman year of college, hijacking my roommate’s copy and eventually listening to it every single morning twice in a row, blissfully existing inside of it the same way I would with Joe’s band’s demo years later. On an opposite coast, a world away, Joe was nowhere, too.

•••

Music was everything to me in my teens and early adulthood. School, jobs, responsibility: these things made no sense. Music did, and by first channeling a real-life situation through the glorious prism of a band, it came out as something I got.

I saw a lot of rock bands back then. They spiritually realigned me, helping me function the rest of the week. Everything else was planned around their shows. At a release show for a compilation CD Joe’s band was on, I got drunk and gave Joe my business card. A few days later he actually called me, instantly distinguishing himself from all of the other guys I kept tabs on at shows. We had our first date. And then we kept on dating.

I liked Joe because he was sincere, and I liked his friends and the other guys in the band because they were fun and not mopey, self-obsessed weirdos. Joe and I liked a lot of the same bands, too. We saw bands together, plus I tagged along to almost every one of his shows. For a four-piece, they had an insane amount of gear: a Farfisa, a Moog, two drum kits, assorted amps and amp heads, a few suitcases full of pedals and cables, and a film projector (I know, I know). It took a long time for them to load in, but it took forever for them to load out. Joe may be sincere, but he had no hustle. I grew adept at lugging bursting-at-the-seams drum hardware bags up and down narrow club steps and onto filthy San Francisco curbs. All those dingy clubs, all those pints of Lagunitas IPA, the residue of the stamp on the back of my hand giving away the cause of my next-day grogginess at work. I lived for it.

•••

One of the most disappointing things about being married to a drummer is that, no matter how mind-blowing their playing might be, it gets to a point where the person practicing on the kit in the garage is just making an unbearably loud racket. At least I appreciate Joe’s drum kit. It’s a set of vintage Ludwigs in a coppery sparkle wrap called Champagne. I see them glimmer every time I bring in the groceries. Those drums have traveled quite a bit, in the backs of vans and then in moving trucks. They’ve spent years in their drum bags, and then in the basements of friends, and then, finally, in our basement. Now that we have space for them, Joe does not have anyone nearby who jives on the kind of music he’d most like to play, and at best he sometimes does shuffle beats at casual jam sessions with friends. But he never gets to really wail.

We have a Ride poster that’s the cover of their 1991 EP, Today Forever. The poster was Joe’s initially, and for some reason he got it laminated when he bought it, and that’s probably why it’s still around now. I love that EP; the cover is a photo of a shark baring its teeth and RIDE is superimposed in capital letters and it’s cryptic and badass. I tried to put the poster up in the basement to remind me that we used to be cool, but no matter what kind of tape I used, the combination of cinder block walls and humidity conspired to make the poster fall down. It bummed me out. I think I was hoping it would spur Joe to play his drums more often.

I’m still plotting ways to hang that poster. Loving a band is like having a crush. Simply saying their name out loud feels gratifying, almost illicit. This is perhaps why music journalism has decayed into an endless stream of lists: assembling and deconstructing them allows you to handle the names, the bands, to build them up into a gigantic consolidated tower, an epic hypothetical luxury condo of rock and roll exclusivity that’s just to your liking. Even just typing certain band names now gives me a rush: The Charlatans. Sonic Youth. Dinosaur Jr. The people from these bands are officially old dudes now but not to me. Rock music is commonly thought of the music of youth, perhaps because only in youth do we have such an abundance of potent feelings in need of a vessel.

You’d think music would take energy from you, but that’s not how it works at all. It only gives. What a privilege to have that in your life, a special thing that’s all yours to obsess over.

•••

When my appetite for new bands took a nose dive about a decade ago, it disarmed me. Who was I if I didn’t care about current music? I wound up getting into really square stuff like Henri Mancini and Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis—the kind of music I used to make fun of. The albums were plentiful and affordable; I could get a whole box of crappy vinyl at the Goodwill for a dollar, pick out the good stuff, and turn right back to re-donate the rejects.

I missed leaving a club feeling both spent and entirely filled up. Live shows stopped doing it for me. I was tired of standing in a crowd on dirty floors in my impractical rocker-girl black vinyl boots, tired of sitting at a cocktail table in a sparsely populated club, tired of scoping out a spot to pee in an alley off San Pablo Avenue because the toilet got clogged at the artists’ loft party. The toilets at loft shows always got clogged.

Going musically frigid changed me, or I changed and then I went frigid. To care so much seems petty, but the emotional significance of a single song can run so deep, like a fissure in the ocean floor. Some people find God. Others find bands, and their music fills a void. Listening to a song is at once completely universal and profoundly individual, and the people who made that song you come to carry in your heart because they created something that lifts up your life and articulates this roiling feeling you either have or yearn to have.

•••

“Ride’s getting back together!” Joe said right when he came home from work. “They’re touring and will be in Cleveland.”

This was huge. “When?” I asked. “Did you get tickets? This will sell out. We need tickets.”

“But what if your mom can’t watch Frances?”

“THIS IS RIDE. Get the tickets.”

He got the tickets. I arranged for Mom to watch Frances, and we booked a hotel not far from the venue, because Cleveland is a bit of a trip for us, and I’d done enough drowsy post-show drives in my life to know how stupid it is to get in a car with your ears ringing and a body full of adrenaline and blood tinged with alcohol, only to later doze off going 75 on the interstate with still over an hour left to go, thinking, “Crap, am I going to make it home alive?”

Neither of had ever seen Ride, who broke up in the mid-1990s. They hadn’t played together formally in over twenty years. Joe and I left for Cleveland in the afternoon, and when we got downtown, the traffic was outrageous and Joe nearly had a panic attack. It turns out there was an Indians game that night, and our hotel was blocks from the stadium, so by the time we checked into our room, we’d weathered a nightmarish hour of gridlocked rerouting and impossible parking.

Key cards in hand, we got in the elevator. Joe was surly, swearing under his breath, and I had to give him the kind of wifely “get your shit together, man” look reserved for public situations.

But something quickly drew my attention away from my irate husband. Right before the elevator doors closed, a man rushed in and stared intently at his black rolly suitcase. In the understated dark clothing of a traveler, he didn’t look like any of the garishly dressed Indians fans we’d just seen by the bucketload, and he was giving off a powerful vibe I recognized but couldn’t quite place. The doors slid closed, and the typical awkwardness of a crowded elevator ensued. I thought about asking the intense guy which floor he needed—he was cute, a good excuse to be polite—but opted not to because he was actually closer to the buttons than I was.

I spent the following impossibly long elevator seconds mulling this over, and then bing! the doors opened to our floor. The intense dude quickly scooted out before us to the opposite wing. Once we got down our end hallway, Joe turned to me. “I think that was Loz.”

“What?” I said. Loz is Ride’s drummer. It’s short for Lawrence. I think there’s a rule that all British rock band percussionists need to have nicknames with a Z. Joe’s always admired Loz musically. He’s not the kind to idolize people, but he’s told me a few times how the song “Leave Them All Behind,” which is crazy-full of drum fills, had been one of the things that motivated him to start playing drums in the first place.

“Yeah—in the elevator. His suitcase had a luggage tag that said OXF.” Ride is from Oxford.

I was dubious, because Ride was a distant thing from a mythical realm, one that did not include blasé, overpriced rooms at the Radisson. “Let’s just figure out where we’re having dinner and relax a bit,” I said. But I was not relaxed. I’d suddenly slipped back into the old Sara, a person who was impulsive and excitable. We headed out and kept our eyes peeled.

Dinner was awful. Ride was fantastic. The reunion was not at all a pandering or opportunistic. I always wonder about this, the motivation bands have to reunite. Every person has events that define their lives, but for a band who achieves renown in their youth, that becomes—to the public, at least—the defining thing in their lives. Joe had certainly not spent the ten years of our marriage being nothing but the former drummer for his band, though they never exploded onto any music scene.

We go through the years, and ideally become more sorted-out and mature. There are jobs that don’t involve musical instruments or amp heads or tour vans that stink of farts and t-shirts in bad need of laundering. There are relationships and families and prosaic things of incredible, meaningful depth: homework on the refrigerator, walks with the dog, lopsided birthday cakes spattered with droplets of pink and blue wax. But there are also the lingering fumes of four guys who were on a stage together and did this incredible, transformative thing, and while other life events can eclipse that in significance, nothing can duplicate it.

•••

Pop culture holds such a mighty sway over our society that we tend to define ourselves by what we like, not what we do. Those filters—favorite bands, favorite books, favorite movies—are handy, but they’re not airtight. I might meet a person who agrees with me that Ejector Seat Reservation is Swervedriver’s best album start to finish, because duh, it is. But you can love Swervedriver and be an asshole. Joe and I can relate to each other over somewhat obscure music, but that’s not what makes a relationship endure. I’m not sure what does, actually. Maybe not knowing is the key.

After the concert, Joe and I agreed it was for sure Loz in our elevator that night. While the show itself had been the main attraction, this one fleeting non-encounter gave the whole weekend a symbolic significance. The Pope had just concluded his North American junket, but screw that. Loz stayed on the same floor of our hotel.

That following week I spent electrified, floating in a heady altered state. Joe and I dug up a documentary about Creation, Ride’s record label, and it included this offhand home move footage of Ride from back in the day—they couldn’t have been any older than twenty-one—and they were just these totally hot little shoegaze babies peering out from a lost window of time that held so much promise. What was I doing when that was filmed? What was Joe? I couldn’t even fathom it. I wanted to go back and re-watch that snippet about fifty times, which is exactly what I would have done in 1991.

My body surged with my own teenage fervor, churning with pheromones long unused. The intimacy and immediacy of all the music I’d ever loved came rushing back, and my ears were receptive in a way they hadn’t been in years. I daydreamed a lot and was not terribly productive with work, instead going on runs more frequently, the pace brisker and the route longer. Joe sat at his drum kit in the basement and played it hard, like he used to before we learned to automatically default to common respect for our neighbors.

The world nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos and algos—“pain” and “return home,” respectively. The pain isn’t from the past itself, but the impossibility of fully experiencing that home again. I was afraid I’d feel pained from what I’d see up there onstage, that the reality of a middle-aged Ride today would maybe squelch a vision of the past I cherished, a time of dewy skin and dreamy faces. But I didn’t. (It certainly helped that the band’s members have aged well—hiya, Loz!)

I could listen to the interview I recorded at the 116 House in 2001, but do I even need to? Part of the 116 House lives here. Home is dynamic. At its kernel is the eternal awe of youth, embers that you can’t let die. We move artlessly though time, as dumb today as the day we were born, and the day we skipped class to go flip through the bargain bin at the record store, and the day we drunkenly handed a drummer a business card after that show at Bottom of the Hill, and they day we put our kid to bed for the thousandth time. Every morning we wake up again, and it is today forever.

•••

SARA BIR is a chef and writer living in Ohio. Her book Foraged, Forgotten, Found: Rediscovering America’s Abundant Wild and Unusual Fruits is forthcoming from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

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Reading Romance When You Were Never a Virgin

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

 

Content warning: childhood sexual abuse —ed.

By Katie Rose Guest Pryal

I’m reading my way through a romance series. I’m on the fifth installment, and I’ve gotten a feel for the unique quirks of the books as well as for the ways the books heed romance novel conventions—especially the less enticing conventions.

The convention I’m having trouble dealing with most, one of the most common romance novel conventions of all, is this: All of the heroines, no matter what their age, no matter what century they were born in (there’s some time-traveling involved), are virgins when they meet the heroes.

There’s nothing wrong with being a virgin, of course. Lots of people are virgins, even into their mid-twenties (or later), just like the heroines of the novels I’m reading. But lately, the way virginity is used as a trope in romance novels has started to get to me.

With few exceptions (Courtney Milan, I’m looking at you), one can’t read a historical romance novel, or even many that are set in contemporary times, without encountering a virginal heroine. It’s simply that common of a genre convention.

What’s the big deal?

The big deal, for me, is the particular trope of virginity-as-sacred-gift to the hero. The big deal, for me, is the other trope of virginity-as-stand-in-for-honesty, resolve, valor, courage, and an assortment of other qualities that a romance heroine has no other way of proving she possesses except by guarding her hymen.

In a romance novel that uses these tropes, when the moment of truth—that is, cherry-picking—finally comes, and inevitably the reader enters the hero’s point of view for at least a moment, he feels such gratitude that he’s the one to have received the gift of the heroine’s virginity. And in that moment, he truly admires her.

And in that moment, I feel sick and cheated. I feel like a failure. I wonder why I’m reading the book and consider stopping. Every time. But I set aside my bad feelings and keep reading. After all, it’s not the romance novel genre’s fault that I was raped when I was a child and never had a chance to be a virgin at all.

•••

When I was a freshman in college, my best friend was a girl named Bel. She and I were walking through the student union during what turned out to be rape awareness week. I, of course, was so wildly unaware of everything in college that I didn’t know such a week even existed.

A campus activist group had set up a long, white bulletin board—a memorial. It stretched as long as the building itself. When Bel and I found it, the board was covered by a flurry of yellow index cards, so many that the board looked like a field of daffodils. On a nearby table were more cards, pens, and push-pins so you could write a note and stick it on the board.

I’d never told Bel what happened to me as a child, so I was nervous about writing anything on a card. But she strode to the table, picked up a card and wrote a note, and then stabbed it into the board. Her note read, For the girl who never got to be a virgin.

For a moment, I had a strange feeling that Bel had read my mind. She could have written that note about me. She hadn’t, though. I quickly wrote a note for myself, and we walked outside onto the quad. We sat in the spring North Carolina sunshine on a patch of grass by the gothic-inspired chapel and told each other very similar stories.

Then, Bel told me she had a theory. It went like this: Since she never had a chance to choose whom to have sex with the first time, she got to be a virgin forever.

Bel was an eternal virgin.

•••

At first glance, Bel’s theory seemed similar to the advice given by nurse practitioner Carol F. Roye, in her article about the uselessness of our cultural misconceptions about hymens and virginity: “I believe that virginity is what the individual thinks it is. It certainly is for men, who bear no tell-tale signs of lost virginity. The concept of virginity has an emotional connotation. It is more than just the physical disruption of hymenal tissue.”

But in reality, Bel had flipped Roye’s advice on its head. Bel had declared herself a virgin for as long as she wanted to be one.

Roye, however, was not advising a perception of virginity until you felt like you weren’t a virgin any more. On the contrary, she was advising women to take a broader, not narrower, view of virginity loss: “If a young woman has had a sexual relationship with her partner, and she feels that she has lost her virginity, then she has, regardless of what actually happened to her hymen during the encounter. There are ancillary issues that each woman must answer for herself. Is oral sex ‘de-virginizing?’ Anal sex?”

Roye’s article didn’t consider me or Bel at all. How do you think about virginity when yours was gone before you were sexual being in the first place?

•••

Just a few months before my conversation with Bel, I’d had sex for the first time since since I was raped by a grown man when I was in middle school.

My first adult sexual experience was not the most romantic experience in the world. In fact, in retrospect, I don’t think I wanted it to be. I think I wanted to get it over with. I didn’t have a hymen (metaphorical or no) to discard, but I did have plenty of baggage. I chose someone I knew I would never see again—an ex-boyfriend from high school. I selected him carefully for a one-night stand.

In retrospect.

Before we went at it, I told Ex-Boyfriend I was raped when I was a child—I’d never told him before. He seemed, weirdly, relieved. “So you’re not a virgin, then.”

What did that question mean? That he was going to do things differently? Would he have done things differently if I’d said nothing? What if I’d had the eternal virgin conversation with Bel sooner and kept my rape a secret from him? What if I’d told him I was a virgin—what would have happened then? Did he think my body was transformed somehow by its less-than-virginal status, his own duty to me therefore lightened?

Sarah Wendell at the romance novel website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books addressed what she called the “Surprise Virgin” trope in romance novels. It goes like this:

The hero figures out the heroine is a virgin because he encounters some resistance (which, don’t even get me started) and she flinches and of course he Is Very Alarmed and tries to stop but she tells him not to so it’s ok for him to get on with it.

Then after they’ve crested and reached peaks of joy and done the dance as old as time, he says something about how if he’d known she was a virgin, he’d have done it all differently, been more gentle or something.

Wendell has all kinds of criticisms of this particularly weak trope: “First, why would you not bring your A game the first time you sleep with a woman you have major lust pants for? If you groin is on fire and it’s not because of Gold Bond, why would you not do your very best scrumpin? What is this ‘I’d have been more gentle and sensitive’ crap?”

Ex-Boyfriend and I had the awkward I-was-raped conversation. Then I, with my non-virginal eighteen-year-old body, and he, with his extremely non-virginal twenty-year-old body, fucked in my friend’s guest room. It hurt like hell. I cried and made sure he didn’t see. Sex felt terrible, and I never wanted to do it again. Maybe that was his A game. Maybe it wasn’t.

My de-baggaging (you really can’t call it deflowering) did not involve peaks of joy.

I was an unusual species of surprise virgin. I’d been deflowered, yes, when I was a child. But in no way was I sexually experienced. Bel was right, in this instance—that night I was an eternal virgin.

But I didn’t understand any of this back then. After my de-baggaging, I was in so much pain that I believed my body was broken. When Ex-Boyfriend asked me what was wrong—he wasn’t so dense that he couldn’t sense that something was off—I insisted I was fine. He fell asleep. I didn’t sleep at all.

I was probably in shock.

In retrospect.

•••

The romance novel is a beautiful genre. That’s why, despite these painful virgin tropes, I keep reading them. When they’re written well, books about the struggle to find human connection—emotional and physical—are deeply gratifying.

Some readers criticize the predictability of the genre. But, like it does for most genres, predictability makes romance novels more enjoyable, not less. Romance is predictable as any genre is predictable: as predictable as a Sherlock Holmes story, as predictable as a sonnet.

“Predictable” simply means that the books share genre conventions to which they must conform and use to tell their stories. These conventions can be constraining, like the quatrains and couplets of a sonnet. But they can also create a freedom within that constraint, as any author of metrical poetry will tell you. Readers appreciate an author who can dazzle from within those conventions.

Any acrobat can flip and twirl. The acrobat who flips and twirls on a tightrope is astounding. The tightrope is the genre with its constraints and conventions.

But here’s the other thing about genres: they are allowed to grow and change as the needs of their audiences grow and change.

Wendell and her co-author Candy Tan, in their book on romance novels, Beyond Heaving Bosoms, take on the trope of innocence—usually depicted using virginity—in romance novels of all stripes, not just historicals:

One of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica, is the sexually unawakened state of the heroine. She’s relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type.

Therein lies the deep, humid, dark, and somewhat curious den that is home to the two sacred mythical beasts beloved to Romancelandia. They’re interconnected, if you know what we mean (and we think you do): the Unawakened Woman and the Heroic Wang of Mighty Lovin’. They are the plague and the backbone of romance. 

The virginal heroine and heroic wang are long-entrenched conventions of romance novels. But they need to go. They need to go along with the interminable whiteness of the characters of most romance novels, and other sad holdovers.

Romance writers do push genre boundaries. They stay on the tightrope but retrace the conventions in ways that allow for new ways of thinking about sexuality. For readers like me, for rape survivors, abuse survivors, for those of us whose virginity never was ours to begin with—we are grateful.

Courtney Milan, in her historical romance novel Unclaimed, features a virginal leading man, Sir Mark Turner, and a courtesan, Jessica Farleigh, hired to seduce him and destroy his reputation. The book is sexy, conventional (genre-wise), and wound up tight. And yet it flips the virginal heroine trope on its head. That Milan could do all of this and remain on the tightrope only makes her writerly acrobatics more amazing.  Milan avoided the plague and maintained the backbone. And with the rest of her novels, she does it over and over. Other writers manage to avoid the plague as well. (Hello there, Alisha Rai.) But they are rare, still.

•••

I know that having sex for the first time is not usually like it is in a romance novel. Even friends who aren’t rape survivors have told me that their first time was similar to my de-baggaging. Terrible—painful, with insensitive partners who are snoring before you know it’s over.

But usually a girl or woman gets to choose whom she’s with when she loses her virginity. I never got to choose. Bel never got to choose. But more than that, we never got to be virgins. From the moment I was aware of my sexuality, I was already not-a-virgin. The first person to press his lips to mine was the first person to stick his dick in me. I didn’t know what a condom was, and, no, he didn’t use one.

I lost so much that day. Not just my virginity.

•••

It’s curious that we say “lose” when we talk about virginity. The language of “lose,” of “loss,” implies that virginity is something that can be found again. After all, few things are lost forever. The old-fashioned term “ruined” seems far more accurate. Thomas Hardy, ever interested in ruination, wrote a poem called “The Ruined Maid,” taking on Victorian notions of virginity and its close bedfellow (heh), ruination.

“O ’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such pros-per-ity?”—
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” —
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

And on it goes, the poor country girl amazed by the dazzling jewels, dress, and speech of her former counterpart, now “ruined,” the reader supposes, by a coincidence of her sexual actions and the rigid moral dictates of society.

What’s not mentioned in the poem is that the ruined woman must be well provided for in her new role as a rich man’s mistress. Ruination in Victorian society did not immediately mean wealth and education, after all, but it could. And, by the end, it appears that both women—the poor working woman, aged early by her hard life, and the rich man’s mistress—are ruined after a fashion. The double meaning of the word “ruined” makes the poem work.

Nevertheless, the line of demarcation is clear. The overworked country girl and the socially ruined mistress are not the same.

A girl does not come back from being ruined. What’s lost cannot be found. You just have to pick up the ruined stuff of yourself, and move on.

•••

KATIE ROSE GUEST PRYAL is a novelist, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor living in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Hollywood Lights Series, which includes Entanglement, Love and Entropy, and Chasing Chaos, all from Velvet Morning Press. As a journalist, Katie contributes regularly to Quartz, The Chronicle Of Higher Education, The (late, lamented) Toast, Dame Magazine, and more. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. When not writing, she teaches creative writing and works as freelance editor. Find her on Twitter: @krgpryal.

Another John

By BuzzFarmers/Flickr
By BuzzFarmers/Flickr

By Sue Granzella

His one-inch thumbnail picture was cute, but that wasn’t why I stopped on the online profile of “Another John” that Saturday morning in 2003. It was his profile header that grabbed my attention, proclaiming, “You will never be a guest on the Jerry Springer Show because of me.”

Visions sprang to mind of a curly-haired woman in a red tube-top, flinging fistfuls of deli meats at her boyfriend. A bald guy in a tight t-shirt chomping on another guy’s bare calf. I remembered a woman’s tearful confession to her outraged spouse, who then stormed backstage and punched a hole in a wall. One thing was clear. The guy who’d written that headline was funny.

•••

Though I’d spent most of my adult life in a series of long-term relationships, I always felt like it was a fluke, like I was an impostor. The real me had no idea how to date. Maybe my ineptitude had taken root in elementary school where the nuns punished the whole class whenever boys and girls bucked the rules and played together during recess. Or maybe it was due to my love of sports; I’d been outdoors playing baseball with my brother’s friends the summer my female classmates were indoors teaching themselves to dance, apply make-up, and shave their legs. Perhaps it was what I’d noticed from a young age: girls who were little and cute got more practice talking to boys. Whatever the origins of my discomfort, when I imagined dating, I felt as graceful as a linebacker doing ballet.

Thankfully, I’d managed to sidestep true “dating,” since most of my love relationships had grown out of friendships. Only rarely had I gone out with strangers. But things felt different now. I was single, finally emerging from months of hibernation after the excruciating breakup of a six-year relationship. Now forty-four, I was past the age of having lots of single male friends.

So I thought about how I could meet someone. I taught elementary school; 98% of my colleagues were women. Bars and nightclubs wouldn’t work; I didn’t drink, and only my dog was allowed to see my dance moves. Though I started reading personals ads, I never made a conscious decision to try online dating, still not widespread in 2003. Reading the ads on Craigslist reminded me that if other people were out looking, too, maybe I wasn’t such a freak.

But entries like “52-year-old married man seeks slender woman, 20-25, for discreet affair” only reinforced my feeling that I was an awkward alien, lost on a planet of dating-proficient people. Eventually, I decided that it might be less depressing if I went to a website that was solely for dating, rather than one that also told me where to recycle my scrap metal.

•••

I’d been window-shopping on Match.com for six weeks. Following my instructions, the website was showing me single men in their forties who lived within five miles of me. If anyone’s intro paragraph passed my test for “smart” and “funny,” I’d read the rest of his profile and hunt for shared values and interests. So far, I’d granted a few men ratings of “mildly interesting,” but no one had intrigued me enough to make me break out the credit card and pay for the privilege of contacting him. The Jerry Springer guy had my attention, though. I read on.

Then I saw them, my magic words, standing tall and proud in the second sentence: “friends,” “committed,” “monogamous,” and “very long-term.” I felt a little flutter inside from a part of me that had long been paralyzed. I had wondered if my last relationship had killed it, but as I continued reading, I could feel that hope had survived.

Another John sounded like he knew what he wanted. I knew what I didn’t want—another six years with a man who ultimately didn’t want to commit. With each sentence, though, I got a sense of someone who knew himself, someone who wanted a true partner. I scanned the rest, waiting for the one-liner that would stop my forward motion.

But it didn’t come. He wasn’t a rock-climbing, parachute-jumping super-stud longing for a woman who could comfortably strut the red carpet as well as stroll the beach. Neither was he looking for a supermodel fifteen years younger than he.

Instead, he hoped for someone who could watch films with subtitles, who would never cross a picket line, and whose stance toward religion was one of tolerance. If he needed a weekly bungee-jumping fix, he didn’t mention it. He liked having dinner with friends, eating M&Ms in movie theaters, and camping in the mountains.

He was open to a rainbow of ethnicities, and under “you could be,” this agnostic man, Another John, had marked everything from Taoist to Muslim to Jewish to atheist. He didn’t require a younger woman, and he’d even marked that he was open to someone several years older than he. In online dating, that was a rarity.

That was it. It was time to pay up.

I felt a ridiculous sense of urgency as I ran to grab my credit card. After all, Another John had been out there for the entire forty-four years I’d been alive. But now that I’d found him, I didn’t want anyone else to snag him before I’d had my chance. Hurriedly, I re-entered my username and password.

Then I had to decide the length of my pay-in-advance membership. Even though the monthly price would be cheaper if I went long term, wasn’t it pessimistic to assume that I’d need a whole year to find someone? And anyway, hadn’t I already found him? He just didn’t know it yet. So I chose the bare minimum, the one-month plan.

I was dismayed to discover next that I’d have to create a profile before I could contact him. As precious minutes ticked by, I typed sentences about myself that I hoped would appeal to Another John. Would it seem too scary if I used the word “crazed” in my headline? And if I said “Baseball-Crazed Hiking Teacher,” did that make it sound like I taught hiking or like I was a teacher who liked to hike? Was it too much too soon if I wrote that I ultimately wanted to get married? Oh, man. Why hadn’t I thought about this stuff beforehand? My hands trembled as the panic raced through me.

After whipping out a paragraph that I hoped was both funny and substantive, I reached the step where I got to specify the traits I was looking for in a partner. It was like building my own omelet at Denny’s. And in selecting the ingredients that were exactly to my tastes, I found that the omelet-person I was creating sounded an awful lot like Another John.

Finally, I clicked on the “contact” link, and it was done. Feeling giddy, I closed the laptop. All I could do now was wait.

That evening, while congratulating myself for my boldness, I reread his profile. Suddenly, my eyes widened, and I scanned the list of religions that Another John had deemed acceptable. It wasn’t there!

Distracted by my pleasure at how open-minded A.J. was, I’d failed to notice that the one religion missing from his “approved” list was the one that was in my bones. I’d attended Catholic school for twelve plaid-skirt-wearing years and had gone to daily Mass for nearly a decade of my adulthood. I’d been courted by hopeful nuns who’d recognized my potential as a future convent-dweller, and I’d worked for Catholic organizations. Though I hadn’t attended Mass or believed in most Catholic teachings for many years, I couldn’t deny who I was. I was pretty damned Catholic.

Another John hadn’t listed “Christianity” in his comprehensive “Muslims and Taoists are fine” list. And since Catholicism came under the Christian umbrella, I’d contacted him under false pretenses, the internet-dating equivalent of a sin.

So I dashed off an, “Oh, no! You didn’t want to meet Christians! I didn’t ignore that on purpose!” email to him.

The next day, I received a very polite response. Another John apologized for the delay, explaining that he was being very conscientious about sending a response to every single person who’d contacted him.

Well, now. It certainly sounded like he’d been very busy. I pictured his frenzied fingers typing wildly in an effort to keep up with the hordes of single women in their forties who, like I, had recognized his potential. I read on.

He gracefully accepted my unveiling of the Catholicism, explaining that he’d left “Christian” off in case he attracted someone who might want to convert his agnostic self. My profile must have communicated, “I do not need to drag you to church”; he assured me that he wasn’t worried about my Catholicism.

The one point on which he did want clarification was my long-time vegetarianism. Fascinating! He was okay with my religious upbringing that believed that dry bread could be turned into Jesus, but he was cautious about my love of garbanzos and cauliflower?

His earnest questions were endearing:

Do you avoid meat on moral grounds? Does it bother you if your dinner partner eats meat? Can you tolerate meat in your house?

The answers were easy. I’d stopped eating meat decades earlier when I’d been a camp counselor and could think of no other way to stop gorging myself at the buffet. After that summer, I’d just let the meat habit die. There was no moral ground; I was simply a recovering glutton.

The rest of my email continued:

“I hope your fingers are okay. Sounds like they’re getting worn down to nubs, what with all the emails you’re sending to interested women.”

We continued back and forth for a few days, lighthearted jokes sprinkled in among the “So what kind of person are you?” questions. Then we decided we didn’t need the website to be our chaperone anymore and exchanged email addresses.

My heart would happily skip a beat when I’d see Another John’s name in my inbox. I thought of him as “The Serious One,” even though it was his humor that had attracted me immediately. In his profile photos, he looked intent and businesslike. Me? Digital cameras were still uncommon in 2003, so I had only one digital picture to post, a shot of me wearing a shiny gold crown. John’s emails were brief and politely inquisitive, usually including a line that made me chuckle. My emails to him were newsy and energetic.

“Hey, John. So my city-kid third-graders are on a field trip in the forest, and the naturalist does a ‘notice what’s around you’ activity. She gathers the kids, then tells them to sit down and listen to the sounds of nature. Kenneth turns to me and whispers, ‘Does she mean sit in the dirt?’ I roll my eyes, nod, and point to the ground. Kenneth looks appalled, and says, ‘But won’t that be—dirty?’ Sheesh. Hope your day was okay. Sue”

His response:

“Hi, Sue. I got home early, so it’s all good. Do you think you’d feel comfortable exchanging phone numbers? I would if you would. Then we can figure out a time to talk. John. P.S. Hope Kenneth cleaned up okay.”

We agreed to talk the next night, a Tuesday, after he got home from work. At six-thirty, the phone rang, and I ran toward the bedroom, my collie-mix dog Cody bounding after me.

“Hi, it’s John.”

His voice startled me. I’d been imagining it as deep and maybe slow. Instead, his pitch had a lighthearted, smooth energy that attracted me instantly. Not that anything would have been wrong with deep but hearing his voice was like biting into a cookie with my eyes closed, expecting a ginger snap. Instead, it was chocolate chip, fresh-baked, with the chocolate all warm and swirled and melty.

I didn’t tell him that I’d expected his voice to be deeper. Instead, I told him how funny I’d thought his Jerry Springer headline was. He said he’d figured it would be a humorous way to convey that he wasn’t into crazy drama.

“Yeah, looking for someone is pretty nerve-wracking, so ‘no crazy drama’ sounds excellent,” I said. “It’s been six years since I’ve gone out with anyone new. And I’ve usually only dated people I already knew. I don’t know what I’m doing.” There. I’d confessed to being a dating neophyte. It was a relief.

John topped me, though. “I know what you mean. My last relationship ended two years ago. And we’d been together for thirteen years. So… it’s been a long time.”

I had not considered this possibility. He was even more unaccustomed to the dating world than I was! And yet, he seemed so … so normal. I instantly felt less alone, less like the awkward alien on a planet of dating-proficient people. There was another alien inhabiting my planet. I liked having company.

We talked for half an hour. John made it clear that he wasn’t around on Wednesdays, so we agreed that I’d call him on Thursday. I hung up, and floated from room to room of my little Craftsman bungalow, filled with a sense of accomplishment. I was thinking more about myself than I was about John. “I did it! I did it!” The words sounded loud in my head.

•••

Over the next two weeks, we spoke most evenings. I assumed my position: lying on the floor, feet up on the bed, Cody at my side. Sometimes we’d talk for an hour or more. As our familiarity grew, we experimented both with kidding each other and with sharing parts of our past. And we talked about this experience of seeking a connection with an unseen stranger.

“One thing I liked about your profile is that you were willing to consider women who are a little older than you,” I told him. “So many men only want someone who’s way younger than they are! What is that?” That trend in men’s profiles had infuriated me.

John knew I was a teacher, and his deadpan reply was, “Well, sure, I could try to find someone who’s twenty. But then when I’d ask how her day at school had been, it would mean something very different from when I ask you.”

My laugh rang out. That was happening often. John’s humor would come at me from surprising angles, and I’d laugh from sheer delight.

Another Wednesday was rolling around, and so on Tuesday evening, John reminded me that he wouldn’t be available the following night. Over the past two weeks, I’d been curious about his regularly scheduled Wednesday activity but knew it wasn’t my business to ask. I couldn’t help wondering though.

One thought I had was that maybe he’d not been truthful on his profile when he said that he didn’t have kids. Maybe he had a couple of kids, and maybe his custody agreement was that he got them every Wednesday. I decided that would be okay. After all, I liked kids. And wouldn’t I rather he be a dedicated parent than some deadbeat dad who disregarded his responsibilities, responsibilities who, after all, were little human beings? Yes, I would. Sure, John hadn’t been totally upfront with me about his kids, but at least he was doing right by them. Good for him.

But then I wondered if maybe rather than being a secret parent, he instead was an alcoholic who faithfully attended AA every Wednesday. That seemed more plausible. Respondents were asked about their parental status on the dating profile, but there wasn’t a single question about one’s substance-abuse status. So John could have filled out his profile with total honesty while still being an alcoholic. And I understood that at first he’d hide something so personal. I mean, why should he tell me that right off? No sense in scaring me away. He’d confide in me if we ever got close enough. I decided I would be okay if he were an alcoholic, given that he was an AA regular and all. That way he was a recovering alcoholic, instead of a still-raging alcoholic.

These thoughts were in the back of my mind until that Tuesday night. John brought them racing to the front when he said, slowly, “Well—I guess it’s about time that I tell you what I do on Wednesdays.”

I wasn’t prepared. “Okay,” I said, trying to sound casual. I felt my heart speed up, and I took a big breath. I reminded myself that at least he was a responsible parent/alcoholic.

The silence ticked on. I waited in what I hoped would be perceived as a supportive silence.

John took a breath, and slowly, the truth came out. “On Wednesdays—I bowl.”

My sudden burst of laughter was a cross between a bark and a scream. That innocent little word struck me so funny that I could barely suck in air. “Bowl” was evocative of the wholesomeness of the 1950s, completely undeserving of its role in a shameful confession.

I choked out, “Why do you say it like it’s such an awful thing?” I imagined him in his house, grinning broadly at his success in reducing me to gasps and sputters.

“Well, you have to admit—‘I bowl’ isn’t something you lead with. A person needs time to build up to it. Expecting someone else to accept that right off? It’s too much.” I could practically hear him smiling.

Still giggling, I said, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I play an instrument that’s the musical equivalent of ‘bowling.’ Want to guess?”

We laughed some more after I said, “Accordion.” I decided not to tell him that I’d already decided to embrace him despite his being a lying alcoholic parent who denied the existence of his two children.

•••

It was that night that we discussed meeting in person. We liked the idea but wanted to make sure neither of us would feel pressured. John already had a little experience with online dates and offered some guidelines.

“They say it should be a neutral meeting place, out in public but not right near one person’s house. And we should also set a time limit the first time, so no one feels trapped.”

“That sounds good. Anything else?”

We agreed to meet during the day, for no more than an hour. We decided on ten-thirty that upcoming Saturday morning at a coffee house equidistant from our homes.

In addition to the guidelines, we agreed on something else—our feelings about the experimental process we’d undertaken, this method of looking for love. We both were finding it liberating. There was something deliciously freeing about starting off already knowing what the other person wanted. There was much less guessing. And the invisibility of the other person only enhanced that sense of freedom. When we dated someone who was already in our everyday life, there was a risk of losing a friend if it didn’t work out. So maybe we’d compromise what we wanted, trying to avoid awkwardness.

But for both John and me, starting with a total stranger helped us commit to being our most honest selves. We each had already found ourselves thinking, If this doesn’t work, I’ve lost nothing because I don’t even know this person. I’m just going to be myself, and if myself doesn’t work, then this wouldn’t work. I can’t try to shape myself into someone else.

I’d entered into the process of online dating because I’d felt so inept at meeting men. Now that I was on the threshold of meeting someone in person, I couldn’t remember ever having felt more clear and free about the prospect of a date. I knew that I’d like to find a partner, but that I didn’t have to find one. I knew I’d be okay. I had good friends, a job that I loved, and a heart that was healing.

I couldn’t have known at the start where things would lead with Another John. I couldn’t know that I’d feel daring enough on the first date to confess my scary health secret to him, or that I’d have trouble falling asleep after our three-hour dinner on the second date because I hadn’t known I could be that happy with someone. I couldn’t know that for him, the decision point would come when we saw Bad Santa two weeks later, when he heard me crying with laughter at the twisted, offensive humor and he realized that we belonged together.

All I knew then was that I was looking forward to that Saturday morning with more excitement than I’d felt in a long time.

•••

SUE GRANZELLA has won awards from MemoirsInk and in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Punchnel’s, Gravel, Citron Review, Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Ascent, Crunchable, and Prick of the Spindle, among others. Sue teaches third grade in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her no-longer-bowling husband, John. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, road trips, and reading the writing of eight- and nine-year-olds. Find more of Sue’s writing at www.suegranzella.com.

 

Beautiful Music

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kelly Shire

I already loved the desert before I’d met Mike. I’d been seduced during a long weekend a few years earlier, when I’d accompanied a friend to a wedding. I hadn’t paid much attention to the church ceremony, distracted by the spectacle of the San Jacinto mountains looming out the tall windows. Hours later, in the midst of the reception at a tony Palm Desert resort, I’d escaped the ballroom and swirling DJ lights to walk outside. Strolling alone across the dark golf course, the hot, dry breeze instantly calmed the restless want that so marked my early twenties, offered up the same release and luxurious solitude as sinking into a hot bath. I didn’t want to return to the party; I fantasized instead how I might arrange to stay behind when my friend drove back to L.A.

After returning home, my imagination kept returning to the desert. I wrote a short story about a woman who lived alone in a trailer on the outskirts of a grove of date palms. The wind blew at night, and the woman lay alone in bed, trying to decipher the curses and premonitions told in the clatter of palm fronds.

•••

I truly fell for the desert while riding shotgun in Mike’s black Cadillac. On a summer afternoon, we left his little ranch house in Orange County and headed east on the 60 freeway through traffic. His mother and younger sister, visiting from Oregon, rode in the backseat of the secondhand Caddy. Mike had grown up in Cathedral City, the shabbier eastern neighbor of Palm Springs, where his family had relocated when he was still in grade school. They’d followed in the footsteps of Mike’s maternal grandparents, who’d preceded them by a few years.

As soon as we exited the freeway to approach the Palm Springs city limits, Mike tuned the radio to KWXY, a station he said had been on the air forever. We drove down the main drag of Palm Canyon Drive, past shops and restaurants, the sidewalks nearly empty of tourists in the low season. We rode in silence, except for the radio. The station’s playlist consisted of the music one might associate with the desert’s huge population of golf-cart driving retirees: lush instrumentals, choral groups like the Ray Coniff Singers, and a sprinkling of mid-century pop standards. In short, KWXY played “beautiful music.”

When I’d first met Mike, he’d sported a long ponytail, cowboy boots, and a Metallica t-shirt. A later inspection of his large CD collection revealed mostly metal and guitar rock, but my fingers occasionally tripped over Kraftwerk, Neil Diamond, or ’80s funk, artists hinting at deeper complexities than his headbanger image suggested. I also often sported cowboy boots, pairing them with cut-offs and shirts knotted at my waist, a nod to my solidarity to both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thelma and Louise. I didn’t fancy myself a good match for Mike, or for anyone, and had warned him of such. And yet here we were, nearly a year into our romance, cruising his home turf with his mom and listening to more music I’d never have guessed he enjoyed.

•••

KWXY had been the preferred station of Mike’s grandparents. Not so long before, they’d been an extremely active couple, using all the amenities of their gated mobile home community—the golf course and tennis courts, the themed dinners and bridge luncheons. We were there primarily to visit those grandparents, who’d remained in the desert long after Mike’s parents had decamped for the drastically opposite climate of Oregon. His grandmother was now in the later stages of dementia and had been moved to a nursing home.

This would be my first time meeting any of Mike’s grandparents; I’d met his immediate family only months earlier. Mike had invited me along on this journey to his home turf as a matter of course, but I worried how his mother, Brenda, felt about my presence. Unlike me, Mike was something of a serial monogamist. For all his parents knew, I was just another girlfriend who’d disappear a couple more years down the road.

•••

Brenda had booked us all into The Riviera, one of many older Palm Springs establishments claiming itself a former Rat Pack hangout. It was a sprawling hotel with faded carpets and a parrot in its tropical-themed lobby.

That night, after taking his reluctant grandpa out to dinner at a noisy chain restaurant, Mike and I lounged nearly naked on the private balcony off our room. It was late evening, but still well over ninety degrees. As with my previous wedding visit years before, my nerves were soothed by the heat as we chatted over a shared bag of melting M&Ms. Date beetles buzzed a shrill hum in the pepper and palm trees.

Our balcony faced west, toward the mountains; I could make out their silhouetted peaks against the dark sky. Mike pointed up, directing my eyes to a bright light near the top of the tallest mountain. He explained that it came from the tram station, over 8,500 feet up on Mt. San Jacinto. During the day tourists rode on gondolas suspended over a canyon of treetops and jagged boulders while steel cables pulled them thousands of feet up the mountain. The tram ride closed at sunset, but the station light remained on all night. Its beam winked down on us, a low-hanging star.

•••

The next morning we visited Mike’s grandma at her nursing home. I was already awkward around his family—my answers to his mom and sister’s questions alternately too complicated or flippant—so I retreated into the role of silent bystander. In the large greeting room the family crouched in turn before Barbara in her wheelchair, a frail woman with spun sugar hair who didn’t recognize any of them, who possessed barely the faintest spark of sentience.

Perhaps this was my first solid clue that if I stayed with Mike, my only relationship that had lasted more than two months, there would be more than fun times ahead. Of course I knew that, but at twenty-five, I only barely believed it. All of my grandparents were still alive and comparatively healthy, as were my parents. So far they’d dodged the trauma of true illness or infirmity. Before me was solid evidence of the not-fun times: a trim, gruff man who woke alone each morning, who drove his sedan each afternoon to a low-slung beige complex to sit beside his silent wife. He helped her to eat when lunch was brought around; tried to keep her upright when she slumped over in her wheelchair. This was his life now, and he seemed irritated by his family’s gentle suggestions that he might want to go, try, or be anywhere else.

•••

After our visit, we left the grandparents at the nursing home (Mike’s grandpa refused to join us for lunch) and drove to their gated mobile home park. I was struck by how their home was caught in time, preserving a specific flavor of elderly loneliness. The yellow stack of National Geographic spines on the coffee table were several years old. Beside them was a current TV Guide and a remote control for the small TV in the wicker entertainment center. On the matching end table sat a box of Kleenex, a pair of reading glasses. Out the sliding glass door was a tree heavy with grapefruit, out another window a glimpse of mountain tops popped against the sky.

Brenda and Mike’s sister, Liz, tackled some light cleaning, and I offered to help but was kindly rebuffed. It was a small home, uncluttered by much of the past. Yet in the kitchen I yelped in pleasure over the wall clock. Around its yellow face, twelve fives, one for every hour, ringed a martini glass with two speared olives. Across its stem, a curvy font proclaimed Cocktail Hour. Mike recalled how his grandparents used to celebrate cocktail hour every evening, how in their old, larger house with a pool, they’d sit with matching drinks, rattling the ice cubes in their highballs. He also remembered visits to his grandparents after they’d downsized to the senior community, of after-dinner constitutionals, the whole family enlisted to walk the green belts and circular streets, past the pastel mobile homes and white rock yards.

After my outburst at the clock, after Mike’s story, the quiet resumed. The house was so quiet; the neighborhood was so quiet, save for the hum of air conditioners and pool filters. The whole city felt stricken in the glare of noonday sun, hermetically sealed beneath the dome of cloudless blue sky.

•••

Later, we drove again through town on a nostalgia tour. Mike cruised slowly past his family’s old house, describing for my benefit how the front yard used to be much nicer, with a koi pond and tiny bridge built by his dad. Those features were gone, ripped out for an expanse of dying lawn. We drove past his old junior high and elementary school, past the Jack-In-the-Box on Highway 111 where he worked his first job.

From the backseat, Brenda and Liz remarked often at how the area had grown, at the big box stores and strip malls populating what had been a small town with limited shopping. The Cadillac turned left and right, down streets that used to dead-end onto swaths of open desert. In grade school, Mike and his best friend had wandered the desert for hours, encountering snakes and scorpions, abandoned cars, and once, a dead horse. Most of those dead-end streets were now paved through to the next intersection. They continued for long blocks, crossing wide boulevards named for celebrities who’d once been residents: Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Fred Waring, Gerald Ford.

On a corner lot sat a small building with a tall radio tower, the station offices of KWXY. It was the top of the hour; through the car speakers came a burst of harp strings in an ascending stream of notes. It was time for the weather: 104 degrees, a drop from the afternoon high of 107.

•••

A year later, on another trip to the desert, Mike proposed in a dark restaurant, scooting out the leatherette booth to drop to one knee. We didn’t know it then, but Billy Reed’s was something of a kitsch favorite, known for its bordello-pink décor and prime rib specials favored by the Early Bird crowd. Later, after I’d said yes, after the waitress had brought flutes of champagne, we sat out on our hotel balcony facing the mountains, somnolent and happy in the scorching August night, below the tram station’s steady beam.

That was twenty years ago.

Thanks to the internet, in recent years Mike and I often tuned into the live-streaming broadcast of KWXY whenever either of us felt our own specific yen for Palm Springs. For though we live only ninety minutes west, our manicured suburban town feels a world away from the desert and its particular charms. Like any place, it has changed over the years. The Riviera shut its doors, re-opening as a party hotel dripping in Hollywood Regency glamour. Housing prices have climbed, thanks to the renewed appreciation of mid-century architecture. And KWXY, after weathering ownership changes and flipping between AM and FM frequencies, has succumbed to the pressures of twenty-first-century corporate radio. In 2015, it changed for good, becoming, for now, MOD FM. Its playlist still consists of old standards, though too often interpreted by Michael Bublé or Rod Stewart rather than Frank and Dino; the lush instrumentals are mostly gone. Completely vanished are the harp strings signaling the top of the hour, along with the wintertime reading of news from Canada, geared toward the seasonal snowbirds.

•••

“Every day,” he tells me. It’s a thing he says, a reminder when I despair over the passing years, over wrinkles and grays, when I wake to a suffocating dread that blankets me some mornings. This is how much he loves me, then. He will sit with me, feed me, wipe away the pudding dribbling down my chin. “Just like my grandpa,” Mike says. “I’ll be there every day.”

I sock my husband on the arm and tell him to shut the hell up. I have zero interest in living out some West Coast version of The Notebook, and buried within me is that single girl who doesn’t need anyone, who still imagines that solitary trailer beneath the date palms. But my husband is steadfast, as his grandpa was steadfast. His grandparents live on as symbol for Mike, as he insists he’ll remain at my side, no matter what. Is that a promise, or a threat? I joke. We have been married forever; we repeat the same lines often.

I sock him, he holds me close; we hold dear our someday dream of maybe moving a little further east, out to Palm Springs or some other desert community in the Coachella Valley. We’ll sit in the brilliant nighttime heat and never have to say goodbye to the view of those tall brown mountains, the tram light shining from its high perch. Until then, we play harried parents to our middle and high school-aged kids, pay the mortgage and crack dark jokes in our kitchen. Above us, hung high on the wall, the Cocktail Hour clock and its ring of fives ticks the seconds slow and thick, a reminder that forever is all in context, fifty years, twenty years, a life.

•••

KELLY SHIRE writes about family and life as a third-generation native of Los Angeles county. Recent work has appeared in Hippocampus, Angels Flight/Literary West, and the Seal Press anthology Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping. She lives in Temecula, California, with her husband and children, and can be found online at kellyshire.com.

Unresolved Sexual Tension Between Friends

By David Rosen/Flickr
By David Rosen/Flickr

By Jerry Portwood

It wasn’t meant to feel like a date, but when Guillem arrived outside our apartment, helmet in hand, he looked like my silver suitor ready to whisk me away for a night of romance on his bike. I’d cleared it with Patricio, asking him several times if he was okay with my heading out with Guillem, and he’d told me he wasn’t jealous.

“Sure—I want you to go,” Patricio assured me. He knew I missed having a social life these past three months after we’d moved to Barcelona together.

While I lived in Atlanta, I’d been a dedicated culture vulture, usually going to a gallery opening, a concert, the theater, or dance event five nights a week. Our long distance relationship—he lived two hours away from me, where he taught architecture at a South Carolina university—turned out to be perfect for that first year of dating. I’d spend weeknights absorbing whatever the city threw at me; weekends were our time together. Exhausted from his week of teaching, Patricio wasn’t much for spending two hours in a dark theater. I didn’t try to force it. Maybe we’d go out dancing, or I’d coax him to the latest Malaysian restaurant I was reviewing, but mostly we spent our time together in bed—which worked. We didn’t have to share every interest; I didn’t have to parade him around with my friends. But now living in Spain together meant new negotiations. So when Guillem mentioned he had free tickets to a production of a Catalan version of Glengarry Glen Ross, something that sounded bizarre and intrigued me, I wanted to go. But I needed reassurance.

“You’re sure you don’t mind?” I asked again.

“Stop asking. Just go,” Patricio said. I realized he may be just as glad to have an evening free of me. It was the first time either of us had lived with a lover, and we’d spent every waking and sleeping moment together for the past three months in Barcelona. I’d introduced Guillem to Patricio and they had hit it off. Guillem had dark hair, a sexy goatee, and piercing eyes. He was attractive and, unlike most of the Spanish guys I’d met, worked out regularly at a gym; he liked to show off his sculpted chest and biceps in tight shirts. Patricio had explained that it was next to impossible to make a Catalan friend, and he was impressed that I’d managed it in such a short period of time.

Guillem was a writer for the most popular Catalan soap opera, El Cor de la Ciutat. Although the show meant nothing to me, Patricio had explained it was the most popular TV program in Barcelona. Since Catalan had been forbidden during the Franco dictatorship and could have been lost for future generations, the regional government now supported any artistic endeavor that developed the language and supported the national identity, so this soap reigned as the most beloved family entertainment for millions. It was like Dynasty, without any other competition. I was excited to join him for a night of theater.

“Have you ever been on the back of a moto before?” Guillem asked.

“A what?” I wasn’t sure if he was attempting some sort of a flirtatious tease, and I was just missing the subtlety. “I like your Vespa.”

“My moto is a Suzuki,” he clarified and told me to snuggle up behind him. He helped me with my helmet as I fumbled with the straps, buckling it below my chin. “Put your arms around me. Nos vamos, here we go!”

We slowly inched backward until we faced north and he gunned it. I tried to hold on to the plastic of the seat, but when we lurched forward, I instinctively gripped Guillem’s waist. He glanced over his right shoulder and said something, but it was lost in the road’s rumble.

I was wary of the cars in Barcelona, but the mopeds, motos, scooters, and motorcycles that dominated the streets were entirely different beasts. They didn’t seem to obey any rules as they hopped curbs, hurtling toward you down the middle of the sidewalk. Women wearing skimpy skirts and high heels weaved through cars to mark their spot at the front of the pack. Then, seconds before the light turned green, they’d zoom by you, ignoring crosswalks, crouched for sudden impact. Now I was one of them.

I tried to remember if I was supposed to lean in for the turn, or worried that, if I slouched the wrong way, we’d suddenly lose control and plow through the people in front of us. My hands on Guillem’s waist, I felt that erotic thrill of being nuzzled against a man on a machine. At the red light, I would make space between Guillem and myself, and he leaned back. “Move with me,” he explained. “Or you might make me fall over.” He gunned the engine, and I gripped his hips harder.

When we made it to the theater, intact, he told me I could bring my helmet inside with me. It felt like a badge of honor, proof that I lived here, I wasn’t a tourist. Of course, how many tourists would show up opening weekend to see Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross entirely translated into Catalan?

The theater was beautiful, inserted into the agricultural building from the 1929 Expo and, for the purposes of this play, the stage was converted into a “black-box” viewing space. I felt I had already cheated on Guillem: Before he showed up, I read a complete scene-by-scene synopsis of the play, since it had been years since I’d seen the movie. I wanted to at least imagine I knew what was going on as people spat epithets in a foreign tongue.

So as these slimy real estate salesmen tried to swindle people with bogus property in Arizona and Florida, I attempted to fill in blanks. Somehow Mamet’s Chicago setting wasn’t American enough, so the designers had created an abstract Texas-like terrain with a big cactus next to a glass cube that represented Chop Suey, the Chinese restaurant where the first act’s action takes place. As the cube turned slowly on a circular dais, I glanced at Guillem who was concentrating on the subtleties of the actors’ deliveries. He caught my eye and leaned over and whispered, “Do you hate me?” thinking that I was despairing over the difficulty of the opaque verbal barrage.

True, I had no clue what they were saying—except for a few joders (fucks), putas (bitch/whores), and some nicely punctuated merdas (shits)—until a strange interlude in which all the characters suddenly broke out into an English language rock & roll song for a major set change. “This director always has people singing in his plays,” Guillem had warned. After the bows, Guillem admitted he was nervous that I was going to come out dazed and confused and once again he asked, “Do you hate me?” apologetically.

“No, I don’t hate you,” I said. “I’m so happy. This is one of the best nights I’ve had since moving to Barcelona. Plus, I learned all sorts of new Catalan cuss words.”

“Well, actually Catalan doesn’t have enough coarse language, so they have to use Spanish words when they want to curse,” he explained. “Catalan is too refined. It’s why I like having sex in Spanish. It’s sexier. But fucking in English is the best.”

Seeing my confusion, he went on to explain. “There’s nothing sexy to say, nothing fuerte, very strong, in Catalan. It’s all a little weak. But telling a guy, ‘I want to fuck,’ that’s the best. Fuck is the best English word, sometimes it’s the only one that works.”

I laughed and agreed, filing away that bit of intel. I remembered how awkward Spanish still felt on my tongue, making me feel like an imposter when I tried to deploy it during an intimate moment.

“There was one word I didn’t understand,” I said, slightly changing the subject. “And they said it like a thousand times. Oh-stee-ya?”

“Ah, you did learn the queen of all curse words,” he said and smiled. “Ostia. It’s the Spanish word for the communion wafer? We use it like damn. It’s like taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

Part of me felt guilty for having such a great evening without Patricio, so we called him and told him to meet us at a bar in the Raval area. Guillem and I hopped on his moto and headed off to the Merry Ant, a sort of speakeasy where we had to know the correct, unmarked door and then a secret knock. I was worried that Patricio may decide he didn’t want to join, but I was glad when he showed up, and I threw my arms around him, relieved that he didn’t seem mad after my date night without him. We ordered Estrellas, the weak Spanish beer I’d resigned myself to, and the three of us talked about books, theater, movies, boyfriends. It was the type of casual hanging out I’d been craving the entire time in Spain, and I’d finally found it. Although I felt the intense attraction to him, I vowed to make Guillem my friend and not screw it up by screwing him. I didn’t want to lose my one Catalan friend.

•••

I showed up around nine-thirty for dinner and a movie. Guillem was still on his healthy kick and had prepared a simple, yet tasty meal: a spinach salad with sunflower seeds and golden pasas (the word sounded so much better than raisins), followed by arroz con setas (rice with mushrooms), and a big salmon steak in a soy sauce glaze. I had picked up a nice bottle of Spanish red—“Any Crianza will do,” Guillem had instructed since I confessed I was nervous I’d make a poor wine selection—to get us lubricated for our night in.

He’d invited me over after I’d gushed about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the indie film about a transgender rock & roll troubadour searching for love. He’d never seen it, and I’d brought the DVD to Spain with me but couldn’t watch it on our player due to regional restrictions. Guillem, who was obsessed with American pop culture, had a machine that could read the American format. So we made a date.

We’d invited Patricio to join us, but he’d already tired of my preoccupation with the film, which he’d bought me as a birthday gift, and begged off, preferring to stay home alone. It felt sophisticated to be dining together at Guillem’s table, since Patricio and I had transformed our dining table into a desk and ended up eating our meals in front of the TV most nights. After eating, we sat together on Guillem’s small sofa and watched the film with English subtitles for extra language reinforcement. I resisted singing along to the songs I knew by heart and glanced over to notice if Guillem was enjoying himself. The awkwardness of the situation hit me: This definitely felt like a date.

Although Patricio and I had easily agreed upon our own version of an open relationship, it meant we had sex with other men, not romantic flings. Our rules were fairly basic: 1. no sleepovers; 2. no repeats; 3. be honest and tell one another everything. The idea was to curb the possibility of emotional attachments. Having an affair wasn’t what we desired, so dating was definitely off the table. Although the movie watching was intended as a friendly get together, I now wondered if it was an excuse so we could easily fall into one another’s arms. Plus, Guillem was clearly boyfriend material. But I already had a boyfriend. I wasn’t looking for another.

The truth is, I’m a romantic. Although many people would claim the opposite because I can be blunt and critical—and I believed their assertions for years, convincing me that I didn’t have a romantic bone in my body—I’m a sucker for a great love story. The trouble was I didn’t believe in the cheeseball stuff found in most pop songs or what Hollywood tried to sell us.

The Hedwig plot, loosely adapted from Plato, was that we had another half and were searching for that part to make us whole again, a concept I’d romanticized from an early age. I remember in adolescence saying I didn’t care if it was a man or a woman—I wanted to find the person that “understood” me. That was my thirteen-year-old way to articulate the idea of a soulmate. And through the years I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to jam myself together with someone even when that fit wasn’t there. It’s an ongoing, solitary crusade for billions: How do we join with our other half, and how do we know when we found that person?

With Patricio, I felt like I’d finally found that person. I was too self-conscious to use the term soulmate, but when I learned the Spanish word for it, media naranja, I understood it. A half of an orange: The phrase sounded strange, but I identified with the image of two juicy halves that come together but also function as separate parts—that should be squeezed and enjoyed.

I felt guilty. I was already thinking how I’d explain to Patricio that it was something less than a date when I got home. I didn’t want him to think Guillem was trying to seduce me since that could mean I’d lose the only friend I’d made since moving here.

Guillem must have felt something too because, when we paused the film for a bathroom break and a refill of Rioja, he returned, saying, “You know, when we write soap opera scripts, we have this term we use. We call it URST.”

“URST?” I thought I’d misunderstood him. He spoke English fluidly, with a sexy accent and enough Britishisms to make it sound incorruptible. “What’s that?”

“When we have a scene between characters that have some chemistry, we use the English acronym: URST. It stands for Un-Resolved Sexual Tension.”

“Hmm,” I replied, unsure what I was supposed say. “That’s fun. An interesting concept.”

“So?” he said. “I think there’s some URST between us, don’t you?”

“I don’t know,” I said and laughed, trying to diffuse the situation. Part of me was thrilled that he found me attractive, especially since he was a total catch, but I tried to play naive, not sure if this sort of seduction fit into my relationship rules or was somehow outside the boundaries. If I pretended it wasn’t true, maybe that could get me off the hook. “I guess so. Sure. I think you’re great.”

I wasn’t sure what I should do. If he made a move, would I stop him? But I knew I shouldn’t be the aggressive one. Playing stupid, a passive player to someone else’s wishes seemed like my best defense.

“Well, I thought I’d get it out,” Guillem said, picking up the remote.

“Want to finish the movie?” I asked, not sure if I’d ruined the mood.

He pushed play and it resumed. I’d already watched the film a dozen times, but I couldn’t focus on the familiar story. I imagined a director reading our night’s script, taking a red pen and marking it everywhere. It would be bloody with URST.

•••

I’d confessed the night’s sexual tension to Patricio, and he wasn’t surprised. “Well, why didn’t you get it over with then?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I thought maybe you’d be mad? That maybe it was against the rules?” I knew he wouldn’t kick me to the curb over such an indiscretion, but what if he forbid me from seeing Guillem again? I wasn’t willing to lose my first friend in a foreign place.

“Nah,” he said. “He’s hot, but I’m not worried.”

I was anxious though: That once this particular URST was satisfied, perhaps Guillem might not find me as interesting. What if it was that unresolvedness that was keeping us on friendly terms?

I’d been telling Guillem that I wanted to repay the dinner by inviting him to a meal at our place, so I returned the favor by offering to create a big curry stir fry, something outside his comfort zone. “Catalans don’t like spicy, don’t make it spicy,” he urged. I promised I wouldn’t scorch his sensitive palate—but I did want to push his boundaries.

I chose a night that I thought would work for the three of us, but then Patricio reminded me he had a dinner with a colleague visiting from the States. “Do you want me to join?” I asked. “I could cancel.”

“No, you’d probably be bored. You and Guillem have dinner,” he said. “I won’t be late.”

Guillem brought the wine, and I tried to memorize the labels, so I knew the best bottles to purchase next time. He complained the food was still spicy, and I teased him that he was a wimp. We got toasted soon enough, and when we curled up on the loveseat, I told him, “Bésame.” I said it in Spanish, partly as a provocation, partly because it didn’t seems as real in a foreign tongue. The words still worked, and he did. He kissed me.

I felt the shock of the lip contact, that powerful surge of passion that comes with finally getting the thing that you’ve imagined and withheld far longer than normal. Luckily, I liked kissing Guillem. We fit together and our arms were around one another. We stood up and I started pulling his shirt over his head. We giggled as we unbuckled and pulled at one another’s clothes. This felt right. We were soon naked on the bed, squeezing each other and shivering in anticipation.

Then I heard the door lock click.

“Shit!” I said.

“Qué?”

“Shhh. It’s Patricio.”

“Hey, are you there?” Patricio called from the front of the apartment. It was a small space so I knew in a few more steps he’d see us sprawled naked together on the bed.

“Oh, well, I guess you guys got that over with,” he said as he reached the wide-open room. “Get up and get dressed. Let’s go out—I want a drink.” He laughed and left us there as we scrambled to get our clothes. We laughed too, realizing how stupid we must look, naked on the bed, like two children caught stealing a cookie. Still feeling awkward and silly, I tried to smooth things over.

“Sorry we got interrupted so soon,” I apologized to Guillem. “I didn’t know. But…”

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

“Yes, I think so.”

Although I thought I had made up my mind not to act on the URST, part of me wanted to get it over with. It seemed our roles were already written, and, luckily, we were in a romantic comedy, not a Lifetime television drama. Now that it was over, we could finally be friends.

The fact is, over the years I’ve had an intimate naked moment with most of my good friends—and many gay men I know share a similar bond. After I met Patricio, I’ve spent the next fifteen years figuring out how our puzzle pieces fit together, but it doesn’t mean that one doesn’t remain curious about the curves and hidden places of others. Those encounters with other men aren’t just a notch in the belt—rather it’s proof: No, we don’t fit together in that way; that was fun, let’s move on. We may understand it, but it can make for awkward moments at a dinner party.

When a straight woman asks gay guys how they met, we hem and haw, trying to figure out a palatable explanation if we hadn’t already come up with some sort of euphemistic backstory. Unlike many heterosexual groupings, where I’ve seen men awkwardly try to talk to female friends, the URST thick in the room, many of us have managed to neutralize that strain on familiarity to get closer. “We hooked up,” was the easiest rejoinder. “And now we’re the best of friends.”

•••

JERRY PORTWOOD is currently the Deputy Editor of RollingStone.com. Previously he was the Executive Editor at Out magazine and the Editor in Chief of New York Press and the founding editor of CityArts. His work has recently been published in the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Backstage, and DuJour magazine. He teaches an arts writing course at the New School in New York City. Jerry and Patricio were legally married in January 2015 in New York City.

Unlovable

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kimberly Dark

If you’ve ever felt certain you’re not lovable, come on over. Sit by me.

I was walking up the steps toward the bank. The sun was hitting the glass door so that I couldn’t see inside. I guess the woman coming out didn’t see me either and—bam—the big glass and wood door clocked me in the face. I stumbled back a bit, head throbbing. We both said, oh shit, and she apologized and I shook it off, got on with the day. My nose wasn’t broken, but I had a black eye for a week.

When I saw my sweetie the following day, she assessed the damage gently in public and then later in bed, she cozied up next to me. “Goddamn, you’re even hotter when you’ve been roughed up a bit.” She kissed me and pushed her head against mine, making me wince in pain. “Mmm,” she grunted.

“You’re one sick fucker.” We both laughed.

“Yeah, at least I’m not the one who hit you. Count your blessings I’m mostly over that shit.” We shook our heads and laughed again.

Look, no part of me wants pain. I understand how pain can be cathartic, and it’s not my thing. I always talked myself out of a beating, smelled the metal of my own blood through the skin before it broke, and got myself out of there. I don’t attract the ones who hit, but I sure attract the ones who could. And I learn how not to push. Being careful not to get hit, apparently that’s my gig. And I’m good at it.

In my youth, I had a flair for the flamboyant outburst. I mean, I was never one of those jealous glass throwers; I never upset a table in a restaurant. I’m not violent at all, just a little loud. Even still today, I’ll yell and put on the Medusa face but I do it in the privacy of my home.

This was my last big scene and how it finally clicked that I was done with that nonsense.

We’d been upstairs at my place, having sex and then arguing about some damn thing. I couldn’t begin to say what. She was visiting for the weekend and decided, no, fuck it, she was leaving. I was wearing a pale green and cream lace silky negligee with a little pearly business along the bodice. That I remember clearly. She threw all of her stuff in the duffle bag and heaved it onto her shoulder and down the stairs. I followed, giving her a piece of my mind every step of the way. Fire was shooting from my eyeballs as I watched her step off the porch and head down my steep front yard into the dark night. I shouted one last thing, loud enough for her to hear as she got into her truck: “YOU ARE ONE FUCKED UP INDIVIDUAL!”

And suddenly, that thing happened. A zoom out. An awareness. Suddenly a small, but terribly clear, voice inside my head said, “Actually, you are standing on your front porch at two a.m., yelling for your neighbors to hear, wearing nothing but a skimpy negligee. You have just become the dictionary-illustration for ‘one fucked up individual.’ Why don’t you close your mouth and go in the house?”

And I went in the house.

She sat in the car for ten minutes and then I heard her mumbling angrily, hauling her bag up the stairs, bump by bump, then telling me, as she took off her clothes and got in bed, “Goddammit, if I leave now, I can’t fuck you again in the morning.”

At which I rose up briefly like a cobra to say, “Oh, so you think we’re having sex in the morning!?”

And she said, “Shut up. Just shut up. Go to sleep.” There wasn’t much fight left in me, so I did.

Yeah, we had sex in the morning.

She never hit me, but after a few disturbing episodes of almost, she went back to anger management classes and I joined a domestic violence abuse survivors support group. Things weren’t always good between us but that relationship lasted a decade because we both had fix-it tenacity. We tried to better ourselves this way and that. And now years later, as friends, we love each other still.

Maybe that’s all I will ever have in the relationship department. Love.

Not comfort. But love. What a strange consolation prize.

I sure know how to pick ’em. And they pick me just as surely. Okay, sometimes the others try to pick me but I just don’t get the hots for too many people and I send them straight to the friend-zone. With some, there’s a fast hard click, like a metal lock. That kind of connection rarely slips out of place until we’ve moved through some serious business together. How do we know even before we know? Is it scent or aura or the hand of God that shoves us together on the sofa?

I was talking to a recent unsuitable suitor on the front porch. We were drinking wine and smoking cigars, and I said, “Hey, look, don’t you even get it going for me! I mean, you don’t want the likes of me. I am damaged and downright difficult. I mean, fuck sake, you were raised by nice people in middle class suburbia and you’ve worked at the same job for thirty years. What the fuck? Stay away from me.”

As I told a friend (okay, she’s an ex) about the unsuitable suitor, I assured her I’d given her a good talking to. I’d really laid it out. And my friend said, eyes fluttering back in her head, “Oh, I’ll bet she loved that. You don’t know how bad people want a talking to from someone like you. You’re tough and pretty and almost always right.”

I stared, with the edges of my mouth curling up, eyes bulging. I thought I’d been super-clear. She added, “You’re a Bon Jovi song waiting to happen!” And then she finished our conversation singing, “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame! You give love a bad name…”

I specifically try not to be a heart breaker. I say “no” more often than I say “yes.” The body has to choose; my head can’t be in charge. It’s a little fucked up in there where mating’s involved. The circuits didn’t get laid quite right in the beginning maybe. Though I give advice to others like a champ, keep my head cool in most situations, I rarely know what to tell myself.

Though it’s not like I’m pre-interviewing lovers—the fact is, I rarely get a lady-boner for people who haven’t had the crap beat out of them a few times when they were kids. It was probably someone who loved them doing the beating.

One could say, well, that’s just common. And it’d be true. But there are similarities among most of my lovers that are downright eerie. Probably it’s comfortable for me.

Probably it’s familiar to me. Probably it fits somehow with something I learned when I was a kid. Isn’t what the therapists would say?

I pick people who are too damaged to trust anyone fully by the time they get to me. Maybe the part of me that thinks I’m not lovable says that seems right. But it makes me mad. And they’re so certain they can’t be loved that my anger seems deserved. But it also justifies the lack of trust.

That’s it. Those are the ones I’m hot for.

Or maybe it looks like this: I’m so calm and accepting, I seem like a miracle at first. Truly, I am calm and accepting and a motherfuckingmiracle as well, but you’ve got to know that some anxious lovelessness caused me to pursue all that calm, and as soon as you upturn the table, you’re gonna see how it was made. I can’t get to the sex without showing someone how I’m made. Well, at least not more than once or twice, and I’m a more than once or twice kind of gal.

My lovers usually can’t let down their guard. They can’t be honest with themselves about how they keep creating their own misery despite trying really hard to get clear, meditate, breathe, get back to nature, journal, join a tantra group, talk to a shrink, and get freaky, at least for a while, with me. I have some kind of mojo going on that keeps them wanting it, that’s for sure.

It’s a shame one can’t put a nozzle on ones own mojo, point it in the right direction, build it up, and let it fight the fire of a painful past. My lovers are fighters with mojo to spare, but it’s not clear whether we’re ever fighting in the right direction. I like ’em either super-scrappy or super-smart; both is best. What if we could point ourselves toward those painful pasts together, rather than looking right at each other when we’re mad?

After years of on again and off again, my lover with the anger issues and I went to couples counseling. After some time talking about our problems with sex—that is, talking about how she loves fucking me but doesn’t totally let me do her, she said this to the therapist: “I just know that if I really soften up with her, it’ll be the best thing ever. Then I’ll need it. Then she can hurt me.”

I wept quietly because, yeah, I knew that. I also knew she was already in pain without me doing the hurting. A pain I couldn’t touch. I guess she figured it was easier not to heal, to keep the low-grade fever of anger and hunger. Better to blame me for not trying hard enough. Better to choose a pain that already fit into her schedule rather than a yawning, aching need that brings terror. Who could relax then?

Pain is easier to carry than fear. Both will shorten your life. Whatever. We’re resilient as fuck, my lovers and I. That much is clear.

I have to hope for something better. It could be worse and it’s not. I pick someone with a few skills. I don’t pick the ones who are strung out on drugs. I don’t pick the ones who hit. I just pick the ones who need love and won’t accept it from me. Maybe a little they do. Small morsels. But I don’t do a good job pretending it’s enough. There’s a lot of fighting to be loved here on my side of the table. A lot of trying and failing. A lot of tear-it-down-and-try-again hope. A lot of joy despite the pain. Real eye-of-the-storm peace. A lot of tenacity and tenderness because there doesn’t seem to be another way.

If you’ve ever felt certain you’re not lovable, come on over. Sit by me.

There are a lot of you out there. Just like how I learned to stop making a screaming-scene on my own front porch, maybe I can learn to draw someone with a softer jaw, an unclenched fist. That’s possible. And here’s what’s likely: No matter who sits by me, I’ll keep pouring up love by the cupful. Sweet love. No matter what else happens, that’s not nothing. Love is never going to be nothing.

•••

KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.

Read more FGP essays by Kimberly Dark.

The Thing About Love

soup
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofia McMullin

My mom is standing by the kitchen sink, squeezing pimples on a chicken. This is the 1990s in Hungary, when chicken still come with remnants of what makes them poultry: feathers, dry skin around the heel, nails that once scratched dirt on a farm.

Behind her on the kitchen table are carrots and parsley and celery root. She is making soup—maybe it’s a Sunday, or maybe it’s a regular Thursday and I just got home from school. It all looks complicated to me and, frankly, disgusting—the gizzards of the chicken in a plastic bowl at the edge of the sink.

“I can’t imagine ever, ever learning how to do this,” I tell her.

She rinses her hands under the running water. “Oh, you will,” she says. “When you love someone and they are sick and all they want is some chicken soup, you will learn.”

I think about this conversation when my son is sick and I am rinsing slimy, plump chicken livers in a colander. He loves chicken livers in his soup, so I buy them in a small tub at the grocery store and freeze them in batches. I feel certain that I would not do this for anyone else, even for myself.

I plop the livers into the water next to the chicken breast and the carrots and the parsnips and the celery. My mom was right: I did learn how to make soup.

•••

My grandmother writes letters to me in college on thin, see-through sheets of paper. Airmail from Hungary to the U.S. is expensive. I get one sheet in each letter, maybe two, filled with her fancy, cursive writing, usually in blue ink. I like getting the letters, I am sure, but I don’t remember them eliciting any sort of emotional response. I might even be disappointed: “Oh, it’s just another letter from grandma.” I keep them anyway.

When I look at them some twenty years after they were written and two years after my grandmother died—still neatly folded in their envelopes—I am knocked off my feet. They make me feel loved—cherished, even—like I never felt back then, not like this, not this explicitly and deeply. I suddenly see everything it took to write them—the process of purchasing the thin wax paper and the airmail envelope and the stamps at the post office, the writing of the letter with her arthritic wrists and fingers—in her armchair next to the radiator, right under her bright window filled with plants —the walk to the post office to mail them.

I can only read one before the tears start—written on my twenty-third birthday, seventeen years ago. She was proud of me. I had a car. And a job. And an apartment.

My grandmother taught me to iron and I used to think of her every night when I ironed my husband’s shirt for the next day. Now it’s all non-iron, synthetic, fake fabrics. And where’s the love in that?

•••

There are people who are clumsy at love. Who say the right words but have trouble putting them into action. Who don’t call. Or write. Or remember. Who don’t think the way I do, that for love you do things—real things: see that action movie, eat at that restaurant, sit with the in-laws at Christmas, listen to quiet fears in the middle of night, scratch the itchy spot in the middle of the back. Iron. Make soup.

That’s the hardest thing, loving someone like that. Someone who lets themselves be loved but cannot return it for whatever reason. They give you little glimpses of what it is like to be loved by them—and it is fucking brilliant and just enough to keep you coming back for more.

•••

I don’t love my baby right away. I know that this is not unusual, but it surprises me. I am happy that he’s here, and that he’s healthy, but beyond that, I feel very little. I don’t let him starve or cry too long or stay in a dirty diaper. I linger with him in the rocking chair and marvel at the fact that he has no eyebrows and the skin on his nose still looks unfinished somehow, almost translucent. I notice his features as if looking at a doll—a strange, antique doll with a porcelain face—that I can just set back on the shelf once I am done.

It’s funny that I don’t remember falling in love with him. It’s not like romance, where you get that initial tingle around the heart. It’s not a lightning bolt or a big spectacle. It happens at two a.m. when you are cleaning up poop. It happens at the playground. In the rear-view mirror of the car when he’s finally fallen asleep. In the middle of a temper-tantrum when both of you are crying and there’s snot on your hands.

•••

Things I love:

Brushing my teeth.

The way the birds go crazy around four a.m. in the spring.

Landing in Europe after a trans-Atlantic flight.

Whipped cream.

The smell of tomato vines.

Rainy October days.

Shoes.

Stationery.

Skypeing with my brother and not noticing that an hour went by.

Budapest.

The jingle of bracelets on my wrist.

My mom’s soup.

•••

My husband’s first heart attack happens in August, we think. We are in London and he wakes in the middle of the night to horrific back spasms. He has a bad back, but nothing like this has ever happened. He’s sweating and can’t catch his breath from the pain. I call an ambulance. They take him away and I sit by the window of our hotel room, staring at the street below until the morning, until our son wakes.

We take a cab to the hospital in the rain and sit with him as the doctors check his blood and re-check it again and again. In the end they rule out a heart attack. We fly home a few days later. He gets a muscle relaxer from his doctor for future back issues.

After he collapses in November and the surgeon threads a catheter through his arteries, he is fairly certain that what he had in London was not a back spasm.

I guess you can walk around with your heart broken on the inside.

•••

I once ask my mom about how you know that you have found “the one,” that you are really in love. Maybe that wasn’t my exact question, but something along those lines. Maybe I am asking her about marriage, about long-term commitment, what that is like. She says that if even after all the years you’ve spent together it still feels good to cuddle up close together at the end of the day, then you are in business.

I remember this on those evenings when we are both exhausted, when I feel just a tiny bit resentful that he is in bed, listening to music, while I finish up bath time and story time and get a glass of water and give another back rub. I stumble into bed and I don’t really want to talk or be touched or be seen. I want to be angry and stomp around like a child—and sometimes do.

I pretend to read and he reaches over to rub my shoulder. I melt into his touch, his warm palms. I put down my book so that I can be in full contact with his body, smell his chest and the spot behind his ears, to rub my nose in his beard.

I am so mad at him, damn it.

•••

When my son wants to tell me that he loves me, he switches over to Hungarian. That’s our language, our secret love code. The words are sweeter, more melodious, melancholy. “I love you” is such a throwaway phrase. “Mama, te vagy a szerelmem,” he tells me and I know it’s true. That we are each other’s loves. We are walking to my car and I hold his hand and feel him holding on, his palm almost as big as mine.

I like that our love is so uncomplicated.

•••

Isn’t it crazy that you can never really know that another person loves you? That you can keep something like this a secret? Maybe there is someone you see every day—at work or at the playground or at school dropoff—and have no idea that they have a crush on you. That they think about you during their day, when they are sad or bored. That they plan ways to run into you, to talk to you. That they imagine this whole other life with you, with you at the center—as their center. You could have this wild affair, this crazy romance, if only that person would speak up, make a move.

But we never do. Nobody ever does. We shuffle back to our desks, hide in our phones, pull forward in the dropoff line.

•••

We kiss past the crust of the morning. The wet spot on the pillow, the gunk in the eyes, the sour breath. We wipe away sweat and dreams from brows. We dip hands into hidden folds and curves, underneath, where it’s dark and heavy and damp. We lick and swallow and we spread and moan. We pinch and scrape and knead. We release—our hands smelling faintly of love all day.

•••

Things I want to learn to love:

An achy heart.

Being awake at two a.m.

Letting go.

•••

My husband does not like soup. When he’s sick, he wants to be left alone: no juice, no tea, no lemonade or honey. No soup. This is confusing—how can you not want chicken soup? My chicken soup. And if you don’t want chicken soup, what can I do for you? Is doing nothing a sign of love?

I stop making soup for a while. Then just make it for myself. Then for our son. You can’t just make a little soup. I offer it up on cold winter days and on sick days for years. “Nothing against your soup,” he says. But no thank you.

I resign myself: he is a no-soup person.

Fifteen years and four kitchens later, on an average Tuesday he suggests that I make soup for dinner. “But you don’t like soup,” I say.

“I could live on your soup,” he responds and I say nothing to hide my shock. Later there is crusty bread on the table and wine and the cooked carrots and parsnips in a separate bowl from the shredded chicken meat. He adds hot sauce and hot pepper flakes and dips his bread.

He makes my soup his own.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine—again!—where her soup-making skills will come in handy this winter. You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin

Read more FGP essays by Zsofi McMullin.

Dine and Dash

By Daikreig el Jevi/Flickr
By Daikreig el Jevi/Flickr

By Yalun Tu

I entered the terminal in a rush, wondering if I’d be asked to turn my phone to flight mode before the what the hell? texts started coming. At that point, things were basically over. Trying to explain your actions via SMS is the same as cybersex. You might finish, but is anybody really satisfied?

The problem had started at dinner, somewhere between coffee and “The Tonight Show.” This was the end of a busted week in Los Angeles. I had told everybody I was coming to “take meetings” when the real purpose was to surprise my manager, who had been steadily ignoring my calls. Desperate to prove I still had value, I had pitched him a series of increasingly poor ideas: the girl with daddy issues stuck in an evil computer. The hitman who kills using an Asian ghost. The billionaire who pretends to be two competing billionaires to get the girl because all girls dream of being lied to by a rich guy.

“I kind of like the robot one,” Nathan said, chewing his burger while I pawed at his fat fries.

“Me, too,” Jen said. Jen was Nathan’s wife and the only girl I’d met in California who didn’t talk about juice cleanses. They were a young power couple in LA and I’d spent the week sleeping on their couch, wondering if they had any faults besides talking about their cat like he was a human being.

“Nobody has any patience for non-evil robots,” I lamented. “By the way, Jen, you look very attractive in that dress.” She was one of those people in complete harmony in every situation, meaning the opposite of me. I could never think of anything to say. I preferred to stay on the fringe of social situations, mocking the successful around me, following the old if-you-can’t-build-something-destroy-it philosophy. Faced with someone who simply enjoyed life sapped me of my observational jabs. So instead I complimented Jen often and ecstatically, a toy dog yapping for its master’s attention, steadily ignoring the WTF looks I’d been getting from Nathan.

“You look nice in that button-down,” she rejoined. I had worn the shirt three days straight. Nathan raised his eyebrow, anticipating my response. It was, “You’re so wonderful. I love you.” The tone was supposed to be jokey but the words left my mouth sounding open, earnest. It was truthful, too, since I had fallen in love with her the moment we had met, as well as their anthropomorphic cat, Sam.

“Oh, I-love-you-too” Jen said in a way that meant both the opposite and I-pledge-undying-fealty-to-my-husband-angrily-chewing-a-cheeseburger. I couldn’t be stopped at this point. It was weird.

“We should have an affair. Elope or something,” I said. What the fuck are you doing? one side of my brain asked. Don’t worry. If you go too far past the point of no return it will go meta and be seen as performance art, the other side said. “I’m much taller than your husband,” I added.

“Don’t you have a flight to catch?” Nathan asked.

As we crawled down the 110 in traffic I tried one more joke, the social equivalent of that last bet in Vegas when you’ve lost it all and are borrowing twenty dollars from the former best friend you’re trying to cuckold. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something to do with “Wife Swap,” a popular show on ABC once upon a time, except I didn’t have a wife so Nathan could borrow a life-sized wax head I won at a carnival. That went over predictably well and we drove the rest of the way in silence. I should have just taken a bus, I thought, but since this was Los Angeles, it’d probably be more efficient just to give my wallet and phone to any passing transient rather than go through that whole shiv hassle.

We arrived at the drop-off spot and I shook Nathan’s hand and looked him in the eye, a thing guys do when they want people to think they’re serious. I offered Jen a limp handshake and when she looked confused, I gave her a light hug, whispering “You’re both very lucky with each other,” into her ear. That was as close as I got to an apology. I grabbed my bags and headed to the terminal, looking back once to see if they watched me go. They were already gone; their hybrid slunk away silently. The automatic doors to the terminal parted and I automated myself inside.

“Just you?” asked the check-in girl and I nodded, yes, just me, always. “Did you enjoy your time in LA?” she cooed.

I nodded again, wondering what would happen if I told her the whole dinner situation. “Um, okay…” she would have said, uncomfortable at my honesty, confused why I’d messed things up. “These things just can’t be helped,” I’d explain and she’d be the one nodding, silently judging me as she passed me my boarding pass.

By the time I got on the plane I had not received any messages. Maybe they’d never come, I reasoned; maybe Nathan would sleep on it and understand that hot wives deserve to be hit on by your childhood friends. This was a sort of male bonding — Nathan had won the wife game and I was indicating my approval by dropping lines about affairs. Men can’t be straightforward with their feelings. It’s part of the rule book. Yes, that’s it, I decided. All is fine in the world. I asked the flight attendant for a glass of wine and wondered what they were selling in this month’s Sky Mall.

But as time passed, my mind replayed the week’s events in lurid detail. That’s the trouble with planes; they’re engineered to make you reflect on your life. Buses and trains offer the dual distractions of finding your stop and not being murdered by crazies, but in the sky there’s no scenery, no proper indication of time passing. There’s nothing but the noise of the engines, the buzz of your life at a crossroads. I tried to distract myself with more wine and in-flight entertainment. But all I could think of was what had got me here, and why I had messed with a friendship simply because I couldn’t be bothered not to.

At this point, the only thing to do was wait. I waited for my ego to take over, for my momentary bout of self-awareness to become hard, defensive. I channeled my inner Homer (the classic one not the yellow one) and readied my yarn for spinning. I must be the hero of my story, so heroic I would become. It was Nathan’s fault I was in this position to begin with. If he were feeling weird he should have said something. My brain analyzed each situation not for my indiscretions but for Nathan’s. It rewired each memory, rewriting my role as the falsely accused.

What the hell, Nathan? We were long and fast friends. I had got him his first condom at age seventeen in a Chinese sex shop while dismissing an old woman’s upselling attempts for nipple clamps and rust-colored anal beads. I had shopped with him for flowers to impress one of his many sub-par girlfriends. I was there to commiserate right after Lindsay dumped him on the phone, his angry yelps cut short because her roaming charges were too high. Did Nathan really think I was brazen enough to hit on his wife? Or stupid enough to hit on her in front of him? So I’m a cad and a moron. Real nice, Nathan. I jabbed at my in-flight meal angrily, fully convinced now that I was the scapegoat.

Next I played our upcoming exchanges. It would start with the thank-you note I’d write. My dearest Jen and Nathan, it would read, thank you very much for letting me stay at your great apartment in LA. What a view! I had a wonderful time and you guys are great. I hope you appreciated my unique sense of humor and hope to see at least one of you in Hong Kong. You know what I mean. Nathan would respond rudely. Fuck. Off. It was as if he had no sense of propriety, or humor for that matter.

In time, the story would spread to family emails, dinner party tales, and class-reunion letters. “It was a normal dinner …” I’d begin. Jen would still be perfect—at least that part of the story would be true—but I was the happy-go-lucky everyman who had come to LA to find my old friend transformed! Nathan was a workaholic, rage-fueled beast; his green-eyed irrationality scorched everything around him. “You should have seen it,” I’d tell my audience, “his eyes literally turned green.”

“Like the Incredible Hulk?” one might say, looking for validation.

“Exactly like the Incredible Hulk,” I’d affirm.

“That sucks. Some people are just dicks,” another would say.

I’d take a moment to process this truth. “We used to be close,” I’d offer. And I’d sigh a heavy sigh, full of the terrible weight of others not living up to their expectations. “I just—” here’s where I’d pause for dramatic effect—“wish that it weren’t the case. That everybody could be cool and not make a big deal out of nothing.”

I imagine the cute girl next to me putting her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’re cool.”

“We are cool,” I’d agree happily. Then I’d raise my glass to friendship and to the people who really understood me.

•••

YALUN TU is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can reach him at yalun.tu@gmail.com or follow him @yaluntu, where he very rarely updates anything.

What Remains

wedding candle
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Patrice Gopo

Just off Central Avenue they’re tearing down Eastland mall—the dead mall as I like to call it. Bulldozers and cranes cluster near broken concrete and piles of rubble. In the beginning, I saw the front of the building removed, the insides exposed like a little girl’s dollhouse. As the rubble grew, I wondered if between the dust and crushed walls, a lone hanger could be found, a pair of new shoes, or perhaps a going-out-of-business sign. Do dead malls hold on to any of that?

“Mommy, what are they doing?” my preschool-aged daughter asks from the back seat. My throat tightens. In an uncharacteristic neutral voice, I explain the demolition of the empty building and the city’s desire for something new. Given Sekai’s keen sense of observation, I wonder if she notices how I stare when we drive this block of Central. How can I explain to her my want to stop the car and bury my head in my hands when I can’t even explain this to myself? Who cries over a mall?

As a recent arrival to Charlotte, I never knew the dead mall when it was alive with the hum of eager shoppers and squalling children. I never walked through the stores and ran my hand across soft fabrics or sifted through piles of sale CDs. I never sipped lemonade while middle schoolers exchanged first kisses just beyond the food court. I don’t know what it was to circle and circle around bright green trees in search of an elusive parking spot. Still I keep driving by, watching the demolition of a mall I never knew. A few more weeks and the dead mall will be a wasteland of concrete. Hundreds and thousands of parallel and perpendicular lines will provide parking for nothing. Not even an abandoned building.

What happens each day off Central makes me think of my hometown. A few blocks from Anchorage’s local college is the University Center. Or to be more accurate: my own dead mall. Mine. As in the theater where I watched movies with high school friends I no longer know. The stores where I spent my babysitting money on books, cheap jewelry, and the occasional hair scrunchie. The studio where my family posed for one of our final portraits before the divorce. My dead mall.

I’m not sure anyone else—my parents or my sister—remembers that day where we slipped in the back entrance by the movie theater. Still dressed in our church clothes, we walked through the doors as the smell of liquid butter coating stale popcorn flooded my nose and the click of my sister’s high heels tapped the tiled floor. That family portrait remains among the last with frozen smiles on a mother, father, and two girls. Did my parents allow their fingers to entwine with each other’s when I stopped to flip through comics at the bookstore? Did my father’s face shine with pride as the sun’s rays streamed through the skylight and streaked his wife and daughters’ coordinated spring dresses? Does it matter that no one remembers the photo except for me?

•••

A few hours before dawn, the baby’s hiccupped cries shake me from my dreams. Before I can shrug off the weight of sleep, the mattress creaks as my husband, Nyasha, rolls out of bed, and his bare feet pad across the carpeted floor. He brings Shamiso back to me where I fall asleep nursing her. Both of us too tired to return her to the crib, she’s still there when the door handle turns, and Sekai shuffles towards us with a blanket dragging behind. She exhales a hot breath near my cheek. “I can’t sleep, Mommy.” As I drift back to sleep, she climbs onto the foot of the bed. A few hours later when the blue-black shadows of night dissolve into day, we still remain there with our bodies brushing against each other. Shamiso sleeps between Nyasha and me, and Sekai is perpendicular to our feet. The stuffy smell of sleep sweat wakens me, and my baby’s warm hand touches my nose. Lying there I wish the sun would forget for a moment its command to climb higher in the sky and let me stay here, near my family, forever.

When my sister and I were small, the dark of night and the quiet of the house made us tiptoe towards our parents’ bedroom. We crept down the hallway in our pajamas, tapped the wood, and pressed our faces to the slit between frame and door. In soft voices we said, “We’re scared. Can we come in?” Then the click of the knob turning, and my sister and I piled into the warm bed.

Back when I used to whisper to my parents in the middle of the night, could they have guessed the light in their marriage would dim, and they would clutch regret amidst their crumbled dreams? When the morning sun snuck through the blinds, and they saw their daughters resting next to them, could they have predicted what they had wasn’t the kind of structure to survive a generation?

•••

It’s senior year of high school, and I lie on my bed with a book in my hand. The radio on my nightstand spits out one pop song after another, and I hum along, a disconnected soundtrack for the plot unfolding in my book.

“Well aren’t you just righteous.” I hear my father’s words from beyond my closed door. My mother’s cries muffle her response before I can make them out. “You think you’re better than everyone else.” And then I am not on my bed, the book tossed on the floor where the cheap pages display their frailty against the carpet. On the middle stair, I stand between the volley of words moving up the steps and sliding back down. From the bottom of the staircase, my father stares at me, and I feel my mother standing behind.

“Stop it. Stop it,” I say. “Don’t say that. Stop saying mean things.” My voice grows louder as something in me bubbles. Anger? Annoyance? Fear?

“Go back to your room, Patrice. You don’t understand.” My father walks away, and I hear the door to his basement office slam. Behind me, my mother disappears into their bedroom. I am left on the middle step where I lean against the cold wall. By the time I stand up, I wear an imprint of the wall’s texture on my temple and the side of my forehead. In the background the soundtrack continues with the levity of top forty hits.

•••

I’ve seen other dying malls. A few cars may sit near the entrance while a scraggly tree or two sway in the wind. In the parking lot dotted with potholes, a gush of wind skips across deserted concrete that once held rows bursting with cars. A large sign hangs over the entrance. Yes We’re Still Open, the taut plastic reads. Inside an elderly couple rummages through the clearance rack. A handful of workers stand behind the counters of the food court peddling soft pretzels and day-old cookies. Of the shops with the lights still on, the names display unfamiliar words since the chain stores have vanished leaving behind only local establishments. Still Alive. For now.

But declining marriages elude me. Growing up in the eighties, the culture of divorce no longer shocked as in previous generations. During childhood, friends and classmates shuffled between parents every other weekend and through the summer. Still, my breath shortened into rapid pants when my parents separated after twenty-three years when I was eighteen years old. What makes a marriage survive? A cup of love? A bushel of respect? The anchor of loyalty? Uncompromising fidelity? Extra laughter? A shared purpose? A common faith? Perhaps all of that? Perhaps more? Holding my wedding pictures, I stare at my scarlet dress that reminds me of the small, faded photograph on the wall of my childhood home. Framed inside, the twenty-something version of my father wears a bright red suit. His arm loops through the arm of my mother, who’s dressed in a traditional white gown. When Nyasha and I lace our fingers together and sit close, is there something our eyes ignore, hidden beneath what we create? A sign to illuminate what stretches beyond our view?

•••

In the middle of the night, a few months after I marry Nyasha, my water glass accidentally crashes into shards against the tiles of our kitchen. In the dark I stand with my bare feet against the cool floor. Crumbs of glass splay around me, stretching beyond the beam of moonlight shining through the window. Not even a moment passes, and he stands at the light switch.

“Let me get your slippers,” he says as he flips on the light.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “So sorry.” Fat tears appear in the corners of my eyes.

“Not to worry,” he says, setting my slippers on the ground, reaching his hand to me. “Why don’t you go back to bed,” he says. “I can take care of this.”

Back in the room under the comforting weight of the duvet, I see the yellow light from the kitchen, hear the crinkle of swept glass, and wonder why I am still crying.

 

In the year following my parents’ divorce, I asked my sister if she was surprised when she heard. Beneath my question, there was a longing to share the remembrance of the unexpected. “Not really—they used to fight,” she said matter-of-factly.

•••

A while back, I returned to my hometown and walked through the University Center. I was surprised to see the building still limping along. Even a year earlier, the mall’s fate had seemed destined for dark hallways and caves of empty shops. “The local university gave it new life. They reclaimed it as an extension of their campus,” my mother explained.

My mother and I joined a sprinkling of other mall walkers in search of sanctuary from the single-digit temperatures beyond the sliding glass doors. We walked the faded hallways with a spattering of shops: a furniture store, a hair salon, a restaurant, all butting up against the green and yellow wing owned by the university. In the repurposed section, I saw the portrait studio had transformed into meeting rooms. The bookstore had become an office or a classroom. When I reached the entrance of the old movie theater, the lights were turned off. The locked door refused to let me see what now existed in the dark space.

As my hand touched the metal handle of the once familiar door, I felt transported back to my final time in the old theater, several months before my parents announced their divorce. In that awkward summer between high school graduation and the start of college, when my friends and I had shed girlhood but had yet to determine what womanhood looked like, we filled a row in one of the dark theaters. Tubs of warm popcorn and boxes of M&M’s moved up and down the line. In the smooth vinyl seats, I watched as Julia Roberts tried to sabotage her best friend’s wedding. Along with everyone else, I walked out of the theater believing something magical about marriage.

•••

I’m six or seven years old. In front of their bedroom mirror, my father’s arms wrap around my mother’s body. He leans over and kisses the top of her head and feels her silky hair beneath his lips. For a moment I watch and then burrow between them to stretch their hug to include me.

 

Despite the past, I still believe in lifetime marriages with elderly couples and their wrinkled palms pressed together. On my wedding day, I walked down the aisle sandwiched between my parents. I rested one arm on the curve of my father’s elbow while I looped the other through my mother’s arm. As our trio of bodies moved as a unit, I pretended that I walked between something breathing, something that still flourished. Moments later I stood before my husband where, with our hands entwined and eyes alive, we made vows to begin. We slipped rings on our fingers, the cool metal sliding on clammy flesh. While my sister held my white calla lilies with the scarlet bow, my husband and I declared forever to each other. And with our fingers laced together, we walked back down the aisle into something new.

And I still give my subconscious space to imagine. In routine moments of life like a drive home, I let myself see my parents together. I envision my daughters speaking of Grandma and Grandpa as a single phrase. When my palm brushes my daughters’ smooth cheeks, I pretend the place I thought I would bring my children to swaddle them in the memories of my childhood still exists.

•••

I started running after my parents called during my first year of college to announce their divorce. First down the hallway to where everyone gathered in a friend’s dorm room. Then to the mall where I swiped my credit card as if it were a magic wand that could give me a different life. Ribbed turtlenecks, soft sweaters, double-zip boots. Perhaps beautiful clothes draping my body could make my life beautiful, I thought.

Finally, I sprinted across the world. A decade of traipsing the globe. I called it “finding myself” or “spreading my wings.” I believed tired clichés could disguise my desire to not go home. A year in England, ten months in Madagascar, a semester in Spain, a first job in upstate New York where I knew no one. Thanksgivings were spent with a college friend’s family to avoid interacting with my father and his new wife. During a backpacking trip across Europe, as a night train zipped from Rome to Venice, I refused to admit to a friend that I longed for a beautiful marriage that lasted. Instead I said that I didn’t believe in love and certainly not the kind of love that could survive the years.

And then I met Nyasha. On the final stretch of my lap around the world, during a ten-week trip to South Africa to fulfill the requirements of a grant I wrote, twenty minutes after my plane landed, I met this quiet man. He listened while I made sweeping statements about how I would make the world a better place. He challenged me to give greater thought to what I said. Our conversations hovered in the realm of ideas, and his reserved ways balanced my impulsive personality. At the end of the ten weeks, we stood in the international departures terminal of Cape Town’s airport.

“I’ll write,” Nyasha said.

“Once a month?” I asked, attempting to make the moment light. I forced a teasing smile to appear on my face.

His face mirrored mine. “At least once a month. Absolute minimum.” His arms wrapped around me and drew me close before his whispered response tickled my ear. “And maybe more.”

Nine months later, he slipped an engagement ring on my finger, and six months after that we exchanged our wedding vows.

•••

Fifteen years after my parents divorced, they still don’t communicate with each other, and I don’t talk much with them about the past. My father speaks in hyperbole tainted with anger, a conversation combination I avoid. My mother’s eyes grow sad. It’s a clothing store of blame where everything that could have gone wrong fits the other person. But crumbs of the past trickle between their words, and I become a timid mouse trailing behind, grabbing phrases, sniffing them inside. “Be careful. Some women don’t care that your husband is married,” my mother says as she helps me bring in the groceries. “Don’t try and change him,” my father remarks while the ocean salts the air and our feet sink into sand near where Nyasha and I will wed.

 

“You remember Grandpa,” Sekai says to my mother. My daughter stands in the doorway of the laundry room and holds the phone to her ear. From where I crouch pulling warm clothes from the drier, I can hear her side of the conversation unfold. My father and his wife left yesterday, and Sekai is telling my mother about their visit. “Gammy, you remember Grandpa. When Mommy and Auntie were girls, you were together a mommy and a daddy.” For the length of my mother’s response, I stop my work. Instead of remembering the past, I linger over the fresh smell of my husband’s shirts and my daughter’s pastel socks.

 

One day I may ask my parents what happened to their marriage. Maybe we’ll sit across from each other in an all-night diner with thick slices of blueberry pie between us. As my fork scrapes the remains of the violet filling, I’ll ask them if they understand what happened or how their marriage could have been different. I imagine my father raising his diet coke with beads of condensation sliding down the glass and my mother squeezing a fresh lemon in her hot tea. From across the table, they will look away from me for a moment. All around us waitresses will take orders, plates will hit tables, and perhaps a glass will break in the kitchen so the silence at our table won’t become awkward. Then they’ll begin to speak; slow at first but gaining momentum. Perhaps the talk will center on what disappeared, how they changed, or what may not have been there from the beginning. Maybe I’ll discover some answers. Or perhaps just sitting together will be more important than what I hear. As the night transforms to morning and the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon wafts past us, I will reach my hands across the table and rest mine in theirs. With damp cheeks, I’ll tell them, “It’s okay. We are okay.”

•••

A few weeks before Christmas, Nyasha, the girls, and I slip in the side entrance of a mall. Not Eastland mall with its empty parking lot stretching wide, its wrecking balls and broken concrete. But another mall in Charlotte where cars circle and circle in search of a spot near the door. The windowless structure beckons for people to disappear behind the guise of shiny trinkets and the smell of new clothes. With our outfits coordinated in red and faces ready to smile, we join other families in the portrait studio waiting our turn. Just as I straighten Sekai’s dress and slide a matching headband on the baby, the photographer calls for us.

Christmas music bounces in the background mixed with the rumble of waiting voices. “Move in. Your faces almost touching,” the photographer says as she snaps an image. Then she stretches us into a row and with the help of stools and boxes, our heights stagger into a descending staircase. Arms rest on shoulders, and I hold Shamiso in my lap.

In a week or so, I will find a slim package with our family prints waiting on the stoop. Sekai will sit near me as I tug at the cardboard to release our memories. Later, I will hold up the two 8x10s of our family for her to choose between. “Which one should we display?” I will say to her.

Sekai will first stare at the one of our faces almost pressed together and then at the one of our staggered heights. She will point to the second photo, the one where Nyasha and I sit in the middle, Sekai leans against her father, and I hold Shamiso in my lap. “We are all looking ahead in this one,” she will say. As I slide the new family photo into the frame and place it on our bookshelf, I will think that she is right. We all look ahead, this small family, linked together, staring at what may come.

But today, after we sit for the portrait, we slip out the side entrance of a mall. I hold Sekai against my hip, and Nyasha carries the infant car seat. Beyond the doors, thick raindrops plop against the ground, and the musty smell of wet cement tells me to inhale this moment and remember the day. We stand beneath the massive umbrella of awning that stretches over our heads for just a moment before Nyasha suggests I wait while he gets the car. As he sets the baby next to me, his palm brushes against my bare hand. The touch of warmth against the chill creeping through my fingers reminds me of the beauty of all that remains. I watch my husband walk across the parking lot, through the rain, and I think this moment could be hallowed ground.

•••

PATRICE GOPO’s essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including Gulf Coast, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and Creative Nonfiction. Her radio commentaries have appeared on Charlotte, North Carolina’s NPR Station WFAE 90.7. She lives in North Carolina, and she is at work on a collection of essays.

Read more FGP essays by Patrice Gopo.

One Ball, Two Strikes

bloody
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Mickey Dubrow

My brother-in-law is a big sports fan. Me, not so much. Recently, he asked me, “In baseball, do you know what they call one ball, two strikes? A Mickey Dubrow.” He laughed and then apologized. There was no need. It was a good joke. I had had testicular cancer and one of my testicles had been removed. I was lucky. I had a type of cancer that is highly curable, and once the tumor was taken out, I was cancer free.

I was also lucky to have a damn good doctor. I remember the first time she checked my testicles for lumps. As she pulled on her rubber gloves and sat on the stool in front of my naked lower half, she said, “This is the part we both hate.” In my head—let me repeat that—in my head, I replied, “I don’t know, I kind of like it.” But out loud, I said nothing because she was my doctor and you don’t say stupid shit like that to your doctor.

During a yearly physical, my damn good doctor noticed that one of my testicles was larger than the other. You’d think that would be something I would notice, but it went right by me. She arranged for me to see a urologist. The urologist ordered a scan that showed that the inflation was caused by a tumor. The only way to find out if the tumor was cancerous was to remove it. I asked if there was any other way to find out, because what if they took it out and it was just fine? I didn’t want to lose a ball for nothing. The urologist assured me that there was no other way.

I worried that the surgery would damage my sex drive. I knew that I only needed one testicle to continue having a normal sex life, but sexual desire is as much mental as physical. I was afraid that I would convince myself that the surgery had destroyed my sex life.

My sex life is completely vanilla, but I’m one of those guys who thinks about sex a lot. Like all the damn time. I read stories with lots of sex in them. I write really good sex scenes. One of my life goals as a young man was to be a good lover. Let other men climb mountains. Pleasing my sex partners was my Mount Everest.

Men are supposed to have sex on the brain all the time, except when they’re thinking about sports. Since I’m not into sports, I have extra time to think about sex. I’m not quite Portnoy and I have no complaints, but my sex drive is part of who I am.

How sex obsessed am I? Just about every woman I look at, I imagine what she looks like naked. I don’t include underage girls and the very elderly, but every other female is fair game. In fact, if you’re a woman reading this essay, I’m imagining what you look like naked reading this essay.

I’ve never been ashamed or embarrassed by my obsession with sex. I have never understood the argument that sex was only for procreation. Animals have sex for procreation only. Humans have sex for all kinds of reasons: recreation, expression, stress reduction, revenge, etc. Having sex for fun is what elevates humans from mere animals.

The cancer surgery went well. Afterwards, the urologist met with my wife and me. He told us that the tumor was malignant, but Stage 1A which meant that once the tumor was removed so was the cancer. It was an odd moment, to find out in the same sentence that I had cancer and that I no longer had cancer.

My wife and I waited until I had healed from the surgery before we attempted having sex. We moved slowly. She did most of the work, handling me gently, and with loving kindness. As I approached orgasm, fear gripped me. What if something went wrong? There was nothing to substantiate my fear, but fear is often irrational. The orgasm did happen and I felt tremendous relief. The last time I felt this emotional during sex was the first time I had slept with my wife. I knew that something more than sex had taken place.

Most days I forget that I only have one testicle. I’m not sure why anyone would dwell on it, even someone as sex obsessed as myself. You work with the tools you have.

Before the surgery, I thought of myself as invincible when it came to my health. Even though I was in my mid-fifties, I believed that my body would always bounce back from any disease and from the abuse I’d put my body through with too many drugs, too much alcohol, and generally not taking care of myself.

The surgery didn’t destroy my sex life, but I was convinced that I came out of it with two strikes against me. The first strike was the realization that my body was no longer invincible. The second strike was the realization that my body was aging. As I get older, my body won’t be able to ward off disease as easily and eventually age may dampen my sexual desire. This all sounds terribly depressing, but I’m not worried. In baseball, a batter with one ball and two strikes still has a chance to score.

•••

MICKEY DUBROW has been an award winning television promotions writer/producer for major cable networks for over twenty years. His essays have appeared in Creative Loafing, The Atlanta Jewish Times, Prime Number Magazine, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Under the pen name, Allan Kemp, he is the author of the Black Phoenix urban fantasy series.