The Pink Room

woman parts
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

Content warning: rape —ed.

By Reema Zaman

New York, 2007. My hand pulls at the plastic ring attaching me to the subway rail. My wrist grows sore with each tug as the train lurches, burping noisily, without rhythm or apology. It couldn’t be more disinterested in us, this mass of bodies, compacted and caught, willingly. My palm and fingers slide along the grimy ring, the plastic soiled by countless hands, each leaving their oily imprint. I curse myself for forgetting my gloves, necessary not for warmth but for cleanliness and peace of mind. I’m from Bangladesh, and I loathe the cold. But as much as I dread winter, I welcome the layered protection of the season’s attire.

The man standing behind me pushes his crotch against my lower back. I’m grateful for my thick coat. Among all the clubs, predators have the most inclusive membership. They come in all forms: businessmen, lawyers, students, electricians, construction workers, old, young, white, black, brown, and everything in between. This one burrows his hard nub into me. The pressure makes me recede far as possible, which is scant given our cramped quarters. He knows this. He revels in this, sucking it like juice spilt from a ripe bite. I turn to glare at him. He feigns nonchalance.

The doors open. A mouthful of us spit onto the platform. We scurry, spread, each person in a different stage of gritty swift. It’s rare to find a born-and-raised New Yorker. Most of us have come here with a fervent purpose, arriving on the wings of a wish. We plunge into the flow, weave our narrative with each other’s, and move as one pulsing organism.

I emerge from underground. The crisp evening envelops me in a gulp. I don’t need to check my bearings. My pace matches the quickest foot. A few loiter, drag their feet, second-guess their direction. Not us, the urgent ones.

I make it home, now in my fifth sublet, and on the good nights (and tonight counts as a good night, as the man on the subway decided not to follow me and is now of the past), I exhale with relief. Another day closed, and thankfully, safely. I hang my coat.

The months fly like pages thumbed by an uncaring examiner. Then, one mundane Monday, I stumble into an old colleague. An actor like myself. A friend.

“What a great surprise!” he says. “We have so much to catch up on. Dinner? Friday?”

“Sure,” I reply.

We met a few years ago in the summer between my sophomore and junior year, while working at Williamstown, a renowned theater festival. He was a bit older than me, in graduate school at Brown. We became quick, close friends the way everyone does in a community of artists.

In the performance arts, we cultivate closeness through specific practices. For weeks or months, we do exercises crafted to foster trust and loyalty. We divulge achingly personal stories. We spend long hours rehearsing, suspended from reality, in the studio, onstage, and on the road. Therefore, by the time we perform, the audience believes we are family, siblings, lovers, or best friends. It’s our job to communicate intimacy. Once two artists have worked together, we’re allied for life. We’re part of a larger, loving tribe, generations deep. It is understood that we don’t dishonor this.

Now, years later, he and I have run into each other in the city, the way most of us do and will. We caught sight of one another in the waiting room of a studio, the way most of us do and will. We hug with the easy affection all actors who have worked together do and will.

Dinner is wonderful. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans. I’m wearing a short sundress and ballet flats. We share stories and laugh. My apartment is around the corner. I invite him up for tea. We talk and feel the attraction. He kisses me. I kiss him back. It’s all delightfully harmless.

It’s getting late. I walk him to the front door, adjacent to my bedroom.

“Good night. Thanks for a great time.”

He wants more.

He kisses me again, harder. He pushes me against the wall, my five-foot-four, one-hundred-five pounds feeling pitiful to his five-foot-eleven, one-hundred-eighty pounds.

“You have to leave now.” I keep my voice light but persuasive. He tries to push me onto the bed, forcefully, not remotely playfully. I hold my ground.

“No. You have to go.”

“No,” he says, grinning, his teeth glowing in the darkness. “I’m not going anywhere.”

The air has thickened like blood clotting. Dread curls around the edges of the room, like the scent of rain before the sky slits open. He comes towards me. I back away. I breathe slowly through my nose to calm my lungs and pace my heart. My mind sifts through every case study and self-defense lesson I’ve memorized over the years. I bolster myself with tactics, ready to use them: Place one hand on each side of his head, poke hard into his eyes with my thumbs. Knee him in the groin. Bite, kick, scream. Urinate. The shock and disgust might unsettle him, letting me run.

He grabs me again. I steel my body against his. I try to take his hands off me, twisting my arms and torso the way I was taught to do with assaulters. My teeth and hands tingle, eager to bite, to claw, to obey my orders.

But.

The vile truth, as bitter as bile: He is much too strong.

I fight with all my might, flaying like a fish caught on a hook. He keeps his hold on me, and the tussle flings us onto the bed. My left cheek is pressed against his shoulder and turned towards the wall.

My room is pink. I painted it this way, pink with a daisy-yellow trim. Growing up, I always wanted a pink room. There’s a Benjamin Moore a block down from my acting agent’s office. The day I signed with him, I gave myself a pink room. I’ve been trying to create something soft for myself within the black and gray bruise that is New York.

Life is surprising. Just as crayons fail to taste like their names, paint on a wall will be much brighter than paint in a can. I envisioned a light, blush pink but ended up with pink as vivid as flesh, sliced open.

Now, I’m inside a mouth.

Lining the flesh-pink walls are stacks of books, arranged in a way I think is pretty. My bedframe is lovely too, black wrought-iron in a delicate pattern of leaves and flowers, much like the tattoo on my ribcage, tucked into the small spot between my breasts. I chose that area for its sweet privacy, believing no one would see it unless invited. I found the bedframe on Craigslist. It didn’t come with a bedspring so I balance it on plywood boards.

I haven’t stopped fighting. I am still trying to wiggle out from beneath him. He’s pinned my wrists above my head, first with both his hands and then, only one hand to hold my wrists down. With the other hand he’s undone his jeans and hiked up my dress. Now, he knees apart my legs, and enters. As he jams in, I order myself to imagine what I’m feeling is an inanimate instrument, like those in a gynecologist’s office which, at twenty-three, I’ve been to only thrice. Now, he grunts, and grunts, his upper lip, forehead, palms, and torso growing clammy with sweat, saturating the room with his scent, musky, male, yet acutely his own. Cracking like lightning, the wooden boards beneath my mattress break from our combined weight and exertion. The mattress tilts down like a split bone. It juts into the air at an awkward angle, shaking with each thrust. The broken boards scratch my flesh-pink walls.

“You’re just too beautiful,” he hisses between groans. Astonishing, the power of the human word. Through a meager handful of sound and suggestion, I feel guilt for being myself and fury for having it used against me. I wish to be anyone but myself, to be anything but attractive, to disappear and remain hidden, indefinitely. I wish these things and hate him for it.

I’ve looked left, right, down, so now, I look into him. His sounds, scent, and desire have filled the room full of him, yet he’s completely left. His pupils have dilated so deeply, his entire eyes look black, dulled of light, dead of any humanity. I’m still repeating, “You have to go, you have to go, you have to go,” though I don’t know whom I’m referring to anymore, him or myself. I’d be grateful for either one of us to vanish. I switch to saying loudly, “No, no, no!” spitting the words like seeds that won’t take.

Here we are. This. Is. Happening.

The horrifying certainty hits me like raw steak slamming a chopping board. Maybe because he too believes this is a secured success, his hold on my wrists slackens. His moment of sloth is all I need. I slip my wrists out from his hand, press the heels of my palms on his shoulders and push with all my might.

No,” I yell. The sudden volume and physical force are enough to shock him backwards. He comes at the same time he falls. If this weren’t rape, if I weren’t terrified, if my voice weren’t hoarse from being ignored, I’d be embarrassed for him.

I scoot back until I’m against the headboard, hugging my legs to my chest. My throat is chapped. I taste blood. I must’ve bitten my tongue. It’ll hurt tomorrow. He puts on his clothes, swiftly, silently. I say it once more:

Leave.”

He does. After his sentence—“You’re just too beautiful”—he hasn’t said a word.

I don’t call anyone for help. I sit in the dark for fifteen minutes, listing my options and weighing the costs of each. To negotiate any legal retribution for rape is a brutal ordeal. I’m here on my OPT visa, my agents will sponsor my next visa, and if I accrue enough professional credits, I can obtain a green card. I devote every minute and penny to the next meal, audition, job, and rent check.

I’m working so hard to live here. I’m concerned that if I press charges against him, the legal process will be even more grueling than if I were a citizen. The fine print of my immigrant status claims I’m not to be treated any differently than an American woman but often the fine print fails to inform reality. Similarly, the minutiae behind immigration include nothing to suggest pressing charges against a rapist would compromise my status here, or when I file for a green card. But all it takes for is for my case to land in the hands of that one immigration officer who finds pleasure in turning the innocuous into injury.

I cannot harm my chances at staying here. I love America beyond words. I haven’t a place in Bangladesh. But here, I’m allowed to pursue the life I want, to be a voice for those without one. The irony is acutely painful. I won’t press charges. I have to be quiet now to be a voice for others later. The hardest fact to reconcile is that my silence allows him the wicked freedom to do this to other women. This thought of hypothetical others brands me with guilt.

What now.

Get him off you.

I take a shower. Scrolling down and along the walls like the stock exchange are statistics and stories I’ve learned and lived as a girl and student. What a twisted joke. I feel the inertia of tears build and with them, my heartbeat, sounding like the decisive march of soldiers, resolute and incoming. So immense grows my panic that it drowns the sound of water and sucks in my breath. I begin to choke.

Stop.

Breathe.

I breathe. This is anger and self-pity, two faces of fear. Fear, another luxury I cannot afford.

My story. He is but one page. One character. It doesn’t occur to me for a second to feel small, dirty, or somehow damaged. This wasn’t sex; this was assault. He is neither a man nor all men combined; he is one predator. He is a scab and Momma taught me not to pick scabs. Especially if they are human.

Under my makeshift waterfall, I speak these words. They bloom then distill into one sentence: Only I author my life.

I step out of the water.

Now the wrecked bed. I return the wooden slats to their precarious balance, angling them on the thin lip of metal, making sure they don’t succumb to gravity. I lift the mattress. I smile, not from the strength of my arms but from the lack of trembling in my hands.

I sleep.

The next day I have an audition for Gossip Girl. Gossip Girl is presently the most coveted job for women my age. More often than not, I’m asked to read for the exotic vixen. I don the requisite tight black dress and five-inch heels and negotiate my mouth around the vapid script. No one in their right mind will believe me in these roles.

“Be less intelligent,” says the casting director.

I’m certain there are brilliant actresses who can achieve such feats. But I’m a mediocre pretender. Some things I cannot act.

I take the subway to my hostessing job, clock in a few hours. I mute my brain, play pretty, let everyone believe what they need to believe. Afterwards, I babysit for a family I met a few weeks ago. The Mama is a Broadway star and Daddy a tennis icon. He is as steadfast in person as he is on court. She sears through life, blazing with the audacious confidence of an enduring flame. The family resembles idyllic American characters I have read about, never believing they might actually exist. The first time I enter their apartment, a wondrous warmth spreads through me like ink spilling into water. So this is what it feels like. Home.

I balance the baby on my hip and look into her eyes, blue as the skies in sonnets. We are safe in one another. All she wants is for me to be present. I fill with a love so authentic it arrests my breath.

Mama and Daddy return home, I to my pink room. Another day arrives, followed by another. The days form into months, months into years. I don’t hear from him but I will run into him. I will run into him over the years because we are both actors, and our world is tiny, and because life has a harsh, wise way of doing what she does. She will give us things as provocation to die quicker, or, grow. I will read about him in the Times. I will see him at auditions. One time, I will sit across from him on the subway.

“How are you?” I’ll ask, looking him in the eye. In response, he’ll move through every shade of pale and burn. He will sputter and shake. I will refuse to break eye contact. I will smile. I will wonder, Have you become more than your past self?

Is that possible? For all our sake, I have to believe it is.

Over time, I will meet an uncanny number of men like him. With each person, I grow better at sensing the volatility beneath the sheen. I feel it like incoming rain: he holds the dormant capability to inflict pain. Tally the encounters and I run out of fingers and toes.

The idiom Everything happens for a reason, has never sat well with me. One cannot blurt Everything happens for a reason to a person who’s just lost a loved one, been raped, or been diagnosed with cancer.

I assign my experiences their reasons.

I choose to believe the reason for this one evening wasn’t to lose my faith in men, life, or my instincts. The purpose behind this night was it proved my resilience. My beauty and youth will fade. People and money will come and go. But my ferocious passion to live is mine evermore.

Startling. Realizing this lights something within me. For the first time in my life, I like myself.

My father visits the city for a conference. Time has softened him like butter left on a table. He says the city terrifies him. The pace, scale, crowds, remarks. A terrain dotted with magic unlike anywhere else, but otherwise cacophonic, putrid, and obstinately gray.

“Don’t you get scared?” he asks.

“Sometimes.”

Life is masterful at being fearsome. But listen and receive, the landscape will provide every wisdom. Like the days, each train arrives only to make way for the next. I stand on the platform with my fellow travelers. The doors open. I step into the maw.

•••

REEMA ZAMAN is from Bangladesh and was raised in Hawaii and Thailand. She holds a BA in Women’s Studies, a BS in Theater, and a minor in Religion from Skidmore College. She worked as an actress and model in New York for a decade. Now, she writes memoir and personal essays, residing in Oregon. She is represented by Lisa DiMona of Writers House and Reema’s first memoir, I Am Yours, is presently being circulated to different publishers. She also writes for Dear Reema, where she responds to letters sent in by readers. Her work has been published in The Huffington PostShape, and Nailed. Reema is the creator of You Are the Voice, a talk on resilience, self-ownership, and empowerment that she performs in colleges and other venues nationwide. This piece, The Pink Room, is an excerpt from her memoir I Am Yours. For more, www.reemazaman.com.

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Croc Walks Into a Bar

croc
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer D. Munro

The crocodile slipped out of the underbrush that strangled the opposite shore and eased into the water. He shoved off with webbed paws incongruously small for steering a barge loaded with muscle and teeth, like tricycle tires on a hearse. He moved slowly, as if he had all the time in the world to wreak havoc upon humanity. No hurry, must scrutinize the menu before making his selection.

The freshwater lagoon teemed with local families diving headfirst into crystalline water. They hurtled themselves into the boulder-encrusted pond from a frayed rope swinging from a rickety tree. Standing on a small dock downstream, I’d hesitated to join the splashing crowd. With the croc’s grand entrance through the curtain of mangroves, the terrified mob scrambled from the water. We didn’t speak their language, and the Mexicans didn’t speak ours, but we got the message: get the hell out of the water, pronto! In a country where the national motto seemed to be, I’m reconciled to death, the translation rang loud and clear: Not like this.

“Felipe,” scolded the poolside café’s bartender, shaking his head at the cold-blooded critter who had crashed the party.

Although Felipe apparently pub-crawled here often enough to earn himself a pet name, the bartender had kept mum while the croc remained out of sight. The café had the market for refreshment cornered, perched at the edge of a shady headwater deep in the Mexican jungle. Bad for business, this errant croc who bellied up to his bar with growing frequency, so the bartender wasn’t going to give away the marauder in the back booth as long as the Uzi stayed under the table.

If ever God needed to knock back a stiff one, Tovara Spring is where He’d rap his knuckles for a double shot of Cuervo. Here we could chug an ice cold bottle of Tecate with a lime wedge, then leap into aquamarine water to cool off in the muggy heat. Which my husband, friends, and I were about to do when Felipe took his cue and cruised into the spotlight. Despite his lack of Shakespeare monologues or juggling tricks, he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. There was nothing to stop him if he decided to eat our hands. If Felipe chomped one of us in mid-swig, he’d get the lime, beer, and salty sweat all in one gulp.

We had nowhere to run if Felipe left the water, since the only way in or out of this place was by boat. He idled in neutral about ten feet from where we jammed together on the dock at the lagoon’s base. At the pond’s head, about a hundred feet upstream, a cliff towered. The dock jutted from a narrow strip of paved shoreline along one side, mostly hogged by the café. A handy set of stairs descended into the water so that Felipe could easily emerge from his bath to sip his piña colada with cartilage garnish. On the opposite shore: a solid mass of impenetrable brambles, probably littered with the remains of other tourists.

Too close for comfort, we backed up on the dock. Our friend Mark and our guide Nicho argued about Felipe’s vital statistics. Eight feet long, snout to tail, Mark estimated. Twelve feet, Nicho countered. We agreed on ten, but of a massive girth, solid as skyscraper girders—well-fed. Nicho’s quick calculation: 450 pounds. We settled on 500. Fifty years old, everyone agreed, judging by Felipe’s size—a crafty survivor who knew a thing or two about the food chain.

The bartender wrung his apron, likely hoping Felipe would realize that he’d forgotten his SPF 30 and return to the shade. But Felipe didn’t move an inch of his cement-hard muscle (not bad for a middle-aged bald guy, he’d obviously been disciplined about his Pilates). His scales looked as dense as the concrete pier we stood on. Unimpressed with his admirers, he sunbathed like an aloof Hollywood starlet. An imperceptible current rotated him gently in the limpid water. Squat legs, thick and short as old-growth tree stumps, were motionless. Those feet were made for bitch-slapping as sure as any evolutionary tool, but Felipe didn’t look like he’d bother breaking a fingernail.

Sizable fish tra la la’d under him, and turtles cruised past his snout. If the mood struck, the jaws that made up a remarkable portion of his overall length would widen and then snap shut, with the strongest bite of any animal on earth, and he’d ingest a crunchy tortuga like a taco. Just a snack, more out of boredom than hunger—a television commercial break to interrupt a documentary yawner in which the seasoned killer does absolutely nada. I suspect he hummed an Alice Cooper tune under his breath.

The lagoon beckoned, now peaceful and empty. Truly paradise—except for the crocodile—this idyllic spot that we’d toiled to get to.

I turned around to the downstream side of the dock, my back to Felipe. I stuck my big toe into the water. Here in this pond, disaster wasn’t lurking around a corner, ready to catch me unawares, but stretched out in the water, big as a pontoon bridge.

We had journeyed half a day from Puerto Vallarta to get to this mouth of water, appearing by magic at the base of a verdant cliff. The still and cool freshwater turned to murky saltwater farther downriver—if you could call the maze of channels hacked through the swamp a river—before meandering to the Pacific Ocean. We had hoped to sight crocs as we journeyed up the swamp from where it emptied into the sea, but we never intended to swim with one. Our guide had assured us that crocodiles never crossed from salt to fresh water. So when we putt-putted from brine into the sudden miracle of clear water at the head of San Cristobal Estuary, we stripped down to our bathing suits, eager to take a refreshing dunk in the carnivore-free pond.

A hundred miles from any cash machine or English-speaking waiter, we were the only white folks there—three middle-aged, married couples, all pushing the upper limits of height-weight proportionate and more interested in testing tequila brands than in testing our mettle. We had traveled all morning on rough roads pockmarked every blink by a white roadside cross commemorating a gory death. Buses passed compact cars on blind mountain curves, and the left hand blinker on the car ahead could signify a polite “okay to pass, the road’s clear,” or, “I’m turning left, so don’t pass.” Take your pick, brake or gun it, ’sup to you. You’d find out in a minute what the driver ahead was trying to tell you.

We navigated the tricky Mexican highway system of turning left from the right hand lane. We followed instructions like, “Park at the El Conchal landing. Get out of the car and wait. Eventually someone will come get you.” Fortunately this turned out to mean boat guides, not drug runners or kidnappers.

We spent two more hours puttering up the estuary in a flat panga with no life preservers. Our rented skiff squeezed through the tunnels of trees; in places we ducked to avoid low-hanging limbs that would knock us into brackish tributaries. Covered in bugspray and sunscreen in high humidity, we hunted crocodiles with our digicams and binocs, but they remained elusive. We spotted tortugas, owls, and herons, and the disintegrating remains of a Hollywood movie set, all well and good, but not what we came to see. An hour after we forked over 200 pesos (twenty dollars) apiece and journeyed up the dank estuary without seeing any reptiles, our guide Nicho admitted that it was the wrong season. At this time of year, late in the spring, the parent crocs hid with their newborns deep in the tangled mass of shrubbery and roots. We glimpsed one or two juvenile crocs, a foot or so long, errant adolescents out on the prowl, revving their engines. At sight of us, they startled like teens caught smoking and thrashed away through the undergrowth with an unexpected swiftness from clumsy-looking bodies. So by the time Felipe took the watery stage, I understood his capacity for speed. Looks were deceiving. He was a Sherman tank with a Maserati motor. His fire hydrant legs could move like redlining pistons.

Calm as driftwood, Felipe was an impressive beast, especially given the lack of barbed wire fences, nets, guns, and Peligrosa! signs. A depressing ecological reason must account for Felipe’s emigrating to a new ’hood, where he was as welcome as an oil tanker in the Galapagos, but at the moment, who cared about global environmental crises?

I’d risen before dawn while on vacation and traveled all morning for a dip in this swimming hole. I was an inch shorter than when we’d set off that morning, my spine compacted by our tin van’s thunking through never-ending potholes. I’d worn my swimming suit under my clothes to save myself the hassle of changing. No teeny-bikini, this total coverage bathing costume. I suffered the swamp in a girdle of cling wrap. Felipé would need some serious dental floss to pick this hellacious spandex stuff out of his incisors. The turquoise water glinted. I moved to the empty head of the pond. Felipe did the dead man’s float, the distance between us about the length of a few stretch limos in a funeral procession. I sat on a boulder and dangled my legs into the water. Nirvana, if I ignored the fact that I was flashing my knees at a butcher with a fondness for knuckle sandwiches.

The crocodile has remained unchanged for 200 million years. I’d remained unchanged for forty. Time to shake things up.

I’d spent four decades in my well-defined female role: shopper, navigator, time watcher, reservation- and list-maker. I was a clucking hen, not a wildlife tamer. I blundered into rare exploits by mistake, ignorance, or indifference. I tagged along on other people’s adventures so that I could carry the First Aid kit. Like today. I’d almost stayed back at the hotel with my book, in close reach of the fridge and bottle opener, but I went along to ensure that everyone wore their seatbelts and sunblock. I wasn’t out to wrestle a tooth-crammed predator that would outlive a nuclear holocaust (I hadn’t read any such crocodile prognoses anywhere, but, looking at him, I was certain that cockroach genetics had nothing on his). This sucker’s DNA was all about survival. Obviously unlike mine, since I, sporting cellulite instead of armor, was flaunting my gams at a pilgrim with a penchant for drumsticks.

My idea of daring was eating just-expired yogurt. I’d faced my brand of peril earlier in the shallow end of the hotel swimming pool; I slipped off a child’s inner tube, a too-small frame for my large culo, and cracked my head on the underwater stairs. Did I want to meet my maker in such an inglorious manner, floating ass up in one foot of heated water? Or did I want to go down as the woman who swam with crocodiles, the inspiration for Waltzes with Felipe, an overbudget Costner epic? Just me and Baryshnicroc starring in a memorable pas de deux.

Always too fearful and uncoordinated, I’d never done a cartwheel, never climbed a tree, never did the splits, except once when I slipped on my brother’s Hot Wheels. The primary definition of my life so far was what I had not done: bear children despite repeated attempts. Always an over planner, stocking up on maps and emergency supplies, things had not gone as planned. After seven miscarriages in ten years, I was aimless, drifting like Felipe in the trickling current, uncertain about my next step. My husband and I could not agree about embracing childlessness, further medical intervention, or adoption, so we often ended up discussing divorce. Adopting a child felt as scary as swimming with a crocodile, a leap of faith if ever there was one. My husband was ready to take the plunge, but my reluctance persisted. I wanted to feel whole and complete first, without a child, before I moved forward on adoption—not as if I was missing a puzzle piece, a woman without substance or value until she replicated herself. What I had become was paralyzed. Faced with twelve brands of pickles in the grocery store, I left empty-handed. My future was not nearly as clear as Felipe’s shadow, stretching dark and ominous below him on the pond bottom.

But this decision was miraculously easy. I was sweaty. I was grumpy. I was sore and tired. I was an idiot American with a charge card. I endured hardship for a dunk in this water and damn it—after being denied time and time again the thing that I most wanted—a dunk is what I’d get. I didn’t want to leave this pond adding one more thing I had not done to the already lengthy list. If it was my time, then I couldn’t imagine a better place to go. My demise would be quick. I’d be beheaded like a Cabbage Patch doll snatched by the school bully. (A friend assured me later that in reality the croc would drag me to the rocky depths and toy with me until I drowned in slow agony.) Regardless, we were so far from any hospital that I couldn’t be saved to live out my days with no arms and legs, just a head and torso sipping meals through a straw. No fuss or muss for my family, no choosing cremation or burial, no debating my final resting place, just a wake with margaritas and alligator boots all ’round.

Here, I wasn’t afraid of the unknown, an ambush against my body by my own body that surprised me every time. This was my one and only chance to swim with a crocodile. In the States, a SWAT team headed by Bruce Willis would close the place down before you could say New York Sewer. If I lived through doggie-paddling with a homicidal lizard, I would have this knowledge to carry me through the rest of my life: for once, I didn’t overthink. I finally did something really, really stupid. At long last, I took a risk.

Mostly, though, it was hot, and the water was fine.

So, with a smidgen of a second thought, I eased my body into the water a decapitated head’s throw away from a ferocious reptile. I tooled around my end of the killer-infested pond (I assure you that one large crocodile equates to infested), about as far from Felipe as a baseball catcher from a dirty player on third. I enjoyed myself but tried not to splash and attract Felipe’s attention. This wasn’t about committing suicide. I was simply tired of being afraid. Of course, I was also hyper-aware that I frolicked with a wide-jawed trespasser who could make toothpicks of pelvic bones.

I floated, as near to a prehistoric killing machine as I’d once gotten to Roger Daltrey backstage before my nerves failed me. The water so clear, I saw the tips of my toes five feet below me, and farther. So clear, I would see an underwater torpedo, dark shadow of death, streak through the depths a millisecond before I become dinner. Me, a frothing bubble bath of crimson, red tendrils snaking to the surface as the predator worried me into extinction. The huddled mass of frightened bathers onshore would witness Chef Croc shredding my sinews and tendons like fajita fixin’s. My eyeball might float to the surface before the croc snagged it for dessert, a tasty macaroon. Or my ear a vanilla wafer, my diamond stud twinkling in his teeth like a rap star’s.

Felipe did… absolutely nothing. We each remained at our end of the pond, avoiding eye contact like brooding tennis opponents mid-match. The locals on shore looked from Felipe to me and back again.

Felipe appeared oblivious, off in a daydream, yet I sensed his awareness of every dragonfly that flitted past his snout. When he chose to strike, it would be with the speed of a Daytona finish line. He was the size and shape of a drag racer, poised at the start, wheels spinning, ready to peel out and burn rubber. But he didn’t. He hung out, considering the shapes of clouds.

My husband, the daredevil who’d never left his teens and kept emergency rooms in business, watched me from shore, arms crossed over his shirt. Damp stains spread under his arms and sweat dripped down his forehead. Without children, we often had nothing in common, other than his tendency to set things aflame and my ability to douse them with one of my several fire extinguishers. I had followed him on countless of his spontaneous escapades, more to pick up the pieces in case of catastrophe than to enjoy the moment, nagging him the whole time about safety equipment, safety courses, safety belts, safety goggles. But this tale would be mine alone, my gamble, my glory, if not my funeral.

The crowd grew bored with tossing Felipe tortillas that he left for the fish. One by one, the families returned to the water. A father tossed his two kids in; the toddler couldn’t swim and wore inflatable arm bands above his spindly elbows. A pregnant madre slipped in, cradling her infant. For the first time in my life, I’d been the fearless leader, venturing into the face of menace and proving it safe for the rest of grateful humanity. Me, Bruce Willis, with breasts and hair. Job done and credits rolling, I heaved myself out of the water, cool and slick as an arctic seal and just about as graceful.

Truthfully, I’m sure the locals would have returned to the water without my bumbling example. I couldn’t pretend to sum up their culture after a week there, but I witnessed a willingness for risk that’s absent in the States (except by teenaged boys). The bull-riders at the local rodeo had no ambulance or nearby hospital, the beaches no lifeguards or warnings about riptides, and the taxis no seatbelts, with grannies in rockers riding in the back of open-bed pickups. They exhibited an acceptance of fate that I rarely glimpsed in the U.S. I’m sure they would embrace a pension plan and a teaching hospital in a First World minute but had no choice other than to shrug at whatever nature and providence handed them. Nobody said boo to the bartender for keeping his trap shut when he should have divulged the fact that Felipe had U-Hauled it into a family neighborhood.

In the States, we insist on insurance, assurance, or recompense for what nature or mankind dishes out. We want doctors to fix our ills and demand that lawyers avenge what’s broken. We weigh statistics before we make decisions. I knew the precise odds for each of my pregnancies and thought each of my doctors would eventually cure my problem. I tried to shrug and “let nature take its course” but could not, carrying on an argument about where nature’s path led me. Adoption carried a different sort of risk, with a good chance that alcohol and drugs had been abused during the pregnancy and that the child had been abused since birth. But if I didn’t take that plunge, I would surely lose out on one of the richest experiences of my life.

We climbed back into our panga and began the long journey home. My husband put his arm around me. Felipe still hadn’t moved a pinkie.

But we did. We signed up for foster care and adoption certification training shortly after we returned home. Someday I’ll be able to tell my son, “Mommy once swam with a crocodile.”

Then, “Don’t ever let me catch you doing something so stupid.”

•••

JENNIFER D. MUNRO is a freelance editor whose blog, StraightNoChaserMom.com, is a Top Three Finalist in the 2015 National Society of Newspaper Columnists blog competition. She was also a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Global Humor competition. Her numerous publishing credits include Salon; Brain, Child; Listen to Your Mother; Literary Mama; Best American Erotica; and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. Her humorous stories about sex and the sexes are collected in The Erotica Writer’s Husband. Website: JenniferDMunro.com.

Sips of Air

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By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Antonia Malchik

Some premature babies, the Neonatal Intensive Care nurses tell me, can’t afford the calories it takes to swallow. The first time they take my skinny, three-point-three-pound son off his IV drip to give him real food, they ask me not to watch. They have to run a tube through his mouth down to his stomach—babies this young also have no gag reflex—so that the calories go directly where they are needed, rather than being wasted in tongue and throat action, a method called gavage feeding, the same way foie gras geese are fattened. The instinct to rescue him from this specific invasion comes as a relief: my days are otherwise filled with fear, helpless and enormous and without direction.

•••

The entrance to our nearest hospital butts against a curved driveway where people pick up and drop off patients or take advantage of the free valet parking. Behind it, before shifting into pure concrete and asphalt, is a landscaped grassy area with benches clustered around a fountain and picnic tables set at angles near the walkway to the parking lot.

It looks innocent enough, inviting, but it’s not. The first time I stepped on that walkway, I was looking down and jumped to the side as if it burned through the soles of my shoes. It was paved with bricks, most of them carved with the dedications of donors, bricks given in honor of someone whose name was usually followed by a date of birth and a date of death. What made them unusual was how close the two dates were—sometimes days or weeks, sometimes the same day. I wondered how long those babies had lived. Hours? A whole day? Minutes? Where were their parents now? Did they wake up on that date every year to face the grayness of loss?

My husband Ian and I called it the Dead Baby Walk and kept to the grass after that. We spent a lot of time at the hospital, sitting in Neonatal Intensive Care next to an incubator holding our premature son. He was so scrawny that he weighed less than our smallest cat; he’d been born seven weeks too early, and his lungs weren’t functioning properly. There was no way that I was going to start the day’s visit to him by being reminded of the fragility captured at the beginning of life and how frequently it can end in the opposite of hope.

•••

“I don’t think I can go in,” I told Ian. We could see the birthing center, on the fifth floor of the hospital, from the parking lot. It was seven days after John’s unexpected, extremely early arrival, and I was leaving emotional shreds of myself all over the county as we made our daily drive up and down the New York State Thruway from our home to the NICU. There, locked away from rooms where real people, with normal babies, bore and laughed and kissed and nursed, my son took sips of air from oxygen tubes while another tube tried to clear an air pocket from around his lungs. He had air in all the wrong places and a hole in his heart and had never yet eaten anything not given by IV. The NICU—short for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the place for undercooked or sick babies (ours was both)—dragged on me like a small planet with its own gravitational pull, a force nonexistent for people whose babies had been born full-term and healthy.

Every day after being buzzed in the locked door and scrubbing my arms and forearms at the NICU sink (premature babies are also extremely susceptible to infection), I paused just outside the bright room, trying to arm myself against tears that were of no use to anyone. The incubators were shrouded with small homemade quilts made by a charity organization. John slept and blinked and cried under a pattern of cats sitting against a green background while Ian and I read to him from a book of traditional English fairy tales that I’d picked up in London. We sang the “Mockingbird” song over and over, and described the room that was waiting for him: the special mobile his grandparents had sent from England, the fairy tale–themed mural a friend had painted on his wall. I choked when telling him about the blue rug and striped curtains we’d bought. The care that we had put into those everyday details sometimes overwhelmed me.

Today I couldn’t get to the blue rug and striped curtains. Today I couldn’t even get as far as the NICU door. I couldn’t even get out of the car. Today the neonatologist had called early in the morning to warn us that John needed another chest tube to clear a second pneumothorax—an air bubble that prevented his lungs from expanding—and I’d curled up between my bed and the loathsome breast pump and sobbed as if tears could dissolve the pain and me at the same time.

In the parking lot, Ian brushed tears back into my hair. Neither of us had any platitudes. “Can you?” Another nod. A deep breath. A final wiping of nose and face. I swung my legs carefully out of the car and hauled myself up using the handle above the door, heading for the longer path around the curved driveway that avoided the Dead Baby Walk. My skirt brushed over the massive numbness in my abdomen, hiding a healing scar I’d never intended to have.

Two weeks before, I’d been grimacing every time I folded myself into a car and thinking that I couldn’t possibly stand the discomfort of pregnancy for the two months I had left. Three weeks before, we’d been hiking on a remote Scottish island, where the hospital was over an hour’s flight away from the island’s cockleshell beach—an hour if the weather was clear, a day’s wait or more when it was overcast. If my body had turned against me earlier, neither John nor I would have made it. The nearness of the timing still makes my breath short and my hands cold.

•••

I had HELLP Syndrome. A vicious, rare illness that’s caused by pregnancy, with no cure except delivery. It hit me fast, progressing from slightly elevated blood pressure to nearly unbearable abdominal pain within twenty-four hours. By the time my obstetrician performed an emergency C-section, my liver was failing. When my son and I came out of the operating room, Ian was on the phone with my older sister. He froze, not knowing whom to follow as they whisked us each into our own intensive care units.

That first day, I sat in shock in the ICU, smiling automatically at the nurses because being nice is such a deeply ingrained habit that it’s almost pathological. I’d jerk awake when the oxygen monitor screamed to tell me I’d stopped breathing again. My fingers shook as they stroked the streaky Polaroid photo taped to the bed rail. John Henry, a thoughtful nurse in the NICU had written, 4 lb 3 oz, 17 in. I didn’t see my son until thirty hours later, when I was transferred from the ICU to the birthing center’s Mother & Baby section, surrounded by women with full-term newborns and visitors armed with balloons and flowers. Ian and I, three thousand miles from our families, navigated phone calls and inedible hospital food alone, no baby by the bedside.

That first time I met John, at some dark hour of the night, a NICU nurse lifted him, tubes and all, out of his incubator and into my arms. Our IVs tangled; Ian held an oxygen sniffer to John’s nose; I murmured happy nonsense, a normal new mother for a few minutes, ignorant of the month to come.

•••

A week later I sat once again on the high stool next to John’s incubator. I hadn’t been allowed to hold him since that first day, due to the chest tubes, oxygen sniffer, and IV lines, so Ian and I took turns resting our index fingers in his little hand, living for the moments when he squeezed. We couldn’t do more than that. Premature babies are also extremely sensitive to touch. Stroking a preemie’s head or skin can drive him crazy.

The nurses—our friends by now—looked at us anxiously when we walked in that day, the day I gave up on hope and struggled to come in the door. They’d seen parents go through this before, and worse. The neonatologist wrapped us in her professional sympathy as she showed us the second pneumothorax on an X-ray and said John might have to be transferred to a tertiary care unit closer to New York City. I envisioned weeks of three-hour commutes to spend scarce minutes with him, and it seemed unbearable.

After seven days, two pneumothorax, a hole in the heart, and an extra bit of heart valve where it wasn’t needed, there was only one thing that hadn’t been tried: John had not yet had food. He’d lost slightly under a pound—a quarter of his body weight—while my pumped milk had been piling up in the freezer, the only offerings I had to give the gods.

The next day they decided to start feeding him. One milliliter of milk went down the tube to his stomach. The next time it was three, no calories lost to pesky swallowing. His breathing became less erratic, and they turned down the whispering oxygen. Within three days, John had recovered so well that it startled even the neonatologist. He was a full month old before his lungs were strong enough and his heart repaired enough for him to be discharged, but two weeks into his life he was tube- and IV-free for the first time and learning to eat on his own.

•••

Those of us who have faced the potential loss of a child will never bear the pain of those for whom the potential became a fact. We may have stepped on the Dead Baby Walk, but we haven’t bought a commemorative brick. All I can say is that the fear has come close enough to unshroud itself, to touch the heart. Every parent fears losing his or her children. The physical hazards and accidents—cars, drug addiction, sudden peanut allergies, a million unthinkable possibilities—haunt us. It is something else, though, to have that fear cupped in your hand, to acknowledge it by name. To be warned: “Prepare yourself.” Because once prepared, once you know, the Dead Baby Walk’s existence stalks your footsteps. Like all traumas, it becomes embedded in our physical bodies as well as our psyches.

Before his third birthday, John was hospitalized twice for asthma. The second time was the same day we brought home his new baby sister. I held her while Ian drove away with John strapped in the back, his chest caving to expose ribs and diaphragm while he fought to inhale oxygen. His lungs had been too weakened by their early struggles; a simple summer cold caught his alveoli in a tight grip and laid him flat.

He’s seven years old now, and, if all goes well, on his way to being diagnosed asthma-free, despite the incessant coughing that exhausts him every time he catches a cold. I yell at him on a regular basis—brush your teeth! turn off the TV! please stop whining!—something I couldn’t have envisioned doing either during the NICU-month-of-hell or his later asthmatic episodes. He plays Minecraft, rides his bike, does his math lessons, throws a fit when I ask him to pick up his Legos. He’s a normal kid.

But I don’t feel normal anymore. Or maybe it’s that I have been normalized. Maybe avoiding loss, pretending death doesn’t exist, is the abnormal state. I’d hate to believe humanity’s fate is to walk shadowed with grief, sorrow slipping into us painlessly like milk down a gavage tube to a premature baby’s stomach. But on our hospital visits for John’s chest X-rays and to his pulmonologist, and when I returned there for monthly visits to the high-risk perinatologist during my second pregnancy (being at a 25% risk of developing HELLP or various other complications again), the Dead Baby Walk still made me jump like an animal that’s seen violence. Its existence reeks of trauma and fear. It’s a reminder of how linked we are: We clutch at the good moments, the small joys, while the greater sorrows, the losses that eat us alive, lie waiting beneath our feet.

•••

ANTONIA MALCHIK’s essays have appeared in a variety of publications, and are forthcoming from The Washington Post, Orion, STIR Journal, and The Atlantic. You can read more of her work at antoniamalchik.com, and about her experience with HELLP Syndrome on BuzzFeed Ideas. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Friendship and a Bottle of Mirto

bikes
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Powell Berger

“I’ll take the big room in the back,” Marie announced after our host family waved good-bye, dust trailing their little red Fiat. “That way, you get the room by the front door,” she said to me, “so you can protect us.”

Marie and I hadn’t traveled together for years, and back when we did, it was usually in triple-sheeted luxury hotel rooms at resort destinations where booze and business mixed, and our corporate expense accounts picked up the tab. She’d been that go-to friend for over twenty-five years, even though time and distance and life meant that we sometimes went months—even years, a few times—without talking much. She was the anchor during my divorce over two decades ago, and I can still hear her laughing when I’d call, irate over my estranged husband’s latest transgression. “The only thing funny about it is that you’re so shocked and angry,” she’d say. “Let it go!” She was right, of course, and I’d been reminded of her sage counsel more than once in recent months. My second marriage was crumbling under the weight of deceit and abuse.

Here we were, together again, this time in Solanas, Sardinia—a tiny beach village along the island’s southern coast—in a home exchange arranged months earlier. It had been advertised as a “charming, rustic beachhouse”; it bore little resemblance to the luxury hotels of our traveling past, and, as far as we could tell, had no proximity to anything resembling a beach.

Marie had been my go-to source when Sardinia beckoned, not because she’d ever been there or had any special insight, but because her grandparents emigrated from Sicily over a hundred years ago and their Italian roots held firm, even if her passport proclaimed her an American. What is normally considered spaghetti bolognese, she calls macaroni with gravy, and her pasta lexicon is numeric, vaguely explaining those mysterious numbers on pasta boxes. She’s the diva of her Italian-loving Manhattan meet-up group, and I’m convinced that should someone cut off her hands, her tongue would fall out as well. For all things Italian, she’s my source.

And for that matter, maybe all things too hard to navigate alone.

•••

We’d met back in our DC days, me a young lobbyist for the plastic bag industry, and her, the savvy insider, keeping safe the distilled spirits industry of America. She peddled Boodles gin, Moet champagne, Absolut vodka, and single malt scotch while I tried to convince the nation of plastic’s benefits. She drew the crowd, and I rode her coattails.

It was her DC apartment—its tiny galley kitchen, ten-foot ceilings, and Victorian molding—that was my respite during the drama of my first divorce. My then two-year-old, Owen, knew her as “Aunt Marie,” our wacky friend with the elegant apartment where we had pajama and movie parties, mostly when Mom seemed sad and needed a friend. It was a regular enough occurrence that Aunt Marie’s apartment came to be stocked with Owen’s own melamine bowl and plate and cup, and a can of Chef Boyardee, to be opened only in the event of dire emergency. It should be noted that the can was never opened, Marie horrified by its mere presence in her cupboard. She finally tossed it, declaring that no kid she loved would ever eat that junk.

Sometime after my first marriage and two new kids into my second one, she was my pick to stay with my babies when my new husband and I secretly jetted off to Honolulu in search of schools, housing, and jobs, the next step in my plot to move my family from beltway politics to the beaches of Hawaii. She routinely questioned my logic, first on the new husband—whom she called Church Man because she never remembered his name and because we met at church—then on both my moving strategy and my common sense in choosing her to watch my kids. Unmarried, with no kids of her own and no tolerance for the suburbs, she looked bewildered as I handed her my house keys and a map to the preschool and waved goodbye.

She swears I never called to check on them, a point I contest, but maybe it’s true. But when I returned two weeks later, she’d become the Peter Pan in my children’s magical world. Five-year-old Austin introduced her to Thomas the Tank Engine, and she sat with him, transfixed, convinced that the show’s narrator, George Carlin, would surely revert to his stand-up calling of smut, that this children’s movie phase was purely hallucinogenic.

Like the actress glumly owning her box-office failures, she reported that two-year-old Emmi couldn’t be swayed by Coco Chanel’s timeless fashion wisdom about elegance and simplicity, insisting instead on prints plus stripes plus plaid—and the tiara—on a daily basis. “That’s okay, I guess,” Marie told me. “I did what I could. She’s young. There’s still time. And thank god the women at the preschool knew she wasn’t mine.”

•••

Teenagers now, Austin and Emmi had not spent much time with her in the years since—just short visits whenever we passed through New York City, her home since retiring from her high-flying lobbying days—but time and distance hadn’t dulled her mystique. To them, Aunt Marie was a living, breathing, designer bottle of pixie dust. Me? I believed that bottle to be filled with truth serum and honesty. Exactly the potions I needed about now.

For our Sardinian adventure, we rendezvoused at the airport in Calgieri and giggled like schoolkids as we engineered the inclusion of my family’s meager carry-ons and backpacks in the rental car after stuffing it full with Marie’s steamer trunk, designer carry-on, and expensive leather satchel. There was none of the usual whining as Austin and Emmi crammed in on top of their bags, their feet settling for the cracks between the suitcases on the floorboard. Marie drove, while I navigated the nonsensical maze of narrow, twisting, scare-you-breathless roads between the capital city and our Solanas summerhouse.

While our hosts—Italian grandparents straight out of central casting—escorted us through the history and rustic nuances of their family home, I exchanged nervous glances with Austin and Emmi. Their eyes registered our common thought: the queen of luxury—with her designer bags, Chanel sunglasses, and perfectly manicured nails—is actually going to stay here?

The small, dated kitchen with the lean-to roof jutted off the covered porch, separated from the rest of the house as though an after-thought, behind the bougainvillea vines threatening to overtake the eaves. A wobbly table and chairs—circa 1950 with the formica top and metal frames—anchored the room. Rickety cupboards flanked the fireplace where a picture of the Virgin Mary leaned against the mantle, food splatters suggesting she’d enjoyed more than a few meals here.

Across the small porch, past the simple square table and two wooden straight chairs, Grandma guided us through three sparse bedrooms flanking a space that might have once been the entryway, before TVs demanded a room. Grandma pointed to the mismatched, folded sheets on each bed, miming that we could make our own beds as we wanted. She showed us where she’d cleared the closets so we had room for our belongings and shook her head forcefully when pointing to the closed bureau in the small master bedroom. Off limits. We got the translation. Ignoring our nervous glances, Marie smiled and tested her rusty Italian, chatting and miming with Grandma, conveying our understanding and appreciation.

Outside, Grandpa scurried around the property, showing us the fresh herbs in the garden. The basil and rosemary we recognized immediately, but the thick green leaf vines brought us to a bi-lingual, miming quandary. Crowns, the couple mimed, weaving the vines together and placing them on their heads. Plucking the leaves individually, they held them to their nose then pretended to drop them into a pot, their eyes pleading that we figure it out.

“Bay leaves!” Marie suddenly declared much to our collective relief, our American city-dwelling ignorance in full bloom. Our meager herb gardens never included bay leaves, and we reveled in the just-discovered truth that they weren’t brought forth as those dry, sad leaves in the McCormick jar.

Pulling a small, distressed plank of wood from his pocket, two old fashioned keys bound to it with baling wire, Grandpa tugged me, leading us to the rusty double-wide chain-link entry gate—the one at the end of the dirt path, off the dirt road that intersected the main road that led back to the house—then handed me the key and motioned that I demonstrate my ability to successfully lock and unlock our fortress. I struggled at first, then again. He demonstrated a second time. Marie giggled quietly over my shoulder; I knew better than to catch her eye. With Grandpa’s calloused hand guiding mine, I eventually maneuvered the key into the intricate lock, forced it open, then locked us back in the safety of the compound. Grandpa nodded with satisfaction.

In the kitchen, he pulled the bottle of Mirto from the refrigerator and pointed to the small glasses reserved for the occasion. More miming—berry picking, grinding with a pestle, cooking, stirring, tasting. A Sardinian specialty made from honey and myrtle berries, Mirto liqueur warms from the inside out and sucks the breath away with the first sip. His bottle was hand-labeled “Rosalba Mirto 2012.” He’d made it himself, and named it in honor of his wife, Rosalba. We nodded appreciatively and walked them to their car.

As instructed, I took the room by the door to the porch, the door that didn’t quite close completely, the door for which the only lock was a padlock. On the outside.

No cell service, no Internet, and definitely no three-sheeted luxury beds. A rusty old gate with an antique key that I’d successfully mastered once in my four attempts. A crossroads village with one restaurant, a couple of markets, and one gas station. A winding, indecipherable maze of switch-back, harrowing roads leading in all directions but with no maps or GPS to explain them. And absolutely no idea what we’d do for the next two weeks. We reached for the Mirto.

•••

For the next fourteen days, over early morning coffee at the simple square table on that front porch, kids still sleeping, a catharsis unfolded. Always the first one up, I cut up some melon, made toast, brewed coffee, and retreated to my writing while the birds awoke and chattered in the surrounding trees. Marie joined me an hour or so later. In our faded pajamas, hair pulled back, no signs of make-up or any trappings of luxury, we sipped our coffee in silence until our brain waves fired with the first jolts of caffeine. Then the stories poured out. Each morning, a ceremonial ritual commenced, an exhalation, a release of the long-held weights that I’d not even acknowledged I’d been carrying.

“I never, ever expected to be twice divorced at fifty.”

She nodded and shrugged.

“I loved him, you know.”

She pursed her lips, shook her head ever so slightly, and locked her eyes onto mine. I knew the look all too well. It was the same one she gave me whenever I doubted my ability to get a job done. Or when I wore something she didn’t approve of, which happened so often that I took to planning my wardrobe around my plans to see her. A look of impatience, hoping I’ll eventually catch up and realize the error of my ways.

“I’ve supported myself and my kids all these years, but can I really do it again? Can I start over? Re-build a career?” Her eyebrows arched, the pshaw audible. “I’m a tired, fifty-year-old, overweight woman with rebuilt boobs cross-stitched by a freeway system of scars and no nipples because I never went back to have that done after the mastectomy. And I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m going to do next.”

Marie guffawed, the kind of belly laugh that she’d release whenever I complained about my first ex-husband.

“Really?” she said. “We’re here, facing all this, and we’re talking about your boobs?”

Once again, she was right. I laughed. “At least they’re all perky again. I don’t have to wear a bra, you know. They stand up all on their own.”

Over those mornings, on that porch in the wobbly chairs beneath the bougainvillea vines, along with the smell of fresh toast and a dwindling supply of coffee, I exhaled, letting go the months—years, maybe—of fear and destruction and failures that defined my marriage. That Marie never quite liked Church Man in the first place made it all the more poignant. She never reminded me she hadn’t liked him. She just listened.

I held back the lurid details: the slamming me against the walls, the forced sex after my chemo treatments—rape, I’d eventually come to understand—the monies stolen, hidden, and squandered. But in those mornings, those facts didn’t matter. I wasn’t quite ready to speak those truths out loud, preferring instead to write about them first.

With Marie, it wasn’t about the details of what had happened, but rather, what was happening with me. Now. Time and distance would sort out the past, I knew; my challenge now was the journey forward, what happens next, and she was my most trusted guide.

“How could I let my kids down like this? Will Emmi ever know what a healthy relationship looks like? Will Austin?”

“Yes,” she reassured me. “They will. Because you will teach them.”

“How could I have been so stupid? How did I rationalize it, ignore the obvious, let it keep happening? Am I really one of those women, the he-loves-me-no-matter-how-he-treats-me types?”

“You loved him,” she reminded me. “You believed what you wanted to believe.” Then she reminded me of her friend, the one whose husband was fired from his seven-figure post, and only after his failed suicide attempt did she know of his years of deceit and embezzlement—and that they were completely broke. “It happens,” she reminded me. “And we pick up the pieces and move on.”

I talked about my anger—the type that boils up from within and sticks to the tips of my fingers and the back of my tongue, tainting everything that passes through my hands or from my mouth. I talked, and she listened.

“Life never turns out like we think it will,” she said. “Who’d have thought I’d end up single, facing retirement in a 600-squarefoot mid-town apartment and loving it?” She told stories of her childhood, living in a walk-up apartment on East 5th, between Second and Bowery, raised by doting parents whose factory on Canal Street in Chinatown made Christmas stockings and aprons and hats, and doll dresses in the off season. “I remember we were the only ones of all my friends to have a shower and a sink in our bathroom,” she recalled, smiling. The teenager who always wore her best dress to visit the neighbors, apparently a fashionista even in the ’hood. The young lady who got a secretarial job and climbed the corporate ladder to eventually be the legislative voice of a multi-million dollar company. She’d defied tradition, expectation. And none of it had come easy.

“Remember your treks out to Staten Island?” I reminded her, giggling. Every weekend—even into her fifties—she’d retrieve her car from the garage to visit her dozens of cousins and ailing aunts, all of whom sent her home with fresh tomatoes and basil and pastas, because “you just can’t get good food in the city.”

“You and the kids really have to come to New York at Christmas,” she insisted. “Come to my party. Matt and Jake put up the ten-foot tree and do all the cooking,” she explained, “and I only invite people I really, really like.”  Her family—friends from a rich career and special people collected along the way—all gathered around for the holidays, and Marie holding court. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the season.

I listened to her stories of dinner and theatre dates with girlfriends she’s known for decades, and stories of the men she dates occasionally—nothing serious, just company, she assured me. I admired her strength—the same strength and charisma that drew me to her so many, many years ago.  “You’re a great mom,” she said, abruptly changing the subject. “You’re going to be fine.” Her sudden turn shocked me. In that moment, somewhat surprised, I realized that she admired me, too.

Without the clutter of technology, under the birds’ chirping and flapping, in the company of that old friend rediscovered again, I found the acceptance to own my past. And the realization, as she put it, to rebuild and move on.

Eventually our mornings turned to afternoons, and breakfast gave way to a drive into Villisimius, the resort town seven kilometers away, where the waiters at La Lanterna held our favorite table and knew our favorite dishes. We wandered in and out of every tourist shop, jewelry store, and occasional boutique and made a point to try every gelato joint in town.

We managed to conquer the switchback roads, and even went exploring beyond Villisimius a few times, always getting lost, and always managing to eventually wind back to the summer house, our only landmark the blooming cactus that hung so low over the dirt road that I ducked every time we drove under it. I handed off my gate duties to Austin, who turned out to be far more talented at ancient key mastery than me.

Sunset always brought us home again, to those wobbly chairs and creaky table, where re-matches of “Name that Tune” would commence. The kids had thought it lame when Marie suggested it that first night after dinner, in those hours when TV and the web might otherwise fill the void. But when she cranked up her iPhone to sounds from Flo Rida and Emeli Sande in her first few challenges, they were hooked. It became their obsession, and over the two weeks, and countless challenges, Marie never missed a beat.

I wandered through the summerhouse garden, hanging our laundry on the clothesline strung between the trees, just past the rope swing where Emmi and Austin wiled away the early evenings. I marveled at the bay leaves, their strong vines weaving a maze amidst their small plot. They aren’t dried and wrinkly at all. Sometimes discovery is gradual. Sometimes, it comes all at once. No, my marriage couldn’t be saved, I realized. And what’s more, it shouldn’t be.

Our two weeks coming to a close, we reluctantly packed our things and headed to bed on our last night there. I drafted an email to Marie, to be sent once we finally had internet again, attaching a copy of the essay I’d been writing—the long, rambling, lurid story of my marriage, its collapse, and the truths too painful to share on that porch. “Here’s the entire story, including the stuff I couldn’t say on that porch,” I wrote. “Thanks for listening.”

Just then, Austin whispered, “Holy shit!” loudly in my direction as he looked out the window into our courtyard, just beyond the table where we sat every morning. “Come look at this, Mom!”

Emmi and I rushed to his side, adjusting our eyes to the dark garden, lit only by a glimmer of moonlight through the olive trees. Slinking along the wall of the shed, silently gliding towards the porch, it was unmistakable. The moonlight cast an eerie reflection off its beady eyes—a rat, far bigger and fatter than any housecat we knew, and it was headed straight for the house.

“Don’t tell Aunt Marie!” Austin and Emmi whispered in unison.

“No shit,” I said in return.

I slammed shut the door next to my room—the front door, the one onto the porch, the one without a lock—and slid a chair in front of it for extra measure. She’d put me in that room for protection. It was the least I could do.

•••

POWELL BERGER is a freelance writer living in Honolulu with her two teenagers and two kittens, where she revels in their havoc and joy in equal measures. She is currently plotting to split her time between Honolulu and her other favorite city, Paris, where she spends every July as a Program Fellow at the Paris American Academy’s Creative Writing Workshop. Besides Full Grown People, for which this is her second essay, her work has appeared in various print and online publications, including Travelati, Hawaii Business, and Inside Out Hawaii. She hasn’t made it yet, but she still plans to eventually show up at Marie’s annual Christmas party. Her writing world is housed at www.powellberger.com.

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.