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.

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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.

Something Happened While I Was Away

By Saundi Wilson/ Flickr
By Saundi Wilson/ Flickr

By Jacob Margolies

We’re waiting in front of the building, under the canopy and protected from the rain, when the town car pulls up. It’s a chilly early morning. I’m going to the airport and should be in Seattle by the afternoon. My wife’s friend, Sarah, who has been staying with us, is heading home to Maine, and we’re sharing the ride to JFK.

Our driver is an elderly Korean man. All the drivers from this car service are Korean. “You can take Atlantic or Linden. Whatever way you think is faster,” I tell him.

He drives slowly. His hands, gripping the wheel, are trembling, and every few seconds he lifts up his right hand and glances at it before smacking it down on the wheel.

The old man heads down Coney Island Avenue and passes Caton. When I let him know he’s missed the turn, he points to the GPS. “You’re going the wrong way. Turn around,” I say. Again, he points to the GPS and drives straight ahead.

It’s out of our way, but we’re going out to take the Belt and ride alongside the shoreline. It’s the scenic route. There’s almost no traffic on the parkway. We can see glimpses of marsh adjacent to the water. Cordgrass and common reeds, the ocean on one side and Jamaica Bay on the other. In the sky, flocks of birds are flying in formation. At this hour, with the rain coming down, it’s possible to imagine the New York Island in its natural state before the salt marshlands were drained and filled in with buildings, highways, and airports. In my still-drowsy state, these intimations of a physical world untouched by human activity strike me as startlingly beautiful, an impression punctuated by our driver’s periodic and emphatic slaps on his steering wheel.

We drop Sarah off at the Jet Blue Terminal. She says something about how lucky we are to have missed the storm, although, even if it hits, it’s not going to reach New York until late the following day. We’ll see. Weather forecasters are always hyping storms that usually end up veering off course and being less than advertised.

The plane lands in Seattle on time. I’m there to attend a conference on interactive media. There will be panels on social media, advertising, online commerce, and digital storytelling. Representatives from Facebook, AOL, Hulu, Amazon, and hundreds of smaller digital media outfits are attending.

The Japanese newspaper where I work has about ten million print subscribers, and its leaders are suspicious of the digital onslaught and new media carnival barkers. For fifteen years, I’ve been taking around colleagues, who are visiting from Japan, to American digital media companies claiming to have discovered the secret to a bright electronic future. Many of those businesses no longer exist. For over a decade, as American newspapers were blithely putting their publications on the Internet for free, their Japanese counterparts always insisted that anyone reading their stories online pay the same price as a print subscriber. Bolstered by a network of zealous sales agents and a reliable home delivery system, newspapers in Japan remain a staple of daily life. But since the 2008 Great Recession, Japanese newspapers have been facing the same afflictions battering print news publications in the United States. The Japanese, like Americans, are glued to their phones, and the handwriting on the wall says that before long, most of them will be reading the news on a digital device. So I have come to Seattle to attend panels and meet with whoever will talk to me, and I hope I’ll learn something that I can report back to Tokyo.

The next morning, as I’m heading out of the hotel lobby for the Convention Center, the rain is coming down hard. A smiling concierge is distributing sturdy extra-large umbrellas to guests. When I ask him if he wants my room number, he tells me it isn’t necessary. “We trust you,” he says. For some reason, I find this unsettling. An umbrella is something you buy on a misty street corner for three dollars from a Senegalese street vendor, or from a South Asian immigrant at a newsstand, or at a shoe repair store from a Russian guy who doesn’t speak English. This thing I’ve been handed is a piece of furniture. It seems so durable that I’d feel guilty about losing it.

Across the street from the hotel, there’s a cafe. I’m running late, but figure I can get a cup to go. At this place there’s a ritual around ordering coffee that I don’t understand and an elaborate art to making it. After answering series of questions from an extremely friendly barista, I wait and wait. It’s not yet nine in the morning and Seattle already has me rattled.

This is some of what I write in my notebook on my first day attending the 2012 Seattle Interactive conference.

News is getting faster and smaller. It travels at the speed of light. There is more news. There are more sources.

The story is reported before the media gets there. Cameras are everywhere. Everyone is covering the news. We get our information in different contexts. How do we know if something is true?

What does it mean to tell a story? Trust your community. Connect. Embrace the share. Storytelling is a narrative to which people surrender.

Interactive is nonlinear. Multiplatform deployments. Epic mix.

Amygdala hijack leads to an immediate overwhelming reaction, disproportionate to the stimulus, triggering a deep emotional reaction. Storytelling is an interaction. A single story builds on emotional connection and triggers long-term memory.

Forces of nature are reshaping the world. Waves of technology are eroding our foundation. This transformation is happening and we must adapt to survive.

When I get back to my hotel room that evening and turn on the computer, I see that just a couple of hours earlier, the big storm that had been approaching the east coast the day before has struck New York City. This one did not veer off course. Hurricane Sandy has made landfall. There has been flooding and an explosion at a Con Edison substation, and the southern part of the island of Manhattan has gone dark.

On YouTube, I see a video of cars floating down Avenue C, just two blocks over from the Lower East Side building where my parents live. It immediately occurs to me that they are prisoners in their tenth floor apartment. My father is eighty-seven years old and has Parkinson’s disease. In recent years, he’s had a series of falls, and every step he takes has become an adventure. There’s no way he’s going to make it up and down ten flights of stairs. It’s too late to call New York. In anticipation of the storm, my wife’s company had given everyone the day off. We live in Brooklyn on higher ground, so I guess that things aren’t too bad for her. I’ll check in with everyone tomorrow.

The next morning my eighty-year-old mother assures me that despite the lack of power and water, everything is fine. Neighbors are checking on them, she tells me. Later on she’s going to take the stairs and try to buy batteries from the hardware store.

The second day of the Seattle Interactive Conference is a lot like the day before. A chorus of warning from casually dressed marketing mavens to the survivors of a news industry decimated by the digital revolution. “Change or die” is their message. The electronic acolytes are exultant. There is a universe of possibility. The neophyte presenters have their beady eyes on the future. There are no elegies here for all that has been washed away.

I have lunch at a Vietnamese place with my friend Claire who has attended a morning presentation by someone named Shingy who works for AOL and has the job title Digital Prophet. She tells me Shingy’s got a space alien look with big electrified hair and that he’s very fond of certain words—mobile, leverage, social, branding. He’s a showman. Evangelical, but in a wink-wink way. A hustle here, a hustle there. She’s charmed by his audacity.

“I thought that all the digital prophets had left AOL and migrated to a different platform long ago,” I tell her.

“Not all of them. He’s a minor prophet,” she explains.

“Did he say anything about the flood in New York?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid. But he’s only a minor prophet.”

I call home that afternoon. My wife Joanne says if the power stays down she’ll drive into Manhattan and pick up my parents. They can stay with us until they get electricity back. But the car needs gas, so she’s going to have to deal with long lines of panicked drivers at gas stations. I’m not sure my dad will be able to make it down the stairs, but if they go very slowly maybe it can be done.

Later on, I speak again to my parents. “Any looting going on yet?” I ask, remembering the 1977 blackout when local kids broke into stores on Avenue B and on Delancey Street. The Sneaker King was especially popular on that night.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother tells me. She is English, from the town of Banbury in Oxfordshire, and moved to New York in the 1950s. “Everyone is being very friendly. Hassan, the super, knocked on our door to see if we were all right. When I went outside, it reminded me of the war. The long lines. All the blackout periods we had. We could be fined if even the glimmer of a light escaped our home because it might aid the German war planes.”

I tell her that Joanne will pick them up tomorrow if the lights are still out. “Really, that isn’t necessary—we’re fine,” she says.

After the second day’s final panel, I go back at my hotel room and look at the New York Times web site and catch up on what has been happening. Subway stations and the tunnels under the East River are flooded. The South Ferry stop is covered track to ceiling with sewage. More than one hundred houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point. Two hundred fifteen patients were evacuated from NYU Hospital after the backup generators failed. There are photographs of garbage and debris in the streets, sandbags surrounding the Goldman Sachs building, a flooded plaza on Water Street, a parking lot with hundreds of partially submerged yellow cabs, and free pizza being handed out on Avenue B.

I read a story about some of the dead. A twenty-three-year old makeup artist in Queens electrocuted by a severed power line. An old man swept away from his house by flooding waters. A young couple in Brooklyn walking their dog, crushed by a falling tree. A father and his thirteen-year-old daughter drowning in their Staten Island home.

I talk with our newspaper’s New York Bureau Chief Yuji Yoshikata. He lives on the twenty-sixth floor of an apartment on East 39th Street that has lost power, and over the past twelve hours he has rushed up and down the stairs several times. There are interviews to be done and photos to be taken. Japanese daily newspapers have both morning and evening editions. So there are facts that need to be gathered, and context and history that must be provided. Deadlines must be met. For the Japanese, the March 11, 2011, tsunami that killed over 15,000 and left hundreds of thousands without homes will be the lens for understanding what is happening in New York. And for Yoshikata, who spent ten days in Haiti in the days after the 2010 earthquake there, the events in New York, will be filtered through his own recent memories.

There’s an email from a friend who has just gotten back from a Brooklyn bike ride through the destruction. He’s checked up on another friend who lives on a barge docked on a pier and writes about seeing fish onshore where the water has receded and cars that have been moved several hundred feet. People with gas-powered pumps are draining their basements.

I speak again to Joanne. She tells me they’ve set up shelters for displaced people at the big Armory by our house and a nearby high school. She’s been trying to contact our friends in Red Hook. They have lived for twenty-five years on Van Brunt Street in a house that, over many years, they renovated themselves. There are photographs online of terrible flooding on that block. “If they need a place to sleep, they should stay with us,” I tell her. She tells me she’s going to drive over the bridge and see my parents in the morning.

The two-day conference is over, but I have another day and night in Seattle. In the afternoon, I’m supposed to talk to some people at Amazon about putting newspapers on the Kindle. I call my airline to see about an earlier flight back to New York, but I give up after spending time on hold listening to recorded music. At 3:00 am, I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. Lying in bed, insipid platitudes that I’ve heard over the last two days keep running through my mind. Paradigm shift. Game changer. Ride the wave. I pick up my phone and open up the laptop on the bedside table and check Twitter and Facebook. A flooded basement in the Rockaways. Scroll down. Houses in flames. Swipe. An outdoor Staten Island Red Cross station. Tap. People on cots in a makeshift shelter at the Armory. Click. The digitization of catastrophe recorded in real time on my news feed.

After my meeting with the Amazonians, I call home. Joanne’s upset. After waiting for two hours on a gas station line that hardly moved, she gave up and went home. She feels bad about my parents. “You did your best. They’ll be okay,” I tell her.

Later I speak to my mother who tells me that tomorrow, if they can make it down the stairs and manage to flag down a cab, they are going to stay with their friends George and Peggy in Hell’s Kitchen, where electricity was never lost and life has returned to something close to normal. “Peggy said your father can sleep on their massage table and I am going to be on something called a futon,” she says brightly. I’m sitting outside along the waterfront near the ferry terminal as we talk. It’s October 31st. Halloween. On the street there are people walking around in costume. Witches, superheroes, Mitt Romney, oompa loompas, Elton John. In New York the big parade has been cancelled.

Fortunately, my flight back to New York the next day takes off on schedule. My car service driver meets me at the baggage claim area, and I’m surprised to see it’s the same old man who drove me out to JFK five days earlier. This time we take Atlantic Avenue, and about half way home everything comes to a complete stop. The westbound traffic has somehow gotten tangled up with a long line of cars waiting to use a Shell station. “Very hard to get gas today,” the driver says. I tell him I wasn’t sure there’d be anyone to meet me at the airport. “Very hard,” he says. “Everything going up. Gasoline, insurance, taxes. And less work, much less work. Very bad since Lee Min Shok. I very angry at Lee Min Shok.”

I wonder if he’s talking about a new owner of Green Light Limo, or perhaps a dispatcher who’s giving him a hard time. After sitting in traffic for about twenty minutes, I realize he’s talking about the cascade of cataclysmic events connected to the day four years earlier when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. In East Asia and, especially in Japan, these misfortunes are often referred to as Lehman Shock. It’s no wonder this poor guy keeps smacking the steering wheel. Some disasters are natural and others are manmade. Eventually the traffic clears and we make it onto Eastern Parkway, then up Prospect West, and finally, as night falls, home.

I speak to my parents. They successfully navigated the stairs, got a taxi, made it uptown to their friends’ apartment, and spent the night there. “The futon was very comfortable,” my mom says. My dad, who is on the other line says, “Don’t believe your mother. She’s just being nice Sleeping on the massage table wasn’t so great either.”

There’s still no train service into Manhattan. I tell my parents I am going to take a bus into Manhattan and walk around the old neighborhood. I’ll let them know what I see.

Later that day after waiting in a long queue, I catch the bus on Atlantic Avenue by the new arena. It travels over the Manhattan Bridge. I get off on the Bowery south of Houston Street and start walking. Just north of Houston, two kids with cans of spray paint are tagging a solid metal bar grate covering a storefront. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone doing that since I was in high school. On St. Marks between 2nd and 3rd, which is usually packed, there are fewer than a dozen people the entire length of the block.

I head over to Avenue B. Nearly all the boutiques and restaurants are closed. For this one week at least, the Avenue has been reclaimed by poor people. Many of them are black or brown. There are elderly people pushing shopping carts and bohemian types who would not have seemed out of place in grittier times. The streets are a ghost land of times past. I find I’m sliding into a 1970s reverie, looking at strangers and exchanging with them the head nod of recognition, which involves the slightest tilt of the chin upward. The Lower East Side head nod is a vestige of yesteryear. Its unspoken message was, “You know I belong here and I know you belong here, so we’re okay, right?” If accentuated with a tilt in a particular direction, it was also understood to mean, “Can you believe this shit?” The shit in question being the existential condition at that moment, which might have been expressed by the sound of a siren from a fire truck clambering along the avenue or a warning about those troublemakers down the block. So much communicated in a tilt of the head.

But now it’s November 2, 2012, and this head nod is acknowledging that there have been four full days without electricity, which is triggering in those of us who are old enough to remember some kind of supernatural time travel, or maybe just a new hyper awareness of the fragility and impermanence of everything. And walking here, after the flood of instantaneous digital images and audio from these same streets that I absorbed just days ago from three thousand miles away, there is a deeper conjuring up of emotion and associations. What does it mean to tell a story? How do you know if it’s true?

Hooking back to Avenue A, I pass shuttered storefronts that once were Ukrainian coffee shops. Pirogi reveries. On the corner of 7th Street, long-gone Leshkos, where a girlfriend once threw a glass of water in my face and stormed out, leaving a plate of food that I finished because I was hungry. Sour cream memories.

One more block west at 1st and 7th Street there is a collection of bedraggled fair-skinned young adults huddled together. The hardware store on the corner is open, lit by candles, and as I get closer I see those gathered under the chilly gray sky are taking advantage of a portable generator to charge their phones. Looking to connect and share. They remind me of junkies, who forty years earlier, lined up on nearby street corners waiting impatiently, desperate to make a different kind of connection. Then and now, searching for a rainbow and an escape from being alone.

Up to 14th Street and then east and back to Avenue B. On the corner of 11th Street a large congregation of young people has come together in front of Congresswoman Velazquez’s District Office. They are loading cases of bottled water, blankets, and canned food into vans. A woman with a clipboard is asking if anyone speaks Mandarin or Spanish. “How’d you hear about this?” I overhear one of the volunteers, a young man, asking a woman.

“Facebook,” she says, making it sound like more of a question than a statement.

They’re being dispatched to deliver aid to the elderly and infirm trapped in their apartments. From this catastrophe, something unusual is happening. A communion between these fortunate good Samaritans and their often invisible neighbors, the tens of thousands cordoned off in the neighborhood’s flood zone, the brown brick shadow city of public housing developments running south and west along the FDR Drive. Each project has its distinct history and character. Wald, Riis, Baruch, Smith, LaGuardia, Rutgers, Gompers, Campos Plaza. The long narrow strip is the last bastion for the Lower East Side’s destitute and working class.

Gathered on this corner, the volunteers appear calm, resolute, and cheerful. While I’m aimlessly walking the streets, these kids, unburdened by the curse of memory, are actually helping people. These streets belong to them now. They have the run of the place. They’re the ones who will have the challenge of living on the island as tides are rising. Maybe someone among them will help figure something out. Wind, solar, fertilizing the ocean to capture carbon. Science could be our salvation. Or maybe the deluge swallows everything. These kids though, they are all right. They’ve set up a makeshift assembly line and are passing along pallets of bottled liquid from one person to another to another. Up close, I read the labels. Poland Spring. “People are thirsty and need water,” someone says.

•••

JACOB MARGOLIES works in the New York Bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. In addition to his work as a journalist, his writing has recently appeared in Project Syndicate, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Summerset Review.

Another Life

marblehead
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Adrienne Pilon

“I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say how long for that is to place it in time.” —T.S. Eliot

A friend once confided to me that her difficult and complex relationship with her mother was a product of their long, shared history.

“Sure,” I agreed. “Mothers and daughters.”

“Actually,” she informed me, “we’ve already spent several lifetimes together, beginning in Ancient Egypt. I was a princess and my mother was a handmaiden. She was very close to me.”

A psychic had told them all this.

“So it’s very complicated,” she added.

I tried to clamp my gaping jaw shut. I think I said, “Wow!” or “How did you find that out?” I did not, to my credit, say, “Are you a fucking lunatic?”

At a party one night, another friend mentioned that he had lived as an Indian chief on the Great Plains. He’d discovered this through a series of shamanic journeys. I wanted to be polite, so I reserved the eye-rolling. I stumbled through a neutral comment, something like, “Wow, how interesting!” or, “How amazing to possess that knowledge.” Something supportive. Someone else at the party chimed in about his shamanic journey, and how he, too, had been a Native American of great prominence in the eighteenth century. My drink suddenly needed a refill.

How is it that so many people happen to be royalty in their past lives? Where the hell are all the peasants?

Secretly, part of me wants to believe it—all of it. Reserved in my depths is a little bit of hope that just maybe there’s something more when this life is over, and that some of it is spectacular. Reincarnation? Heaven? That would be fantastic. Yet I believe in facing reality. My rational self knows that I will be rendered to dust and a random collection of atoms at death, end of story. There is no other life but this.

Then I think of Borys.

It was a midnight train on a cold October night more than two decades ago and I was traveling west through Poland. I stood looking out the window. Castles and farmhouses that are picturesque by the light of day become strange and mysterious and exotic in the moonlight.

I noticed a man at the end of the car. He, too, was looking out the window. When I looked at him our eyes briefly met. A shock of recognition hummed through me. To say “shock” is perhaps inaccurate. It was the surety of the recognition that was shocking, and not the recognition itself, for though I was sure I knew this man, I had never seen him before. I looked up again and we locked eyes. Again, that confirmed sense of recognition flashed between us. He tilted his head slightly towards me, as if to say, “Yes.” Again and again our eyes met as we gradually moved towards one another, a dance of approach, a few steps at a time, until we were standing side by side at the windows.

I want to be clear: this was not a case of mutual attraction. This man was not strange or mysterious or exotic to me. I was overwhelmed, rather, with a sense of familiarity, of the known and the comfortable. Middle-aged, well over twenty years my senior, the man was short, bald and a bit stocky—roundish. He had a small gap between his front teeth. He was old enough to be my father; he did not look at me with desire.

“Dzien dobry,” I said.

“Hallo,” he said with an accent.

I tried Czech, since I had a few phrases. “Dobry den”.

“Dzien dobry,” he said. “Polish”.

“Dzien dobry,” I said. I had exhausted my Polish. “I don’t speak Polish.”

Neither my Spanish nor his Russian did us any good. We soon determined that he had a little English, and we began to speak as best we could.

I asked, “Do I know you?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

“I know you,” I said, pointing from myself to him. No question this time. He nodded his agreement back. We laughed.

Soon thereafter the train route terminated near Katowice and everyone got off. We stepped onto the platform and hesitated. With a few words and gestures we made our way to the train café and sat down together. We communicated our travel plans to one another: I was taking the next train over the border to Prague; he was heading on a different train to his village in Poland. As we sat together in that café and talked of our lives, we missed those trains. Over the next hours, in the middle of the night in the middle of Eastern Europe, we talked, we didn’t talk. We smiled. A lot. We wrote notes on pieces of paper torn from a little notebook I carried.

We kept saying, “I know you” to one another and it was true. Yet Borys had never been to the United States. This was my first trip to Eastern Europe. We traced our movements over the last year, two years, ten, twenty—more than two-thirds of my lifetime. Our paths had not intersected anywhere, anytime. I had no ancestors from that part of the world; his had been rooted in place for generations.

This was the feeling: Like many train stations in Eastern Europe, it was charmless, with hard plastic chairs and harsh overhead lights. Yet I was not uncomfortable in my chair. I had, in fact, never been so comfortable in my life. I felt a sense of contentment, a quiet joy that made me happy to sit in that shitty plastic chair for as long as possible. I had spent the weeks preceding this moment on the move; I felt a need to keep going and moving, a restlessness that wasn’t wanderlust but just unsettled. I had traveled with others and traveled alone. Now, for the first time in weeks, I felt no desire to get up and move on. I didn’t think I needed to be anywhere else. I was quiet and unmoving, inside and out. A deep contentment radiated from Boris to me and back again. I felt safe. I felt—and this is strange in retrospect, but felt utterly natural at the time—loved.

I found out that Borys, or Boris—he wrote it out for me both ways—was a Pole of Russian descent. He liked beer, and we drank one together. He was a baker. He had lived in his village his entire life. He was fifty-two and married with four children, the youngest of whom was a girl of fourteen. One child had died. Even before he told me, I knew this, somehow. I could feel a grief long worn. I could feel his love for his family. I could almost see his sons, one who towered over his father. I could envision the chair Borys sat in every evening.

I told him how I had just finished graduate school, just ended a long relationship, and was traveling in hopes of seeing the world and avoiding familiar people and places.

Though I was avoiding the familiar, I felt a deep well of familiarity in Borys’s presence. I told him things I’d never expressed to another living soul. Why? To meet and know and love instantaneously—and this person could feel this too? How?

Trains came and Borys and I said farewell and went our separate ways, never to cross paths again. I continued with my travel and lost most of those fragments of paper we wrote on. I had no way to contact him; I didn’t even know his last name.

As a skeptic, I tell myself that this encounter can be explained or understood. There must be some biological process that we’ve not yet discovered, some scrambling of the neurons that fired in a particular way, in this particular place, with this particular man. A scent I could not detect, perhaps? A misplaced memory that we somehow shared? Perhaps the night and the drama of the eastern European landscape had affected me. Or perhaps it was a function of traveling too lonely for too long.

Whatever alchemy created that moment, I now reserve my internal scoffing when confronted by stories of reincarnation or life after death. For I believe wholeheartedly that Borys was known to me, and I to him. Both of us felt it thoroughly and completely. How, though? How did I know this man? Did Borys and I have another life?

More than twenty years later all I have are those unanswered questions, the memory of that night, and a torn piece of lined paper with “Boris-Borys” written in a man’s heavy block script: a small and crumpled scrap I hold like a jewel in the palm of my hand.

•••

ADRIENNE PILON is a writer, teacher, and traveler. She lives with her family in North Carolina.