The Other Jacob

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

By Jacob Westlin

This past Sunday night, nine o’clock, did you know where your kids were? In Saint Joseph, Minnesota, one family thought they did. But, their eleven-year-old son on his way back from a nearby convenience store was abducted by a masked gunman. For four days, a massive search has been underway. This terrible crime has brought terror to the country’s heartland.

•••

My dad and I sit together at the dining table. It’s a staple of the rarely used room—in place for years, rarely seeing guests. I study its light oak veneer, thinking it’s strange that while sofas and chairs and headboards and cabinets from thirty years ago almost always loudly proclaim their distinctive 1980s style, classic wood tables fit in any era. It doesn’t stand out, unlike the yellow and yellowing linoleum floor in the kitchen.

My father, sitting across the table from me, grips and re-grips the outside of his drink glass, spinning it maybe thirty degrees each time he does. I do this, too. Maybe it’s the condensation. Or maybe it’s some kind of nervous genetic twitch we both have.

It’s unusual, just the two of us drinking. Typically, however, our wives join us, but tonight they both reluctantly went to the same family baby shower. We were going to spend our Saturday night at the bar anyway, just us, but his arthritic foot is troubling him. Staying in doesn’t bother me. I rather enjoy an evening in the dining room—it reminds me of Christmas as a kid. I’m nostalgic like that.

The row of low-level cupboards beneath the buffet catches my eye and I chuckle.

“Do you remember when you bought us a Nintendo? What, 1986 or something? We played it right here on a little ten-inch TV.”

My dad smiles and turns around to face toward the kitchen, as though looking at the empty shelf where a video game console used to reside will jog his memory. I guess it did for me.

“I do remember! We didn’t really play, though. I took a five-second turn, and then you played for twenty minutes.”

“Yeah, I don’t get it. How could a little boy who never played video games be better than a thirty-three-year-old man who never played video games?” It wasn’t uncommon for me to tease my dad. Actually, it wasn’t uncommon for anyone in our family to tease my dad. It’s probably because he exhibits less vanity and egotism than anybody I’ve ever met. He not only doesn’t mind the casual ribbing but—particularly when it makes his sons or wife look better than him—embraces the barbs.

“Seriously. You kids pick up things way faster than I ever did,” he boasts.

“But check it out. Do you remember when I was lying down right there, playing Mario, with my feet on the glass cupboard?”

“And you kicked it out and shattered it?”

“Yes! And you never replaced it, look! Why didn’t you ever get new glass?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Maybe we cut our losses, figuring you kids’d just break it again. We had to be smart about that kind of stuff. Remember, bacon or bowling.”

His signature phrase.

“We could only afford one or the other when you were a kid. Your mom and I had to pick every week—bacon or bowling. We couldn’t have both.”

Fathers have a way of forgetting that they’ve told you the same thing monthly for a decade.

“I know, Pop.”

•••

Last week an eleven-year-old boy named Jacob was kidnapped from the streets of Saint Joseph, Minnesota. The effect on Jacob’s family has been obvious, but his kidnapping has also torn the tightly knit social fabric of the entire town.

•••

Just this year, my dad installed a flat-screen television above the fireplace. It doesn’t really fit; it’s mounted in front of cabinet doors, trapping inside more dusty, old dishware. My mother could’ve squashed the plan with a single sternly worded sentence, and she knows that. But now she gets the best of both worlds: when someone voices their objection to its poor placement, she can say, “I know, it looks ridiculous, right?” But she also gets to watch the Vikings while warming herself by the fire.

The TV is the only thing separating today’s dining room from the one in which I left cookies for Santa a generation ago. It certainly modernizes the cozy space, an apt symbol that distinguishes my folks’ current financial stability from the less certain future envisioned in the eighties.

The way Americans interpret wealth and socioeconomic position has always puzzled me. We display an inexplicably energetic pride when discussing how poor we used to be. People fight with one another, arguing passionately about who was the least well-off—as if the sheer act of having no money is commendable. And it seems to apply only to one’s past.

We love the idea that bad things in our past become good character-building foundations of our future. Maybe it’s true. Empathy and understanding are born from experience, I suppose. Isn’t it possible, though, that shitty situations are just that—shitty? Nobody would imagine telling a destitute family, unable to pay their bills and on the cusp of starvation, that they should really cherish these moments because they help establish essential personality traits.

I guess it’s easy to discuss the hardships of the past from a distant position. After all, we made it. Americans hold dear the rags-to-riches narrative, even if “riches” simply means you’re still breathing. We love to fit ourselves into some patriotic myth involving bootstraps and the like, despite rarely being applicable.

“What do you think of the TV?”

“It’s nice.”

•••

Posters of the abducted boy are reminders of an evil that is all too real. We have to protect our kids and we can’t take things for granted anymore. Now we have a new deadbolt on our door, and we lock it when we’re in the house as well as when we’re not.

•••

A muted baseball game is playing on the television. We aren’t really watching; it’s just flickering background to our boozy banter.

I freshen my beverage in the kitchen and sit back down at the table. In our conversational lull, between discussions of the bizarre election season and our fortune at not having to attend the family function, we both notice the ten-second local news ad at the end of the commercial break: an image of the other Jacob’s parents, sadly embracing, as the words “Jacob’s Remains Found: Confession Obtained” flashes beneath them.

The silence in the room morphs from an empty lack of words to a pregnant disquiet. Not an awkwardness, exactly, but an abruptly heavy moment weighed down with the unexpected drumming up of simultaneously personal and shared experiences.

If you lived in Minnesota during the eighties and nineties, the case was naggingly omnipresent, a horrific event that framed the way families understood danger in their own neighborhoods. A small-town boy, an hour northwest of the Twin Cities, was biking back from the video store when, on a dark road, he was kidnapped—that panic-inspiring buzzword that engulfed the media and terrorized parents.

That was 1989. And, despite instant wood-scouring, sweeping national attention, and law-changing influence, the case was never solved. Until, it seems, today.

My dad and I are not particularly sentimental. The pragmatic emotional sterility of the men in our family irritates our wives, oftentimes with good reason. We don’t often passionately connect to news-story victims.

The stillness in the dining room now suggests a rare and unforeseen exception.

•••

They’re going through the nightmare of not knowing, and hoping that sometimes, in a rare incident, a child has gotten back that’s been gone for a long time. But all of the people sitting there today know the harsh reality: that lots of kids that are taken are not taken by some caring person and taken to Disneyland. They’re taken by someone who is into sexually assaulting children and, if you’re lucky, you’ll find the body in a field.

•••

Proximity to tragedy is a peculiar thing.

If you’re close enough to have a relationship with the victim, it’s all about them—as it should be. To know somebody personally affected by something as heinous as an unsolved kidnapping leaves no space for any emotion except withering sadness for the family.

On the other hand, if you read a news bulletin about a hurricane or flood or earthquake or uprising half a planet away, you’re granted—if not altogether legitimately—a certain disconnection and the ability to simply mutter, “That’s too bad,” before eating dinner.

There is also, however, a third middle ground, a grayish terrain where genuine grief or emotional detachment gives way to narcissistic self-preservation.

The immediate response in Minnesota after the kidnapping case was truly touching. I remember natural anguish and heartache, leading to volunteer search parties, songs, and the genuine coming together of community residents. There was real statewide concern for this boy and his family.

What happened simultaneously, though, was an almost palpable wince, a stiff shrug that transformed empathy for others into locked doors for yourself.

Displaying compassionate warmth for the parents and taking safeguarding precautions against potential dangers are not mutually exclusive. But sometimes, with just the right adjacency, the flesh-and-blood victims become caricatures and the nebulous threats blossom irrationally.

“How could this happen here?” was the frightful inquiry of the day. The incident materialized an already sensational perception of safety, or lack thereof. Dramatic movies of the week, a bygone favorite of network primetime television, assured us that unscrupulous predators lingered around every corner, waiting for the right guard-down moment to strike a randomly targeted stranger. And, before the Saint Joseph abduction, it was easier to dismiss these crimes as confined to New York or California—not wholesome flyover country. Maybe the world was a scary place. Maybe ABC was right.

“I remember that so vividly.” My father breaks the silence with an altogether appropriate cliché. In my trance I had momentarily forgotten I wasn’t alone.

“You’re telling me.”

“You remember it? You were only five or six years old.”

He queues up an interesting point. Because my nostalgia lobe is monstrously oversized, and because I spend so much time contemplating the changing cultural conditions of my boyhood versus those of my as-of-yet unborn children, I often view things from a skewed and manufactured perspective. I wasn’t a parent in 1989. But, as a child during the regional hysteria, I did, in this situation, have a very intimate and unique relationship to this case.

•••

We’re not really going to let Jacob walk to school by himself, are we? I know he’s done it for months, but with everything that’s happened, I don’t think we should. I’ll walk him there. At least for the next few weeks. To make sure nothing happens.

•••

Until first grade, I had a forgettable name. Jacob Westlin was just the name of another average-looking white kid. Then, in October of 1989, as the other Jacob was victimized in the most infamous crime in Minnesota history, it became something else entirely. It became close enough.

Overnight, classmates began pointing at me and yelling clever quips. “Found him! Found him!”

The entire state was in a frenzy over this missing child and I, sixty miles away and with no more connection to Jacob than sharing the first seven letters of his name, became his tease-able avatar—the ceaseless butt of adolescent jokes.

At first it was kind of surprising and funny. But, as the case continued to receive pervasive coverage and word spread about my coincidental name, the casual taunting rapidly devolved into relentless mockery and rejection. One boy was particularly brutal, the unofficial leader of the witch hunt, soliciting support from willing classmates: Ian. But he didn’t pronounce it ee-an. No. It was eye-an. I’ll never forget.

He made sure, at least during a few harrowing months at the end of 1989, that nobody would come near me on the playground. “Stay away from that kid, everyone, or you’ll get kidnapped!” And everybody would play along, in this case by not playing with me. Kids in groups are not unlike adults in groups, turns out. Easily led astray by one mouthy facilitator.

I remember being very upset, trying to apply kiddy logic to a completely illogical and visceral problem. “I’m not that Jacob, guys! You know that, right? Come on!” This proved useless.

“Do you know what hell I went through in first grade?” I half rhetorically ask my dad.

“No, what do you mean? Because you were afraid of being abducted?”

It’s such a fatherly response, anxious to protect his son from the overtly conspicuous dangers of the world when the real soul-altering crises are almost always more intimate and invisible. But it’s not his fault. I never told him about the tormenting.

“No. Everyone made fun of me because my name sounded so much like his.”

My dad half scoffs and leans back in his chair. “Well, that’s dumb.” Indeed, as I cite the ridicule aloud, maybe for the first time in decades, I realize how absurdly innocuous it sounds.

“Uh, yeah, of course. I knew there were more important things going on with that kidnapping than my silly sadness,” I lie, stumbling over my words in embarrassment. I lie because I’m ashamed of feeling sorry for myself. I lie because the other Jacob was sexually assaulted and murdered, and I was subtly picked on. I lie because people have a way of ascribing wildly inaccurate nobility to previous behavior, built upon years of hindsight and experience. And newly discovered shame. The truth is that, in my childish mind, I was the victim. I didn’t know this other Jacob and I was angry at him for being taken.

Young minds have a remarkable proclivity for tunnel vision. It would be reasonable to expect children in this hysterical climate to become terrified of the lurking hazards all around them. The reality is that while kids are the targets, and adults go to painstaking lengths to construct in their sons and daughters a skeptical guard against strangers, most of them leave worry to the parents.

I was never afraid of being taken. I was afraid of having no friends.

Authentically remembering events from years ago is a trickier pursuit than re-experiencing the emotions they spawned. I remember very few actual teases and hardly any of the kids that painfully avoided me. But I do recall the paralyzing aloneness, feeling like my tiny world was caving in through no fault of my own.

I do, however, distinctly recollect lying in bed, thinking I had a choice. I could keep fighting or just embrace the joke—show these kids that it didn’t bother me and that I was a fun, normal boy.

•••

Hey, guys! Let’s play hide and seek—try to find me! You know the police couldn’t!

•••

Jacob didn’t get a choice. The other Jacob. I think about this for a while.

My dad adjusts in his chair, likely reading my discomfort and probably feeling bad for disregarding my infantile problems. He would never intentionally dismiss something important to me, and he now perceives his cavalier response as inappropriate.

“I’m sorry. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”

He didn’t need to apologize. He’s my father, and I’ll always give him the benefit of the doubt. Also, he wasn’t wrong.

“No, it’s fine. It’s just funny, isn’t it, the things you remember? It’s like, I should be feeling so terrible for the family, and I do, really, but seeing them just makes me think about—you know, my own shit. I don’t know, sorry.”

My dad nods, making eye contact this time, almost overly engaged. He doesn’t say anything for a while after that, eventually averting his eyes down to the table with one hand again spinning his drink glass. He’s deep in contemplation and I study his face. People have this view of their parents as stoically static.

My father uses quantifiable milestones to mark my maturation: graduation, college, moving out, starting a career, finding a wife. None of these markers exist for me to assess my dad. He evolved from a probably frightened twenty-nine-year-old father to the veteran rock he’s becoming without me even noticing. He’s always just been Dad, and the lack of lifetime-accomplishment receipts now, for the first time, bothers me. It’s like an absent parent’s lamentation at missing their kid grow up—I feel an odd regret, like I’ve failed to appreciate my own dad’s evolution while being so enthralled with my own.

He was not, and will never be, a complete and infallible adult. None of us will. I am struck now with the simultaneous profundity and triviality of this realization.

“Twenty-seven years later, they close the case,” he finally says. “A lot’s changed.”

“What do you remember about the whole thing?”

He perks up.

“Oh, man. It was mortifying, as a parent. But we still had to raise you right, you know?”

I didn’t.

“What do you mean? Did it change the way you and Mom parented?”

“Oh, we had our own uncertainties, for sure.”

•••

He’s going to be fine.

But what if he isn’t?

He will be! I’ve had enough of this! How is he ever going to learn independence, or believe that the world is anything but a nightmarish place full of maniacs looking to kill him, if we bring him to school, hand in hand, until he’s seventeen?

But—

But nothing. Let him go.

•••

“I give your mother a lot of credit,” my dad blusters, as he often did—not incorrectly. She’s a tough lady, a good mother who was always willing to make hard decisions if it meant raising responsible men.

“The right balance between independence and smothering. We had a hard time with it. You know me—I worry about all the stupid details. Your mom, rightly so, made sure you had your space—saw the big picture. I feel like that was a big deal, even though you probably don’t remember it.”

I didn’t. But I listen intently, enraptured by this completely new information. I realize, at this moment, for the first time, that the monumental event that so influenced us individually had never been spoken about collectively. I don’t think it’s because we were purposely withholding information. Maybe it just didn’t seem relevant until now, even if the relevancy of who we’re becoming as human beings is all around us.

•••

JACOB WESTLIN is a writer, copyeditor, and humanities professor from Minneapolis. He has numerous publications—including a book titled Poker Players are Narcissistic Sociopaths, a collection of tongue-in-cheek poker observations—though this is among his first forays into creative nonfiction.

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Writ in Water

water monster
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Antonia Malchik

This is one of my earliest memories: I am three or four years old, scrabbling for a hold on a fallen tree while a river repeatedly pulls me under. I paw at the bark. The water is cold, moving fast and strong. It churns along with my other memories: the overturned Coleman canoe beating against the tip of the log, my father’s orange cap as he reaches out to pull my mother’s arm. When he has her, she lets herself drift to the sucking water that tries to drag us under the tree. She encircles me with her free arm, holding me above the current. My older sister has been balancing on the log, trying to reach me.

“How old?” I ask my sister Sasha. She is in California, sunny Santa Cruz. I am in dreary, garbage-scented Boston.

“Well, maybe you were two,” she says. Running water and the clink of plates tell me she’s washing dishes. “It was the guy they asked for directions from. They wanted to take us canoeing on the Madison, but he gave them directions to the Jefferson. It was a lot wilder.”

“So the canoe turned over in the rapids and we all caught onto a half-submerged tree, and…”

“Papa got pushed to the bottom several times before he got up. I climbed up the end, but Mama lost her hold of you and both of you were going under.” If I was two at the time, she would have been seven or eight. It surprises me, that this half-figment of half-memory—was my father wearing an orange cap?—is real to someone, that my sister remembers me half-drowning with clarity.

“How awful,” I say, as if the accident had recently happened to someone else.

A few years after that conversation my husband and I are in France for a wedding, in a small town between Nice and Monaco. The small, scruffy beach is next to placid Mediterranean water of such clear, bright blue it feels unreal. No matter where you swim, the water is never murky, and the bottom looks immediate, like a hologram.

My husband wants to dive from the floating dock a little ways off, so we swim towards it, he, the stronger swimmer, in front.

Halfway there I stop swimming. The water is clear. I can see the bottom. The dock isn’t far away. I try to convince myself to keep going, but my heart pounds, terrified of the water, of the depths, of the powerful, gentle-looking mass of a sea that is just longing to pull me under.

I turn around and head back to the beach, crawling onto the sand like I’ve been saved from a wreck, not caring what I look like in my very American one-piece suit and ridiculously pale, freckled skin that’s slathered in sunscreen. I long to be in that beautiful water, but I’m terrified of it. I know it wants to take me back.

•••

It’s not just deep water. I’m afraid of the dark, too, and ghosts, and the monsters under the bed. Frisson-filled, gut-freezing fear that tells me these things are real. It’s their reality that terrifies me—ghosts drifting through my house, creatures beneath my box springs, the dark night as a monolith of unknowable worlds seen through acid trips. Other things that keep me lying in bed, staring into the dark and unable to move: the weeping angels in Doctor Who, ruthless alien races that might someday invade from another star system, a future like that in I, Legend, where most of the surviving human population has mutated into zombie-like beings due to pharmaceuticals gone wrong (I consume a lot of science fiction). And, ever since I read Stephen King’s book Lisey’s Story, mirrors.

Fears of pain, nonexistence, and the unknown. Water holds all of them. To die in water can mean one’s body slips out of sight, taken below on bright, sunny days of children’s laughter bouncing into jet skis’ obnoxious roars. Arms overhead, legs kicking, and then fear itself winding around the ankles to pull gently down. Hair floating upward to greenish light as the body is forced to lie among the muck that ancient glaciers left behind. My phobia makes this end feel like fate. A lingering death, a cold one, leaving not even footprints, just the water and sunshine, laughter and jet skis.

In Babylonian mythology, Tiamat is the goddess of the ocean. Her mate, Abzû, is the god of fresh water. Tiamat is the embodiment of primordial chaos. Or she is the embodiment of harmony, uniting salt and fresh water for all of creation. She is a serpent, an early form of dragon, or a goddess who made dragons filled with poison. She was killed by other deities, who created the world and heavens from her body. Her tears formed the mightiest rivers.

I’d love to connect my water phobia to ancient creation stories, to turn my human life into sensical narrative. But I do not believe in mythologies. I do not, in fact, believe in anything I can’t see or feel or sense or prove. I believe in mathematics. I do not believe in ghosts or the monsters that lurk in dark lake bottoms.

Why, then, am I terrified of them?

The word frisson describes a thrill of fear or excitement, a sense of foreboding that defies precision. The word’s very existence is proof of our fears. It acknowledges that we are terrified of things we cannot see or sense or know. Our minds are frightened of what our bodies can’t feel—or is it the other way around? Is it the mind’s fear and the body’s reaction, or the body’s fear and the mind’s reactions? Where does the experience of that wild river, the log, my family’s terror, reside in my body? Why does my mind insist there is something down there, in the non-empty spaces of dark matter between rocks and silt and sightless water?

I can see it now, in this barely-lit room where my children are sleeping. It’s sifting around the pine trees and the rustling aspens outside, a nameless something that awakens very real fear. Can you feel it?

•••

An unfinished book sits in my drawer—or, not in a drawer but in a file on my laptop, our new drawers. It’s only partly written, set aside after a cross-country move and a year of living in someone else’s home while adhering to an exhausting work and parenting schedule. I touch the thought of returning to the book and feel wary. I say I don’t have time, and it’s true, I don’t. Not the kind of long, luxurious hours that extended writing demands to achieve any kind of depth. The lack of time I have is crushing. It’s its own being, monstrous and impenetrable like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A weighty horror.

I fear drowning under the lack of time. It holds books that I will never write. In that space is where I will cease to exist, fade away. And yet, why should I feel that way? Why must our names be etched in more than our immediate lives if we are to feel real and whole? Are we so terrified of being forgotten?

(Yes. We are.)

But caution also keeps me from diving into it again. A book is a long, sustained effort. It requires stamina, willpower, a certain quality of fearlessness to keep going when it feels your words have landed you in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been there before; this is the fifth time I’ve headed into those wide-open, unpredictable waters.

I fear venturing out there this time, kicking off again, not sure when I’ll get to the other side, and the petrifying thought of what’s lurking beneath the surface. Writing a book can lead to dark, unexpected places, once you let the words start to flow. What if I get to the middle and run out of energy, and the monsters snake around me as I try to tread water? What if I disappear?

It’s so much easier to stay in the shallows near the shore, penning smaller things, where I can see others’ faces, hear their laughter and splashes, even jump in deep sometimes and come straight back to shore.

•••

My husband and I went scuba diving once on the Great Barrier Reef, back when we were living in Australia. A tour boat scooted us and a dozen or so others out from Port Douglas and the guide gave a perfunctory ten-minute lesson in dive symbols: up, okay, help, shark. I was the only person who had never even snorkeled.

“You a water baby?” he asked me in that brisk Aussie twang. “You love the water?”

“Yes.” I do, I really do. I grew up in Montana, where my family hiked all the time, preferably up into the mountains, where ice-cold lakes sat in tiny dips of valleys. Any hike where I can’t jump into a lake or at least soak my feet in a river at the end of it felt pointless. I would swim in a lake every day if I could.

When he toppled me in, wet-suited and oxygen-tanked, I took a few moments to get used to the mask, and ended up hyperventilating, heading towards panic, until I figured out how to breathe all the way out as well as all the way in. A thirty-second lesson with more impact than years of yoga.

Then I followed the group down, arms at my sides to keep down oxygen use, and I wasn’t scared. Nearly forty feet below the surface, where the monsters supposedly lived, I had no fear. The colors were just as bright as in photos—blue, orange, yellow corals and fish; big feathery growths of red; strange, enormous clams that closed as our shadows passed over. “Don’t put your hand in one of those,” he’d warned us before we left the boat. “You won’t get it out again.”

The water was cold, even through the wetsuit. I emerged hungry for lunch and eager for the afternoon dive. There was so much beauty there, none of the dark mystery that haunted the lakes of my home state.

•••

I’d like my fear of deep water to be about something else, to turn it into a metaphor—for writing a book, for example, or for life and the risks we do or don’t take. But the near-drowning of my two-year-old self and her family, the sucking, surging power of that swift-moving river, were very real. When I long to swim across a lake, and flinch back because the water has become too dark and the monsters are waiting to get me, it’s not about taking risks in life and venturing into the unknown. It’s because I’m afraid of being pulled under and drowning.

We humans, we’re always seeking meaning. We want our suffering to have purpose, our fears to shape into Jungian explanations, our gods to exist. We are storytellers, symbol-makers. We find it hard to accept that not everything can be about something more.

You almost drowned because of our stupidity, says my father.

I almost lost you, my mother says to my sister and me.

•••

The town I live in is built on a lake, and in the summer we take advantage of that fact several times a week. I swim out to the lake’s floating dock with my kids safely lumpy in life jackets. We climb up the dock and my son jumps off and climbs out again, over and over until he can barely keep his head above water. He’d do this until the stars pricked out overhead and the water became frigid, if I let him.

My daughter doesn’t want to go under. After years of swimming lessons, she’s still afraid of submersion and doesn’t like getting her face wet. It’s okay, I tell her, you don’t have to. I sit on the dock and stretch my legs out. She slides down them, gripping my hands, the life jacket keeping her cork-bobbing in the water.

I never learned to dive, so I stand at the edge and jump straight in. Underwater, the tiny bubbles I’ve made fizz around my ears, and I bob to the surface and swim to my kids, listening to the ripple-rill of water over my shoulders. I love this feeling so much, more than almost anything, the splashes of the lake, the mountains chaining the valley. My son wants to swim out farther together and we take off. He can’t see the constriction in my chest, the fear gnawing my toes. I don’t tell him there are monsters out there.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK has written for Aeon, GOOD magazine, 1966, and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and the managing editor of STIR Journal. You can read more of her work through www.antoniamalchik.com.

Read more FGP essays by Antonia Malchik.

The Bridge

covermouth
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

He cuts off my bridge piece by piece and I can feel the spikes in the places where my front teeth used to be and I can’t look him in the eye and we can’t make small talk because I can’t talk but even if I could talk, what could I possibly say? With spikes in the places teeth are supposed to be, a person is not a person anymore. I’m no longer intelligent or self-confident or smart or funny or a professor or a wife or a sister or a friend. I’m someone you couldn’t bear to look at, someone whose eyes you couldn’t bear to meet.

“What happened to the tooth in the first place?” he asks me early in the three-hour session.

“Bad dental care when I was a kid.” I wish I could lie convincingly and say that there’d been an accident. It was my birthday and I’d gotten a brand-new Huffy bike and I was so excited as I was riding it and showing off and waving at my beloved family that I rode right into a parked car and knocked my front tooth out. We’ll never forget that birthday! She was just so excited about her new bike! But no, my story is much more banal and far more heartbreaking. My mother never took me to the dentist and the sugar wore a hole in my front tooth. White fillings could only go so far to cover it up, so eventually a dentist told me that my best move would be to do a bridge.

And so here I am twelve or so years later, age forty-one, having my mouth prepared to get a new bridge inserted. The technology has come a long way, my dentist tells me. There won’t be any more silver backing. All porcelain. Nice and white and shiny and new. “Do you drink a lot of coffee?”

“Some,” I say. “Not sure if you’d call it a lot, but I drink it every day.”

But before that, we’ve got to cut off the current bridge in order to make impressions, and I’ll go home today with a plastic bridge. No corn on the cob for the next two weeks.

My jaw hurts from being held open for so long. I can feel the sweat beads rolling down my back. As the drill is going, water sprays on my face, on my forehead, and it’s dripping down from my mouth onto my neck. Every once in a while he takes a towel and wipes my mouth for me. Oh, the indignity! My hands are clenched, my entire body is tense and he tells me to “turrrrrrrn” toward him. I wonder if he says that in his sleep. Can’t he just tell me to turn toward him? Does he have to stretch out the word like he’s speaking to a three-year-old?

In between drilling and cutting and pulling off pieces of the bridge, he actually does go and talk to children who I imagine can’t be much more than three. He tells them what a good job they’ve done today, asks them about school starting in a few weeks, and gives them a basket from which they can choose a toy. You can choose a ball or a bracelet or a dinosaur. I try not to perform a mental critique of the gendered choices because I’m lying back with spikes instead of teeth. I’m not smart or critical in this position. I’m just a body. I imagine what might happen if the power goes out and I’m stuck with these spikes instead of teeth and there’s nothing he can do for me. He’ll tell me to go home, to eat soft foods, and he’ll call me when the power comes back. I wish I had better control over my thoughts. They’re not helping. Meanwhile, he’s busy cementing positive associations with the dentist for these small children who will never have to lie back in a chair while a dentist cuts off the bridge they’ve worn for twelve years because their natural teeth rotted out of their heads. “Good job, Brynn,” he says. Then I hear him walking back toward me. He knows I’ve heard him over there with the children. But what is there to say? Except “turrrrrrrn toward me.” And I open my mouth again and my jaw still hurts and it wants to crack but I can’t open it wide enough. The water from the sprayer and the rubber from his gloves make things slippery. I close my eyes as his hands come toward me, open them when light seeps through. Close them again when I see the drill in his hand.

“Do you have a pacemaker?” he asks me.

“No.” One thing I can be proud of: my heart hasn’t quit on me yet.

He asks because he’ll be using electricity to solder off pieces of my gums. I want to say something about the smell, how I remember that this is going to bring the smell of death, but I can’t speak because he has his fingers in my mouth and I have spikes instead of teeth.

During one of the breaks I really have to pee, so with my mouth closed and a piece of cotton sticking out of my mouth, I make my way to the bathroom. I try very hard not to look at myself in the mirror. Just the cotton. That’s all I see. When I get back, he asks if I’m okay. Yeah, I mumble. Just had to use the bathroom. “I try to tell people not to look in the mirror during this process.” Finally, something I did right!

“I didn’t,” I say. “All I thaw wasth thisth cotton.”

I gag when he puts the goop in my mouth to make the first impression. He’s put way too much goop on the tray and it’s all over the inside of my mouth and I’m using my finger to swipe some of it out but it’s bad. “You’re a gagger,” he says.

Why, yes I am. I nod.

“Mmmhmmm.” And then I imagine that he’s imagining that I must be no good at blow jobs since I gag so easily and then I’m ashamed to think that I’ve assigned this thought to him and the shame, it threatens to eat me alive and it’s all I can do to close my eyes and try to imagine that I’m someplace else. It’s not working because I have spikes where my teeth are supposed to be. I can feel them with my tongue and I form a mental image and just as quickly try to erase it. We see with our tongues almost as much as we do with our eyes.

He examines the impression. It’s okay, but not perfect. He wants it perfect, so we do it again. This time he’ll put a little less goop because I’m a gagger.

From the back of the office I hear, “Mommy will go first and you can watch. Brendan, you’re so brave!” And I think about my mother with her false teeth. The time we were at the beach. She was in the water, bouncing up and down in the waves and for a minute there it looked like she was going to lose her dentures. But she caught them just in time. Mommy will go first and you can watch.

When it’s time to choose the shade of white for the new bridge, he has me hold up a mirror (the plastic bridge is in place by now). He says he really likes the white of the plastic bridge, that it brightens up my smile and that if it were his mouth, he’d go with that shade. It’s hard to exercise agency in such a situation. I have nothing to do here but trust him. He says we can whiten the bottom teeth to match, but if he were going to err, he’d err on the side of whiteness. I take a deep breath and agree. He asks again if I drink a lot of coffee. This time I just nod.

The visit lasts three hours. During that time at least four different children have had their teeth examined by my dentist in between his cutting and soldering and drilling and asking me if I’m okay. When I get up to stretch, I’m exhausted. “You were a real trooper today. The next visit won’t be nearly as long.”

I muster everything I’ve got so I can perform confidence with this man who has just seen me with spikes instead of teeth. And I think about how he is the only person on this planet allowed to see me that way. Steve wouldn’t love me anymore if he saw me like that. I imagine it’s an image that’s hard to shake. I’m standing and looking the dentist in the eyes and he takes a towel and tries to get some of the goop that has stuck to my chin and neck. His eyes are kind. He eventually stops trying and tells me I can go use the mirror in the bathroom to get it because he doesn’t want to hurt me. I tell him I’ll take care of it in the car.

I imagine him telling his wife about me, about how he felt shame for me as he cut out my teeth. I imagine that a case like mine makes him feel good about himself, that he’s doing good for people, that he helps them. I imagine myself as an object of both his pity and his pride and there are no holes deep enough to bury my head and I honestly can’t think of anything more shameful than bad teeth. Because bad teeth means not that you did something bad but that nobody cared enough about you to love you in the most basic of ways.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at Illinois State University, where her favorite course to teach—the one on the personal essay—garners the most enthusiastic responses from students. She and her husband are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley and one named Essay.

The Getaway

By Sjoerd Lammers street photography/ Flickr
By Sjoerd Lammers street photography/ Flickr

By Andrea Jarrell

Susannah was murdered just before Christmas. I didn’t hear the terrible news until after New Year’s, when a friend called me on my way home from a family holiday out of town. The house where she’d been killed was just a hundred yards or so from ours, poking up from behind trees across the road. Nothing between us except our long driveway and adjacent pond. Not that I could have stopped what had happened, even if we’d been home. We probably would have been sitting in our living room watching TV or upstairs reading bedtime stories to our two kids. We probably wouldn’t even have heard the gunshots.

When it happened, the co-op preschool that her son and my son and daughter attended was already on the holiday break. My husband Brad and I had loaded up our SUV, bundled the kids into their car seats, and driven down to Portland—Maine, not Oregon. From there we’d flown to Michigan, to my in-laws’ house with its big Christmas tree and glittering ornaments. In the days before Facebook and Twitter, we’d remained blissfully cocooned and cut off from the rest of the world.

I didn’t understand at first why I reacted to the news of Susannah’s death the way that I did. Yes, there was the shocking violence of it. And the throat-catching sadness for her little boy, and the wrongness of anyone snatched from life, much less someone so young. But there was more to it than that. Especially when I admitted to myself that I hadn’t actually liked Susannah. Or, more accurately, I hadn’t allowed myself to like her.

The truth is, I’d always been a little afraid of her. After she was killed, I understood why.

Brad and I had been in Maine for a few years by then. In our early thirties, we were just starting out in our marriage and our life as parents. We’d always been city people before. Our move from Los Angeles to the idyllic town of Camden was the first of what we expected would be many adventures in our life together. Camden is the childhood home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the town where the movie Peyton Place was filmed, and, rumor has it, a haven for retired CIA spies. Locals looking to move know to put their houses on the market during the summer, when tourists fall in love with the quaintness of it all: the harbor, the lupine-covered hills, the age-old stone walls, the black and white Oreo cows. But Maine winters are for a hardy few, and the smart lookey-loos come to their senses before any money changes hands.

We moved to Camden knowing what we were getting into. Brad had been offered a two-year gig at the Institute for Global Ethics, to work on a project about running positive political campaigns. I saw the move as a way to leave my workaday life as the PR director of a small college—to trade in my pantyhose and suits for jeans and sweaters and get back to writing. Fully expecting to return to L.A. in a couple of years, we found tenants for our small house. But the two-year project turned into two more, and five years after moving we finally unloaded the L.A. house, unsure if we would ever head west again.

Moving to Camden felt a little like we’d entered the witness protection program—so far from everyone we’d known, plunked down into a new life. I took to that life more easily than one might expect, embracing it with “pinch me” elation: pancakes on Sundays, a fully-stocked pantry with an extra freezer for meat, trips to the pumpkin patch, red wagons in the driveway, rain boots and slickers, mittens and parkas. This was the stuff of ordinary families, which I’d carefully observed during childhood sleepovers. Having grown up in small apartments with my single mother, who was much more interested in books and travel than picket fences and seasonal door wreathes, I kept waiting for the residents of Camden to discover that I didn’t belong.

Oh, I knew how to look the part at Mommy and Me music classes, or when it was my turn to handle a baking project at the preschool, or while hanging out under a wide- brimmed straw hat at the local beach, my kids appropriately slathered with sunscreen and playing with sand pails and shovels. But I still felt inferior, the way I had as a kid when I would tell friends and their parents that my mother was a lawyer rather than a legal secretary. I told that lie right up through college, even though the thought of being found out made me queasy.

Certain people hatched such lies in me—in Camden, people like Kim Tate and her husband Jack. Kim was a tall, athletic blond who’d gone to Yale. She’d met Jack—also tall, but dark and handsome enough—on the train between New Haven and New York City one afternoon when they were both in college. With their good looks and money, the Tates were small-town famous. Other mothers at our preschool had a crush on Jack, one of them going so far as to tell Kim that she looked forward to receiving their photo Christmas card so she could moon over him. I had more of a crush on Kim, whose three perfect little children were spaced a year and a half apart, lined up like cherub-faced Russian dolls in hand-knitted sweaters she’d designed and made.

Our oldest kids—Kim’s and mine—were in the fours and fives class at the co-op preschool along with Susannah’s son. If Kim was on the elite end of the social spectrum, Susannah was on the other. Or at least that’s where—I admit now—I put her. Almost from the moment I met her, something about Susannah made me steer clear. When I saw her faded, rust-colored Toyota in the school’s parking lot, I stayed in my own car, behind darkened windows. I waited to go inside until after she and her son emerged from the school—their fingers laced, the day’s artwork flapping in Susannah’s other hand.

She was one of those pretty girl-women—twenty-one, twenty-three, twenty-five? If she hadn’t been a mother, she might have seemed even younger, like a teenager with her whole life before her. I’d seen fathers at the preschool watching her, trying to be nonchalant as they homed in on her. You could tell that she’d grown up attracting such attention and was no longer surprised or moved by it. At first, I wondered if my impulse to avoid her was simple jealousy because she was younger and sexier than I was. Her short skirts and angled beret over long corn-silk hair displayed a confidence that I’d never had. Then I noticed that she avoided me and the other parents as well—never lingering to chat on the playground.

She smiled but hurried purposefully, gathering her son’s lunchbox, backpack, and coat. My mother had projected a similar defensive smile when she attended school events or collected me from a sleepover. Just we two, she used to say. It dawned on me then that Susannah’s confidence, like my mother’s, was designed to let other parents know she was doing fine, even though we outnumbered her two to one. I could feel how tightly Susannah’s hand grasped her son’s as they exited the preschool, holding on to each other and their place in the world.

The only time that I can remember even talking to her was at my daughter’s birthday party. It was July; all the preschool parents stood around on our wide green lawn as kids took turns barreling down the giant yellow Slip ’n Slide my husband had set up.

I happened to be standing next to Susannah when the gifts were opened. Her son’s present was a wooden fairy wand that his mother had painted dark blue and topped with a glitter-encrusted star. She’d written my daughter’s name in silver along the handle. We watched as my daughter opened the gift and ran her small hand along the scrolling letters of her name. Susannah leaned sideways to me, our shoulders touching, and said, “I knew she would like it. She’s such an artist.” I imagined them together in the co-op preschool on one of Susannah’s days to help. I could see her asking my daughter about the painting she was working on. Susannah would’ve bent down to be eye-level, pushing her long blond hair behind one shoulder as she did.

Then one day, as I pulled into the preschool lot, I noticed a man sitting in the passenger seat of Susannah’s car. He was my own neighbor—a fit, tanned man named Craig. He operated a moving, refuse, and antiques business out of his home and adjacent barn. When we first arrived from California, my husband had hired him to help move us in. Admiring his Yankee entrepreneurism, my husband marveled, “He’s got it covered. He’ll move it, dump it, or sell it.”

I remember being inordinately happy to see my neighbor in Susannah’s car, happier still when I passed her familiar Toyota parked in front of his house. It intrigued me to think of how they might have met. Perhaps he had hired her to answer the phones for his business. Or they’d struck up a conversation in Cappy’s bar on Main Street. There was no question of why Susannah would appeal to him. But I could also see why he would appeal to her. In his late forties, he was attractive in a town where single men were few and far between. She might have said to herself, try older, try wiser. He would be a good provider, a role model for her little boy. I pictured them together—sheets rumpled, his tanned workman’s hands on her milky skin. I imagined him thanking his lucky stars each day to have such a lovely girl on his arm.

I’d once imagined such meetings for my mother: a new client or lawyer in her firm, who would appear one day and change our lives. I wondered what Susannah’s secret was. How had she managed to find a partner and step into a new, safer life when my mother had not?

•••

Kim Tate was the one who caught me on my cell as my family and I drove home from the airport. “I didn’t know you two were close,” she said. “I’m so sorry,” she kept saying as I sobbed after hearing the news. Sobbing that I didn’t understand at first because, of course, we were not close at all.

In my mind’s eye, I could see Susannah sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee with me. I imagined her son playing with my kids on the floor of our living room, but that had never happened. I hadn’t wanted them at our house. As cute as her son was, I’d written him off as damaged goods. Damaged the way I’d been at his age. Jealous of what my friends had, prone to elaborate lies and petty thefts, hitting and hair pulling when no one was looking.

It hadn’t been Susannah’s youth or prettiness that made me steer clear of her and her son. It had always been their aloneness and my fear that if I got too close, that old familiar just we two aloneness might rub off on me.

Like a bedtime story, my mother used to tell me of our escape into the world from my father. She’d light a cigarette, press it to her elegant lips, exhale, and begin. Benign stories at first. Later, the stories about his venereal disease and his cheating and her black eyes. But even in her early, seemingly innocent stories, there was always a little violence. Singeing her eyelashes and eyebrows trying to light the stove in their first apartment. My father breaking his arm in an arm-wrestle on his birthday—the bone splitting right through the camel hair jacket she’d given him. “His muscles were stronger than bone,” she’d said with a trace of true awe.

Our neighbor Craig was a mild man, nothing like my father. And yet he’d acted on the same jealousy and possessiveness that my mother had run away from. My mother had also been a girl-woman. At nineteen, the day she first felt me move inside her was the day she began plotting how to leave my father. Scared of what this man who slept beside her with a gun under his pillow might do to us one day when my crying got too much for him or when yet another man admired her beauty. Somehow I’d given her the courage.

Was it her little boy Susannah was thinking of when she told Craig it was over? It wasn’t hard to imagine Craig’s desperate pleading as he tried to make her stay. My mother told me that my father did the same, how he threatened to commit suicide if she ever left him. I could picture Craig grabbing Susannah’s arm. She would have tried to shake him off, her blond hair flying as she tossed the few things she’d brought to his house into an overnight bag. She would not have known that he’d gone to the barn to look for a gun.

My mother’s getaway car had been a teal blue Corvair. She’d literally and figuratively strapped me in beside her from then on—her precious cargo. How I wished Susannah had just gotten in that rust-colored Toyota and driven as far away from Craig as possible. How I wanted to run to her now and wrap my arms around her.

He shot her twice, using an antique pistol from his shop. According to the papers, after he killed her, he called his grown son and left a message on the son’s answering machine. “I’ve done something stupid,” he said. Then he hung up and killed himself.

As my family and I drove down our road, past Craig’s quiet house, I remembered the last time I’d seen Susannah’s car in his driveway. The sense of relief I’d had, thinking she’d found her happy ending. Thinking she could loosen the grip on her small son’s hand just a little because they were safe at last.

Passing our pond—frozen and covered in snow—I heard the car’s engine labor as it climbed our long driveway and saw the ice crystalized on branches of barren trees. How I wanted to rewind the film and change Susannah’s ending the way my mother had changed ours.

As we pulled into the garage, firewood neatly stacked and dry by the mudroom door, I told Brad I’d help him unload the suitcases in a minute. My fingers were already tapping out my mother’s telephone number. I waited, still in my coat in the car, pressing my phone to my ear, listening for her voice, waiting for us to talk, just us two.

•••

ANDREA JARRELL’s personal essays have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column; Narrative Magazine; Brain, Child Magazine; Memoir; Literary Mama; The Washington Post; The Huffington Post, and the anthology My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friendships, among other publications. She is at work on an essay collection.

How Can You Be Mad at Someone Who’s Dying of Cancer?

By AfroDad/ Flickr
By AfroDad/ Flickr

By Deesha Philyaw

How can you be mad at someone who’s dying of cancer? It helps if you don’t yet know she’s dying, if you think the doctors are just trying one more thing. It helps if she is your mother and if she’s just driven you crazy your whole life, but insists on a kind of love that leaves you unable to breathe and sick to your stomach from her phone calls or from the mere thought of her visiting you or you visiting her. It helps if she is obsessed with you, her only child, because she believes God sent you to her teenage self to love her since no one else did. It helps if she pours her whole life into you, but you never asked her to, and you would have rather she not, just so you could fucking breathe and dress conservatively and keep the pasta separate from the sauce and breastfeed your baby and buy organic, without her judging you from the valley of her insecurities.

All of that helps you to get mad at someone who is dying of cancer, especially when she doesn’t seem to be doing everything she possibly can to keep herself alive.

“The church was selling fish dinners today.”

“You shouldn’t be eating fried foods.”

“Oh, girl. I pulled the fried part off.”

But what about fruits and vegetables? Whole grains? But I know the answer to that. Cancer is no match for five decades of emotional and cultural eating. So I shut my mouth because the last time I tried to talk about what was broken in me-her-us, she accused me of always using “big words and psychological terms,” when in fact I had used no words larger than, “I can’t do this with you anymore. I’m calling a cab, and I’m leaving.” My college education and my intellect were apparently weapons I wielded to intimidate her. One day out of the blue when I was in my thirties, she said, “I finally found the word to describe the way you made me feel your whole life: intimidated.”

I think the problem started when I was born. My mother said, “I thought you were going to be dark like me with chinky eyes and wavy hair. Like a doll.” Alas, I was born medium-brown, bald, with huge eyes not associated with a racial slur. “Your eyes were so big that for the longest time, they would just roll around because you couldn’t focus them,” my mother said. “I burst into tears when I saw you. And your hands were so tiny. Until you got pregnant, I always thought that meant you wouldn’t be able to have kids.”

Please don’t ask me to explain that last part. I have no idea what my hands and my fertility have to do with each other. I do know that I wasn’t what my mom was expecting. She wanted a dark chocolate doll that would grow up to make the same choices she would have made if she’d had the dolls’ options in life. A doll that liked all the same things she liked—bright-colored clothing, the right amount of condiments and paprika in her potato salad, makeup.

Oh, the makeup! So when I was in the eighth grade and about to turn thirteen, many of the girls in my grade wanted to wear makeup. About half their mothers allowed them to. The other half made up their faces in the bathroom at school in the morning and scrubbed it off at some point before getting on the bus at the end of the day. Lucky me, I had one of those makeup-permitting mothers. Unlucky for her, she had a daughter who couldn’t give two shits about makeup. It just seemed to me like a lot of effort and for no good reason. But as my thirteen birthday approached, my mom was stuck on the idea that a cute little pouch filled with my own cosmetics would make the perfect gift. Meanwhile, a stack of V. C. Andrews books was my idea of the perfect gift. But according to my mother, that wasn’t a “real” gift. To hell with the fact that this was my birthday. She was determined to get me a real gift and it would be makeup.

“I don’t want makeup. But thank you.”

“Don’t you remember how nice you looked at James’ wedding when I let you wear makeup?” I had been eleven when my uncle, my mom’s younger brother, got married, and while I hadn’t been made up against my will, I hadn’t asked for makeup.

“Yes, but I don’t want to wear makeup. Thank you, though.”

“But why not?”

“Because … just because I don’t.”

“Well, I wish my mama had let me wear makeup when I was your age.”

But. I’m. Not. You.

“I don’t want to wear makeup.”

“No, really. You should,” my mother said, fixing her eyes hard on me. “You should.”

And it was that last “you should” that did it. I don’t mean that I relented; I didn’t start wearing makeup regularly until around eleventh grade. But that “you should” crushed me. It crushed the microscopic part of me that dared to think that my “big for her age” self was maybe kinda a little bit cute and sort of not too fat. “You should” meant that makeup would make me look better, more presentable, less homely, more like I belonged to my gorgeous mother.

My mother was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. I actually preferred her without makeup. Her beauty didn’t need any help. She had a glorious ’fro when glorious ’fros were in, the first time around. And her smile … My Lord. The woman had perfect lips and perfect teeth, and together, they were brilliant. And until loneliness, depression, and her changing metabolism took its toll, my mother had what folks back then called a “brick house” figure, so named for the popular R&B song by The Commodores.

“You should” was my mother’s go-to tactic for shaming me into liking what she liked, and caring about what she cared about. As in, I should care what people would think of me if I didn’t dress or carry myself a certain way, i.e., like her. My mother cared a lot about appearances, literally. Overwhelmed by mother’s obsession with how others might find me lacking, I became ten times more self-conscious than your typical self-conscious teen. It was debilitating, and I was damn-near thirty-five years old before I realized that most people didn’t size me up critically the minute I entered a room; they were probably too busy trying to get free of their own mother-induced neuroses to care if my clothes were wrinkled or how my hair looked.

Twenty or so birthdays later, and a few years into my mother’s cancer diagnosis, I finally got up the nerve to tell her how much that “you should” had hurt and how I had carried that hurt into adulthood and how her shaming me over the years had contributed to us not having the kind of relationship she said she wanted us to have.

Her response? “Huh. I don’t remember that at all.”

Which is why I shouldn’t have been surprised by her reaction later to the whole stolen ring thing, which became Reason #14 Why You Might Be Mad at Someone With Cancer.

But before I get into that, this is the part where I pause to make sure you don’t think my mother was a horrible person or a bad mother. She was neither of those things. This is important and needs to be said because we don’t allow mothers to have done some shitty things in the course of their parenting career and still get credit for the good they did. In our cultural consciousness, either mothers are saints or we’re driving our minivan full of kids into the river. And in the final tally of who I am because of my mother, I believe she did far more good than harm. She was a loving mother who sacrificed for me, and I always knew that my needs and many of my wants were her priority. If I am generous, hard-working, hospitable, responsible, and a person of integrity, I owe it in large part to my mother’s example and guidance. Even in her flaws, she had raised me to do as she said, not as she did.

She also raised me, ironically enough, to speak up for myself. But I guess she just intended for me to do this at school and with other people besides her. At any rate, this knack for being my own advocate came in handy in sophomore year of high school when I got straight A’s for the first three grading quarters, and then all A’s and a B in gym class in the last quarter. I was livid. How dare the gym teacher, of all people, fuck up my 4.0!

I went to see the girls’ dean of students who had taken me under her wing, but she wasn’t in her office that day. Another administrator was there and she did her best to calm me down. She listened as I rattled off all the reasons that this B was some bullshit. Ultimately, my grade didn’t get changed, but what did happen is that this administrator remembered me and my righteous indignation. So a month or so later, when our local Congressman’s office contacted her to recommend a rising junior who was mature and academically talented enough to spend the first half of the coming school year living and working on Capitol Hill as a page in the U.S. House of Representatives, this administrator recommended me.

The day I was due to arrive at the page dorm also happened to be my sixteenth birthday. My mother had been eager for this day for many years, because it would also be the day that she gave me one of her prized possessions: a gold ring shaped like a rose with a stone at the center of it that may or may not have been a diamond. When I was five, a guy she had dated had given her this ring. I knew from overhearing my mom’s conversations with friends that this guy was a thief. And yet, for eleven years my mother had worn this ring and gushed to me about how when I turned sixteen, this stolen property would be mine, and then one day, I would give it to my daughter (if I had one … you know, with my small hands and all), and my daughter would give it to her daughter…

This was my mother’s attempt to create a family heirloom. But the things that my mother gave me that I want to pass on to my daughters can’t be placed in a ring box, or any box. They are things of spirit and heart. But my mother didn’t treasure these gifts. When she was dying, I told her how much I treasured them, but that only added to her grief that she had, in her words, “wasted so much time on us, on things that didn’t really matter.”

But she didn’t have that insight in 1987. So, as ceremoniously as you can be in the page dorm, my mother presented me with the ring. I acted excited because I knew that that was what she wanted, but all I kept thinking was, “This ring was stolen.” And I wore the ring for exactly sixteen years and nine months.

The day I took the ring off and never wore it again, I was in Florida with my kids, visiting my mother. About four years earlier, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. When she had called to tell me, I’d been a few months into a self-imposed hiatus from her. I’d finally decided that I couldn’t take her guilt trips and criticisms of my life and choices anymore. I needed a break from her. I told her not to call or email me, and not to expect to hear from me. Indefinitely. I can’t remember what the straw was that broke the camel’s back, but I do remember that a year or so before the hiatus, she’d sent me a pair of burgundy jeans (she was always sending me clothes that I never wore) and got upset when I said that I hadn’t worn them and had no intention of wearing them because I’d asked her countless times to stop sending me clothes 1) because I was an adult, and 2) because the clothes she sent weren’t my style. “But your style is boring!” she’d said. And this was the argument in which she denied ever being critical of me.

So. Something else happened after that, and I decided to take a break from her. And then she got the cancer diagnosis, and fuck. So I ended the hiatus and learned everything I could about cancer and how we could save her life. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t save her life; I couldn’t even get her to change her eating habits. So I began to mourn her while she was still alive.

June 7, 2005, was a ridiculously hot day in Jacksonville, Florida, which is saying a lot. But my mom wanted to take my daughters to the zoo during our week-long visit, and I agreed, even though I wasn’t really up for it. My mother had told me that her doctors were going to try one more treatment, but they weren’t sure if they could do anything else for her after that. My beloved grandmother, who had helped my mom raise me, had died from ovarian and colon cancer that January. I was in the middle of a separation, heading to divorce. And the last thing I wanted to do was spend the day out in the heat. Needless to say, I was miserable, but of course my mother wanted to invite a drunken neighbor and her grandson to go with us to the zoo. In the monkey habitat, the neighbor kept screaming at the monkeys to shut up. I wanted to push her into the tiger pit.

On the ride home, my period started, just to cap off such a glorious day. I had to stop off at CVS. I left my mom and my kids in the air-conditioned rental SUV, so that I could at least be alone in the store. I picked up what I needed and stood in line. Someone behind me tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, but you just cut in front of me in the line.”

“Oh, my god! I’m so sorry!” I said to the woman behind me. And when I said this, I grabbed the edge of the counter because I thought I would faint. How had I missed this entire line of people?

The woman looked down at my hand and said, “What a beautiful ring!”

It was the stolen rose ring my mother had given me. “Oh. Thank you,” I said.

The woman continued. “You know, I had a ring just like that. Back in the ’70s. I bought it with my very first paycheck, but …”

No. No. Nononononono.

“…somebody broke into my apartment and stole it.”

“Oh. Well…My mother gave me this one…”

I wanted to go outside and drag my mother out of that SUV and… And what? She had cancer. How can you be mad with someone who has cancer?

I thought about giving the woman the ring. “Here’s your ring, ma’am. My mother suffers from some kind of condition that made her think that not only accepting a stolen ring as a gift was a good idea, but that she should also give it to me to pass down through the generations of our family. Please understand.”

But I couldn’t risk getting arrested.

I felt like shit. I felt like shit and I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Except accept stolen property.

From my mother.

But it was only because I didn’t want her to feel bad.

The woman kept chatting about how she’d lived in Jacksonville until the early ’80s but then moved to Dallas where she was a nurse (I think). She was home visiting her mother, who, as it turned out, had cancer. I told her that my mother also had cancer, and we gave each other that knowing “Fuck cancer” look. And then she let me go ahead of her anyway in the check-out line and wished my mother well. I wished her mother well too and then headed back to the SUV.

“There was a woman in there in the check-out line who saw the ring you gave me, and it turns out your boyfriend stole it from her all those years ago. It was her ring!”

“Hmmm,” my mother said. “Small world.”

A little over two weeks later, I was back home in Pittsburgh when I got the call that my mother had been hospitalized. She was in so much pain that the doctors didn’t expect her to survive the night. But she did, and when I arrived the next day, having caught the first flight I could after getting my kids situated with their dad, I went straight to the hospital. When I walked into her room, my mom’s best friend was there, and my mom beamed at her and said, “Oh, look! Deesha came!”

As if there had been a question of whether I would or not, continuing the pity narrative that my mother had kept up amongst her friends that I was just too busy with my own life to be concerned about her. I found out later, after she’d died, that she had known her cancer was at stage 4 for several months before telling me. She had told everyone but me. But she didn’t tell her friends that she hadn’t told me. So when they asked why I hadn’t come down to see her, she’d say, “Oh, you know … she’s just so busy with her own life.” So of course I looked like an asshole of a daughter, and everyone felt extra sorry for my mother because she had cancer and an asshole for a daughter.

In the two months I spent in Jacksonville when my mom was dying, I had to contend with people thinking I’d been a negligent daughter, while also tending to all of my mother’s complicated affairs and trying to see my kids whenever their dad was able to fly them down to me. My kids were six-and-a-half and one-and-a-half at the time.

My ex had known me, and by extension, my mother, since I was eighteen years old. He knew better than anyone how much grief my relationship with my mother had caused me over the years. When she had contacted him behind my back during the hiatus, hoping to make a surprise visit for my birthday … during the fucking hiatus … my then-husband had gently explained why that would be a terrible idea. “It’s like when you hold a bar of soap in the shower,” he’d told her. “If you hold on too tightly, the soap will slip away.”

And I had slipped away from my mother, long before she slipped away from me in death. But then I came back, in the ways that I could, in the time that she had left. On a yellow legal pad, I made long lists of things she wanted and things she wanted done after her death. How to distribute the vast contents of her costume jewelry collection, who to give the canned goods in her pantry. A big party at the hospice center for her and a hundred of her closest friends. Directions to pay her best friend’s utility bills for a year. Permission to give her brothers absolutely nothing since, in her estimation, she had given them enough money already over the years because she’d felt guilty telling them “no.”

“Don’t let them or anyone make you feel guilty for doing what you want to do,” my mother told me. “Live your life.”

I had waited my whole life to hear those words from my mother. I ached that they came too late for us to both fully enjoy the aftermath together, but I’m so very glad they came. Her words freed me.

My mother was lucid for most of her time in hospice. And not just lucid, but often hilarious. There was that a-hundred-person party at the hospital adjacent to the hospice center. My mother insisted on doing her own make-up and having a decorative cover for her colostomy bag. Someone alerted the local news, and they sent a camera crew and a reporter who asked my mother, “How does this celebration make you feel?”

And my mother, her voice heavy with Dilaudid, said, “Popular.”

And there was that day a childhood friend stopped by. He told my mother that he’d always had a crush on her, growing up. She’d been skinny and asthmatic as a kid, but he thought she was beautiful. “And you still are beautiful,” he told her.

After he left, my mom said to me, “Fine time for him to tell me alla that. But girl, look. I’m on my deathbed, and I still got it goin’ on.”

This is why I felt my mother would not mind how I dressed for her funeral. I had become obsessed with not sweating at the funeral, so I found this cocktail dress, above-the-knee, sleeveless, more “after 5” than “your mother’s funeral.” And I wore backless heels that were anything but conservative. And I think I strutted up to my mother’s casket because you can’t do anything but strut in heels like that.

And I’m pretty sure my critics among my mother’s friends did not approve of my attire, but I didn’t care. I didn’t sweat and I didn’t faint and I survived the day. And I’ve survived the many days since then, knowing that my mother died fully aware of how much I loved her, how much I had always loved her, despite all of the fights and frustration.

I wish that I hadn’t needed my mother’s permission to live my life. I wish that I had just been able to live it and ignore her criticisms, without having to hold her at arm’s length. I wish I had been strong and confident enough in myself to do that while she was alive, instead of having that strength and confidence ushered in by her death.

My mother’s death hasn’t changed what I remember about my relationship with her, but it has caused me to filter the memories through a lens of understanding, gratitude, and humility. I have to show my mother this grace if for no other reason than I hope my own daughters will do the same for me. My mother’s utter obliviousness to her parenting missteps forces me to recognize the likelihood of my own misinterpretation of my parenting actions and intentions. What I see as well-intentioned and helpful, my daughters could very well experience as overbearing and judgmental. What I offer as guidance might feel to them like pressure and shaming. I can’t dictate their experience, and I won’t tell them how to feel. I can only communicate my desire for them to be free to be who they are, even when I can’t relate. And I can keep the lines of communication open so that they can tell me what they need from me in order to thrive, even when it’s hard for me to hear. I can do the very best I can with what I know, which, I believe, is what my mother did.

•••

DEESHA PHILYAW is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. Along with her ex-husband,, she is the co-founder of co-parenting101.org and the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Essence and Bitch magazines. Deesha’s other work includes contributions to anthologies such as Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined; When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made; Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives; Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta; Women’s Work; and The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat.

Goodbye, 1735 Asylum Avenue

curtains
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

I was deep into middle age and so was my childhood home: 1735 Asylum Avenue in West Hartford, Connecticut. It had been forty-nine years since my parents had bought this house, and it had not held up well.

But neither have I. I take several pills a day for maladies like high blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety, and depression. No pill helped me to sleep in the days before we cleaned out 1735. Dad had been dead for a decade, and it was time to move my mother out.

My sister Carol, my brother John, and I each took a couple of rooms to empty. I volunteered to go through the master bedroom. I wanted to be alone with the detritus of my parents’ lives. Alongside the cancelled checks and the thumb-smeared Polaroids from the seventies was my master’s degree thesis that I wrote in the late 1980s—a collection of short stories called The Ninety Day Wonder in honor of my father’s service during the Second World War. John said he saw Dad read my thesis cover to cover in one sitting, crying as he turned the pages. The book was dedicated to him.

By the time 1735 sold, my mother had erased any traces of my father. The house was teeming from years of hoarding. She hung on to tests that she administered when she was a Spanish teacher in the seventies and eighties. She saved every single greeting card anyone sent to her. She saved her children’s baby clothes— clothes disintegrating from age. Then there was my prom gown, the dress I graduated high school in.

Maybe that is a sign of age—an unkempt house filled with stuff. Or maybe it was a bulwark against leaving. When my father died, the house was still habitable. Then the heater broke down and had to be replaced. The sump pump wasn’t up to the task of keeping the basement dry. Weeds shot through cracks in the driveway. The shrubs were overgrown. The window air conditioners—streaked with bird droppings—wheezed asthmatically. The wall opposite the banister was forever scarred after my father’s chair lift was removed.

•••

That final time we cleaned out 1735, my mother was in a rehab facility, and we made the most of her absence. Two months earlier, she’d spent her last night in the house. She had called me in a panic that she was feeling very unwell. Although I live in Boston, I made the call for an ambulance to take her to a hospital in Hartford. My mother will tell anyone who will listen that that hospital stay was the beginning of the end for her. I will tell anyone who will listen that summoning an ambulance saved her life.

Here is what my siblings and I had to do to save my mother further: During her extended stay in the hospital, we used the power of attorney that we had wrested from her the year before. We sold the house with her grudging acceptance. We promised to salvage pictures and other mementos. She decided to go to an assisted living facility in Connecticut rather than one in Massachusetts near Carol and me because leaving the area would cause unbearable changes like watching a different local news anchor.

•••

“I brought these,” Carol said waving boxes of masks and latex gloves. These were the same gloves that had to be worn to take blood or give a shot. These were the same gloves my father’s aides snapped on to toilet him, to wipe his drool. These were the same gloves we had to wear at 1735 where a family of raccoons recently lived in the chimney. These were the same gloves we were glad to have on when we found mouse droppings or the mice themselves.

These were the masks that made us look like mad surgeons or hygienic bank robbers. These were the masks I saw people wearing in the freezing, flu-ridden streets of Boston. These were the masks we wore our last days at 1735 to inhale less mold and dust.

I used to dream of the day I would watch a wrecking ball smash into 1735 Asylum Avenue. I thought that watching the house collapse would be satisfying, cathartic. I would take pictures upon the first impact. I would cheer. I would cry. I would dance on the edge of the house’s open grave. But that’s not what happened. We sold 1735 in less than a week to a builder who intended to take the place down to its studs and renovate the unhappiness imbedded in its walls. “An open plan,” he said. No more dark corners of sadness and dust mites. The house would be turned to face the sunlight and the side street. 1735 Asylum Avenue would vanish as a house and then as an address.

It turns out that selling 1735 unmoored me. It set me adrift without an ancestral home to go back to. We had cut a deal with the builder that we would take out personal items and leave the rest for him to deal with. Leave the green-swirled sofa stuffed with old circulars under the cushions. Leave the hi-fi missing the first A of “Magnavox.” Leave the dining room table with the warped leaves, the table I sat under when I was a little girl as my parents fought their way through another year of marriage. We left the chipped, cow-jumping-over-the moon-lamp that dimly lit the bedroom that I shared with Carol.

I left love letters written by bad boys and pleading letters that I wrote and never sent to those bad boys. Bad karma to move that stuff. I looked for a packet of poems that a nice boy wrote for me the summer after I graduated college. He was the sophomore who loved me—the senior girl who had a boyfriend I was afraid to leave. I gave him a chapbook of poems by a poet I thought was profound at the time. I can’t remember the name of the poet nor could I find the nice boy’s poems to me. I just know those poems were once mine, and now they would become part of the ash and rubble as 1735 Asylum was reincarnated.

I left the rotary phone in the den where it had been for almost half a century. The phone wheezed when the wheel spun and 523-0765 was rubbed off of the circle in the center. After all these years, it turns out, my mother was still renting from the phone company.

We were disappointed that Mom couldn’t take the phone number to the assisted living in the town over.

“What about just keeping 0765? I can deal with a different prefix,” I said.

“Taken,” said John who was in charge of getting the new phone number.

My siblings and I salvaged what we could and went back to the hotel to toast to our exhaustion. We barely lifted our glasses of the default Pinot Grigio we ordered in mediocre restaurants.

“Are you going to miss the place?” I asked Carol.

“Too much happened there,” she said.

She meant that my parents had papered the place with emotions that ranged from my mother’s mania to my father’s depression. But for the longest time, 1735 also represented permanence to me. It was the address on my driver’s license for the nine years that I lived in New York City.

Like houses that have been in one family for decades, my parents’ place burst at the seams with memories that were good and bad and ugly and beautiful. There were fights and reconciliations and moments of pure love. There were the deaths of parents and grandparents. There were great parties, the hi-fi blasting, where my parents danced rumbas and drank Cuba libres. There was my wedding gown that I hung on the living room lintel the night before my nuptials. There were grandchildren who toddled around the house.

My mother romanticized the home she made with her husband, and for better or for worse, she wanted to stay until death did part her from 1735. We must have appeared to be the most negligent children in the world as the neighbors watched her haul the pails out every Sunday night or noticed that her sidewalk was not shoveled after a big snowstorm. She lied to us and said her lawn man did snow removal. She lied to us that she had a lawn man. She lied to prevent her own removal from the house.

Visiting 1735 over the years, we often choked on agitation and the dust that accumulated as thickly as the plush carpeting that once covered the floors. For the last ten years we begged, we fought, we threatened Mom, and still she sat immobile in the chair my father had spent his last days and nights in the den—the chair that ejected him so he could go from recliner to wheelchair in one jerky motion.

Then I had an epiphany. Of course the idea of giving up the ancestral home in Connecticut was anathema to my mother, who had already left her first home in Cuba forever. My siblings and I were forcing my mother into another exile. We had already scattered from 1735 and left most of its dower contents in place. Like my grandparents who walked away from twenty-five years of silver and jewelry and dishes in Old Havana—“with only the clothes on their backs and their toothbrushes,” was my mother’s description—we shut the door on a house in West Hartford that was full of furniture and clothes and things we could not bear to dig deeper into.

We, too, had exiled ourselves from Asylum Avenue forever.

In the hospital, my mother screamed that she wanted to be buried seis pulgadas in the backyard. But we had bought a double plot when my father died. My mother would be six feet under the ground next to my father. And after 1735 had passed on, the furniture and the clothes went to the backyard to die. The builder promised that everything would be disposed of efficiently and quickly. I assumed that meant there would be some dignity in the process.

Instead, 1735 was stripped bare and its furnishings laid in the front and back yards for random people to pick over. They came with pickup trucks, U-Hauls, and minivans and took away my parents’ bedroom set. The living and dining room furniture were parceled to strangers. I hoped my bedroom set went to a little girl who would feel like a princess with a white and gold etched headboard. I didn’t see any of this myself, but I heard about the scene from one of my mother’s former aides, who got giddier as she told the story.

“It was like looting,” said the aide. “And they even took the clothes no matter how scrappy they were.”

Other families seem to have physical objects, talismans of sorts, to evoke their history. I pointedly remember that we had nothing from Cuba except some creased black and white photographs. If I, the child of exiles who went from country to country with little more than the clothes on their backs had known, I would have taken those things before they were outside for the world to grab.

•••

JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and O Magazine. She is at work on a memoir titled 1735 Asylum Avenue: A Family Memoir.