Transference

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

By J. J. Mulligan

My daughter has begun to do this thing where she tucks both of her little thumbs inward and then clenches her four fingers around the thumbs into tight fists held in front of her, all while tensing the muscles seemingly in her entire body. She doesn’t breathe for a few seconds as her face grows from a porcelain white to pork pink and finally to bullfighter-cape red. A few veins stick out in various places and she shakes slightly from the effort, as if her thirty-two inch body were lifting some invisible too-heavy weight. Then she abruptly stops, unclenches her hands and releases everything she had previously tensed. The red leaves her face and she goes about whatever she was doing before.

She did this the first few times in the same afternoon. We asked her what was wrong, why she did that—as if she could respond—and then finally we told her, “No! Don’t do that!” She understands surprisingly much for a one-year-old, but she kept doing the clenching and tensing no matter how many times we admonished her in Spanish first, then English although she understands it less. My wife began to cry and I was at a loss for words to console her. We called the pediatrician, not sure what was happening with our daughter. The pediatrician asked us a few questions: Did she have a far-off look in her eyes after the “episode”? Did the actions seem involuntary? No and no, we said. Another string of questions led the pediatrician to rule out seizures and thus he saw no need for us to take her to the emergency room. Because we had the one-year visit scheduled already in two days, the pediatrician told us not to worry—he would look at it then.

Those two days, of course, were agonizing. Any new parent that hears the word seizure in reference to their child, even if it’s to say that they don’t suffer from seizures, is incapable of ignoring possible symptoms. We looked for a far-off look in our daughter’s eyes at every turn and analyzed every movement to make sure it was voluntary.

Two long days later we were in the pediatrician’s office, with our daughter receiving the necessary vaccines, her height and weight being checked, blood drawn to check iron levels and so on—all the standard one-year visit formalities. At some point, between vaccines, our daughter tucked her thumbs inward, clenched her fists as tightly as she could, and tensed her entire body. She turned red and visibly shook from the effort, this time looking more as if she were ferociously constipated than if she were lifting an invisible weight. The pediatrician pulled the needle back and asked us if this was what we had called about. Yes, we said, this is exactly what she’s been doing that has us so worried. That, the pediatrician responded, is your daughter’s way of expressing her frustration or anger at something. Because she can’t speak yet, she has to show or let out her frustration in other ways. It’s perfectly normal, he concluded, and in fact, from the age of one up until eighteen or twenty months, she will have moments of intense rage, with outbursts of tears and screaming that could last several minutes. We should ignore these moments and not try everything in our power to console her—the outbursts will pass with time.

My wife left the appointment satisfied with the pediatrician’s explanation—seizures left her mind—and ready to ignore our daughter’s future fist clenching scenes and moments of rage when they should start to appear. I, on the other hand, was distraught; I knew that the pediatrician didn’t have the full story and neither did my wife.

During my days, I represent immigrant youth from Central America who can’t afford an attorney and are being deported—many of them will be slaughtered by gangs in their home countries if they’re returned. What my wife and the pediatrician had not taken into account was my daughter’s time alone with me following those days when the world seems to have you in its teeth and won’t soften the bite. The times when I would come home from work destroyed from my interactions with the Department of Homeland Security and she would cry deep and uncontrollably into my face while I tried to put her to sleep. Or a fifteen-year-old Salvadorian girl would share the rapes she had suffered on her journey to the United States, and then my daughter wouldn’t eat the food I had prepared for her that night. Or a young woman, an undocumented college graduate, would beg me to find some form of immigration relief that she could possibly qualify for so that she can live out just a slice of the American Dream she was told existed for everyone, and there would be nothing I could do for her, and then my daughter would thrash around while I was changing her diaper and everything on the changing table would be a mess, dripping to the floor. All of these moments would intertwine inextricably with the 2016 presidential race, the ominous cloud hanging over everything and all of us.

In those moments, where my thoughts would seem profoundly dark although the sun had just set and rays of light still broke through the Brooklyn townhouses visible from my daughter’s bedroom, I would clench my teeth and tense my whole body, not breathe for a few seconds and if there had been a mirror nearby, I likely would’ve seen my face turning red as well. I would shake slightly from the invisible but actual weight and if I was holding my daughter in my arms, I would hold her a bit tighter and sometimes even jump up and down a few times, begging her through gritted teeth to stop crying and go to sleep, eat her food, or be still while I changed her diaper. The throbbing at my temples would become less dull and unrelated frustrations would blend together. My daughter had undoubtedly picked up her fist-clenching, body-tensing behavior from those moments—I know it and no explanation from the pediatrician can change this. The frustrations of my days representing immigrant youth in an unfair system, interspersed with the twenty-four-hour news cycle on the general decline of American policy and politics—including a man that wants to deport everyone, all of the young men and women who have become more than clients to me—are bleeding into my nights with a rapidly developing baby, who soaks up every emotion and stimuli her father gives her. These are the cracks on the hardened shell of a man who keeps everything in.

•••

In one of my rare escapes from the house after work, I met up with a friend at a bar not far from the Nostrand stop I get off at the other day. As with any conversation for the last six months, we talk about the presidential race and it feels as if we are summarizing an episode of Jerry Springer more than the intricacies of the highest office. I try to share some of the things I see and hear at work, but as often happens, not much comes out. I say the government is unfair and that President Obama, a man I love, is complicated when it comes to immigrants and immigration. Complicated indeed, replies my friend. He brings up the basics: the two million deportations carried out under President Obama that have torn apart families versus the Executive Orders signed by him to protect young immigrants and the undocumented parents of US citizens.

We change the subject. This friend of mine has a more hands-on job than mine: he works at a butcher shop in Park Slope. I prefer to hear about his job, since he’s always creating new sausage recipes and so on. He mentions a Banh Mi flavored sausage he is tinkering with.

After we clink glasses on our second beer, he tells me something he’s never told me before about his job, and it sticks with me. He tells me that he has no problem advising each person that enters the shop which cut of meat is the freshest that day, which would make a great dinner and the best way to cook the meat; that he derives pleasure from imagining the customers enjoying their meat products; that he even enjoys slicing the meats and arranging them on display. But, in order to do all of this, he said it is vital that he cannot think about the lambs being slaughtered.

I thought about this a lot on the walk home. Every immigrant youth that has come into my office has the same question, the question that has forced itself into every legal intake I’ve recently done, every application I’ve completed, every court appearance, as if none of these painful and tortured migrant lives really matter in the end. It is the question everyone working with immigrants—and maybe all of us in general—cannot escape: What if he wins the presidency?

Eleven million people will be deported, he says. No Muslims will enter the country and Mexico will pay for a wall to keep everyone out of the U.S.

My friend’s comment came into my mind again tonight on the way home from work.

Now it’s one a.m.

I have sat at this couch since eight p.m. watching a map of the United States of America slowly and incomprehensibly turn more red than blue. I listened half-heartedly to analysis and prophecy—teetering between falsities and doomsday—finally turning the television off when the end was all but assured. I didn’t wait for the final call or hear either candidate speak; I held a slim hope that I was already asleep and the morning would reveal the actual reality. My eyes have been closing for some time and there is no one awake to talk with me. This could all not be happening.

Asleep or awake, I get off the couch. I pour myself a glass of water and go into my daughter’s room, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, to the new world. Once they have, I look into her crib and see her lying on her back, arms and legs in a peaceful outstretched X with her chest slowly rising and falling in the middle. I reach into the crib and pick her up. She murmurs slightly and moves a bit as I put her on my shoulder and carry her to our bed. My wife is sleeping just as peacefully—she has an early day tomorrow and was convinced enough by the confident and uniform predictions that tonight held no surprises. She watched the first states being called, shaking her head when I tried to explain what little I understand of electoral college. Then she went to bed and I thought I would follow soon after. My wife, the immigrant. America has just slit her wrists.

Looking at my wife and holding our daughter in my arms, I become more aware, somehow more at ease than at any moment in the last year—as if all of it has been a daze of too many deadlines and deportations played to the soundtrack of bigotry and racism. I know what is happening now: the dull fear, the this-will-never-happen, is reality. I am awake. I feel my daughter in my arms and shiver at the thought that my days had been transferred to her in some way, that her bright eyes and developing mind are soured by emotions I have let overrun me. How do you help others without destroying yourself, your family? How do you keep a belligerent world from seeping into your daughter’s bedroom? My fatherhood has been enveloped by a dark blanket which I just now—ironically—feel that I am shaking off. This is the moment we have most feared coming true. And I find that we are ready for it.

I lay our daughter next to my wife and crawl into bed next to them. My daughter has kept on sleeping just as peacefully as before, like her mother. I roll onto my left shoulder so that they fill my view. It doesn’t seem so dark now; I can make out all of their features. I think to myself that every day will be okay if this is how it ends. I breathe deeply and instead of tensing muscles and clenching teeth—symptoms of the anger and frustration I’d felt so much in the last year—I discover love and comfort where it has always been. The world away from our mattress matters as much as an itch on a toe as you fall asleep: you leave the doorstep of sweet dreams if you scratch it. These women next to me are my lifeline. I see this as if a blanket has been lifted.

My eyes are too heavy now but I steal one last glance at them, then I quietly fall asleep. Tomorrow the world will be different, but this and us will not. We were part of a tussle; now comes the war. Tomorrow the fight erupts: the butcher is coming for every lamb.

•••

J. J. MULLIGAN is a non-profit immigration attorney representing immigrant youth who cannot afford an attorney in New York City. He is a new father, former college basketball player, and a diehard San Francisco Giants fan. His writings and translations have appeared in his mother’s native Chile and in various publications here in the U.S.

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The Tic

wink
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Elsé Khoury

When I was seven years old, my family moved from Mississauga, Ontario, to Kuwait City. My Palestinian father, who immigrated to Canada in the sixties, joined a wave of Palestinians who at that time had found careers and a home in that small desert country. He left when I was six. We joined him shortly afterward. Kuwait was my first experience of the Middle East, or, more correctly, western Asia. (Middle compared to what? I’ve always wondered.) In the almost-year we lived there, I learned a lot of things, including the fact that my body has a tendency to betray me in my times of need.

Sometime after moving to Kuwait, I started blinking: a lot. It seems obvious now that the twitch was a response to moving to a new country where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language, but at the time my parents didn’t connect the dots. Concerned, they took me to see an ophthalmologist. Once there, we sat in a small sterile room where a large, bearded man explained very calmly to my parents that, if my condition did not improve, he would have no choice but to insert a needle directly into my eyeball. He acted this out with great drama, grabbing my shoulder and pressing down on a fictional syringe pointed directly at my face. He was so convincing that I swore I could feel the phantom dose being forced out of the needle and splashing my cheek. And although the thought of a thin rod of cold steel being forced into my eyeball was terrifying, I pushed my fear down until it was a small, throbbing ball in the pit of my stomach.

At seven, there were few things more terrifying getting a needle. The cold, silver sharpness of the alcohol swab on my arm, the crinkle of plastic yielding to the expert hand of the nurse as the syringe is unwrapped, the gentle clink of the small glass bottles as they are pulled from cabinets: All these things evoked in me a creeping sense of dread that was all-consuming, resulting in a flash of sweaty fear that soaked the back of my school uniform, bunched up and wrinkled from the car ride over. I was well acquainted with the ritual, and over time my fear had calcified, built up like a hard crystal shell.

My parents must have seen the fear in my eyes. They very quickly ushered me out of the doctor’s office and down to the car park. I seem to recall many wide-eyed, meaningful looks passing between them in the elevator. Are you freaking kidding me? I imagine my father secretly muttering. He had a bit of a temper in those days, and in retrospect I wonder if our hasty exit wasn’t just a way of getting him the hell out of there before he had a chance to enlighten the ophthalmologist on twentieth-century medical techniques. I imagine the doctor responding: What? You no longer terrify children into shitting themselves as a means of discouraging involuntary physiological responses to stress? No? You must be kidding with me right now, habibi. You are laughing at me, yes?­

For many children with nervous dispositions, a tic is the body’s way of responding to trauma or stress. It followed, then, that the key to stopping the blinking was to try to settle into my new life. Getting used to my new school and making friends was a good start, but my twitch presented a kind of social catch-22. The tic made me seem weird and off-putting, which decreased my popularity with my classmates. On the other hand, lack of friendship made me feel weird and off-putting, thereby contributing to stress and more blinking.

A young child with a nervous tic provokes strong reactions in people. Especially when the child already has so much working against them, like natural awkwardness and coke-bottle glasses. They become the object of pity or, at best, concern. They bring out the best in people. Strangers give them lollipops. Aunties tsk-tsk them and pat them on the head. Teachers are indulgent and kind.

I once knew a woman whose communist family had very quietly sneaked out of Chile shortly after the infamous dictator Augustus Pinochet had taken power. This would have been sometime in the seventies, and she would have been around four or five years old. After having witnessed countless friends and family members “disappear,” this woman and her family somehow managed to get out of Chile and into Canada. The entire ordeal must have been extremely stressful, because in response to these events she developed what she would describe to me as a “full facial seizure.” She once provided a demonstration: puckering her entire face, eyes closed, frowning, lips pushed out, and then rolled her eyes back in her head while her mouth opened into a large O. It was like an exaggerated, creepy air kiss: MWWAAAH. This she would repeat in rapid succession several times a minute.

While a child with a twitch may evoke empathy, in adults twitches are less likely to be indulged. They tend to make people feel uncomfortable. I experienced this myself many years later, when I worked with someone who had the habit of blinking repeatedly when considering some new piece of information or pondering a response to a question. It gave him an air of skepticism somehow. Like, I hear what you’re telling me, but I’m not buying it. Even innocuous questions like, Hey, Joe, how was the weekend? were met with prolonged fits of blinking which seemed to last an uncomfortable eternity. In the silent seconds that it would take for Joe to consider the question, my confidence would slowly begin to crumble: Did I say something offensive? Did a member of Joe’s family die and the interment was this weekend? Are those tearstains on his collar? Oh God, what have I done?! Just as I was about to mumble an excuse and make my getaway, Joe would blink twice and respond: Fine. How about you?

Eventually, I settled in. I made friends, went to the sea with my family on Fridays, and was deeply comforted by the deep azure of the sky beside the blondeness of the sand dunes. Eventually, my tic went away. I sometimes wonder, though, what would have happened if it hadn’t. What would have become of the likes of my Chilean friend and I if our families had not fretted and worried and protected us from crazy barbarian ophthalmologists and American-sponsored bloodthirsty dictators?

Because some people never grow out of it. You know who I’m talking about: the guy on the subway who can’t stop rubbing his nose; the dry-cleaner whose constant shrugging seems to signal an internalized sense of resignation: You can pick up your jacket on Friday. Or, whatever. Normal people, doing normal things, but with the addition of a particular physical trait that sets them apart.

A few years ago my tic made its triumphant return when I suffered through a particularly bad patch at work. What does it all mean? I would ask myself, sitting awkwardly in meetings, trying to hide the side of my face that was engaged in the electric boogaloo. Ironically though, no one seemed to notice. Not only did I have to suffer through the frustration of crippling facial convulsions, but for all intents and purposes, the problem seemed to be quite literally all in my head.

On a couple of occasions, desperate for some kind of validation, I would mention it to someone: friend, colleague, the guy who picks up garbage on the side of the highway. Each time, they would look at me uncomfortably and hesitate before leaning in really close and muttering:

Oh yeah, there it is.

Yes! I would think, momentarily vindicated by their acknowledgement of my suffering. But my relief was short lived as I watched their faces slowly change from curious to concerned.

She DOES have a twitch. Weird.

Her face is going into spasm. Because of work. Huh.

Pause.

I should probably put these scissors away.

Despite years of effort, I have not yet found a way to control my tic, and I have come to accept that I will never be completely rid of it. It’s both humbling and frustrating to know that the façade that I have constructed, the stories I tell myself in the dark about who I am, can be so quickly undone. For while life moves along quietly, my tic hides buried away in the twisted labyrinth of my nervous system, slumbering peacefully, until like a vulture circling a carcass, it moves in. Its motivation is insignificant and unpredictable: moving across the continent, talking to a boy, almost getting fired. It has its own logic and sense of proportionality. My tic makes its own rules. And at the age of forty-five, I have finally accepted it for the existential consolation prize it is.

Although I may see it as a betrayal, my tic is really my body’s way of keeping me humble. It serves as a reminder that inside, I am still a coke-bottle-glasses-wearing, frizzy-haired kid from Mississauga experiencing culture shock for the first time, whose sense of self can be swiftly undone by a face with a tendency to break into movement like a dancer on Soul Train.

•••

ELSE KHOURY is having a mid-life crisis, only instead of buying a motorcycle or getting a tattoo, she’s writing essays. Elsé lives in Niagara, Canada.

Lexapro: A Mother-Daughter Love Story

Image courtesy of Steve Rosenfield's What I Be Project
Image courtesy of Steve Rosenfield’s What I Be Project

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

The panic attacks almost always happened deep in the night, their after-effects rippling through my life like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The first happened the summer before my junior year of college. I was sure that my heart would explode. But my heart didn’t blow up. Instead, its rapid, loud, insistent beat filled my head, and I rocked back and forth in bed until the sun came up.

Panicking, I quickly learned, was exhausting. Anticipating the next attack was grueling.

Panic afflicted my gaunt sepia ancestors; it has walked with us hand-in-hand for generations. We are a people who open doors to empty rooms, expecting to see our worst fears incarnated. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly those fears are. Some of them can be as nebulous as the panic and depression that have smothered the Latina and Jewish women in my family.

No one in my family talked about the forced cold showers, the electroshock therapy involved in keeping my paternal grandmother’s anxiety in check. No one said a word about my other grandmother’s body odor, greasy hair, and catatonic states. When I was a child, no one acknowledged that my mother masked her phobias, her phases of panic with bullying, narcissism, and half-hearted suicide attempts.

I suspect that the ghosts of panic that frightened my grandmothers and drove my mother to the brink of insanity have haunted me since the moment I was conceived. And when panic first happened to me, the machinations it planted in my mind threw me into a future I imagined so catastrophic that I saw myself completely incapacitated. What if, What if, What if, went around and around in my brain like ticker tape.

•••

Dread and wonder coursed through my body the day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. How could I be a mother, let alone a decent one? When the panic strangled me in my sleep, I was terrified it would cut off oxygen to my baby. My heart revved up until its beating migrated to my head. I had never taken medication for panic. And now that I was pregnant, I wouldn’t even take a Tylenol.

Throughout my pregnancy I struggled to decipher arguments about nature versus nurture, biology versus psychology. I intuited that between these polarities lay a multitude of explanations for how behaviors developed and persisted not only within a single individual, but also across generations. Would my baby imbibe anxiety and depression through my milk? Would I model it to her? Would she inevitably flinch at my shaky touch?

The baby was beautiful and terrifying. What if, what if, what if? I filled in the hot white blanks with pure disaster. What if I stopped functioning and couldn’t care for the baby? What if I panicked with her in the supermarket? And most chilling of all—what if I had passed down my chipped, inferior genes to her?

“Stop torturing yourself,” said my gentle husband who, at the time, was working on the Human Genome Project. How I prayed that the genes that triggered my anxiety and depression would combine with my husband’s pristine genes, losing their power to hurt my daughter. I fantasized about him hard at work hunting down the gene for what ailed my ancestors, what ailed me. My husband was clearly on the side of nurture and promised me that our daughter would grow up secure and loved.

Nevertheless, I found articles that claimed phobias and panic disorder could very well be inherited. “Genetic switches,” I, practically panting, recited to my husband, “can get tripped and set off chemical changes that occur in a fetus’s DNA, thereby imprinting familial trauma on them.”

My husband shook his head. “It won’t happen to our baby,” he said.

“And why not?” I asked.

“Because we’ll know how to treat her right,” said my husband the geneticist.

“But what about bad luck—that’s always a factor that could wire our baby for anxiety and depression.” As I spoke, I thought about an observation my therapist made that there are some people who never panic under any condition. The first time I heard him say that, I pictured a flurry of Magritte’s topcoat-wearing men raining down on me. Cradling my newborn daughter, I knew that I could never share the Magritte image with her.

•••

My mother, her long black hair falling out of its bun, frequently pleaded with my father to send her away. “Please,” she begged, gulping for air, “I need to go. Now.”

Over the years, I periodically asked my therapist to commit me too. “You’re just tired,” he said.

What I most remember about therapy with him was that I refused to acknowledge panic in my world. I was twenty-seven, eight years out from my first panic attack. I lived in terror that my world would shrink to the point that I couldn’t leave my apartment. The word “phobia” scared me so much that I asked my therapist to remove a book he had on his shelf with the word on the spine. “I am not that person,” I told him all the while living in fear that I would panic in public without a way to get home.

At the height of my panics, Prozac had just come on the market, and it was touted as the miracle drug for the anxious and depressed. I read testimonials in which people swore the drug gave them their life back. They were newly confident, newly capable, and most importantly, newly happy. The words “brain chemistry” bubbled to the surface in these articles. But I was sure my brain was beyond fixing. And more to the point, taking medication was one of my phobias. Would my memory slip away? Would I feel numb? Would my future children have birth defects? And worse yet, would the pills not work and leave me forever hopeless?

That last question scared me enough to keep me just on the other side of trying Prozac. I could tough it out. My people were scared to death of taking medication. “Do you want to be in La La Land?” my mother taunted me that first summer of panic. “I have two other children to take care of,” she screamed. “”I’ll send you to the Institute for Living,” she said threatening to institutionalize me. Her face was so close to mine I could see her large pores. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express that I could feel the weight of her mental illness imprinted on my cells.

•••

I had been flirting with the idea of taking medication after I finished having children. A girl and a boy, perfect bookends, a friend said to me. Perfect bookends with an imperfect mother. But I hesitated to take medication. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to beat this thing on my own. But with whom was I waging war? Panic? Myself?

The night I wanted to commit suicide, I had been caught up in a loop of panic for weeks. My two small children slept peacefully as my husband rubbed my back. “It’s time,” he said. By that I knew he meant that I needed to call the psychiatrist I had consulted with for a prescription of Klonopin that I had not filled.

In the coming weeks I took the Klonopin with Lexapro, an anti-depressant. I didn’t feel relief exactly. Instead, I detected emotions coursing through my body, a circulatory buzzing of activity that the medication tamped down. The first side effect I experienced was how hard it was to cry. But the panic drained out of me until it was a bearable, hum of anxiety. And then one day I suddenly realized I was happy. The revelation happened in the car on one of my daily drives to and from my daughter’s school. I had settled into a routine. “You’re a caballo de circo,” my mother chided me when I was a child comforting myself with repetition. Maybe I was a circus horse driving the same route over and over. But on that day I picked up as many of my daughter’s friends as could fit in my SUV. Their chatter delighted me. Their energy soothed me.

I’d proved that anxiety was not an accurate predictor of a situation. This was what I told my daughter when she called me from camp. Just sixteen, she said the world had gone very sad on her. “It’s like there’s a curtain of gauze suffocating me,” she cried. My God, had my genes taken the best of her? As I listened to my girl on the phone, I knew that she was trapped in her thoughts. “What if I freak out in front of people? What if I die?” she said breathlessly. There it was again: What if? What if? Another generation struggling to fill in that sharp, menacing blank. But I also remembered my husband’s wise words—we’ll know how to help her.

My daughter is now twenty-one and also stable on Lexapro. She studies psychology. Her choice of major makes me believe that she wants to cure herself, even cure me. My daughter also knows that hiding is dangerous—even futile—and so she decides to tell the world about her condition with a one-word story literally written across her face. In the photograph, the word “Lexapro” starts across her forehead, goes down to the bridge of her nose, and finishes at her left cheek. “I am not my anxiety,” my girl declares. Her face, her struggle, is her contribution to the “What I Be Project” founded by a photographer who describes it as social experiment. In word and picture, a subject boldly declares that he or she is not solely defined by societal reactions to her life story.

With my daughter’s picture out in the world, I pray that the Lexapro will continue to quell her panic. I pray that the doubts, the worries, the blame will continue to diminish for both of us. I pray that the night will never again be a long tunnel of fear and hopelessness. And I pray that Magritte’s men will simply float away.

•••

JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared on the New York Times opinion page, the Boston Globe, Cognoscenti, The Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, Brevity, Salon, and other venues. Judy has completed a memoir called The Ninety Day Wonder, in which she tries to get closer to her remote father through saying the Kaddish—the Mourner’s Prayer—only to uncover her father’s secret past.

Read more FGP essays by Judy Bolton-Fasman.

Diagnosis

pills
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Young

September 2003

“There’s something happening to me.”

“What do you mean there’s something happening to you? You’re watching TV. You’re fine.”

I curled tighter into a ball, drawing my knees up to my chest as the room tilted back and forth. All of a sudden nothing could be trusted—gravity wasn’t working, at least not entirely, not consistently; the lights and colors of the television warped and stretched beyond the limits of the frame; there was no oxygen, very, very little oxygen. When I tried to get a breath, the breath wasn’t there. I peeked my head up from my knees for a second but could only see through a narrow tube of normal. Everything around the edges had gone dark.

“I think I’m having a heart attack,” I told my husband. I didn’t really think that, but there was definitely something happening to me, and my heart was racing violently, frighteningly.

“You can’t be having a heart attack,” he said. “You’re not even moving around. Something just scared you.”

I did feel scared; I was terrified. But we were only watching American Idol. Nobody was fighting; there’d been no loud noises. There was nothing very serious even happening in my life.

And then the whole thing was over.

The dark perimeter of my vision began to lighten around the center tube of clarity, and then it continued to lighten outward until everything looked normal again. The lights and sounds of the television retreated to within their assigned borders. The room steadied and the walls straightened up perpendicular to the floor again. I still couldn’t breathe quite right, and my heartbeat was still too fast, but these were left over, just aftershocks.

By the next day, we laughed about it.

“Hey, maybe I had a panic attack. Maybe I’m one of those people who has panic attacks.” I decided that’s what it had been—“just” a panic attack. I’d heard of those people, read accounts of such things, but I’d always assumed the descriptions were exaggerated. It turns out they are not, and they’re pretty terrible. Still, though, it had really only lasted maybe ninety seconds, and then it was over, and I was fine. I wasn’t particularly concerned about having another one. Now that I understood what it was, I figured I could just ride out any future attacks. No problem.

•••

The previous summer had been tough, with all the kidnappings. Elizabeth Smart had just been found, but the details of her abduction released in its aftermath proved to be far more terrifying than the relative comfort of allowing her to remain a face on a milk carton—one-dimensional, forgettable. The news channels reported endlessly and exhaustively on two more children abducted from their own homes that spring and summer. President Bush signed The Protect Act of 2003 into national law, making Amber Alerts mandatory for all states.

So, clearly, there was reason to be concerned.

I slept lightly most nights, playing games with myself about how early was okay to get up and make sure my little boy was still in his bed. Every day it seemed to me rather unlikely that he’d have made it through another night without getting snatched. Every day he was there, though—five years old and perfectly safe and curled up in Batman pajamas—and I’d fall back into bed, relieved and exhausted. This did not strike me as abnormal. Nor did it ease my mind.

I’ve always been worried about things. Spiders, crowds, people who talk too loud, basements, hurting someone, burning the house down. Blimps. More than one person has asked me, “Why are you so worried about everything?” And I want to say, “Why are you not? Have you looked around? Have you heard of CNN?”

I wrote this journal entry in early August: There’s something wrong with my hands. They feel… nervous. My hands are nervous. They don’t really hurt, I mean sometimes they do hurt, but I think it’s just because they’re so tense. I think there’s maybe something wrong with my nerves in my hands. They’re not working so very well a lot of the time now. I can do “big things,” like move the laundry from one machine to another, but not “small things,” like paint my nails. “Medium things,” like holding a cup of coffee, I’m borderline. I tried to play cards with my little boy the other day, but the cards are so, so thin. It’s nearly impossible to hold them. I’m having a hard time changing the channels with the remote, because that muscle between my thumb and forefinger is jumping all around; I can see it from the outside now. My brother and his wife are about to have their first baby. Probably, I’m just feeling some sort of deferred anxiety. I am pretty sure I’ll feel better once that baby is born all right.

The weeks went on like this. I made little changes to my routines around the new condition of my hands. No more reading books in bed at night, because the position required to hold a book open while lying down exacerbated the tightness and twitching that continued to increase. The finer details of makeup application—eyeliner and so forth—had to be abandoned.

My little boy started kindergarten at the end of August, and I smiled bravely as I put him on the bus that first day. But then I followed it—on foot—until it got to the school. I had to go for a run anyway, and hey—isn’t that an efficient use of time? To get my run in and make sure my kid got to school safely? It only made good sense. It was difficult to get around the side of the building to the kindergarten rooms unseen, because the windows of elementary school buildings are low. But I managed it, and I really only had to bend over a little bit to stay out of sight. One quick peek over the ledge and I was able to verify that he’d made it. He was sitting at his desk with all the other children, looking perfectly calm. Amazing. So everything was fine.

Except my hands, which by September were becoming increasingly claw-like and useless. I sat down at the computer and typed “hand muscle spasms.” WebMD suggested a litany of horrors: MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s. I spent the entire day in front of it, ruling some factors in and some out. After an exercise in list-making and charting that’s both too tedious and too embarrassing to retell, I determined it was most likely ALS.

I felt so, so bad. I had all these things I was supposed to do, a child to take care of, the pets… I wasn’t going to be able to do any of it. The guilt was crushing. I did a lot of simple math. The average time between diagnosis and death for ALS patients is about six years. My son was five now. That would get him to eleven, which is a lot better than it could be, because he’d be out of the formative years, which end around age eight, according to UNICEF. I know that now, because I looked it up. So that was a comfort. But still, heartbreaking.

It was hard for me to look at him for several days. I spent many more hours playing with him that fall than I normally would have. He accepted those hours unquestioningly, happily, because he didn’t know. I waited a while to tell my husband the bad news, because he had a lot going on at work and I didn’t want to throw him off. He listened carefully, looking sideways at me, and he spoke slowly and gently. “There’s really no way you can know that, though, right? I mean, you haven’t even been to a doctor.” He didn’t understand, but how could he? I stopped talking about it.

For the rest of that fall, I survived by throwing myself into graduate school and household chores. Typing was difficult with my claw-hands, but I managed by changing my typing style and by staying wrapped in blankets with a heating pad draped around my neck and shoulders while I typed. I had become shivery most of the time, and I reasoned that staying warm would relax my muscles and allow me to use my hands better.

Despite all this, I was weirdly efficient, and probably appeared mostly fine to most people. I just had to hide my hands, but it was winter and there were pockets and mittens and it wasn’t hard to do. But then my face started twitching. I could see it if I looked closely in the mirror, but it had to be really close, so I figured it would be okay if I just didn’t get too close to people. This created some mild social problems. Once I had to walk out of class when the professor insisted everyone participate in some ridiculous group activity (in her defense, it was an Interpersonal Communication course). Another time I unexpectedly ran into a former professor at a cafe. I was so mad at him, jumping out at me like that. I was sitting in the café, so I sat on my hands and smiled and nodded a lot until it was over.

One of the first snowy days in December I answered the door to find my dad standing on the other side of it. He lived over an hour away. “What are you doing here?” I said.

“I’m taking you to a doctor.”

“Why?”

“We think there’s something wrong with you. It scared us when we first saw you at the birthday party last week, but we didn’t want to say anything in front of anyone. Why didn’t you warn us about how much weight you’d lost? Mom thinks you might have something wrong with your thyroid.”

I went obediently to the doctor, who also noted the change in the scale. I told him I’d been running a lot, which was true. I told him I was having trouble sleeping, which was also true. I did not tell him about my hands. He listened to my heart and took my blood pressure and drew some blood for thyroid tests. It all came back normal. He suggested sleeping pills, maybe an antidepressant, should I decide things were getting too uncomfortable. I never went back or followed up.

Some days I entertained the notion that I might not be dying, but by that point I was so worn out that I didn’t really take any interest in living, either. I’d heard people say that their lives had lost color, but I always thought they were speaking figuratively. That really happens, though. Things gray out. The days and nights ran into each other and then divided into two flat empty plains. On the one, I knew I was dying and felt marginally regretful, in a numb and passionless way. On the other, I was afraid I wasn’t dying, that it might go on like this, forever.

And my hands. Most days, my nerves were on fire. Other days were not so bad. One day, for example, in the week or two after New Year’s, I ate lunch.

Around Valentine’s Day I ran into my former boss on my way out of a restaurant. “What’s wrong with you?” he said, instead of “Hello.”

“That’s not a very nice way to greet me,” I joked. “You haven’t even seen me in a year, and you’re opening with insults.” Our relationship had always been frank, and I actually felt relieved to be confronted so directly. Everyone else was sort of working around me by that point.

“I’m serious. What’s the matter? You’re emaciated, and your face is twitching.”

So I told him. I told him I didn’t know what was wrong, except that something clearly was. But the collection of things surrounding it, I couldn’t put them all together: the hand spasms, the chills, the weight loss, the insomnia. I’d tried yoga, meditation, journaling, sleeping pills, cutting caffeine, cutting sugar, herbal supplements, running to the point of physical exhaustion. Nothing worked. I couldn’t tell whether it was my body or my mind and I wasn’t sure it even mattered anymore. I just wanted it to stop. I wanted to stop.

“I get it,” he said. “You know, you’re not crazy. This is in your head, but it doesn’t mean you’re crazy.” He told me he’d had these attacks, that he understood what they felt like and how terrible they were, that sometimes his wife had to just hold onto him while he shook until they were over. For a time he was unable to go in shopping malls because the crowds and open spaces terrified him. Unexpected loud noises, even still, could trigger an attack.

“Yeah, but you fought in Vietnam,” I said. “You’re having flashbacks, right? I was raised in the suburbs and nothing’s ever even happened to me.”

He allowed that the flashbacks were part of his equation, but said he thought it would have happened to him anyway. “It’s chemical. And there’s a ‘type.’ And you’re it. I know you.”

•••

It had been almost nine months. Time enough to grow a baby, to finish a school year. It was time to face it down, whatever “it” was, and I knew it. I went to two more doctors. The first diagnosed me with anorexia and encouraged me to recognize my issues with myself. I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t that I was trying not to eat, I just couldn’t eat. She wasn’t buying it, so I didn’t go back.

The second doctor, a young man, listened quietly while I talked about my hands. He held them and turned them over. He could see the muscles tensing and twitching. He was gentle but straightforward: “The symptoms you have,” he said, “they don’t make sense when you put them together. The problem with your hand muscles, coupled with your age, could indicate MS, but you don’t have other typical symptoms. Plus you’re telling me that you feel nervous, that you can’t sleep or eat. I think, and I don’t mean this as flippantly as it sounds, that this is probably in your head. I’d like you to try taking an anti-anxiety drug for a few weeks and see if anything changes.”

I did not in the least expect it to work, but I agreed to his plan because I assumed that when it failed it would prove that he was wrong, and then we could get on with figuring out what was really the matter with me.

 

April 2004

It worked. Within two or three weeks, things began to release. It happened so gradually, that I didn’t notice feeling better so much as I noticed the absence of feeling terrible. It had been so long, I’d forgotten. One day I saw a squirrel outside my window and I thought, “That’s a cute squirrel.” And then I realized it was the first optimistic thought I’d had in several months. And then it kept happening. My husband, whom I’d not told about the doctors’ visits or the medication, returned home from several weeks overseas for his job. He walked in the house and looked at me and said, “Oh my God. You’re better.” My face, he said, had changed, and now it was changing back.

•••

Psychotropic drugs don’t fix anybody’s problems. They don’t actually make life any happier or less frightening. What they can do, though, is open a little bit of space in which we can learn to navigate the earth in a way that’s not so painful and terrifying. They can purchase entry through small doors to small rooms of respite and recovery.

In those rooms, I had to come to terms with the fact that life is inherently scary. It’s risky, or nothing at all. I spent nine months as a black hole in the galaxy of my life to really internalize that. I can’t say it was worth it. I’d like to come to some sort of conclusion about tapping into the world’s pain or recognizing that everyone we encounter carries something heavy we cannot imagine. I’d like to say I’ve stopped cracking Prozac jokes or mocking self help books, or that I’m at peace with myself or the Universe or whatever. I really can’t say any of those things, at least not honestly. What I can say is that I’m a little more careful with people, a little less likely to take much credit for any particular good fortune. There’s a lyric in a song I like that goes, “I guess we’re all one phone call from our knees.” I think it’s true, and that it applies to the calls from within us as well as to those from without. And I think that probably the best we can do is try to appreciate the days between rings.

•••

JENNIFER YOUNG is a writer and English professor in Ohio. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Great Lakes Review and previously in Full Grown People, and she has essays forthcoming in The Offing and 1966 Journal.

Read more FGP essays by Jennifer Young.

Woman Versus Compliments

anxiety weight loss
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Becca Schuh

One of my favorite professors from college stood five feet away from me, staring at me as though I was a minor celebrity she was trying to place. An off-off Broadway show? The bassist in an obscure girl band?

“Becca?! Is that you?!” She seemed genuinely shocked. “You look so different, you look so … professional.”

I admired her word choice. Most people were not so quickly able to exercise discretion. Almost everyone else who commented on the changes in my appearance over the last year went for the obvious: You look so thin. You’ve lost so much weight.

They weren’t wrong. Between the summers of 2014 and 2015, I lost around twenty pounds, not a small sum on my five-foot frame. Chipmunk cheeks became cheekbones, flabby arms turned muscular, an obviously round stomach was now relatively flat.

Also in that year, I worked over fifty hours per week at a brunch restaurant where each plate weighed ten pounds. I went from eating five meals a day to one or two—a meal at the restaurant and some granola bars at home. I decided to move across the country. And, for eight of the months of that year, the time during which I lost the majority of the weight, I was in the throes of an intense resurgence of the anxiety disorder that has affected me, on and off, since I was a child.

I did not simply lose weight because I was anxious. Panic made me eat less, made me move more. I began running; at first I didn’t count the miles. But when the sun-drenched blocks stretched long enough that they began to seem countable, I did, and then the miles ticked up—three, five, seven. Those runs were one of the only things that helped my jilted brain.

People came up with many creative ways of expressing their approval over my new look. You are so slim now! How did you do it? They loved to talk about it, as though it were a pop culture phenomenon or a collective accomplishment. You look the way we’ve always wanted you to look. People that I did not realize ever thought about me came out of the woodwork to comment—friends’ parents, friends’ coworkers that I’d met once, the boyfriends of my own coworkers.

There were things in life that I had not necessarily loved but that had been easy and joyful: eating, sitting, chilling. These are things that normal people do, and they provide contentment.

The clearer it became in my mind that I was not normal, the harder it was to take pleasure in these simple acts of joy. Innocuous comments thrown out in conversation at a bar would send me nearly to tears, and I could sense the discomfort in my companion’s voices as they tried to carry on a normal discussion. Standing in the kitchen overhearing the banter of my roommate and her boyfriend made me twitch, I started hoarding cups of water in my room so I wouldn’t have to listen to their easy comfort. If I was so strange that even my friends recoiled from my bare emotions, why should I be allowed to partake in the simple pleasure of cooking and eating a meal? If I was to be barred from the intimacy that others found so easily, why did I deserve contentment?

And yet, despite all these connections my brain made, the weight was separate. I didn’t notice it until it was gone. I had never seen myself as fat, so now I did not see myself as thin. I was the same. My pants were looser, my cheeks were gaunter, but I was the same.

Only to everyone else was I different.

I didn’t notice that I was thinner, but I noticed other changes: I noticed that I was no longer laughing, I was no longer eating, I was no longer able to sit and think without my breath quickening and my chest hurting. I spoke in shorter sentences, if at all. Nervous tics sprouted, my eyes darted around every room. If people could notice weight off my midsection, I’m sure they could notice the changes in my personality as well. But all I heard was this: You look slim. You look different. You look healthy.

I probably am healthier, physically at least. A person who is capable of running four, then six, then eventually ten miles is likely healthier than a person who cannot run one before giving up and going home to eat hot Cheetos.

As a byproduct of the anxiety, I became a person who was able to run four, then six, then eventually ten miles. I didn’t suddenly love running. But I could no longer do the things I loved—painting, writing, sitting in bed and eating a snack. I couldn’t sit stationary without screaming or crying, without nearly imperceptible shrill noises of fear coming out of my mouth. I had to move. I had to run.

People loved to hear about the running, too. I’d always been a sloth. You couldn’t get me out of bed before dinner on a Sunday in college. If my sorority did a 5k run for charity, I walked. The weight loss and the running were the favorite conversational fodder of acquaintances and friends alike that spring. But I didn’t need to talk about running or about my weight. I needed to talk about my anxiety. They did not love to hear about my anxiety.

If it’s that bad, even if you’re exercising and eating healthy, you just need to get a therapist. But I have a therapist. Then you should go on medication. Nobody wants to hear you talk about how upset you are this much.

It’s just, kind of boring, okay? You aren’t interesting when you’re like this.

Of course, the unspoken words were louder than these comments. The friends who I normally texted back and forth with all day suddenly weren’t responding. I used to go out with friends every Friday and Saturday, and I found myself at home curled in bed at eleven, realizing I’d never been contacted about the bars that they were Instagramming from. Eventually I heard the complaints about me through the grapevine, a chorus that I couldn’t hear: Why is she like this? Does she do this to you, too?

And I get it. Dealing with someone with manic anxiety is frustrating. I know incredible people, so I firmly believe that this discrepancy was not intentional, but nevertheless it disturbs me that nearly everyone in my life had more to say about my weight loss than my obvious personality changes due to the anxiety. They were happy to discuss how different I looked (Not that you looked bad before…), but when I tried to reach out for help with my addled brain, people recoiled. I don’t blame anyone for this—I didn’t want to deal with myself, so why would anyone else? But again, the discrepancy is startling, is scary, is something that deserves to be known.

I want to reiterate: I love the people in my life, I blame them for nothing. I understand that it was easier to concentrate on the socially acceptable (a thin body) than the taboo (a ravaged mind).

I can’t claim lack of culpability. Part of me relishes the compliments that I look better than I ever have (Not that you weren’t good looking before…) Especially now that my anxiety has fallen to the flow of a nearly dry creek, trickling along, whereas before it roared like an ocean. I’m able to appreciate that more men want to sleep with me, that more clothes fit, that I look better in the clothes I buy. Pictures are more flattering, and I’m asked to model the new uniform at work.

Now, you look like a small person. Well, you were always a small person but, you know…

And I do know. I do know what she means. Before, I was short in stature, but I was not truly small. And the culture loves a small woman. I’ve never been able to reap the benefits—nothing about me is small. I talk loudly, I talk too much. My personality ricochets off the walls instead of staying in a neat box. I’ve always taken up far more space than is allotted for a woman. Now that my body seems to fit into that space, even if my words and actions do not, I occasionally get to cash in on the rigged pleasure that the slot machine of society delivers. It is not a large pleasure; it is not the pleasure I feel when having the first long conversation with a new friend, when completing a piece of writing, when meeting a woman I admire. It’s a sick one, like a fifth drink when you know you should already be walking home, like reading old emails from an ex-lover.

I don’t blame anyone for being afraid of my anxiety. When my brain enters the place it was living in last spring, it’s frustrating, it’s intoxicating, it comes alive like a virus that can mutate anything into a curse. If we lived in a different cultural climate, I might be able to work myself into anger at my friends, but I can’t. It isn’t their fault that we are taught to fear a woman who is seemingly crazed with her thoughts. I can’t find fault with anybody I know because all of us are taught to praise a woman for dropping pounds off of her body like hail in March and to shun her for letting words of anxiety and fear exit her mouth at the same frequency.

I know that I’m not the only woman I know who has felt such intense anxiety, but no one has ever come to me in the state in which I tried to reach people last spring. Is it because my anxiety is outsized, abnormal, problematic? Or is it because others were taught better than I to hold it inside, to only contact appropriate outlets? I want to say now what I have never said aloud. Please, come to me if you are ever so afraid that you cannot breathe, cannot speak, can only cry.

I don’t want people to be afraid of complimenting me on my appearance. I love hearing that I’m having a good hair day as much as the next person. What I want is for people to not be afraid of telling me that I look good, but to also not be afraid of telling me that I seem bad. Of asking me if I am all right. Because I was not all right. Although I feel stronger in some ways for pulling myself out of that hole alone, I also yearn for the feeling of floundering in the trenches with the people I love and knowing that we can show each other the messiest parts of ourselves, not just the thin ones that fit into the smallest spaces.

How to stop the fear of the anxious woman? I don’t know, but I want to try. I can’t stop anyone else from turning away from the ruminating thoughts turned into monologues, the wide eyes, the tears that are louder than anyone is comfortable hearing. But I can turn into it when I see those signs in others, and ask, attempt to ask, despite the fear: Please, tell me the truth: are you all right?

•••

BECCA SCHUH is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Southern California and Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has recently appeared in the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and the Soundings Review. She is a graduate of the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands. Follow her on Twitter @TamingofdeSchuh.

Medical Marijuana and Warm Silk

pot
By Neeta Lind/ Flickr

By Debbie Weiss

It was one of those nights when I knew I’d wake up a different person. My anxiety was jumping up on me like a wire-haired terrier that had to relieve itself.

I’d been at the Haight Ashbury street fair with Max the day before and he’d pointed to a sign in front of Amoeba Records saying that the store houses a clinic where you can get a medicinal marijuana card. He said, “You’ve always said you wanted a card—would you really get one?”

Sure. So, I go inside and fill out these forms, handing them back to the receptionist who looks like a scaled-up Courtney Love in a red cocktail dress. She assures me my driver’s license will be returned to me. I expected the doctor to look like one of ZZ Top, but he’s a dignified family practitioner who looks like Archbishop Desmond TuTu. He listened to my anxiety and sleep complaints.

“Did something bad happen to you?” he asked.

“My husband George died of cancer a little over two years ago. He was in denial about being sick and wouldn’t let his doctors talk to me,” I said.

He nodded sympathetically, making a little “tsk” sound.

He asked, “What do you do that’s sensual?”

“Um, I have a boyfriend,” I stammered.

“No, sensual,” he clarified, “Do you get massages?”

“Not really.”

“Well, you should. And you should go on long, aimless drives stopping wherever you want to,” he advised.

When he went to take my blood pressure, I told him I have white coat hypertension; my blood pressure shoots up in medical offices. Probably because when I was ten, my mother got sick and went to Kaiser Medical Center and never came out. The doctor sang to me in a silly voice while he measured my blood pressure. The result came out normal, 120/80.

He gave me the prescription. I asked, “Should I worry about getting addicted?”

“You have an awareness. You’re always there looking over your shoulder at yourself. That’s huge. You won’t let yourself get addicted.”

I wished he weren’t already married.

When I came out of the office thirty-six minutes later, Max was vibrating with impatience, his head twitching a bit, spiky gray hair standing up on end.

“Why were you in there that long?” he demanded. “The receptionist said no one has ever been in there over a half hour. Look at all these people waiting,” he added.

“We were talking,” I said, “He was trying to help me.”

“I thought you guys were doing it in there,” he muttered.

No, it was deeper. I was understood.

After the street fair, Max and I went to a Berkeley dispensary on a tree-lined, residential street across from a pretty cafe. The air seemed green, a sense of promise, out with my boyfriend, trying new experiences. When I came out with my first ever pot order, Max wanted me to go back to the dispensary to pick up a couple things for him.

I refused. It would look like I was being directed by a pot-loving friend capitalizing on my card. Every kid who’s seen an After School Special knows that the boy who wants you to do something wrong isn’t really your true friend.

Max has smoked pot almost forever: a couple of friends keep him supplied. But he’d been happy that now I could pick up a couple things for him…I mean us. So, why hadn’t he ever gotten his own card?

“I don’t want to be on any list for that,” he explained.

“But I should be?” I asked. “I was a lawyer.” Maybe he was just too lazy to get a prescription. Or he didn’t want to pay the fifty-four dollars for the card. But I don’t trust someone who wants me to do something they won’t.

“It’s no big deal. The pot’s for us,” he added.

It was a big deal. I am not a drug dealer. I’m a person suffering from “depression and anxiety.” My grief therapist said so. A suburban homeowner. A former Rotarian. A Porsche driver, for God’s sake. Max is the perennial pot smoker. Besides, wouldn’t a real boyfriend want to go into a weird place like an urban drug dispensary with me? (Even though it wasn’t weird). Wouldn’t he want to guide me in my choices? (Even though he’d confused the effects of indica and sativa, the two main strains of pot).

My gifts with purchase included an innocent enough-looking joint. I lit up my freebie the next night while watching Revenge, an evening soap opera like a modern Dallas. Except that it’s set in the Hamptons. But it still feels kind of like a drag show. The women hang around their houses in low-cut, pencil-skirted dresses paired with spiky pumps and speak in drawn-out, slow voices.

These super-rich people have to stay together despite their vast resources because otherwise there’d be no TV show. I don’t have to stay in one place, or stay with Max, but I can’t decide anything beyond what to buy. And that I don’t want to be alone.

Since George died, I never know what I want except at the most basic level, like a child. I might crave a spicy scallop roll, or a pile of dim sum, or aqua colored sheets, or a new cactus plant. I can’t figure out where I want to live, or who I want as a partner or if I want to travel.

The Voice In My Head doesn’t let me relax. It tells me I need to sell my house or I’ll never get over my memories. It insists that I sell the Porsche since it was George’s car. It demands that I work on social media so I have a writer’s platform so I don’t die with nothing to show for it. It chides me that Max is not my “forever” person.

I’d hoped the pot would sedate The Voice and we’d both agree that I should move to an apartment by the ocean or figure out how use my law degree in a cool way or become a full-time stoner with little short-term memory, but no anxiety. I would sedate The Voice with edible pot cookies and put it to sleep with campy TV serials. And maybe lull it into happiness by curling up with Max.

I wish.

When Max and I first got together, I was transported by the time we’d spend just lying around. He’d rub my back and I’d feel my bones relax. I’d sleep next to him and it was like warm silk. I felt softened. We were so lucky to have found each other in dreary Internet dating land. He’d play guitar in bed; I was soothed.

Then money cropped up. Max wanted to split the cost of things equally so when we’d go out to eat, I’d hear, “Isn’t it your turn?” But Max had picked the restaurant, and he didn’t seem to notice what things tasted like; he’d pick places that sucked. It felt weird to drive to his house, roll out of bed then pay for dinner like I had to pay to be with him. I could be slept with, but not cherished. Not since I became a widow.

After puffing away, I felt restless. Then anxious. I couldn’t sleep. My heart was pounding. I called Max, questioning him about why he’d been so disappointed I hadn’t filled his order for him. I didn’t want to admit that I was an incompetent pot smoker.

I couldn’t ask him to come over. I couldn’t really rely on him. A true boyfriend that was meant-to-be would have intuited my distress. But we just argued about his making requests on my pot card. And taking my car to the Haight Ashbury.

I finally got off the phone and hung out with my joint-induced anxiety. I slipped into dark dreams, awakening out of them with a jolt. The next morning I felt tired, resigned to an inertia that settles in like slow-growing mold.

Max said I take everything too seriously. This from someone who says I should get over George when he’s convinced his ex-wife of ten years ago ruined his life. But they had great sex every night including the last night they were together. I didn’t need to know that.

But maybe I did. And I need to decide what I want besides imported brie and candles that smell like the ocean.

•••

DEBBIE WEISS blogs at www.thehungoverwidow.com and at The Huffington Post. She’s writing a memoir and anti-advice manual about widowhood. Her work has appeared in xojane, Better After Fifty, and The Erma Bombeck Humor Writer’s Workshop.

The Fear

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

By Jennifer Richardson

The doorbell rings. It’s five in the evening on a Saturday in April and I’m home alone. Not expecting anyone—not really knowing anyone in Berlin, where I’ve recently relocated from California for work—I’m not sure if I should answer it.

If my husband was here, he would have groaned, “What are you doing?” when I finally went for the door, telling me to “leave it.” But he wasn’t there and it’s almost impossible for me not to respond when summoned, a deeply ingrained response from most of my life up until now. If a call comes in from a number I don’t recognize, I’ll answer just in case someone actually needs to speak with me even though I know it’s almost certainly someone trying to upsell me a premium cable bundle. Maybe, I thought, it’s a neighbor wanting to ask if we have hot water, as I had done some weeks ago when we had none and it turned out our whole building was having problems.

“Who is it?” I ask through the still-closed door.

“It’s your neighbor, Christina. I need to come in. I am having a panic attack.”

There are eight apartments in my building, and I had only met the occupants of two of them: the woman who’d helped me when the water heater went out and the stern woman across the hall who rides a bicycle with a wire basket threaded with plastic pink flowers. (The stern woman had been our neighbor once before when my husband and I lived in the same apartment for eight months in 2011. She looked like she had seen a ghost when she saw us the first time after we moved back in.) I’m sure Christina is neither of them, and, despite the fact that we were in a building with a locked front door in a relatively affluent neighborhood, I pause to consider if Christina might be a crazy woman with a knife.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know you. I’m not sure I feel comfortable letting a stranger in my house.”

“Please, I need to come in. I am having a panic attack,” she tells me again.

This time I believe her. I turn the bolt and pull open the heavy wood door, lacquered in a dried-blood-colored paint like all the others in this former East Berlin, turn-of-the-twentieth-century building. Kristina is wearing pajamas and glasses, her long blond hair unbrushed. Perhaps sensing that I’m sizing her up, she apologizes for her appearance. I’m also self-conscious. It’s too early in the day for the pajamas that I also wear, my contacts already replaced for the evening with glasses and my hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. I don’t apologize for my appearance, though; I’m not the one knocking on other people’s doors. I scarcely form these thoughts before Christina is speaking.

“I don’t know what to do. Since last night I have had the fear,” she says, each word articulated precisely in her German-accented English.

Fear is a direct translation of the German word angst, but it’s her use of an article in front of the word that anthropomorphizes her distress and catches me out. What was likely nothing more than a minor grammatical slip by a non-native English speaker reminds me of how I felt about my husband’s depression four years earlier in this exact same apartment. I came to think of it in human terms: an unwanted mistress that no amount of hand wringing from either of us could drive out.

•••

This evening was not the end I had anticipated to what had been an unusually euphoric day. My husband was in England for the weekend, and I had taken the opportunity to indulge in a day of carefree wandering that had somehow morphed into a shopping spree. It was the first real day of spring in Berlin since our arrival that March, and the city was buzzing. (I am not a woman who uses words like “euphoric,” “carefree,” “spree,” and “buzzing,” and yet they are true.)

It started with a bathing suit. I had no intention of buying a bathing suit, but it was a black, retro-style, one-piece number, the kind of thing fashion editors might refer to as timeless, and it seemed like a good idea. As did the scarf, dress, and two pairs of shoes at the shop around the corner. And the dress and two pairs of jauntily patterned flip-flops at the new-to-me Spanish chain store a couple blocks away. Then I ate a lunch of salad with a glass of Sekt at Lindner, a posh German deli. I can blame the backpack and pink-and-white-striped-slip-on sneakers that followed on the Sekt, but not the items that preceded them.

As I walked home, I pondered my uncharacteristic consumerism—this was the largest quantity of clothing I can remember buying in one outing since I was a teenager—and felt ill at ease with my happiness. I am of the school of thought that as soon as you become aware of your happiness, it’s destined to end.

To ward off my discomfort, I silently intoned Zen truisms, acknowledging I had no expectations for the happiness I currently felt to be permanent, and I joined a line for ice cream that had spilled out on to the sidewalk of Weinbergsweg. Here a theory emerged. My elation that had found expression through my American Express card was a product of being separated from my husband for the first time in many years by mutual choice without any anxiety attached. It was late afternoon and I hadn’t heard from him since a brief email exchange that morning. Nor did I feel worried about being out of touch. Just a couple of years earlier, this would have been unimaginable.

Around the time of our last stint living in Berlin, my husband’s depression and anxiety—and my complicity with both—had escalated to the point that any extended length of time apart simply wasn’t worth the angst. When my work required a business trip, my husband coped by demanding adherence to a strict ritual of communication: at least thrice-daily phone calls and regular text messages to keep him informed of my movements at all times. Should I lose track of time at a business dinner and fail to contact him, there were consequences. The worst of these occurred during a work trip to Shanghai when, late one night after such a dinner, he threatened to check himself into a hospital if I didn’t fly home that evening. At that point it seemed to me his “threat” was the most humane thing he could do for both of us.

I didn’t fly home (despite my husband’s pain, he has never been suicidal), but I still felt defeated. When I had some free time the next day, I stayed in the hotel rather than stroll on the Bund—which I had hoped to see on what I thought would be my one and only visit to Shanghai—because I knew that I could only get a reliable phone signal and access to my email at the hotel. It was just easier that way. Neither did my husband check himself into a hospital in my absence. Instead we both carried on in this state, equally suspended in the disbelief that this was really happening.

How could it be happening when we had both seen a therapist regularly for years previously? We had done the work, slayed the demons. We clung to these former lives as therapy patients like a talisman even when it resolutely failed to protect us. Insanely, we even undertook an international relocation for my job, our first move to Berlin in 2011.

By then I was used to the demands of being constantly in touch via text message, even if my husband had the uncanny knack of summoning me as I was carrying bags of groceries up the five flights of stairs or fumbling for my keys. Mobile phones had become the curse of my existence, but they were nothing compared to his crying jags and panic attacks. These started in earnest in Berlin, once while on a walk around one of the many Seen (lakes) on the outskirts of the city, another in the Eames-style armchair in the guest bedroom of our furnished rental apartment. An English-speaking cognitive behavioral therapist with an office near Zoo was identified, and my husband returned from his first appointment with stacks of photocopied pages for me on how to respond to someone having a panic attack. They helped when, on a bench in the departure hall of Schönefeld Airport waiting for a flight to England, he told me he couldn’t get on the flight. At least I knew there was no use trying to talk him out of it. We stood and walked silently back past security, then down the long outdoor corridor to the S-Bahn back to Alexanderplatz.

•••

Back in the Berlin apartment, I tell Christina to sit down and direct her to a metal chair with a raffia seat in a tiny alcove of the entryway. The better part of me thinks I should ask her upstairs to sit on the couch, but I am still on guard.

“I have the same chair!” Christina says, and we are both grateful for the reprieve of ­­this kindred if unlikely brought-to-us-by-Ikea moment.

“Would you like a glass of water?” I ask.

Christina does not want a glass of water, which she indicates by ignoring the question and telling me several times in a row that she doesn’t know what to do.

I think of the time four years ago when my husband sat slumped in that same chair, having just thrown a Roma tomato at the wall in an act of poignantly impotent rage. I tell her what I should have told him then.

“You need to see a doctor.” (What I told my husband instead: “I’m calling my father,” a declaration made all the more strange by the fact that my father and I do not have a close emotional relationship. But I couldn’t think of anyone else who had the virtues of being both unencumbered enough and willing to fly across the Atlantic to help extract us from the situation.)

“I can’t. I’m on family health insurance. My parents won’t pay for me anymore to go to the doctor. I went to the doctor today, and he tells me because my blood pressure is normal there is nothing he can do,” Christina tells me in despair.

I fantasize about grabbing that doctor by the shoulders and shaking him. I wonder about the state of German mental health care, which, aside from the American therapist my husband saw privately here in 2011, I know nothing about. I tell her again that she needs to see a doctor.

After a few more minutes of sitting in my entryway, Christina leaves, having resolved to try to call her parents again. I wonder if I should have been more generous, insisted she stay longer, come upstairs, and relax a while. But the truth is I am also worried that I’ve opened a Pandora’s Box with Christina that I will regret. Will she knock on my door again in the middle of the night? The next day? And the day after that?

“It’s not your fault, you’re going to be okay,” I tell her as she steps onto the landing to go back downstairs to her apartment. “Everything is going to be okay.”

•••

These days, things are okay for my husband and me. I didn’t call my father that afternoon in Berlin. Instead my husband and I endured too much for too long until, finally, back in America, we both went back to therapy and he went on antidepressants. Four years later we’ve returned to Berlin to the very same apartment. Memories of things I’d rather forget are inevitable. Even beautiful spring days can’t escape suspicion.

•••

Christina never knocked on my door again, but sometimes I think about what I’d like to say to her if she did, and, I suppose, what I wish I had been able to say to my husband and his “mistress” four years ago. In this fantasy I morph into Anne Lamott acting out a postmodern version of a knock-knock joke.

Christina: Knock, knock.

Me as A.L.: Who’s there?

Christina: The fear.

Me as A.L.: Why come in and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea! Maybe the fear would like a slice of cake, too?

It’s an unlikely scenario because, at forty-three, no matter how much I admire the tribe of warm, wise women that Lamott represents, my inherently prickly nature always manages to poke through. Personality limitations aside, I like to think that at least next time I could tell Christina this: Don’t worry—we all have the fear. Even those of us who spent the day shopping and eating ice cream and walking in the park while sending inane tweets about how spring has finally sprung in Berlin. Most of all, we have the fear.

•••

JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, the 2013 IndieReader Discovery Award winner for travel writing. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus and Tales from a Small Planet, and she’s a contributor to Edible Ojai & Ventura County. You can find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.

Forever Sports

By rhettallain/ Flickr
By rhettallain/ Flickr

By D’Arcy Fallon

It’s supposed to rain. That’s the prediction. A hurricane sweeping northward, swiping an angry claw at the Midwest. I have a bad feeling as we drive to Forever Sports, the boat outfitter near the freeway overpass, nothing I can pinpoint specifically, just low-grade anxiety. I predict lightning. I predict marital discord. “I can see the newspaper headline now,” I tell my husband as he steers our car, Man O’ War, down the rutted dirt driveway to Forever Sports: “Newcomers zapped by lightning.”

A hot Tuesday morning, muggy and still, as if the world is holding its breath. We’re in the middle of the country, hundreds and hundreds of miles from either coast. We moved here a year ago after I took a tenure-track job teaching writing at a small liberal arts college in Southwest Ohio. Our teen-age son gone, out in Colorado visiting friends, I’m off for the summer, and Rudy has been job-hunting for the past year.

In between sending out resumes and going on interviews, he’s been restoring the old house we bought: stripping, scraping, sanding, painting. The bank repo is slowly evolving from a hopeless bag lady to a well-upholstered matron at a garden party. Renovating the house is hard, sweaty, solitary work. It’s dirty. And lonely. Not having a meaningful job has put Rudy in a deep, deep funk. Sometimes when we drive past Wal-Mart he says he ought to stop by, fill out an application. “Maybe I can be a greeter,” he joshes. But the joke is wearing thin. These days, asking him about his job prospects is like asking a woman trying to get pregnant if she’s ovulated that month. Our marriage is filled with these little bogs and shallow marshes, soft fleshy depressions where it’s easy to get stuck if we don’t watch where we’re going.

The boat place looks closed, although the sign on the door says Open. Rudy tries the door. Locked. He pounds on it. No answer. We’re already way too invested in the canoe trip, swept up in the idea of a sylvan day on the water. We spent the morning making the sandwiches, carefully zippering them into Baggies, filling the cooler with ice and beer and mineral water. I went to the supermarket for Georgia peaches and Cutter Deep Woods Bug Spray; then Rudy had to go for sunscreen. We are more than ready, over-prepared, in fact. I have a pen and my arty little seventeen-dollar black Moleskine notebook favored by famous authors like Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin. They’re dead and I’m not, and who knows, maybe inspiration will strike out on the river. After a walk around the building, we learn the front door to the barn is really the back door; a few quick steps and we’re inside, shaded from the sharp summer sun.

The cavernous barn is dark. Pool tables gather dust under ancient hanging lamps. For what feels like a long time we stand by the counter. Finally a kid in baggy overalls and tousled blond hair emerges out of the fungal gloom. He reminds me of what Dennis the Menace might’ve looked like as a grown up. That is, if Dennis had been raised in a basement by Mr. Wilson and fed through a trap door.

“Can I help you?” Dennis says, wiping his hands on a rag.

“We’re here to go canoeing on the Mad River,” I say. “We called earlier this morning.”

The kid just stares at me. He can’t be older than seventeen.

“We called,” I repeat again. “Someone said we could rent a canoe.”

He looks at me with suspicion. “Where exactly are you headed?” he says, stuffing the rag in his back pocket.

“We thought you were closed,” I say. So much sweat has pooled in my bra, I could wring it out. “The door was locked.”

“A lot of people make that mistake,” the kid says, clucking his tongue. Well, why don’t you put a sign on the door or something and help us all out? I want to say. Instead, I squint at the river map on the wall behind him, with its filaments of wiggly blue lines. There’s an arrow pointing to one of the lines and fuzzy words that say—I think—“You are here.” I can’t really read the map very well without my glasses, but if I put my prescription sunglasses on inside, Dennis will think I’m trying to look cool.

Last semester a student of mine in freshman composition, Kyle, a big goofy football player, wrote about all the Sasquatch sightings along Ohio’s Mad River for his big research paper. Five people in Donnelsville, a small town several miles downriver from Forever Sports, had reported seeing a huge hairy biped that “looked in their window,” according to Kyle. Kyle’s source? A Mad River Sasquatch “study” he found on-line, which included blurry photos of a strapping creature with a muscular, naked backside. During his Power Point presentation to the class, everybody laughed, Kyle especially.

But staring at Dennis standing at the counter with a sullen expression on his face, I wonder if he knows something I don’t. Everything this morning seems to hint at disaster; it’s like watching a science fiction movie where you already know the planet is doomed. The clues are everywhere: razor-cut crop circles, genetically altered locusts, cow mutilations. Woo-woo. Bad mojo. Honestly, I’d just like to call it a day. It is going to rain. The sandwiches are already soggy. But I won’t give Dennis the satisfaction. Wilted seconds tick by. There’s no air conditioning in the barn; the air is as moist as a frog’s belly.

Instead, we pay the kid, surrender our drivers’ licenses and settle into the back of a rusty Ford Econoline van pulling a trailer stacked with dented canoes. Dennis is at the wheel. We’re heading for Champaign County, just north of us, where we’ll put in at Millerstown Crossing. Paddling—or floating—back on the Mad River should take about five hours, the kid says, looking at us point blank in the rear view mirror.

“Yippee,” I mumble, staring at the cowlick on the back of his head.

The clouds are starting to pile up. Sweat streams down my forehead. I glance over at Rudy. He’s gazing out the cornfields, lost in thought.

“Do you think it’s going to rain?” I ask Dennis, just to see if he’s capable of making small talk.

He nods his heads and says, a trifle too gleefully, “Oh, we’re definitely going to get some.”

The Mad River. I like that name. It reminds me of how Lady Caroline Lamb described her lover, Lord Byron: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” That gives this baby-sized river a thrilling frisson, an aura of danger when in truth it’s lazy and safe, a whisper instead of a roar.

“Have you ever canoed the Mad?” Rudy asks.

“Nope,” the kid says, and the word is flat, flat as the ripe green cornfields and the black road before us, flat for as far as the eye can see.

At Millerstown Crossing, Rudy and the kid lift the canoe from its rack while I grab the heavy green cooler from the van and frog march it down to the river. The kid waits as I put on the moldy-smelling orange life vest and fumble with the rusty latches. Then I step clumsily into the boat. It wobbles with my spasmodic movements.

“Careful there,” Rudy says as I flail. “Watch the first step.” I shoot him a dirty look.

The kid lingers on the shore. I feel his eyes boring into our backs. What does he see? Two paunchy fifty-ish geezers out for a suicide run on Ohio’s sleepiest river? Does he see it all—as I do—as the prelude to some terrible accident? Is there something he wants to tell us? Watch out for Sasquatch? But no, he’s one of the Children of the Corn, a slit-eyed zombie in on the secret. Then Rudy steps into the boat. Metal scrapes across the rocks. The boat pops and creaks; it’s like God cracking his knuckles.

There are all kinds of theories about who should sit where in a two-person canoe. The person at the bow is supposed to be on the lookout for danger ahead: branches, rocks, anything that will swamp you. This person must “read” the water. The person at the stern is the one who really steers though, the one who has the muscle and power to set the course. I’ve never been in a canoe but honestly, how hard can it be to navigate one?

“Do you see that V on the surface of the water up there?” says Rudy, who is sitting in the stern. “If it’s facing you that means—”

“Aye, aye, your majesty,” I say, cutting him off. “Anything else I should know?”

He sighs. Five hours is a long time to be in a boat with just one other person, even if it’s someone you love. It can be forever, or at least an exceptionally protracted day. So what are we doing out on an eight-inch river in the middle of scalding July?

On our very first date—at a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Long Beach, California—Rudy earnestly talked about the float trips he’d taken in rural Missouri. Lazy and slow, wild and fast, beer-drenched, sunburned, alone and with friends. Ah! The pull of the river! He talked of stories told around the campfire, friendships forged over sweaty, mosquito-slapping portages. A river trip is a test of character, he said. I looked at him over my coffee and thought, wow, sweet and deep. He was new to California, out visiting a buddy who worked at the same newspaper I did. Missouri had always sounded like Squaresville to me, someplace I’d never wanted to visit, but Rudy painted it with dogwoods and rolling hills and jagged limestone bluffs. As he talked, I saw eagles drifting on the thermals above a wide rippling river and felt the sun on my back. You’ve got to see the Show-Me State, he said and grinned. I smiled into my coffee. I wanted to be shown.

That was years ago, when we were in our thirties. Since then, we’ve lived in San Francisco and Marin County, places so precious, I used to worry about getting pulled over at the Golden Gate Bridge toll booth for not being rich or pretty enough. There’s no border patrol like that in Springfield, Ohio, a small, unpretentious, blue-collar city. I’ll admit I’m still getting to know my way around Springfield, which has a Bob Evans restaurant and a J.C. Penney, but not a Starbucks or a Barnes & Noble. It’s easy to dismiss a town like Springfield until you’ve lived there. Then you need to learn to seek charm and allure with new eyes. Beauty is everywhere if you’re invested enough in finding it.

The river is practically deserted, except for a couple of men in thigh-high waders fishing for brown trout. I’m sitting in the bow, dutifully scanning the river’s surface, on the lookout for rogue rocks and sunken logs. Passing the men with their poles, we wave. The breeze picks up. We drift under a canopy of dappled green. The trees shake, branches flutter, leaves twirl. A crane flaps overhead and lofts gracefully into a tree. A cardinal calls. Cicadas chir. A big catfish swirls past. Summer in Ohio. I take off the stinky lifejacket and ceremoniously toss it in the back with an extra snap of my wrist, as if I’ve just flung off the top of my bathing suit. How’s that for a show-me-state? I tell myself, trying to quell the anxiety bubbling through my veins.

Our son’s absence reminds us of what’s soon to come: his leaving home more or less for good next year. When he leaves for college, it will just be the two of us, somebody steering the boat, somebody scouting what’s just ahead, paddling, reading the current. We’ve come so far since the morning of his birth, when, after thirty-three hours of labor, the doctors cut him out of me. I remember Rudy holding our wailing son and crying, for Joel, for himself, for the father he wanted to be, and for the one he didn’t have. His own father had virtually vanished after Rudy was conceived, forsaking my mother-in-law for another woman. Later, he was hardly a presence, just another guilty dad showing up on Friday night with the child support check. Rudy held Joel as if he was holding his own infant self, vowing to do better, to be a man, to show up, to be there. It seemed like he never let our son go during that first bleary week I spent recovering from the C-section. Birth had hollowed me out; barely sutured together, I moved gingerly, afraid the rawness of my love would rip me open. The scar across my abdomen has morphed into a hard, upraised line, more of a grimace than a smile. Underneath, I still feel vulnerable, and sometimes, barely together.

But on the water, it’s easy to forget those fumbling, foggy parental years, of trying to be selfless and failing miserably, of wanting to set boundaries and then trampling all over them, of yearning to be good or at least, good enough. I tried too hard as a mother and then sometimes I didn’t try at all, escaping into bed with a novel and a plate of cheese and crackers. The boat eases down the river under our gliding paddles. Sun strobes on the water. Stroke, stroke. It is not going to rain after all. In fact, it’s a steam bath. Blue, the sky is blue and stretches into a seamless bolt of turquoise silk. Stroke. I’m getting sunburned. Rudy and I talk about nothing. We don’t talk about the job search, or how heavy and oppressive time can feel when waiting for something big to break. Stroke, drift, stroke. We return to a familiar topic, a novel he wants to write, based on a woman he once knew who went to a party where she met a man. She left with him—and nobody ever heard from her again. Her body was never found. We talk about plot, motivation, and character. Does he know the ending yet? Was this woman murdered or did she just wander away?

Write it, I tell him. Quit talking about it and do it.

Rudy takes a deep breath. “It looks like I’m going to have the time now to write,” he says slowly. And there it is, out in the open. I swallow hard. There are so many things I want to tell him: We’re in this together. I love you. Don’t worry. You’re a good man. I take a breath, prepared to say all those things. Instead, what comes out is “Oh, honey.”

We were married in 1984, which, even in the middle of that crazy year’s unfurling, seemed full of portent. This was the year Michael Jackson’s hair ignited during the filming of a Pepsi commercial, the year scientists finally isolated the virus that causes AIDS, the year of Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as the first female vice presidential candidate. It was also the year I borrowed my sister-in-law’s wedding dress and her backyard for a wedding under the unflinching California sun. This was years before expensive wedding planners came into vogue, before every moment of one’s wedding had to be stylized and burnished and curated to look like a spread in Martha Stewart Weddings. Halfway through the ceremony, our Old English sheepdog casually lifted his leg and urinated on the floral arrangement, which was really just a bouquet of daisies tied to a trellis, and afterwards, the best man’s wife got drunk and changed into a long flannel nightgown and wandered down to the bay. It was a cloudless day at the end of August and the hills were as brown and dry as Shredded Wheat. One woman, a very big woman, stripped down to her leopard-skin bikini and took a dip in the chilly tidal estuary across the street from the house, and my mother-in-law broke down and cried her heart out. I never found out if the two were incidents were related. I was wearing a colander on my head at the time and distracted by cheap champagne and gaiety and I failed to write down all the wedding gifts that had been given, and to this day I know that I have neglected to write all the thank-you notes I should have. I hope I’m forgiven. We were oblivious back then. We felt lucky. We were lighthearted and life lay before us and we were never going to get old or blow it or look back.

The wind has come up on the Mad River. Clouds swallow the sun. It’s going to rain. We’re screwed. Lightning can’t be far behind. We’ll fry on this river. Somehow this foreknowledge doesn’t even register, nor does the sign we pass, a sign that says emphatically, in no certain terms: “Take Out.” Accompanying the sign is an arrow pointing to a path by the shore.

“I wonder what that means,” I say idly.

“It’s probably a place for people who want to get off the river.”

“Or maybe that’s where you go if you want to order Chinese,” I say.

“Ha, ha,” Rudy says.

We float on fifty more yards. For the first time, we hear rushing water. This part of the Mad is a Class One river, a baby river, a moving puddle, so why should there be rapids? Suddenly a distant bell goes off in my mind and I get it. “Take Out” means what it says. Take yourself out of the damn equation. Get off the damn river. Skedaddle. Scoot. My god, we’re going to go over, we’re going to—

“We’re going to capsize!” I shout. Oh god, god, this is like a bad novel, one of those freak newspaper stories. Headline: “Couple drowns in two feet of water.”

“Just go with it,” Rudy says. “It’s too late now.” As if to underscore his point, thunder rumbles in the background as we teeter over on a low head dam.

There’s the rushing of the water and the point of no return, we’re falling, going over, we’re going to fly over that froth. Then there’s the sickening sound of the canoe bottom scraping across metal. We see-saw over the edge. Crunch! The bow noses down as if to nuzzle the river, then rears back like a Praying Mantis. We’re just too heavy to get over the dam. Rudy tries to rock us over the edge and with every motion the boat sways from side to side. I scrabble like a crab, ass-walking down the spine of the boat, trying to find the center of balance.

“Hold still,” my husband says, rocking back and forth. “Don’t move.”

In other circumstances, those words can be the passenger pigeons of desire, carrying an erotic promise: hold still, don’t move. But now they’re infuriating. Don’t move? My coccyx is gravel and you’re telling me, don’t move?

“We’re stuck!” I shout over the bawling of this shrunken little river. ”Stuck, stuck, stuck!” The word flies back at me, reminding me of the scene in the movie A Christmas Story, when nine-year-old Flick puts his tongue on the flag pole, and it freezes. We’re stuck like that, glued in the eternal now, teeter-tottering between oh no! and holy fuck!

Rudy rocks once more time and we spit over the dam. Bloop! All at once we’re in the water, sputtering and blinking and flailing. And it’s cold and all our stuff is sailing down the river. There goes my virgin Moleskine notebook and the bug spray and the sunscreen, there goes the Budweiser out of the cooler. One can, two, three. Bottled water. Beach towels. A dozen velveteen peaches lovingly packed just two hours before are now released, fuzzy goslings learning how to swim. There go those cheap-ass mildewy life jackets.

“The paddle! Grab the paddle!” I shout.

“Good thing I packed that towel,” my husband says, spying it swirl away in the current like a drunken manatee.

“Let’s just hope the beer floats,” I retort. I lunge for my backpack and slip on a slimy, moss-covered rock. The river is much deeper and swifter than I’d figured. I’m completely under, baptized in the Mad. Coming up for air, I stagger towards Rudy. And laugh. We’re both punchy. We turn and stare at the overhead dam we just went over. No, it’s not Niagara Falls, but it is quite a drop. These dams, we’ll later learn, are called “drowning machines” because of the way the re-circulating currents can trap people and boats, but in the ebullience of the moment, we’re carefree. Yes, there’s a dam. Get over it. There is nothing to do but clamber back into the boat and try to beat the storm.

Downriver, we retrieve a life vest snagged on a tree branch, pluck the sunscreen from the water, and recover the beer. The wind comes up again, hard this time, stinging and stabbing and strangely invigorating. Go home, it says. Hurry. Rudy paddles on the left, I on the right.

Rain pocks the Mad’s surface, just a drop or two, then the sky opens and it’s a Biblical deluge, straight out of the book of Genesis. Should we stop and take shelter? We’re already drenched, soaked to the skin, mad, bad and dangerous to know. We’ve come this far already; there’s nothing to do but float. Still, I learn forward, eager for once to read the current and see what’s below. But I can’t discern anything except the rain. It plashes and patters on the surface, it zings and sings and stings. The river is running away from us, running with us, stretching and flowing and rearranging itself in a buoyant, irreversible sheet. There are no questions or answers, just silver water, tumbling over and under, cold and fast. Chilled and wet, miles from home, we put up our paddles and let it take us, forever sports.

•••

D’ARCY FALLON teaches creative writing, English composition, and journalism at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. She is the author of a memoir, So Late, So Soon, about living in a remote Christian fundamentalist commune in the early seventies. Before turning to teaching, she was an award-winning journalist, working for such newspapers as the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Transportation

planes
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Wendy Wisner

We’re driving to my cousin’s wedding in Atlantic City. We’re on a tight schedule. We spin past the bare-branched sycamores. The ground is dotted with patches of snow. The wind lashes against our rickety Honda.

Ben says he’s too hot in his coat. Peter says he’s too cold. “Just wait. We’ll be there soon.” We’re getting closer. I begin to smell the waves of the bay.

Then Peter throws up.

We pull over, strip him down. He cries, his bare legs shaking in the cold. We toss his dirty clothes in a plastic grocery bag, find some clean clothes, mop up the vomit with baby wipes.

“Okay,” I say to my husband. “We’ll get there right when the ceremony starts. You’ll drop me off. I’ll change into my dress. I won’t miss it.

We keep driving. Now the ocean is clearer, on the edge of the parkway. I inhale it. I, who hate to travel, inhale the ocean and its expanse, its freedom.

Finally, we arrive at the hotel. Bright lights, gold fountains, Roman god pseudo-sculpture. I was naïve; I expected a simple hotel. It’s like we’ve entered an amusement park.

Dizzy circles through the parking garage. My stomach in my throat. My mother texts me: “It’s okay. She won’t notice if you miss the ceremony.”

A parking spot, finally. I toss all our “fancy” clothes in a garbage bag to change into along the way.

We enter Caesar’s Atlantic City. Immediately the smell of cigarette smoke and misery. The blinking lights of the slot machines. The room begins to spin.

I say to my husband, “Here, watch the children.” I take out my dress and tights, my good bra. I hand him the garbage bag with the children’s clothes, and run inside the ladies room.

I change inside a stall, my bare feet on the cold bathroom floor. I tie up my messy hair, smear on some lipstick.

My husband has changed Peter into his button-down shirt and necktie. He hands me the garbage bag and Peter, then wanders off with Ben to change.

This. This is when I begin to fall apart.

Peter wants nothing more than to climb on all the slot machines. Peter will not stay in my arms. He twists away with all his two-year-old might. I try to carry him, the garbage bag of clothes, and my winter coat. And I cannot. I cannot do it.

My cellphone is low on charge. I have no idea which direction my husband has gone. I am completely lost, alone, with a screaming toddler who is half-covered in vomit.

I can’t hold onto all of it anymore. I can’t stop the panic from boiling over, from my belly, to my throat, to my eyes.

And then I’m not in my life anymore. It is 1983, and I am alone with my mother in the airport. The stench of cigarette smoke in our hair. Is it from the airport, or from the cigarettes my father has been smoking?

My father is gone. He left just as the snow began to fall in life-size, enormous chunks. Just as the baby started to blossom in my mother. Winter and spring colliding.

We are utterly alone in that airport. We do not know where he is, only that we are following him. The airport tilts as the planes rise up into the sky.

•••

The airport was the room between the worlds. But not a room. A cavern. A chamber. An expanse of white that stretched beyond where I could see. There were no exits, no escapes, no way home.

The only way to out was to get on a plane.

We watched the planes through the window—a giant wall of glass. The planes were larger than life. They were dinosaurs: standing still, then suddenly running, lifting their clobbering tails up into the air.

The airport smelled of gasoline, cigarettes, and diaper cream.

It was 1984, and my sister was a newborn, snuggled against my mother. But her presence was slight, muted. She was young enough to sleep quietly in my mother’s arms. She closed her eyes and ignored it all.

My mother and I walked up and down the corridors. We were marbles being rolled up and down and around the tunnels, gates, entrances. We were being rolled by the great hand of my father. He reached for us across the continent. He didn’t want us with him, but he beckoned us nonetheless.

He made us want to find him. He made us look for him in each man’s face we saw streaming past.

Had he shaved his mustache yet? Was it just growing in?

I looked for my father, though I knew he wasn’t there.

I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to go with my mother. I wanted to run away.

I stood at the top of the escalator, and my mother stood below. “Take me home,” I said.

My mother had no words. And now I see my sister for sure, my mother holding her, running up the escalator as it’s moving. There is no way to stop it from moving. My sister, the suitcase, the tickets—everything in her arms but me. It is clear that she can’t carry me as well, that I must will myself up the escalator.

And I do. I follow her. I get on the plane. I begin the endless journey of looking for my father.

•••

I have been trying to piece it together, the origins of my anxiety—why my mind so easily jumps to the worst-case scenario.

I have had to untrain myself from assuming that any time my children get sick that they are going to die. I have to shut out the thought that any time I don’t hear from my husband for a few hours that he’s in grave danger. It is their lives—the ones whom I hold most dearly—that are at stake.

I have some theories. The loss of my father is one. But I didn’t completely lose him. He didn’t die. He just left. As a child, it was a loss that felt like death, but I still saw him often enough over the years. I could still find him, wrap him up in a bear hug.

I think the feeling of doom runs deeper, back to my ancestors, back through my DNA.

The dead babies, the boat, the planes, the entrances, the exits. Portals into the world, and out.

•••

My grandmother slid the box out from under her bed. It was a beautiful brown box, old, faded around the edges, but nicely preserved. Maybe she was going to show me one of her hats, or try to give me another of her soft patent-leather shoes. (We had the same tiny feet, size 5).

She opened it up to reveal a small dress. Light pink, with a lacy, embroidered neckline. It was flattened and neatly laid, like something you would see on display at a museum. Small enough to lie flat in the box—a dress for a very young girl. You could almost see her lying quietly there.

I thought it was perhaps one of my mother’s childhood dresses, or one of my grandmother’s from when she was a girl.

“This is the dress of the girl who died,” my grandmother said. She drew out the word “died.” She had this way of being completely serious, but with an airy, dramatic flair.

Then she told the story. I only heard it that one time and was too scared to ask about again.

Her parents and their daughter were immigrating to America from Kiev, Russia. The boat was dirty, disgusting, people piled on top of one another, nowhere to sleep, living in squalor. There was very little food. Everyone ate rice, she said.

The little girl never made it to America.

My grandmother didn’t know how she died. And I was too shocked to ask.

“They named me Nachama, which means comfort, because I was her replacement,” she said.

But no one ever called her that. Her name was Emma.

She was Emma, my grandmother. But now I knew she was born after trauma, after the deepest loss imaginable. It would haunt her, and me, for the rest of our lives.

•••

We moved thirteen times by the time I was thirteen years old. We were chasing my father up and down the west coast. But there was also a restlessness on my mother’s part that propelled us from house to house—a search for the key to happiness.

I never felt that I had a home. Home was intangible, something reserved for daydreams.

And real dreams, too. I have always dreamt about the houses. I dream that I can go back to a home of mine, one that we left, and is still there, preserved as it was.

I dream of the apartment with the walk-in closet that I turned into a room for myself. I’d make stacks of toy money and play bank, or I’d take in all the books in our house and play library. I remember playing with my charm necklace, hiding the parts behind the coats. I think I tried to sleep in there, curl up into a little ball behind my mother’s boots. But I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t rest.

I dream of the apartment where I did have my own room. The twin windows that faced the mint tree. I’d crack the window open and inhale. My room with the full size bed in the center, the faded pink blanket, boom box on the bureau. When the earthquake began, first the windows rattled, then the radio switched itself off, then the lights. I walked out of my room as my mom and sister were coming out of the kitchen. We watched the chandelier sway, slowly, calmly, as though nothing momentous and devastating was happening.

And last night, I dreamt about the apartment I lived in longest. I knew it would enter my dreams soon enough—the apartment we left last summer. Both of my children were born there. I became a mother in those narrow rooms. Last night, in the dream, I stood in the living room, its soft brown carpet under my bare feet. The carpet felt wet, like soil that had been newly watered. A breeze was coming in. Ben’s stamp collection was lying open on the floor. The couch was gone, but the piano was there—the keyboard open, the keys whiter and brighter than I remember them.

I couldn’t say goodbye to that apartment. The last time we went, to get an ice cream sandwich my older son had left in the freezer (I kid you not), I didn’t want to go in. Because I hate endings. I hate last times. Especially when it comes to houses.

If I never have to move again, I will be eternally grateful. But I know we will move again someday. We rent our new home, and I have a deep desire to own a house someday.

If I own a house, it’s like I will never have to leave. I can grow old there. I can die there. I can sink into it. Get comfortable. A small square of earth that is entirely my own.

•••

Then there was the story my grandmother never told me: the story of the other baby, her baby, the first one. I don’t think they ever named him.

In those days, you didn’t talk about stillbirth. The doctor told them to grieve briefly, then try right away for another baby.

That’s one of the few details I know. That, and the cord wrapped around his neck.

In my mind, the cord is blue, the room is blue, the baby blue. Gray and blue swirling together, enveloping the room in a dense fog.

I wonder if they ever saw him.

Did they hold him? Could they bear it?

Their second son, Raphael, the angel, was born a year later, as the doctor recommended.

But where did the grief go?

You never saw my grandmother in grief, only in fear. Her sister gone, this baby, too. Life so fragile, so temporary.

My grandmother used to read the obituaries every day. She’d sit in the rocking chair next to the aqua-blue telephone.

Did he die as he entered the world, as he journeyed out of her body? Or did he die inside her?

My son Ben was born that way, with the cord around his neck. The midwife told me to stop pushing for second; then she deftly hooked her finger under the cord, and slipped it off him. He came crashing out of me, alive and screaming.

I don’t know what happened with my grandmother’s baby, but sometimes I imagine that I could save him—unloop that cord, set him free, stamp out the panic that passed from my grandmother’s body, into my mother’s, into me.

•••

I started walking when I was eighteen. I was coming out of one of the toughest times of my life: the first time I’d experienced a period of panic attacks.

It started the summer I turned sixteen.

I used to spend the summer with my father in California. That summer was brutal. I missed my boyfriend (who would later become my husband), and I was starting to assert myself in new ways—typical of the teenage years. I began to criticize my father and my stepmom. Harshly. I wasn’t pulling any punches. It got nasty, fast. They couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t handle me. I couldn’t handle them. And I felt trapped.

After that summer, I developed an intense fear of flying (obvious connection there—flying meant visiting my father). And, devastated by my abandonment, my father cut off all communication with me for a year. In that year, my phobias increased. Things I’d never been afraid of before became tinged with the most incredible, raw terror I’d ever felt.

I was afraid of all modes of transportation, really. Cars, taxis, the school bus. There had been a shooting on the Long Island Railroad, and I was sure it would happen again, to me. I was deathly afraid of mass shootings. I’d get nervous in crowded places. The diner. The mall. Thank God school shootings weren’t rampant at the time—I’m sure I would have been too scared to go to school.

I gained a lot of weight. I’d always been a normal weight—curvy as I became pubescent, but always in a normal range. I gained at least twenty pounds then. I ate to cushion my frightened body. I ate to silence my racing heart.

Somehow—I’m not really sure how—I started to come out of the panic. I decided to see a therapist. She wasn’t great, but just the act of going was good for me. And I started walking, both to lose the weight, and also because I found it amazingly freeing. It seemed to wash the anxiety out of my body. And I liked being out of my house. I liked the fresh air. I liked the endorphins. I liked being able, at last, to think clearly. I liked slicing through the world at my own pace. I liked looking at the perfect houses, with the perfect families inside (or so I imagined).

All these years later, I still walk almost every day. Sometimes with a baby strapped to my chest, or a toddler in a stroller. And on weekends, entirely alone.

Since this past summer, I have added some running to my routine. I’m not sure why. I had been having dreams about running. It seemed absurd to me at first. But the dreams were like magic, like I was gliding through space.

•••

When we moved to the new house last summer, we noticed several white beings swooping across the trees out in the distance, over the pond.

Later, we realized: egrets.

And then the four of us—even the baby—would wait until night came (it came late then, in summer) and wait for them at the window. It was magic. Pure and simple. These great, graceful birds, with wings that were quiet, long breaths.

As the earth cooled, the egrets retreated. Where did they go? No one asked. We moved deeper into the everyday. School started. The days got shorter and darker.

But I have thought over the months, where did they go? You always hear that birds go south. But really—where? Or do some die? I guess that’s what I really want to know.

I am obsessed with beings—people—coming and going. The way they wander in and out of lives. And how they get there.

My grandmother would always ask: How did you get here? By foot? Car? Train? She was interested in modes of transportation—fixated on the travel routes of the ones she loved. She wanted to make sure you would arrive at your destination in one piece. “Call when you get there,” she’d say.

The formation of birds as they migrate—of course it takes our breath away. The unspoken communication, the way their bodies seem to magnetize to each other. Don’t we all just want to know where to go? And with whom to travel? What comfort there. What grace.

Ben wants to get a new camera with a zoom lens so that we can photograph the egrets this summer to preserve the magic. We know it’s temporary. We want to capture it.

Just a week ago, the pond was covered in snow, and under the snow—ice. Now it’s melted, and the ducks swim smoothly through it. On the way home from a walk today, Peter and I heard them quacking.

Yes, spring. Which leads to summer. And all the birds opening their wings, returning home.

•••

We missed the ceremony.

After we were all dressed, we rushed through the hotel, past restaurants and gift shops, up escalators, around corners—everything sharply glittering. We found signs for the reception (there were many) and took the final elevator up to the very top of the building.

The elevator opened onto the wedding. The reception was in full swing. I saw the bride first, my cousin, towering over me in heels, her burnt-red hair, endlessly flowing shimmer-white dress trailing behind her. She was rosy-cheeked, in a just-married daze, and thrilled that we made it.

No guilt. No worries. No fear. We made it.

An enormous picture window overlooked the ocean. It was twilight, and the grays and blues from outside drifted into the wedding hall, bathing everyone in a warm, ethereal light.

I began to breathe.

I scanned the room for my family. There they were, my mother and sister, sitting on a leather loveseat together, plates of hors d’oeurves balanced on their laps. My mother and sister—strange and beautiful to see them here, in this otherworldly place, a place none of us had ever been before, and would probably never return.

For a while I just watched them, and time seemed to melt away. Then I looked at my two sons, who had quickly situated themselves in front of the window, cheek to cheek, watching seagulls sweep across the sea.

My husband appeared beside me, put his arms around my shoulders, asked me if I was feeling better, and walked me down the aisle toward the ones I loved.

•••

WENDY WISNER is the author of two books of poems. Her essays and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Washington Post, Literary MamaThe Spoon River Review, Brain, Child magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and lives with her family in New York. For more, visit her website www.wendywisner.com. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

Tell Us About Yourself

kissylips
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Rae Pagliarulo

In the later half of my twenties, I went on upwards of fifty dates, mostly firsts with no encore, thanks to everyone’s favorite exercise in social humiliation: online dating. Of the limitless options, three platforms emerged as major resources. E-Harmony, perfect for serious, generally religious, mid-thirties marriage hunters; Match, for a subset of the same not willing to pay as much because the guy from the bar around the corner might still turn into something; and most often, OK Cupid, the web version of a hipster bar, packed to the gills with tattooed Peter Pans in tight pants just waiting to quote obscure Neutral Milk Hotel lyrics to a knitter/baker/anarchist/novelist with a body like a Victoria’s Secret model and a genuine interest in brewing her own kombucha.

I’ve paid for three-month subscriptions and then renewed. I’ve paid for one-month trials and then cancelled inside of a week. I’ve been honest and succinct; I’ve lied and been verbose. I’ve posted artsy, moody pictures, smiling pictures, and full-body pictures with my hips turned so my belly pooch didn’t show. I’ve left a trail of carefully chosen breadcrumbs behind me with no guarantee that they would lead to who I was.

I’ve met men in bars, in restaurants, in parks, at the movies, and coffee shops. I’ve kissed them full on the mouth before we even decided whether or not to split the check. I’ve faked explosive diarrhea and left before the waiter could take our second drink order. I’ve told darling little lies, like I’m just getting over someone, or You remind me of my exfiancé. I’ve told awful truths, like I feel as much chemistry with you as I do a Brill-o pad, or We have so little in common that I’m amazed we made it past the half-hour mark. I’ve been compared to someone’s mother, my hips a mirror to her own childbearing ones (and it was meant as a compliment).

Before almost every single one of my numerous first dates, I have made myself sick. I have doubled over with awful stomach cramps and gone to the bathroom six times in an hour. I’ve eaten, then thrown up, then eaten again so I could drink on the date without passing out plastered on the sidewalk. I’ve taken herbal sedatives, shots of whiskey, and tiny pills etched with Valium Vs. I’ve meditated and done yoga and chanted. Legs up the wall, mind clear. Nothing worked.

Sometimes just getting in front of another person made the anxiety disappear. I could ask questions and focus on the answers instead of the awful ticker tape in my head. “Where did you go to school?” Get out before he realizes you’re so messed up. “Wow, the youngest of six kids?” God, why do you even bother?

Thoughts like that, and worse, have been running through me since childhood. Within the codependent universe of an alcoholic household, I grew up believing that something as insignificant as a drink or two could turn my biggest fan into my worst enemy. In middle school, after years of navigating my father’s volatile but high-functioning alcoholism and its effect on my family, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, a form of anxiety that catapults mere thoughts into inescapable physicality. One troubling feeling can snowball into a full-blown attack in minutes, and once it has landed in the body, reason is a pitiful remedy. Meeting new people was tremendously challenging, and I was relentlessly worried about falling for a duplicitous charmer like Dad. The question was not if every man I met would devastate me—it was when. Better to beat them to the punch.

Sometimes, within minutes, I knew the person I was with wouldn’t be enough to distract me, and the pain and sickness would escalate to the point where the date would end and I’d smile blankly, knowing I hadn’t heard a single word he said. I’ve sent myself home claiming I suffered from migraines, stomach viruses, a sprained ankle, a sore throat, and once or twice, in moments of breathless, sweaty desperation, I’ve admitted to ailing from the only thing I ever actually had: panic attacks.

Sometimes I hurled myself into the next passing cab, only peering out the slammed door to wave apologetically. Sometimes they insisted on walking me home, and I would want to scream, Leave me here! Turn back now! They would lean in near my front step to kiss me, smelling of too much Aqua Velva and a stealthily chewed piece of gum, and if the date had been awful, I’d dodge their eager mouths and hug them, hips held far back, before bolting up the stairs. If it were merely unfortunate or strange, I’d think the kiss could save things, maybe just a little, and I’d make out with a stranger while the neighbors watched from suspiciously parted mini-blinds.

Those kisses never saved anything. They didn’t save the Republican cook who fried tater tots in the back of a topless go-go bar when he lit up a bowl of weed in his living room, never bothering to ask me if I minded. They didn’t save the overzealous and surprisingly effeminate dancer/photographer who placed his hands on my hips and complimented the fashionable details of my dress like a jealous girlfriend on a shopping trip, instead of sending lightning bolts down my thighs. They didn’t save the milquetoast retail worker who had no professional aspirations or genuine taste in music, beer, or movies, or the tattooed music teacher who wrote manifestos on cocktail napkins and was ceaselessly “just about done” his novel, or the sensitive Jewish middle school teacher who harbored badly hidden desires for unprotected sex and hand-jobs given in public.

They didn’t save Jon, a beer brewer who looked more like a pen salesman—mousy and unassuming in his photos, but I was taking my best friend’s advice to heart and giving anyone with half a personality a chance. “Shots on goal,” she’d say to me when I slumped home from another disappointing rendezvous. “Even if you shoot and miss every time, you’re upping your average.” My analytical brain leapt with deranged joy at the chance of standardizing and measuring a process that felt completely unpredictable and random. It became my new mantra, the thing I mumbled when I responded affirmatively to dates I had no interest in attending.

Jon and I met at a whiskey bar, lit low with mason jar candles and old-fashioned yellow-stained pendants. He was nice enough. He looked fine. He made me laugh once or twice, and when he kissed me on a busy street corner at the end of the night, I didn’t stop him. A homeless man told us to get a room, and in response, Jon placed his hand respectfully on my right ass cheek, as carefully as he would on a Bible while taking an oath.

I saw him twice more, simply because I didn’t have a good enough reason to stop. There was nothing wrong with Jon, but nothing quite right, either. Where I looked for sex appeal, magnetism, and a slanted take on the world, I found only politeness, consistency, and a rut right down the middle of the road, where he and his views so comfortably walked. On our third and final date, we had weak drinks, pleasant conversation, an uneventful walk up Walnut Street, and a boring stroll through Rittenhouse Square. We sat on a bench and the moment his arm reached up, over, and around my shoulder, it started.

The sweating, the heart palpitations, and terrible shortness of breath. Suddenly, his arm weighed a ton and I was being pushed under the bench, into the ground. I felt suffocated. “What do you want to do?” he asked courteously.

I want to run, I thought. I want to throw up right here on the ground and then run home. “I dunno,” I mumbled, trying to smile. I hid it for as long as I could, licking my lips, wiping the sweat from the back of my neck. I had all the composure of Tammy Faye Bakker in the last hour of a telethon. Before I knew it, I was yelling something about the stomach flu to him as I ran across 18th Street, ignoring the red light, waving my arm desperately for the five occupied cabs hurling down the lane towards me. I wheezed and shook the whole way home, and ignored his text messages: R U OK? When can I see U again? I knew the answer was never. He couldn’t see me—nobody could.

Those kisses, they didn’t save me, either. Each subscription lapsed, and I dejectedly read each vaguely threatening auto-response email from behind my brick wall. If you don’t act now, we will take down your photo and profile. You will not be able to see your match. He’s out there. We’ve got him right here, in fact. He can’t wait to meet you. Just update your credit card information. That’s how they get us, the hopeful and desperate. This site is the one place we haven’t looked. His profile is the one we haven’t yet clicked on. Signing up for these websites feels like gambling through a losing streak. If you pull the lever enough times, you’re bound to get a cherry or two. The cocktails, the small-talk, the hundred different ways I came up with to describe my favorite foods, my aspirations in life, the places I’d vacation if I had a million dollars—I wonder if it all brought me closer to the final goal, The Guy, or if it just kept me distracted during the inevitable wait.

That’s the thing about fate. Those of us who keep a white-knuckled chokehold on reality want to believe that things happen because we work for them. The idea that it all occurs the way it’s meant to, no matter what we do, is dizzying and takes the ground from under our feet. So whether it’s true or not, whether it’s a lie I tell myself or the God’s honest truth, I’m grateful to E-Harmony, to OK Cupid, to whiskey in dark bars and coffee on Sundays, to panic attacks and stomach cramps, to lies told to strangers and truths admitted over the phone after midnight. I’m thankful I didn’t give up even though I wanted to a million times.

It feels cheap to admit that after all that, it actually worked once—that I met someone on OK Cupid who, for some reason, never made me want to throw up or run away. He was the last person I messaged before I decided to deactivate my profile for the last time, after a particularly rough streak. Feeling an uncharacteristic surge of hope, I took a final shot towards the goal, writing a curt but cute message to him around dinnertime, and issued an unspoken deadline of midnight for a response before I clicked the “Delete My Account” button with an outstretched middle finger. Twenty minutes later, we had made plans to meet. Why did he lock into place so effortlessly when so many others felt around in the dark for a connection? It could have been instinct, his deep-set blue eyes, the cosmos, the wrinkle along his left ear, or maybe my tired, agitated soul felt the same fidgety weariness in him. But I think I’m okay with not knowing for sure. It’s not my job to understand why some things crash and burn while others flourish. It’s my job to tell the story when it all shakes out.

•••

RAE PAGLIARULO is an MFA Creative Writing Candidate at Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in West Chester University’s Daedalus Magazine of the Arts and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is also the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize. She works and lives (and dates) in Philadelphia.