Remember that time you went to a therapist because you were having vivid, disturbing dreams you were convinced were part of a past life, but you ended up talking about shopping with your mom for your prom dress in 1970?
On the rack of springy pastels, you found the perfect dress: empire waist with puffed sleeves, the white top covered with white daisies, the rest a soft brown. You and your mom stood in that tiny dress shop on Lorain Road, where the owner remained in the back pretending she couldn’t hear anything, and your mom said, in her outside voice, “Why do you always have to be such a Plain Jane? What will people think if you wear a brown dress to prom?” You hated when your mom used your middle name, Jane, to make fun of you, and you cared a lot what about what people thought, though you’d never admit it. But brown was your favorite color, the dress fit you perfectly, you refused to try on anything else, and, finally, your mom gave in.
Remember that time you wrote an essay about your grandparents, and you asked your mom for stories? And she told you that she bought a beautiful black and white two-piece dress for her at-home wedding, but your grandmother had a fit and said, “No daughter of mine is wearing a black dress to her own wedding. Take it back.” And your mom did. She bought a cream-colored dress. When she told you this story, you said, “Did you like the second dress?” She thought for a minute before saying, “It was okay.”
Remember that time you and your husband were eating dinner out after spending time at your mom’s house? In between bites of blackened salmon and roasted vegetables you were gulping your wine and recounting the hurtful things she’d said to you, and your husband said, “She’s competing with you,” and you said, “That’s ridiculous. We’re nothing alike. There’s nothing to compete about.” And you ordered a second glass of wine.
Remember the time the women in your extended family got together, and you and your mom stayed in a hotel suite together? And every morning while you took a shower, your mom started to do the crossword puzzle in USA Today. While you were making your coffee, she read clues out loud to you. “What’s a three letter word for ‘Yale student’?” she asked, and you answered “Eli,” not telling her you only knew that because you watched Gilmore Girls. When she asked for longer words, you said, “I have to see it, Mom.” Then she gave you the puzzle, and you tried to finish it as fast as you could, between sips of coffee, so you could plunk the completed crossword down on the counter like it was no big deal, because words were your thing, not hers.
Remember when your daughter said her two-month-old was “verbalizing,” and you corrected her and said “vocalizing,” because you’d studied language development in college for five years and it still comes back to you sometimes? She has jokingly mentioned this since, and that makes you think of all the times you said the wrong thing to her, or used the wrong tone of voice, or said something when you shouldn’t have, or didn’t say something when you should have. And you hope you haven’t irrevocably damaged the delicate ecosystem of your mother-daughter relationship.
Remember when you finally realized your mom said nice things about you, just not to your face?
Remember when you and your husband were cleaning out your mom’s condo, after she died? You were sorting everything into piles: “donate,” “trash,” “take home to sort through later.” And, at the bottom of an antique trunk filled with drawings your daughter, an artist, had made, you found a zippered portfolio case, which you assumed contained more drawings, but when you opened it, you found a copy of everything you’d ever written, including the terrible poem in your high school literary magazine and letters to the editor? You started to have trouble breathing, so you looked away from those pages you were holding, and all around you at the boxes, and piles, and trash bags.
You had so much left to do, and you hoped you wouldn’t forget anything.
MELISSA BALLARD has written essays for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things, Under the Sun, and other publications. She writes far too slowly to even consider regular blogging, but you can read her work here: https://melissaballardsite.wordpress.com/
My oldest sister’s birthday passed in the beginning of June. I didn’t call her. I was afraid to. Instead, I sent her a direct message on Facebook: a compromise—I told myself—between an impersonal public wall post and actual conversation. I told her Happy Birthday. I told her I love you. I didn’t say anything else. It was almost midnight, and my message just barely went through in time for me to be able to say that I hadn’t forgotten or ignored her. It was also (conveniently) late enough that when she replied I could ignore her response, which came through about twenty minutes later. I made sure not to go back on Facebook for the rest of the night to keep up the appearance that I had just fallen asleep.
But I didn’t sleep for a long while. I stayed up thinking about her message, and the last time we spoke, when I had promised to send her grocery money—a promise I ended up going back on when I realized that I didn’t know what she would do with the money. It was one of several times when I hadn’t kept that kind of promise. I once told her I wanted to buy a painting from her, and gave her some idea of what I was looking for. She tried to offer me one of her other paintings that she had already finished. I never answered. I didn’t have the guts to tell her that as much as I loved her paintings, I was really trying to pay her to make something new. In other words, to pick up a paint brush, charcoal, pastels, RoseArt crayons, anything that would make her put down the needle. I’d give her my entire paycheck if I knew it would accomplish that.
Eventually, I fell asleep, but I didn’t sleep well. I knew that I’d have to look at the message tomorrow, and that there were only two options for how she’d reply. She’d either just say I love you, too. Or she’d ask me for money. Whichever way she answered would tell me how she was doing.
Jane* has always been a fiercely independent person. She left home when she was sixteen and slept on the beach under the promenade for much of the time in the following two or three years. But even when she was technically homeless, she worked. A gallery near our hometown post office hung her paintings. She got a job as a line cook at a restaurant downtown. She graduated from high school. She was by any estimation undeniably beautiful, brilliant, and talented. The world would have offered itself up to her. There wasn’t a boy in our hometown who didn’t fall in love with her. There weren’t many girls who didn’t harbor some secret or overt jealousy toward her. She could have married for love or for money. She could have ignored men entirely, gone off to college and disrupted some urbane avant-garde scene.
But Jane didn’t want any of that. She hopped trains across the country, settling at various times in Austin, San Francisco, New Orleans, Taos, and wherever else she rolled off the line. In each of these places some other boy fell in love with her. At home, it was Xander. In San Francisco, it was a guy named Elvis. In Austin, it was Dutch. After I finished my freshman year of college in Santa Fe, she and I decided we would take a road trip back home. I went to the train station in Albuquerque, and she snuck up on me and gave me a big hug, and then introduced me to a gnarly, six-foot-four, tatted up man carrying her bags. He looked like a mix between Hank Williams and one of the bouncers from Roadhouse.
“This is Christ,” she said. “He’s a good dude. We’re gonna get him to his long-lost brother in Vegas.”
So, we did. In fact, I handed Christ the keys to my 1989 Crown Victoria and he drove us all the way from Albuquerque to Las Vegas. The only portion I drove was across the Hoover Dam, because every vehicle crossing the dam goes through a police checkpoint, “and I ain’t got a license,” Christ confessed.
It’s just the type of thing that happens when Jane’s around. A mix of insanity, spontaneity, fuck-it-let’s-see-where-this-train’s-headed, and an almost saintly amount of compassion for her fellow travelers. Christ was an intimidating figure, but it was beautiful to seem him wrap his bulky, tatted arms around his brother for the first time in twenty years.
All this is just to say that Jane doesn’t like to rely on anyone else. She’s staked her entire reputation on being able to survive in situations that have cost other men and women their lives. So when she asks for money, I know that I’m not talking to the person I’ve known my entire life. I’m talking to a need, a desperate little itch in the arm, a series of unfortunate events wrapping around the psyche of a strong woman. It makes her weak, it makes her helpless, it makes her all the things that she has never really, truly, in her heart of hearts, been.
I opened her Facebook message the following afternoon. She said, I love you, too. But then came the rest. Can you help me out with birthday money, or buy that painting? She wanted two hundred dollars. She told me she’d been living out of her car and hadn’t eaten anything but donuts for months. She reminded me that I said I’d help her out a while back, but she knew I probably forgot because I’m busy, and that was okay. She said, I love you again. Then she said all the other reasons she was in a tight spot. If I didn’t have money, she went on, maybe I could use my credit card to fix her car so she could get back on the road.
She listed every reason in the world except for the one I needed to hear: that she had a problem.
I’ve lived away from home for a long time, roughly three thousand miles from most of the immediate crises that my family has come up against. I find out about them through conversations with my mother, sad phone calls with my father, and Facebook. Three very dear friends of my family have died in the last year, and I haven’t been to a single funeral. Each time, I spend about twenty minutes or so putting together as delicate a Facebook message as I can, trying my best to make a digital eulogy that would let my family know that I care, that I grieve, that it hurts. I lie to myself and say that I’m there and that I’ve dealt with the grief. That’s why it’s cathartic to come home. I meet my new nieces and nephews, who I had only known from the photos my sisters share on Facebook. I find out what’s really been going on behind the public façade of social media. And I remember that instant communication can only make us feel like we’ve been part of our distant families. Coming home makes me realize just how much life I’ve missed.
Like last Christmas. It was going to be the first time in over ten years that my four sisters and I would be in the same room at the same time. Even my stepsister flew out from Texas to be with us. Eleven of my fourteen nieces and nephews were there opening presents on Christmas morning. Everyone was there except for Jane. My other sisters called her, texted her, went by her house, but she didn’t show. We didn’t see her until the next day, when she showed up at a family trip to the Santa Barbara zoo. I was so happy to see her, to give her a hug, to have all of my sisters with me. But at the same time, I wanted to run away, break down, and cry.
My oldest sister has the remarkable ability to look beautiful even when she looks bad. And she looked so bad and so beautiful that I didn’t know what to do about it. A zoo just isn’t the right place for an intervention. And, like a skittish pet, I didn’t want to frighten her away just when she’d come out of hiding. But it was on that day that I realized that there had to be some sort of bottom, some sort of end to the long independent crusade she’d been on. I wanted her to complete that narrative arc, where the artist spends her early years wildly crisscrossing the country, chaotically traversing the polls between strung-out desperation and the unforgettable highs of being a free-wheeling, cosmopolitan tramp. When I thought of her, I thought of a mix between John Muir, Georgia O’Keefe and Timothy Leery. I thought about Will Rogers, who said you can’t break a man that don’t borrow, because he can look the world in the face and say, I don’t owe you a thing.
But she was over thirty now, and the window for change was closing.
As I thought about Jane’s birthday message reply; I thought about how I should respond. In the past, I would have just ignored it. Eventually, I would have counted on it becoming a small, bitter resentment between the two of us that neither of us spoke of. We’d sweep it under the rug, woven from the fibers of that love between her and I that had always seemed the most important thing in the world. We’re family, after all, and family means burying shit deep down and then forgiving each other our trespasses on the day that we die, or sometime thereafter.
But I didn’t want to do that this time. I decided that this time I would tell her how I felt. I told her I didn’t have any money—which was true—or any credit—also true. But more importantly, I told her that even if I did have it I wouldn’t give it to her. I told her that I was worried about her, that I knew she was in a rough spot, and that every single person in her family would give her anything she needed to get better, but that I didn’t think getting better was what she was going to do. I told her that I believed she was an artist, and that art is one of those enigmatic industries where smashing directly head first into rock bottom can even be a benefit, if you can just pick up the pieces. I told her, You’ve been struggling and hurting long enough. You’ve earned a break. I love you.
Social media gives you just enough information to draw most any conclusion that you want. My message went through, but Jane didn’t read it. I watched as the timer underneath her name ticked away the hours since the last time she logged on. It’s something I’ve often done when checking in on her. If I see that she’s online, I can be fairly certain that she’s alive. But the hours passed. One hour, five, ten, one day, then it just listed Sunday as the last time she logged on.
When she’s not online, I conceive of her as both alive and dead. She is at the same time actively trying to kick her habit and quietly slipping away in the back seat of a broken-down car, too high to even know that she’s dying. I picture an artist mixing paint. I think of the giant cloth canvas she once made for me, a rendering in color of Louis Armstrong and his wife at The Pyramids of Giza, except that she portrayed them in Mardi Gras masks. And then I try not to picture a sunbaked body in a car with the windows rolled up, a sleeping bag balled into a pillow, a sketchbook on the floor with a few last thoughts scrawled into it, unaware that they are even last thoughts.
Come Wednesday, I finally see that she has been online. I know, for the moment, that she’s alive. But I also know that she could have read my message, and that she has chosen not to. As much as I knew that she was going to ask me for money, she must have known that I was going to plead for her to get help. The message is both read and unread. The plea is known and unknown.
That’s the blessing and curse of our connectivity. I am there, immediately, in a phone in my sister’s pocket next to some cough drops, a handkerchief, and a tied up little baggie of cheap heroin. But at the same time, I’m no closer than I ever was. I’m still three thousand miles away. I’m still just waiting for the veil of uncertainty to lift, for the message to be opened, and for her to tell me she loves me, and that she’s going to be okay, for real this time.
*Her name has been changed.
STEWART SINCLAIR is a writer from Ventura, California. His work has been featured in Guernica,Avidly, The New Orleans Review, The Morning News, and The Millions. He now lives in Benshonhurst, Brooklyn. Find him on twitter: @stewsinclair.
I arrive at Timberwood Court carrying our wedding album. It’s our twenty-fifth anniversary. I sign in, punch the code, and walk into the activities area. Fred is sitting on a sofa in the front row of the residents listening to an accordion player and a guitarist. He’s leaning forward, neck muscles straining as he sings along, making sounds that aren’t exactly words but close.
He looks at me, then looks away. An aide brings a chair and I sit next to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge my presence, even though I smile, say hello, and kiss his bristly cheek. He continues to focus on the music, occasionally glancing at me with a look that seems to say, “Who are you and why are you sitting so close to me?”
My husband lives in a memory care facility in Albany, Oregon, seventy-two miles inland from where I live on the coast in the house we bought together twelve years ago. He has Alzheimer’s disease. We’d been getting along at home with occasional twenty-dollar-an-hour aides until he fell and hurt his back. Suddenly he couldn’t stand up on his own, and all the doctors said I could no longer take care of him. He dominoed from one institution to another until he landed at Timberwood Court. He can walk now, but he shuffles and stumbles. His cognitive functions have deteriorated to the point where even if he could run, he could not live with me.
He doesn’t know my name anymore. For a while, I wore a nametag. But it was just a collection of letters. It didn’t really matter as long as he still knew we loved each other.
The first time he didn’t recognize me happened a few months ago. He looked at me with the eyes of a stranger. I bit my lip and pretended to be cheerful, struggling to find funny stories to tell him about the dog or something that I saw on the road. He thanked me for coming as if I were someone he had just met. I held my tears until I got to the parking lot.
The following week, he knew me again, but I can’t count on it anymore.
Now the activities director hands me a card that Fred’s son sent to him. I show it to Fred. He traces the words with his stubby index finger. They have no meaning for him. I explain that it’s our wedding anniversary. He seems confused.
“Yes. To me.”
It doesn’t register. He goes back to singing while I fight to hold back my tears.
The music seems to go on forever. When my thigh touches Fred’s, he moves away. I stare at his left hand on the arm of the sofa, the ring that matches mine shining gold in the soft light.
“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…”
Pauline, who spends all day wandering like a ghost, brushes past me and walks straight toward the musicians, easing between them like ectoplasm. Sometimes she’ll lift a foot in a quick dance step as she goes by, but most days she’s like a windup toy that goes until it hits something, then turns and goes again.
“I been workin’ on the railroad…”
Usually I sing along, providing harmony to the guest musicians and to Fred’s rich bass voice. Today I can’t move any sound past the lump in my throat.
“Roll out the barrels…”
Finally they finish. Fred applauds while I nod at the musicians and watch them fold up their music stands. Now what should I do?
I tell Fred I have something to show him, and we go to his room. Sitting in his mother’s old mauve easy chairs, I open the photo album and start going slowly through the pages, explaining everything.
“This is our wedding day. Remember, we set up canopies in the back yard? See, here’s your folks.”
He nods, yeah.
“Look, here we are.”
He points to me in my white dress, a crown of white flowers around my curly hair. “She’s pretty.”
“That’s me,” I whisper. He looks at me, disbelief in his eyes.
I keep turning the pages. He puts a finger on my mother’s picture. “How is she?” he asks.
I swallow. “Honey, she passed away.” Eight years ago. He was there.
The hours here are dog hours. I thought about bringing a cake, creating a party for everyone, but now I’m glad I didn’t. When an aide brings us plastic bowls of vanilla ice cream, I’m grateful for the distraction. Snack time. Halfway to dinner and my escape.
Fred glances at the anniversary card I picked out for him but shows no interest. How different from those years when we would exchange cards, softly kiss and promise another year together, when we would dress up and go to a fancy restaurant, feeding each other bites of lobster and chocolate cake, so in love it was disgusting. One anniversary he picked me up at work and took me to a posh hotel where he’d filled our room with roses and photographs. We made love… Oh God, I can’t think about that now.
I just want to go somewhere private and cry. I’m about to leave when the woman who runs the facility hands me a form to fill out. POLST: Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. In English, it’s the form that asks what we want done in case of a medical crisis: CPR? Transport to the hospital? Tube feeding? Life support? Of all days to make me answer these questions. Struggling to control my hand, I try to remember what Fred wanted when we filled these out before, right after his diagnosis. He was only sixty-five. I had just turned fifty.
I leave the form at the desk and hurry out the door. Usually I make it to the car but not this time. Sobbing in the car, I startle as the director knocks on my window. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says. I missed a question. I don’t care what I write. Pull the plug. Kill me, too.
I cry so hard on the way home I’m afraid I’m going to crash the car. I feel as if my chest is going to crack from neck to crotch, as if I could not possibly survive this, as if I ought to park and call 911. But I can’t stop on this mountain road. It’s getting dark.
Returning a week later, I see Fred long before he sees me. I see his balding head, his white goatee, his neck stretched awkwardly forward as he sits on the couch watching a black and white TV show from the ’50s. Beside him, Jean is slumped over sideways, sleeping. On the next sofa, Rachel babbles to herself, shaking her massive bony hands at me. From one of the bedrooms, a woman cries, “Help me! Somebody help me!”
I ease into the empty space beside Fred, saying, “Hi.”
He looks up, blinks for a moment. I hold my breath, praying he will recognize me today. He smiles and begins to laugh. He holds out his hands like a child wanting to be picked up. I lean into him, kissing his soft cheeks, putting my arms around him. Heat comes at me from the thin undershirt he wears. I can feel bumps on his back. He smells of sweat, urine, and decay. But for this moment, I sigh and let myself fall back into being Fred’s wife.
He introduces me to his new friend Beverly. “This is my wife, Ann.”
That’s not my name, but I guess it doesn’t matter.
SUE FAGALDE LICK is a writer, musician, and dog-mom living on the Oregon Coast. Her books include Childless by Marriage and Unleashed in Oregon. A former newspaper reporter and MFA graduate from Antioch University, Los Angeles, she is working on a memoir about her journey with Fred through Alzheimer’s. Fred passed away a few months after she wrote this essay.
It’s summer of 1996. At twenty-seven, you are a child but don’t realize it. You go away on vacation. You go away to vacate your life, your job, your worries. You go to vacate yourself. But Italian anarchy turns your trip into the kind that keeps you inside your head, dealing with difficult baggage and train schedules and hotel reservations.
You’ve been to Rome time and time again. Rome is like a hidden-away dirty lover you obsess about while going through your proper daily motions. This time you max out your credit card and buy the trip for two, hoping to save your relationship with Emanuel, your boyfriend and real lover—although less frequently now.
You’ve always had a secret prerequisite—if they don’t love Rome and black licorice, then they can’t love you. But already, he’s not into Rome. He finds it polluted and chaotic. For you, it’s a divine chaos. Think of the Pantheon and Fontana di Trevi in the middle of bus-strike induced traffic. So you rent a Vespa, deciding to make him love Rome by handing it to him in ribbons of asphalt.
Emanuel is more the obscure Wagnerian opera type than a motorcycle guy, so you don’t bother deferring to his maleness, and drive the Vespa yourself. He clutches your back in terror. You discover a natural knack for Italian driving, you just go—at roundabouts, making turns, whatever. No need for mirrors, signals, or brakes. You ride by cobblestoned piazzas where tourists and young Italian men on the make sit at tables drinking espresso, and caricaturists collect money for drawing misshapen versions of passersby. You whiz past ancient ruins plopped like stage scenery right there amid urban excess, mobile communication and designer transaction.
You’re an extension of the Vespa, and through the friction of the road, the asphalt is an extension of you. Speeding along its routes, you are Rome. This is the best way to get a place under your skin and troubles out of your hair. Noise and exhaust fumes whirl around the Roman baths, dose after dose of the sublime co-mingling with the cosmopolitan to have a narcotic affect on your perception. You’ll always return to Rome like an addict, except on the Vespa, it’s you flowing through Rome’s arteries. And there to the right, twin babies Remus and Romulus of legend, raised by wolves to become founders of Rome, spout water out of stone mouths.
You drive Emanuel’s stiff, white-knuckled body for the greater part of the day. Circling the Vespa around the Colosseum, your skin sheathed in warm air, you come closest to leaving yourself on this trip. He pleads with you to stop, but you pretend not to hear over the motor.
The reason you eventually park in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral, that immense and intricate monument to god, is only because it’s a dead-end. The off-limits Vatican City lies behind it. Unfortunately, now your boyfriend’s pleas reach your ear with no more room for doubt and you can’t very well turn around and whiz off again. Not right away.
You’ve never been big on visiting churches. And when staring up at the biggest one of all, which apparently took one hundred fifty years to build, the image that comes to mind is not of thousands of worshipers but thousands of tourists. You briefly think of the slaughter that has gone into religion over the centuries in the name of god—your kind and equitable god. But mainly your thoughts linger on the Vespa and getting back on it as soon as possible.
Emanuel can barely stand. Creases blackened with exhaust fume mark the tension in his forehead. He looks plucked. Later in the hotel room, you’ll observe his narrow buttocks to be covered by two flower-shaped sores from the moped seat. You decide to do something on foot for his sake—visiting St. Peter’s is an act of mercy on your part. Anyway, you’ve been anxious to cram all aspects of Rome into him.
The guards won’t let you into the cathedral because you’re wearing a tank top. You’re pleased with the tank top, because riding around in the sun has made your shoulders glow nicely. You feel cozy. But after the Vespa, you also feel unexpectedly weighted—it’s weird to be slowed down to your own two feet.
You and Emanuel step to the side and alongside the bohemian types proceed with the business of undressing and exchanging clothing. He takes off his blue button-down shirt then the tee-shirt underneath, and standing bare, white and slim-chested in front of St. Peter’s, he hands you the latter and puts back on the button-down—no way were you going to wear the dopey blue shirt. So, instead stinking of Emanuel’s terror in his tee-shirt, you walk into the cathedral and wonder if god finds body odor less offensive than bare shoulders.
Inside it’s dark and enormous. There are probably magnificent statues and stained glass, but you won’t remember them. You will vaguely recall extremely tall vaults or apses or columns. You recognize the cross-shaped floor plan of cathedrals from college art history. So this is where Charlemagne was crowned, according to the brochure. At least Emanuel is impressed.
Once outside again, you notice a line of people. It turns out you can take a lift into the actual dome and climb the basilica to the view from the top. Now that’s worthwhile—seeing all of Rome at once. Up there you’d inhale the city in one gulp, whereas with the Vespa, you wrapped it around yourself. Up there, instead of an ant crawling along Rome’s edges, you become a bird hovering over it. Rome, doing Rome, your favorite city in the whole world from all positions…
A sign next to the ticket window for the dome warns that after the lift there are 326 steps to climb. You are young and suffer from no heart conditions that you know of, and proceed.
This is what happens on those 326 steps when you have an uncertain relationship and a messy head.
You are in a dome, like in a head, inside a skull, the way you are inside your own head. There are dozens upon dozens of yellow, narrow stairways as if out of a Dali painting. There isn’t simply one set of 326 steps leading to the top—there are as many sets as fit around the inside of the rotunda, and the enormity of the rotunda just doesn’t compute through your human senses. The ascent itself is more a zigzag than a climb. The bizarre placement of the incline must be due to some unknown structural requisite and throws off all equilibrium, winding widely around other sets of stairways, then slanting narrowly into the inward curve of the dome head. There the concavity hovers over the side of your head—one head against the inside of another.
The stairways are like suspended bones, forming together an intricate skeletal system without visible support—the Vatican’s Chamber of Horrors. You wonder who cleans those steps, when, and how often. Is this where they send sinners? Maybe as punishment they leave food for prisoners in a different spot every day, trading one set of dizzying steps for another and causing the victim perpetual circular confusion. Emanuel does not laugh at this speculation.
The nightmarish quality of the stairs reminds you of a book you read in grade school in which a handful of teenage-orphans-turned-lab-experiments were trapped in a space of apparently infinite stairways leading nowhere but to other stairways. Except while the series of stairs in the book implied space, the stairs in the dome are a claustrophobic’s Orwellian fear. A mind might grasp multiple—straightforward—sets of steps spiraling up into the same space and narrowing with the ascent. But inside the dome, there’s no room in your head to sort it out as you swing around one corner and then its opposite, on to the center, then back to the side, all the while bypassing haphazard stairways overhead or walking at a tilt to avoid collision with the dome head.
There is the metallic odor of the steps themselves, mingled faintly with vomit from the weak-constituted and dizzy. Emanuel has a green tinge rising in his own complexion, but the thought of his outburst on your cherished Vespa leaves you unconcerned with his queasiness. He wanted to be on foot and on foot he is.
On the walls there’s unimaginative black graffiti—idiots leaving their mark. Funny, you’d inject Rome into yourself intravenously if you could, but others feel compelled to scribble on it. As if anyone cares, god or otherwise, that they hauled themselves up 326 steps with a black magic marker. Really, it’s the only place all day where god hasn’t been present. God definitely rode the Vespa with you around the Colosseum. Until, of course, Emanuel’s sour lack of enthusiasm kicked him off. Climbing inside his house now, you wonder what god would think of you tormenting your boyfriend with the force-fed gift of Rome. Isn’t that like religion, doing bad things in the name of good?
You and Emanuel curse the stairs all the way up. The only solidarity the two of you share nowadays is during times of mutual complaint. There are inklings of the paranoid in you while inside the dome. What if you get trapped in there? Seriously, what if? More pestering, why do you feel like you’d deserve it? Your head spins as much with your thoughts as with the winding stairs. You are the head inside the head, the little person sitting inside the big person and orchestrating thoughts, poking away at the hapless giant from the interior. What happens to love, where does it go?
Panting and sweating, you and Emanuel finally reach the 326th step. You pat each other in meek triumph. Then you link arms, step out of the dome, and onto unimaginable release.
No brochure can capture that specific unburdening once you step out and find yourself standing on the narrow terrace encircling the dome tip. Let’s say the interior of the dome and its stairs are the equivalent of Dante’s first and second circles of the Inferno. Outside on the tip then, with its offering of light and relief, equates the foot of the Purgatorio.
You’re both incapable of speech. You just can’t be so high that you see all of Rome and its haze-lined orange rooftops, ancient limestone and shimmering traffic at once. You certainly can’t have gotten there via that round interior, defying all orientation. You always associate this sort of height with modern engineering—airplanes, the Empire State Building. But this is old. And round. Height is supposed to come from length. Even the climb up wasn’t up—it meandered. Leaning over the low railing, you see the tops of birds in flight instead of their bottoms—you are higher than birds fly! You and Emanuel breathe greedily like the air might be made up of tiny diamonds, and indeed, your pores feel the way aqua minerale sparkles.
Above the city, there is a sort of quiver expanding over the pollution and concrete. It reaches beyond the old stones and gingery shingles, and extends farther than the scaffoldings of excavations and restorations. It’s somehow separate from and in addition to the immediacy of present day Rome and its undercurrent of the ancient, as if this Rome of modern decay, even conjoined to the past, is more than the sum of its parts.
Of course, back in New York, in a matter of weeks the two of you break up. But on that terrace, god who rode with you on the Vespa, joins you both in one heavenly flicker. It’s as if god had his eyes shut while you clambered in the darkness of the dome, but opened them outside along with yours, and so shedding light on all the world.
Graced with that one perfect moment, you are now vacated.
In the next twenty years, you will not visit Rome again. A whole generation will have passed, and more astounding than the changes taking place in you is all that remains the same about you. You’ll still be self-absorbed but now you will know it.
Nothing will dismay you like the description of the new Rome—not the burden of two decades on your skin, not your failures. Over a catch-up coffee, it will be your ex-boyfriend who tells you about his recent visit to Italy and how he finally loves Rome.
After the two of you discuss the Vatican’s progressive new Pope, Emanuel will speak of gleaming facades, glistening cobblestone and a newly closed-to-traffic pedestrian walkway around the Colosseum. Your mouth will go slack, as if hearing the junkie artist lover of your youth has become a Wall Street executive.
All those worlds away, when you were young and found tragedy romantic, you could have overdosed in the arms of Rome with a smile on your lips. Instead, you’ll smile above your decaf cappuccino at Emanuel without really seeing him.
What you’ll see is you on a Vespa, riding the Colosseum before they scrubbed up Rome.
HEDIA ANVAR is a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles by way of Iran. In between, she lived in France and Italy, which either expanded her world-view or culturally befuddled her. She is currently working on a novel and writes about her case of “chronic dichotomy” gunmetalgeisha.com. You can find her on Twitter at @ravnah, on Instagram at @hediaanvar, and at facebook.com/gunmetal.geisha.
Is it weird to anyone else that so many of the processes of our body occur in the dark? In my mind’s eye, I’m watching things happen the way they would in an educational film in high school science. Everything: digestion, oxygen exchange, salivation, ejaculation, menstruation.
I mean picture it: a woman releases an egg, it travels down the fallopian tube, if no sperm find it, it dies and passes through the body with the rest of the uterine lining. If it’s fertilized, that egg changes, grows, and moves into the uterus and usually embeds in the right spot. Now imagine that in the dark. How the hell does this happen?
Hormones. Temperature. Luck. All regulated by biochemistry and stuff I can’t see at all. Why do I care? Is it because I’m logical and scientific? Is it because I run a little anxious?
The corpus lutem is a little watchmen that waits for any sign of a fertilized egg implanted in your body. It’s the part of the ovary that the egg bursts out of. It waits in the dark for a wave of heat—estrogen—to signal that the uterus should hold on to its lining if you are pregnant. You know the rest: the mystery of life and really if you think about it, death. Something happens and cells thrive or something happens and cells die and it all happens inside us.
It’s embarrassing how hard I tried to have a baby. How badly I waited. I thought I would be laid back and spontaneous. Finally, we can just have sex and not worry. Like Sally Albright, I thought we’d bang on the kitchen floor whenever we wanted but the truth is, it really is a cold, hard, Mexican ceramic tile and super uncomfortable. I really did take the fun out of it.
In every month, you spend three weeks waiting to find out. Waiting to ovulate, waiting to find out if you are pregnant and waiting to start again.
I had months and months of starting over. I wasn’t medically outside of normal limits. We were told that getting pregnant within a year of trying is normal. I absolutely break for people who endure this for years.
After six months and eight cycles, I woke up in the middle of the night. I felt like I was riding the tiniest tidal wave of heat. I felt a vibration—like a buzzing, happening in me. I sat wide awake in the dark and smiled. This was unusual enough, chemical enough, that I absolutely knew I was pregnant.
I was right. The next day, a few days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and yep, two lines, that little heat wave was the start of a baby.
I rode other waves too. Like the nausea wave. That is no joke. I texted my Dad who had recently stopped chemotherapy for what we had just learned was terminal throat cancer. We joked about puking first thing in the morning, how much we puked, how gross it is, all the different weird words for it: Puke, barf, vomit and his favorite an onomatopoeic RAAAAAALPH.
But at my first OB appointment I found out, I would be starting over again. My baby had no heartbeat.
It’s a thousand tiny deaths … all those steps from there to here. Cell death. Death of what you thought would happen. The death of your father.
When they showed me the tiny form on the screen, all I could think was that it was dark inside my womb. I didn’t want my baby in there alone and unseen when they turned the monitor off.
The body works along, without our consent whether living or dying.
I endured a few very hard weeks hoping for a natural miscarriage and, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I scheduled a D&C.
I found myself really curious about how the D&C procedure is performed. I asked the doctor to explain the approach in detail to me. Why does a physician go in blind when they remove the fetal tissue? Wouldn’t it help to have the procedure guided by ultrasound? Why do you do it in the dark? Why can’t you see?
When I asked the OB these questions, a lady I had never met but had already spoken to on the phone, she seemed offended and sort of scuffed when responding. “Um, I’ve done this before. We don’t use an ultrasound because we don’t. We know how to do it.”
Is it so much work to educate a patient about your methods, about the risks? I pressed on. “How are your outcomes? What are the risks?”
Again, annoyed and terse. “They’re good. There is a small risk of puncturing your uterus and therefore of bleeding, of hysterectomy, and, of course, even death.”
“So I could wake up without the ability to have children?”
“It’s possible, but what else are you going to do?”
She actually said that to me.
The first nurse couldn’t get an IV in. Another nurse came in and got it. She offered her condolences to me. The office was plastered with pink and red hearts. Fresh roses sat proudly at the nurses station. It was Valentine’s Day, after all. My husband offered a thankful nod and the nurse left. He held my hand and waited with me, assuring me it would be okay. He was an ocean of calm.
A small-framed man walked in, the anesthesiologist. We pulled his chair close to mine and started with this:
“My wife has sat where you are sitting five times. We joke that we have two only-children because there are nine years between our first and second living children.” He had kind eyes and a friendly energetic voice. “I’m going to talk you through the risks of anesthesia. The procedure involves sedation, no intubation or ventilation but there is a risk, less than a lightning strike, that I would need to intubate you, okay? It’s safer to do this than to drive home. You could have a bad reaction to the medication but again, these are old meds, very well studied and I am an excellent doctor.” He went through a few other risks, including the tiniest risk of death, which he said was like suffering two lightning strikes in the same day and told me I’d wake up a little groggy.
He consistently addressed me before addressing my husband. He put his hands on mine and said he was so sorry I was suffering and he wished me well, hoping that I would fare better than his wife. As he was leaving the room he turned and said “After this, you can start over and try again.”
I wrote him a thank you note later. That man is why I let them wheel me into the room, let the somewhat rude OB scrape the baby out of my body without even looking.
He was right. I did get another chance to start over. Two months later, they peeked again and saw a strong heartbeat and a tidal wave of heat with their machines. I was ten weeks along when Dad passed away in the dark of morning. And the mystery of that baby growing in the dark accompanied the grief, the way the sun rises even if you didn’t sleep great. I had a daughter that December, she has my Dad’s curls.
I got to try again two years later and have a son. We named him after my dad. He was born as fast as a lightning strike into a unlit hallway of the birth center. The midwives turned on the lights later and we all laughed at the trail of blood I left from the lobby to the spot he emerged. “That looked a lot better in the dark,” the midwife said. That was true. When I play the video of his birth in my head, I see nothing. I don’t need to see it. I had gone through enough life and death by then to trust what I can’t see.
I feel the power of his body moving through me. The weight of him leaving me, the people bustling around me, I hear myself yelling out, I hear splashes of liquid hit the floor. A nurse tells me to squat, which I ignore and deliver him standing up. I don’t even see him yet, he is just pressed against my abdomen screaming. I hold him to my belly. I feel his squishy shoulders, his tiny frame. At that point, we didn’t know it was a boy. I did have to move out of the dark hallway to confirm that.
CARLY BERGEY is a Speech-Language Pathologist, singer, and writer currently crafting a memoir about her work as a voice therapist. Her creative and academic writing has been published in Intima, Pulse, the ASHA leader, ENT Secrets and CHEST. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her family.
The first bite was on my front lawn. When a six-year-old poked her shoe near his nose, Cody darted out and bit the rubberized toe. When the shoe moved and I yelled, he seemed confused. The little girl scooted toward her mother, unhurt. It was over in seconds and left me confused, too, unsure what had happened.
The second time, a friend retrieved Cody’s toy and he nipped her heel. He broke no skin, but this time I knew what had happened.
On Mother’s Day, Cody charged my toddler nephew; I scooped him up just in time. When friends came to dinner, Cody rushed up the back steps and bit Alison’s heel. Eight weeks, two nipped ankles, and a torn pant leg later, it was clear. I had a problem.
Back at the SPCA, where I’d gotten Cody weeks prior, the stern-looking manager and I sat on the grass in the shade. Cody leaned against my leg as I stroked his black and gold softness.
“He’s only nipped friends, so he hasn’t been reported,” I told Joe.
“That’s lucky. Is there a pattern?”
I sighed. “Four women, a guy, and a kid.”
“Yeah, kids are unpredictable, and they’re loud and fast. But it’s not just kids with your dog.”
Joe patted his thigh, and Cody approached slowly. But when Joe reached toward the dog, Cody flinched and retreated.
Joe sat back, his face grim. “An aggressive and dominant dog doesn’t respect the owner. But fearful dogs don’t trust the owner. Your dog is fearful.”
Humiliated by Joe’s implied blame, I searched his unsmiling face for hope.
“So what do I do?”
His furrowed eyebrows met in the middle, scolding me. “Don’t let that dog off leash. You have to protect people, and you have to protect him.”
It sounded like Cody’s problem was my fault, and I had no idea how to fix him. I drove away from the SPCA more dejected than before I’d come.
I’d loved dogs forever, and I’d decided on the name “Norman” six years before I got my dog. But when I read the card on the cage and called out, “Hi, Cody!” his plume of a tail wagged as he turned toward me with his big dog smile. I was smitten. I couldn’t steal the name that had been his for only two days. He would be Cody. And he would be mine.
The fantasy dog I’d dreamed of would lie at my feet on a Saturday morning at a sidewalk café, his tail thumping in sleepy pleasure when strangers patted his head. My real-life Cody was beautiful, a collie mixed with Bernese mountain dog, large and black with splotches of gold and white. His eyes were honey-brown, their warmth accentuated by natural black eyeliner. With his tail waving like a flag in the wind, he sashayed when he walked. I loved my smart and playful dog unreservedly.
But he was not my imaginary café dog. Cody radiated gentleness and submission with me, my boyfriend David, my cat, and all dogs. But his nervousness around other people grew, and I became increasingly tense about keeping his mouth away from human skin. The fear cycled through my brain, the leash, his brain, and back to me until I had no idea which of us had spawned it. All I knew was that I had to make sure he kept his teeth to himself.
And then David’s cousin visited, and we all went hiking in Oakland’s Redwood Park. The cousin was uncomfortable around dogs, so I kept Cody away from him. In the car, in the coolness under the towering trees, and in front of my house, Cody was leashed at my side, safely out of reach.
Then as Ryan was leaving, he stepped in front of me. With neither warning nor sound, Cody darted forward and bit Ryan’s calf.
“Ah!” yelled Ryan.
“NO!” I shouted, jerking Cody back. There were only six inches of slack on the leash, but Cody had found them. For the first time, he had broken skin. The bite mark welled with blood, and a bruise already showed.
I heard a roaring in my ears. Stumbling up the driveway, I put Cody in the yard. Then I returned and saw the car door still hanging open, as if time had frozen. With a difference of just one inch or one second, there would have been no bite. It had so nearly not happened that it felt as if it hadn’t, and every time I remembered that I’d failed to keep everyone safe, my stomach dropped with a thud. Despite the exertion of a three-hour hike, I felt cold.
“Get a washcloth and some peroxide,” ordered David, attending to Ryan, now sitting on my cement front steps. I did, then wandered from the open car door to the back gate where Cody peeked through the slats, panting with his big dog grin.
“Oh my God,” I kept saying to Ryan. “I tried to keep him away. I’m so sorry.” My hands shook and I felt dizzy, as if I were floating away.
Ryan and David barely spoke to me as they left, each with lips pressed tightly together.
Though I was on vacation from my teaching job, for three mornings it was hard to get out of bed. Seeing Cody meant admitting that I had a dangerous dog. I couldn’t envision how a future with him could look, yet I couldn’t imagine getting rid of him. Oblivious, he was the same as ever—wagging, obeying commands I’d never even taught him, panting and eager and sweet. Seeing him made me feel sick.
I called my most dog-knowledgeable friend and asked if I should have Cody put down. Was that what a conscientious dog-owner would do? David offered to drive Cody to a Utah ranch for animals who’d failed in society. I hired three trainers over the next few months, each of whom gave me conflicting advice. All they agreed on was that Cody’s motivation wasn’t dominance or territorial aggression. They said he was simply afraid, repeatedly pushed to do more than he was ready for. My dog was a fear-biter.
In desperation, I took Cody to U.C. Davis’s vet school. At the labyrinth of hallways, I froze. There were ankles everywhere I looked. Acutely aware that dogs can smell fear, I tried to stifle my terror and start weaving through the people-choked passageways. But my feet wouldn’t move. Finally, a vet tech brought me a muzzle. Snapping Cody’s jaws shut was the only remedy for my paralysis.
We arrived at a windowless room with bare walls and metal furniture. The scent of Pine-Sol masked any residue of urine that had been puddled by years’ worth of neurotic dogs. The behaviorist sat near Cody and me, across from two vet students. One of the students fetched a less restrictive muzzle for Cody, and for two hours, the three demonstrated methods of desensitization and positive reinforcement.
Then the vet handed me an instruction packet.
“He’s afraid, not mean,” he said. “You can live with this. He’s very gentle when he’s not scared. But remember—a fear bite hurts as much as a dominance-aggression bite. Your job is to make sure he never bites anyone again.”
Wearing his new plastic basket muzzle, Cody could bark, drink, eat, and pant. But he couldn’t bite. And for the next three years, lightweight plastic came in between Cody and all people, everyone except for my boyfriend, David. Cody adored David. It was a huge relief that the muzzle prevented him from biting everyone else.
The muzzle that helped both me and my dog branded him as a fierce beast; people looked at him suspiciously, warily. Then their eyes traveled upward, regarding me with similar distrust. I just patted his head and we continued down the path, a solitary team, a dog and a single woman in her forties.
I’d always felt solitary, even when I had a boyfriend. Instead of actively searching for the kind of partnership I craved, I stagnated in relationships and yearned for what was missing. When I was thirty-seven, three years before I found Cody, Jeff was my boyfriend, a kind man with warm golden eyes that matched his curly hair. He was tall, with muscled arms that encircled me when I was sad. Jeff made clear his desire to marry me, but when he proposed, all I could say was, “I don’t know.” So he gave me time and space, only bringing up the topic every few months. And when I’d sniff it coming, I’d snap.
One afternoon, despite my panicky efforts to push away all relationship conversations, I was trapped.
“I still don’t know! If you can’t wait, just break up with me!” I flung myself onto the bed in our dank basement apartment.
“I don’t want to break up.” He lay down beside me, his gaze steady. “I just want to know.”
“But I can’t make myself know! I can’t!”
And the bi-monthly ritual played out. My stomach knotted, he asked for an answer, I sobbed, and he felt bad. Then we rose from the bed, my eyes swollen, his jaw set in quiet resignation. I was nauseated, but I’d bought myself another few months before my next snap.
Eventually Jeff moved on, and I went out with David. He seemed the most unlikely partner I’d ever had. He had fifteen years on me and a waist-length ponytail. Slight of build, he wore frayed jeans with a tissue-thin white tee-shirt. Back when I was playing hopscotch in Catholic elementary school, David was dodging the Vietnam draft. In the summer of ’68, he was in Czechoslovakia during the Soviet invasion, while I was wearing a homemade cat costume and playing my accordion in Napa’s Fourth of July parade. A few years later, he met people in the Symbionese Liberation Army. That’s when I was the left-fielder for my own army—the Sparrows, of Napa’s Junior Girls Softball League.
But together we laughed until we ached, and his intellect thrilled me, the charge between us electric. I hoped that underneath the differences in age and life experience, we were soul mates.
Over time, David began to accuse me of not respecting his need to be a traveling free spirit, on the road for months at a stretch. I lashed back, reminding him that though he’d said he wanted a partner, all I saw was his retreat.
But there was a semblance of the love I longed for, and I was too afraid to let it go. For years I deflected my friends’ concerns and hung on tight.
When David still wasn’t ready to move in with me after five years, I told him I wanted to break up. Promptly, David announced that he wanted to move into my Craftsman bungalow. I feared that he didn’t mean it, so I waited three weeks before agreeing to his plan.
Two months later, there was still no sign of incoming boxes, suitcases, or furniture. When I asked about the delay, David said I’d misunderstood. He hadn’t meant that he would live in my house with his belongings. He’d meant that he’d move in “emotionally.”
Apparently there would be no need for a U-Haul.
A few days later, David was in my cozy living room, with its warm wood paneling and built-ins. I paced from the living room through the French doors into my bedroom. Cody was curled up between us, his black, gold and white fur matching that of my calico cat, who gazed at him with disdain from atop the couch.
From ten feet away, I faced David, my arms waving in reckless punctuation. “Are you kidding me? You really thought I’d assume that’s what you meant by ‘move in’?”
David’s deep-set green eyes usually crinkled into laughter, melting me. But that night, they were flat, impenetrable.
“This house is so small,” he said, his hands marking distance the length of a pencil. “It’s too crowded for us, plus a cat and dog. Besides, I’m not wild about living with them.”
“But I’ve had them for years! You’re just now telling me that?”
I didn’t know if I was more furious at David or at myself. The animals were just an excuse. How could I have been stupid enough to believe he would ever live with me?
Cody snored quietly. David left within five minutes. And when I called him later and told him we were done, David was gone for good.
I ached for months. At age forty-four, I’d never had children, and could no longer pretend that I ever would. David was the first person I’d ever believed I could marry, and for much of our time together, I’d foolishly imagined that maybe we would. What was wrong with me that I kept choosing the wrong people? Either they didn’t want me, or I didn’t want them.
This break-up felt different, though—worse than those past. Bygone boyfriends paraded before me, and at the end of the parade was a huge banner proclaiming, “You will never be loved again.” I was damaged goods. There was my string of failed relationships. Plus, I’d recently been diagnosed with a chronic disease. Though its effects on me weren’t visible, a potentially debilitating condition wouldn’t help attract a mate.
Cody the fear-biter was strike three. I could not envision my dog ever reaching the comfort level he’d had with David, and I couldn’t picture myself living with the fear that he would bite a partner of mine. I felt doomed to an unwanted solitary existence. My imagination was as paralyzed as my feet had been at U.C. Davis.
That spring, I couldn’t bear to sleep in my bedroom, so I holed up on the fold-out futon in my spare room. When sadness overwhelmed me and I cried into my quilt, Cody whimpered, prodding and pawing me until I raised my head. On weekends, Cody and I trekked for hours along the Iron Horse Trail. Under the gnarled oaks with my dog padding along beside me, I thought about David while feeling my leg muscles contract and stretch, over and over. I repeated inside, “I am strong. I can get through this.”
As the months passed, I started to think that maybe I could. And after more months, I found myself browsing on Match.com, though I didn’t truly believe that behind one of those little pictures might be a man who could love me. Looking was a step, though. They were all just searching for love, too, and most looked normal enough. Maybe I wasn’t all that different from everyone else.
Then one October evening, I was lying on my bedroom floor ruffling Cody’s abundant fur, on the phone with an easy-going man named John. After many weeks, I’d chosen his profile out of the hundred-plus I’d read. He was funny and intelligent and unapologetic about wanting a long-term monogamous relationship. I was drawn to his dream.
In our conversations, I’d mentioned my rescued feral cat, and we laughed about her antics. But all he knew about Cody was that he ran to the phone when it rang.
We met on a cool November morning. I pulled my red coat tight and watched the long-legged man striding toward me. John wore a fuzzy gray pull-over, and extended a long stick-like object toward me.
As his slim build, engaging smile, and bright blue eyes came into focus, I felt a stab of disappointment. This could never work. He was too handsome. If he had looked this good in the online photo, I never would have clicked on him. I then saw that the stick-like object was a cellophane-wrapped, long-stemmed red rose, with a fun-size pack of plain M&M’s tucked alongside.
I took a deep breath.
We entered the cafe, blanketed by the warm aroma of roasted coffee beans and the tinkling of spoons against coffee cups. He had iced tea, I had hot chocolate, and our conversation flowed like honey.
“So did you reach your grandmother yesterday?” I asked.
“Yeah, she said she’d been getting birthday calls all night. And, hey—she won money from the Publishers Clearinghouse!”
“You mean that’s real?!”
We traded stories of his relatives in remote mountains and of my third-graders. He talked about his college days, and I confessed to my baseball obsession.
When I listened to him, I found that I could muffle the voice whispering inside, saying that someone so handsome couldn’t be a match for me. The longer we spoke, the more I liked this dark-haired man. I knew it was too early to discuss past relationships, and I wasn’t going to bring up my health until later. So I told him about strike three.
“My dog has bitten some people. He’s really sweet, but he’s afraid. He’s a fear-biter.” John already knew about my hostile cat. Had he figured out that the common thread between these two messed-up creatures was me?
He just shrugged. “I’m a UPS delivery guy. I can do dogs. I throw the ball, and they’re fine.”
I was convinced that John just didn’t understand how disturbed Cody really was.
Two weeks later, John and I approached my back picket gate, and as soon as Cody glimpsed the long-legged stranger, he unleashed a torrent of barking. I felt sick to my stomach.
But John didn’t flinch. “Cody! Get your ball!”
Cody’s ears perked up and he shot off, returning with a slobbery bald tennis ball. John reached his fingers between the slats, I yelped, and Cody dropped the slippery ball into John’s hand. Back and forth they went, toss and retrieve, the barrier always between them. I started to let myself hope that Cody might one day understand that John was safe.
A few days later, John wanted to touch Cody without a fence between them. He waited out front while I went inside and strapped the basket muzzle on Cody. Then I led him out the door.
When he saw John, he paused on the top stair, but he didn’t bark. We headed down to the grass. Emboldened by the bark-free reception, John quickly approached.
Cody rushed forward with snapping jaws, the plastic muzzle ramming harmlessly into John’s slim leg. I felt the strength drain from my limbs. If not for the muzzle, John’s ankle would have been toast.
I sank onto the steps and dropped my forehead into my hands. “What’s wrong with this damned dog?”
John appeared undisturbed. “He’ll come around. He just needs more time.”
With each day, I was falling for John more and more. What had been weighed down with David now floated free. I laughed at home, with my third-graders, in my car. People at work were startled by how happy I looked. I was determined to never again feel the despair of my last relationship, and that gave me freedom. Instead of re-shaping myself into what I thought John might want, all I wanted was to be me. I would show him exactly who I was, because if that wasn’t what he wanted, I’d rather know sooner than later.
And as I showed myself to him, I found that I really liked this man. Kind, steady, and honest, he could go in seconds from brilliantly analyzing politics to giggling helplessly over South Park. He was tolerant and hilarious. Not only did I like him, but I liked myself better with him. He made me a more patient and appreciative person. My fear that I was unlovable? I was beginning to relax my grip on it. To envision that one day I could let it go.
Every time John came over, we stood at the gate while he tossed the ball. Then one day he threw it without me standing there. Then he stood inside the back door and stuck his hand out for the slimy ball.
Finally, John declared that it was time to remove all barriers. He sat on the couch, and I led my dog inside by the collar. From where Cody sat, he could see in a straight line through the kitchen, dining room, and living room, right to John. Cody was obediently in the “sit” position. My plan was to walk him sedately into the living room, gripping his leash so that I could yank him back at any sign of teeth.
But before I could leash him, Cody took off, bounding straight for John, racing the full length of the house at top speed. Helpless, I ran after him, the leash swinging from my hand. I was terrified.
When Cody reached John, he jumped up and laid his head on John’s chest, panting and wriggling and jaws open wide in his big dog smile. He whimpered and whined with joy, his plume of a tail waving from side to side in soft brushes of ecstasy. John laughed, and ruffled Cody’s fur. I dropped to the floor and cried. My dog, the fear-biter, had conquered his fear of John. It had just taken longer than it takes most dogs to fall in love.
John and I married when I was forty-seven. It was the first marriage for us both. I still feel my heart quicken when I come home to him, and I still laugh with him every day. Since we met, I hear it echo in my head: I get to be happy.
Some used to tell me I’d only find the “right person” when I was ready. I always hated the condescension of that, and I still do. All I know is that with John, I never felt obstacles between us, and before, they were always there. Did I choose the wrong partners before because I was afraid to really try, fearing I couldn’t be loved? Before John, I used to wonder. Now, the answer doesn’t matter. If it ever was true, I guess I let that fear go.
After the night Cody raced through my house, he never demonstrated any fear of John. He knew he was safe, and he trusted John. I do, too. I feel at rest with him in a way I never before had.
Cody’s time with us ended five years ago. He was fourteen, and though he had stopped eating, he was still chasing John’s tennis ball two days before he died.
When the house-call vet knelt down by Cody, Cody stunned us. He raised his head, and nipped the vet on the heel.
“Did Cody just bite him?” I was confused about what I’d seen after so many years of not seeing it. Did it really happen?
John nodded and shrugged. Then we led him outside, into the yard where for so long he had barked at birds and dug holes and chased squirrels and napped in the sun. With our hands ruffling Cody’s fur as he lay on his side, we said good-bye.
Afterward, John and I held each other and sobbed. Then he asked me how I wanted to spend the day, and said he’d take me anywhere I wanted to go. And just like that, I knew.
So on that January morning, John and I drove to the mountain retreat where we had married. We stood at the edge of the huge heart-shaped lawn. We sat together on the cold cement steps. We walked hand in hand under the redwoods, shrouded in mist.
And all day, holding the shards of my broken heart, I was wrapped in the soft comfort of gratitude. Despite all of my rough edges, John has chosen to walk with me. That day, feeling so sharply the loss of our dog, I was also filled with a sense of how lucky I am to have found this person with the willingness to love me, the patience to help me get through my own fears, and the desire to find rest with me.
I don’t think I let go of his hand all day.
SUE GRANZELLA is a third-grade teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing was recognized as Notable in the 2016 book of Best American Essays, and she is the new judge of the “Humor” category of the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her writing has received numerous awards in that same SMK Competition, and she won second place in a Memoirs Ink contest. Sue’s writing appears in Full Grown People, Gravel, Ascent, Citron Review, Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Crunchable, and Prick of the Spindle, among others. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, hiking, road trips, and reading the writing of eight- and nine-year-olds. More of Sue’s writing can be found at www.suegranzella.com .
On our fridge, there’s a pair of grainy black-and-white ultrasound stills, held up with a small plastic duck magnet and looking back at me and my husband every time we open the door for half-and-half or orange juice. In the photographs, our baby looks like a fuzzy cashew. A lima bean. A smudge on a window you could wipe away with Windex and a rag. It’s hard to believe this is where we all begin.
You may be daydreaming about having a boy or a girl, but the external genitals haven’t developed enough to reveal your baby’s sex. (Try our Chinese gender predictor for an early guess!) Either way, your baby—about the size of a kidney bean—is constantly moving and shifting, though you still can’t feel it.
I am going to be a mother, and all I can think about is my father.
My dad and I haven’t talked in nine years. But I’m the one it seems to bother. Closer to a decade than not. No phone calls, but also no letters, no emails, no texts. Not that I can imagine my dad—or the practical, literal, somewhat-adverse-to-technology engineer who was the father I used to know—texting. When I was a teenager, he was morally opposed to call waiting; in my early twenties, I alarmed him with my fumbles at blogging. I’m not alone in this—my parents had three daughters, and my younger sisters don’t have contact with our father either. It’s been so long since we’ve last talked that I have to stop and count, skip back like I’m flipping through a photo album in reverse, tallying up the times we missed. Graduations. Christmases. Birthdays. Father’s Days I avoid thinking about by giving the card section at Target plenty of distance starting right after Memorial Day.
It is surprisingly easy as an adult to go through everyday life not talking about the person who contributed half of your genetic makeup. When other people talk about their fathers, I smile or nod and hope the conversation moves on to weather. Or I talk about my father-in-law, or I cast my mind back to some time when my dad and I were talking, the more distant and innocuous memories papering over more recent unpleasantness. It’s as if I have one half of a family tree and simply painted over the other side. As if I’m walking around tilted, weighed down by one branch heavy and rich with boughs and leaves and fruit, and on the other, there’s nothing but air.
There are some big no-no’s when it comes to activities for expecting moms. Some of them are pretty obvious—no bumper cars, no new tattoos, no hot tubs—but others may surprise you.
I tell my mother I’m leaning toward sending my dad a letter. I have specific reasons. A letter is quieter. It does not demand but asks. Informs but does not interrupt.
And then, of course, I make excuses not to write it—I’m busy with grading, with talking to my students about their writing, with planning a friend’s wedding shower. In early March, I wake up, and before I can change my mind, I write to him, still in my pajamas, standing up in my kitchen, early spring light bathing the wooden countertops as I blow toast crumbs off the page. What I have to say is short and straightforward, more of a note, really, scrawled on a bright green handmade paper card from a long ago Christmas stocking. The paper feels fibery, alive, like skin; I think this card will be good luck. This feels like a special occasion, the right time to use it, but I have to use two because I ruin the first by splashing tears onto the ink.
I tell my father if all goes well, he will have a granddaughter around Labor Day. Maybe I make a bad joke about planning my pregnancy that way, evidence of a nervous tick I can’t seem to avoid even when I have the chance to edit it out. I write that I am thinking of him. That I don’t expect anything in return.
But the truth, of course, is I do expect something. I can’t not expect something even as I try to let him go. The letter itself is an extension of a hand, even if it is hesitating and trembling and uncertain. In that small envelope, I have sent part of my heart.
Your pregnancy: 15 weeks! Your growing baby now measures about 4 inches long, crown to rump, and weighs in at about 2 1/2 ounces (about the size of an apple)…although her eyelids are still fused shut, she can sense light. If you shine a flashlight at your tummy, for instance, she’s likely to move away from the beam.
Each Monday, cheery pregnancy email newsletters arrive in my email inbox comparing our baby’s growth to something edible: this week your baby is the size of a kumquat, the size of a mango, of a rutabaga, of an ear of corn. One week, my husband will receive a digital bulletin comparing our growing child to a pot roast. I’ll get an eggplant.
Included in these newsletters is no advice on how to talk to your estranged father.
My father and I stopped talking for reasons that now make us both look foolish. Maybe we have that in common. Perhaps I can stash this away in the basket of traits I’ve inherited from him: overly thick and unruly dark hair! hazel eyes! stubbornness and the inability to admit we’ve been wrong about something!
I’m sure, too, he has his own version of events, but here is how I remember it. Nine years ago, my youngest sister was graduating high school. To celebrate, my mother’s family planned a party. What my father said after he was invited: he was just there for the ceremony, flying down from New Jersey for that and only that. What he didn’t say: he had done the calculus, the return-on-investment, and the three children from his first marriage were not on the winning end. I remember pleading with him outside the newspaper where I worked at the time, my face hot and sweaty from being pressed to my cell phone. I paced up and down between hydrangea bushes, attempting to appeal to his most logical side, what rhetoricians, or people who study language and communication call logos, as in logos = a waste of time and money to fly five hundred miles only to sit in a hotel room. And then, because this was always a second and often less successful tactic with my dad, I attempted to appeal to his emotions (pathos = come on, it’s his daughter, my sister, we’re talking about here). He was unmovable as a boulder, which made me a foaming, irrational kind of furious. He grew calmer. I grew angrier. Mistakes were made, as they say. He cancelled plans to come at all. Maybe he mailed me a card, maybe followed up with phone call or two—all of this is lost in the fog of anger and hurt I was determined to wallow in—and after that we settled into a firm standoff of silence.
Here’s an addendum. The way my husband recalls it, I was also trying to persuade my dad to stay a few days longer. I was proud of the life we were building: the old bungalow we were renovating, our careers, our promise. We had 401(k)s! We had health insurance! What more can you ask of your adult children, especially if you happen to be into logic? He declined. He had to get back for Father’s Day, he said, to spend the day with my two younger half siblings.
Even now, right now, when I Google these dates and re-Google them, I’m shaking my head thinking, no, no, memory, you have it wrong. Memory may be slippery but a calendar isn’t. In 2008, my sister’s high school graduation ceremonies were on June 14. Father’s Day was the day after.
Your pregnancy: 16 weeks! Get ready for a growth spurt. In the next few weeks, your baby will double his weight and add inches to his length. Right now, he’s about the size of an avocado: 4 1/2 inches long (head to rump) and 3 1/2 ounces. He’s even started growing toenails.
The pregnancy newsletters are silent, too, on when you will know you’re bonded with your unborn child. Will it be when they are the size of a turnip? Of a butternut squash?
Early in my pregnancy, I hope I wake one day and find my instinct to be a parent waiting for me beside my bed with my glasses. Instead it feels as if I’m walking around with a low-grade flu for two or three months. It’s a malaise that spreads to my head and my heart. My body changes but not in a way that delights me; most mornings, it’s time for another nail biting game of “what clothes will fit me today?” The first and only time I enter a maternity store, I ease around racks of tee-shirts declaring in chubby script “Happiness is On the Way” implying that, at least to the wearer, happiness had never existed before and indeed could not without the prospect of becoming a biological parent. “It’s a miracle,” a friend says of my pregnancy. I shrug. Isn’t it just nature?
Science assures me indifference is normal. According to anthropologist Meredith F. Small, prenatal bonding usually happens during the second trimester. This is when mothers begin to feel their babies move; the moving it seems, makes things more real. The attachment changes with experience, too. In one study, women who have given birth and raised a child for one year felt a stronger bond with their offspring than when they were still pregnant. And this attachment isn’t solely a matter of sharing a body. It leaves room for fathers and non-biological parents to bond with their children because they want to, not because they have to. Logically, this all makes sense. Still, I study the grainy image of the cashew on the fridge and try to name what I’m feeling, testing it like it is a twisted ankle. Is it love yet? Now? Now?
What is messy and confusing about with my relationship with my father is that there is so much good I can’t wipe from my hard drive. It isn’t possible for me to just pack these childhood memories away, like old books or toys or faded clothes that really should be taken down to the Salvation Army for a donation. I replay them even when I don’t want to: the tree house he outfitted with a crate and pulley system so I could haul up my books and less compliant passengers, such as my cats; the handle he engineered out of duct tape and cardboard so I could carry cupcakes to school without squishing them; the eight-foot tall bookshelf he designed and built me after college. The nights when I had a stomach bug and he sat with me on the bathroom floor, holding back my hair as I wrapped my arms around the cool, slick sides of the toilet bowl. The wide-mouthed Cheshire cat faces he sketched in red marker on paper bags when he packed my lunch, or the songs he made up to sing to me when I had nightmares. The time, more than a year after I graduated college and should have been better able to take care of myself, when I called him from the side of a Pennsylvania interstate because my ten-year-old Nissan Sentra’s alternator had given out and I had no idea how I was going to pay for the towing let alone the cost of repairs.
Perhaps we all keep a running tally of how the people we love the most hurt us. And our parents, because they often are our flesh and bone and blood and the first humans we know, they are the ones destined to be at the top of that list. A plus in the black here for something that makes us feel loved. A row of red minuses for the things that really tick us off. Are we ever really even? When do we understand our parents as people?
Your pregnancy: 20 weeks! Your baby weighs about 10 1/2 ounces now. He’s also around 6 1/2 inches long from head to bottom and about 10 inches from head to heel—about the length of a small banana. You’ve made it to the halfway mark in your pregnancy, so celebrate with a little indulgence. Need some ideas? Try a new nightgown or pajamas, a prenatal massage, professional pictures of your pregnant self, a beautiful frame for your baby’s first picture after birth, or a piece of clothing that makes you feel really good.
For years, I thought a letter was the key to crack the silence. It was all I needed to pick this lock: a handful of magic words, a password, just like in a fairy tale. But now that I’ve sent it and it’s gone and nothing comes back, a letter also gives me license to imagine what could have been and what might have happened. What if it got lost? I wonder if I should email instead. I wonder if I even still have his email address, if he is even still working where he worked eight years ago, if he is working at all, because he could be retired. What are other ways of reaching out to your estranged father? Hallmark doesn’t make cards for this. I weigh the emotional pull of an ultrasound, the possibility of a birth announcement. “Should I send another letter?” I ask my husband. “What about certified mail?” I’m not even sure how certified mail works; will he have to go to a post office to sign for it? It seems aggressive, to send a letter that way. Demanding to be read, or least to be seen. The certainty appeals to me, though. How else do I know he knows?
What I did not write my father: I didn’t tell him it took me a long time to get pregnant, longer than I thought I should have to wait, as if becoming a parent was my right. At first, we told ourselves all the things other people were telling us: to be patient, to not worry, which, as the anxious among us know, worrying about worrying is really the most futile game a human can play with their mind. After two years, we began to see doctors. I didn’t tell my father I tried to see my life without being a mother even as we were so bent on having a child we were on the verge of starting in vitro fertilization. And we knew—we didn’t talk about this much but we knew—once we opened that box we would keep throwing money we didn’t have into it, as bottomless as it might be.
I didn’t tell my father, either, how friend after friend gave birth to one kid, then another, in the time we were trying for just a first. The few I knew were struggling, I avoided like they had a disease I could catch. How, when I heard one couple was starting IVF with an egg donor, I scoffed out loud it was going too far but inside, I was envious of their choices. I didn’t tell him what it was like to be jealous of your friends’ miscarriages, because, if you miscarried, at least you knew you could conceive. I didn’t tell him how I stopped going to baby showers. How I laid on the crackly, tight paper of an exam table at my infertility doctor’s office gazing at a poster of a Caribbean beach taped to the ceiling. There, I waited three separate times for a nurse to insert a catheter loaded with my husband’s sperm and three separate times it was in vain even though the sperm and the egg were right there, we were setting them up on a date and pulling out all the stops, a view of sugar white sands and palm trees and everything, so how could this not happen?
I didn’t tell him how infertility tests showed nothing wrong. How, for me and my husband, trying to make something together began to feel like it was cracking us apart. How we blamed each other and then when we were tired with that, we turned back to blaming ourselves. How phantoms hovered over our bed as we tried, again and again, to bend our bodies to our will and create the image of a family fixed in our heads.
How when I missed my period just after Christmas, I took five pregnancy tests over a week, so uncertain I was by then that my body could even do this.
If I could say something to my dad now it would be that I’m lingering in the doorway of parenthood, peering down the hall and trying to see down its dimly lit walls and understand where to walk and what to do. A letter, I realize now, also gives us an exit.
Your pregnancy: 23 weeks! With her sense of movement well developed by now, your baby can feel you dance. And now that she’s more than 11 inches long and weighs just over a pound (about the size of a large mango), you may be able to see her squirm underneath your clothes. Blood vessels in her lungs are developing to prepare for breathing, and the sounds that your baby’s increasingly keen ears pick up are preparing her for entry into the outside world. Loud noises that become familiar now—such as your dog barking or the roar of the vacuum cleaner—probably won’t faze her when she hears them outside the womb.
By the middle of my fifth month, my belly has the tight, round heft of a basketball. If I lie very still on my back, I see my skin vibrating like a drum. The pregnancy updates remind me this may be my baby hiccupping. I picture her turning and tumbling in her amniotic sea, flipping like a fish. As soon as nineteen weeks, the prenatal newsletters suggest, a fetus can start to perceive sounds outside the womb. Talking or singing to your baby is encouraged. Instead, I talk to my father. I tell him how I think I see my husband’s nose on our child in a more recent ultrasound, how she was leaning on her right arm and the ultrasound technician whacked my belly to get the baby to move so she could be sure that arm was there. I tell him I am scared. Not just of labor but of what happens after, of trying to be a good teacher and a writer and a mother and still hold onto myself, my adult, fully-formed-if-flawed self who drinks a little too much bourbon and stays up a little too late reading in bed and probably doesn’t eat enough vegetables, even at thirty-seven. I tell him there are things you hope for your child, and in my case, in addition to all fingers and toes, I hope she doesn’t inherit my anxiety and my deep desire to please and fix. I tell him how I hope she will be braver and better and more curious than me, and I wonder if every parent feels that way, if that’s why we keep on going.
I ask him what he hoped for me, when I was a piece of stardust, floating peacefully inside my mother.
I also ask my father questions. I start with the normal kind of questionnaire-like, the catching up conversation starters you might ask a college roommate you’ve fallen out of touch with. Do you still go to Maine each summer? Do you still run? Do you still love trees and know how to identify them by their leaves as well as their bark? Did you ever make that trip to the Grand Canyon? Am I even remembering that right, that you wanted to go there? If and when you went, were you as disturbed by the herds of gawkers with selfie sticks as I was? Because if so, here we can pause, laugh, hold onto something we have in common. We can take another sip of our beers before we move on to the more difficult questions, the ones he will never answer. In complete sentences, please consider how can a parent just give up talking to his children. For extra credit, what does my stepmother think of all of us? Does she urge you to contact us? Or, because it’s the easier thing to do, because that would open wounds and vulnerability, does she just not talk about it, as you surely do not talk about it, nor encourage my half siblings to talk about it. What are my half-brother and -sister like? Do you text them? Come on, really? You can’t not text with a teenager now. Do they wonder about us? Do you see us in them? What, to you, is family?
I tell him I want the lightweight freedom of forgiveness—for me and for him—but I’m mired in the thick, dark mud of anger. I tell him we can see each other’s broken places now, the cracks all of us as adults try to glue back together. The places where cracks have become invisible parts of us, the scaffolding that carries us through life with resilience and experience. The places where the workmanship was more hasty.
Your pregnancy: 30 weeks! Your baby weighs almost 3 pounds (about the size of a large cabbage). You may be feeling a little tired these days…you might also feel clumsier than normal, which is perfectly understandable. Not only are you heavier, but the concentration of weight in your pregnant belly causes a shift in your center of gravity.
At a friend’s wedding in April, surrounded by a circle of new spring leaves, she and her new husband turn to each other and to his two teenage children from his first marriage and then all four of them pledge to love and support each other. It is the opposite of trite—it feels true and real, a very public way of making a new family. Later that month, I stop by my neighbors’ house, a lesbian couple who have each had a baby within a year and a half. I am there to go through hand-me-down baby clothes. In their living room, I fold tiny shirts the size of my hand, socks smaller than my thumb. The two mothers sit cross-legged on their polished wooden floor and ease their babies into their laps and at some point they both begin to breastfeed. So here is another kind of family. One block over, there’s a family with two white parents, one from France and one from Indiana, and two adopted black teenagers, and that is another kind. There is my middle sister, who has lived with her boyfriend for years. My single friends who bought houses for themselves and their dogs. Divorced couples with kids who still make a point of eating some meals together, or buy houses close enough for their kids to walk between, or don’t. All of these are families.
A few weeks later, my husband and I drive across the country. I am headed to write for a month at a residency in Washington State and we combine it with a route through the Southwest and then up the California coast. We stop in Los Angeles, and my aunt, my father’s sister in-law, insists we stay with them. They are good and generous to us; my uncle, my father’s younger brother, keeps saying, “We’re all family here,” and each time he does my heart opens and breaks all at once. Maybe the boughs on one side of my tree aren’t dead. Maybe they are leafing out. My husband likes my uncle, appreciates his collection of antique corkscrews and bottle openers, his home brewed beer, his stories and photos of camping and traveling with his kids throughout the West. I wonder what kind of father-in-law my uncle will be someday. What kind my father would have been.
Your pregnancy: 37 weeks! Your due date is very close now…While you’re sleeping, you’re likely to have some intense dreams. Anxiety both about labor and about becoming a parent can fuel a lot of strange flights of unconscious fancy.
I sometimes forget what is happening to my body in these final weeks but then I will be doing something ordinary, like getting dressed, and I catch myself in the mirror, all round and curve, and I’m surprised what I’m now feeling in my heart and my womb is so physically evident to the rest of the world. My immediate future is written for all to see—motherhood, parenthood—inviting speculation and soothsaying from strangers. She’ll be a princess, she’ll be sweet. I just want my daughter to be. I trace my fingers down my linea negra, the dark, pigmented line that appears on many pregnant women’s stomachs, dividing their bellies into two tidy halves like the neat crease of a peach. My daughter inside, her head down low near my pelvis, positioned to eject. The scrape of her arms, the lean kick of her limbs. She’s becoming more fully formed each day. She is no longer a fish; she is a human with all her parts still safe inside, still unwounded, unbroken, unscarred. Still all possibility.
Your pregnancy: 39 weeks! Your baby is full term this week and waiting to greet the world! He continues to build a layer of fat to help control his body temperature after birth, but it’s likely he already measures about 20 inches and weighs a bit over 7 pounds, about the size of a mini-watermelon.
On the late August day when my daughter is officially full term, a short letter from my father arrives sandwiched between a West Elm catalog and a Home Depot credit card offer. In romantic comedies and beach reads, this might have caused me to go into labor. Instead, I leave it unopened on the dining room table for a few hours while I pace around the house, making up things to do. When I finally tear open the envelope, I see his familiar tight, tall script, the handwriting of the Cheshire cats, the handwriting I’ve known since I could read. He says he has been meaning to respond, that he has been carrying around my letter. Happy for us. Small steps. Send details when you are ready.
Instead of a resolution, I’m left with more questions. Is it is too late to be a parent at any point? When is the damage done, or when can the relationship between a parent and a child be saved? Does forgiveness have an expiration date? When can I stop looking for hurt and harm?
Sometimes when we decide to have a child, we put a lot of faith in its power. We impose incantation on what is really just biology. Foolishly, we think it can save a marriage. Make us stronger. Make us kinder, more empathetic, more patient, into people we aren’t really, at least not all the time. We all know this in our hearts this isn’t true, and yet, as a species, we do this again and again. I knew having a kid would mean I would be a parent. But I also thought it would be the spell to have both my parents in my life. But even this, this growing person inside of my body, all these cells dividing and folding and weaving their way into someone new, a beautiful magic chronicled by ultrasounds and fetal heartbeat readings and genetic tests where we breath hope toward that deep, dark salty sea inside of me—even this isn’t enough to repair my relationship with my father.
The truth is I want to turn to my own parenting now, to my daughter and my chance. I want to push into the future rushing toward us like a wave. When people ask if we are ready, I am now saying yes, and yes, and yes. Yes, in that her crib holds a mattress and yes, her car seat is installed and inspected, and yes, we have built a fort of readiness out of diapers and pacifiers and tiny hand-me-down onesies, but also our hearts are ready, so ready, so open. Yes and yes and yes.
There is so much I don’t know about being a parent right now. I’m pausing here on this curb of pre-parenthood, waiting to cross a busy street to the other side, a street I will never cross again and corner I will never return to. But I carry this image in my head in these last hours and minutes. It’s of me and my daughter together working in the garden on an early spring day a few years from now. We dive our bare hands into the soil, turning over the dirt to wake it up. We knead in compost. We count earthworms. Then we feel bad and nudge them back into their dark homes. We rip into colorful paper packages, the seeds inside as small as periods at the end of sentences, all these tiny promises of radishes and lettuces and peas. We sprinkle them with a soft blanket of soil as if we were putting them to bed.
I will tell my daughter each seed is like a little wish for the future. I will tell her we plant them, and we hope, and then we just have to wait.
LAURA GIOVANELLI is an essayist and writing teacher. Her other personal writing can be found in The Washington Post. She was a newspaper reporter for nine years and has an MFA from NC State University. She now teaches at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
I watch her remove the jar of Maxwell House from the top kitchen cabinet. She lets me sniff the stuff inside, the coffee, in the only form I’ll know it for many years. She spoons two helpings into her open dull-green cup, one of a set of six. Except for the colder weeks when they are used for that still rare serving of hot tea, these cups are my grandmother’s exclusive property. When the pan of water is ready, she pours and then stirs in just a bit of sugar. Often her coffee accompanies a buttered and heated slice of yesterday’s pound cake—as if any more butter were needed. More often, the coffee complements her lunch of country vegetables and meat that, when I was a boy, I couldn’t bring myself to try. Not that I try the coffee either; it will be years until, freezing to death at a ball game, I opt for coffee over hot chocolate since there won’t be any hot chocolate on this night at this little league ballpark.
Sometimes your elders are right: coffee does taste bitter. Two sips and I’m done for fifteen more years, until grad school and doctoral pre-lims and the stimulant of champions. My Maxwell House will be “fresh ground” from a can, but my grandmother will have been dead by those same fifteen years. I’ll wonder about the distance between instant and ground, between black and au lait, between us, and our tastes.
It will be another form of coffee, though, that will bring me back to her.
My Carolina Wild Dog, Max, strains at his leash. He’s smelling it now, not the collards I’m slurping but the bacon they’re cooked in. I pull out a meaty morsel and make him sit. We always sat for our supper when I was a boy growing up in Bessemer, Alabama. Unlike me back then, Max has to be asked only once to come to the table. He’ll do anything for bacon and, truly, I understand.
In this moment, coming back from a trip to visit our daughter in Virginia, we’re sitting out front of the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Virginia, in chairs provided for “wanted loiterers.” My wife nourishes herself with creamy tomato dill soup, a grilled cheese on wheat, and Coke. My pinto platter is not only accompanied by homemade chow chow, and those collards (when the waitress asked “With or without bacon?” I looked at her, at Max, at myself and wondered who’s kidding whom?) but also by a triangular wedge of cornbread, which is a little bitter because they clearly don’t use Rumford Baking Powder.
Max hovers between our chairs because it’s raining now. He might look a bit Lab-ish, but he’s no water-lover. I’m sucking my beans and greens down faster than I want because the once-drizzle is picking up now, compromising the integrity of my lunch. These collards are so fine I don’t need the pepper sauce that I ritually use. Soon the rain lets up, and so I sip my Red Rooster coffee in peace.
Old-time mountain music rains down on me from the Floyd Country Store speakers, making me think of those Saturday afternoons of my childhood, watching The Wilburn Brothers or Porter Wagoner on TV with my Nanny. While I don’t own any music like this, don’t even plan to, when I hear it, I know exactly where I am, and I relax.
Inside the store, where along with pintos and collards you can also order roasted root vegetables—rutabagas, turnips—with gluten-free bread or a cup of Brunswick Stew, I note the blue-dyed hair of one server; the punk cut of another. The man handling sales at the other side of the store sees my Alabama Crimson Tide t-shirt and offers that his grandson is a Tide fan, from Decatur.
“They’re a mighty good team,” he says, and I agree. I tell him how much I’ve enjoyed the food, and while he is gracious, I’m definitely not providing him unheard of news.
Originally, I brought us to Floyd for the coffee, and while I was upset initially that today, and any Monday or Tuesday, Red Rooster Roasters is closed, if they hadn’t been, we might not have wandered, lingered, and found a meal that transfixed me, for when I saw the words “Pinto Bean plate,” my fate was sealed. I had found “home.”
Max feels similarly when we reach the beginning of the big woods. He looks like an old “yeller dog,” a retriever of sorts, but as I said, he’s skittish of water. He yearns for mountain paths; when we take him hiking on Caesar’s Head or Paris Mountain back home, he feels a spirit that can’t be explained, only experienced, which he does as fully and heartily as I attacked those collards. He wants a good trail, and other Carolina Wild Dog owners get this. When he gets the look in his eye, all I can say to him is “It’s okay, boy, I understand.”
It’s what he’d say to me if he could when he sees me eating today.
What he doesn’t know, of course, is the memory that this meal evokes: Saturday lunchtime with my grandmother, Ellen Crowe Terry, her stooped back hunched over her plate. Early on, I didn’t understand what that meat is she’s chewing, or why the smell of those greens appeals to her. I had my home-fried cheeseburger in front of me and wondered how anyone could prefer something else, something almost unnamable.
I would have never heard of Red Rooster Coffee or Floyd had it not been for Yo Cup, a side-street coffee house that opened in my college town back in 2013 and closed this past Christmas. Originally, Yo Cup’s owners offered only frozen yogurt with various fruit and candied toppings, coffee drinks, and homemade cupcakes in both vegan and gluten-free varieties.
My college town, or more accurately the town incorporating the college where I’ve been teaching for the past thirty years, is a former mill village, populated by roughly nine thousand people. The mill closed back in the 1980s, and now there’s not much to do or see there. The town square has its Confederate monument; a train line bisects the middle of Broad Street, the town’s main artery; and while there are one or two lunch/meat and three joints and a Cuban cafe, the main food industry is clearly pizza. There is House of Pizza, Dempsey’s Pizza (formerly Pizza Inn), Pizza Hut Express, Little Caesar’s, Papa John’s, and there used to be Tony’s Pizza, but nine thousand people, including the one thousand students at the college, can consume only so much pepperoni and dough.
At the college, I teach courses in Southern Film, Modern Novel, American Literature, and Creative Nonfiction. When I started in the late eighties, I was told that people in the town didn’t exactly cotton to the professionals at the college. Town and gown, truly. At my initial interview on campus, I spied a downtown movie theater, and my first comment to the group interviewing me was my joy at seeing the old movie house.
“Well, they’re tearing it down next week,” my hosts said with attendant irony.
That told me much, but I still thought I was moving to a college town. Actually, after the interview and a couple of half-hearted searches for housing in the town, I didn’t move there, but chose nearby Greenville. That is, my wife suggested Greenville—it was at least a city that might offer her work. The town, she said, scared her. And I know better than to question her fear. Actually, I understood.
The image of any college town, to me, includes certain features: used or independent bookstores; pubs; homey cafes; alternative or vintage clothing stores; and coffee shops. This little town, though, contained none of these. Actually, there was a place called Robert’s Drive-In that had hamburger plates, and after I ate there once, I reported my discovery to my department chair who promptly informed me, again with all due irony, that Robert’s was a former Klan hangout.
How do you not tell new faculty beforehand of racist history?
I found in the end that I could live without hamburger plates, vintage clothes, and used books, but no coffee?
Our faculty lounge had an old Bunn coffee maker left there decades before by a retired dean. Supplied monthly by a new crate of individualized packets of Folgers ground coffee, complete with powdered and decidedly non-dairy creamer, what we had was not even better than nothing. Eventually, I bought my own coffee maker, brought my whole beans and ground them in my office, and stored half and half in the mini-fridge installed in the lounge.
And though I enjoyed my coffee, I felt like a snob. A snob all alone sipping coffee in his windowless office.
The town now has a McDonald’s and a Waffle House. If I lived there, I could see going to WH late for the experience. Students do that, I hear, or they go to the Sonic Drive-In. I don’t know. It all sounds sad and depressing, a far cry from the Jolly Cholly’s, Dari Delite’s, and Kollege Klubs, in Montevallo, Alabama, the college town of my undergrad years.
So when Yo Cup opened and provided several tables, couches, and piped in alternative sounds from the manager’s iPod, I thought, finally, a place to be.
It was almost hip.
They served lattes, shots in the dark, macchiatos, chai, with soy and almond milk alternatives. The chalkboard listing all the drinks, in flowing, colorful script, even contained my favorite, Café Au Lait. In most small coffee houses I have to instruct the servers how to steam one-third milk to two-thirds dark roast. Yo Cup knew its drinks, and all I said was “Café Au Lait,” and voila, a perfect blend. Just the right amount of froth in a clever design. What killed me, though, was the flavor of the coffee itself.
“What kind of coffee is this?” I asked Courtney, the owner.
“It’s Red Rooster, the Funky Chicken blend,” she said. “My husband and I found the roasting house last summer in Floyd, when we went to Floydfest.”
“Yeah, it’s this great mountain music festival every July. You ought to go.”
Over the months of Yo Cup, I sampled a Bourbon Barrel Blend—definitely hints of the South’s favorite whiskey in the brew—the Sumatra and Farmhouse Blend, and the Old Crow Cuppa Joe.
I love the Old Crow, and I understand now, given its name, the resonant reason for why I would.
My grandmother, Ellen Crowe Terry, led anything but the life of a typical southern woman of her age. At some point either she or her father changed the family surname from “Crow” to “Crowe.” Was this putting on airs, an attempt to distance the family from the common bird of nuisance, or from an almost forgotten tribe of Native Americans? If so, it didn’t work for me—I always saw that black bird when I heard her maiden name—even though I hadn’t seen the spelling change until last week in a family tree my daughter’s husband Taylor is filling in. A Crowe is a Crow is a Crowe again.
Ellen’s family came from northern Alabama, on her father’s side at least: Talladega or nearby Anniston depending upon whether you believe Ancestry.com or my mother. Whatever the town, the Crowes were rural folk, farmers, and from this area they eventually moved to Bessemer, a wide-open mining town to the southwest of Birmingham. In Bessemer, Ellen met a phone man, GC Terry who hailed from Cortland, Alabama. The Terrys were rural folk, too, as I know from family stories and from driving through Cortland once. It’s about as big as Floyd, and as my mother warned, almost every business sign I saw proclaimed that this hardware store, this transmission shop, or this used furniture place was run by a Terry. I could have stopped at any one of them. I should have stopped at least at one of them just to see whom I came from, but I didn’t. A girl in another state, a girl I used to love, beckoned.
My grandmother Ellen—I called her “Nanny”—loved to travel. Unlike my mother, Nanny saw Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, searching for and dealing in antiques.
“She especially loved Chicago,” my mother says, though I don’t remember if I ever heard why.
Before I was born and for the first few years after, my Nanny ran antique stores in Bessemer, one I remember on 19th Street, another not too far away on 9th Avenue, the Super Highway. I remember floating through the various rooms of her shops, all lavishly decorated and independent of each other. Who might live here? I wondered. It was like having another house, though, just as I was admonished in the formal living room of our own house, I was not allowed to touch anything in the shop.
Over the years, Nanny procured our family’s dining room set—mahogany table and six matching chairs—as well as my parents’ Queen Anne bedroom suite. My mother’s house still holds these and many other antiques: vases, side tables, and lamps, all from my grandmother’s wheeling-dealing days.
While those signs of her life were always evident, what was often missing from my mother’s younger days was my grandmother herself.
There’s a photo I found recently of my mother and her father at GC’s retirement dinner in Birmingham. He was wearing a double-breasted suit, tie in a Windsor knot. My mother had on an evening dress and looked so glamorous. No older than seventeen, she was her daddy’s escort at this commemorative occasion, because my grandmother was gone, traveling somewhere, finding new-old goods.
I look at the photo and wonder both about what I see and what I can’t.
In her waning years, my Nanny turned her bedroom in the house I grew up in—the house she had been living in since the 1920s—into an artist’s studio. She painted in oils. Still-life of fruit. Old country barns. Flower arrangements. Not really primitive but not polished either. I can see her, perched at the edge of her rocking chair, dabbing into her palette, scattered tubes of oil paint around her, her easel holding the picture of the day, for Nanny finished one picture per day in the summers and winters of the last years of her life. These paintings would lie under her bed, in all corners of her room, piled at her feet. Many were framed; many more stacked on top of each other.
She died in the summer of ’71, and I have no idea what happened to all those works of her mind. My mother kept a few, but the rest? It would be nice to imagine them on the walls of homes near and far, or maybe in one of those roadside antique shops in the country somewhere, near Floyd, where they appreciate the gifts of random and unknown stars.
I wish I had even one of those gifts. I can’t even tell you anymore what one of them looked like, though I can still see the scene of their creation, the spattered paint on the carpet where she worked, near her slippered feet. She always painted in nightgown, robe, and those heel-less slippers. A woman of leisure, herself a subject that no one could ever capture.
For a woman this independent and self-sufficient, even aloof—though she kissed me every night and called me her “darlin’”—you’d think her taste in food would run toward lobster newburg, filet mignon, or baked Alaska. French cuisine befitting one who travelled to large and exotic cities. Not that she wouldn’t eat any of these dishes if served, or the creole pork chops, country captain chicken, and Italian spaghetti—whose recipe my mother got from our second generation Italian neighbors down the street—my mother prepared every night.
But left to her own devices, Nanny preferred simpler fare, rural foods like hominy, baked sweet potatoes, turnip or collard greens, corn muffins, cayenne and Tabasco peppers, and fresh chow chow she’d make herself. Once, she let me try a green cayenne. She cut it open and told me to just put my tongue in its center, where that white meaty layer lurked. I learned quickly that water won’t stifle that sort of heat.
“Try milk,” Nanny advised.
Seemingly more than anything else, though, she loved backbone meat.
When I envision her at our kitchen table, sitting at the end closest to the electric stove, hunched slightly over her plate of country goodness, it’s always a noon winter Saturday. Early on in these memories, my mother might have fixed me a cheeseburger—still to this day the best sandwich I’ve ever had—fried and then with the cheese melted on top in the oven, ketchup and mustard only.
At some point on one of these Saturdays, though, I got up the gumption to try the backbone meat, maybe with some corn or fried okra. It was another cold day, the sun still shining through our multi-paneled breakfast room windows; the bare cherry tree beyond telling me the time of that season.
I discovered then that backbone meat was good, that it was succulent with brown gravy. Then I tried some short ribs, a delicacy now that farm-to-table restaurants in the South charge twenty-five to thirty-five dollars a plate to taste. I haven’t seen backbone meat hit these menus yet, and just last week I asked my mother if you could still buy it anywhere.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I saw some at Publix just the other day.”
“When you come up in a few weeks, we’re gonna have to get some so you can show me how to cook it.”
I’m almost sixty-one years old and still learning life lessons. I can fix the short ribs, braise collards, fry corn, slow-cook pintos and any other dried or fresh bean—olive oil, beef bouillon flakes, salt and/or sugar, and maybe some Cajun spices—fry green tomatoes, and bake numerous varieties of corn bread.
I can make all day meals, and though I try my hand at more sophisticated dishes—boeuf bourguignon, shrimp creole, turkey with oyster dressing, sweet potato casserole, even borsht—I feel proudest when I’ve shucked and cut and creamed my white corn; when I’ve turned slimy okra into salty, slightly-floured fried popcorn; when I’ve brined chicken in salt water and fried it to gluten-free-floured perfection. When my collards, cooked with bacon, melt in your mouth. When my lima beans or lady peas make you want to shout or cry and not worry about the gas to come. When you slice open my cornbread and melt a pat of butter inside and want to stick your face in it, too.
I’d wanted to take this Floyd route many times before, but time and distance held me back. Something kept calling to me, though, and now I see that it wasn’t just a place I had heard about. It was a link to my past. A memory of food and love that I was longing to taste again. And to share.
TERRY BARR is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother, published by Third Lung Press. His work has appeared in Vol 1 Brooklyn, Eclectica, Left Hooks, Wraparound South, The Bitter Southerner, and, of course, Full Grown People. He blogs for The Writing Cooperative at medium.com, and can also be found on terrybarr.com. He eats and lives with Nilly and Max and Morgan in Greenville, SC.
I got the call at ten-thirty at night. It was typically dramatic, as my family was at that time. “They found him,” said my mother. I hung up and shook my boyfriend awake. I let him know I needed to drive to California with my mother tonight. I was meeting her at midnight in the parking lot of the House of Pancakes in Salem, Oregon. We were going to get my brother.
Adrian was twelve and his face could be found on cartons of milk with the giant words “MISSING” on them. He’d been listed as a kidnapping victim since my stepdad (Adrian’s real dad) had driven off with him eight months ago. He’d actually been gone for a while before that, but these were the questions I imagined the police asking my mother.
He’s with his father?
You had custody?
You had custody but you allowed him to live with his father?
You’re not sure of the date he actually went missing?
You’re the one who left the marriage?
You have how many children? Five?
Said or unsaid, these questions delayed the process. Officials put that file on the bottom of the pile.They were questions I still had myself. The weeks had gone on. My mother began taking anti-depressants. I was in college, reveling in books, falling in love and pretending that I had a stable family who didn’t kidnap each other.
My oldest son, Logan, is telling me a very long story that has something to do with Minecraft. As I put away the dishes, I listen to him with about twenty-five percent of my brain. I say, hmm mmm and yeah, and that’s funny, when I realize that he’s just told me something that’s supposed to be funny, although I have no idea what it was. With my remaining seventy-five percent I’m planning what to put in the kids’ lunches and preparing for the eight-thirty meeting I have at work. Adrian used to talk about comics like Logan talks about video games. When Logan finishes his story, he looks at me expectantly. I laugh, hoping that was the appropriate response. He wraps his gangly arms around me for a spontaneous hug, which is something he does still, even though he’s nearly twelve. I run my hand through his thick hair, which needs another cut. He is almost as tall as I am.When he was younger, I sometimes called him by my brother’s name.
My mother had custody of Adrian, but rather than force Adrian to move with her and his three younger sisters into a two bedroom apartment with new stepbrother and stepdad, he was allowed to continue living with his dad and me in our mobile home in Camano Island, Washington. My mother was choosing her battles. I was just starting my senior year in high school, so my mother, thankfully, had left me there as well. Adrian and his dad wiled away the days eating ice cream from the carton and watching Tron. I tried to drag Adrian out of bed so I could drive him to sixth grade, but he was too big and stubborn for me. I gave up, leaving them both sleeping. This went on until my stepdad and Adrian moved to their own apartment and I was the only one left at home, finishing high school. I went to school, worked at the grocery store, sautéed mushrooms for dinner and listened to the silence of the house, telling me it was time to go.
After my first semester at college, I spent Christmas with my brother and my stepdad at their apartment. We ate pizza and they both fell asleep early on Christmas Eve. I stayed up reading Adrian’s X-Men comics, carefully replacing them back in their plastic sleeves when I was finished. Shortly after that Christmas, my stepdad quit his job passively, by not showing up, stopped paying his rent and disappeared with Adrian.
Last summer, Logan went to an overnight camp for a week. He had been excited when we signed him up, but the week before it was time to leave, he insisted he didn’t want to go. His stomach hurt. He couldn’t sleep. I showed him videos from the website of kids around the campfire smiling broadly. I talked about camp games, bonfires and horseback riding. I assured him he was going to love it, so he reluctantly rolled up his sleeping bag. But the camp rules didn’t allow phones and as the week approached, I tried to stifle my own fears. What if some of the kids were cruel to him? What if something horrible happened and he didn’t feel like he could call me? Outside of the letters I wrote ahead of time for him, I would be unable to reach him. By the time a handwritten letter from him arrived in my mailbox, he’d be home. While he was gone, I dreamed when I went to pick him up, he wasn’t there. Kids were reuniting with their parents all around me, but no one knew where he was. I tried to call the police, but over the line the officer said things like you left him there in the woods with a bunch of strangers? and he didn’t want to go, but you pushed him into it?
I left my car at the House of Pancakes. As I climbed in next to my mother, she handed me a thermos of coffee. We pulled onto the freeway. She was all business, filling me in on the way. They were in a small town in northern California. The policewoman who called her had suggested that she just go back to sleep and come get him tomorrow. Adrian was fine so there was no rush. My mother said she’d been looking for her son for eight months and he’d been found, so how could that stupid woman tell her to go back to sleep? She’d come and get her son right this instant, thank you. Adrian wouldn’t have to spend one more night with that asshole he had for a father. I sipped my lukewarm coffee, extra sweet like my mother always made it, so it tasted less like coffee and more like a melted candy. I wondered how we got to be so dysfunctional. I was in a small, private college that I’d bullied my way into with good grades and multiple phone calls and I didn’t see anyone around me with families like mine. I was nineteen and not yet done being embarrassed about my entire life up to this point.
We drove into the night, up through the curving hills of the pass, often silent. I knew I was supposed to be helping my mom stay awake, so I tried to talk about my classes, my friends, my boyfriend, but she didn’t ask many questions. I knew her focus was elsewhere. As we pulled into a lonely open Chevron in the Southern Oregon town of Grants Pass, she said, “I should have never left him with his dad.”
“How were you supposed to know he was going to take off?”
“I should have known. But I’m getting him back now. He’s going to be part of our family again.”
I didn’t mention that her new family with my second stepdad was not my idea of our family and probably wasn’t Adrian’s either. None of us kids knew what our idea of family was anymore. She gripped the wheel tightly as we drove south and the shadows of the trees flew past.
Eventually, she told me to go ahead and lie down in the back. The back seats had been turned down so there was a space large enough to curl into. I pulled a blanket around me. Adrian had never called while he was missing, causing my mother to go frantic with worry. I had figured he was safe. My stepdad had never hurt him. Not physically anyway. However, I also knew my stepdad was a broken and twisted man, one with dark wounds inside. I couldn’t be totally sure of anything about him. Before he disappeared, he’d written me letters describing the futility of life. He was giving away what meager things he had left. I watched the darkness through the window and wondered why my brother had never called. When I woke three hours later, the sun rose over the mountains of northern California.
Logan complains loudly and frequently about school. He tells me he’s bored and he’s learning nothing. In the morning I wake him and he rolls over, whining do I have to go? As if I ever tell him anything different. Yes, you have to go. If he were allowed, he would eat ice cream out of the carton and watch Tron all day. I make him go to school. I get dressed, make lunches and make myself go to work. I don’t call in sick to stay home reading all day and watching bad movies for hours, complaining that going to work is just buying into the system and letting corporate American run your life. I am not my stepdad. I am my mother, who forced herself to finish her last term in college while Adrian was missing, made lunches for my sisters every day and tried to create a family, as complicated and exhausting as it was.
I took over the driving and a couple hours later we rolled into Ukiah, where my brother had been living for the past few months. My mother had closed her eyes, leaning her head against the window, but she had not slept. I longed to grab coffee, but my mother was not stopping. We pulled into the police station parking lot to get Adrian. I wondered if my dad was in jail and if I’d have to see him there.
Inside, I was unnerved by the police officers and the official feel of everything. It was as though I was in a world where I didn’t belong. My mother told the attendant at the front who she was and we were asked to wait. Nobody seemed to be in much of a hurry. After a while, a man came out to shake our hands, introducing himself as an officer. He led us back to a small room where we sat at a round table.
“Where is my son?” my mom demanded, embarrassing me with her aggressive voice.
“Adrian is just fine,” the officer said in a placating voice. “You can get him shortly. I just need to go over some paperwork with you.” In the conversation, the officer said things like, just needed to get away for a while, didn’t mean to cause a big problem and were just getting on their feet. When he told my mother that Adrian had been allowed to go back with his dad yesterday to their apartment for one last night, my mother flipped her lid.
“You allowed what?” My mother had that hysterical tone she got when she was about to throw something. I hoped she wouldn’t. My mother had thrown glass plates, laundry baskets and toys, although generally not at any person. Once she threw a plastic Sesame Street mug so hard it chipped the Formica counter, leaving a vivid reminder to stay out of the way of her wrath. My mother pounded her fingers on the paperwork, stood and slapped her purse down on the table, demanding to know why, when my brother had been kidnapped and missing for so long, he was allowed to go home with the person who kidnapped him. I wondered if I should move the stapler out of her reach.
Even I could tell my stepdad had gotten to this officer. I’d only just recently begun to separate myself from my stepdad’s manipulation and to recognize it for what it was. It was just a year ago that I’d secretly arranged a visit between him and my three younger sisters, against my mother’s wishes. He always seemed so sad, such a victim of circumstances, such a victim period. Nothing was ever his fault. Emotional wounds. Neglect. He twisted things to where I found myself forgiving him, feeling sorry for him, blaming someone else. Sometimes myself.
My mother was having none of it. The officer looked at her as if her hostile behavior proved everything he had suspected. I wished I had slept more. I wished I had coffee. I wished I was at home eating breakfast with my boyfriend. I had a philosophy paper to write. I wished I was anywhere else but here. The officer finally broke in. He told my mother that Adrian could be picked up now. However, he suggested strongly that my mother shouldn’t go, since she was obviously volatile and would likely upset the household. My mother looked like she might upset the entire police force in about five seconds. “I’ll go, Mom,” I said quickly. “I’ll get him.”
Logan and I read together every night, still. He knocks on my bedroom when he’s sick, his lanky form a shadow in my doorway. When he’s in trouble with his dad, he brings his tears to me. When he is pushed or punched at school, he eventually confides in me. He curls his thin body against mine when we watch Harry Potter. I can’t imagine him being without me for eight months. I can’t imagine what I would do or say. What I would throw.
The apartment was one in a row of one-bedrooms on a street with cracked sidewalks with tufts of struggling weeds in the yards. My stepdad opened the door when I knocked, giving his small, sad sigh. “Sorry,” he said, “that you had be here.” He kicked a few empty Chinese food cartons out of the way as he shuffled to the kitchen. His dark hair flopped in his eyes. He wore jeans and a ripped tee-shirt. I doubted he was working. Probably doing advertising copy for the local paper occasionally and calling himself a writer. My brother came in from the hallway, lugging a box of comic books.
“Hi, Nomes,” he said. His hair was greasy and unkempt and he was distinctly taller than I remembered, with ankles showing under his too short jeans. He smiled at me awkwardly, then looked at his dad.
“I’ll get your bags,” my stepdad said, heading down the hallway with a hangdog look.
Adrian and I put his comic books in the car. “Can I have a hug?” I asked and he leaned in. He needed a shower. As we separated, I felt the weight of the trip, my mother sitting back at the station, steaming mad, the months of waiting. As we looked at each other, I crumpled into tears. “Why didn’t you call?” I asked, covering my face with one hand, the other gripping the trunk.
He looked at me, surprised. “Dad said we might as well wait to call until we got our apartment and knew where we were going to be. And he said if I called then I’d never be able to see him again.” He leaned over to pat my arm as I continued to cry. “It’s no big deal. I was fine,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.” He repeated it, “It’s going to be okay, Nomes.”
My mother and I took Logan to the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. It’s an incredible museum full of twists, turns, nooks and crannies. Kids climb up in a tube through the walls and into the ceiling to spy on the people below. Dark and sneaky spots lurk throughout. I thought Logan was right ahead of me, but I lost him. I tried to keep calm, telling myself he was just in one of those dark corners, sorting out a spy code, looking over a watch with a secret blade. I had left my mother choosing her spy name. I walked quickly back through the entire museum, scanning all the crowds. I hurried through the rest of the exhibits, not noticing anything but the fact that he was not there. When I reached the gift shop a second time, I counted back. He’d been missing maybe twenty-five minutes. If he’d been taken, he’d be twenty-five minutes down the road now.In some unmarked van. A lot can happen in twenty-five minutes. I found a security officer and trying not to look like I was hysterical, I described Logan. He radioed out to the other staff and we began walking back through the museum. Thirty minutes? Thirty-five minutes? My breath shortened as I realized that this could actually be happening. The thing that terrifies every parent.We turned the corner to see a different security officer standing with Logan. “Hi Mom,” he said. I started crying. Surprised, he reached over, patting me. “It’s okay,” he said, “I was fine.”
What I remember is Adrian arguing with my mother on the long drive home. He hadn’t been to school the entire time he’d been with his dad so he’d have to repeat sixth grade. Adrian’s protests went on and on as the miles distanced us from California. Insisting he didn’t want to go to school. Demanding his own room. Informing her that his stepbrother was jerk. His stepfather was a sellout to society. My mother tried to reason with him until she finally argued back, in frustration. He was twelve years old, she was his mother and by god, he would be living with her and following the rules of her house. That’s what I remember.
My mother remembers none of that. She only remembers being so grateful, so relieved, so happy, as the road took the three of us back up north through the long afternoon and into the night.
NAOMI ULSTED is a fiction and memoir writer. Her work has been published in Salon, Narratively, and Luna Luna. She is currently working on a middle grade urban fantasy, with help from her son. She lives with her two boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, where she is also the director of a Job Corps center training program for at-risk teens.
Punch the number sequence on the garage-door keypad with increasing agitation until you get it right. Slide into your supercharged Mini Cooper—red, with white racing stripes—and start it up, engaging “sport” mode so the exhaust backfires when you take your foot off the gas. You like this feature. It makes you feel like a renegade, just as when you drove your first car, a loaner from your father. You were sixteen, and he’d known you for less than a year. He hadn’t a clue about your lead foot when he handed over the keys for a 340-horsepower, four-barrel Dodge Challenger. It was orange, with black racing stripes.
Turn on the radio, harumph at the commercials, and plug in your phone. Scroll through the dozen or so playlists to find one of the only two that you ever play anymore: The Tragically Hip, whose song lyrics have replaced mitochondria in the cells of one out of every three Canadians, or Little India, a band you adore both despite and due to your nephew’s role as bass guitarist.
Crank up the tunes to drown out your next-door neighbor, who near-permanently idles on the front porch to chain smoke and cough a wretched aria that crescendos with him hocking multitudes of loogies over the edge. Sometimes he coughs so hard he vomits, and you almost vomit. Sometimes you want to swear at him, but the menace of the teardrop tattoo on his face keeps your words in check.
Throw the gearshift in reverse. Inch back until you clear the garage; hit the gas and rocket to the driveway’s end. Execute this maneuver by looking over your shoulder, a habit ingrained since your Young Drivers of Canada lessons. It strikes you as ironic that your father paid for the program; it hadn’t struck him as necessary to help with food and rent when you first fled your psychosis-afflicted mother and had nowhere to live. Your sister intervened, negotiating two hundred bucks a month from him so she could move into a bigger apartment and you could have a bed. Once you saw how it worked, you started scheduling your own appointments at his office to plead for what you needed: cash for your senior high school trip; cash to buy a prom dress; cash to see a therapist. He squirmed and flinched and cleared his throat. You took his money.
Hit the brakes hard.
Turn the music down a notch so the neighbors don’t think you’re a tool, though you’ve always loved the adrenaline whammy of operating a moving vehicle while rocking out. You even remember the song that was playing the moment the Dodge Challenger slammed into a lamp post, after your attempt to beat Mike in his silver Honda turned into a fishtail on a corner. Your father was upset that you wrecked his car. You pretended you didn’t care. Physically, you were fine, aside from glass in your hair and a bruise or two. Your cassette tape had a permanent warp at the moment of impact. It was in the middle of Black Cars by Gino Vannelli.
Avoid looking in the rearview mirror. You don’t want to be reminded of the dark circles under your eyes.
Look in the rearview mirror to check for chia seeds between your teeth. Notice the dark circles under your eyes.
Roll back past the perimeter hedge and scout for the sibling set who always seem to be traipsing past your driveway but won’t make eye contact with you. Their mother doesn’t, either. It all started one sweltering day in July, eight years ago. Your husband walked three lots south to their house and asked the patriarch to turn down his music. Its booming bass broke your concentration while you worked on the eulogy for your father’s funeral. Papa was drinking. He swore at your husband for coming onto his property without a shirt on and disrespecting him. Meanwhile, you were trying to write something that was respectful. The anecdotes all originated within the last decade; it had required that much time to cease being merely transactional with your father, for you to pull back on your condemnation of what he wasn’t and allow some acceptance of what he was. Loving is more difficult than driving, you’d discovered. But you were determined to stand in the front of the hall at his service and demonstrate—to his friends, business associates, yourself—that you’d been an attentive enough daughter to speak to his character and accomplishments.
A cursory check for traffic.
Pull out into the street. As you shift from reverse to first, let your car roll before you hit the gas so anyone who’s looking can tell you own a standard, thus putting you in an elevated category of drivers. It’s also vital to impress upon the young man across the street that middle age doesn’t equate to boring and feeble. And yes, you admit, you advance this point with your loud music, too.
Drive off, taking both hands off the steering wheel to fasten your seat belt. The German engineering in your British car makes it so it practically steers itself.
Keep the speedometer under thirty until you turn the corner, otherwise you will be one of the many your husband curses at for speeding on your street.
Head for the highway so you can push the needle on your tachometer past five as you shift into sixth. This is when you need to hang on to the wheel. Right now.
Pull out into the left lane to pass a taupe Toyota, and another taupe Toyota, and an orange Dodge Challenger with black racing stripes. The model was restarted in 2008, a year before your father died. You feel a familiar pang of regret, wishing once again that you’d dropped by a dealership with him and taken the car for a test drive, an homage to how far the two of you had come, outdistancing expectation and obligation. And yet, still not far enough. You would have appreciated the chance to rack up another hundred thousand miles with him before his engine gave out, even knowing the limits of his responsiveness: As much as you itched to bring up the old days—when you were a six-year-old at Christmas and he didn’t show up, and a thirty-three-year old on your birthday and he didn’t show up—if he couldn’t address his failings as a human, neither could you. Emotional limits have an upside, though. In your father’s shortsightedness, he didn’t see your failings.
Sing as you drive. Even if you don’t know all the words, sing. Emulate the vocal stylings of Adele mashed up with Dave Grohl, and scream and thrash your head around and drum on the steering wheel until your conscience is deaf.
LAURA ZERA’s work can be found in Catapult, Quartz, The Washington Post, and other places. She has completed a memoir and is working on a novel set in South Africa. Website: laurazera.com. Twitter: @laurazera.