Loz in an Elevator

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

By Sara Bir

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

“THIS IS RIDE. Get the tickets.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

Pin It

Machines We Dream Into

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

By Randy Osborne

For the second time in weeks, I am rudely shouted at by a person half my age. Wait. You’re not about to read the routine old-man gripe about the next generation’s lack of respect, even if some of that’s in play.

It happens in San Francisco—I’m here for my job—at one of those upscale salad bars where you pick the ingredients and watch your lunch assembled and sealed into a plastic rectangle. Long line. A salad prep specialist waves his latex-gloved hand, next.

But the suited lad ahead of me stands frozen in the condition of Staring At Phone Oblivious (SAPO). He doesn’t move.

I tap his shoulder, lightly. Politely. Not a hurt-the-bones, get-moving-kid, the-geezer’s-ravenous type of peck. Or maybe so, because he whirls around and glares. On this porcupine, every quill’s up.

Suddenly, irrationally, I am afraid, unable to speak. I nod toward the prep area. Try to convey by my nod, my smile—twitchy, can’t help it—look, sir, it’s your turn. By now, however, the greens technician is wiping down the counter, tending to other matters. As if he had never signaled in the first place.

The executive lad spins back to me, drills me with his eyes. “Who?” he yells. “Who?”

His hand without the phone, I notice, clenches and unclenches.

My scalp tingles, my torso thuds. What if he takes a swing, throws me to the floor? Someone in line behind us will defend me, surely. I look around. No. All SAPO, every customer.

At last, another salad professional waves the lad forth. Come sir, please. Render unto me your garden-based needs. My lad marches over, shaking his head, phone clamped to it now.

Later, I’ll feel peculiar gratitude for my loud interlocutor, or non-interlocutor (we didn’t really converse), gratitude that’s irony-free and slow to grow and seeps into my bloodstream like the first drink at day’s end. I had touched an almost-forgotten world of raw heat and urgency, of special, newly minted vigor that I wasn’t sure I would have recognized. I’m refreshed.

Not that, at sixty-one, I hobble, decrepit. Yet to arrive are my barrel chest, twig arms, and lizard neck. Not for a few years will these rubbery cheeks sag into true jowls. I’m physically fit. Most of my mental faculties are yet to flee. I don’t grouse or meddle excessively. Don’t repeat or explain jokes.

Still, age has made me more of an outsider than all my weird traits combined, which is saying something. Dull is everything I know, every known thing, and strong the daily tug of negation that I know is ahead. A return to the empty abundance back of it all, the blank potential we came from.

Back to the salad shop, close call. In the moments after what I perceived as his near attack, I study the lad, finally ordering, his frown, the jaw jabbering, and imagine how his dense black hair, like swirled tar in a vat, would feel between my fingers, how his face might smell if I pull him close, all of his surprised flesh against mine.

This was the second episode of yell. The first took place maybe a month earlier, home in Atlanta, in my apartment building’s elevator. Not in, exactly, but at the door—a threshold event—as it opened to let off me and my dog and allow a woman and hers to board.

Both dogs went berserk. Hers a low-slung, otherwise docile ragmop I recognized and had watched her pilot along the sidewalk like a floor polisher. Mine a yappy Chihuahua, ever on the edge of exploded nerves and more often over it, a toy Cerberus.

For a few seconds the dogs lunged and scrabbled. We watched like bettors at a cockfight, yet to put money down. Then I stepped out of the elevator and held the door open for the woman, crouching now with her dog, fiddling with its collar. Her head jerked up. “Go!” she yelled. “Go!”

Go, old man, is what I heard.

Yes, I thought, soon enough I’m going.

If everything is a metaphor, what’s real?

I went.

“Probably because you touched him,” my girlfriend Joyce said about the San Francisco salad incident, which she (waiting for me at the hotel) missed. “You’re not supposed to touch anybody. Even hugging is considered a trespass on personal space. It’s all over the internet.” The internet, our lord and regulator. I ought to have known. As much a disciple as anyone, I slog through the tedium of my day job online and hover there still at night, aglow. Click click, tick tick, and tock, the clock: I’m hooked on the frenetic stasis of mediated non-experience, dying in front of a screen. These machines we dream into.

•••

My salaried chores in San Francisco done, we take the weekend and trudge the city. We strain to take our minds off the latest shooting, another budding male gone haywire, why don’t people out here talk about it, Joyce asks, and in reply I say that one of the things I miss about San Francisco when we’re gone is the smell of jasmine. Sun-warmed vines of jasmine grow on the walls out here, exhaling their fragrance. Nob Hill. I sniff the jasmine.

On Sunday, roaming in Fairfax, we find ourselves at a festival. Music, street food, paintings by locals. A pair of wizened hippies runs a poetry-and-storytelling booth. One will spontaneously tell you a story if you ask, whatever story unspools for him, go with the flow. The other extends a hat with slips of paper inside. You draw a name and he recites the poet’s verse from memory. I step to the booth because I detect a chance to brag (senior move) about my son Skyler, his Michener fellowship in poetry at the U of Texas.

Both guys hug me.

We talk about storytelling and poetry and how impossible it is to make money in creative work, blah blah. “Well, there’s always marketing,” the white-bearded bard says. “Where poets go to die.” We laugh to the tree line, as the pensioner crowd is wont to do at clichés. I mention Matthew Dickman, poetry editor at Tin House—and a hero of my son; we’re getting closer to the brag—who said he rarely teaches and instead freelances in marketing. Happily.

The storytelling guy says, “Did you say Tin House? You mean Tin House in Portland? My god-daughter just got a job there two weeks ago. It’s a sign. Synchronicity!” People in California are always seeing signs.

I pick a name from the hat: Antonio Machado. The first two lines of the poem are, “The wind, one brilliant day / called to my soul with the odor of jasmine … ”

Poetry guy says he has taught for sixteen years at the Great Mother and New Father Conference in Maine, and is a longtime friend of Robert Bly, who won the National Book Award in 1968 and founded the conference in 1975. Bly, I know, fueled the “men’s movement,” which led to face-painted suburban dudes banging drums together in the woods, often tagged latent homosexuals by people as backward as myself. Poetry guy points out that it also led to those fathers around us at the Fairfax festival, schlepping their babies in pouches on their backs. Happily.

We talk for a while about Bly, and men, and what’s missing in the world for boys. Though it seems a logical topic, none of us brings up the latest shooting. Why don’t people out here talk about it? Maybe they do.

Maybe we did, sort of. What I want anyway seems always between, in back of, just offstage from the main action. I listen for what we don’t say or can’t. How the truth slips between words like a blob of mercury pressed under your thumb. You see it in the faces your lover makes in sleep.

The last lines of the Machado poem: “ … the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself: / ‘What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?’”

•••

In Atlanta, the checkout kid rings up my senior discount without asking for ID, which I discover when checking the receipt, another geriatric habit. I say thanks and snicker to him about how if you’re going to get old, you might as well have something to show for it, heh.

“Yes,” he says. Pause.

Then he says: “Wisdom?”

I’m aware of my impulse to guffaw. It would be my attempt to mark myself in his view as one of those aw-heck old farts, really I’m just like you teenagers of today, who can know what’s up in this zany world, nobody learns anything.

I’m aware of my impulse to nod soberly, which might suggest to him that I have indeed seized upon hard-won sagacity that you, too, my student, may one day own, after you’ve lost everything else.

Lies, either way. I get the hell out of there. Someday I may end up on Social Security or worse, barred by poverty even from awkward moments with checkout kids. Shuffle the produce aisle, steal a grape, like in the Bukowski poem. The class divide has become a two-sided canyon, and those lucky enough among us find ways to service the rich, some licit, some not. We occupy their cubicles. We scrub their mansion floors. We nanny their foul brats. We ____ their ____s.

Here’s how Joyce and I finance “vacations”: She accompanies me on job trips. I’m planning another, and we need someone to dog-sit our savage whelp. Instead of asking a friend, I am of course—like a person with no friends—on the internet. There’s a rover.com for friendless dog parents, just as there’s a zipcar.com where you can rent wheels on short for less than a day, if owning is beyond your means and you have no friends who’ll take you places. I point all this out to Joyce, crankily. Poor Joyce, twenty years younger than I, skilled at suffering. I hope she wouldn’t call it such.

Those people on the shore your boat has cast off from, they’re not waving you goodbye; they don’t know you’ve left. They are turned again to each other. What matters is that you have a boat, and there was a shore. Doesn’t it matter? To make the answer, as Philip Larkin wrote, “Brings the priest and the doctor / In their long coats / Running over the fields.” Hordes of them, my god. Here they come.

Possibly, death—such is the pot banged by Jungians, tarot card readers, and motley mystics—amounts to a transformation only. Verb disguised as noun. (How many nights you’ve spent, head in hands, over those “transformed.”) When the no-longer shows up, we continue: altered. In my after-which-there-is-nothing, I am retooled by magic as the changed one I’d waited to become, standing those vain years in the ravenous line.

But who would I become? Who?

•••

RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Randy Osborne.

Peach Courage

masked woman
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Richardson

Earlier this year when I was trying to work up the courage to quit my job, I went to see the performance artist and musician Peaches at one of those “in conversation” events at a Berlin art gallery. I had moved to Berlin with my husband in 2015 for my job, with the mutual understanding that we would only stay for a year. That deadline was looming, and I had cold feet.

The setting and inspiration for the talk was an exhibition of sixty-five photographs by Cindy Sherman, an artist who’s been tackling the concept of identity in her work since she first started taking her portraits of herself in the 1970s. Sherman usually works alone in her studio and the resulting pictures often portray social and cultural stereotypes, from starlets and pinups to, more recently, aging society ladies and fashionistas. I first came across Sherman through her so-called History Portraits. I was taking an early Italian renaissance art history class at college, and the counterpoint of Sherman’s Madonnas—often equipped with obviously prosthetic, exposed breasts—made me laugh. Sherman doesn’t title any of her works, but they’re often referred to by the numbers curators use in exhibition catalogs and, as in the case of the History Portraits, thematic groupings. In other words, Sherman declines to identify any of her pictures about identity.

I nabbed a seat for the discussion in the second row with a perfect view until, minutes before the program was set to start, a middle-aged woman doused in perfume and wearing a matching white fur jacket and hat sat down in front of me. It quickly became clear she had no intention of removing the hat—which was the primary offender in blocking my view—and when she turned around, I thought I may have figured out why. She had black hair, the texture of which looked like a wig, with spare tendrils of odd lengths spilling onto her shoulders. The hat seemed to be holding the whole arrangement in place. Her coral-red lipstick was smeared and she wore black eyeliner and a blank stare as if the point of her eyes was to absorb the snatched glances of those of us around her. A closer inspection revealed she was wearing rather fabulous high-altitude platform shoes, the heel of which was scalloped in gold metal. When the second man approached to kiss her hand, I was sufficiently intimidated to lose my nerve over asking her to remove the hat. She looked like a Berlin version of one of Sherman’s Hollywood/Hampton Ladies, a series of photographs displayed on the wall at the back of the room, and it only occurred to me the next day that she could have been Sherman donning a disguise to attend a talk about herself. This would certainly explain the hand kissing.

If it was Sherman, she wouldn’t have been the only one in the room fiddling with her identity. I was there straight from work and dressed in my version of a businesswoman costume—Isaac Mizrahi for Target blazer, Banana Republic dress, Wolford black tights and LK Bennett boots—feigning to be a fan of Peaches when, in fact, I had just read an article about her in a magazine a month or so earlier. I was a legitimate fan of Sherman’s, but on some level I was attracted to the event by its association with the radical art of Peaches. Simply by attending, I was asserting my identity outside the narrow confines of a normie, trying on the idea of what it might be like to be the kind of person who’s a fan of Peaches. I was too timid to go to a club to see her, but here in a gallery at the gentle hour of seven-thirty p.m., Peaches was accessible to me.

•••

In addition to being an artist and musician, Peaches—who was born Merill Beth Nisker—is a forty-nine-year-old Canadian super-fan of Sherman. Like Sherman, Peaches’s work explores identity. While we think of Madonna and Lady Gaga as our culture’s pre-eminent pop-star chameleon queens, Peaches’s subversive take on identity, particularly when it comes to traditional gender norms, exposes their work as merely conventional. The video for Peaches’s recent single, Rub, was banned from YouTube, perhaps for being “a lesbian desert sex scene, but without the male gaze,”—which is how one of the video’s co-directors, artist Lex Vaughn, explained it to The Daily Dot. During the course of the conversation at the gallery, Peaches screened this banned video along with the one for Dick in the Air, in which she and comedian Margaret Cho don fuzzy onesies complete with built-in, penis-like appendages that they proceed to, you guessed it, wave in the air.

In person, Peaches is nothing like you might expect from her videos. She wore a baggy brown dress that hung in swags around her like something from a Greek statue, Dr. Martens boots, a couple of hair extensions, and no makeup. As she remarked to the interviewer when asked about her penchant for elaborate stage clothes, sometimes dressing down is its own version of a costume. Her manner was down-to-earth and engaging while displaying a self-assured intellect. When the interviewer occasionally veered into presumptive lines of questioning, Peaches managed to disarm him with the politest of is-that-sos?

Commentators on Sherman’s work sometimes characterize it as an assertion of identity as a performance. When asked her views on identity, Peaches answered that it’s something we’re constantly creating through trial and error, starting with the identity-less child who learns by mimicking her parents: the child sees her parents holding a phone and holds a spoon up to her ear. I like this concept of trial and error better than performance; it asserts an earnestness where performance asserts artifice. The two can, of course, co-exist.

At one point the conversation turned to Sherman’s series of the Hollywood/Hampton Ladies. What’s easy to read in these portraits is satire of the desperation of middle-aged women, both their makeup and their facial expressions trying too hard. But Peaches pointed out that Sherman is also showing us their vulnerability inherent in this set of headshots designed to garner interest for their third act in life. Where I previously was simply in-on-the-joke of these portraits, I could now intimately—and uncomfortably—relate. The Hampton/Hollywood Ladies had something to offer me, a willingness to try and to make myself vulnerable in the process I was going through in defining my own next act.

At the end of the evening Peaches stood in front of the room and performed an unexpected costume change, using the draped dress as a beach towel changing device. Now donning a blush-colored sequined shorts romper, she belted out an excruciatingly raw rendition of Private Dancer. It was earnest and imperfect, an ending dedicated to the concept of quite literally exposing oneself. People whooped and applauded, smart enough to know they had seen something special.

•••

My takeaway from my evening with Sherman and Peaches wasn’t inspiration to embrace an identity radically different from my own. I am early middle-aged and inexorably shaped by the values and mores of life so far, and I didn’t leave the show ready to dye my hair pink and join the circus. They are the artists and it’s their job to operate at the radical edges of identity to show the rest of us what’s possible, giving us room to maneuver in the space in between. But I did take the experience as a reminder that my relative financial security was a ticket to engage in some trial and error about what I would do next, to emulate the toddler that Peaches had described.

She also seemed to be telling the room to be brave. Watching her perform considerable feats of derring-do like changing her clothes in front of a room full of people before belting out a vocally challenging song—and then, crucially, seeing that nothing bad happened—was a life affirming thing. To put it coarsely, I took her performance as a sort of creative invective to grow a pair. So much of my resistance to change—specifically leaving my job—was fear-based: that I would never find a job that paid this well again or that I would never find any job again. The inquiry pretty much stopped there, failing to go to the next step and ask “and then what?”

It reminded me of one of my favorite regular features in a Sunday newspaper magazine, an interview that always asks the subject “What would you do if you lost everything and had to start again?” Invariably the answer inspires less dread than one would imagine. Often it evokes the opposite in the interviewee—a sense of liberation, an opportunity to get back to what he or she loves. In other words, the answer to the question “what’s the worst that could happen?” usually isn’t that bad. Even if Peaches had bombed in her performance and everyone had booed, well, so what?

Years ago I was receiving instruction in sitting meditation from a zen Buddhist priest. Whenever I tried to sit cross-legged, one of my legs would invariably fall asleep. Alarmed, I called out to the teacher that my legs were falling asleep. “Is that so,” he responded, more statement than question. Without having to spell it out, the teacher had made his point: what’s the worst that could happen if my legs fell asleep? Not much as it turns out. If it got really bad I could always uncross my legs, an option that, remarkably given it was always wholly in my control, I seemed to have ruled out because I thought it would mean I was doing meditation wrong.

This is another abiding fear of mine in life: that I am doing it wrong.

And this, perhaps, is the siren call of artists like Peaches and Sherman. They are decidedly, unabashedly doing it wrong. Sherman’s Madonna is squirting milk from her plastic boob and Peaches is waving her penis in the air, both of which make it just a little bit easier for me to remember that quitting my job wasn’t really living life on the fringe. What could possibly go wrong?

•••

JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her writing has recently appeared in the anthology, A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis, as well as Fiction Advocate, ExBerliner, and Remedy Quarterly. You can find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.

Read more FGP essays by Jennifer Richardson.

We’re Done Here

cabin
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Ellen S. Wilson

The smell hits the moment you walk through the back door into the kitchen—damp wood, mildew, and sadness. In just a few minutes, it is possible to acclimate to all three.

My sisters and I have come with my mother to The Mountain House, a sturdy little family vacation home in western North Carolina, built up on a ridge that is said to be haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Heaton. We’re here, as my mother says more than once, to “tear the house apart.”

But first, the ghost story: This ridge was the property of the Heatons years ago, and greatly beloved by Mrs. Heaton. When financial hardship hit, Mr. Heaton, less emotionally wrapped up in the land, wanted to sell. Mrs. Heaton, whose name may or may not have been Loesa Emmalie, resisted. The years went by, the times got tougher, and one day Mr. Heaton made a sneaky trip into town and sold the land without telling his wife. He didn’t have to—by the time he got home, she had hanged herself from a tree, and an enormous white owl sat in the branches above her nodding head, screaming “like a woman,” the storytellers always say.

To placate the ghost of Mrs. Heaton, whose white owl still screams in the night, or perhaps to honor her memory, the inhabitants of the vacation homes that now dot the hillside have representations of owls on their placemats, hand towels, coffee mugs, everywhere. My own mother collected hundreds of tiny owls, and we all abetted her habit because a souvenir owl was a small and convenient gift for her when we traveled or hunted for stocking stuffers. An owl for Mom, from Turkey or Kenya or Lake Tahoe. Bookshelves laden with owls made of stone, glass, crystal, and porcelain are partly why we have come. It’s time, we have decided, to save anything we care about from the encroaching damp. We are rescuing our treasures from the future. If we have learned anything from the mountains, it is that appearances to the contrary, not even they are eternal. We are here to make one last stand against that reality.

The owls belong to my mother, but the ghost of my father sits in every corner of this house, in the barn wood paneling, fine rugs, bird prints, and odd collectibles. We lost him once already, seven years ago, and we dread losing him again to creeping mildew and anonymity.

•••

I’ve been coming to these mountains and tolerating the stomach-churning hopelessness they inspire in me since I was two years old, long before The Mountain House was built. Every summer—every goddam summer—my parents would load my three sisters and me into the car in Louisville, Kentucky, and drive seven hours over the mountain roads while I lurched and puked in the back of the station wagon. The way, way back. This began before there were seatbelts. Once we arrived, there would be warm ginger ale to quiet my heaving guts while we settled into our cabin at the High Hampton Inn and Country Club, a worn, sprawling establishment well over a hundred years old that prizes tradition and simple virtues and has now added a spa and some llamas (llamas being indigenous to the Blue Ridge Mountains).

Our regular cabin was a wooden structure with twin beds, soft, thick linens that never felt completely dry, and a lovely veranda overlooking the lake. The place smelled of boxwood—subtle, sweet and green—and my normally spider-fearing mother loved it so much she suspended all her fears when we arrived. The mountain air reassured her. Not me.

The lake our cabin overlooked was still, small, and—to me—fathoms deep. Potential death lurked in its depths, and there was said to be a dam that you shouldn’t paddle your canoe too close to, although when I found it as an adult I realized the silty pool at its base was hardly lethal. But even now that lake, which I have swum in, and paddled over, and hiked around, can fill me with dread. The memory of my pale legs dyed green by the murky water, my vulnerable white body suspended over god knows what dark threat, and my forcing my teenaged self to dive down and swim out to a tethered float, causes an internal quake when I’m sitting on my own dry porch in Pittsburgh miles away.

During those family trips, my sisters and I were habitually shunted over to the Children’s Program, and since I’m the youngest, I was rarely with any of them. My happiest day was when I cut myself on a rusty nail in the donkey barn and one of my sisters had to rescue me and take me to my mother, once she had finished on the golf course and was available to tend to my wound, and perhaps to worry about me a little. My unhappiest day was the evening hayride (this happened frequently, this unhappiest day) in a wagon filled with prickly bales and noisy children, pulled by a mean woman on a tractor. I remember ghost stories I took very seriously, and kids only a little older than me singing songs I didn’t know. I remember feeling powerless, and suffering the necessity to either pee in the woods or wet my pants, and not knowing which was worse.

There was no reason to have been so miserable. My mother and father were loving and attentive enough. I know now that parenthood means a gentle pushing away, and that the only time one can encourage dependence is during the first months of breastfeeding. Apart from that, it’s all “you can walk across the room unaided, you can survive a morning at preschool without me, you can sleep at a friend’s house, go to college, go to France.” But what did I know, at age four? The mountains made me then, and make me now, feel irresistibly lonely, pressing-on-a-sore-muscle lonely.

Somehow the eternal mountains embodied impermanence and loss. My oldest sister, the one who was my surrogate mother much of the time, was found sleepwalking toward the lake one night when she was fourteen, and the story was presented as a near tragedy. My father caught her just in time, before her pale foot was sucked into the black greeny goop and she was lost to me forever, becoming the next ghost story. The image of her small figure in a white nightie (she would have needed one, if she was to haunt the lakeside), foot extended from the slippery rocks along the shore, rocks alive with snakes and toads, entered our own family lore, those unsettling tales on which the mountains depended to keep you from feeling too comfortable as you sat in a rocker and digested a doughy mountain dinner. The lake was peaceful and silent, we swam in a little fenced off part during the hot humid afternoons, but the grabby mud bottom was never trustworthy.

•••

The summer I was nineteen, my father got me a waitress job at the resort. I don’t remember being given an option about that. The owners couldn’t say no to him, either—he’d been a patron there for years, had bought that piece of property on the ridge they owned that overlooked the resort, and was building himself a house. And perhaps most important, my father was one of those charming, friendly people that strangers took to on first sight and never had reason to change their minds. When he was dying, the mail carrier came in to say goodbye. His funeral was standing room only. Naturally, the president of High Hampton Inn agreed that I could wait tables in the creaking sunlit dining room.

I felt the old lurch of nausea and loss as my father drove away at the beginning of that summer. His natural optimism (along with his desire for me to stop being such a lost puppy) convinced him that I would manage. He had been mostly abandoned by his own father at age five and sent off to live with relatives to save money, and he turned out just fine. He knew I would meet this minor challenge and I did, befriending another summer hire and convincing her to let me share the trailer she had rented—housing was not included in our stingy wages.

And there I was, stuck in a place of fear and loathing, zipped into a gold polyester dress and ferrying glasses of iced tea to guests in my section. It was an easy job, and I managed to pay my rent in tips and send my paycheck home to my sister in Louisville, who put it in the bank for me. By August, I had more than enough to buy the electric typewriter on which I would write my senior thesis in college.

In the meantime, my trailer-mate and I sat on our tiny porch, listened to the radio because there was little else to do, smoked (or I did, again because there was little else to do), and necked (or I did, see above) with the boys across the driveway who were also there for the summer. When we got off work, we grabbed sleeping bags and ran up the various mountains to spend the night, no tents, no food, no supplies. We went into work the next morning needing a shower and a good nap and convinced that we were living much more intensely than the middle-aged people waiting for me to pour their coffee. Being middle-aged myself now, I know that that was true.

•••

My parents came to spend their customary week in the mountains that summer and check on the construction of their new house, and one day during the long afternoon break, I saw my father sitting on the lawn in a shaded Adirondack chair. I invited him to go with me to, as I put it, “see something pretty,” and luckily for us both, he accepted. I drove him to my favorite waterfall, a big one that rushed thirty or forty feet over a cliff, reachable by an easy path from a rough parking lot. Above those falls, I had camped and swam and slid into the pools in a game that terrified the older waitresses at the resort, who knew of people swept to their deaths doing that. I had slept on the flat rocks at the very top, rocks that were surely submerged when the water was high. The waterfall was mine, and I wanted to share it with my father.

This outing led to further discoveries as my parents began to find more in their summer vacation than golf and cocktails. The new house acquired some new dimensions, and the family a veneer of rustication. We hiked in the mountains and provided our own names for favorite spots (Toe-Mash Creek was one). We picked thumb-sized blackberries from the brambles down the hill from the house and made jam and pie. My father bought a small used pickup truck.

High Hampton Inn had its charms, with the grease from its famous fried chicken embedded in the pine walls along with the odor of loneliness, but the mountains themselves acquired characters wholly separate—blooming, gray, and fearsome. People do die there—my own father slipped on moss once, reached for my hand, said later that I had saved him from a fatal fall. I did not remember it that way, but that didn’t help. To love the mountains the way Mrs. Heaton did is to wordlessly accept the inevitability of loss, all kinds of loss.

Years passed. One summer, the wild blackberry brambles were mowed to the ground and never grew back. If we had known they were a temporary pleasure, they would have become too precious and we would have enjoyed them less.

The rough parking lot at my waterfall was paved and a map installed, and I felt it like abandonment, like my old secret lover was openly dating other people. Trails were marked clearly, construction and condos were everywhere, and the hidden pools and perfect little glens were all discovered. Now when you hiked in a place that felt deserted, you came across used tissue and empty Perrier bottles. The town of Cashiers that provided High Hampton with a mailing address grew from a minimal crossroads to a town center with shops devoted to baskets (just baskets) and delis, and cuteness. There was more to offer a nineteen year old—artisanal coffee, for example—but none of it felt relevant anymore.

•••

My family’s own history unfolded at the Mountain House. It wasn’t any messier than most, just the run-of-the-mill ending of marriages, illness, disappointment. And into this soup of memory and history we have come, to tear it all to pieces in a hopeless attempt to rescue the parts we want to save. The Audubon print has mildew behind the glass – it needs to be taken to dryer quarters and re-matted. Is there any way to remove the spots on the silk hanging from China? The big rug in the living room smells musty. Something must be done. So we go round robin in a civil exercise to say what we really want, what we can’t live without, and we try to be generous. “I gave Mother and Daddy that, but I’m so glad you want it.” Of course the thing we want—do we?—is to undo some of that passage of time, to go back to the miseries of childhood, to put the past in a box as though that meant not losing it.

I took my own children when they were small to see the donkeys and feed them carrots and crackers, and if my urban kids recognized the sadness in the donkeys’ faces, they did not let me know. There was no need for a salutary cut on a rusty nail for them—I was right there, and rightly or wrongly I had no plan to send them on any hayrides. They have their own vulnerabilities, their own dark lakes that are not to be found at High Hampton.

At the end of the weekend, I say goodbye to my oldest sister, and tell her I love her, and she looks at me questioningly and I know that we have not said everything there is to say and that we never can. If we sit in a circle in the living room now stripped of the colorful rug and travel mementos, the walls bare of pictures, and we acknowledge what we have done, we will be devastated. We can’t turn and look the sadness in its face, we can’t tell my mother it’s all over, which at ninety-one, she understands well enough. Here in the stoic, silent mountains, it is better not to say.

•••

ELLEN S. WILSON lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Carnegie Magazine, and other local and national publications. She is proud to have her first essay in Full Grown People.

The Ringing in My Ears

happy sad
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Randy Osborne

The old lady comes up short, but she didn’t budge, failed to budget, couldn’t fudge it. She with her Camels and six-pack of beer and chips who stares at the checkout screen with eyes of disbelief, or what she wants Register Man to believe. Need’ll make you fake things.

She mutters to Register Man, who replies the total again, blank-faced. Nods past the old lady at me, as if to signal: Sorry sir, you’re next. Though I have no purchase, am not in line yet. About my age, the old lady, let’s just say.

The standoff: She fingers her envelope—CURR. scrawled on it (Register Man, take this dog by the ears!), and CHANGE scrawled on it (our only certainty), with rows of meager totals. Silver hair shags out the back of her baseball cap. Imagine her school pictures in forgotten shoeboxes. The small round face, peg teeth, beaming into the future. This one.

We have a problem, each of us edgy for slightly different reasons, but mostly it’s our possible sad destinies standing in front of us smacking her pockets in faux astonishment. Or the old lady has a problem. Register Man only seems to, really. He owns the place.

Last week he scolded me, shrill: Why you not buy case wine, ten percent discount! You in here almost every day, buy wine. You like Whitehaven so I add supply, boxes in behind for holiday, I am overstock!

I scan a row of jars. Gourmet pickles, truffle paste, rare Italian beans. How did she find her way here? Our neighborhood swarms with youth. They slog to dreary, high-paying jobs—an equation: the more numb your soul, the fatter your paycheck, they learn to accept—and avert their gaze from stray elderlies, the ones I pretend I’m not. As I do right now, and to escape at least mentally, I get on my phone and call Joyce. A few blocks away, she doesn’t pick up. Stirring dinner.

As a kid I once hurled a telephone to smithereens. One of those runkenclatter rotary-dial apparatuses, so unlike the wafers children of today tap and smile into, hefty with the promise of serious plaster damage, which it delivered thereon. To me, the possibility that one person could talk to another not within sight or earshot seemed deeply, even infuriatingly wrong. That I caught myself up in trying, worse. Maybe you think I’m crazy to feel this way still.

The silly cell-phone burble repeats in my ear. Pick up, pick up. No Joyce.

And then it starts again—a different kind of ring.

The diagnostic term, tinnitus, reminds me of that light tap of stick on cymbal that drummers sometimes do. Unlike the noise in my head, where a jet engine revs, whines. Or locusts drone in trees. Or a uniform tone beeps long: this is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. It arrives at the oddest moments for no apparent reason and subsides the same.

I consider paying for the old lady. Not because I am an exemplary person. Not because of the season, this pageant of do-goodism looming over us a week before the 2015 calendars flip. I consider paying for her because of reprieve. For the old lady, who wants only to recline in her distant hovel with suds and smokes. For Register Man, who knows that if she blocks the flow of commerce a few minutes more he must give her the heave-ho, and nobody wants to haul a crone out the door screaming this time of year. For me, of course, phone still clamped to head as I pretend to listen and converse. I actually say a few words—to nothing.

Now I am outside, under the strung lights. Now at the street. Cross.

Three nights ago, on the fifth floor of our gated complex’s parking deck, I peered over the wall (an easy climb) to the cement below. Could happen fast. Up and over. Air whistling past my ears, the delicious impact.

Briefly I left myself.

Back in the body. How long passed? No more than a few seconds—amazed, I saw my foot drop from the ledge where it had waited for the rest of me to follow. Half over, like bounding a country fence. How the deed gets done when it does. A moment of inadvertency.

The near-George Bailey episode followed a night of trying to write through the confluence of agitations become chronic. At my keyboard, all the world’s clamor. Pop-ups and videos, Facebook ever hailing. The full internet of tags and links, chains draped, hung off my invisibly distributed personhood, not anywhere.

Now, almost home. Outside the tall-paned bar I pause to examine the women, fresh, much hair-toss and throat-show. Gust of wind chafes my face, a filthy looker, and suddenly I realize that if I don’t go back and help the old lady, I’ll fret hours over my inaction. Another clog in rusted wheels.

I turn. Cross.

To find the scene unchanged, as if time stopped. Incredulous old lady. Register Man with fists on hips. A second queue open, twitchy adolescent handling the overflow.

My voice comes out how much. What does she owe? Register Man, whom nothing surprises, says $3.27. What about the tax on, I say, there’s tax on, tax on—a fool stammer, I throttle—everything. At last I step in. Swipe the card. We’re almost touching. Let the fossil be gone, into the dark.

I want to chase her down the street, deranged, and grab her by the knob shoulders and shake answers out. I want the grand epiphany, balm. I want to know that everything I believe I understand is more than a stuck-on symbol.

Instead, I’ll let the elevator hiss-groan me to the top deck again. Trace the city skyline with bent finger. Dream what’s nearing from beyond, if there even is.

Cross. Rise.

•••

RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Randy Osborne here.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth

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

By Naomi Shulman

1986. I was sixteen, and I was spending the night alone with my boyfriend, M. We were at his house, but his parents were gone. His father was dead, actually—he’d died several years earlier of cancer. He’d been forty-two, which sounded old to me, but everyone remarked on how young it was. It’s younger than I am now. His mother was out of town with his sister. My parents were divorced, and I was playing them against one another; each thought I was with the other, and their inability to speak to each other without shouting was, for once, working to my advantage.

So we were alone. And young, and inexperienced, but safe. His house was on a dead-end dirt road and no one was around for miles. It was summertime in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The August evening air was already crisp, and we were snug in the tree-hidden house at the end of the drive. No one knew what we were doing. Not even us.

M had shoulder-length hair and spent the summer in bare feet; his soles were calloused. He had ice-blue eyes and a quick, wide smile. He was skinny and a little nerdy; I was a sucker for smart and funny. That never changed. He loved comic books and the Beatles; a homemade Beatles cassette was on constant play in his car, a red VW Rabbit that he drove barefoot, and where we spent hours parked. The White Album. Revolver. Sgt. Pepper. We leaned over the stick shift and put our hands in each other’s shirts, longing for more privacy, more space. Now we had it. M also loved old movies, which is why we were watching The Man Who Fell to Earth when we first got completely naked with each other.

In 1986, VCRs were still kind of a fancy thing to have in the rural place we lived. Neither of my parents’ households had VCRs. But they were mainstream enough that there were plenty of movie-rental joints, including one at the arthouse cinema, which is where we found the David Bowie classic. I had been in first grade when it was originally released; a lifetime ago. It was still early evening when we popped the tape into the VCR, but the sun was setting. It was late summer in Vermont and the crickets were just warming up, reminding us that soon school would start, soon our parents would get wise, soon we wouldn’t be sixteen and seventeen anymore.

I was surprised to see what Bowie looked like, white and redheaded and young, his eyes fierce. He’d recently made his comeback in popular culture, and in 1986 he seemed so old to me, so grownup in his suits and his dress shoes, doing his improbably debonair dancing on MTV next to Madonna and Bruce. Bowie was younger in the eighties than I am now. But in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he was younger still, and looked more like me and my seventeen-year-old boyfriend—smooth, pale, unlined. Newly emerged, on a strange planet.

I remember almost nothing else about the movie. Shortly after the opening credits rolled, M traced my arm, starting from the spot where my collarbone connected to my shoulder and slowly making his way to the tip of my index finger, and my insides turned upside down. I hadn’t known a single touch could do that. I rolled over to face him and melted into what we were really here to do, which was to find our way in new territory. And the movie played as we removed one article of clothing at a time, exposing bare expanses of taut young skin, smooth and warm.

By the time the movie ended, we were both fully nude and it was time to do what we were pretty sure it was time to do. M began unwrapping the condom. I was shaking head to toe. I wanted to and didn’t want to. I couldn’t look M in the eye, suddenly aware and embarrassed of my youth. And then M gave me an out. “I think this may have expired,” he said. “It may not be safe.” The condom.

“Maybe we shouldn’t do this, then,” I said slowly.

“Maybe not,” he agreed. And then I could look into his ice-blue eyes again. It wasn’t just me who needed the out. Neither of us were ready. I was a little disappointed—I hadn’t yet arrived where I thought I was headed. But mostly I was relieved and grateful to be in a safe place with a nerdy boy who was content to kiss and touch and laugh with me for the night.

That night I looked through the skylight at the moon, round and unusually red, and thought I could never be so happy ever again, never feel so much again. I wouldn’t lose my virginity for a couple more years, but something had shifted nonetheless. My heart drummed in my chest, strong, insistent, never-ending, ever-expanding. But I was sixteen, and I didn’t know anything. M and I broke up shortly after school began, several weeks later, off to explore new lands, gaining fluency. And now Bowie is gone, also cancer, leaving the world decades older than M’s father did, but now that seems too soon to me, too. My parents found a way to speak to each other again; my father visited my mother on her death bed last fall, also cancer. And I am older than I ever imagined being when I was sixteen and had just fallen to Earth and had so many roads open to me and so much time that I could pause a while before deciding which one to take.

•••

NAOMI SHULMAN is a freelance writer in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Cognoscenti, Yankee, and on New England Public Radio, as well as the 2014 anthology The Good Mother Myth. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.

Beyond the Lonely Bench

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

by Jena Schwartz

The writing in my head syncs with the rhythm of my gait as I walk through the familiar grounds—not familiar in that I’ve ever been inside of this ubiquitous, quasi-suburban condo complex, but in that I could get perfectly lost here. This evening, rather than going north towards the farm, I decided to go west, down the hill, then took a right and wandered into a backdrop unexpectedly perfect for feeling my way into something I didn’t know was waiting when I left the house: a memory, maybe, of who I used to be. A mirror of who I’ve become.

I’m walking, and I’m overcome with the need to find the way out. There must be a hidden path from the neat contours of this neighborhood into the semi-wilds of an in-town farm. I just know it—and I’m determined to discover it. I follow the winding sidewalks and cut through the cookie-cutter parking lots. I’m moving deeper and deeper into something, the way one might walk through a house in a dream. The further from the street I get, the grey-blue condos like a hall of mirrors, the more I move into the feeling of how I related, as a woman in my twenties, to women in their forties and maybe to other women, period.

When I was in my twenties, women in their forties seemed not old exactly, but… how can I put this? Like women.

There was something so foreign to me about the divorced ones. And also about the married ones, the ones with careers and husband and kids—all of these, really, lumped together in some category of grown-ups, of having figured something out that I had not and wasn’t sure I wanted to. A category of… Other. Other than what? Other as in mothers? Other as in adults, whatever that meant but was most definitely not me?

At twenty-five, I was newly married, completing the graduate degree that would mean little more than that I’d marked a few years’ time, written more poems, felt unseen by female professors, and wondered if my advisor and I were flirting or being literary at the Irish pub, his Guinness to my Diet Coke with lemon. (Was I afraid to drink, to let loose, of him or of myself?) And then there was the cigarette I’d scrub from my skin—hands, mouth—before turning to walk home to the tiny one-bedroom I shared on Summer Street with my new husband.

We moved to Vermont and I donned an official title as director of a small nonprofit, where I inherited a board of alumni and faculty that included some women in their forties. I was once again the girl among them, young, smart, small, and mighty—and regularly mistaken for an undergrad. Their lives seemed to me an unattainable blend of alien and enviable, far from mine for reasons I couldn’t name except to say that there was always some nagging—I’d feel it especially after running or sex—that I was longing for something. I began to name the longing “myself,” and this would go on for many years.

Walking tonight among these ubiquitous middle-class condos with their flowerboxes, a single lonely bench, automatic garage doors closing out the outside world, and decks turned inward rather than towards each other, the sensation comes rushing back and now I’m writing in my head in earnest. I’m forty-one and suddenly I realize that now I’m the woman in her forties.

She felt like a girl—I felt like a girl—because to really become a woman, to actually grow up, would require something of me big, scary, destructive and off-limits—something like cheating, like an affair and with another woman no less, like breaking all the goddamn rules, like making my own prayer books and play books and plans. And none of this would accommodate the sweet house with the French doors, the earth mama I also knew myself to be, the role as wife by way of the only models I knew, and the babies I knew were waiting for me. I could not reconcile the leaking breasts that would nourish then shrink back to perky young with the running with wolves and reading other people’s poems, never my own. And so I didn’t. I looked at other women and I looked at myself and one of us had, always, to be Other.

I’m flooded with the memory of running with him, my husband, through a golf course—a conventional landscape not all that different than these condos. There’s a full moon. We don’t have kids yet; I’ve never been pregnant. We are a year or so married and why am I so angry, so agitated, so full of rage that I have to stop right in the middle of that manicured green to scream a rare scream while he looked on, at once supportive and—I can only wonder now—befuddled?

Do I still feel like a woman in her twenties filled with longing? No. I am the woman in my forties now. And yes, toobecause I carry this girl-woman who really truly didn’t know how to become, to break open by breaking with what I’d been told, taught, and shown.

The parallel rhythms of writing and walking are now in full swing, having felt my way towards and indeed found my way to the path, the one I knew would free me from the condos into the wild of the farm’s back gardens, where lie row after row of stunning beauty, well-kept secrets finally revealed.

I’ve gained a few pounds since this latest round—I hope my last—of quitting smoking. And these few pounds on my small frame mark the difference between a more angular and an ever-so-slightly softer and fuller body. I am no longer a girl and no longer a child. I am no longer longing, at least not in that way that had me looking at all the women around me thinking, they are The Real Women.

How did I get here? By leaving the apartment I share with my wife of one year for a sunset walk alone. By going down the hill instead of up and taking a right instead of going straight. And finally, by walking towards the sun instead of turning my back for another minute on the light.

These are the ways I find my way to the path, the existence of which I only imagined and intuited. And there it is—beyond the lonely bench, and all those years of not belonging.

•••

JENA SCHWARTZ is a poet, writer, and facilitator, known for leading rich, safe, creative, and deeply nourishing online groups and real-life retreats. She is also co-founder of The Inky Path, an online writing school and community. Jena lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her kids, Aviva and Pearl, and her beloved wife, writer and artist Mani Schwartz.

I Am Billion-Year-Old Carbon

By A Horse With No Name Photography/ Flickr
By A Horse With No Name Photography/ Flickr

By Lad Tobin

My decision to pitch my tent in the most remote campsite at Berkfest was carefully calculated: as the oldest camper at the whole festival, I was worried that I would stand out as, well, the oldest camper at the whole festival. I was worried, too, that I’d stand out as the only person attending this three-day, Woodstock-like event all by himself. (Berkfest hadn’t passed a single question on my wife’s litmus test for music events: “Will everyone else be twenty years old? Will there be any seating or is this one of those things where you have to stand up and jump around the whole time? Will there be any real bathrooms or just port-a-potties?”) So, feeling conspicuously out of place, I had decided to lug my stuff into the woods as far away as possible from the sunny meadow that was now quickly filling up with Phishheads and white Rastas.

There was another reason besides my age that I wanted to lay low: I was not at all confident that I’d be able to get my tent pitched since it was fresh off the shelf at REI and I’d only had time for one stressful practice run in my backyard. The last thing I needed was a bunch of twenty-year-olds gawking at me while I sweated over—and swore at—the enigmatic relationship between tent pole A, grommet B, and side flap CC. So it was with huge relief and a little pathetic pride that I had managed in just forty-five minutes to construct something that approximated the look of a proper tent (even if I did still have two unused poles left in the fluorescent blue nylon bag). And so without another tent or camper within twenty yards, I headed off happily to find the music, checking in my pocket every twenty seconds or so to make sure that I still had the elaborately detailed, minute-by-minute chart I had compiled of what groups I planned to see for how long on what stages. First up on the Big Meadow Stage: Fuzz & the Gratuitous Sextet.

I managed to see eleven different bands that first day by scurrying back and forth, nonstop, between the different stages. Immersed in the driving, percussive music—slowly progressing from shuffling to the beat to hopping around to, finally, full-out jumping up and down—I felt mercifully freed from the self consciousness that too often weighs me down. In fact, I felt exactly the way I hoped I’d feel when I talked myself into coming to the festival.

Of course, there were still a few moments when my all-too-familiar self-consciousness surfaced. The most excruciating moment happened in the middle of the blazing-heat of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s afternoon set: a twenty-something couple asked if they could sit with me for a while on my blanket in the shade of my huge beach umbrella (turns out I had brought a lot more stuff than most people bring to a rock festival). In return, the young man asked, “Want a hit of our weed?” and handed me a small, symmetrical metal cylinder and a Bic Lighter. Unacquainted with this particular delivery system (I’d grown up with hookahs and hash pipes that made it clear which end was which), I just took a guess, popped one end into my mouth, and sucked a burning bud of marijuana right into my mouth.

Looked horrified and sympathetic, the young man reached over, gently removed the pipe and lighter from my hand, and said, “Whoa, sorry, dude. My bad. Here, let me help you with that.” He then repacked the pipe, turned it around before handing me the right end, and held the Bic up for me to lean into (hey, who says that gallantry is dead?). Once the effect of the drug kicked in, I was able to get beyond the absurdity of it all and to really begin to enjoy myself. It didn’t hurt that the music we were listening to—MM&W were followed by Robert Randolph & His Family Band’s gospel–inflected R&B—kept building and building to one joyous crescendo after another. The feeling was exhilarating.

Unfortunately, it was also short-lived: when I returned that night to the now pitch-black camping area, I discovered in horror that I could not find my tent. The signposts I had carefully noted when I arrived—the rainbow flag hanging from a branch at the point in the path where I was to turn right, the row of evergreens where I was supposed to turn back to the left, the bright orange tent about twenty yards before I would get to mine—were now completely buried by darkness or by other tents and flags. In fact, as far as I could see, every inch of previously open space was now filled with thousands of college-aged kids and their gear. As I calculated the long odds of ever finding my little, blue nylon tent in this huge and ever-growing city of identical-looking, blue, nylon tents, I sank in despair.

For forty-five frantic minutes, I tried to re-trace my original steps from the parking lot, tried not to completely panic, tried to imagine what I’d do and where I’d sleep if I never found my tent, tried unsuccessfully to not act as if this were the grimmest part of a Grimm Fairy Tale. Suddenly, I spotted it, surrounded by three other tents and just a few yards away from several card tables and blankets where some people seemed to be setting up a makeshift vending area. Exhausted, relieved, and covered in sweat, I hustled into my tent and, mercifully, fell asleep.

Only a couple of hours later I was awakened by cries from the next-door neighbors: apparently those card tables were the epicenter of the festival’s unofficial “marketplace” and at 2:00 a.m., the vendors were opening for business:

“Weed! Some tasty buds. Get yer weed.”

“Mushrooms! I’ve got mushrooms.”

“Jell-O shots. Just a dollar each.”

“Ganja cookies here. Fresh baked!”

“I got nitrous oxide balloons right here. Two bucks a hit!”

Stumbling out of my tent, I was suddenly face to face with long lines of customers seemingly looking for just about anything to smoke, swallow, or suck. Two things were immediately clear to me: first, all those warnings on the festival’s website—“Due to heightened security concerns, all patrons and their possessions are subject to search”—that had convinced me to bring nothing stronger than red wine, had had apparently no effect on my fellow festival-goers. Second, as surprised I was to see these kids, they seemed even more alarmed to see me. I suppose if I were a teenager who had just arrived at a rock festival with a bunch of friends, had hiked deep into the woods, had pitched a tent, and upon settling down with a beer or a bong, had glanced over to see a guy step out of the tent next door who looked like an undercover cop or, even worse, like someone’s dad, I’d be spooked, too.

I just knew that it would be a bad idea for me to spend that whole night in the middle of the marketplace, but I also knew there was no way I could take apart and then re-assemble my tent in the middle of the night and middle of the crowd. It was then that I remembered that the instructions claimed it was possible, once you de-staked the tent, to carry it by the pole in the top. So after quickly stuffing as much of my stuff as I could into my stuffsack, I picked up everything else, along with the A-frame tent, and began wending my way back towards the meadow through the maze of card tables, tents, tarps, and incredulous-looking teenagers.

For someone trying so hard to be inconspicuous, making myself into a walking tent was a pretty conspicuous thing to do. It’s not as if I thought I was successfully blending in, doing one of those “carrying the woods to camouflage my numbers” things from Macbeth. In fact, at the time, all I could think was “Yes, of course, I look like a total idiot now and there is almost nothing I’d less rather be doing than carrying this tent and searching for a new campsite at 2:00 a.m.”—except, that is, for remaining in the middle of the now bustling-with-business marketplace where I was certain I’d never fall back asleep.

After twenty minutes of frantic wandering around in the crowded dark, I came across a sign with an arrow: “Family Camping Area: Just Ahead.” Though I was on my own, I decided that if you took “family camping” as a figure of speech meaning “Not Looking to Get Hooked Up with Heroin or a Random Partner,” I qualified. Apparently, though, the young hippie couple who woke up to discover that I was their new neighbor, were not so sure: every time one of their tie-dyed wearing toddlers wandered even a step or two in my direction, the mother called him right back (“Come here, Garcia” or “Berkeley, stay over here with us”) in a tone that suggested they were in immediate danger of getting snatched up by Fagan or Aqualung.

What I wanted to tell her was that it wasn’t that long ago when my wife and I were the hip, young alternative parents with our own little tie-dyed kids; that I had seen Dylan and Janis Joplin and Sly Stone live and that, in fact, I was younger than Dylan and Janis Joplin and Sly Stone; that just because I wasn’t as young as I used to be didn’t mean that I wasn’t still cool. But I knew none of that would have made any difference to her (did anyone even use the word “cool,” anymore?). For a second, I thought of just packing it in and heading back home to my age-appropriate life.

But then I remembered how exhilarated I had felt the night before while I was jumping around to the beat during Galactic’s infectious, funk-fueled set. Some of that good feeling was undoubtedly the effect of all that afternoon weed-smoking, but it was more than that. It was the discovery—or the rediscovery—of a pocket in time in which I wasn’t thinking about sciatic back pain, an overdue home repair, a dreary work task, or any of the other reminders and demands of late middle age.

And so with my elaborately detailed, minute-by-minute chart still in my pocket, I hustled off to get a good spot at the Hillside stage for the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. After all, unlike Berkeley and Garcia, who were now enthusiastically returning my friendly wave, I had no time to lose.

•••

LAD TOBIN has published personal essays in The Sun, The Rumpus, Utne Reader, and Fourth Genre and two books of narrative nonfiction about teaching narrative nonfiction: Writing Relationships and Reading Student Writing: Confessions, Meditations, and Rants. He has recently completed a collection of essays about his surprising mid-life rediscovery of his teenage hobbies, memories, and attitudes. He lives in Kittery Point, Maine, and teaches at Boston College. Connect with him on Facebook (lad.tobin) or twitter (@ladtobin).

Jacket Required

brunch
By Charles Kim/ Flickr

By Jody Mace

At the retirement community where my dad lives, on Sundays at 11:30 a.m., they have a buffet. It’s a special event, more special even than Japanese Food Night or BBQ Outside Afternoon. There’s a dress code. Men have to wear jackets and ladies have to wear a dress, a skirt and a top, or a pants suit.

It was the dress code that led my dad to boycott the Sunday buffet for the first eight months he lived here. Because nobody was going to tell him to put on a jacket. I kept on saying “What’s the big deal? It’s just a jacket,” but it was the principle of the thing.

Then one day he called me and told me every Sunday they have a buffet, and he went to it and it was wonderful. They had prime rib! He said this as if it was the first time I’d heard about it.

He said, “I don’t know why I haven’t been going to this!”

I said, “I know exactly why. It’s because you didn’t want them to tell you to put on a jacket.”

He invited us for the following Sunday, and my husband Stan and I leapt at the chance to go. I put on a skirt and top, not having a pants suit in my closet, and my husband and seventeen-year-old son happily put on jackets. We stopped at my dad’s apartment in the complex to pick him up, and he was wearing a powder blue jacket and looked great.

We got there a few minutes before 11:30 and a line was forming. Stan, our son, and I were thrilled because we love a brunch buffet, plus my dad was paying, but in general the mood was dark. There were several reasons for the discontent:

  • The line was too long.
  • Sometimes they did not open the doors right at 11:30, despite the published start time.
  • Sometimes the wait staff was not as responsive as desired.
  • Undisclosed reasons.

As we stood in line a friendly woman approached me and eyed my dad, husband and son appreciatively.

“Are you with all these men?” she asked.

“I am.”

“They’re all good-looking,” she noted. “And all different ages.”

Then she looked a little bit too long at my son. “Mm, mm, mm.”

Another woman came up to her and asked “Who are you with?” and she nodded at us and said, “I’m with them.”

Meanwhile another woman, noting that it was almost 11:30, tried to cut to the front of the line. She was turned away.

She muttered “JESUS CHRIST!” and stomped off.

When we got to the front of the line, the woman working the desk wrote down my dad’s room number. This took too long for the woman who had been eyeing my men, and she whisper-shouted, “It’s like she’s writing an encycloPEdia!”

Even with the litany of complaints, there was something special about the Sunday brunch buffet. Everyone was dressed up. There were different stations for food. It was like going to dinner on a slightly threadbare cruise ship or an old Victorian-era resort hotel that had hobbled into the twenty-first century. I loved it.

We were told to sit at Table 18. This was a good table because it was near the omelet station. There, two men were making omelets to order, with a wide range of fillings. These guys were pros. They did the thing where they each picked up two omelet pans, one in each hand, and flipped both omelets at the same time. It was a professional operation. Also there was French toast, link sausages, and bacon.

While I was waiting to order my omelet, the two women in front of me lamented about the choir they sing in.

“We need new sopranos,” one said.

“I know!” agreed the other. “I can stand right next to them and I still can’t hear them!”

“What kind of cheese would you like?” the omelet man asked the second woman.

“What?”

Besides the omelet station, there were three other buffet areas. There was a salad bar, a lunch buffet, which included a carving station, chicken, fish, breads, and vegetables, and a dessert table, which included slices of cakes and pies, half of them in a section called “SF,” which I learned meant “sugar free.”

There was a problem at the dessert table. The pecan pie was all gone, leading to a heightened sense of discontent and some raised voices. My dad did snag a slice of sugar free pecan pie but said it was horrible. He went back to try to find some chocolate pie but it was all gone, too. He implored one of the wait staff for help, and, probably familiar with the rate with which the tenor of his complaints have been known to rise, she went into the kitchen to investigate. She emerged with a slice of chocolate cake and that calmed him down a little.

Meanwhile at the salad bar, a man with a walker was despondent. They had bagels and lox, and I’m talking really good-looking lox, no brown patches, and a lot of it. But they had run out of cream cheese, or had failed to replenish it in a timely manner.

“How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?” he asked nobody. “How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?”

The buffet had been a success. We loved it. In a family too often lacking in traditions, I thought this could be one. Every Sunday morning we would put on our finery, drive to my dad’s retirement community, where we’d pick him up at his apartment. He’d be more congenial than usual, or would at least seem that way, wearing his powder-blue blazer. We’d socialize in the lounge area, amidst the grand piano and sofas. Maybe my son would play a little “Rhapsody in Blue” when he learned more of it. We’d get to know the other residents as we reconnected every week. It was totally worth getting dressed up. Even our son didn’t mind putting on a jacket because he liked the bacon.

My own life sometimes seems so complicated. Taxes, college bills, vet appointments, trying to make a living. The seemingly endless demands on my time. People are always saying they don’t want to go into a “home.” If I can afford one like this, sign me up. I liked everything about the retirement community. The weekly schedule of activities. The planned trips to shows and museums. The happy hour. Bingo. And especially the Sunday buffet.

We decided to return the next week, and this time we’d bring our daughter too, because she’d be home from college for spring break. I felt kind of bad that she’d miss the tradition that was about to start. It had started too late. Kind of like when my parents joined a country club the summer after I’d started going to sleep-away camp. (Strangely they stopped after I quit camp.) I still hear all about how much fun the swimming pool was from my sister, who seems to always forget that I missed out on the whole thing.

I texted my daughter:

Me: Let’s go to Grandpa’s Sunday brunch when you’re home. It’s awesome. It’s like brunch-theater. But there’s a dress code. Make sure to bring home a skirt or a pants suit.

Daughter: I’m not wearing a “pants suit.”

Me: That’s just one option.

When we arrived there was some confusion over the change to Daylight Savings Time.

“Why are you here so early?” my dad asked.

“I’m not,” I said. “Daylight Savings time started this morning.”

“They didn’t tell me about Daylight Savings Time!” he protested. “Nobody told me!”

This time he suggested a different approach to check-in. We got to the check-in counter before the crowd. He checked in and got a table assignment, and then we relaxed on the couches in the lounge while the others lined up. When the clock struck 11:30 a.m., we walked right in, right past that line. Suckers.

Those people were pissed off.

Generally, you don’t want to get between old people and the Sunday buffet. They’re hungrier than you are, they’re meaner, and they’ve got nothing to lose.

I heard murmurs rising in volume as the whole line realized that we had played them. But I didn’t care. I was getting into the spirit of things. I might not be elderly yet but I was learning that I had an inner battle-ax.

As we entered the dining hall, I passed on some valuable advice to my daughter.

“When you walk in, stop at the dessert table. Take what you want. You don’t have to eat it right away but if you don’t take it now you’ll end up with sugar-free pecan pie.”

This time instead of bagels and lox there was shrimp cocktail. Big shrimp. And instead of French toast there were blintzes. Blintzes!

There was one old guy who wasn’t wearing a jacket. He was wearing a big slouchy red tee-shirt and I found myself feeling judgmental about him. Didn’t he know this was Sunday brunch? What was he doing on my cruise ship looking like a schlub?

I felt not only that I belonged there, at the retirement community’s Sunday brunch, but that he didn’t. One of the elderly women looked at him, then at me, and shook her head a little. I shook mine back. It was as if crotchetiness was contagious.

God, I loved the Sunday brunch.

The next day my dad called me. “Well, they’re doing away with the Sunday buffet.”

“What? Why?”

“Nobody liked it.”

“What do you mean nobody liked it? It was awesome! They were all fighting to get in! Who didn’t like it?”

“The people who went to the meeting and voted.”

“Well, this sucks,” I said.

Those old people were infuriating. They were living in this beautiful retirement community, being served great food. The omelet guys were flipping made-to-order omelets two at a time! And all they did was complain. They could go to lectures, concerts, poker night. Other people took care of it all for them. They didn’t have to do anything but show up. But their favorite activity, hands-down, was complaining.

“They’ll still have a brunch, just not a buffet,” my dad told me, trying to cheer me up. “It’ll still be nice. They might still have the omelet station. I don’t know. Maybe they’ll still have the bagels and lox.”

“You think?” I asked.

“But I’m going to bring my own bagels,” he said. “Their bagels are hard as rocks.”

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Jody Mace.

A Mild Suspension of Effort

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

By Jamie Passaro

You are always searching for something that is somewhere in your small house: your keys, your cell phone, the other shoe, the cap to the marker, the library book, the salt. You spend so much time guiding your children—to wipe their mouths with napkins and not sleeves, to not write on their foreheads with Sharpies, to wear underwear (We always wear our underwear, you hear yourself saying singsongily)—that you are feeling a bit lost yourself. It is a rare day when you don’t wonder if it was dumb to quit your job.

It turns out, you are not so great at householding. The dust, the cobwebs, the splatters, a losing battle. The canning of summer’s bounty, time consuming and scary. The sewing of buttons and minor repairs to clothes? You are ill-equipped for this, let alone for teaching these skills to your daughters. Wouldn’t you rather read the New Yorker with a late-afternoon glass of wine while they build a fort out of toilet paper?

You have the garden, but more and more it seems a weedy embarrassment. With help from friends and cheered on by Michael Pollan, you and your husband tore up the tiny front yard and put in raised beds. It looked like you knew what you were doing, but you hadn’t much practice, hadn’t grown up the way some people do, these people who seem to have it in their DNA when to prune the blueberries and what to add to the soil to make it less cloddy. That first year, the garden was a beauty. It must have been all that fresh compost, all that weedcloth under the pea gravel surrounding the raised beds; it was all so tidy. The kale grew waist-high and stayed on through the winter. The basil—you couldn’t give enough away. Every year since then, you’ve had diminishing returns. Year five brought tomato plants with fungus, lettuce and kale and chard starts mowed down by snails at every turn. The kale that did grow was gray with aphids. Weeds busted through the weedcloth, more plentiful than anything, so many you could mow them. And it’s all on display, right there in the front yard!

You find a blob of peanut butter on your watchband. You have memorized the bulk food code for lentils at your grocery store. In other situations, words waver on the tip of your tongue. The name of one of your favorite actors? Gone the other day in an ordinary conversation. Later you Google the names of his films to get it back.

The newly scuffed-up back-to-school shoe. The My Little Pony you actually threw in the garbage because you were tired of stepping over it on the front porch. The crescent of blood on your husband’s nose from where he picked at a piece of peeling skin. In the morning rush, you forgot to tell him it was there. The autumn light is so perfect, it puts a little catch in your throat. Your fortieth trip around the sun.

You are a consumer of something that you like to call magic but is really just the suspension of effort. These small, unexpected moments. The conversation with a stranger in the produce department. The cigarette shared with a friend while your children sleep in your minivan at the trailhead to a hike you will not take. Riding your bike across the Ferry Street bridge on the Fourth of July, the warm night air on your bare arms while fireworks crackle in the distance. That was years ago. The magic, it’s getting rarer and rarer, you think. Your therapist says that you are getting in the way. It’s probably true.

Thus is your mood when your mother-in-law comes for a visit during the last week before school starts. Your mother-in-law is a cheerful and sprightly eighty-three, a member of the Tea Party, an attendee of the same Methodist church as Dick Cheney’s sister. She’s an expert knitter and is knitting a prayer scarf to donate to a hospital. Dick Cheney’s sister taught her the technique.

Your mother-in-law’s visits always remind you of how bad you are at talking—small talk or big talk. You are more a listener and a nodder, more of a spend-time-in-your-head-so-you-can-think-about-the-thing-you-said-yesterday kind of person. You are in awe of people who can talk at length about anything. The other day you heard someone give specific directions to a complicated destination, and it actually gave you a shiver.

Your mother-in-law is losing her short-term memory. Your husband’s brother has phoned ahead to let you know. In the first two hours of her visit, you talk about the weather six times. Yes, it’s usually this hot at the end of August in Eugene, you hear yourself saying again and again in the same voice you use with your children. You are exhausted already. And sad.

The plan is that your mother-in-law will move from her home in Boise into an assisted living facility that’s across the street from her church. She seems to be on board with this, and you talk about it many times during your visit. A part of you thinks that it’s heartbreaking to spend the last years of your life with strangers and that it would be much better to have her move in with your family, but another part of you knows that this would be difficult for you. You know you’re going to feel bad either way.

You’re meeting a friend for a coffee date while your kids are at a morning camp. You feel reluctant to leave your mother-in-law alone, but you need time with your friend. As you leave, you tell her that you’ll see her in a few hours and then you have a worry in the back of your head the whole time that she has slipped on a colored pencil and broken her hip. You hurry back home and it’s like you’ve been gone five minutes. How was the drop-off? she asks. It’s so hot outside, she says. Is it always so hot here?

Your daughter has been promised a kitten for her eighth birthday. And so on a Saturday during your mother-in-law’s visit, you all go to the local humane society to pick out the pet. The cat room manager takes one look at you all—ages five, eight, thirty-nine, forty-nine, and eighty-three—and directs you toward a room of energetic but tolerant kittens. Your daughter picks out a black and white four-month-old named Tia, and you receive the half-off senior discount because of your mother-in-law. She keeps referring to the cat as a dog, probably because your family has always had dogs for pets.

You decide to throw a small potluck for a few neighbors for Labor Day. It is something that your mother-in-law will enjoy. News of the potluck spreads and it becomes six-family affair. Your husband moves the grill and the picnic table into the front yard and your next-door neighbor does the same. You put out all of your silverware, all of your plates. You bring out the old crank ice cream maker and then make the same joke to different groups of neighbors: We’ve got a kitten and home-made ice cream; we’re running for the neighborhood association!

The neighbor children parade in the house to meet the kitten, who has already worn a dress, already been given a bath. She lets them cart her around like a baby. She lets them hold her up so she can walk on two legs. Sometimes she lets out a mew, but she never scratches.

There is watermelon and Caprese salad and Caesar salad and artichoke dip and lots of beer and wine. The grills are cranking out sausage and veggies. Everyone is talking happily in the front yard, drinking beer and wine from plastic cups. Your mother-in-law is re-meeting everyone she has already met, asking them where they’re from and where they live and what they do. She looks happy and you bring her a glass of the rosé she likes.

Into the chaos, your daughters appear on the front porch wearing the new roller blades that their aunt bought them recently. They’ve not yet mastered the roller blades, and for a moment you shake your head, No. But something, maybe the wine, lets you let them. Their dad helps them down the porch stairs and they make their way through the crowd to the sidewalk, your five-year-old in a kind of crawl-walk. Everyone is cracking up and saying thank goodness for the kneepads and watch out for the grill. Your next-door neighbor, who’s in law enforcement and is an overcautious dad, is cringing; he actually can’t look at them. His wife jokes that we should give them hot sharp sticks, or maybe the kitten. And you let go and laugh harder than you have in a while.

In the middle of the party, you notice that the doors to the room where you have been keeping the kitten are wide open. The kitten is … gone. You alert your husband and he searches the house, confirms that, yes, the kitten is gone. One by one, the kids find out. Two of them are in tears. The adults start searching, drinks in hand. Your party has turned into a search party, and the neighbors are parting through the weeds in the garden and are inside on their hands and knees shining tiny flashlights into the very dusty areas under the couches and beds. Here, kitty, kitty. Your mother-in-law is wondering if we might hear her bark.

Two neighbors have made their way to the kitchen, where the sink is piled with dishes, the counters cluttered with bottles and miscellaneous bags, caps, and lids. They are doing the dishes and you are grateful. You must continue the search, but you’ve run out of places to look. You walk around with your flashlight and a worried look on your face. She’ll turn up, the neighbors say as they leave in small groups. She’s probably curled up in a ball asleep somewhere. You agree, but you also wonder how you could have allowed this to happen. Maybe not such a great idea to have a party the day after you got a new kitten.

Everyone is gone by ten and the kitten is still not found. Your husband puts the reluctant girls to bed. You remember that the kitten is wearing a bell around its neck. In the quiet, maybe you will be able to hear it tinkle. You sit cross-legged in a patch of weeds in the garden. It’s the most still you have been while awake for as long as you can remember. You hear the snails munching, the crickets chirping, the pea gravel shifting under your weight. Every few minutes, a car roars by on the street and you worry again about the kitten. But you look up at the stars and feel lucky that this is your task tonight.

After ten minutes of your quiet vigil, you start calling again for the kitten. You hear a vague tinkling from the backyard and tiptoe around to the side gate. Kitty? The bell again, in the makeshift wood pile. You shine your flashlight back there behind it and see a flash of green eyes. She tries to squirm away, but you’re able to grab her. At first she wants to get back to the woodpile, get on with her outdoor adventure, but then maybe she realizes you are not one of the mauling children and she stops squirming away. She nestles into you. The two of you sit in the moonlight on the back porch. Her purring is the only sound you hear.

•••

JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews and essays have been published in The Sun, Utne Magazine, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Oregon Quarterly, Forest Magazine, Culinate.com, and NWBookLovers.org, among other places. She’s at work on a collection of essays.