RePair

tinyhouse
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Gina Cooke

My dishwasher broke. So I’m standing at my sink, hand-washing all of the dirty dishes I’d rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher the day before, plus the rest of what had accumulated since. Doing the dishes always means looking out the kitchen window. In the warm weather, with the window open, I can hear the bullfrogs and waterbirds from down in the creek. Today I’m washing and watching, my rubber-gloved hands warm in the soapy water, Joe’s work-gloved hands lifting broken cinder blocks and chunks of concrete off of the back lawn and onto the trailer, which is hitched to the back of the John Deere.

His arms still bear bruises from the beating he took changing the John Deere’s blades the week before. His shins are scratched from mushroom hunting in shorts deep in the woods, and his right knee is scabbed over from where the guardrail on the bridge gouged him impressively as he tried to climb over it. Last week, he took a weedy thorn to the front of his nose, and it bled and bled and bled, but he said he wasn’t hurt. Now he’s outside my kitchen window, in the fenced-in part of the back yard, bending over and righting himself, lifting and moving one jagged hunk at a time. His black gloves say CAT in big yellow letters. After he has removed the blocks, he mows inside the fence. I go upstairs to get some work done on my laptop, the push mower sputtering in the background. After a while it’s quiet, and he comes in to ask for a burger. I’ve learned to keep ground beef, Swiss cheese, and buns on hand at all times.

I head back to the kitchen and open the fridge, hunting and gathering, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, provolone, that brown mustard that he likes, butter for the cast iron skillet and to toast the buns. I look out the window to see the shorn lawn out back, and Joe in reverse motion now, heaving new cinderblocks off the trailer into a tidy little octagon in the grass, his yellow-lettered CAT hands swinging with each heavy hoist. I quickly pat the beef into concave disks and set them on a smear of butter in the pan. For nearly two decades I was a vegan, but today the sound and smell of sizzling fat and flesh make my mouth water without compunction. Outside, Joe stands back to admire his work: We have a sweet new fire pit in the back yard now. He comes in, washes up, and sits down to his burger and a Gatorade. Purple, low-calorie. His favorite.

There are always a million repair projects around my property. Or maintenance. Sometimes I lose track of the difference. And there are upgrades too. Things that work perfectly well but are ugly or old or otherwise undesirable. I don’t expect Joe to take on everything all on his own. I make calls, set appointments, take care of the household business. I need to have the heating vents cleaned. And several stumps ground out of the front yard to make it easier for Joe to get the mowing done. It’s a part time job, the mowing. A few hours a day, a few days a week, in season, to keep everything sensible around here.

And I had a painter come out the other day to give me a quote on several smallish jobs: My kitchen ceiling has that horrible popcorn texture on it and it’s impossible to clean, so it has this greasy little beard on it right over the stove. Twenty-three years of the detritus of cooking here, ten of them mine. My son’s bedroom needs painting too, and then there’s the trim on the inside.

•••

It used to be that I would come home from work in the late evening to find the house a wreck, my husband and son still in their pajamas, homework incomplete, no dinner or bath or bedtime stories in progress. Upstairs in the master bedroom, my husband would proudly show me the fruits of his day of labor: tiny, elaborate, repeating patterns of flowers and leaves and berries that he had painstakingly painted on the wooden trim around the windows and doors and the crown molding framing the room. He would spend the hours I was at work on a stepladder in the bedroom, choosing and mixing paints and delicate brushes, dabbing dots of gold and silver highlights on his acrylic flora, all the while neglecting the real plants on our small farm and the real boy pinging off the walls downstairs wondering what would ever be for dinner.

•••

The kitchen ceiling and the boy’s room are easy enough problems to solve. The trim is another story. “You could sand it and prime it and paint it,” explained the man through his fuzzy gray beard, “but you’d still be able to see it.” I nodded. “Some days the light will hit it just right, and even with a few coats of paint, those patterns will make themselves known to you again.”

I could imagine exactly what he meant, and there was no way I was going to pay someone to do all that work only to still see those flowers in relief just refusing to die in the afternoon light.

“Call Kevin,” he suggested. “He’ll come in and redo that trim for you, and it’ll be much nicer than what you have now. Get those corners right with a miter saw.”

I think to myself, Joe’s such a real man to be able to lie with me in my big marital bed with that shitty trim and the painted ramblings of an unbalanced mind insistently outlining the bedroom.

•••

My first divorce hearing was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2014. We were still living together, but my husband had moved himself to the guest room in the basement. The night before the hearing, the tension in the house was horrific. There was screaming and wailing and it was so, so dark. It finally simmered down to a wretched and tearful talk in the kitchen, just outside my son’s bedroom door. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, wanted to be out of my son’s earshot, for crying out loud. I excused myself from further conversation. My husband responded sorely, “I hope you sleep well in the bedroom I made beautiful for you.”

•••

Like my divorce, all these repair projects always cost more than I think they will, and at this point it’s all money I don’t have. In the nineteen months since the sheriff removed my husband from the house, I’ve had to put in a new water treatment system and a new barn door. I bought a new used car on credit—appropriately enough, a Ford Escape. Bought a new doghouse and a new compost bin too.

I put in a security system after my husband broke in. I guess that’s an upgrade, though, not really a repair. I’ve had to replace siding and remove birds’ nests and repair both garage door openers after a bad windstorm. Fixed the refrigerator once and the dishwasher twice; now it’s not working again. I should’ve just replaced it the last time. Sometimes things aren’t worth repairing; it’s cheaper to get a newer, more efficient model than it is to keep sinking money into something that just doesn’t work. I know, I know, that’s how our landfills get full: planned obsolescence. Things don’t always last like they should.

Once Joe moves in, money will be a lot less tight. It’ll be different having a second income in the house after all these years of family breadwinning by myself. He’s not afraid of work. He brings in good money and he’s handy. Strong, incisive, good at figuring out how everything works: people, machines, plants, animals, electronics, toys.

I’ve never once heard him holler at things that get in his way, not even the stump that took out the blades on the John Deere. “There’s no point,” he says. “You can’t reason with inanimate objects.” This property has long felt to me like just a lot of work, but Joe says he’s always wanted to take care of a place like this. I can see that it satisfies him. I hope it stays that way. I’m trying everything I know to make sure that he feels like it’s his home too, even though it’s technically my house. I call it Our House, in the Middle of Our Street. I ask him to help me pick out area rugs and bedding. I’ve made space literally and figuratively: cleaning out closets and dressers, and learning to stop hosting him when he’s here because then he feels like a guest. But nothing that I do or don’t do is really key, because the thing that makes him feel most at home here is working on the place. He likes that John Deere. He was proud of those bruises.

•••

I’ve been known to tell people that owning a home is a lot like being in love: At the outset, it’s all spacious and bright and airy. It looks and feels perfect and seems worth all the sacrifices you had to make to get it. But then you move in and you start to fill it with your crap and you notice its flaws. Spaces fill up. Cracks start to show. New things get old. The dust settles, and one day you look around your place and realize that it’s not only not perfect, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Everything needs repair or maintenance or replacement. So you sand and you prime and you paint, and one day the light hits things just right and those old patterns just make themselves known all over again. An adult lifetime of monthly payments starts to seem a lot longer than it once did.

I also tell people that this home is a dream home, but it was someone else’s dream. I’m a city girl, a third-generation Angeleno. I lived in Paris and Chicago before I married, and I thrived. I never really even imagined myself paying a mortgage, let alone paying for a stump grinder or a John Deere or a barn door. I never dreamed of this place: a big pine-log home with a pitched metal roof and skylights, perched atop hilly green acreage in the rural Midwest. This winding road runs between two small central Illinois towns, and all my neighboring farmers—real farmers—have gone organic.

This place is beautiful, no question, when I take a longer view, when I can see past the claustrophobia of repairs and projects and dust. Out front, I have a porch swing and a healthy ecosystem and a pretty good sunset almost every night. There is no time of year that the view out my bedroom window is not breathtaking, if I look beyond the framework of florid trim. When it’s winter and the air is frozen clean, the early twilight colors the snow on the ground periwinkle blue. It happens every year. I’ve spent a decade in this house all told, long enough to see the patterns emerge.

•••

My husband had two favorite lies, and he told them louder and more frequently the closer I got to divorcing him: One was “you’ll never be able to take care of this place without me,” and the other was “no one else will ever love you.” I’m in my seventh season on my own here now; soon Joe will move in and that will change. It’s a good change, I think. The light is hitting everything just right, and from my perspective, it all seems to be in good repair.

•••

GINA COOKE is a linguist working toward her second graduate degree, a pursuit that has spanned half of her adult life. She lives and works on a small farm in the rural Midwest with her son and her dog. She typically writes about spelling: word histories, word structure, and word relatives. This is her first foray into the personal.

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The Girl Who Fell to Earth

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

By Naomi Shulman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

About a Ring

By Gautier Poupeau/ Flickr
By Gautier Poupeau/ Flickr

By Nikki Schulak

“This essay doesn’t have to be about our affair,” my boyfriend, who’s also a writer, told me.

This can just be a story about a ring.

•••

My son Max turns fourteen next month. He was sprawled on the couch watching a YouTube video—that viral Bruno Mars lip-dub marriage proposal that took place in Portland—when my husband and I came in from walking the dog.

David and I were in the middle of having the Why Don’t You Take Drum Lessons bicker. This is the one where I nag at him to find a hobby, and he says, “It’s not your responsibility to organize my life” and then I say, “I just want you to get out more, and be happy,” and then I get pouty, and he gets mad, and then I get mad that he’s mad.

Max looked up from his phone like he’d just realized we were in the room. “How did you—you know—propose to Mom?” he asked.

David and I stopped our bickering and collected ourselves.

I answered Max’s question even though I knew it was meant for David. “He got down on his knee. He gave me a dozen roses.”

“Yeah, everybody does that,” Max said. “I mean, what did he do that was special?

“Knee bending and roses are romantic,” I explained.

David spoke up. “Well, son.” He lowered his voice in the name of drama. “I chased her—from the Upper East side to the Upper West side—by cab.”

“You did?” This was more the kind of story Max had expected. Put some music behind it, and you’ve got a YouTube video.

Our whole engagement story is in fact special, but not the kind of special I’m ready to share with my teenager. I didn’t tell Max, for instance, that I’d bullied David into marrying me. Maybe “bullied” is too strong a word. I’d said something along the lines of, “David, we have to get married as soon as possible.”

And he said, “Why?”

And I said, “Because my parents are going to die soon, and it’s important to me that they see me get married.” My father had late stage diabetes. My mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her bones. Then I added, “I love you, honey. But if you aren’t ready to get married, then we’re going to have to break up because I need to find someone who is.”

After that, our conversation went on so long, I had to take a taxi to my psychiatrist’s appointment on the West side instead of the cross-town bus.

When I told the psychiatrist about my marriage proposal, she said, “Sometimes women are ready to get married before men are. Give him a little time.” My session lasted another twenty minutes. And, sure enough, when I walked out of the building, there was David waiting on the sidewalk. He did get down on a knee and handed me a dozen roses and said, “Nikki, I realize now if I don’t marry you, it will be the biggest mistake of my life.”

Then we walked along Central Park West holding hands until we found a pay phone and I called my mother. “Mom,” I said. “David and I are getting married!”

“Oh, Nikki, thank God!”

Then she asked, “When?”

“This summer, I think, Mom. On the farm.”

And she started to cry.

When we called David’s parents, his mother said, “Oh my goodness.” I couldn’t tell if she was excited or appalled.

•••

A few months after we’d announced our engagement, David and I gathered in the dining room of his Grandmother Kaska’s house with his parents, Anton and Margaret, and my parents, Bernie and Esther, and David’s sister. We couldn’t gather in the living room because it was full with two grand pianos. Kaska had trained at a conservatory in Switzerland before the war, and had then taught piano in Queens for more than forty years.

The china cabinet in the dining room was filled with ivory figurines from China and silver sugar bowls with silver tongs and bottles of liquor dating back to the fifties. On the walls were oil painted scenes of Paris, and Brussels, and also a few dark portraits.

I hadn’t expected an engagement ring. David and I had never discussed it, and it wasn’t something I had ever dreamed about. So when his family gave me the diamond, I was surprised. My hands are not beautiful. I garden without gloves and at the time I worked with animals, cleaning cages, and my nails are thin and tear easily and I bite them. After I started wearing the diamond, I tried to take better care of my hands. I’d quit biting for a while, months at a time, but then, I’d be at the movies, and the film would be suspenseful, and before I knew it, my nails would be raw and my cuticles would bleed.

Grandmother Kaska sat at the head of the table. On the wall behind her was a portrait of a woman who could have easily been mistaken for a man. Kaska said, “Nikki, I’m going to tell you a story.

“This”—she turned and pointed to the portrait, her eighty year old fingers bent and swollen from arthritis—“was Vera. Vera was my mother-in-law, Rajmund’s mother. She was the first to wear the ring.” Everyone in the room looked at the portrait of Vera, who looked back at us. “Vera’s husband worked in the diamond industry and he made the ring for her, in Amsterdam.

“When I became engaged to Rajmund, Vera took the ring off her finger and put it on mine. I wore that ring to Cuba when we couldn’t get into the United States. Three years later, I wore it to Ellis Island.” Kaska took a sip of tea. “When Margaret got engaged to my son, I took the ring off my finger and put it on hers.” Now Kaska looked at the ring on Margaret’s finger, so we all did.

My mother once told me, “Remember, when you get married, you’re marrying a whole family.”

Then Margaret got up from the table. She came and stood between David and me, and she took the ring off her finger. “I have to admit,” she said, “I thought I’d wear this ring a few more years.” She handed the ring to David, and he slipped it on my finger. Actually, he didn’t slip the ring on my finger, because it wasn’t a perfect fit, although by the time we got married in August, and I’d lost my bride pounds, the ring did fit just fine.

Margaret sat back down. “Go ahead and get a new setting if you don’t like this one,” she said. “I know you’re hard on your hands.” Everyone at the table looked at my hands. “But then, of course, with a new setting, it would no longer be the same ring.”

David’s sister, who was in high school at the time, said, “It’s weird to see it on your hand, Nikki. I’ll always associate it with my mother.”

My mother said, “I can’t believe my daughter is going to wear a diamond.”

I told this story to my girlfriend Penny. Penny has many diamonds, and I told her how the ring on my finger is ceremonially passed from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law in each generation, and that the expectation is that someday, I will give this ring to my son’s fiancée. Penny, who’s husband recently gave her some $2500 Kiki de Montparnasse pearl restraints and the accompanying 24K dipped handcuffs with key and chain for Mother’s Day, said, “Give your diamond engagement ring away to your daughter-in-law? Darling, I think that’s assuming an awful lot.”

I do wonder, though, who will I give it to? Because my son and my daughter both currently date girls, it’s possible I’ll have more than one daughter-in-law. Then what? Does it go to the spouse of the child who marries first? Or the one I like best? This is confusing, perhaps, but the important thing is this: the ring has been handed from one generation to the next, from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law for over one hundred years; it was on my finger that the ring broke.

•••

When I had the affair, then came out about it to David, I explained to him that I didn’t want to end the relationship with my boyfriend and I didn’t want to stop being a wife, either, and that was the beginning of our open marriage.

The transition was not elegant. David was hurt, and angry, and surprised. I became the family pariah, which of course, every family needs. David and I went to counseling, first just the two of us, then, my boyfriend, too. We called it tri-therapy, and it went on long enough that we couldn’t afford to rent a place at the beach that summer because our entire vacation budget was going to the therapist.

Near the same time we were becoming a truple, we had a step-niece who was divorcing after four years of marriage. Our kids had been in the wedding—a big wedding, at a vineyard in the Willamette Valley. The family opinion was that the divorce was unfortunate, especially given the twins, but still, much more socially acceptable than what David and I were choosing to do.

“It’s not like they get to vote,” David said.

“An open marriage?” David’s mother said to us. “What the hell am I supposed to tell people?”

“Tell people we love each other,” I answered. “And tell them that we love parenting our kids together in the same house.”

“But you cheated on him,” Margaret said.

“Tell them our sex life had irreconcilable differences. Tell them David’s dating lots of nice women. He’s doing just fine for himself.”

She considered this. “Why didn’t you come to us sooner? Maybe we could have helped.” Then she bestowed some advice: “Lots of married couples don’t have sex. After a while, in a marriage, sex doesn’t matter.”

“For me it matters,” I said to her. “It matters to me. And believe me, it matters to your son.”

What I didn’t tell her was that David hadn’t gone down on me in twenty years; that he’d confessed in couple’s therapy that he’d “never been that attracted to me,” but he thought it didn’t matter. I had tried to make myself more attractive to him. I lost weight, I dyed my hair, I wore sexy clothes and lingerie, but nothing I did made him want me the way I wanted to be wanted.

•••

I asked my step-niece out for lunch. Sadie is the one member of my family who didn’t treat me like a pariah at the family gatherings we still got invited to. I admired her, and I trusted her to give me the straight story.

“Sadie, I feel a little paranoid. It’s been more than a year since you got divorced, and I came out about the affair, and I get this sense like everybody in the family is still just talking about me behind my back.”

“You aren’t paranoid. Everybody is still talking about you behind your back.” She took a big bite of her turkey reuben. “We have parties you aren’t invited to.”

“I know about the parties. What are they saying about me?”

“I knew you’d ask, so I brought some notes.” She took her Smart Phone out of her purse. “Do you want me to read them to you now, or do you want me to send them to you in an e-mail?”

“Oh my God, Sadie. Just read them.” The ice was melting in my tea.

I’ll never get over that she lied to us. It’s shameful.

I can forgive her for the affair. It’s the fact that she hasn’t stopped with that boyfriend.

If her parents were alive, they would be embarrassed by her choices.

She should take off that family ring and give it back to Margaret. Of course now no one will ever want to wear it.

And my personal favorite:

They should take their daughter out of St Mary’s and put her in the public schools.

Sadie closed her phone and finished her sandwich. “I’m sorry, Nikki. I’ve got about five more minutes and then I have to head back to the office. Let’s have dinner soon.”

“Listen. I don’t want to have to explain about us anymore. Neither does David. We’re always on the defensive. I want us all to be able to be in the same room at Thanksgiving this year. I really want to know: What do you think we should do?” Sadie freshened her lipstick. She took her keys out of her purse and set them on the table.

“You’re the ones who’ve chosen the morally ambiguous path. You owe them more education.”

I know Sadie hated selling their bungalow after the divorce. She hates the shared custody. She hates the way her kids come back from weekends with their dad all tense and frazzled.

My boyfriend is a good man. He and David get along. The kids like him. So does the dog. He makes homemade burgers that our son describes as “the best he’s ever eaten.” He was our daughter’s preferred driving instructor this summer.

“What we’re doing isn’t destructive,” I say. “It’s not simple, or easy, but it’s working for us.”

“Don’t tell me,” she said. “Tell them.”

•••

I did not take the ring off out of shame or as a protest. The shank split just as we were preparing for a big family trip, and when we got back, I was busy and it sat in a box on a shelf in my bedroom for six months. The jeweler I took it to for repair called the split a “stress fracture” and told me it wasn’t my fault. He said the solder line had worn down from years of rubbing and normal wear. He asked me when I’d had it resized.

“Never. I think my mother-in-law had it resized when she gave it to me—more than twenty years ago.”

The jeweler nodded his head as if that explained everything, and he studied the ring with his loupe. “This diamond isn’t particularly brilliant, but it’s charming. I’d estimate it was cut sometime between 1790 and 1820.”

“1790? It’s older than I thought.”

The jeweler looked up at me.

“Old?” He kept a straight face. “This diamond was formed in the earth more than a billion years ago.” He looked back at the diamond and added, “This is an old European Cut. It’s got a high crown, a small table, and a large, flat culet. It also has a circular girdle, and—take a look here—it has fifty-eight facets.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “The family tells a different story.”

He shrugged, then he pointed out that there was some prong failure. He got out a little envelope, dropped the ring in, and wrote out a claim slip. “I’ll have it done by next Saturday.”

When I got back home from the jeweler, I texted David.

Me: The ring was made by Vera’s husband and given to her, right? Because the according to the jeweler, the diamond is actually older than we thought. Can you ask your dad about this?

David: Actually, I think the ring was originally forged by Sauron. In Mordor.

Me: And can you ask your dad what his grandfather’s name was? And what year did he and Vera marry?

David: Why don’t you just ask my dad yourself?

So I sent my father-in-law a quick, casual e-mail, asking about the ring. He still hasn’t replied.

•••

When I picked up the ring, the band sparkled in a way I’d never noticed. The jeweler asked if I’d like my other rings cleaned as well. I didn’t know that gold needed to be cleaned. I handed him the two other rings I wear: my mother’s wedding ring, that I’ve worn since she died nineteen years ago, and my wedding ring, which I’ve never had cleaned in the twenty-one years I’ve worn it. He didn’t comment on my mother’s simple gold band, but he admired my wedding ring. “This is old, too,” he said, impressed. “I’d estimate 1820s—because of the Lily of the Valley pattern, and the quality of the gold. Is it eighteen carat?”

“I don’t think so…”

“Is it English?”

“I don’t think so…”

He looked inside the band and found the inscription “David and Nikki 1994”. David’s wedding band has the same inscription as mine, except in his ring, my name comes first. We had asked the woman who designed the rings for us to copy an old pattern. We wanted them to look seasoned, like they’d seen a lot of love.

The jeweler shrugged.

Despite the family’s opinions, I don’t have any intentions of returning the engagement ring early. Partly, this is because I like the way it looks on my hand now that I’ve discovered a good gel manicure holds up for weeks, and partly because my boyfriend whispers sexy things in my ear when I’m wearing it, and partly because I won’t be shamed. I want my kids to associate this ring with my finger. Someday, I want them to reflect on the fact that I didn’t take it off.

•••

NIKKI SCHULAK writes and performs comedy about bodies and relationships. Her work has been published in numerous journals and websites. Her essay “On Not Seeing Whales” (Bellevue Literary Review) was chosen as a Notable Selection in Best American Essays 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her teenagers, her husband, her boyfriend, and her beloved dog, Calvin.

 

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.

End of the Road

wings tattoo
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Dina L. Relles

The beat-up Volvo station wagon hummed softly. It idled in the vacant parking lot of the sports stadium at the far corner of campus. My hands lay in my lap, my legs folded underneath me against the tan leather interior. We weren’t touching; I could feel his familiar look of desperation from across the console. Even in the half-light, I glimpsed that endearing gap between his two front teeth.

The clear New England night tapped at the windows, but the air that hung between us was stagnant. Heavy with the weight of our weekend away, it held the closeness of two people who’d traveled together. I fiddled with the fraying fringe at the bottom of my jeans as he spoke.

“Which is more likely?” His voice cracked. “That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”

There it was: our impasse. It was just like him to cut to the heart of the matter.

•••

There is a framed picture on my parents’ mantel of my father holding my face in his hands. We’re both crying, though he is not a man of tears. He was whispering the traditional blessing parents give to their children every Friday night—and there was something else too, words I can’t quite recall. But what remains in the sieve of memory is the sound of relief mixed with hope.

Moments later, I walked down the aisle to someone I’d long known but waited until adulthood to love. We shared a common past, a summer camp, and now a cup of wine under the huppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. The room rejoiced. It was just as I’d always pictured it.

•••

A phone rang in my freshman dorm room in early October. He’d sat three rows in front of me in the massive lecture hall with his perfectly tattered baseball cap and freshly pressed prep school charm. I’d noticed him instantly, and every day thereafter.

An innocent request to borrow a course packet was quickly followed by an invitation to meet for coffee one evening. Easy, endless conversation flowed over my grande house blend and his hot chocolate with whipped cream that stuck to his top lip. First kisses on a dimly lit dorm porch led to nighttime snowball fights in Roger Williams Park and private flights in the campus Cessna.

One February night, my right arm dangled off the edge of the top bunk in his dorm room. A thin white undershirt separated his skin from mine as we exchanged pre-dawn confidences. He told of the time he sang to a dying pigeon as a child. Then, propped up on one arm, he looked down with aching eyes that ripped right through me. “I hope this doesn’t scare you,” he said, “but I think I’m falling in love with you.”

He sailed in regattas, sang a cappella, piloted planes. He was the captain of the squash team and several numbers punctuated his last name. His parents were Republicans.

He was Episcopalian. I was the rabbi’s daughter.

We had nothing in common.

We fell in love.

I shouldn’t act so surprised. It was, in a way, inevitable.

•••

Something about winter stirs up memory. Tiny reminders drift down like snowflakes, settling just long enough to make me shift with unease.

It was winter when I first stepped foot in a church. On a family trip to London, I’d insisted we visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Religion had become academic for me; I was endlessly curious, inevitably skeptical.

St. Paul’s was dark, quiet, ornate. Candles cut through the black and cast strange shadows on the coarse granite stones underfoot. It was silent, save for shuffling feet and serene hymnal music. It felt thrilling, almost scandalous somehow, to be there, and with my family. As we stood in its echoing, cavernous belly, I was struck, above all, by how familiar it felt.

•••

I’d long stayed the course—years at Jewish day schools bled into summers at Jewish camp. Synagogues were second homes where I’d spend Saturdays sneaking around back hallways and swelling with pride at my father perched on the pulpit, masterfully holding court.

But even the most charmed childhood is no match for coming of age. My small, unconventional high school encouraged critical thinking about religion in a way the Orthodox schools of my youth had not. Long after class let out, I spent late nights sprawled on my gray carpet, a telephone cord tangled in my fingers, debating and dissecting faith with provocative friends. Questions led to more questions with answers that all ultimately led to God. It felt cyclical and unsatisfying, and I hungered for proof that wouldn’t come.

The quest itself became a kind of creed, and if I believed anything at all, it was that we were all connected in our shared uncertainty. I felt suffocated by the singularity of perspective, the smallness of my world. I still followed, more out of familiarity than faith, but it grew harder for me to reconcile religious practice with my steady skepticism. Doubt became my dogma, and I set out for college drunk with desire for diversity and distance.

Even in the earliest weeks away, I’d stopped observing the Sabbath and avoided eager solicitations from the Jewish groups on campus. I drafted term papers disputing the divine and touting the relativity of morality and truth. I rolled the word agnostic around on my tongue.

Now my safe, inner explorations had propelled me into the arms of another. Now they lived outside of me—in pleading eyes that reflected back my deepest doubts.

•••

I hear a knock on the bedroom door and I throw on a damp towel, droplets from my hair tickling my arms. My middle son stands on the other side, gripping a glass perilously filled with electric green smoothie.

“Daddy made this for you.”

Ours is a different love, no doubt. No two people love the same. Not even the same two people over time.

Ours is no forbidden affair and our first kisses have long since faded. We share a mature love of burden and responsibility, of bearing other people who fill our hearts and hours.

Ours is a love not of questioning, but constancy and comfort, of leftovers and lights left on. It’s routine and real, not sexy, but sturdy and sure. It is as it should be.

•••

I was the one who subconsciously sabotaged our secrecy over winter break. He’d given me a single iris on the night before we left campus. I’d brought it home, openly clutching it so as not to crush it in my carry-all. Never one to lie outright, when my parents asked its origin, I uttered his Anglican name. On a sleepless night, through streaming tears that distorted the once familiar fixtures of my high school bedroom, I sat opposite my mother and father as they drew their line in the sand—and I was too close to home, in age and at heart, to cross it.

We returned to campus that winter with renewed resolve to plot our relationship’s untimely death. Our lips locked, but our hands were tied. Come summer, we vowed, we’d end it. In the meantime, we busied ourselves with letting our love linger longer than it should.

•••

One October afternoon, my high heels click-clack on the uneven Philadelphia pavement as they carry me home from work. I clutch my cell phone with my free hand, catching up with my mother en route.

Our conversation is casual as we chat about my husband’s sister and her strong interfaith family. But then, with a carelessness more misguided than malevolent, my mother flippantly remarks that perhaps she could have made peace with me ending up with a non-Jew.

My reaction is not my standard-issue irritability, but a searing blood boil that turns me inside out until words form at my lips.

“You’re not allowed to say that.” I choke out. “It will never be okay.” And it isn’t. I hang up and hurry home, holding back tears until I cross the threshold of that cozy first marital apartment on 24th Street.

•••

By late spring, under the pretense of a squash tournament in the neighboring state, we set out on a secret road trip to Concord, Massachusetts. I’d shifted uncomfortably on plastic bleachers as I watched his lithe, lean body flit back and forth across the court. I impatiently awaited our evening reunions, our no-frills dinner fare. We wandered Walden Pond in late afternoon light and spent nights on dorm room floors of dear friends. We’d driven ourselves deeper into the heart of the thing.

Upon return, unwilling and unready to reenter campus life, we hid out in his old station wagon at what felt like the edge of the world. In this makeshift refuge, we talked of our incompatible faith and future. We imagined a world where our love could live, where it could defeat difference.

“I believe in the god that brought us together,” he whispered into the darkness. As if that settled everything.

•••

It’s nearing bedtime on a visit to my parents’ home, and eight o’clock finds my mother and me jockeying for access to toothpaste, sink space, and my two older sons’ mouths. The boys are wound up, and I steel myself for the inevitable resistance to lights out.

My well-worn “time for bed” speech is met with their most fervent protests until the volume in the little bathroom reaches a fever pitch. My mother, a panacea always at the ready, offers up the Shema—the daily prayer—if the boys get in their beds. They dutifully file out of the bathroom and climb under covers, my mother trailing behind.

Instead of turning right, with them, I duck left into my old bedroom so they wouldn’t see the tears forming.

I could hear my mother’s soft voice sending the ancient words of the Shema into the night—Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.

An innocent profession of belief and devotion. But also, unavoidably, a pronouncement, a tribal rallying call, ushering my children off to sleep as it once did me.

•••

I leaned against the car seat, exhaling deeply. My mind wandered back to the open road, to that stretch of New England highway that rose and fell while Fields of Gold played in the background. Where we could quietly consider a different life.

Just the day before, we’d slipped into a diner on the side of the road, flushed with the promise of two more hours together. We sat across from each other, laughing and coloring on the backs of our menus with kid crayons. We were stealing time. Eventually, our casual conversation stuttered, giving way to the familiar desperation that followed us everywhere. To the outside, we must have looked so normal, I thought. Like a regular couple.

I stared straight ahead. There we sat. Steeped in the thick, black night. The station wagon. Our impossibly idealistic love.

“Which is more likely? That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”

His words hung there. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know.

•••

Winter again, and I’m sitting on the scratchy den carpeting surrounded by the smiling, soft-skinned loves of my life. They watch kid TV while I sip afternoon coffee. A silly bit flashes across the screen featuring cartoons introducing the Chanukah holiday to their wide-eyed audience. A character turns to the camera and simply says, “Chanukah celebrates the miracle of light.”

Yes. I look out the back deck door and up to the gray afternoon light of a quiet December day. For a moment, I let out the breath that it feels I’m perpetually holding and my shoulders slacken. Maybe I could do this, I think. Extract morsels of meaning and weave a tradition that could draw me back in, make me whole.

It’s true—it remains where I am most at home.

In the smell of freshly baked challot on Friday afternoon. At an evening prayer service overlooking the lake at my summer camp, where I now return to work. Familiar melodies float up in the open air; I mouth the words without intention but through force of habit.

And yet. If I let myself think, I no longer belong. Familiarity, even love, cannot foster faith.

I tiptoe through the hallways of my childhood home. I sit with secretive silence and summon a smile. I’m an outsider looking in, faithful to a faith in which I only have doubt, belonging to a life that accepts only almost all of me.

I will forever be stuck in the stagnant air of that station wagon, staring into the darkness, searching for answers.

•••

We stayed late on campus, a week past semester’s end—he to sing a cappella, me to be with him. Both of us to savor and suffer a relationship that felt far from over. Our months had become minutes, but we kept our vow. We left for summer separate and single, admitting—only to each other—that the love lingered on. Of course it did.

Still, we ended it. A choice made when there was none: a promise to a faith I no longer had and an inability to imagine traveling the unpaved road that lay ahead.

•••

I collapse on the bed one night after tucking in my boys. I can hear my husband clanking around in the kitchen below, fielding a few last phone calls as he readies his evening tea.

New impossible questions follow me: “Maybe God is like the wind?” asks my oldest after lights out. “Invisible and everywhere.” I hum a non-response, then softly step into the baby’s room to stare with longing at his simple sleep.

In this season of life, the day’s demands leave little room for worry or wonder. I welcome intrusions—endless child chatter, babies stirring in the night. I’m uncertain, yet content. Winter’s restless reminders, the grounding weight of home, the not knowing—it’s who I am now. It’s what’s left.

He finishes his work, climbs the stairs, and settles at the edge of the bed. I wedge my feet under his legs for warmth and finally drift off to sleep.

•••

DINA L. RELLES is a lawyer, writer, and mother of three young sons. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and writes regularly on her own site, Commonplace. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.

The Curious Thing about Doubt and Faith

man in street
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Shuly Cawood

In the early mornings of the spring that I turned twenty-nine, I drove on a stretch of Ohio’s Route 68 to work. I liked it best when the road showed up for me alone, when I could steer in a kind of solitary silence from village into county, from Epic Books and Ha Ha Pizza to the stoplight on Cemetery Road, then past pastures and swaths of farmland and the occasional framed house onto which the sunlight warmed the lives of families rising into day. I had known the road so long—not just the yawn of corn and soybean fields, but also Young’s Jersey Dairy with its red barn and white fence; Ebenezer Cemetery with its crumbling cement wall; the turnoffs for Sparrow, Collier, and Cottingham roads; even Walt’s, the junkyard where the highway doglegged—yet that spring I studied each moment of the way as if remembering it well meant that I could somehow keep it.

Back then, I wanted to believe in beginnings, but I can see now that I held onto the ends.

•••

Corazón: the Spanish word for heart. The admissions receptionist, Joann, had scrawled the international student’s name—Miguel Corazón—next to mine on the interview sheet for later that May morning.

“With me?” I asked Joann.

“He said he was from Torreón, Mexico,” she said. “He asked for you.”

“Because I know Spanish?” (I’m half-Mexican. My relatives live in Torreón.) “Does he know my family?” Another Wittenberg University admissions officer typically handled foreign applicants.

Joann shrugged.

“Well,” I said, “then I’d better get ready.” I plucked brochures and an international application from the shelves and settled in at my desk, right off the lobby.

I had worked in this very office from my freshman year until graduation then returned years later to my alma mater for full-time work. But in three months, I would be giving up this job, my home state, the places where I belonged, to move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My fiancé, Bill, refused to stay in Ohio, where he had come only to earn his master’s degree, and I had acquiesced to leaving, even though my chest tightened when I thought about it. When I was twenty-nine, I believed that surrendering what I wanted for the sake of someone else was the cost of love, and that I should bear it.

•••

Through my office wall, I could hear Joann’s muffled voice mingled with a deep one. Apparently, Miguel Corazón had shown up early. I was sitting at my desk, talking on the phone, my back to my door when I heard it open, and Joann say, “You can sit down, she’ll just be a minute.” Always, I met prospective students out in the lobby, but I hurried off my call and only after hanging up did I then swing my chair around and rise to meet—

I froze. The words I’d begun to say hung mid-air.

From his chair, Michael rose, too, like an apparition ascending from memory.

* * *

For the appointment, as a ruse, and to back up his false claim of hailing from Mexico, Michael had used the Spanish version of his first name, and Corazón in place of his last.

Five years earlier, Michael and I had fallen in love. After only a few months, I wanted to marry him, move across the country for him, never be apart. I spent much of the first part of our relationship longing for not just a ring, but to come before the stack of priorities standing between me and first place: his research, post-graduate school goals, his solo life plan that only vaguely—perhaps later—included me. Eventually, I had fled to Mexico to teach, and when this propelled him to propose, I turned away entirely, no longer sure of who I was or what I wanted. It was easier for me, by then a mere twenty-five years old, to move on alone than to figure all that out with him.

In the years that followed, when I was twenty-six and twenty-seven and back in Ohio, Michael had shown up. One time he drove eight hours from DC through a snowstorm to see me; another time, when I was lonely and depressed, he drove two hours from his hometown in Indiana, where he was staying for the summer, to take me salsa dancing. He wrote me letters, even when we had just talked or seen each other. Over the years, he’d given me a book of Neruda love poems, a picture frame with blue flowers pressed beneath glass, a bird feeder. His biggest gift, though, was a sacrifice: Michael put off a semester of his Ph.D. program in Nebraska to live closer to me. He had gone to great lengths to show me that I came first, but I had told myself, repeatedly and with admonition, only foolish girls believe a man will change.

Until he showed up in my office on that warm and clear May day.

* * *

Michael stood before me and grinned, clearly proud of having flown in from Nebraska and surprised me. We had been in contact, but eighteen months had passed from the time that we’d last seen each other to the moment Joann led him to me. My hands trembled because I was happy to see him—and aware I shouldn’t be. He knew about my engagement. This fact stood between us, arms folded across its chest, and shook its head.

The best that I could blurt out was, “What are you doing here?”

He laughed. “I wanted to see you.”

A few moments later, I said, “If you’re here to change my mind, I won’t.”

He didn’t hesitate or blanch. His impeccable posture alerted you that this man held few, if any, doubts about anything he set his mind to. He looked me straight in the eye. “I only want to see what’s possible,” he said. Then he asked me to lunch.

We walked across campus in the brightness of the late morning light to the student center cafe and found a table by a wall of windows. We laughed and lingered as if we were undergraduates and had all the time in the world for big choices and hard lines, as if none of those things mattered now. Later, we rambled around Wittenberg, eventually settling on a bench overlooking Myers Hollow, near the slope I had slipped down after an ice storm my freshman year before smacking into a tree.

For a minute, we stared out onto the hollow.

Ever fearless, he broke the silence. “Marry me,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the same ring he had, four years earlier, offered me. Except now, instead of a diamond in the setting, a green stone the size and color of a pea perched on top.

As he looked at me, I studied him: his blue eyes I remembered squinting at me in the dim morning light before he would reach for his glasses; his freckles that faded, forgotten in winter, but that would sprinkle across his nose and cheeks when flushed out by summer sun; his bushy brown hair, unruly after sleep, that could be tamed with water and a comb.

Finally, I said, “I can’t.”

“I don’t believe you,” he whispered, almost to himself.

“I won’t,” I said. The words tasted metallic.

We sat in silence and let the sun break against us on our bench and let the gap—between now and his flight back to Nebraska, between now and my future husband and married life in North Carolina—get a little narrower.

Then we ambled, taking the long way back along the hollow’s edge toward the place he had parked. We descended via a tree-lined path veiling us in shadow and emerged into the glare of sun and asphalt. When we embraced goodbye, I held onto him longer than he held onto me, and when I stepped away from him and toward Recitation Hall, toward my office and the life I knew, I had to force myself to do so, to train my eye on the glass door, push the metal bar that spanned it, and go through and not look back.

He left me the little gold ring with its pea stone, and it burrowed into my pocket, planting itself deep: a seed of doubt that would grow and grow.

•••

Three and half years later, in late and cold November, my marriage disintegrated into the fifty percent statistic I had sworn that I’d never belong in. It would be a lie to say that I’d been in love with my ex-boyfriend during my marriage because I had not, but his big love, big gestures had become the ruler against which I—however unfairly—had measured every disagreement with Bill, every incident in which I felt not loved enough. I mourned not just my impending divorce but what might have been, had I only chosen differently.

A few months earlier, Michael had moved from Nebraska to North Carolina, but I had found this out only weeks before the divorce decision. I’d discovered through a mutual acquaintance that he lived a mere twenty-five minutes away.

In late November, I wanted to go right to him, but the grief of my marriage ending clouded and rumbled in my chest. I knew, too, that grief passes, that it is only weather in the vast sky of the heart.

In early January, I asked Michael to come over. He showed up with a loaf of bread that he’d kneaded and baked for me, with all the ingredients he still remembered I loved: whole grains, seeds and nuts, and plump, black raisins. Just as he had years earlier, he took me to a salsa club that night, and I clung to his hand as he twirled me, as if we could wind back to where we had stopped and start again. Just as before, he gave me gifts as the weeks passed: a white cotton top with three-quarter sleeves and a buttonhole neckline; the fragrance of gardenias, a bouquet on my front stoop; a white colander; a brown umbrella with faces of dalmatians and cocker spaniels splashed across the fabric. But unlike before, he had become born again, and now he threaded Bible verses into emails and letters and tried to stitch me back together with Jesus’s words.

Although my spirituality was private and quiet and rested in a God who favored heart over creed, I didn’t say no when Michael asked to pray out loud with me; I didn’t say stop when he offered biblical passages as balms.

Without the physical intimacies and commitment of real couples—because of his religion and because I was still emotionally reeling from the divorce—we became, still, devoted to each other. I drove him to Lasik surgery and nervously thumbed through magazines in the waiting room. I helped haul his truckload of furniture into his new house, and together we painted a clean coat on each wall. It was he who steered the car through hordes of I-95 traffic to whisk me to DC for a weekend and to point out landmarks and pick restaurants. It was he who rubbed my back the day I officially divorced, when I wept face down on the bed, boring into a pillow. And it was he who sat beside me as the mortgage broker shuffled refinance papers across the desk for me to sign, the pages stacked like a book that I could not bear to read alone.

God, I loved him. He resurrected me.

But our differences sank into my belly. At night I felt them, cold and hard and unmoving. I thought the world was too big for only one religion, so we argued about how many paths led to God and about interpreting the Bible literally. I also conjured up hypothetical questions to test how he would prioritize his beliefs in relation to me; I know now that I was really testing his love. I asked inane questions like, “If you and I were married, and you believed God wanted you to go live in Africa, even if it meant leaving me behind, would you go?”

In the end, Michael always said he would have no choice but to do whatever he thought God or Jesus wanted him to do, but that God would not ask him to do something that would harm our relationship.

You’re stirring up trouble, I chided myself, and for a while I stopped peppering him with questions I didn’t want to know his answers to.

Then one night over the phone, I prodded more about his beliefs, poking a fire I knew that I could not contain if the flames leapt. I thought about all of my gay and lesbian friends, and I jabbed the topic open. He told me that homosexuality was a sin, and I asked him how he could make such a judgment. He said that he was not making that judgment: God was.

Suddenly, I wanted to dampen all of it, and I flooded him with questions until I found a concocted safe and middle ground: yes, he loved all people, straight or gay, and though he did not think gay couples should be able to get married or adopt, yes, he thought all people were equals.

Though I cried when we hung up the phone and lost my appetite for a day and a half, I clung to the word “equals.” I reminded myself he had always been nothing short of welcoming and warm to all of my friends, and I convinced myself that the place where he stood and where I stood were not so far apart, that if we both leaned toward each other, we could still touch.

It was spring by then, the season of possibility.

•••

This was not the first time our views had clashed, that we’d tried to convince each other of our rightness, of the other’s implied wrongness.

Over the years, Michael and I had argued about little things—the safety of microwaves, whether eating organic fruits and vegetables was really better for you—and big things: whether we should get married, whether we should break up, and (after we had finally ended our relationship, back when I was twenty-five) whether we should get back together. This last disagreement endured more years than it should have. Sometimes we had talked about it; other times, I had avoided the talking, and in doing so, I must have hurt him more by what I did not say.

If you have ever not felt loved for exactly who you are—by someone who professes to—then that love is the one thing you will seek. After my divorce, I craved it as if my life depended on it. But he must have, too—not after my divorce, but in all the times he had shown up in my life and asked me to try again, long before I married or had even met my ex-husband, in all the times we had both been so young, so free to choose each other.

One time he had called to check on me and rescue me from loneliness when I was twenty-seven and living in Oxford, Ohio. He was spending the summer just two hours away in his hometown in Indiana, and he felt like a lifeline.

“Come on, Shuly. We’re going dancing,” he’d said when I picked up the phone. A statement, an urging, not a question—so rarely a question from him—something I both loved and resented.

I had given in. It was so easy to give in then. I changed from shorts and t-shirt to blouse and skirt, and when he arrived at my door, I followed him out of my apartment, down the narrow hallway and stairs and out to the parking lot. I got into his car. He could have driven me anywhere that night; I would have gone.

I let the air blow onto my face through the half-down window as he drove, as he stole me from Oxford. How I wanted to be stolen. He steered and gunned the engine toward highway and Cincinnati and city lights, away from small town, small apartment, what felt like such a small life. I do not remember where exactly we went salsa dancing, but if I close my eyes, I can feel the weight of his hand in mine on the dance floor, and his touch on my back as he led me in turns. I can taste the sweetness of the vanilla frozen yogurt he bought me afterward, something he had done dozens of times when we had been dating and had strolled along the gritty sidewalks on Ohio’s summer nights.

I remember that I laughed and laughed next to him in the car, and for those hours I forgot everything that hurt in my life. The sadness lifted and floated from my body like a bad and broken spirit only he could command away.

For that evening, I leaned into him. I had always been able to because he exuded confidence—his wiry frame buzzed with energy and a can-do attitude. An extrovert, with a near-constant smile on his face, he uplifted me. The summer we had fallen in love, and then that summer when I lived in Oxford, he shone: like a sun, like a full moon, like a star that could lead me home.

He drove me back to Oxford on highways then two-lanes and pulled off South College Avenue and idled in my parking lot as I got out. I walked to my building’s entrance, toward the glass door which led to a dark stairwell and to my apartment where loneliness clung like webs to the corners.

Before I went in, I looked back.

I did not want to go inside, and I did not want him to drive away, but I did not stop him when he did. I waved goodbye.

In all those years before my marriage, I had let him go each time. I had said no until it hurt, until he hurt, until I could not say it anymore. I had said no until the word became its own kind of religion that I did not question anymore.

And now, after my marriage and its implosion, I wanted to believe in yes so badly, I prayed for it.

•••

In late summer—that time of year in North Carolina when the heat feels more like rage, when stems and leaves go limp in reply—Michael wrote me a letter, as he sometimes did.

I had always loved his script because I knew it so well: small loops in perfectly straight lines across the page, as if he were sewing sentences on white fabric. I could nearly feel their softness if I ran my hand across the words.

He started the letter by calling me precious. On page three, he told me my heart was beautiful, and then that Jesus wanted all of it. “Choosing Him is the most important prayer I have for you,” he wrote. “Please commit your heart to Him fully.”

He wrote that he knew it would not be easy. “Turning from your past, and breaking from the pressure of family and culture can be difficult.” What he meant was that I needed to steer away from how my parents—the most generous-hearted people I knew—had raised me religiously, a blend of world faiths.

On the hardest days, their beliefs, now mine, buoyed me: that everything happens for a reason I might not understand yet; that life is a series of lessons I can get right or repeat; and that kindness and respect matter more than doctrine.

He was asking me, in essence, to take it all back: relinquish what I had known, abandon what had come before.

But what I wanted to take back was not my faith, or my God, or my version of the Truth. I wanted to take back that night in Oxford—not the whole of it, just the moment when I had pulled at the door handle, stepped outside his car, and moved away from him and toward the building’s entrance. If I could have taken it back, I would have let the car idle with me still in it, let the exhaust drift from the tailpipe like grey plumes into the darkness, let the humidity crawl in through the window and around us. I would have said to him, “Don’t go.”

But Oxford lay 534 miles northwest of Chapel Hill. In another state. Six years too late.

And in the end, if I had taken it back, what then? Would that have severed the storms from our story? We might have never saved ourselves from the rest of it.

Maybe in Oxford, I had let him drive away because I’d had the kind of faith in myself that I thought only other people had in other things. The kind of faith that pushed you past your failures, made you rise up from the pain; the kind of faith that waned and nearly broke in two, but if you kept it, it kept you.

•••

We have not spoken in a decade, but I remember him. Now, I use the dog umbrella, but only during light, un-slanted rains, as it’s small. I wear the top with the buttonhole neckline, but only when the seasons shift, as it’s made for neither hot nor freezing weather.

I still have the ring, although I don’t wear it or keep it in my jewelry box. Instead, the ring with the round stone drifts like a vagrant around the bottom of a purse. I move it from handbag to handbag but without any reason I can find logic in now.

Sometimes many months pass before I happen upon the ring again, and when I do, I am surprised by the little gold band, and how shiny it is, and the smooth stone that looks like a green eye staring up at me from the pit of the purse, and how fine and slight the ring is for how large a promise it once held, how big its memory.

•••

SHULY CAWOOD is a writer and editor who is currently in the MFA creative writing program at Queens University. Her creative writing has appeared in publications such as Red Earth Review, Naugatuck River Review, Camel Saloon, Rathalla Review, and Under the Sun. Shuly has work forthcoming in Ray’s Road Review, Fiction Southeast, and Two Cities Review. Her website is www.shulycawood.com.

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Picking Up

pick-up
By ashleigh290/ Flickr

By Sonya Huber

Stuck in traffic on the Merritt Parkway heading south in Connecticut on a Tuesday morning, I’m staring at the tailgate of a beat-up, black pickup truck in the lane ahead of me. An extension ladder hangs on the struts of a metal support above the truck bed, which is scattered with buckets of tools. The tailgate sports the geometric logo of Narcotics Anonymous and the slogan “Never alone, Never again.”

Traffic unclogs, and the green of a New England morning in July blurs past. Even as my car speeds forward, my mind has been hurled backward into to my former life with the sight of that bumper sticker. No—I never met anyone in a parking lot to pay for drugs. I never shook with the physical ache of withdrawal. I just loved an addict. For a long time.

•••

The addict I loved drove a weathered, blue pickup. When we first locked eyes over coffee, he told me a heartbreaking version of the hard-life stories in own family. I saw a man valiantly struggling to right the legacy of wrongs in the fruits of his family tree. He didn’t say, “Hi, would you like to sleep with someone with a substance abuse problem?”

He took me on adventures: fossil picking near a hidden waterfall, a flea market, a drag race. He wrote me notes and left flowers and cooked dinner. As we ate the chicken he’d cooked and ladled from his own crockpot, he told me I had saved him, and I protested. No, nobody did any saving, I said. But I enjoyed the stories he told in which I was cast as Wonder Woman. The stories in my own head starred me being good enough, so a cape and invisible car gave me a rush. Plus, he was sexy.

Once, early on, he left me naked on his loft bed for an uncomfortable moment of silence. I heard the tinkering of his drug tools. As the sweat cooled on my body, I knew another love had taken my Wonder Woman status. No—I half-knew she’d been there long before me. No—I had no idea how deep she was into him; she was his origin song, his mother. I pulled on my jeans and ran from his house, and he chased after me. Later, as we walked beneath the oaks that lined my street, he mulled and said, “I should just quit. I’ve thought about it.”

I, for my part, honestly thought quitting was an option, a simple decision.

I weighed and mulled. I sought advice. “He’s great on paper,” said a sympathetic single friend. The dating pool had slimmed out through marriages, hopelessly twisted personalities, and band guys.

Fast forward years of Googling—is he an addict?—and wondering and diagnoses and indecision about whether to leave.

Because…it was just pot.

So of course I didn’t think it was a big deal at all until I got sucked up into a maelstrom and watched as this one life was derailed.

Yes, I have heard about Sanjay Gupta. No, I don’t think pot is a problem for most people, but people get addicted to standing in front of a slot machine. This is not even about pot. This is not an attack on your Saturday night or your aunt’s legal medical marijuana treatment for cancer. This is about a distant cousin: addiction. If you don’t know much about addiction, you are lucky you don’t know much about addiction.

I clung to my coffee cup and my to-do list and my furious ability to work, and almost nobody knew. I amped myself up on work and my checkbook balance and the hope of scraping enough together to make Plan B. And we stayed together.

The sordid scenes left me shaking. I could frame the moments with their fractured details, but each postcard of me crying in the night could be turned over to read the secret message: Wish I Wasn’t Here With Him. Why AM I Still Here? I was still there—with him. For my own complicated reasons involving hope, my own drug of choice.

•••

Then one day he called me, said, I can’t do this any more. The world had crumbled in a friend’s back yard, where the summer light made the undersides of the dense trees look like an inverse x-ray, a web of black with light at the edges. A knot had tied in his soul. He touched some electric edge in himself. He told me on the phone that he got too high—even with all his experience, he had crossed into the raw slippery meat of his own brain.

It was a secret day for him, maybe not a day he celebrates now.

I trembled as I waited for him to come home, scared like the waiting before birth or death: he was choosing us or maybe something different that included me. He saw the outlines of his life as unworkable, which took such guts.

He entered the house with the colors of his face in livid contrast: reds and whites, blacks of the eyes, the mouth. Half of himself had fallen to the inside. He lay on the bed and I was terrified for him. I had longed for this afternoon, had imagined the action in film stills. In the living of it, I was frozen in a strobe light of my uselessness.

More symptoms would come: The creepy crawlies, a splitting headache that triggered his migraines, dizziness and nausea, sweating. Flu-like symptoms and chills. Later, the insomnia and nightmares. Weeks of aggression, blasted thoughts, plunging depression.

We paged through the phone book—tiny letters, thin pages—in a low spot for which there was no 911 to call. This was too common, we learned, and too expensive for 911. I left messages, handed him the phone when I reached the intake nurse. We took turns on hold with cell and home phones, nodding, taking notes, eyeing each other frantically as we heard phrases like “two month waiting list” or “we could call you when we get an opening” or “we don’t take insurance.” All those private places at the outskirts of the city would be too expensive and too slow. The timing of the crisis and the solution seemed incredibly mismatched. What they didn’t say: twenty million people per year in the U.S. needed treatment and could not get it due to cost and lack of beds. We just wanted one.

We found the city option on the cheap: an intake meeting tomorrow and then outpatient meetings during the day and groups at night. He’d stay at home for detox. Work was out of the question. The schedule would keep him contained and safe, with time filled and one place to go. I revered his effort and his guts.

I had hoped for this upheaval, but in practice it a quiet accident, a water leak. No one could know.

One day after he’d gone to group, I sat in the park. I went for a walk where I always walked, but I didn’t even make it to the path. I sat down in a kind of squashed kneel in the outfield of a baseball diamond, my calves alongside my thighs, the way kids sit. I closed my eyes and could not even scream. I felt a glowing heat devouring me, not grief but anger in its purest form. The meteor in my stomach weighed me down, too heavy to even carry. Why be angry?

Dumbfounded, dumbstruck: I had not imagined I’d be shattered at being right. I had guessed that this secret might define our lives, but even more secretly I hoped I was wrong. I hoped this phase would pass without a crisis. This was the birth of the next part of our lives, but dirty, like in a gas station bathroom off an anonymous exit.

A friend put me in her car, and we drove past the outskirts of the city, along a highway to a tourist attraction near the town where she grew up. There was an ice cream stand and a goat pen. You could put a quarter into a red metal machine and twist the knob to get kibble to feed the goats with their angular slotted pupils.

I have those flashes frozen like fresh rescue in my head: a goat clambering up a slanted board to reach his neck over the planks of a fence, his lips straining and flapping to reach nuggets of processed food. My hand on his bony back, the bristly fur. Inside the breezy stand with chained-off looping lines like a carnival ride where I stood. I think I bought a shake, and I think it was strawberry. Even as we rode the highway loop, I knew it would end up with me back at home, empty handed, no comfort to offer. In the end, there were times I had to put stuff in the car and flee, just to get out of the way of the unhinging, unspooling.

•••

The other addicts mocked him in the meetings, planting the seeds of his relapse as they all ground their teeth and raged with red-rimmed eyes. THC can’t make a lab rat’s heart explode. God, how those newly clean, irritable, and strained people in chairs railed at each other, raw as pain without skin, competitive about how close they’d come to the lip of hell. Whose hell was better, stronger, faster. The sickest turn on each other, as they will turn on loved ones, rounding on anyone to shred to distract from their own misery.

His counselor met with him privately and sketched out his damage: because he had used regularly before he was fifteen, he was five times as likely to be an addict as your average smoker. Starting early was kind of a cause, but there was always another factor—everything in his young life—that led to smoking up. Call it the genes, the interaction of the drug in the brain, a crushing narcissism, stresses in the home and beyond—new studies even say that the high itself is not what the brain craves, but that the high comes with a dose of doom that only the drug will lift, and the brain yearns only for relief.

We heard figures I had to look up later to understand, the numbers of people unhappily dependent. It wasn’t cool to worry about pot, his gateway sweetheart, but we were so uncool now. His drug won first prize, four and a half million no-big-deals seeking treatment per annum.

Rehab and recovery brought us to family meetings where we sat in circles, telling secrets. And I got to see him, who he really was behind the chemical screen he’d worn the whole time I’d loved him, and I fell in love twice as hard as the first time. I re-pledged myself to him, then he relapsed. Then again.

•••

I kept going to group meetings for friends and family members of alcoholics and addicts, and I had to pass the gauntlet of alcoholics and addicts who stood near the church basement’s entryway, wreathed in cigarette smoke. They’d nod and say Hey, and I’d ignore them. Or worse, I’d give them the look that equaled death. You demons. You homewreckers, all of you, I thought.

Not so many years ago, I would see a car on the highway with a recovery message on its bumper, and I’d shudder. I’d send out a prayer to that poor sap’s partner, if she hadn’t already left him.

We wore our relationship down to nothing and the drugs won, or I lost. Or I won. Or the battle got played out. After I left, I stayed in the groups because they helped me understand the person I had become. I parked in lots next to cars with bumper stickers saying “Never Alone. Never Again.” I passed through the smoke-wreathed gauntlet of addicts and alcoholics so often that they began to frighten me less. Then I began to go to some of their meetings to hear them speak. I knew their spouses and kids. I began to see in their eyes a humanity that I had lost the ability to see in my former love.

Now he’s still with me in the thousand pop-culture reference to the drug in songs and on t-shirts and in casual conversations. He’s with me when I see any of the thousand references to his drug of choice.

Now I accelerate to pass the black pickup truck and turn my head to the right to catch a look at the driver. I am a practiced eye, even racing on a highway in tandem. I see, despite his sunglasses, a posture of calm and a skin color of health gracing the presence of this stranger up as early as I am on this Tuesday morning. I want to roll down my window and cheer him with a hero’s greeting, but I settle for flashing him a smile.

•••

SONYA HUBER has written two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and a writing textbook, The Backwards Research Guide: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program. She’s at work on a book-length essayistic memoir on the topic of substance abuse. More info at www.sonyahuber.com.

Bachelorette

bachelorette
By CosmoPolitician/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

The party, by definition, is not co-ed. That’s because it’s a bachelorette party, my first. I am skeptical. I’m a girl, but I don’t understand girl things. Like Anybodys, my favorite character from West Side Story, I prefer to hang out with guys. Of course, Anybodys didn’t fit in with the guys, either. Not because she was a girl, but because she was annoying. Even I know that.

The girls I ran with in high school dipped Cherry Skoal and climbed trees and swung from ropes into polluted rivers. This is not the agenda of the bachelorette party I will attend. The invitation says it’s an ’80s prom dress theme. We are to show up in obnoxious ruffled tulle gowns and tease our hair out as far as possible. The hostess assures me that there will be no male strippers.

The boys, for the bachelor party, will spend the following weekend camping. I envy them.

In middle school I peered, perplexed, over the shoulders of cheerleader classmates who thumbed through dog-eared issues of Your Prom and Seventeen. They scrutinized Jessica McClintock ads with billowing, candy-colored gowns on young models wearing white lace gloves. Sometimes if Mom took me back-to-school shopping, I’d wander from the Junior casual wear to the formals and eye the sequins and crinolines with suspicious longing. When the time came, I did go to prom, but my “date” was my friend Carrie, whose college boyfriend preferred to stay home. Carrie and I had a blast. I wore a feather boa and even shaved my armpits. Knowing I was in no danger of losing my virginity later that evening in a shared room at the Best Western helped.

The dress I wore that night still fits, but it’s not of the right era. Finding a suitable dress for the bachelorette party is problematic. After combing every thrift store in town, I realize the puff and sizzle of ’80s prom dresses faded from favor so long ago that only mid-’90s fashion populates the Goodwill and Salvation Army. I half-heartedly buy an unexceptional purple velvet halter dress, a pair of royal blue snakeskin spikes, and a large can of off-brand aerosol hair spray.

The other dozen bachelorettes arrive at the hostess’s San Francisco loft on party night. Many of them I know well already; the girlfriends of my boyfriend’s friends, they are kind and funny women who accepted me instantly when Joe and I began dating. But I’m used to our gang’s weekend meet-ups at music clubs or bars, and at this all-girl affair I can’t seem to settle in. Anxious, I have a few glasses of red wine with our spaghetti and meatballs dinner, and thus decide to stick with wine for the rest of the night. I have learned multiple times if an evening begins with red wine and moves to other, harder drinks, it never finishes well. But when the hostess brings out penis-shaped mini-cakes for dessert, I am too buzzed to remember my pledge, and I enthusiastically drink the icy, fruity-sweet pink concoction another bachelorette offers me.

The penis cakes are made from German chocolate cake mix, and they have toasted coconut icing between the cake scrotum and the cake penis for pubic hair. “I just love to put a big German chocolate cock in my mouth!” I say because the fruity pink drinks have made me especially witty, and the girls and I all laugh.

We change into our dresses and apply our makeup. I fumble with a curling iron and try to attempt the giant, fluffy bangs I was never able to nail during the real 1980s. After ten minutes I quit, stuck with a tangled coiffure that would better suit Ian McCulloch or maybe a homeless junkie. The bride wears an awful, white satin, floor-length dress with white sequins studding its halter top. It’s perfect. “Who knows,” she says, “maybe someone actually got married in this.”

The hostess collects money for the limo—twenty dollars a girl. I pay and resolve to be a good sport. Limos are for losers who want to feel important. We teeter down the stairs in our secondhand pumps and cram into the limo like glittery sardines. Right away the bride opens the sunroof and pops up, going Whoo! Some of us have to sit on each other’s laps. The driver looks at the jumble of girls before he closes the door, possibly thrilled, possibly terrified.

I am wrong about the limo. The limo is awesome. There’s a full bar and a bottle of Champagne and a kickin’ sound system and a built-in fish tank and an elaborate network of pulsing black lights that electrify the white elements of our costumes, rendering the bride trippily resplendent. We drink the Champagne and look out the tinted windows and see the twinkling city speeding by, then look at each other and grin and cackle. Some of us are mothers, some of us have masters degrees. I’ve never been with so many girls in such a small space. We do shots straight from the whiskey decanter and, with a rush, I sense our fundamental sisterhood, the universal manic sisterhood that makes girls flash their breasts and scream gleefully. Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Yellen and Margaret Thatcher could all be riding in the limo with us and they’d succumb to the collective, feminine Whoo in the face of alcohol and estrogen. I am no longer Anybodys skulking in an unexceptional purple velvet helter dress, but part of a fabulous multi-organism system of sparkles and curves, intoxicated with giddiness.

The driver lets us out right in front of the club. This is our red carpet. People take pictures of us with their phones. We strut to the will-call booth, past long lines of boring regular guys in pleated chinos who have nothing better to do than wait for half an hour to see a mediocre cover band. We came to make fun and have fun. We are the party.

We go straight to the bar. The bride wears a pink plastic shot glass on a string around her neck. On the shot glass are the words BUY ME A SHOT, I’M GETTING MARRIED, so two guys at the bar oblige. I want someone to buy me drinks. I want my awakening girl power to earn me free alcohol.

We hear music from the auditorium and, in a pack, run right in front of the stage. The band is called Tainted Love and has about seven members, all dressed in outfits way more ridiculous than ours—gimmicky costume-store stuff like fake fur ties and vinyl tank tops with designs of the Union Jack. They play “Come On, Eileen” and “Maneater” and we all dance and I dance, even if it’s to stupid Tainted Love and their try-hard wardrobe.

My bra bothers me. It’s strapless, with black lace and everything, and I never wear it. I bought it before I figured out that if you are an A cup and you don’t want someone to see your bra straps, just don’t wear a bra. Now the elastic cuts into my sides and chafes my skin, so I undo the clasp and launch it slingshot-style at Tainted Love. One of the keyboardists makes a beeline and whisks it away as if I’d thrown a Molotov cocktail or a dead possum. “Bite me!” I yell.

Then they play “I Wanna Be Sedated” (not an ’80s song) and because I love the Ramones I stop being mad at Tainted Love long enough to shout along and jump up and down until I wet myself a little. Incontinent already! I resolve to do Kegel excercises, and then start—hell, why not—right there on the dance floor.

But jumping up and down makes me hot and I forget about Kegels and tug at my black satin opera glove, accidentally pulling apart the sparkly bracelet I’m wearing over it. Rhinestones fly everywhere. I wish one would hit Tainted Love, but no such luck.

The bride is discontent. She’s crying and throwing ice from her drink at Tainted Love, who are playing “Unbelievable” (also not from the ’80s). “I hate this song!” she screams. It is our cue. We retreat to the bar. The bride sits on the hostess’s lap and then she’s straddling the hostess, and the two guys who bought her the shots look over with interest until the bride slides to the floor with a bump.

I notice plush phone booths in the lobby and dash into one, because suddenly it is incredibly urgent that I talk to my boyfriend right away.

“Joe!” I say. “It’s me, I’m here seeing Tainted Love. They suck!”

He’s confused, startled. “It’s after midnight,” he says. “Is everything okay?”

“I love you!” I say. “It’s so weird here, I just had to call you now and tell you how weird it is. What are you doing?”

“Are you drunk? You’re drunk.”

“I miss you! I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Be careful,” he says. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I love you! Don’t worry, we have a limo. Bye!”

I spy a bachelorette swaying/standing. “I think I’m going to throw up,” she says.

I grab her arm. We rush to the bathroom. There’s a line going out the door, but we cut to the front.

The bathroom attendant—they still have bathroom attendants?—shakes her head. “Nuh-uh,” she says. “You gotta go to the back of the line.” My bachelorette cannot wait; she vomits into a sink.

“You can’t do that in there!” says the attendant. “I ain’t cleaning that shit up.” She’s wearing a polyester smock, like a cleaning lady wears. She has seen girls like us come and go every weekend; our tawdry splendor is less than nothing to her. On our way out, my friend stuffs a handful of dollar bills into the attendant’s tip cup, hiccupping wetly.

The other bachelorettes rest in the lobby, wilting on sofas. We rally and summon our limo. I cling to my charge and escort her outside. I realize my shoes are inside the club, somewhere on the dance floor.

The hard-core party girls pop out of the limo’s sunroof again, but my once-supple reserve of Whoo is dry. I push girls out of the way to get a seat next to the door as my woozy friend lets out a gurgling belch. I roll the power window down and ease her head toward the fetid city air. The limo breaks hard and girls tumble atop each other, a tangle of stiletto heels and faux pearls and ratted-out hair. I do not tumble with them; I have made myself small and distant.

My friend leans out the window, retching. Her sickness is my salvation; the more I focus on her, the less aware I am of my closeness to the very same state. I hold her hair back to make it okay. I see the chaotic spatter on the glossy black door when we stumble out of the limo in front of our hostess’s place. We give the driver what I assume is a very generous tip.

Back in the loft, the intrepid hostess puts on even more ’80s music, and it bores into my eardrums like a dentist’s drill. The bride moans in an armchair, the empty pink shot glass still around her neck. My friend passes out on a futon, all vomited out, her dress torn. I brought pajamas, but I crawl under the coffee table in my purple dress and wish I hadn’t started out the night with red wine.

At dawn, I creep to the toilet to throw up. A few hours later, I wake up to a line of girls suffering for turns in the bathroom. “I think everyone here has puked,” the rumpled bride says from her armchair.

It takes me an hour just to get off the floor. Even my hair hurts, which, after a night under the coffee table, now resembles Robert Smith more than any member of Echo and the Bunnymen. I throw up one more time for good measure before I drive home. Joe is there, looking bright and healthy.

“What exactly happened last night?” he asks.

“I’m going to die,” I tell him. “Bed.”

I sleep until five that afternoon and eat boxed macaroni and cheese for dinner. Three years later Joe and I get married, and I do not have a bachelorette party.

•••

SARA BIR is a chef, culinary educator, and former music critic/sausage cart worker/sportsbra salesperson/library assistant/chocolate factory tour guide. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The North Bay Bohemian, The Oregoninan, MIX, and Section M. You can read her blog, The Sausagetarian, at sarabir.com.

Young Love

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By ljfullofgrace/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

My phone buzzes just as I drain hot pasta over the sink with Sam hanging on my leg and my husband talking about the mortgage or some electrical issues in our basement or something else house-related. I try to nudge Sam away from the boiling water and towards the dining room table—with a quick stop to wash his sticky little hands. I hear my phone again, impatiently beeping and buzzing, and I recognize that someone is trying to send me a message over Skype. It could be my mom or my brother, so I settle Sam, serve dinner, and quickly glance at the screen.

It’s not my mom. It’s not my brother. It’s Him. It’s a short message and it’s written in German and despite not having spoken one word of German in oh, about fifteen years, I know and understand every single word immediately. “I was at a charity event tonight and I don’t know why but I’ve been thinking about you all day.”

That’s it.

That’s it and I am nineteen again.

That’s it and I am back in his small, dark college dorm room, lightheaded from one too many fuzzy navels and giddy with excitement. I am sitting on the floor across from him, cross-legged, but all I can think about is how much I want to wrap my legs around him and pull him even closer. We are both wearing flannel, and Whitney Houston is playing in the background. A friend of ours stops by for a few minutes, but quickly realizes that he is interrupting whatever it is that’s about to happen. He laughs and rustles my hair as he gets up to leave, like he is happy for me.

I feel happy and confident when he finally kisses me—I’ve done this before, I know what comes next, but I am amazed that it is actually happening to me. I mean, he is so cool. So blond. So blue-eyed. So dreamy and smart and worldly and, oh my God, that accent. I am a chubby Jewish girl from Hungary—I don’t get swept off my feet by sparkly-eyed blonds. Ah, but I am now, and we quickly make our way to my room—my roommate is away for the weekend.

There is some confusion about whether I am a virgin or not, but after I reassure him that he is not about to deflower me, he is tender and hungry and talks to me in German the whole time. I wake up in the middle of the night, squished between him and the cold cement wall and spend the rest of the night in the lounge of my dorm building, watching bad TV and thinking that what I have just done was so cool and so grown-up and so sophisticated. And so very unlike me. I don’t see him leave in the morning, but he leaves a note on my bed. “You are a wonderful woman. See you soon.” And his initials: PD. I realize in a panic that I have no idea what the “D” stands for.

It’s March now, and he is graduating in two months. It quickly becomes clear that our night of passion does not guarantee me any privileges when it comes to seeing him, or talking to him, or eating together in the cafeteria. It does not gain me invitations to the cool parties he attends or to the spring dance. I think we go on one date maybe—a movie and an uncomfortable dinner.

It doesn’t matter. I am in love.

It’s easy to think back and say that I was young and stupid and confused sex with love. It was probably true. He was doing what handsome German students do during their study-abroad year. I was doing what bookish lonely girls do when said handsome German students pay attention to them. It is all so dull and obvious now, but it was so tragic back then and it would have stayed like that in my memory if our story had ended there.

But it didn’t. In fact, our story is still not over and that’s an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach every time his name shows up in my inbox.

After our (well, mostly my) tearful goodbye on a cool May morning before I headed back home to Budapest for the summer, I was convinced that I would never see him again. But for once, I was pleasantly surprised. He came to visit me that summer and the next, flew to the U.S. to see me at college several times. We talked on the phone and e-mailed all the time, and we met up at international airports for quick, furtive rendezvous in business lounges. Most memorably, he showed up at my office, unannounced, a month before my wedding.

Through all those years of not seeing each other much, we somehow became friends and moved on from our beginning as a tipsy one-night-stand. I think we both found it easier to open up when we were so far apart from each other, yet just a phone call away. The heart and the mind are so easy to reveal in a quick e-mail, a brief message, a silly card. There was always something easy between us, something natural and light-hearted. He was six years older than me, already weighed down by starting a career and figuring out what grown-up life is about, and I think for a long time—and maybe even now—I represented a carefree and happy time in his life. It was a comfort to both of us to recall our haphazard romance and to share a laugh about our youth and naïveté.

We never really talked about it, but obviously we both dated other people and I got married first. When he showed up at my office on a cold November morning, my heart stopped because again, this was not something that happened outside of movies—a scandal before my wedding? Did he come to take me away? To confess—finally!—that he is truly and madly in love with me? Did I even want that anymore?

He made no confessions. He came to say goodbye—I suspect that by then he was in a serious relationship with his future wife and had to put an end to whatever was going on between us. We held each other for a long time. He kissed me on the forehead and brushed his knuckles playfully across my chin before he left my apartment. I watched him walk down the long stairway leading to the street from my front door and for a moment I almost—almost—called him back. But I knew that would have been a mistake and that neither one of us were the kind of people who would do that before our weddings.

We stayed in touch for the next decade, exchanging a few phone calls, a few e-mails about birth, death, jobs—the big stuff of life. There was always so much tenderness and so much history in our exchanges, assuring us that we weren’t alone in navigating all of this uncharted grown-up territory. It felt like we were finally on equal footing—I didn’t feel like the chubby Jewish girl anymore, and he didn’t seem like that shiny, untouchable person I remembered him to be. We were just two people who knew each other from way back when, who built a friendship out of an ill-fated college romance.

So here we are now, almost thirteen years later. Here is this message on my phone, beeping and wanting attention. I want to give it attention, because it’s …well, because it’s Him. I am a practical person: I believe that love is a choice every single day; that marriage is a choice every single day. No matter how hot the passion is in the beginning, to sustain a life together the passion must cool and every morning must begin with a choice—to be present, to be kind, to be understanding, to iron shirts, to cook a favorite meal, to listen.

But whatever this other thing is, it is not my choice—and it never has been. Whatever pulled me to him on that March night when I was nineteen is still in me—irrational, unexplainable, unstoppable, and I assume never-ending. I have felt this stupid love-like-thing for this man for the past eighteen years of my life and I have no reason to think it will change.

The next morning he e-mails me to say that he is thinking about what the rest of his life holds for him, how to handle the responsibilities thrust upon him and still find happiness. “Right now, but also for the past few years I wish I had you by my side,” he writes. “For many reasons.”

I know that, years ago, a message like that would have had me in tears of joy. And I am in tears now too as I look at my iPad screen in the early morning darkness. But it’s not joy I feel. I want to scold him. I want to be angry. Has he not learned how easy it is to believe that life would be different—better, more exciting, sexier, easier—with someone else? Does he not know that if he did have me by his side, he would not write me lovelorn notes in the middle of the night? I would be the nagging wife who only has time for the kids and I would not be the young love that got away.

I turn off the iPad and try to go back to sleep. As I drift off, I think about how I don’t want our story to be a sad one. I don’t want it to be about regret, or the road not taken, or opportunity not seized. I don’t want it to be about making the wrong choice or picking the wrong person. I am not sure what our story is about, but I can’t let it be about those things. I want it to be about possibility, about love that endures in whatever shape it appears in life. I want it to be about making a choice and sticking with it.

I want it to be about that little corner of the heart where I tuck away what I treasure most: an old friend with sparkly blue eyes, the smile of my baby, the reassuring weight of my husband in bed next to me.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN was born in Budapest and lived there until she turned eighteen. She became a “full-grown-person” over the past nineteen years spent in the U.S. She lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and her four-year-old son. Her day job is in publishing, but she spends all of her free time between four and five a.m. every morning imagining that she is a writer.