Coming Home

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Hema Padhu

As I saw my mother walk out of the international terminal at the San Francisco Airport barely able to push the cart stuffed with two enormous suitcases, I hardly recognized her.

The mother of my childhood was a stout, severe-looking authoritarian. “Don’t just sit there wasting your time—do something!” was her favorite mantra. She played the role of a mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, and career woman with a sort of zeal that was impressive, intimidating, and almost always exhausting to watch.

Now my eyes rested on a short, drooping woman in her late sixties. Her shoulders curved in weighed down by some invisible burden. Her once long, dark hair, turned salt and pepper, was gathered in a small bun at her nape. White sneakers stuck out conspicuously, at odds with her festive silk saree and the bright red bindi on her forehead. She blinked nervously, scanning the crowd for my familiar face. When exactly did my mother, the invincible superhero of my childhood, shrink into this fragile, vulnerable person? The transformation felt both rapid and stealthy (hadn’t I seen her just a few years ago?). I was not only unprepared for it, I was suddenly aware of the role reversal and unsure of how to navigate this new shift in power.

I hurried towards her, trying to mask my surprise, and gave her a hug, breathing in the familiar smell of Ponds cold cream and coconut oil. I felt her papery lips kiss me on both cheeks and sensed in her touch both excitement and trepidation as if she couldn’t believe she had crossed the ocean to visit her daughter in America. The country I had chosen over my birthplace. The country I now called home and to which she had lost me almost fifteen years ago.

•••

When I left Madras for Chicago, I was twenty-five and too old to be living at home with my parents, but this was the early nineties and Brahmin girls like me left home either married (usually arranged) or dead. Neither option was particularly appealing to me. Luckily, I wriggled through a loophole that middle-class India, especially Tamil Brahmins, couldn’t resist: education. I headed to Northwestern University to get my master’s degree.

That day, our home was a tornado of activity, and my mother was at the eye of the storm with a single-minded goal—sending her oldest daughter safely to America. Dad reconfirmed my flight, and my brother was dispatched for the third time to check on the taxi’s arrival. My sister, with rising exasperation, was stuffing my suitcase with things my mother deemed necessary, if not critical, for my life abroad: rice, lentils, spices, pickles, a pressure cooker, and an Idli steamer. I, of course, had no say in the matter whatsoever. “When you land in Illinois”—my mother enunciated the s at the end with a hiss—“and want to make sambar, you’ll thank me.”

I was raised in a traditional “Tam Bram” (short for Tamil Brahmin) home, and my mother had decided that her primary duty was to equip her daughters with skills essential to fulfilling their life’s mission: finding a suitable husband and raising a family. This included learning to cook all the traditional South Indian dishes, studying classical Indian music and dance, and learning the bafflingly nuanced rites, rituals, and superstitions that came with an orthodox Tamil Brahmin way of life—touch your right elbow with your left hand while lighting an oil lamp, prostrate two or four times (not thrice!) at the feet of an elder, and my favorite, when you leave the house never shout, “I’m leaving,” say “I’ll be back.”

I watched my mother juggle the binding responsibilities that accompanied a woman born into an orthodox Brahmin family and a career in banking (unusual in those days) with only a high school diploma. She could have a career as long as she didn’t neglect the duties and obligations of a good Brahmin woman. This meant she was the first to rise, often as early as four a.m., and the last to retire. She kept up with all the rituals and traditions expected of her, tended to the needs of our five-member household while advancing her career and doggedly pursuing her various interests that ranged from learning Sanskrit to playing the violin. Like a bonsai tree, she found a way to grow within her established confines and she somehow made it all seem effortless. She had, without explicitly intending to, passed on her independent, ambitious spirit to me.

My mother careened between pride and despair as the days of my impending journey neared. Part of her was deeply dismayed about sending me to a country thousands of miles away, one she had only seen on TV. She worried that the conservative values she had so painstakingly instilled in me wouldn’t withstand the liberal assault of the West. Part of her was very proud and excited that I was making this westward journey—a first for our family and a woman, no less. She had dreamed of becoming a doctor but had to give up her education to care for her sister who had been incapacitated by polio. She married my father at the tender age of nineteen and had me at twenty-one. My siblings followed shortly thereafter. Her life was never carefree, and she wanted more for her daughters. She wanted us to live freely without societal expectations clinging to us like a petulant child.

I, on the other hand, was already in Chicago. In my mind, I had left the familiar landscape of my Indian life far behind to stroll the streets of Evanston, drive along Lake Shore Drive, and soak up campus life. After years of living under the iron fist of a highly competent but controlling mother, who had either directly managed my affairs or influenced my life decisions, I couldn’t wait to leave it all behind and start fresh in a new place. A place she couldn’t get to easily.

My mother responded to my excitement with an equal measure of fire and ice—one minute sending the household into a tizzy with her rapid-fire marching orders to prepare for my departure, and the next sulking in the prayer room with her books and prayer beads. When friends or neighbors threw a party for me, she would make excuses not to attend. I was annoyed by what I misjudged as petulance (she should be happy for me!). I failed to understand that my eagerness to get away from the home and family she had worked so tirelessly to create only substantiated the fact that I could leave. She couldn’t even if she wanted to.

Three weeks later, as I was navigating the aisles of the local grocery store in Evanston, I stood there, teary-eyed, unable to choose from among the numerous brands of neatly stacked shelves of tea. My mother would have picked out just the right type of black tea to make that perfect cup of chai. My sambar never tasted like hers, and my kitchen could never smell like hers—a seductive mix of sandalwood, turmeric, and curry leaves. I missed her strength, her confidence that everyone’s problem could be solved with a good home cooked meal, her remarkable faith in some universal power that would make things work out just fine for everyone, especially her children. I missed her rare and awkward display of affection (“you’re so thin, eat some more” or “don’t be out in the sun too much, you’ll get dark and then who’ll marry you?”) I even missed her marching orders.

•••

Fifteen years had passed since I left my hometown and a lot had changed in both our lives. My sister married and moved to Malaysia. My brother followed me to America. Suddenly, empty nesters, my parents were nearly strangers. Their marriage, a brittle shell they both chose not to shed. A marriage that was once bonded by children was now held together by familiarity and obligation.

My mother followed my life from afar, reading and hearing about it through snippets in e-mails and static-filled phone conversations: graduation, new jobs, new homes, new adventures in new cities with strange names. Each step forward in my American life seemed to drive a wider wedge between us. The more independent and confident I became, the less I relied on her. She had a life scripted for me: a successful Western life on the outside—respectable education, career advancements, and professional success—and a traditional Eastern life on the inside—a successful (preferably wealthy) Indian husband, a couple of adorable kids, a suburban home where I kept all the Tam Bram traditions alive. I couldn’t blame her—it was what she wanted for herself.

While I happily embraced the former, I resolutely rejected the latter. I married a kind artist who lived modestly after abandoning his career as a geologist to pursue his passion in filmmaking. Although a South Indian like me, his Tamil was terrible. He could barely sit crossed legged on the floor (a basic requirement for a Brahmin) let alone be well versed in all the Tam Bram traditions. Neither of us wanted to have children, which bitterly disappointed my mother. She was convinced that I was missing out on a defining life experience. I refused to blindly follow the Brahmin traditions, declaring myself spiritual and not religious. With every passing day, I was becoming more of a stranger to her. She struggled to understand my new life and the different set of values I was embracing. Yet secretly, I wanted her approval, wanted her to accept my choices, even as I defied her traditional wisdom.

When my husband and I separated amicably after seven years, I agonized for days about sharing this news with my mother. This was yet another first in our family and not a first to be proud of. I had to share this news across a transcontinental phone line, not an ideal medium for such a personal conversation. I mentally prepared myself for her reaction. How would I respond if she reproached me? What would I do if she hung up on me? What if she started to cry or scream at me? I had replayed all these scenarios over and over in my head and crafted “mature responses”—take the high road, I told myself—for each of these potential outcomes.

Finally, one morning I gathered the courage to call her. She listened patiently. After I finished, there was a long pause. Just when I thought that she had hung up on me she asked, “What took you so long?”

It was the one scenario I wasn’t prepared for. Surprised, I blubbered incoherently and she said simply, “I want you to be happy. I don’t want you to spend a minute longer in a life where you are not happy.”

She refused to let me dither about in self-doubt and pessimism and with her trademark unflappable spirit she reached across the ten-thousand-mile divide—I could almost feel her hand on the small of my back—to guide me gently yet firmly towards a brighter future that she was certain was waiting for me. She was in my corner after all. In fact, she had never left.

Over the next few years, our bond, which had floundered due to distance and years of separation, strengthened. I found myself sharing fragments of my life I had never dared to share with her: my fears and anxieties, my stumbling dating life, my travel adventures and misadventures, my hopes of rebuilding my life after my divorce. In the beginning, she mostly listened, but slowly she started to open up. About her own dreams, disappointments, failures, and joys.

I felt privileged. Singled out from my siblings. Her confidante. I remembered a time, not too long ago, when we couldn’t have a conversation without either one of us bursting into tears or storming out of the room. We argued incessantly about everything from hairstyles to grades to boys. After years of mother-daughter strife, we found ourselves embracing our strengths and vulnerabilities, instead of being repelled by them. We were connecting as adults, as women from different generations trying to find our own place in this world.

Now she was finally here. I would have her all to myself for three whole weeks. Our past stood between us both binding and dividing us. My life here continued to puzzle her and I was just beginning to piece together hers. Somehow we managed to establish a connection between our divergent worlds and we found ourselves clinging to it. Each day provided an opportunity to strengthen that fragile bond. As I walked her to my car, my arm around her thin shoulders, I felt that same anticipation that I felt years ago when I left her home. Only this time, I couldn’t wait to bring her into to mine.

•••

HEMA PADHU is a writer, professor, and marketer. Her writing has been published by Litro Magazine and American Literary Review. She lives in San Francisco and is working on a short story collection.

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Head Inside the Head

Photo by Stefan W/Flickr

By Hedia Anvar

It’s summer of 1996. At twenty-seven, you are a child but don’t realize it. You go away on vacation. You go away to vacate your life, your job, your worries. You go to vacate yourself. But Italian anarchy turns your trip into the kind that keeps you inside your head, dealing with difficult baggage and train schedules and hotel reservations.

You’ve been to Rome time and time again. Rome is like a hidden-away dirty lover you obsess about while going through your proper daily motions. This time you max out your credit card and buy the trip for two, hoping to save your relationship with Emanuel, your boyfriend and real lover—although less frequently now.

You’ve always had a secret prerequisite—if they don’t love Rome and black licorice, then they can’t love you. But already, he’s not into Rome. He finds it polluted and chaotic. For you, it’s a divine chaos. Think of the Pantheon and Fontana di Trevi in the middle of bus-strike induced traffic. So you rent a Vespa, deciding to make him love Rome by handing it to him in ribbons of asphalt.

Emanuel is more the obscure Wagnerian opera type than a motorcycle guy, so you don’t bother deferring to his maleness, and drive the Vespa yourself. He clutches your back in terror. You discover a natural knack for Italian driving, you just go—at roundabouts, making turns, whatever. No need for mirrors, signals, or brakes. You ride by cobblestoned piazzas where tourists and young Italian men on the make sit at tables drinking espresso, and caricaturists collect money for drawing misshapen versions of passersby. You whiz past ancient ruins plopped like stage scenery right there amid urban excess, mobile communication and designer transaction.

You’re an extension of the Vespa, and through the friction of the road, the asphalt is an extension of you. Speeding along its routes, you are Rome. This is the best way to get a place under your skin and troubles out of your hair. Noise and exhaust fumes whirl around the Roman baths, dose after dose of the sublime co-mingling with the cosmopolitan to have a narcotic affect on your perception. You’ll always return to Rome like an addict, except on the Vespa, it’s you flowing through Rome’s arteries. And there to the right, twin babies Remus and Romulus of legend, raised by wolves to become founders of Rome, spout water out of stone mouths.

You drive Emanuel’s stiff, white-knuckled body for the greater part of the day. Circling the Vespa around the Colosseum, your skin sheathed in warm air, you come closest to leaving yourself on this trip. He pleads with you to stop, but you pretend not to hear over the motor.

The reason you eventually park in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral, that immense and intricate monument to god, is only because it’s a dead-end. The off-limits Vatican City lies behind it. Unfortunately, now your boyfriend’s pleas reach your ear with no more room for doubt and you can’t very well turn around and whiz off again. Not right away.

You’ve never been big on visiting churches. And when staring up at the biggest one of all, which apparently took one hundred fifty years to build, the image that comes to mind is not of thousands of worshipers but thousands of tourists. You briefly think of the slaughter that has gone into religion over the centuries in the name of god—your kind and equitable god. But mainly your thoughts linger on the Vespa and getting back on it as soon as possible.

Emanuel can barely stand. Creases blackened with exhaust fume mark the tension in his forehead. He looks plucked. Later in the hotel room, you’ll observe his narrow buttocks to be covered by two flower-shaped sores from the moped seat. You decide to do something on foot for his sake—visiting St. Peter’s is an act of mercy on your part. Anyway, you’ve been anxious to cram all aspects of Rome into him.

The guards won’t let you into the cathedral because you’re wearing a tank top. You’re pleased with the tank top, because riding around in the sun has made your shoulders glow nicely. You feel cozy. But after the Vespa, you also feel unexpectedly weighted—it’s weird to be slowed down to your own two feet.

You and Emanuel step to the side and alongside the bohemian types proceed with the business of undressing and exchanging clothing. He takes off his blue button-down shirt then the tee-shirt underneath, and standing bare, white and slim-chested in front of St. Peter’s, he hands you the latter and puts back on the button-down—no way were you going to wear the dopey blue shirt. So, instead stinking of Emanuel’s terror in his tee-shirt, you walk into the cathedral and wonder if god finds body odor less offensive than bare shoulders.

Inside it’s dark and enormous. There are probably magnificent statues and stained glass, but you won’t remember them. You will vaguely recall extremely tall vaults or apses or columns. You recognize the cross-shaped floor plan of cathedrals from college art history. So this is where Charlemagne was crowned, according to the brochure. At least Emanuel is impressed.

Once outside again, you notice a line of people. It turns out you can take a lift into the actual dome and climb the basilica to the view from the top. Now that’s worthwhile—seeing all of Rome at once. Up there you’d inhale the city in one gulp, whereas with the Vespa, you wrapped it around yourself. Up there, instead of an ant crawling along Rome’s edges, you become a bird hovering over it. Rome, doing Rome, your favorite city in the whole world from all positions…

A sign next to the ticket window for the dome warns that after the lift there are 326 steps to climb. You are young and suffer from no heart conditions that you know of, and proceed.

This is what happens on those 326 steps when you have an uncertain relationship and a messy head.

You are in a dome, like in a head, inside a skull, the way you are inside your own head. There are dozens upon dozens of yellow, narrow stairways as if out of a Dali painting. There isn’t simply one set of 326 steps leading to the top—there are as many sets as fit around the inside of the rotunda, and the enormity of the rotunda just doesn’t compute through your human senses. The ascent itself is more a zigzag than a climb. The bizarre placement of the incline must be due to some unknown structural requisite and throws off all equilibrium, winding widely around other sets of stairways, then slanting narrowly into the inward curve of the dome head. There the concavity hovers over the side of your head—one head against the inside of another.

The stairways are like suspended bones, forming together an intricate skeletal system without visible support—the Vatican’s Chamber of Horrors. You wonder who cleans those steps, when, and how often. Is this where they send sinners? Maybe as punishment they leave food for prisoners in a different spot every day, trading one set of dizzying steps for another and causing the victim perpetual circular confusion. Emanuel does not laugh at this speculation.

The nightmarish quality of the stairs reminds you of a book you read in grade school in which a handful of teenage-orphans-turned-lab-experiments were trapped in a space of apparently infinite stairways leading nowhere but to other stairways. Except while the series of stairs in the book implied space, the stairs in the dome are a claustrophobic’s Orwellian fear. A mind might grasp multiple—straightforward—sets of steps spiraling up into the same space and narrowing with the ascent. But inside the dome, there’s no room in your head to sort it out as you swing around one corner and then its opposite, on to the center, then back to the side, all the while bypassing haphazard stairways overhead or walking at a tilt to avoid collision with the dome head.

There is the metallic odor of the steps themselves, mingled faintly with vomit from the weak-constituted and dizzy. Emanuel has a green tinge rising in his own complexion, but the thought of his outburst on your cherished Vespa leaves you unconcerned with his queasiness. He wanted to be on foot and on foot he is.

On the walls there’s unimaginative black graffiti—idiots leaving their mark. Funny, you’d inject Rome into yourself intravenously if you could, but others feel compelled to scribble on it. As if anyone cares, god or otherwise, that they hauled themselves up 326 steps with a black magic marker. Really, it’s the only place all day where god hasn’t been present. God definitely rode the Vespa with you around the Colosseum. Until, of course, Emanuel’s sour lack of enthusiasm kicked him off. Climbing inside his house now, you wonder what god would think of you tormenting your boyfriend with the force-fed gift of Rome. Isn’t that like religion, doing bad things in the name of good?

You and Emanuel curse the stairs all the way up. The only solidarity the two of you share nowadays is during times of mutual complaint. There are inklings of the paranoid in you while inside the dome. What if you get trapped in there? Seriously, what if? More pestering, why do you feel like you’d deserve it? Your head spins as much with your thoughts as with the winding stairs. You are the head inside the head, the little person sitting inside the big person and orchestrating thoughts, poking away at the hapless giant from the interior. What happens to love, where does it go?

Panting and sweating, you and Emanuel finally reach the 326th step. You pat each other in meek triumph. Then you link arms, step out of the dome, and onto unimaginable release.

No brochure can capture that specific unburdening once you step out and find yourself standing on the narrow terrace encircling the dome tip. Let’s say the interior of the dome and its stairs are the equivalent of Dante’s first and second circles of the Inferno. Outside on the tip then, with its offering of light and relief, equates the foot of the Purgatorio.

You’re both incapable of speech. You just can’t be so high that you see all of Rome and its haze-lined orange rooftops, ancient limestone and shimmering traffic at once. You certainly can’t have gotten there via that round interior, defying all orientation. You always associate this sort of height with modern engineering—airplanes, the Empire State Building. But this is old. And round. Height is supposed to come from length. Even the climb up wasn’t up—it meandered. Leaning over the low railing, you see the tops of birds in flight instead of their bottoms—you are higher than birds fly! You and Emanuel breathe greedily like the air might be made up of tiny diamonds, and indeed, your pores feel the way aqua minerale sparkles.

Above the city, there is a sort of quiver expanding over the pollution and concrete. It reaches beyond the old stones and gingery shingles, and extends farther than the scaffoldings of excavations and restorations. It’s somehow separate from and in addition to the immediacy of present day Rome and its undercurrent of the ancient, as if this Rome of modern decay, even conjoined to the past, is more than the sum of its parts.

Of course, back in New York, in a matter of weeks the two of you break up. But on that terrace, god who rode with you on the Vespa, joins you both in one heavenly flicker. It’s as if god had his eyes shut while you clambered in the darkness of the dome, but opened them outside along with yours, and so shedding light on all the world.

Graced with that one perfect moment, you are now vacated.

In the next twenty years, you will not visit Rome again. A whole generation will have passed, and more astounding than the changes taking place in you is all that remains the same about you. You’ll still be self-absorbed but now you will know it.

Nothing will dismay you like the description of the new Rome—not the burden of two decades on your skin, not your failures. Over a catch-up coffee, it will be your ex-boyfriend who tells you about his recent visit to Italy and how he finally loves Rome.

After the two of you discuss the Vatican’s progressive new Pope, Emanuel will speak of gleaming facades, glistening cobblestone and a newly closed-to-traffic pedestrian walkway around the Colosseum. Your mouth will go slack, as if hearing the junkie artist lover of your youth has become a Wall Street executive.

All those worlds away, when you were young and found tragedy romantic, you could have overdosed in the arms of Rome with a smile on your lips. Instead, you’ll smile above your decaf cappuccino at Emanuel without really seeing him.

What you’ll see is you on a Vespa, riding the Colosseum before they scrubbed up Rome.

•••

HEDIA ANVAR is a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles by way of Iran. In between, she lived in France and Italy, which either expanded her world-view or culturally befuddled her. She is currently working on a novel and writes about her case of “chronic dichotomy” gunmetalgeisha.com. You can find her on Twitter at @ravnah, on Instagram at @hediaanvar, and at facebook.com/gunmetal.geisha.

 

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.

The Motel Mansion

hawaii
By Waifer X/Flickr

By Sobrina Tung Pies

My mom is nearly bald. Her hair started falling out in her late twenties, getting thinner and thinner, until what remained fell away after the round of chemotherapy she got for breast cancer treatment. The hospital gave her a wig, a short straight bob. Around the time strangers started confusing her for my dad, I tried to get her to wear it. She didn’t though. She hardly ever wore it, putting it on only for the rare special occasion.

I asked her once why she’d snipped a jagged hole in the bangs of her wig at my cousin’s wedding. She’d said, “It’s too hot.” I didn’t want to admit it then, but, as the sweat pooled in the strapless bra I wore under my pale green bridesmaid’s dress, I understood what she meant. Sometimes it’s just too much trouble to look the part.

Living life with a well-ventilated scalp, my mom doesn’t look like anyone else’s mom. And it’s not the only thing different about her either.

“I’d like to visit my friends when we’re in Hawaii,” she told me over the phone in Khmer. Our family vacation to Oahu was coming up.

“Okay,” I said. Nothing peculiar about that. I had no idea she knew people in Hawaii, but she was always making new friends at her Buddhist temple. Her words bounced off the back of my skull and landed in a soft pile where they remained to be thought about later.

“My friends have a farm. They raise crops and sell the produce at the flea market,” my mom said, intrigued, a few weeks before our departure date. “They live in a little house on the land.”

My mom’s friends weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor either. After all, they were getting by with that warm blue ocean in their backyard. It reminded me of a Kinfolk article. I pictured my mom’s new friends wearing stylish overalls in a refurbished Airstream.

“How’d you meet them?” I asked.

“YouTube,” she said.

“YouTube?” I asked. “You met them on YouTube?”

“Yeah, they had a video of their farm,” she said matter-of-factly.

The video came up in her search for Cambodian Buddhist temples in Hawaii. It ended with a phone number on the screen that my mom promptly dialed. We were invited to come visit; everyone was invited. (It was the “everyone” bit that struck me as most creepy.)

The scene in my head changed from Kinfolk to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This sounded not unlike that time a man lured people to his ranch by advertising a cheap car for sale on Craig’s List, only to shoot them all execution-style once they got there. Neither of my parents shared my concerns. Cambodian people wouldn’t do that, my dad said. “I guess” was the only clever response I could think of.

When we got to Oahu, we spent half of our time exploring the island and the other half bobbing in the water at the beach in front of our hotel. My mom asked when we’d go see her friends. Soon, I said. I was the only one properly insured to drive the rental van, and the rule-follower in me insisted I drive.

Three days before the end of our vacation, after we’d seen Mermaid’s Cave and eaten our fill of shaved ice, I decided the trip wouldn’t be ruined if we were to all die then. It was time. As I drove the van to the farm, I thought about the two sea turtles I’d swum with and the five rainbows that arched in the sky that day. I’d be going out on a high note for sure.

To my surprise, I didn’t turn the van around, delivering us all back to the safety of our Waikiki high-rise hotel. I followed my mom’s lead: She had a way of knowing things. Like that time she knew she had a tumor growing inside her and insisted the doctor cut it out. Her mammogram results had come back negative just one month prior. Only after she kept insisting something was wrong did they send her back for more testing and confirm her suspicions of cancer. If something was up, she would be the first one to know.

As I followed Google Map’s directions, the cramped city streets of Honolulu gave way to neighborhoods with more breathing room. I wondered where the farms were. I took a few turns before the map showed we were fast approaching our destination. Did we have the address right? These homes had tennis courts. These homes were mansions.

My dad called the phone number from the YouTube video and spoke with a man. We were in the right place. As we climbed out of the van, my sister Sophie and I laughed nervously the way you do when you’re pretty certain you’ll be okay but a small part of you still wonders if you might get shot. We walked down a long driveway to the house at the bottom.

My mind struggled to make sense of what was happening. Three younger men moved about, preparing a charcoal barbecue next to an open garage, while an older man stood holding a cell phone. A young boy splashed in the swimming pool in the middle of the grassless front yard. There was no lawn, just concrete and a shabby L-shaped mansion serving as the backdrop. A tall white spiral staircase from the eighties connected the two sides of the “L.” Whoever designed it must have thought it lent the property a grand air, but the effect reminded me of the motels we stayed in on our family vacations as a kid.

The cell-phone-holding man, impressively tanned, walked toward us.

“Don’t forget to greet him,” my mom said under her breath, pressing her palms together in the customary Cambodian salute.

The rest of my family immediately followed suit. A group of praying mantis sharing a hive mind.

“Welcome,” Tan Man said. “Do you want something to eat or drink?”

“No, we’re fine,” my mom said, answering for all of us. “We just wanted to come see your life on the farm.”

“Oh, right,” Tan Man said. “Well, this is where we live now.” He gave an apologetic shrug. Turning to face the other men, he said, “These are my sons and that’s their friend.”

The sons pulled up chairs for us around the folding table where they sat.

After a few more minutes of small talk, my mom said, “You guys hang out.” I shot wide eyes at her, willing her to say she’d just be a few minutes. She didn’t notice and slipped away into the mansion with my dad and Tan Man. The hive mind was broken.

“I’m Rithy,” the shorter son said. “This is my brother Magnus and my friend Toshi.”

We introduced ourselves. Toshi, the friend, was the only one wearing a shirt. It was his son in the swimming pool.

“Where are you guys from?” Rithy asked.

“California,” Sophie said.

“Oh yeah? Which part?” Rithy asked.

“San Jose,” Sophie said. “How about you?”

“Born and raised on the island,” Rithy responded. “Magnus lives in Washington now. He’s just here visiting.”

“Must be nice growing up in a place like this,” my sister’s boyfriend Jordan chimed in.

“Don’t be fooled by those pretty pictures in the travel brochures,” Toshi said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s hard making it here,” Toshi said. “Finding work, paying the bills. A one-bedroom apartment goes for a thousand dollars a month. A month. Can you believe it?”

I thought about the one-bedroom I rented for under two thousand in San Jose and how everyone I knew thought that was a steal.

“That is crazy,” I said.

Wrapped in a towel, Toshi’s son joined us at the table. He opened a container of poke and split apart a pair of wooden chopsticks. By the way he ate, I doubted all that fish would put a dent in his appetite.

“What do the locals like to do?” I asked.

“Party,” Toshi said. “Party and make babies.” He looked over at his son.

Rithy nodded in agreement. No one said anything; I took the moment to listen for anything unusual. A muffled scream or a crash from inside. Only the sound of the wind filled my ears.

I changed the subject. “How’d you guys end up here?” I asked, referring to the motel mansion.

“Oh, that’s a story,” Magnus said. “There was this Swedish couple watching the news one day. All of a sudden they decided to adopt a baby. The woman at the church they called said, ‘Well, I don’t have a baby, but I do have an entire family.’ We were in Cambodia at the time when stuff was starting to get bad. My mom was pregnant with me and there was also my dad and two brothers. Whatever the couple was watching on TV that day must have been crazy because they decided to do it. They sponsored our family to come to the States. That’s why I have a Swedish name.”

I might have asked why they didn’t all live in Sweden, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the logistics of adopting an entire family. A light, unseasonable rain fell, covering everything in a soft mist. A tropical storm was passing through the islands.

“Is this their house?” Sophie asked.

“This?” Magnus asked, surprised. “No, this belongs to this Japanese couple. They had it built quickly, so the floor plan is all fucked up. No one wants to buy it at $4.7 million.”

Must be the Magnum, P.I. staircase, I thought.

Magnus got up to check on the grill. When he came back, he sat down and resumed drinking his beer. It was dark out now, and there was nothing to look at except each other and the empty garage we sat in. I fought the urge to look at my phone. I could tell Magnus had finished answering the question, but I’d never stepped foot on a $4.7 million property before and wanted to know how one comes to barbecue in such a place.

“Do you guys live here?” I asked.

“My parents do,” Magnus said.

“But not the Japanese people?”

“Right. They built this place and left it.”

“So how’d your family get connected?”

“My parents have a cleaning business and one of their clients is the owners’ daughter. She told her parents about my parents and they fell in love with my mom. Asked her to look after the place.”

I nodded. The guys drank their beer. A lull in conversation settled over us like a fishing net trapping random sea creatures together. We weren’t sure how any of us came to be there.

After a long while, Rithy asked Toshi and Magnus about an upcoming wedding. They talked about the friend who didn’t get an invite and laughed. I fiddled with my hands and half smiled like I understood the joke. They started talking about who was coming over with the meat skewers, who was bringing drinks. It clicked then that the reason for the barbecue was Magnus’s visit home. We were intruding on their party.

“Mohammed’s here,” Toshi announced as a car pulled into the driveway. Looking at me, he said, “This is the only Cambodian Muslim you’ll ever meet on the island. Converted. Even changed his name.”

“I’ve never met a Cambodian Muslim,” I said.

“There’s lots in prison,” Toshi said.

Somehow I knew better than to ask how he knew.

With Mohammed there, the conversation turned a corner, quickly moving past us to inside jokes and gossip about people we didn’t know. The guys tended to grilling the meat and disappeared around the corner to smoke pot. We sat with Toshi’s son who had moved on to an octopus poke. The longer we sat there, the more I felt how I did in high school when my best friend and I crashed parties we weren’t invited to. We weren’t privy to those conversations either.

When I couldn’t sit with my half-smile plastered on any longer, I went to the house to find the bathroom and did a double take as I stepped inside. There was no blood. No one on the ground having the life choked out of them. All four parents sat at the kitchen table, talking and laughing. Perhaps I would have been more patient had I stepped into a stickier situation, but I was annoyed that they were having the time of their lives. Meanwhile, sitting in the garage, the awkwardness pulled at my skin until I’d wanted to tear it all off. I caught my mom’s eye and silently tried to convey how much we wanted to leave. No luck. I used the bathroom (Magnus was right about this place: Even the bathroom in the apartment I rented back home was nicer than this) and then walked back to the kitchen.

“Can we go?” I whispered intently.

“Don’t you want to wait for the barbecue?” my mom asked.

No,” I emphasized. “We were going to get that sushi for dinner, remember?”

“Oh, okay then,” my mom said.

She apologized to her friends about her kids’ picky tastes, but surprisingly, she and my dad wrapped up their conversation, got up, and followed me outside. As we walked back to the driveway, my mom told me her friends had invited her and my dad to come back and stay in one of the empty rooms. I turned and studied her friends’ faces one last time. Just in case. We went in a circle doing the praying-mantis, said goodbye to the group of guys steadily forming in the garage, and got back into our rental van.

Before the van door had even swung shut, we unleashed on my mom. Sophie and I took turns, telling her how awkward it was, reprimanding her for leaving us like that. My mom didn’t say anything, letting us get it all out of our systems. She was in her own world anyway, one where people cleaned houses, lived in mansions, and went to the beach on their lunch break. Without getting the reaction out of her we wanted, we quickly lost steam. We moved on to swapping stories from inside and outside the house.

“So what’d you guys talk about?” I asked.

“Not much. Cambodian politics. The story of how they came here. We didn’t have a lot of time together,” my mom said.

I rolled my eyes at the last part.

“Japanese people own that house; my friends just look after it,” she informed us.

“Uh huh, the sons told us,” Sophie said.

We bumped along in silence until I thought of something they wouldn’t know.

“We met a Cambodian Muslim,” I said.

“Muslim? You sure?” my dad asked. Clearly they had never met one either.

“Yeah, there are lots in prison,” I said.

When no one questioned me, I relished in my newfound street cred.

As the lights of the Waikiki strip came into view, I asked, “So, was there a farm?”

“Oh, we didn’t get a chance to talk about any of that,” my mom said, looking out the window. “I’ll have to ask when I see them next time.”

Next time. I looked at her in the rearview, beaming in her seat and dreaming about all the possibilities. I shook my head and smiled. I didn’t doubt her for a second.

•••

SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley. In addition to contributing to Full Grown People, she sometimes writes on her blog at www.quietlikehorses.com.

Read more FGP essays by Sobrina Tung Pies.

Regarding the Sorrow of Another

bluegrass
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Stephen J. Lyons

A man with a two-day beard unloads his clothes from a four-door Cadillac with Texas plates and tells me something I will never forget.

Hooked on his index finger and draped over his right shoulder on hangers are a handful of short-sleeved, snap-button, western style shirts. He says he’s been coming to this part of the Arkansas Ozarks every spring for decades to hear the music at the Mountain Home folk center. He says Mountain Home is only an eight-hour drive from his home in east Texas.

The man nods toward the cabin next to mine as he tells me about his wife who always makes the trip with him. Been married thirty years. Some ups and downs but they get along. Raised good kids. House paid for. Did it the right way.

I picture her unloading the suitcases, stocking the mini-fridge and maybe checking out the dismal selection of channels on the television.

The man switches the shirts to his left shoulder and looks straight into me. Something has shifted in his face. There is an unfocused vacancy around his eyes, where there are deep, topographical wrinkles like rivers seen from the air. But there are also shallower creases. New tributaries. I cannot imagine I will ever see someone as sad as this man from Texas.

“This time we brought our daughter,” he says, pointing back to the cabin. “Hell, she needed to get away. A month ago, her husband and her two boys, eleven and twelve, were killed in a head-on with a semi. An awful thing.” He shakes his head. “An awful thing.”

“I’m sorry,” I tell him. This was more than I bargained for when I stopped for a friendly chat. I tell him again, “I’m so sorry.”

I try to feel the man’s loss as a father, grandfather, and husband. A man who comes to the Ozarks simply to hear jam sessions on the square, where the old-timers pick music as old as this country. But this time the trip is different. This time he brought his wife and daughter here to be healed by music. Or so I want to believe.

I follow his gaze to the cabin where the family rests after their long drive across Texas. “My daughter just needed to get away…from everything. We’ll only be here a few days. Have to get back. My son’s having back surgery.” He nods a goodbye and carries his shirts inside.

My stay transforms into one of anticipation. Will I bump into the man’s daughter? What will I say to her? What will she look like?

I cannot bring forth a face. The only face I know is that of the man’s, the grief deepening the creases around his eyes. A tragedy like this should not happen to a person at his age, or at hers, or to any of us at any age, but it does each and every day, to someone. To dwell on this thought for too long is paralyzing.

I try to stay focused. This town feels like an outpost. Somewhere else. Against the grain. Outside this nation’s boundaries. Yet I am not far from the geographical center of America, which is just north over in Missouri.

I loaf at a music store and listen to some old timers pluck and sing “But I Didn’t Hear Anyone Pray.” Authentic is what I think I witness, but I don’t really know. In the town square are empty chairs arranged in circles for jam sessions. Mockingbirds pick through trash. Hound dogs sleep under porches.

Despite the distractions I cannot shake the feeling of loss. It’s as if the man’s sadness poured into me like a virus. He has sent his family’s grief out into the world through me. There is no quick cure for this virus. No antibiotics. It has to run its course.

I search the aisles at Wal-Mart for wine or beer, but the clerk says with a laugh that the county is dry. If I want a drink I will have to drive to the next county. Miles over twisted, steep hills of oak and hickory. In the dark. I stay put.

In the morning at a local restaurant I take my eggs and bacon with grits. Several cups of weak coffee with powdered creamer that will not dissolve. I look out the window and watch baby armadillos graze below a bird feeder. I’m not sure there is a cuter animal than a baby armadillo. A family of raccoons appears next at the bird feeder. Then a cat. A turtle. None of the animals seem skittish.

I buy a hickory hiking stick with a bearded face carved on the handle, made by a man named Bubba. I lean on my stick and walk into the dense forest. Soft forest light filters through. Bright blue, orange, and crimson birds flit in the canopy. The extinct ivory-billed woodpecker was resurrected not far from here but then faded back into rumor. Alligators have wandered up waterways from the Gulf of Mexico. Cougars are spotted but never confirmed. Monkeys would not seem out of place. The great reshuffling of the animal world continues.

Down the road a wood frame house advertises two kinds of handmade dulcimers. Inside a man chooses an anniversary gift for his wife. The clerk plays “Amazing Grace” on a mountain dulcimer with hearts carved on the front. She plays beautifully as if at a funeral.

For the next two nights the Cadillac sits in its parking spot outside the lighted cabin. The blinds are drawn and, from a distance, the blue aura of the television screen gives the room a neon glow, like a tavern. I hear the clinking of glasses; silverware scraping across plates. But I do not hear voices, and I never see the man, his wife, or his daughter. I am tempted to knock on the door, yet I have nothing more to offer.

On the third morning I wake up early. I look out the window. The Cadillac is gone. The air is cool. Birdsong fills the air. In the distance I can hear bluegrass playing. I begin to feel better, more hopeful, as if a weight has lifted. Still, I know that anything can happen.

•••

STEPHEN J. LYONS is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His most recent book is Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times. You can get his books through your local, independent bookstore, or online at Amazon.

One She’ll Never Forget

By aphrodite-in-nyc/Flickr
By aphrodite-in-nyc/Flickr

By Desiree Cooper

When I was a teenager, my mother and I were like sisters. If my date arrived more than fifteen minutes late, she would hide me upstairs and tell them I’d already left with someone else. Then we’d eat popcorn and watch movies.

I got married to my law school sweetheart in 1984. I’ll never forget waving good-bye to my family in Virginia and heading for Detroit to start my new life. I was a grown twenty-four-year-old, but I couldn’t imagine life without my mom nearby. I cried for the entire twelve-hour trip.

Over the years, we learned how to stay close despite the miles between us. We yakked on the phone constantly, me updating my mom on my life and the kids, my mom filling me in on her garden and the latest episode of Oprah (which she watched every day at four p.m.). We got together on holidays and family reunions. And, in the days before digital images, I sent her stacks and stacks of actual pictures to thumb through when she felt lonely. Nothing could keep us apart.

Except Alzheimer’s.

When she got the diagnosis in 2006 at the age of seventy-three, I was devastated. Immediately, I felt like I was railing against time. While tomorrow is promised to no one, it’s different when you know the days you have to love someone—and be loved in return—are numbered. We were both powerless in the face of this disease, but I had to do something—anything—to mark the time we had left.

And then it came to me. We’d make a memory that would be so profound, it would be permanently stamped into her DNA! It would be a memory that would even triumph over Alzheimer’s!

I would take my mother to The Oprah Show!

One problem: I had no idea how to get on the show. I started emailing and calling the producers, telling them about my beloved mother, her disease, and her abiding love for Oprah. But I never heard anything back.

I thought about WWOD? (What Would Oprah Do?) and started manifesting my intention. Everywhere. I told everyone I knew that I was going to take my mom to see Oprah, somehow, some way. This went on for months, until one day, a woman in my circle of associates said, “I can make it happen.”

I was ecstatic, but I didn’t tell my mom right away; I wanted everything to be certain first. Then on a Friday in February 2008, I got a call from my friend. “Can you and your mom get to Chicago on Wednesday?”

“YES!” I screamed into the phone. “Absolutely!”

And then I hung up the phone and wondered how the hell I was going to get my mother to The Oprah Show in four days. At the time, I was commuting from Detroit to work in St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother was living in Virginia. The family rallied and we got concurrent (expensive) flights to Detroit, and then a flight together to Chicago. When we sprung the news on my mom, she was shocked. Then came the uncertainty, “I don’t want to fly alone,” she said. “It’s too expensive.” But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were going, and that’s all there was to it.

My plane landed in Detroit an hour before Mom’s. That’s when I finally started to let myself get excited. I posed at the end of the jet way with my camera ready to capture the first glimpse of my euphoric mother running into my arms.

But instead of dashing forward, weeping at the prospect of meeting her lifelong idol, Mom rushed up to me and said, “Des! I want you to meet Maria!” She put her arms around a Philippina who had evidently been her seatmate on the plane. “She’s going on vacation now, but when she comes back, she and I are going to play bingo. Can you take our picture?”

That’s the cruelty of Alzheimer’s. If it were just about memory loss, that would be one thing. But before the memory goes, there’s a slow substitution of one person for another. Instead of being excited about the trip to see Oprah (or even just the tiniest bit excited about being with me), she was oddly focused on the stranger who’d been kind to her on the plane. Maybe she’d been afraid during the flight and mistook the woman’s kindness for friendship. Mom’s focus on the bigger picture was all but lost.

I was crestfallen, but I tried to be patient. I understood that this wasn’t my normal mother. I awkwardly took their purses and bags and snapped photos of mom and her baffled new friend.

My ego significantly bruised, I took a deep breath and schlepped us to our gate. I was annoyed that Mom had dragged along a carry-on; it was enough work to just keep track of her, much less her bags. We arrived at the gate early and were munching on sandwiches when announcement came. Our flight had been cancelled. Fog.

We waited anxiously as flight after flight was canceled. Finally, after about three hours of waiting, we were booked for a flight the next morning. The schedule would be tight, but I was sure that we were going to make it, come hell or high water.

We used a voucher to stay at the airport hotel. By then, I was totally frazzled, consumed with the fear that my plan had been too ambitious. Now that we’d been derailed, my mother began to lose focus again. “Why don’t we just go to your house so that I can see the grandkids?” she kept asking. I ignored her. She could see the kids anytime. This was our once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Oprah.

For moral support, I called the friend who’d gotten us into the show. And just like the voice of Oprah herself, she said, “Oh, no. You will be on that morning flight. It’s already done. It’s in God’s hands. You just show up for it.”

My resolve was bolstered, but it was no match for my mom’s grating mantra: “Let’s just go see the kids.” I was losing it, so I curled on my bed and pretended to sleep. Resisting the urge to smother myself with the pillow, I listened to my mother fumble around the room, zipping and unzipping her carry-on.

All of a sudden, I felt something cover me. I looked up and Mom was holding a pair of Valentine pajamas.

“Here, baby, I brought these for you.”

She even had bought a pair for herself. We put them on, and I curled up in the bed beside her, my arm around her waist. After a long time of listening to her breathe, I fell asleep.

The next morning, the weather was all clear. We were booked for the nine a.m. flight, but my mom was completely off kilter, confused by waking up in a strange place. She needed constant reminding that we were on an adventure. She couldn’t seem to get organized. I helped her, careful not to seem impatient.

When we arrived at security, the line was shambling and tedious. I began to wonder if we were going to miss our plane while standing in the airport. Mom started to complain about everything—the line, the expense of the trip, the temperature. At one point she said, “September 11 screwed up this country. That’s why I don’t like to fly anymore.”

I’d had it. I turned to her and yelled, “You’ve got to stop it! If you keep complaining, I’m going to lose my mind. We’re going to see Oprah, and we’re going to have a good time. You have to be positive from here on out.”

People in the line gawked in horror as the crazy daughter berated her dear, frail mother. But at that point, I didn’t care. After that, my mother, sufficiently cowed, withdrew into silence and followed my every command.

Once we got on the plane, our moods lifted. This was it! We were on our way to The Oprah Show!

We landed in Chicago with just enough time to make it to the taping. As we hopped into a cab, we should have been giving each other high fives. Instead, I pouted while my mom engaged with the Jamaican cab driver in an annoyingly detailed conversation about how he got his cabbie license.

When we arrived at the studio, it was a bland warehouse in an unimpressive part of town—not the Emerald City that both of us had expected. We queued up with about a hundred other members of the studio audience, and the staff stripped us of all cameras, cell phones, even paper and pens. We were not allowed to document The Oprah Show in any way.

The staff sat us thigh-to-thigh in rows of chairs like patients in a crowded doctor’s office and handed out boxed lunches—a sandwich, pasta salad, a cookie, and a soft drink. Then we were herded into the studio where I couldn’t believe our luck. My mom and I were seated right behind Oprah’s chair!

As we waited for the taping to begin, we eyed the studio and the set in front of us. In that moment I realized that perhaps I had ruined the illusion by bringing my mom to the show. The studio was smaller than it appeared on TV. The stage props seemed to be slap dash and temporary, mainly because they were. The pitch black walls made it feel like we were in a coffin. As the audience coordinator came on stage and congratulated us on wearing the requisite “Skittles” colors, I worried that perhaps mom would never love Oprah the same way again.

Then, She came out! Oprah was wearing a flowing top and slimming pants, and, to spare her notoriously bad feet, bedroom slippers. As she made her way through the audience to toward the stage, she stopped only once and that was to turn to my mother in a moment of strange recognition. A genuine smile broke across Oprah’s face. For a second, I thought she was going to speak my mother’s name. Instead, she took my mother’s hand and gave her a warm, “Hello.”

I couldn’t believe it. Out of all the people in the audience, only my mother got to shake Oprah’s hand!

We were still agog as Oprah bent to plop down in her seat. And that’s when we were graced with a peek at the royal plumber’s crack. That was followed by an upfront view of Oprah’s bunions as her staff came to shoehorn her feet into gorgeous pumps.

The next two hours are a blur. As we watched the show from the inside out, it was hard to digest that this was really happening. The show was called “The Secret Behind The Secret,” about the power of positive thinking. How what you intend will manifest. How every day, you create the world you want to live in. If you see life as a battle, then prepare for war. I sank into a contemplative silence; it seemed that the message had been tailor made for me. Maybe I wasn’t at war with time, or with my mother’s disease. Maybe it was time for me to settle down and accept the gift of the time we had left.

After the show, we had no time to process what we’d just witnessed. As a cab zipped us back to the airport, we held hands in tender silence. Aside from platitudes like “It was beautiful,” and “I’m glad I went,” and “Thank you, baby,” I didn’t hear my mother speak about the trip again.

A year later, I was visiting my parents and some friends came over for dinner. We were chatting when my mom piped in: “Did I ever tell you about the time my daughter took me to The Oprah Show?”

The room went silent. I looked at mom expectantly, wondering what she would remember from our great adventure to Chicago. But she only smiled and said, “My daughter is so sweet. She’s my best friend.”

•••

A 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, DESIREE COOPER is the author of Know the Mother, a collection of flash fiction that dives into the intersection of racism and sexism to reveal what it means to be human. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010 and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio Fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers. She lives in metro Detroit.

On Usefulness

By Tim Parkinson/Flickr
By Tim Parkinson/Flickr

By Kristin Kovacic

On my sixth day in England, a Tuesday, I catch the first appearance of the sun. It’s a warmish day for January, about forty-five degrees (the temperature, I will learn over the course of a semester in Sheffield, of roughly every English day). House-bound in one of the million tiny duplexes clinging to the wet city’s hillsides like barnacles, I suit up for a ramble in mud boots, impermeable layers (the sun makes no promises here), and my wonderful new backpack, which I bought my college son for Christmas and he, horrified, rejected (as though I’d attempted to pick out his underwear).

The subtly stylish pack is one of the nicest things I’ve ever owned, a really useful object, as they used to say about obedient British trains on the “Thomas the Tank Engine” television show he adored as a child. My pack has pockets on the side where I can stash my smartphone (another really useful object) and gloves and tissues and umbrella, yet still reach them when I’ve got the bag fully on. It has a front pocket that snaps, with a carabiner inside for my new house key, which I am afraid of losing. It has another front pocket that snaps, for other fears. It has thick straps and is strategically padded on the backside, so that it feels cozy, like a hug, even when full, especially when full. It is cavernous inside, with an open top that rolls neatly down if you don’t need so much space, or blossoms up so that a bouquet or baguette can poke through. I can put a whole day’s shopping inside, including wine and bananas. It has a secret zippered panel for my laptop. It is waterproof, though the outside fabric is a soft, slate gray, like a business suit, and the inside fabric is seersucker. Its elegance was apparent to me when I ordered it from a catalogue, but its usefulness continues to dawn on me, as I find it is perfectly suited to every day’s needs—reading and writing, airplane and bus and train journeys, walking by myself in a new city.

With my backpack, I feel alone and armored, invisible and capable. With my phone’s GPS, I can locate exactly where I am—a glowing blue dot on the magical map, like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, alive with my movements. I don’t need the phone for long, as I soon find the route through the park I am seeking, Endcliffe (what could possibly go wrong?), and I am drawn down its paths, along a powerful stream punctuated with waterfalls and reservoirs and duck ponds, drawn by the force of water and desire, along with everyone else out and profiting from the mercurial sun: dogs of every size untethered (some charging into the water, harassing the ducks), children under school age in whimsical caps and ballooning coats, afoot with their grandparents, and babies bundled up in tank-like prams (the parents no doubt in thrall to their usefulness). The river takes me down to the Endcliffe Cafe, a simple timbered shack with tables inside and out, where one must clearly stop, for tea or ice cream, or hot soup, or beans and toast, or a chip butty, whatever that is (I am afraid to ask, still shy to broadcast English words, like “bespoke” and “butty,” from my drawling American mouth).

I’ve been walking for an hour, so I can have lunch, but I don’t want to get full and slow down; I have errands to run, a backpack’s worth of necessary things to buy. And so I order tea, and when I retrieve from my pack (snap pocket) a five-pound note to pay, the long-haired girl at the till takes it curiously, turns it over and over, and says she’s never seen one like it.

“It must be very old,” she says, and the other cashiers come around and marvel at it, like children who’ve found a toad on the path.

“I’ve just arrived in England,” I explain. “Will it work?”

They all look to a pimpled boy, presumably the manager. “I’m afraid not,” he says cheerfully. “You can try taking it to the bank.”

I go back into my pack for a crisp twenty-pound bill. “How about this one?”

And they all laugh and chime, “Brilliant!” For change, the girl gives me three more five-pound notes, which look a great deal like the old one, the inscrutable Queen not having aged a bit.

“The colors are different,” she says, but I can scarcely tell.

The old fiver must be left over from the last time we were in England, when my husband and I cycled around the British Isles in 1991, before we had kids. He didn’t tell me, when he was loading my wallet, where the pounds had come from. One of his useful habits is keeping things, like spare change, and knowing, years later, where to locate them. It occurs to me that I’ve just tried to pay for my tea with currency from before these cashiers were born, which is funny (funnier than if I’d asked about chip butties), but it also makes me feel like a time traveler, which, I suppose, I am.

I have traveled out of my normal work life in Pittsburgh and into a sabbatical year abroad. I often forget what day it is, what time (England has its own time zone, separate from the rest of Europe, and sets its clocks backwards in a daylight savings scheme called, unironically, British Summer Time, shortening winter days to roughly six hours of gloom). Useless, too, my calendars; I haven’t marked one in weeks.

I take my tea to a table outside and watch the parade of souls at leisure—granddads, toddlers, new mums, some students, me, every variety of shepherd. Off-leash, the dogs are hyper-alert, not barking, noses in deep divination. The toddlers squat purposefully over feathers, pebbles, twigs. Buggies corralled, the mothers gossip, and the students smoke languorously on the grass between fits of happy talk. The reluctant sun blesses us all. A massive green playing field stretches beyond the cafe, but no one is on it, save for a small terrier, comically chasing a ball into the void.

The field, and the brilliant sky above it, create a stunned hush, like the earth’s silence from space. I remember last night’s long restlessness, my jet-lagged body in a galactic battle with British Summer Time. I remember the scattered obligations I am avoiding (a book review, the proofreading for my sister, my writing, my writing, my writing), and my mind flits from thing to do, to thing to buy, to thing to write. Sipping my tea, warm and milk-gray, I notice how shockingly good I am at doing precisely none of it. Though I am clearly wasting my time, I feel it’s somehow useful to be here. I take off my pack and place it on its own plastic chair, where I admire, again, its handsomeness. I take my first deep inhale of open English air—dewy and sweet, laced with wafts of grease (everyone else is having the butty). Witnessing the day suddenly feels like my purest and most important obligation.

Of course, this feeling comes because I am alone. My husband’s at work, teaching at the nearby university. He would rush me along, his natural pace easily doubling mine. He’s good at accomplishing things, prefers to cycle than to stroll. Together, we would create a bland and audible reading of the landscape (look, a duck) and briskly carry on. But mostly, I am remembering my kids, their dazzling childhood beauty, and I can vividly picture each of them waddling along these paths, cheeks glowing under snug hats, those years of days I was alone with them.

I have often regretted that time, an era during which I accomplished ostensibly nothing. I was a mother at home for five years, a slice out of my timeline, a bright space on my resume. It was the last time in my life, in fact, that every day sprawled out before me like this, offering its circadian pleasures: walks, talks, snacks, songs, stories, sleep. Here, at the end of the cliff, I remind myself that we harvested each day of that bounty we could, profited, dropped everything for glorious weather, ran in open fields. That’s why I am so good at this. I could have been, should have been, doing other, more useful things, too, my grasping mind told me even then—furthering my career, renovating a house, mastering Pilates—but now I see my lazy mind was right. It was there, their beauty, those long days we played down. Winter mornings, when the sun occasionally streamed through the stained glass windows of our dim old house in Pittsburgh, the kids and I used to catch it in baskets, and then pretend to eat. Strawberry, blueberry, kiwi—we devoured the sun, tasted every flavor. That’s how you save daylight. And then they were gone, gone. Those radiant days with my children will never come back, but I had them. I had them good.

The tea is entirely satisfying, and I understand why here it is considered a meal in itself, accompanied by a biscuit or nothing at all. It, too, has done its job, which is to arrest time, halt my anxious American galloping. I strap on my marvelous backpack, still light, still full of its astonishing capacity. It will carry me the rest of the day.

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC has returned to Pittsburgh, where she teaches writing in the MFA program of Carlow University and at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She edited Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press), and her chapbook of poetry, House of Women, was recently released in the New Women’s Voices series of Finishing Line Press.

Read more FGP essays by Kristin Kovacic.

These Sweet Monotonous Winter Days

awesometimes
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jamie Passaro

My girls like rocking out in the car to “Uptown Funk,” “Shake It Off,” “Insane in the Membrane.” One knows all the bad words now, the other still mispronounces the same words she did as a toddler, her Rs coming out, adorably, like Ws. I worry, worry, worry about them as much as I try to enjoy them and remember how fleeting this all is. I want for them to experience some kind of unorchestrated magic in this life.

When she was alive, my Mom used to complain every year at Christmas that she wasn’t feeling it, wasn’t feeling the magic like she used to. It used to annoy me—why couldn’t she just feel it?—but now I get it. I’m rushing too much. I want it to be all home-made snowflakes and fresh-baked sugar cookies for the girls, for me. But my to-do list is long, my grocery bags so heavy, and I don’t have a plan for Christmas cards yet. It’s not magic, it just is.

I read about this scientist who studied serendipity, that crazy pleasant insight or experience that can happen when you wander off script. She classified people into three categories, from those who were most likely to find happy surprises—the meandering super-encounterers, to those who were least likely, the boring, to-do list-bound non-encounterers. And even though I sound pessimistic and unfun and may be exaggerating a tiny bit to make a point when I say this, it seems to me that many of the skills related to good parenting place me in the latter category.

When you get up each day and say this is how the day is going to go and then your day goes that way, you’re not going to find much magic. And yet, as parents of young children, that’s kind of what we have to do—to measure out our days in routines and activities and downtimes to achieve maximum happiness and flow as opposed to crankiness and someone chucking her bike helmet from the back of a moving bike. It sounds mechanical, but it’s absolutely prophetic.

For those of us who are hard-wired to move through our days with a semblance of organization, to wake up and say, Today I will soak the beans and finish the scarf and write the thank you’s, well, having kids sort of reinforces that tendency. Their nourishment and well-being depends on your ability to keep their dresser drawers in seasonal clothes and to get the burritos on the table at a relatively similar time each day. Which is funny, really, because most kids I know don’t move through their days like structured beings at all. They stop to read every word of the signage and inspect pebbles and stuff oak galls in their pockets and build homes for baby snails. They resist rush in the most wondrous and infuriating ways.

How we let our stories and theirs write themselves while also keeping everyone on some kind of schedule is maybe the best flow. As we hunker down in the grayest, rainiest of indoor months here in Oregon, I find that the most difficult. Wintertime, especially where we live in the Northwest, is when we settle most into our routines.

Sure, it’s easy to be spontaneous in summer or on a vacation. But in winter, I know what our days will be like. There will be card games and mancala and lentil soup. There will be a couple of trips up to the snow, where we will forget something, where we’ll be ill-equipped for the wet cold, and then a damp ride in the car back to Eugene, with our lukewarm cocoa and the girls falling asleep in the safe womb of our rattly minivan. In February, I will desperately Google discount flights to Mexico.

One of my favorite people is my friend Diane, a true super-encounterer. I lived with her during the summer of 1995 while I interned at a small newspaper on Whidbey Island. Diane was in her fifties then, splashed her face with a little rose water every morning, wore charcoal eyeliner, and cut-off shorts, Birkenstocks. She always had red wine on hand, toasted with every fresh glass, quoted Shakespeare, ate chips and salsa for dinner, let the chickens come in the house, which was comfortable, full of dusty children’s art, dog hair, sand everywhere.

I’d never known a free spirit before, but I was drawn, and whatever parts of me that leaned that way were magnified, justified, made sense. Diane’s a vegetarian—a very persuasive one—and so I became one. I wore a batik dress and every morning I gathered the chickens’ eggs in its folds. I took the two unruly dogs to the beach, bought wine and loaves of bread from the Star Store, kissed the reporter from the local alternative paper, listened attentively to Diane’s many, many stories involving serendipity and new friends. Diane and I walked the beach downtown one night to the Clyde Theater to see “Muriel’s Wedding,” which we thought was hilarious. On the way back, the tide had come in, so we had to wade, waist-deep, all the way home. We sang ABBA in the moonlight, and I don’t think I have ever been so happy.

Even meeting Diane was serendipitous. I had applied for an internship at her local paper because I’d been turned down for a more coveted internship in a city that I loved. After moping around in my college apartment for a few days, I applied to Whidbey on a whim, thinking it might be soothing to sleep on an island for a summer. After I got the job, a columnist for the paper told me about her neighbor Diane, who needed a roommate for the summer, and then I found her eating chips and salsa and drinking wine on her sun-soaked back deck with a friend.

I met my husband around then—also serendipitously—and I think he’s sometimes disappointed that I’m not that long-haired girl anymore. Sometimes, I am, too. When I’m on Facebook too much or rushing the girls through errands or spotting a conflict on our calendar that’s three weeks away.

I’ve been trying to remember one of the things found by that the scientist studying serendipity. You can cultivate the magic. You can actually train yourself—and hence your kids—to notice more: to read the appendix or investigate the birds hanging out in the branches of the tree in the parking strip. Or maybe you get small doses of unexpected joy in a mixed tape, a snow day, a Goodwill find. That tall Dad getting down to bhangra in the elementary school gym at the diversity conference—just totally letting go amid a sea of kids and moms. That time when I was passing through Portland and called an old friend to see if she could recommend a family- friendly brew pub in the neighborhood where I was lost and she said, “I’m at a family-friendly brew pub in that neighborhood right now.” A small serendipity, for sure, but if I hadn’t been lost, if I had Mapquested my way through my trip as I sometimes do, I wouldn’t have spent a fun afternoon with my friend.

My girls love a road trip just about as much as I do. They seem to recognize that it means anything is possible, like ice cream in the middle of the day or gum balls at the rest area or pooping in a field of wildflowers. They’re still talking about the time we hung out on a beach in Northern California and when we went to fly our kite and a crow stole some of our picnic bread. We’d also seen the Redwoods that day and had rolled up our pants and jumped in the waves, but that crow is what they talk about when they talk about that trip.

And so, waking up from our winter slumber two years ago, the girls and I got a three-week housesitting gig in San Francisco. We were to watch two dogs, three cats, and four chickens who resided at a bungalow in the Outer Mission. We took our friends Chloe and five-year-old Lucien with us, and we drove all night to get there. The house was smallish, dusty, full of children’s art and games, familiar.

The trip was tough sometimes, especially synchronizing our different parenting styles, and glorious other times: dim sum in a big ballroom, a butterfly exhibit in Golden Gate Park, listening to one of my favorite bands play a concert in an old mortuary, marching the kids up and down hills in search of another park or mural, another ice cream shop. Once I found myself caught in the rain with all three kids as we walked up Mission Street looking for a bus stop. I don’t know why, but they decided to pound on the plate glass window of a wig shop and they wouldn’t stop. The shopkeepers came out and scolded them but they continued to pound more and more riotously until I bribed them with pie, which was very good and gave us a place to rest and for them to poop—the triple public restroom poop being an excruciating specialty of theirs when we were out and about. Our days in San Francisco were like that; there was something wonderful every day and something difficult, or three dozen difficult things.

Not surprisingly, we went a little off the rails. One morning we took the bus to the Gay Pride parade, but it was so crowded that we couldn’t see much of anything—a few rainbow wigs, the back of Nancy Pelosi’s head. After an hour or so, the kids, who’d been promised thrown candy and trinkets, revolted. There was a little scene on the sidewalk where a glass bottle was thrown precariously close to someone’s head. Chloe and I couldn’t agree on a plan and so we split up for the rest of the day. We were all tired, I think, worn out from so many different days, so much wonderful.

At the house in the Outer Mission, we left behind a broken plant pot, a torn curtain, a clogged drain, and a garbage bag full of the siding the dogs have gnawed off of the house. It had been a challenging and surprisingly cold and damp few weeks; I’d gotten three parking tickets. But the next spring, I contacted the homeowner to see if she wanted us back.

•••

JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews, and essays have been published in The New York Times, theatlantic.com, The SunUtne Magazine, and Oregon Humanities Magazine, among other places. Her last essay for Full Grown People was “A Mild Suspension of Effort.”

Read more FGP essays by Jamie Passaro.

Preserved

By Xalion Malik/ Flickr
By Xalion Malik/ Flickr

By Kristin Kovacic

It’s the end of October, it’s my birthday, and my husband and I are on our way to grant me some wishes, one of which I’m already realizing—to be traveling in October (every teacher’s wish). I also want to see the Atlantic from the French side, I don’t remember why, and we are four hours from the coast when we stop to have some lunch and fulfill my third desire—to eat cassoulet, in its region, in its season. A chilly mist penetrates the Languedoc today, and the French people filling the restaurant around us—we’re the only foreigners, an attendant wish—are tucked into their somber winter scarves.

I’m experiencing all of this with my interior eye half-open, a psychological squint. I’m not accustomed to such indulgences, to even having words like birthday and wishes, refer to me alone. Semi-retired from parenting, with my two kids at college, it feels strange to be on the receiving end of some of the world’s booty. For more than twenty years, I’ve been tending to other people’s dreams and desires. Teacher, mother, Santa—that’s me. I’m not sure who this woman is, here, free from so many obligations, taking the heavy menu at Restaurant Le Tirou, her life served back to her. Que desirez-vous?

Suspicious of my luck, I talk to my husband about unpleasant things, like the fact that I forgot my debit card PIN code, took my husband’s card and somehow botched the transaction, and now we’re shut out of the ATMs here and are penniless, cashwise. We have to rely upon the mercurial power of our credit card, which has a computer chip, just like European chip-and-PIN cards, but no PIN number, for an unfathomably American reason, and so, well, there’s nothing to remember with the credit card, except how to sign our own names, except that some places here can’t accept the signature and our card simply doesn’t work.

I worry aloud if this could be of those places.

Did a new card come in the mail before we left? my husband asks reasonably, and I’m forced to face one of the spaces in my memory that have recently opened up, white and empty rooms, like the ones in heaven you see in movies where no trace your life as it was actually lived survives. By now, at age fifty-two (a new number I will need some willpower to remember) I have visited these rooms before, and I know with certainty that I could walk around in here forever, feeling the walls, asking his question—Did a new card come in the mail?—and never get out.

So I pick up the wine list, also heavy. Another wish my husband is granting is driving our car on this trip, so I can—unspeakable pleasure—enjoy wine the way French people do, savoring a modest glass or two over the large unhurried lunch they call midi, but which actually starts at 12:30. I scan my choices, pretending to evaluate vintages and terroir, when in fact I’m looking at the prices and wondering how little we need to spend, really, for my solitary uneducated palate, and noticing that there are words on the menu I’ve recently looked up, like Corbière, which may or may not mean crow, and whether the fact that my French is not sticking the way it used to, or that I’ve lost consciousness of something as essential as my bank card, is a sign of dementia, until I stumble across an odd word on the Rouge list: Fitou.

Fitou. Fitou. It sounds like something you say when you can’t say the worst, like Fitou! You forgot the PIN code! but then, I remember: my friend Lynne liked a wine called Fitou; I had it at her house in Miami the year we lived there. This factoid is all I have to go on, so I order the Fitou, une demi-bouteille, and am rewarded by the waiter, who compliments me on an excellent choice.

Of course, he also compliments our choosing cassoulet for lunch, which is simply what one orders in October at midi. We are in Castlenaudary, after all, one of the trinity of cassoulet cities—Castlenaudary, Carcassone, and Toulouse; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Everyone here will be having the Father.

Le Tirou (which means something I once looked up) is a cassoulet itself of haut and bas décor, lamps emerging out of teapots, houseplants from the necks of Victorian dolls, tables set with the overblown goblets Americans think of as wine glasses, but which in France indicate that you’re about to pay too much for your meal. I remind myself that today is my birthday (fifty-two, which sounds suspiciously like Fitou) and should not be wasting my desires, whatever they may be, on the check.

The wine arrives and I taste it. A French word I’ve recently relearned returns, souple—supple, gentle in the mouth. I take another easy swallow. Why have I retained the memory of this wine, not well known or expensive, which I drank just once in 1992, when I have forgotten so many more important things: how to formulate the subjunctive, the time it takes to hard-boil an egg, where the hell I think I’m going. It makes me wonder what this says about my priorities, now, our children’s futures banked at universities, our retirement years on the near horizon. Is this what will stick, the wine? Will my husband, in addition to driving, be designated to remember everything else? What is going on, here, in the newly foreign country of me?

A busboy comes by to brush our breadcrumbs with that . . . thingy, and I look away to see two donkeys pass by the dining room’s sliding-glass doors. Diners at the next table send their children out to visit. I am puzzled by the French passion for donkeys. They are installed everywhere around here, like living stuffed animals, eating and excreting and making a sound like agony finally expressed. Nobody seems to ride them, or, thankfully, eat them. Close up, they’re dirty, with flies in their eyes. There could be a reason for the donkeys I’m just not remembering, or perhaps it’s one of those things you can never understand about another culture, like our neighbors back home on Halloween, installing inflatable, light-up, fog-emitting graveyards on their lawns.

Which reminds me of when our kids were little (by which I mean Once upon a time, by which I admit the years have blurred together), when we used to bring them to France to create delightful, unDisneyfied memories together. Here in this region, in fact, we stayed in a renovated farmhouse (a gîte) and I mapped out places to visit—Roman aqueducts and forums, medieval fortresses and cathedrals—that could be both historical and fun. Which is how we once arrived at Carcassone, the Son, a few kilometers from here.

From a distance, Carcassone looked magical, its crenelated walls and turrets rising up to form a fairy tale kingdom on a hill. Inside, though, on the other side of the drawbridge, it was a roiling cauldron of tourists suffering that summer’s (I don’t remember which) record-breaking heat (the record has since been broken). Like the people expiring all over unairconditioned France, we were heatstruck in Carcassone, our feet swollen and appetites evaporated, yet we saw blazing plazas full of foreigners like us consuming souvenir bowls of steaming cassoulet. Just thinking of putting a hot spoon inside my mouth made me want to bray. We stumbled with our miserable kids along Carcossone’s authentically buckled cobblestone streets, lined with gift shops selling cassoulet keychains and cassoulet refrigerator magnets, and looked for shady places to duck into that weren’t restaurants serving cassoulet.

Which is how we came to be seated at an animatronic sideshow about the massacre of the Cathars, former religious inhabitants of Carcassone, who held, among many heretical beliefs, that Catholics could not possibly, in the thirteenth century, still be eating Christ’s body. Christ just wasn’t that big. And anyway, they asked the Pope, do you know where those wafers have been? First they were straw, that went through a donkey’s ass and fertilized a field of wheat. The Eucharist was donkey poop, according to the Cathars.

I’ll never forget watching rock’em-sock’em robot Crusaders knocking off the heads of the poor literalist Cathars, accompanied by a weird English voice-over narration that sounded like Bill Murray playing a drunk, screaming New Zealander (their jowls, their bloody jowls!). Like any real massacre, the story was complete chaos, impossible to follow, and the kids closed their sweaty eyelids against it, slumping heavily into our overheated laps.

Carcassone was one of the first reconstructed historical sites in the world, setting the path for preservation destinations like Historic Williamsburg and Historic Greenfield Village and all the candle-dipping, blacksmithing field trips my husband and I went on when we were kids. What we failed to remember, as we dragged our own kids through it, is that we ourselves never came to appreciate history, at least in the form of blacksmithing or the Revolutionary War, and even if all the power went out in France we still couldn’t summon light from a string. We’d also failed to notice, though we thought about our children constantly in those days, that they weren’t of the castle-knight-dragon-princess-obsessed variety. Look at the turrets! we screamed at them in Carcassone, in what we suddenly heard as our Bill Murray voices, The bloody turrets! They never had their eyes on the prize, it seemed, never truly saw the things we had paid extravagantly for them to see.

Like the donkey at the gîte we rented, advertised as a family-friendly, authentically renovated farm, though when we arrived at the property the stubborn âne wouldn’t come out of the barn. He doesn’t like children, our hosts explained merrily, and the feeling was mutual.

What they did like was a German police drama they caught in reruns on TV at the gîte, featuring mod, smoking detectives and a crime-solving shepherd dog named Rex. They became obsessed with “Rex,” though his barking was the only dialogue they could possibly comprehend. They wanted to stay all day in the gîte to watch “Rex,” please, torpedoing my memory-making itinerary. They liked all gîtes, in fact, all hotels, motels, B&Bs. Like birds or dogs, turning in concentrated circles, they liked scoping out a new nest: opening the drawers, sniffing the soaps, changing the channels. Like Goldilocks, they tried all the beds. With her one-button plastic kid’s camera, our daughter took a photograph of the toilet in every place we stayed, making a serious study of the variation of the species.

As is traditional, our waiter brings the cassoulet to table, in its signature earthenware pot (cassole), fired at a kiln nearby. He deftly dishes out a portion of every meat—duck confit, pork shoulder confit, house sausage, all shining dully with fat—then ladles some of the famous white (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) beans artfully over that. There’s a pause, during which I’m too shy to applaud. Instead, I take a deep inhale of the scent of my desire—a warm dish on a cold day, a hunger about to be satisfied. He leaves the cassole on the table, still bubbling and brimming.

The word confit derives from the French verb confire, which means to preserve. Le Tirou does their own confiting, in a stainlessly cozy meat atelier next door (which could be, now that I think of it, what le tirou actually means), where animals are slow-cooked in lard, then put up in jars and cans. Paradoxically, it’s the fat that creates a sterile environment, an impenetrable barrier to bacteria, allowing something as delicate and ephemeral as the thigh of a duck to be kept on a shelf a long time. With a pantry full of confit and a bag of beans, you could make cassoulet any day of the week, all year long. To hell with the seasons. You could feed four hungry people with just the bowl they’ve served us.

As I imagined once upon a time when I made my wish, watching a German shepherd dig a femur out of a flower bed, cassoulet is delicious in October. Wild, savory, rich, father son and holy ghost, all the separate ingredients melt together into one texture and flavor—something like a warm, salty, ice cream sundae. Then comes the Fitou, souple, gently washing all the fats away. Fitou is made around here, too, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it pairs perfectly with cassoulet, but it surprises me that it is my wonky memory, and not the sommelier, that has made this excellent choice. I think about the hundreds or thousands of hours (the math is beyond me now) we passed together with our children–at tables, theatres, zoos, in castles, cars, beds, on couches, bicycles, airplanes, trains, funiculars, carousels, boats. I wonder what is sticking with them now, as they drift into their own history, what will be preserved in the mind’s impenetrable fat. I wonder, not for the first time, if I’ve been a good mother. It’s my fitou birthday, which I’m trying to remember. My memory stinks, a fact I’m trying to forget. I wonder if what’s scrambling the signals right now is that what I truly desire and can never have again is my children’s uncomplicated presence beside me. I tuck into the cassoulet, so my husband doesn’t see me cry.

You can eat a cassoulet almost without chewing—everything’s that tender. Soon I am seriously full—Thanksgiving-full. I excuse myself for a stroll to the toilettes, passing by vitrines displaying jars of confit you can take home to make your own cassoulet, if you so desire. You can even pick up a monstrous silver can, of a cassoulet already assembled, happy pig skipping across the label, offered by a formally dressed Teddy bear. It makes me a little sick, actually, thinking about everything I’ve just swallowed and may never properly digest. It occurs to me it really doesn’t take that much faith to believe in a meal that lasts forever.

Before he left for college, our son filched some pictures from our albums to paste into a scrapbook to leave behind for his sister. Though touched by his sentiment, I was furious that he’d raided the family photos without asking. Then I saw the book he made, intended only for her, captioning seemingly random photographs (not the ones I would have missed) with inside jokes. The book is called LMAO (Laugh My Ass Off, I had to look it up), which is exactly what our daughter did when she read her little book.

She shared it around, but no one else, including me, could see what was so funny. Like “Rex,” their childhood was a story they’d been telling to themselves all along. In LMAO, my husband and I are pretty minor characters, smiling like cartoon pigs on the sidelines, and I had to consider that while we were earnestly plotting their futures, arranging the scenery (fortresses, spaceships, windmills, caves) to be as inspirational and educational and pleasant as possible, they were naturally oblivious, laughing their asses off, following their own desires.

In LMAO, there’s just one photo from our Carcassonne trip. Remember, my son wrote to his sister, under a picture of the two of them, adorably eight and nine, or seven and eight, standing on the reclaimed wooden fence next to the stone barn where the donkey was brooding, those amazing pillows?

The credit card works, and my husband excuses himself to walk off his cassoulet, or maybe the shock of the bill, while I finish, yes, the whole half-bottle of wine. With my sidelong eye I watch him lope away, slender back I still have a crush on. It really is just the two of us now, and that’s more than a girl could wish for on her birthday. I pick up his pen to write a note on my hand: Remember. To thank him for the lovely lunch. To apologize again for the card thingy. And to tell him about the chef in his toque, white and wide as a sail boat, navigating among the groaning diners towards me. He asks, with a shyly satisfied smile, if the cassoulet has pleased me. I take his hand, and my fingers disappear into the largest palm I’ve ever held, a deep bed of warm, meaty flesh, softer than the softest pillow. I am, oui, pleased. This I will remember.

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC is a teacher and writer currently on sabbatical in France, where she is watching, with sympathy and recognition, the traumatization of a culture. Winner of numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize, for her essays and poetry, she makes her home in Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Carlow University. A new chapbook of her poems, House of Women, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

Read more FGP essays by Kristin Kovacic.

Under the Bridge

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

By Matthew Salesses

A Korean adoptee, I had just spent a month in my birth country teaching English for a school that wanted me to be white. In order to quit, I had to spend a day overseas, so I was in Japan because of visa laws. I figured I’d make a little trip of it. For three days and two nights, I wheeled a suitcase around Fukuoka, temple-watching and feeling sorry for myself.

I had only a hundred dollars in my bank account. Since I’d broken my contract in my first month, I hadn’t gotten paid. On the first night, I headed to the beach. It was still warm in October, and I lay on the hard sand and tried to sleep. After a few minutes, I moved to a bench instead. I was there for less than an hour when it started to rain. My clothes stuck muddily to my body, but when I unzipped my suitcase, I realized that the reason I could change outfits was because I was dragging my life behind me in a piece of luggage.

I had nowhere to go. I asked myself, What would a homeless person do? I made my way under an overpass. There I laid my head on my suitcase and attempted to cry myself to sleep. I wasn’t even thinking yet of how I had been left under a bridge in Seoul as an infant. I wasn’t ready to confront my adoption. I had only been in Asia for a month, and it was the first time since I was two years old. I didn’t make the leap to thinking that my birth mother might have left me under a bridge for the same reason I found a bridge in Japan—rain. I stayed under the overpass until the rain faded to mist, and then I dragged my suitcase back into the streets, planning to empty my bank account on a hotel room, call my parents, and tell them I needed to come home.

I might have done just that if I had found a single hotel in my one-hundred-dollar budget. When everything was too expensive, I made my way to a bar. In Korea bars stay open until early morning and I hoped the same would be the true in Japan. I took a table in the back, low to the floor, where people could sit cross-legged. I parked my bag there and ordered a single beer. I used the table as a pillow. Whenever anyone came by, I took a tiny sip to make the beer last. It had cost something like ten dollars.

Someone must have taken pity on me and let me sleep.

•••

In truth I might be mixing this memory up. I might have started in the bar and ended under the overpass. I wonder why I remember it in this order. Maybe I want to think that when I hit bottom, a stranger helped me—because that is how I have always thought about my adoption. Maybe I want to think that I made myself move on from the bridge, and not that I ended up there because I could go nowhere except my past.

•••

When I woke in the early morning in a closing bar in Fukuoka, I returned to the city with my suitcase and my shame, and I temple-watched again in a sleepless haze. I hated the city’s artificial cleanliness. My legs hurt—that was real pain. The malls were full and the temples empty. The desire to fly back to Connecticut grew stronger and stronger. But I didn’t call my parents. The real reason was that I had left a new girlfriend in Korea and I wasn’t ready to throw something away before I knew what it was.

I searched again for a hotel until I found a room that maxed out my account. As sad a place as it was, the hotel held plenty of wonders—there were slippers, a heated floor, a bidet built into the toilet seat. I had never seen a bidet before. I used everything in the room and took a long bath and got ready for bed. It was maybe six in the afternoon. Before I slept, I tried to find perspective. I wasn’t truly alone, of course—I could call my girlfriend and ask her to wire money, or I could call my parents and ask them bail me out. I didn’t know what it was to be truly alone—or I hadn’t since I was an orphan.

With a calling card, I phoned my girlfriend so that someone would feel bad for me, someone other than myself, and I told her about sleeping in the bar. I didn’t tell her about sleeping under the bridge—that seemed too much. She was more shocked than pitying. And soon I was defending myself. I couldn’t appear to be so poor that she wouldn’t want to date me. The phone shook against my ear. I said I had to go to sleep, and I listened for a minute or two to more shock that I would sleep before sunset. Eventually my girlfriend shamed me into actual perspective. I was simply being cheap or punishing myself. I wanted to appear as if I had a pitiable life, but I was just making choices she couldn’t understand.

She never wanted to save me. I let that sink in, in that hotel room in Japan, sleeping naked in a borrowed robe. Rescue hadn’t drawn my future wife, a Korean woman, to me, a Korean adoptee. That was my expectation. Those were my rules for myself. I felt oddly relieved—and oddly disappointed. I harbored the half-hope that she might still change her mind and I wouldn’t have to save myself. But of course I would.

•••

MATTHEW SALESSES is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood, which was named of the season’s best books by Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Gawker, and others, and was a Best Book of September and a Kindle First pick at Amazon. He has written for NPR, The New York Times, Salon, Glimmer Train, The Millions, and The Rumpus, among others. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Houston.