Yesterday I ran into my mother at the mall while I was waiting for the elevator outside the food court. It was midafternoon, and I had just finished eating for the first time that day.
I’m going through some stuff. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat or even if I wanted to eat, so I settled on turkey soup. After the first bite of salty broth and soft noodles, I realized I was starving. And since I had just overspent on a pair of ripped jeans, I decided it was time to go home. When the elevator doors parted, the usual crowd of mothers with babies rolled out, a teenage couple—obviously and thoroughly in love—and then, the very last person to walk off was my mom. And I was surprised to see her because my mother is dead.
I’ve been in love a bunch of times. There is really nothing like that free-fall into desire. The whole world seems friendlier, more sharply focused, like when I got my first pair of glasses in fourth grade and I could suddenly see each individual leaf on the maple trees, and the sharp letters on the street signs felt like precise miracles. Falling in love warps time, making it speed up then slow down and it’s difficult to sleep or concentrate.
I’ve fallen out of love, too. It’s happening to me now. And it’s not nearly as much fun as it was going in. There is that sense of falling, but into darkness, into a mysterious place that may be cold and lonely. The butterflies in my stomach are more like panic. Sometimes insomnia wakes me at four a.m. I imagine the imminent scene where we’ll tell our daughters. I picture the For Sale sign piercing the grass in front of the house where we’ve raised our family, where our bones have settled into a quiet routine. On the days I’m especially sleep-deprived, I wonder if I’ll die alone.
My husband and I saw our first of many marriage counselors twenty years ago, when our oldest daughter was still a baby. We brought her with us to our appointments in her infant carrier. We went at night, in winter, the baby bundled into a tiny snowsuit, the black cold biting through our coats. I remember, on our first visit, the therapist told us we had an opportunity to change not only ourselves but generations to come. We quit her, like we quit all the therapists that came after, and I wonder now what kind of disservice we’ve done to our children, and our children’s children. How many generations have we fucked up?
We plan to tell our girls over spring break, since the college student will be home and in a rare alignment of schedules, we will all be together under the same roof. The date looms with a dread similar to the one I felt traveling to Boston two years ago, to sit with my mother while she died. Anticipatory suffering lodges itself under my sternum, and accompanies me wherever I go, an uninvited guest. Yesterday, while tossing a pair of sneakers in her room, I catch sight of my high school daughter’s desk calendar. SPRING BREAK!! is written across an entire week. I look away, quickly, but my body has already registered the all caps, the bright pink sharpie, the joy in the exclamation marks. Later, it will occur to me that this may have been one of the saddest moments I’ve ever experienced, but at the time it’s visceral. A punch to the gut. My knees go a little weak.
My mother left my father when I was the same age as my oldest daughter, and I was angry with her in vague and selfish ways. It’s disturbing how accurately history is repeating itself. My mother stepped out on her own in the late nineteen-seventies, when divorces where rare in my predominately Catholic hometown. What is commonplace now, was for her, an act of fierce independence. Maybe, I think now, my mother was setting an example, modeling for her daughters the kind of strength we might someday need: this is how to be courageous, this is how to walk into the face of the unknown, this is how to take care of yourself.
In the elevator, there’re just two older women and me. After a couple of minutes, they tell me, in the kindest way possible, that I need to push the button to make the elevator descend. I apologize and say, “That woman reminded me of my mother,” and then I start to cry on the elevator in the mall with the strangers, holding the bag with my ridiculous jeans. “It’s hard,” they say. “It’s never easy,” they say, and “Have a nice day,” when the door finally opens onto the floor where the overwhelming scent of Abercrombie blankets the air, where the fake greenery rings the fountain in perfect rows, and a new batch of stroller-moms wait to get on. I wonder if this may be a sign, that my mother is going to help me, that she is going to send me surrogates, glimpses of her to remind me to be strong, and kind ladies in elevators to comfort me.
BETTY JO BURO holds an MFA from Florida International University. Her work has appeared in Cherry Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Hunger Mountain, The Lindenwood Review, The Manifest-Station, Compose Journal, and Sliver of Stone. She was a 2016 finalist for Southern Indiana Review’s Thomas A. Wilhelmus Award, and a 2016 semi-finalist for American Literary Review’s Annual Creative Writing Awards. She lives and writes in Stuart, Florida.
Just off Central Avenue they’re tearing down Eastland mall—the dead mall as I like to call it. Bulldozers and cranes cluster near broken concrete and piles of rubble. In the beginning, I saw the front of the building removed, the insides exposed like a little girl’s dollhouse. As the rubble grew, I wondered if between the dust and crushed walls, a lone hanger could be found, a pair of new shoes, or perhaps a going-out-of-business sign. Do dead malls hold on to any of that?
“Mommy, what are they doing?” my preschool-aged daughter asks from the back seat. My throat tightens. In an uncharacteristic neutral voice, I explain the demolition of the empty building and the city’s desire for something new. Given Sekai’s keen sense of observation, I wonder if she notices how I stare when we drive this block of Central. How can I explain to her my want to stop the car and bury my head in my hands when I can’t even explain this to myself? Who cries over a mall?
As a recent arrival to Charlotte, I never knew the dead mall when it was alive with the hum of eager shoppers and squalling children. I never walked through the stores and ran my hand across soft fabrics or sifted through piles of sale CDs. I never sipped lemonade while middle schoolers exchanged first kisses just beyond the food court. I don’t know what it was to circle and circle around bright green trees in search of an elusive parking spot. Still I keep driving by, watching the demolition of a mall I never knew. A few more weeks and the dead mall will be a wasteland of concrete. Hundreds and thousands of parallel and perpendicular lines will provide parking for nothing. Not even an abandoned building.
What happens each day off Central makes me think of my hometown. A few blocks from Anchorage’s local college is the University Center. Or to be more accurate: my own dead mall. Mine. As in the theater where I watched movies with high school friends I no longer know. The stores where I spent my babysitting money on books, cheap jewelry, and the occasional hair scrunchie. The studio where my family posed for one of our final portraits before the divorce. My dead mall.
I’m not sure anyone else—my parents or my sister—remembers that day where we slipped in the back entrance by the movie theater. Still dressed in our church clothes, we walked through the doors as the smell of liquid butter coating stale popcorn flooded my nose and the click of my sister’s high heels tapped the tiled floor. That family portrait remains among the last with frozen smiles on a mother, father, and two girls. Did my parents allow their fingers to entwine with each other’s when I stopped to flip through comics at the bookstore? Did my father’s face shine with pride as the sun’s rays streamed through the skylight and streaked his wife and daughters’ coordinated spring dresses? Does it matter that no one remembers the photo except for me?
A few hours before dawn, the baby’s hiccupped cries shake me from my dreams. Before I can shrug off the weight of sleep, the mattress creaks as my husband, Nyasha, rolls out of bed, and his bare feet pad across the carpeted floor. He brings Shamiso back to me where I fall asleep nursing her. Both of us too tired to return her to the crib, she’s still there when the door handle turns, and Sekai shuffles towards us with a blanket dragging behind. She exhales a hot breath near my cheek. “I can’t sleep, Mommy.” As I drift back to sleep, she climbs onto the foot of the bed. A few hours later when the blue-black shadows of night dissolve into day, we still remain there with our bodies brushing against each other. Shamiso sleeps between Nyasha and me, and Sekai is perpendicular to our feet. The stuffy smell of sleep sweat wakens me, and my baby’s warm hand touches my nose. Lying there I wish the sun would forget for a moment its command to climb higher in the sky and let me stay here, near my family, forever.
When my sister and I were small, the dark of night and the quiet of the house made us tiptoe towards our parents’ bedroom. We crept down the hallway in our pajamas, tapped the wood, and pressed our faces to the slit between frame and door. In soft voices we said, “We’re scared. Can we come in?” Then the click of the knob turning, and my sister and I piled into the warm bed.
Back when I used to whisper to my parents in the middle of the night, could they have guessed the light in their marriage would dim, and they would clutch regret amidst their crumbled dreams? When the morning sun snuck through the blinds, and they saw their daughters resting next to them, could they have predicted what they had wasn’t the kind of structure to survive a generation?
It’s senior year of high school, and I lie on my bed with a book in my hand. The radio on my nightstand spits out one pop song after another, and I hum along, a disconnected soundtrack for the plot unfolding in my book.
“Well aren’t you just righteous.” I hear my father’s words from beyond my closed door. My mother’s cries muffle her response before I can make them out. “You think you’re better than everyone else.” And then I am not on my bed, the book tossed on the floor where the cheap pages display their frailty against the carpet. On the middle stair, I stand between the volley of words moving up the steps and sliding back down. From the bottom of the staircase, my father stares at me, and I feel my mother standing behind.
“Stop it. Stop it,” I say. “Don’t say that. Stop saying mean things.” My voice grows louder as something in me bubbles. Anger? Annoyance? Fear?
“Go back to your room, Patrice. You don’t understand.” My father walks away, and I hear the door to his basement office slam. Behind me, my mother disappears into their bedroom. I am left on the middle step where I lean against the cold wall. By the time I stand up, I wear an imprint of the wall’s texture on my temple and the side of my forehead. In the background the soundtrack continues with the levity of top forty hits.
I’ve seen other dying malls. A few cars may sit near the entrance while a scraggly tree or two sway in the wind. In the parking lot dotted with potholes, a gush of wind skips across deserted concrete that once held rows bursting with cars. A large sign hangs over the entrance. Yes We’re Still Open, the taut plastic reads. Inside an elderly couple rummages through the clearance rack. A handful of workers stand behind the counters of the food court peddling soft pretzels and day-old cookies. Of the shops with the lights still on, the names display unfamiliar words since the chain stores have vanished leaving behind only local establishments. Still Alive. For now.
But declining marriages elude me. Growing up in the eighties, the culture of divorce no longer shocked as in previous generations. During childhood, friends and classmates shuffled between parents every other weekend and through the summer. Still, my breath shortened into rapid pants when my parents separated after twenty-three years when I was eighteen years old. What makes a marriage survive? A cup of love? A bushel of respect? The anchor of loyalty? Uncompromising fidelity? Extra laughter? A shared purpose? A common faith? Perhaps all of that? Perhaps more? Holding my wedding pictures, I stare at my scarlet dress that reminds me of the small, faded photograph on the wall of my childhood home. Framed inside, the twenty-something version of my father wears a bright red suit. His arm loops through the arm of my mother, who’s dressed in a traditional white gown. When Nyasha and I lace our fingers together and sit close, is there something our eyes ignore, hidden beneath what we create? A sign to illuminate what stretches beyond our view?
In the middle of the night, a few months after I marry Nyasha, my water glass accidentally crashes into shards against the tiles of our kitchen. In the dark I stand with my bare feet against the cool floor. Crumbs of glass splay around me, stretching beyond the beam of moonlight shining through the window. Not even a moment passes, and he stands at the light switch.
“Let me get your slippers,” he says as he flips on the light.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “So sorry.” Fat tears appear in the corners of my eyes.
“Not to worry,” he says, setting my slippers on the ground, reaching his hand to me. “Why don’t you go back to bed,” he says. “I can take care of this.”
Back in the room under the comforting weight of the duvet, I see the yellow light from the kitchen, hear the crinkle of swept glass, and wonder why I am still crying.
In the year following my parents’ divorce, I asked my sister if she was surprised when she heard. Beneath my question, there was a longing to share the remembrance of the unexpected. “Not really—they used to fight,” she said matter-of-factly.
A while back, I returned to my hometown and walked through the University Center. I was surprised to see the building still limping along. Even a year earlier, the mall’s fate had seemed destined for dark hallways and caves of empty shops. “The local university gave it new life. They reclaimed it as an extension of their campus,” my mother explained.
My mother and I joined a sprinkling of other mall walkers in search of sanctuary from the single-digit temperatures beyond the sliding glass doors. We walked the faded hallways with a spattering of shops: a furniture store, a hair salon, a restaurant, all butting up against the green and yellow wing owned by the university. In the repurposed section, I saw the portrait studio had transformed into meeting rooms. The bookstore had become an office or a classroom. When I reached the entrance of the old movie theater, the lights were turned off. The locked door refused to let me see what now existed in the dark space.
As my hand touched the metal handle of the once familiar door, I felt transported back to my final time in the old theater, several months before my parents announced their divorce. In that awkward summer between high school graduation and the start of college, when my friends and I had shed girlhood but had yet to determine what womanhood looked like, we filled a row in one of the dark theaters. Tubs of warm popcorn and boxes of M&M’s moved up and down the line. In the smooth vinyl seats, I watched as Julia Roberts tried to sabotage her best friend’s wedding. Along with everyone else, I walked out of the theater believing something magical about marriage.
I’m six or seven years old. In front of their bedroom mirror, my father’s arms wrap around my mother’s body. He leans over and kisses the top of her head and feels her silky hair beneath his lips. For a moment I watch and then burrow between them to stretch their hug to include me.
Despite the past, I still believe in lifetime marriages with elderly couples and their wrinkled palms pressed together. On my wedding day, I walked down the aisle sandwiched between my parents. I rested one arm on the curve of my father’s elbow while I looped the other through my mother’s arm. As our trio of bodies moved as a unit, I pretended that I walked between something breathing, something that still flourished. Moments later I stood before my husband where, with our hands entwined and eyes alive, we made vows to begin. We slipped rings on our fingers, the cool metal sliding on clammy flesh. While my sister held my white calla lilies with the scarlet bow, my husband and I declared forever to each other. And with our fingers laced together, we walked back down the aisle into something new.
And I still give my subconscious space to imagine. In routine moments of life like a drive home, I let myself see my parents together. I envision my daughters speaking of Grandma and Grandpa as a single phrase. When my palm brushes my daughters’ smooth cheeks, I pretend the place I thought I would bring my children to swaddle them in the memories of my childhood still exists.
I started running after my parents called during my first year of college to announce their divorce. First down the hallway to where everyone gathered in a friend’s dorm room. Then to the mall where I swiped my credit card as if it were a magic wand that could give me a different life. Ribbed turtlenecks, soft sweaters, double-zip boots. Perhaps beautiful clothes draping my body could make my life beautiful, I thought.
Finally, I sprinted across the world. A decade of traipsing the globe. I called it “finding myself” or “spreading my wings.” I believed tired clichés could disguise my desire to not go home. A year in England, ten months in Madagascar, a semester in Spain, a first job in upstate New York where I knew no one. Thanksgivings were spent with a college friend’s family to avoid interacting with my father and his new wife. During a backpacking trip across Europe, as a night train zipped from Rome to Venice, I refused to admit to a friend that I longed for a beautiful marriage that lasted. Instead I said that I didn’t believe in love and certainly not the kind of love that could survive the years.
And then I met Nyasha. On the final stretch of my lap around the world, during a ten-week trip to South Africa to fulfill the requirements of a grant I wrote, twenty minutes after my plane landed, I met this quiet man. He listened while I made sweeping statements about how I would make the world a better place. He challenged me to give greater thought to what I said. Our conversations hovered in the realm of ideas, and his reserved ways balanced my impulsive personality. At the end of the ten weeks, we stood in the international departures terminal of Cape Town’s airport.
“I’ll write,” Nyasha said.
“Once a month?” I asked, attempting to make the moment light. I forced a teasing smile to appear on my face.
His face mirrored mine. “At least once a month. Absolute minimum.” His arms wrapped around me and drew me close before his whispered response tickled my ear. “And maybe more.”
Nine months later, he slipped an engagement ring on my finger, and six months after that we exchanged our wedding vows.
Fifteen years after my parents divorced, they still don’t communicate with each other, and I don’t talk much with them about the past. My father speaks in hyperbole tainted with anger, a conversation combination I avoid. My mother’s eyes grow sad. It’s a clothing store of blame where everything that could have gone wrong fits the other person. But crumbs of the past trickle between their words, and I become a timid mouse trailing behind, grabbing phrases, sniffing them inside. “Be careful. Some women don’t care that your husband is married,” my mother says as she helps me bring in the groceries. “Don’t try and change him,” my father remarks while the ocean salts the air and our feet sink into sand near where Nyasha and I will wed.
“You remember Grandpa,” Sekai says to my mother. My daughter stands in the doorway of the laundry room and holds the phone to her ear. From where I crouch pulling warm clothes from the drier, I can hear her side of the conversation unfold. My father and his wife left yesterday, and Sekai is telling my mother about their visit. “Gammy, you remember Grandpa. When Mommy and Auntie were girls, you were together a mommy and a daddy.” For the length of my mother’s response, I stop my work. Instead of remembering the past, I linger over the fresh smell of my husband’s shirts and my daughter’s pastel socks.
One day I may ask my parents what happened to their marriage. Maybe we’ll sit across from each other in an all-night diner with thick slices of blueberry pie between us. As my fork scrapes the remains of the violet filling, I’ll ask them if they understand what happened or how their marriage could have been different. I imagine my father raising his diet coke with beads of condensation sliding down the glass and my mother squeezing a fresh lemon in her hot tea. From across the table, they will look away from me for a moment. All around us waitresses will take orders, plates will hit tables, and perhaps a glass will break in the kitchen so the silence at our table won’t become awkward. Then they’ll begin to speak; slow at first but gaining momentum. Perhaps the talk will center on what disappeared, how they changed, or what may not have been there from the beginning. Maybe I’ll discover some answers. Or perhaps just sitting together will be more important than what I hear. As the night transforms to morning and the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon wafts past us, I will reach my hands across the table and rest mine in theirs. With damp cheeks, I’ll tell them, “It’s okay. We are okay.”
A few weeks before Christmas, Nyasha, the girls, and I slip in the side entrance of a mall. Not Eastland mall with its empty parking lot stretching wide, its wrecking balls and broken concrete. But another mall in Charlotte where cars circle and circle in search of a spot near the door. The windowless structure beckons for people to disappear behind the guise of shiny trinkets and the smell of new clothes. With our outfits coordinated in red and faces ready to smile, we join other families in the portrait studio waiting our turn. Just as I straighten Sekai’s dress and slide a matching headband on the baby, the photographer calls for us.
Christmas music bounces in the background mixed with the rumble of waiting voices. “Move in. Your faces almost touching,” the photographer says as she snaps an image. Then she stretches us into a row and with the help of stools and boxes, our heights stagger into a descending staircase. Arms rest on shoulders, and I hold Shamiso in my lap.
In a week or so, I will find a slim package with our family prints waiting on the stoop. Sekai will sit near me as I tug at the cardboard to release our memories. Later, I will hold up the two 8x10s of our family for her to choose between. “Which one should we display?” I will say to her.
Sekai will first stare at the one of our faces almost pressed together and then at the one of our staggered heights. She will point to the second photo, the one where Nyasha and I sit in the middle, Sekai leans against her father, and I hold Shamiso in my lap. “We are all looking ahead in this one,” she will say. As I slide the new family photo into the frame and place it on our bookshelf, I will think that she is right. We all look ahead, this small family, linked together, staring at what may come.
But today, after we sit for the portrait, we slip out the side entrance of a mall. I hold Sekai against my hip, and Nyasha carries the infant car seat. Beyond the doors, thick raindrops plop against the ground, and the musty smell of wet cement tells me to inhale this moment and remember the day. We stand beneath the massive umbrella of awning that stretches over our heads for just a moment before Nyasha suggests I wait while he gets the car. As he sets the baby next to me, his palm brushes against my bare hand. The touch of warmth against the chill creeping through my fingers reminds me of the beauty of all that remains. I watch my husband walk across the parking lot, through the rain, and I think this moment could be hallowed ground.
I see my dead father. Not in dreams, but physically, alive, out in the world. He’s always alone. I’ve seen him numerous times. He seems at peace, not lonely or struggling to understand his fate, his new whereabouts. Not laboring to return to the earthly plane. Problems endured alive, resolved; no longer important. On his own, no one else to answer to, to provide for, or support. Children, ex-wife, and wife number two no longer a responsibility or concern. Mistakes made, unmet expectations abandoned and not rectified. Unfulfilled and incomplete duties not complete and not fulfilled. Pain and sorrow, remorse and apology, lifted. A freedom he didn’t know in life. An aura of wonder surrounding him. He died on April 23, 2009, at age seventy-four, his cremains now interred at a cemetery in South San Francisco.
I saw him while on a Caribbean cruise in 2015. The ship docked at St. George’s, Grenada, and we had a half-day to explore the island. Walking back from Grand Anse Beach I noticed a man sitting on a pylon looking out to sea—my father, Ed. At least, it looked exactly like him. The bend of his back, the slope of his shoulders, the side-view of his face, his gray hair, even the clothes—K-Mart Bermuda shorts, a well-worn tee-shirt, brown leather fisherman sandals; his favored outfit. My father, Edward Willis Thompson. I did a double-take. I stopped and stared, studying, wondering, wanting, and needing. I wanted to go to him, but I did not. I wondered if it could actually be him, knowing—in my rational mind—it was not. In my fantastical mind, wishing it to be truth. I needed the healing that didn’t happen when he breathed.
He sat alone; no one else on the beach or near him. The way he gazed out at the water—as if he was there, on that pylon, permanently. Like he’d found his place to rest, to live out his eternity. Possibly, I was meant to pass him, to discover him there, at his final resting place. So I’d know he was okay, now at peace. The sereneness of my vision of him led me to believe this was the case—a communication from his beyond to my within. And it could have been him. Who’s to say it wasn’t? We don’t actually know where the dead go. Maybe “Heaven” is a favored place from life. The beach—any beach, especially a tropical one—Dad’s favorite place in the world.
Before the Caribbean sighting, I’d seen him a handful of times: in a Home Depot parking lot; in a crowd at the mall; on the street in Glendale, California, where we live. Each time I had the same experience, I thought: Jesus, that man looks exactly like my father. After the third sighting, I didn’t question whether it was or was not. For me, it was. Even if it’s as straightforward as me seeing my father’s corporeal doppelgangers, it was still him. This is not something ghostly. It is something else. Ghosts are fine, I like them, I have no problem with them, but these sightings are not phantasms. And it’s okay. I’m not sure I need to understand or label them. They simply are. I find them soothing and calming. Is he reaching out to me? Possibly.
I was never all that close to my father. My parents divorced when I was five. He left the family and wasn’t around much when my sister and I were growing up. We’d see him on summer vacations, spending a week with him staying at a cheap motel in Avila Beach, California. The days filled with sun, sand, and water—and a whole lot of fun. He seemed to enjoy the time we spent together. He spoiled us rotten by buying us everything we wanted: ice cream at all hours; any toy we pleaded for; cash to spend ourselves. Standard absentee father conduct—making up for ever-present guilt. At the end of the week, he’d drop us off at home, our white skin now a dark brown, temporarily happy, father-sated yet sad all the same. We wanted him to park the car and come inside, return to our mother, to the family.
The vacations ceased when I was eight, the moment he married his second wife, Mabel. She wanted as little to do with us as possible. He went along with what she wanted. A strong-willed, opinionated woman married a weak-willed and lazy man. A mama’s boy, he wanted to be taken care of—the way his own mother had spoiled him. Mabel provided a clean, comfortable home, three squares a day, and her body at night. They had an unspoken understanding. He did what she wanted, and, pretty much—sadly too—only what she wanted. From that point on my interaction with him was sporadic at best.
When he was sick and dying of lung cancer, I visited him in the hospital. A shell of the man I once knew, he recognized me despite his dementia; he knew I was there and was happy to see me. Dying in a hospital bed at the VA facility in Palo Alto, California, his six-foot-four frame, legs twisted yet still gangly long, slid down the hospital bed so his feet dangled uncomfortably off the edge. I only spent a couple of days visiting; there was little to do except be in his presence and pull him back up the bed so he didn’t dangle off—over and over. He’d move, or wiggle, or shift his body, and down the bed he slid. Due to dementia, his stage four lung cancer, and the medications he was on, holding a conversation with him was not possible. Expressing my anger and displeasure for the way he treated us—his two children—would not be happening. Instead, I sat close to the bed and held his hand, or helped him eat ice cream or his lunch or dinner, feeling sorry for him in so many ways. I hurt for him and for myself. I did my best to do the prescribed things a person does for another, a relative, a father, who is in the throes of dying. I told him I loved him. I wish I’d done all of it because I truly felt love for him.
And, I can’t say I felt much either when he died. Mostly, I was saddened by what we were unable to achieve: a loving father and son relationship. A seemingly ethereal idea foisted upon me by societal expectations, out of reach, a dream in our family—but something I still desperately wanted. I didn’t mourn his loss in the accepted ways one is supposed to when losing a loved one. My grief was tied to lost possibility, to what would never be, not to losing my “father,” my “Daddy.” I hadn’t spent enough time with the man for the type of familial intimacy to develop that would warrant true and deep feelings of grief over his loss. To add to my confusion and misery, his wife cremated and interred him without telling my sister or me. There was no viewing, no service, and no burial—at least none we were invited to. Even in his death, we were treated the same as when he lived—excluded like we didn’t belong or exist.
A recent sighting took place at our local Trader Joe’s. Dad was putting groceries into the trunk of a car. I found myself thinking, there he is again. Like before, it looked exactly like him—the height, the build, his movements, the clothes, all Ed Thompson, my father. A rote calmness emanating from him—a task as mundane as grocery shopping joyful. Not a care in the world. Similar to the island pylon resting place, I’m left thinking he’s still in that Trader Joe’s parking lot, still loading groceries into his trunk, over and over, on a continuous, never-ending loop, stuck in time and not unhappy about it in the least. A chore no longer a chore but a happy task. A final resting place or action could be malleable, or exist in multiple places, couldn’t it? The world of the dead not curtailed by human, earthly barriers of time and space.
Observing him, I wondered if he was buying groceries for us. Like this father, the version I saw in the present day, might go back in time, and do the right thing. Was he going to bring groceries to help feed my sister and me? To add to our food stamp-supplied coffers? To remove some of the burdens on my overworked mother? To ease her financial strain? He’d bring the groceries when he came to pick us up for a weekend visit. Like a good father and ex-husband, he’d hand the bag of groceries to my mother and then help us with our suitcases. We’d drive off with him to a motel for another spoil-us-rotten weekend, momentarily forgetting how he wasn’t in our lives. Or, would this be one of the numerous occasions when he didn’t show up?
One of those times, my sister and I, dressed, coats zipped up, suitcases ready, waited patiently by the front door. Then, the allotted time passed and no Dad. Hours went by, still no Dad and no phone call. Our mother tried to locate him by making a series of calls. Her anger with him—for us, for herself—palpable. Coats removed, suitcases stashed, she wiped away our tears, and finally, a phone call came days later. He didn’t have money for gas, or his car broke down, or he had to work, or who knows what the fuck else of an excuse he’d come up with. Not once, but over and over this took place. Our childhood a never-ending, continuous loop of disappointment.
How to explain simultaneous love and hate? Or concurrent joy and anger? Recently, since seeing my dead father out and about in the world, I realized how I felt about him: I loved him and hated him; he made me happy and so fucking mad. I now see my entire involvement with him existed on a yo-yo continuum. He could be the most charming man—father—in the entire world one day—bringing us gifts, taking us to the movies, showing us a good, fun, time. Through a child’s filter he loved us, he brought us happiness, and we loved him back. Followed by a long absence, a cancellation or a no-show when he was supposed to take us for the weekend, or some other equally injurious hurt. After one of these, the tears, the anger, and the hatred bubbled to the surface, polluting the prior felt love. This up and down, love to hate, joy to anger went on all through my childhood, into my adulthood, up to his death.
Buddy—the nickname he earned growing up with four siblings outside Oklahoma City—was a jokester and a kidder; a big, overgrown kid. Bighearted too, generous of spirit, he was kind to small children and animals. Without question, I know a gentle soul resided within the man. Social, he loved people, he loved his family; he had Okie and country blood in his veins. He used to sing Merle Haggard’s lyrics “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” over and over. And he meant it. From him, I learned to appreciate my Okie heritage. The salt of the earth, hardscrabble people my relatives were and still are; survivors. People and a place he evolved from.
But, there was another side to the man that didn’t jive with the Okie-identifying, softhearted big kid version. Life kicked him in the teeth over and over, and he took the hits. He didn’t fight back. His divorce from my mother. His unintended abandonment of his children. His failed career—stuck in middle management after earning an MBA. His second marriage to a horribly controlling woman. A woman who cut him off from his siblings, from his children, from his friends. The parts of him I hated were the results of him quitting, giving into life: his confusion about right and wrong when it came to us kids, his passivity, and laziness in not doing the right thing or allowing others to decide what he wanted, or even what he felt, and the selfishness all of this manifested. He ended up a depressed, inadequate, and indolent wimp, and he knew he was. And I hated him for it.
I now see the hatred overrides any love I may have felt. It is the stronger of the two emotions, and I don’t know if it is changeable. I have often wondered if it would have been easier not to have a father, to not know there was a man out there in the world, living and breathing, who was my so-called “father”—the man who gave me life. The mere fact he existed and ignored us feels more problematic, difficult, and painful than if he simply didn’t exist or had permanently disappeared. The hurting hurt over and over and over, and it still does. And, once dead, no going back. A door slammed shut, hard, in my face. I’d forever believed there would be enough time to fix it. Then, there was not.
I have a French friend who, when she was a young girl, lost her mother to suicide. She once told me a story of walking along the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan where she lived during her early twenties and passing a woman who looked exactly like her long-dead mother. Her mother she hadn’t seen since childhood. She stopped and turned around to look for her, and when she did, the woman wasn’t there.
I understood why she told me the story. It gave me chills then, it still does now. Was the woman she saw her mother, a ghost, something else? Who can say? It’s not important. For her, it was real. Somehow, the woman who brushed past her and then vanished was her mother. I feel the same about my fatherly sightings. He can be real for me, there in the flesh, if I decide he is. He hasn’t ever come to me in my dreams, not that I remember or am aware of—only in these sightings. Unfinished business, it could be. I suppose we have quite a bit. I wanted something from him he could not give, and I know he was aware of failing my sister and me. I know he felt guilty and remorseful but not enough to fix it. That’s the unfinished business.
No matter the explanation or understanding of the sightings, they bring me comfort. These are unanswerable questions. I accept he might be somehow trying to reach me. Why would I ever not? Why would I cut myself off from that possibility, from any possibility? I wouldn’t and I won’t. After all, who truly knows the truth of what is out there, of how these things work? The dead versus the living. We should all be open, like a conduit, to all of it, to any possibility. Shouldn’t we?
C. GREGORY THOMPSON lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes fiction, nonfiction, plays, and memoir. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offbeat,Printers Row Journal, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Every Writer’s Resource, and 2paragraphs. He was named a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s 2015 Fiction Contest. His short play Cherry won two playwriting awards. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert. He is on Twitter as @cgregthompson.
My dishwasher broke. So I’m standing at my sink, hand-washing all of the dirty dishes I’d rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher the day before, plus the rest of what had accumulated since. Doing the dishes always means looking out the kitchen window. In the warm weather, with the window open, I can hear the bullfrogs and waterbirds from down in the creek. Today I’m washing and watching, my rubber-gloved hands warm in the soapy water, Joe’s work-gloved hands lifting broken cinder blocks and chunks of concrete off of the back lawn and onto the trailer, which is hitched to the back of the John Deere.
His arms still bear bruises from the beating he took changing the John Deere’s blades the week before. His shins are scratched from mushroom hunting in shorts deep in the woods, and his right knee is scabbed over from where the guardrail on the bridge gouged him impressively as he tried to climb over it. Last week, he took a weedy thorn to the front of his nose, and it bled and bled and bled, but he said he wasn’t hurt. Now he’s outside my kitchen window, in the fenced-in part of the back yard, bending over and righting himself, lifting and moving one jagged hunk at a time. His black gloves say CAT in big yellow letters. After he has removed the blocks, he mows inside the fence. I go upstairs to get some work done on my laptop, the push mower sputtering in the background. After a while it’s quiet, and he comes in to ask for a burger. I’ve learned to keep ground beef, Swiss cheese, and buns on hand at all times.
I head back to the kitchen and open the fridge, hunting and gathering, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, provolone, that brown mustard that he likes, butter for the cast iron skillet and to toast the buns. I look out the window to see the shorn lawn out back, and Joe in reverse motion now, heaving new cinderblocks off the trailer into a tidy little octagon in the grass, his yellow-lettered CAT hands swinging with each heavy hoist. I quickly pat the beef into concave disks and set them on a smear of butter in the pan. For nearly two decades I was a vegan, but today the sound and smell of sizzling fat and flesh make my mouth water without compunction. Outside, Joe stands back to admire his work: We have a sweet new fire pit in the back yard now. He comes in, washes up, and sits down to his burger and a Gatorade. Purple, low-calorie. His favorite.
There are always a million repair projects around my property. Or maintenance. Sometimes I lose track of the difference. And there are upgrades too. Things that work perfectly well but are ugly or old or otherwise undesirable. I don’t expect Joe to take on everything all on his own. I make calls, set appointments, take care of the household business. I need to have the heating vents cleaned. And several stumps ground out of the front yard to make it easier for Joe to get the mowing done. It’s a part time job, the mowing. A few hours a day, a few days a week, in season, to keep everything sensible around here.
And I had a painter come out the other day to give me a quote on several smallish jobs: My kitchen ceiling has that horrible popcorn texture on it and it’s impossible to clean, so it has this greasy little beard on it right over the stove. Twenty-three years of the detritus of cooking here, ten of them mine. My son’s bedroom needs painting too, and then there’s the trim on the inside.
It used to be that I would come home from work in the late evening to find the house a wreck, my husband and son still in their pajamas, homework incomplete, no dinner or bath or bedtime stories in progress. Upstairs in the master bedroom, my husband would proudly show me the fruits of his day of labor: tiny, elaborate, repeating patterns of flowers and leaves and berries that he had painstakingly painted on the wooden trim around the windows and doors and the crown molding framing the room. He would spend the hours I was at work on a stepladder in the bedroom, choosing and mixing paints and delicate brushes, dabbing dots of gold and silver highlights on his acrylic flora, all the while neglecting the real plants on our small farm and the real boy pinging off the walls downstairs wondering what would ever be for dinner.
The kitchen ceiling and the boy’s room are easy enough problems to solve. The trim is another story. “You could sand it and prime it and paint it,” explained the man through his fuzzy gray beard, “but you’d still be able to see it.” I nodded. “Some days the light will hit it just right, and even with a few coats of paint, those patterns will make themselves known to you again.”
I could imagine exactly what he meant, and there was no way I was going to pay someone to do all that work only to still see those flowers in relief just refusing to die in the afternoon light.
“Call Kevin,” he suggested. “He’ll come in and redo that trim for you, and it’ll be much nicer than what you have now. Get those corners right with a miter saw.”
I think to myself, Joe’s such a real man to be able to lie with me in my big marital bed with that shitty trim and the painted ramblings of an unbalanced mind insistently outlining the bedroom.
My first divorce hearing was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2014. We were still living together, but my husband had moved himself to the guest room in the basement. The night before the hearing, the tension in the house was horrific. There was screaming and wailing and it was so, so dark. It finally simmered down to a wretched and tearful talk in the kitchen, just outside my son’s bedroom door. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, wanted to be out of my son’s earshot, for crying out loud. I excused myself from further conversation. My husband responded sorely, “I hope you sleep well in the bedroom I made beautiful for you.”
Like my divorce, all these repair projects always cost more than I think they will, and at this point it’s all money I don’t have. In the nineteen months since the sheriff removed my husband from the house, I’ve had to put in a new water treatment system and a new barn door. I bought a new used car on credit—appropriately enough, a Ford Escape. Bought a new doghouse and a new compost bin too.
I put in a security system after my husband broke in. I guess that’s an upgrade, though, not really a repair. I’ve had to replace siding and remove birds’ nests and repair both garage door openers after a bad windstorm. Fixed the refrigerator once and the dishwasher twice; now it’s not working again. I should’ve just replaced it the last time. Sometimes things aren’t worth repairing; it’s cheaper to get a newer, more efficient model than it is to keep sinking money into something that just doesn’t work. I know, I know, that’s how our landfills get full: planned obsolescence. Things don’t always last like they should.
Once Joe moves in, money will be a lot less tight. It’ll be different having a second income in the house after all these years of family breadwinning by myself. He’s not afraid of work. He brings in good money and he’s handy. Strong, incisive, good at figuring out how everything works: people, machines, plants, animals, electronics, toys.
I’ve never once heard him holler at things that get in his way, not even the stump that took out the blades on the John Deere. “There’s no point,” he says. “You can’t reason with inanimate objects.” This property has long felt to me like just a lot of work, but Joe says he’s always wanted to take care of a place like this. I can see that it satisfies him. I hope it stays that way. I’m trying everything I know to make sure that he feels like it’s his home too, even though it’s technically my house. I call it Our House, in the Middle of Our Street. I ask him to help me pick out area rugs and bedding. I’ve made space literally and figuratively: cleaning out closets and dressers, and learning to stop hosting him when he’s here because then he feels like a guest. But nothing that I do or don’t do is really key, because the thing that makes him feel most at home here is working on the place. He likes that John Deere. He was proud of those bruises.
I’ve been known to tell people that owning a home is a lot like being in love: At the outset, it’s all spacious and bright and airy. It looks and feels perfect and seems worth all the sacrifices you had to make to get it. But then you move in and you start to fill it with your crap and you notice its flaws. Spaces fill up. Cracks start to show. New things get old. The dust settles, and one day you look around your place and realize that it’s not only not perfect, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Everything needs repair or maintenance or replacement. So you sand and you prime and you paint, and one day the light hits things just right and those old patterns just make themselves known all over again. An adult lifetime of monthly payments starts to seem a lot longer than it once did.
I also tell people that this home is a dream home, but it was someone else’s dream. I’m a city girl, a third-generation Angeleno. I lived in Paris and Chicago before I married, and I thrived. I never really even imagined myself paying a mortgage, let alone paying for a stump grinder or a John Deere or a barn door. I never dreamed of this place: a big pine-log home with a pitched metal roof and skylights, perched atop hilly green acreage in the rural Midwest. This winding road runs between two small central Illinois towns, and all my neighboring farmers—real farmers—have gone organic.
This place is beautiful, no question, when I take a longer view, when I can see past the claustrophobia of repairs and projects and dust. Out front, I have a porch swing and a healthy ecosystem and a pretty good sunset almost every night. There is no time of year that the view out my bedroom window is not breathtaking, if I look beyond the framework of florid trim. When it’s winter and the air is frozen clean, the early twilight colors the snow on the ground periwinkle blue. It happens every year. I’ve spent a decade in this house all told, long enough to see the patterns emerge.
My husband had two favorite lies, and he told them louder and more frequently the closer I got to divorcing him: One was “you’ll never be able to take care of this place without me,” and the other was “no one else will ever love you.” I’m in my seventh season on my own here now; soon Joe will move in and that will change. It’s a good change, I think. The light is hitting everything just right, and from my perspective, it all seems to be in good repair.
GINA COOKE is a linguist working toward her second graduate degree, a pursuit that has spanned half of her adult life. She lives and works on a small farm in the rural Midwest with her son and her dog. She typically writes about spelling: word histories, word structure, and word relatives. This is her first foray into the personal.
My father doesn’t want the pictures anymore. When he finds them in drawers or old shoeboxes, he passes them on to me—in used mailing envelopes bearing his new address, or in secondhand shopping bags printed with the names of retail stores long defunct, with curlicued fonts that spell names like “Bambergers” or “Gimbels.” When he does so, I am struck by the incongruence of my childhood memories, grouped together in no particular order.
The pictures usually make me cry when I take a moment to look at them later by myself. They guide me back to living rooms in houses long since packed up and sold, to the feel of scratchy rompers and dresses sewn by my mother from McCall’s patterns, and to the smell of my grandmother’s Chanel No. 5 perfume, cloying and comforting on hot July days in Brooklyn backyards. They return me, quite viscerally, to the freedom of childhood summers, to the comfort of love and acceptance craved by an only child and bestowed by a dysfunctional—albeit well-meaning—extended family, to days when what has become would never have been foreseeable or possible.
My parents divorced ten years ago, after more than thirty-five years of marriage. They were high school sweethearts, who amassed decades of memories between them. These pictures are markers of what once was and what never should have been, of what cannot be fixed, and what will never return. So they’re put aside, someplace dark, and tucked away.
I was thirty-five, in my own marriage for nearly ten years, as I witnessed the dissolution of my parents’ union. The small, lacquered coffee table, the Pfaltzgraff dishes, the Christmas ornaments, the kitchen chairs with cane seats—all once merely functional items—were now essential to my mother and father, after passing through their lives largely unnoticed. They were life rafts, and my parents clung to them, alone and adrift, as they became unmoored from the weight of their married life. It was jarring to visit each of them in their makeshift apartments and see the physical objects of our former home, now unmatched and without their counterparts. Tables without chairs. Couches without pillows. Cherished collections, now halved.
The photographs, however, were largely left by the wayside. Who wants the wedding album from the marriage that didn’t survive? Who needs the box of Kodachrome slides from the honeymoon in late-sixties-era Kauai, that Christmas in the first apartment in Manhattan, the first ride in the new car, or the time we went on that trip north to Vermont and stopped along the way for fruit pies to take home? Who wants to remember that there was good there, even if it was only as bright and brief as the flash of light capturing it? Who wants visual proof of the dour, cold faces, the spark gone from someone’s eyes, the distant body language, the signs, all the signs—long before the other had awakened to it?
Most of our family photographs remain in a storage unit that my mother has rented for too long in Connecticut, because she still can’t bring herself to sort through everything. When her promised dates of delivery come and go unfulfilled, I don’t press her for them, out of kindness. My father has a few in his possession, and he offers them to me when he thinks of it. When he does, I discover moments I’d forgotten, or that I had never been cognizant of, given my age in the photos.
There are familiar memories, new to me again from alternate angles of relatives’ cameras. I sift through shots of birthday cakes and party hats, cellophane-wrapped Easter baskets, tricycles with streamers, toys long since lost or sold at garage sales, presents stacked under tinseled Christmas trees, and every-day moments on outerborough summer streets and in backyard pools. There are blurry ones, many poorly framed, with ripped edges and creases. They were captured with cameras that we no longer own — my parents’ old Instamatic with the blinding flash bulb box, from my uncle’s old Nikon, or from the Polaroid we kept for a while around the house.
Sometimes, they humble me as I realize how little we had—and how much there still was to go around. We all lived in close quarters, seemingly on top of each other, in two-family houses and apartments and row houses. We were together. Often. This explains why several relatives often usually weren’t speaking to each other, my desire to have borne my husband more children, and why I yearn for a houseful of people yelling and clattering together on any given holiday.
One photograph will never be returned to me. It’s a vertical shot of me in cap and gown, bearing a broad, white smile, at my college commencement. I’ve taken my glasses off, for vanity’s sake, which ironically worsened my look with the tight squint of near-sighted eyes. I can sense that my father is there somewhere before me, squeezing the shutter button, but I’m not exactly sure of anything except his shadowy shape.
I was the first woman in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from college, and the first person to go away to college at all. My parents were proud of my accomplishments, and of their numerous sacrifices to get me there. After my graduation, my mother had a large print of the photograph framed to suit the decor of my father’s office. It matched the cherry credenza behind his desk, and he displayed it there for several years in his midtown Manhattan office.
When my father’s company moved downtown to the World Trade Center in the mid-nineties, he brought the picture to adorn his new office on the 92nd floor. On September 11, the day the towers fell, he survived because he was simply late to work that morning, and had not yet arrived at his desk.
In the weeks that followed, I thought of the photograph’s journey and wondered what its fate had been. Had it fluttered out to the murky Hudson River? Had it incinerated in the collapse? Would it be recovered in someone’s backyard in Brooklyn, clinging to a chain-link fence and wrongly labeled as the photo of a 9/11 victim? The thought process was my irrational way of distancing from the physical horrors that had occurred. The thought would surface when I could only focus on the chaotic flight path of flimsy photo paper, unable to humanize the abject pain and fear that took place on that day.
Photographs are small truths. They house our past. They help us to remember who we once were, when we have strayed so far from our beginnings.
KATHLEEN MCKITTY HARRIS is a writer and native New Yorker, living in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children. Some of her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Literary Mama, Brain, Child, and McSweeney’s. She has also been named as a Glimmer Train Press short story finalist and as a three-time finalist at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival Story Slam. Her website is sweetjesilu.com.
There is a visiting writer scheduled to visit the military hospital where I lead writing sessions with recovering Service Members. I’ve been planning his visit for months. The patients have read some of his stories and are looking forward to this opportunity. Some have even bought their own copies of his book. I was informed, as I was leaving the end-of-the-year elementary school parent social, that the class play was scheduled for the same day as his visit. A few of the mothers were leaning over the granite-topped island in the gleaming kitchen, becoming wine-affectionate with one another. I came in to say goodbye. Thank you so much. I’ll see you next week. Is the play at 5:30 or 6? There is an exchanged glance (I may have imagined this).
The play is at 2:30, Alisha Stoneman tells me, eyebrows raised. That was definitely not imagined.
There had been about thirty minutes of conversation over white wine about how best to simulate a boulder on stage, about whether fake blood would traumatize the children. The husband and wife parent team that sews the costumes for nearly every school play—they are an adorable couple—has been discussing their plans. They both work. They both have important, high-profile jobs. I’m the asshole who didn’t know when the class play was.
Which means I will have to make a choice: class play or veterans. This is how my choices always unfold: birthday party or veterans. Sick day or veterans. Rollerblading, swimming pool, elaborate home-cooked dinner or veterans. I make a plan to have it all: I will leave early, see him through the workshop with the patients who are in the partial hospitalization program, the session I have to be there for, and have a colleague cover the other writing workshop which is open to the entire hospital, including staff.
He’s generous and honest with the group of twelve or so service members in the workshop I attend. Each of them writes about their military experience, even those who are openly angry whenever they are assigned to my writing group. Each wants to share their work. The group is supposed to end at 1:50. I planned to run to my car at 1:55 and make it to the play, which starts at 2:30. It is 2:00 and they are still reading and waiting for the writer’s comments, which he offers slowly and thoughtfully. I can’t leave before I’ve asked them to applaud and thank him, before I remind them to take their work, if it stirred something that will not settle, to their respective mental health providers. I jiggle my leg impatiently, clench my hands and then relax them, remind myself that my job is to maintain calm in the room. When finally we close, it is 2:05. I thank the writer, shake his hand with both of mine and run to my car. It is summer, an afternoon storm has begun, and my drive is delayed by a downpour that limits visibility. I enter the church basement just as the final applause has broken out.
I stand in the back, soaking wet, a halo of frizz forming around my head, and join the clapping. Other parents turn to look at me sideways, sympathetic and judgmental. Glad they are not me. My plastic hospital badge is still clipped to the collar of my dress.
In the third row, my older son Sam is sitting with his father and a woman I recognize (from light social media research with my cousins) as Karim’s girlfriend, who lives with my children half the time, in the house I raised them in and left behind two years ago. Who I have not yet met. Her hair is straight and brushed and dry. She is carrying a Burberry bag and looks more like the other private school mothers than I do.
One of the teachers—who just last week began reading my blog and sent me an email saying she is proud to know me, that Zaki brags about me—leads me to the makeshift backstage, puts her hands on my shoulders, and tells me that Zaki only had three lines, the play was short, that she is so sorry.
You’re better than this, Seema, she tells me while I cry. I wipe my tears, thank her, and face the room of parents milling about.
Zaki is showing Karim and the girlfriend his schoolwork, which is laid out on a table for parents to peruse. Karim is dressed in a blue button down shirt tucked into salmon colored trousers. He is wearing yellow alligator loafers. He glances at me briefly when I approach. He has new glasses that do not suit him. This is a small gift.
Hi, I’m Seema, I say, reaching forward to shake her hand. We haven’t met. I’m Sam and Zaki’s mother. This comes out harsher and more pointed than I meant it to; the emphasis on mother sounds jealous and territorial.
Her smile is nervous. Yes, I’ve heard so much about you. Nice to meet you.
I turn away to make small talk with some of the other mothers. Alisha Stoneman is serving punch. What I need in this room are established allies. What I really want to do is hang out with kids. When I’ve made some loose promises to definitely get the kids together sometime over the summer, I go play with the kids, who are high from the combination of unsupervised cupcake eating and post-performance exhilaration. We are having a dance party on the part of the blue-tiled floor that had been used as the stage. After a few minutes, a teacher comes over to tell the kids to calm down. I don’t know why you think this is a way to behave indoors, She tells them sternly without looking directly at me. You should know better than this. I want to flick her off as she stomps away. I shrug at the kids, who roll their eyes and giggle.
It’s Tuesday, so the boys will be going home with Karim. He and Sam come to where I’m standing and the crowd of children disperses. The girlfriend is sitting in a chair looking at Zaki’s new yearbook, which I purchased, and so should be going home with. The order form came to both of us. If Karim wanted a copy for his house he should have ordered one. This is petty of me, and I know it. I turn to Sam and ask him to just make sure the yearbook makes it back to our house, which, while still petty, seems less so.
This infuriates Karim. Just because you’re standing on a stage doesn’t mean you have to be so dramatic. He walks over and snatches the yearbook out of the girlfriend’s hands and pushes it at me. He turns on his alligator heel and walks toward the door. The boys give me quick hugs and the girlfriend offers her hand. It was nice to meet you, she says before quickly following after him.
She has such nice manners. Where is her mother? Shouldn’t someone warn her?
That night in a lover’s bed, the heat of his body wrapped around mine disrupts my sleep and her face rises again and again.
SEEMA REZA is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, DC, where she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care and socialization among a military population struggling with emotional and physical injuries. An Alumnus of Goddard College and VONA, her work has appeared or will appear on-line and in print in The Beltway Quarterly, Duende, Bellevue Literary Review and Hermeneutic Chaos among others. When the World Breaks Open, a collection of essays and poetry will be released by Red Hen Press in March. Pre-order the book here.
We are clearing out his apartment, sorting papers and photographs, and bottles upon bottles of medication when my sister, Rebecca, asks for one more favor. The mortuary has called and said her ex-husband’s ashes are ready for pick-up. Can we please go with her? She isn’t up for a solo trip.
It’s two days after her wedding, which was one week after her first husband’s memorial service. The entire family is still reeling from the juxtaposition—it was all we’d talked about before, during, and after the actual wedding celebration. In conversation we’d put air quotes around “celebration.” We used anger and sarcasm to mask our sorrow and confusion.
Rebecca hadn’t known her ex-husband was going to die the week before her wedding when she’d planned it, of course. She’d gotten engaged almost immediately after the divorce had been finalized, while Charles was undergoing chemotherapy; but she was living with her boyfriend already. We all knew a wedding would happen sooner or later. “But why couldn’t it have been later?” our mother had asked me, crying, the day before the wedding. “Much, much later?”
I had no good answer to give her.
Now, two days after living through the wedding, we go out to lunch first before visiting the mortuary to pick up Charles’s ashes. While we eat Rebecca wants to talk about her wedding. What did Mom think? Did it go okay? I take a big bite of fish and chew, ruthlessly leaving my mother to answer.
“That was the most beautiful wedding dress I’ve ever seen,” our mom says tactfully. She always starts with a positive statement unless we’ve really pissed her off. I shove in a bite of mixed vegetables because the critical portion of Mom’s sentence is about to arrive and I want a physical excuse (my mouth is full!) not to intervene.
Focusing on my food helps me not think about Charles. Two weeks after his death I’m still accustoming myself to not thinking about him. While he was sick, then sicker, then dying, he took up so much space in my thoughts. My life was planned around chemo trips, emergency visits to the doctor or the ER or just the grocery store and pharmacy runs. For the last few months, whenever the phone rang, my heart filled with hot liquid and my fingertips would go numb.
It wasn’t just worry for him, dread for the end; I was so damn tired—it was dread that it would never end that seized me. Sometimes I’d worry that I’d never stop feeling guilt for my relief at it ending and anger for my guilt—it was much easier to be angry at my sister. It is much easier to keep eating instead of acknowledging how I feel at all.
They have stopped discussing the wedding dress. It was a beautiful dress, like something a classy lounge singer would wear in the 1940s. If Rebecca and I had figures even remotely similar—she got the butt, I the boobs—I’d steal that dress, dye it black or scarlet and wear it to her next wedding. But the conversation has moved on from the dress. My mother is expressing her displeasure with the ceremony. “It was all Cheshire, all the time.”
Our family wasn’t included in any aspect. The groom’s niece and nephew sang. The groom’s sister (not our eldest sister) was Matron of Honor. The groom’s family composed two-thirds of the guests and as for those speeches… Well, “inappropriate” is too mild a word. Did Rebecca know that the two of her kids who’d come to the wedding (her oldest daughter flat-out refused) wept through the Best Man’s speech when he’d revealed that my sister’s affair with her new husband had been going on for two years longer than anyone had known?
“I didn’t know the kids cried!” my sister says. Here’s the weird thing, though—she isn’t upset that Mom is displeased with her. Normally Rebecca does not take criticism well. Off-hand comments that our other sister or I would shrug off have been known to send her, this new bride, into her closet to indulge in angry weeping. A chance directive from our mother, something about keeping cats as indoor pets, led to my sister not speaking to Mom for two years. Two years of silence for saying, “Keep your cat away from Rachel, she’s allergic.” But bashing the wedding as inappropriate, liquor-soaked, and hurtful? My sister is fine with it. No, it is weirder than that. My sister seems pleased.
Don’t get me wrong—she’s not happy. She defends the liquor consumption. She defends the inappropriate speech by blaming the liquor consumption, and she defends the lack of her family’s inclusion by offering, “Well, everyone is so sad because Charles died—I didn’t think they’d want to be included.”
Choking laughter overtakes me. I cover my mouth with a napkin. My mother slides my water glass closer, and my sister pats my back. I laugh harder. Tears are running from my eyes. They start to laugh, too. Other restaurant patrons are staring.
None of us wanted to be included, I don’t tell Rebecca. None of us wanted to fucking be there at all. Her daughter was the only honest one. We’re all wiping our eyes now and we don’t have to say anything.
We don’t have to say that we are angry that my sister remarried a week after her ex-husband’s funeral because she knows. I don’t have to say that I’m laughing because her reasoning is always so self-centeredly skewed because they both know. She doesn’t say that she’s pleased that Mom is unhappy with her and critical of her wedding and her general behavior these last few years because we know. Rebecca knows that we forgive her and she knows that we forgive her because we know that she is never going to forgive herself.
After a lunch like that, it’s understandable when we get in the car and Rebecca starts it, she has a brief freak-out. “Oh my god! I don’t know where we’re going! I mean, I know where the mortuary is, but not how to get there!” There is a shrill lining of panic around her words, and the air in the car tastes like chewing on aluminum foil.
Our mom pats her shoulder, not knowing what to say, what directions to offer, but recognizing panic. I back-seat-drive to the location. From spending time with Mom when she lived here, as well as Charles, I am more familiar with Hemet than my sister.
It’s an ugly city. The cracked, ill-kempt streets are laid out in a tidy grid, but it seems that if one drives too far in any direction, one hits the same boggy agricultural field. The air is brown and fetid from smog and pesticides trapped in this weird little valley populated mostly by the elderly. Traffic is both slow and erratically dangerous. Sometimes in my dreams, I drive the city’s streets, a sick animal in the backseat that I can’t clearly see or reach to comfort, its whimpers of pain forcing me to wake myself up to avoid crying myself.
When we reach the mortuary, there is an atrium filled with birds. A faux-desert scene houses little pheasants, and tiny roadrunners wander forlornly, glassed in on all four sides. They can never not be on display, but Rebecca is happy to see them. She likes birds. Watching them calms her. We wait in a musty room. I poke around, examining the literature, how the place is decorated, and what is stored in the credenza against the wall (mostly off-brand tissue boxes and religious bookmark looking things I don’t understand). I am writing a novel that is set in a mortuary; I can use this.
A man comes and shows us to a room where a wooden box sits on a table, shrine-like. We all back up. We put our hands behind our backs. No one wants to take it. We engage the man in conversation, admiring the box without actually looking at it. We all three flirt with the man; we are expert flirters. My mother and sister share a flirting style, I see for the first time. They cajole and flatter; there is a tone in their voices not normally heard, like jollying a petulant child out of his mood.
Finally, Mom tries to take the box. She is the brave one. It is too heavy for her. I help the man set it into a red velvet bag and he puts in into my sister’s arms. She does not look comfortable with this. We walk out to the car and I get my mother settled in the front passenger seat, and my sister sets the bag containing the box on my mother’s lap. My mother rhythmically pats it, as if comforting a fussy baby.
Mom agrees to take the box home with her and put it in her closet next to our stepfather. They can hang out. No one mentions that they never really got along while they were alive. At Charles’s sadly empty apartment, where Rebecca drops us off and Mom and I climb into my car, I belt the box into my back seat and start home.
Mom is unusually silent. This is understandable, I think, and a bit of a relief after the tense day. Up in the mountains she says, “You’ve come full circle. You were his ride when he found out he was sick. Now you’re his ride home.”
We are in the highest part of the mountains. We have been climbing the twisting, looping, steep, two-lane road, and then the top opened up to a stunning view—any way we look is stark California mountain. Here, on this flat opening amongst them, we seem higher yet still protected by ranges surrounding us.
I pull over because I can’t see out of my tear-filled eyes and am having trouble getting air. I’m parked on the side of the road, gasping, feeling like I’m about to vomit. My mother is apologizing and I look out the window and realize where I am. This is where I stopped to talk to Rebecca on the phone that horrible day. This is where I talked to Charles after her, reassuring him it wasn’t all a nightmare, the cancer wasn’t a mistake that my sister had the power to make him “take back.” Years before that, this is where I used to stop and vomit when my body was flush with hormones, natural and injected during my decade of infertility treatments. I am beginning to hate this beautiful spot.
“I am ready to go home,” I say. “I am ready to be done.”
My sister puts her head through the open passenger side window and says, “My husband was always a pain in the ass. Why should he be any different now that he is dead?” And she gestures to the backseat where the wooden casket containing his ashes has been sitting all this long, hot afternoon, carefully belted in.
This is the fourth stop we’ve made in our search for a decent spot to illegally scatter his ashes. Charles chose this road in a remote part of Riverside County, telling everyone who’d listen he wanted to be “thrown to the wind” here. But he never went into specifics. He never said exactly where, he never said why, and we’re wondering if maybe chemo brain was responsible for his decision because this is a damn-awful place to drift into the wind.
August is the worst of the summer months in Southern California. June and July have sucked any moisture gone, so August is lip-cracking dry and the intense heat casts a yellow glare over the afternoon. It feels like the sun is personally angry at us, driving all over these dusty roads, and has persuaded the wind to join him in tormenting us as it swirls and eddies in mini-dirt devils, flinging gravel at our toes exposed by inappropriate sandals when we dare to leave our vehicles.
The first stop we made was above a house surrounded by dead cars and some very mean looking dogs. The second stop was next to a gun range where armed rednecks were actively shooting. The third stop, we realized was outside of Charles’s specified location and his three grown children got into an argument over whether proximity mattered.
This fourth stop is a dirt fire road clinging precariously to the side of a slippery, dusty mountain, ruts and boulders line the edges. We are caravanning and my sedan doesn’t fit on the road. I am perched half in the two-lane, busy highway. My elderly mother is in the passenger seat. Even with the a/c turned all the way up, she is red and sweaty.
“Are you getting out?” Rebecca asks. I think our mother is about to cry.
“Take the ashes,” I tell my sister, leaning into the backseat to pop the seat belt loose. “I’m taking Mom home.”
“You’re not staying?”
“We’re not?” Mom asks, and she smiles at me in relief. Her back is to my sister, who doesn’t see the smile.
“I can’t drive up that road, Mom can’t walk it, and look at her”—Rebecca does and my mother flips open the visor mirror to see herself. “I think she has heatstroke. She’s seventy-four. She’s too old for this shit.”
My sister laughs while my mother nods seriously. “I am too old for this shit.” She starts to cry and my sister hugs her through the open window and kisses her goodbye.
My sister won’t take the ashes. She calls for her middle child, who calls for her boyfriend to carry the pretty little casket. I loan them my pocket knife. They look confused.
“There is a plastic zip tie on the baggy inside,” I explain. “You’ll have to cut it loose.”
I discovered this at the first stop when everyone except my oldest niece’s husband ran to look over the edge of a cliff rather than deal with the ashes. My nephew-in-law, a sweet boy from Kansas, only shrugged when I snarled, “Why the hell are we the ones dealing with this?”
I was shocked out of my irritation by the contents of the baggy. What had once been Charles was now strangely dry, chalky dust with surprisingly large shards of bone in it. I shifted the sealed bag in my hands, listening to the rustling, slushing noise, examining the end sum of my friend. When I was growing up, Charles was so handsome, he was the standard by which I judged all male beauty. Now that beauty, whittled away by his cancer, is reduced to the contents of this gallon-sized plastic bag.
There was one shard of bone, not quite arrowhead shaped, a littler smaller than my littlest finger. I planned on slipping it into my pocket when no one was looking. I wanted to keep it. I wanted to carry it in my mouth.
But Charles’s children decided to move on—they didn’t like the junk-yard look of this stop and I had to force the ash-baggy back into its covering box, shaking it roughly like a colander of pasta to make it fit. Several family members watched, but no one offered to help.
By the fourth stop, by the side of the road, I am ready to hand over the ashes. I am ready to go home. We call good-byes and love-yous out the window and drive away. “I’m sorry to make you miss it,” our mom says.
“I’m not,” I reply. “I’ve done what I could. I did what I could for him while he was alive. My duty is to the living. You look like hell.”
“Gee, thanks,” she says and points the last air vent at her face. All the air vents now hitting her, she rummages in my purse.
I place the back of my hand on the hot window at my side. “I’ve done what I could,” I say, but to myself.
My mother pulls a red lipstick out of my bag. “How ‘bout I put on some lipstick and you take me out to dinner?”
“All right,” I agree. A cool, dark restaurant would be soothing. My hand is still on the burning glass.
We are sitting around Rebecca’s new kitchen table, eating lunch, reading aloud from a book about healthy cholesterol levels, when she expresses how angry she is at her husband. My mother looks up. “Which one?”
I laugh. My sister does not. Her face is tight, but then crumples as I watch.
“Charles never did anything to help himself and then he got sick and his family never did anything to help and never brought his father to see him before he died. And his bitch sister had the audacity to hint to my little girl, at her daddy’s funeral, that we should reimburse Grandpa for the money he paid to the private nurse.” Rebecca is crying so her speech is almost unintelligible, and her “little girl” is twenty-five, but I take her point.
Our mother cries in sympathy. I bring them tissues and make cups of tea and pat them on the back occasionally. I don’t cry. I am tired. I think about the shards of bone in the bag of chalky dust that used to be Charles. I think about my stepfather’s ashes in the pirate chest in my mother’s closet. I remember that my mother has filled in paperwork naming me responsible for her ashes when the time comes. I wonder who will deal with my chalky dust when I am dead.
On the drive home my mother asks if my sister does that often, cries out of anger with her dead husband. I think Rebecca must clean up her emotions when talking to our mother alone.
“She didn’t deal with her anger at the time,” I say, feeling enlightened. “She took off. So she’s gonna have to deal with that for the rest of her life.”
“You’re right,” my mother nods her head, begins to cry once more. “You’re right.”
At that moment I see a Starbucks up ahead. I’m about to offer to pull in, buy a vente pumpkin spice latte (damn whatever the seasonal cut-off date might be) to cheer her up, but then I remember that it’s my mom in the car next to me. My mom hates Starbucks and doesn’t drink much coffee at all. It isn’t her panacea. Now who is confused? Now who is angry? Now who is unenlightened?
Months later, my throat feels choked when I see a Starbucks. I want to go in and order a pumpkin spice latte, but I want my brother-in-law back with me. I want him healthy or at least not actively dying. I want the coffee klatch to be for fun, not a treatment for the chemo shakes and sickness. I want too much, I know.
I have a terrible suspicion that I will never be able to drink coffee again. I am angry about that. I am angry about a lot of things. I am okay with this anger.
SARA MARCHANT received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside/ Palm Desert. Her work has appeared on The Manifest-Station and Every Writer’s Resource. She lives in the high desert of California with her husband and varying amounts of poultry.
My only job for the next few hours is to stay in this small home in the outskirts of Seattle with my ninety-one-year-old father and make sure he doesn’t start a fire in the kitchen or wander away from the house he built himself, but now doesn’t always recognize. Every other Thursday, I show up here to give my stepmother a break. Dad seems more confused every time, but his wife, Donna, says that he has good days and bad. I like to take him out to lunch or for a drive, but today Dad is tired and wants to stay home. He’s asleep now, his recliner tipped back and a quilt covers his long legs, even with the thermostat set at eighty-five degrees. A scrawny slippered foot dangles out from under the blanket; a gnarled hand grasps the quilt’s edge. From the sofa across the living room, I look up from my book every few minutes to watch his chest to make sure there is still movement. I’m petrified that he’ll die on my watch.
Behind Dad’s chair is a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking North Seattle’s Thornton Creek, and a forest of alder trees. My father designed this A-frame house for Donna soon after they were married in 1965. The small rooms are uncluttered: my stepmother’s piano against one wall, a few stacks of books. A seashell collection is arranged next to pictures of their thirty-eight-foot sailboat on the coffee table. Although for years a visitor would find no evidence of my father’s children here, these days, there are also photographs of my sister Linda and me on the kitchen counter labeled with our names, so that Dad will be able to place us in case we stop by.
Dad’s normally thin frame has become skin and bones, his slacks cinched in at the top with a belt on the last hole. When he goes outside, he uses a cane, or sometimes a walker, but in the house he hangs on to the wall or the back of the couch, lurching from one stationary object to the next across the room. Around noon, when he rouses for lunch, I’ll watch each precarious, rickety step he takes from his chair to the kitchen table, and whisper under my breath, don’t fall, don’t fall.
Dad can still recite stories from his distant past; snatches of childhood are sometimes clear in his mind. More recent information becomes confused, bits of one event merging with another. Faces become indistinguishable. One day he might see his deceased brother in the room, or I might register in his brain as his mother or his wife.
I wait for the moments when I’m me. Over the years, I’ve longed for time alone with my father. I’ve called him on the phone once or twice a month for decades, but Donna invariably picks up the extension to join the conversation. Back before his mind went, he and I occasionally arranged to meet for lunch at a coffee shop. She came along. Now, when I finally have my father to myself for a few hours, he will no doubt wake up from this nap today, look at me quizzically and ask, “Who are you?”
Before my parents divorced in 1961, my family lived in this same neighborhood, the one where my dad and Donna live. On the way here this morning, I took a detour and stopped in front of my childhood home. Dad built that house, too, overlooking the same creek and woods. For years I’ve avoided driving by the old place; too many memories. But on this day I felt compelled to see the home where our family started out.
Back in the 1950s when we moved into our house in the suburbs, this was a new development teeming with young families. I ran with a pack of kids around my age, splashing in the creek and racing on our bikes. Our dads, mostly salesmen and small business owners, barbecued out on the carport, while our housewife moms sipped cocktails on the patio.
I remember my mother in an apron, singing as she cleaned the house. Showing me how she walked the runway as a part-time model for the Ship ‘N’ Shore Blouse Company. My dad, the jokester, hung our clothes in the branches of a tree outside our house if my sister and I left them on the floor. He owned a construction company, and between jobs he took on the task of packing our sack lunches and getting us to school. On those days I peered into my brown bag with apprehension, expecting to find a raw potato or a lemon, waxed paper between the bread of my sandwich. He didn’t like to discipline; instead, he commiserated with us behind our mother’s back after we’d been scolded. He was stingy with that part of himself, and with his time, away for long stretches working in other cities or out on his boat alone.
If I turned left and headed west down a short hill, I’d end up where my mother’s lover Bruce once lived with his wife and their three children. Back when I was seven, when I was eight and nine, I was oblivious to any friction between my parents, though plenty existed. My mother’s infidelity might have triggered their split, but based on the rigor with which she clung to her bitterness toward my dad, I believe she had her reasons for being unfaithful. All her days, she held fast to anger, the only emotion between my parents for a good forty years.
My sister Linda severed her relationship with our mother ten years before Mom died in 2001, and, in the last few years, has done the same with our dad. Maybe Linda can’t face our parents’ aging. Or she may have decided peace of mind is possible for her only if she’s shed of her family. She’s lumped me in with our parents and refuses to speak to me about it, so I have lost my sister, too, at least for now.
On this day, as I drove to my father’s house to face the deterioration of his brain, his slow fade from life, I asked myself why I still try to connect with him. Do I think caring for him will fill a hole in me, created when I was ten, twelve, fifteen, and he repeatedly left me behind? Am I bound to him by blood, no matter what has happened in the past? Why can’t I turn away like my sister has and wash my hands of the whole sad and messy process of death? Am I still the child who wants the thing she can never have, or is what I feel simply a daughter’s love? The only way I know to find the answers is to look hard at my memories of the fifty years since my parents’ bitter divorce.
I drove on then, east toward my father’s place, past houses where my playmates once lived. There are no signs of children in the old neighborhood now, no bikes in the yards, or basketball hoops mounted above garage doors. I should have expected these changes, after so many years. But I was surprised to see those barren streets, the graveyard of my childhood. I stepped on the gas, and looked at the road ahead.
When my father wakes, I watch him try to figure out where he is. His eyes scan the room, and he blinks and shakes his head slightly before he asks the inevitable question, “Who are you?” Once I say my name, he smiles at me, relieved. In ten minutes he might decide that I’m Donna or his mother. He’ll need to be told many times why I’m here, that his wife is out shopping.
I take the sandwich out of the refrigerator that Donna prepared for him before she left—she knows better how to make it the way he likes—and warm up some canned soup. He ambles over to the kitchen table and lowers himself into his chair. I put his lunch in front of him and kiss the freckled top of his bald head. He smells of Old Spice, same as always. He thanks me, calls me “honey” so he won’t have to conjure my name.
While he eats his lunch, I show him pictures of my children’s families—his great-grandchildren—and try not to be hurt when he recognizes no one. He points a crooked finger toward a hummingbird hovering at the feeder outside the kitchen window. Along the windowsill are cards that he and Donna have saved, with pictures of boats on the fronts, or special notes inside, mostly from relatives. All but one or two of his friends have passed on.
I ask him about building this house all those years ago on what the city considered an impossible lot; the place sits on a steep hillside and is supported by wooden braces. He’s pricked by memory and recalls details that surprise me. He tells me that he built two houses in this neighborhood but lost the other one in his divorce. “I guess she sold it,” he says, forgetting that “she” was my mother, that our family lived in that house together.
I mention nothing about the past; instead, I pull my chair around to sit next to him. I lay my head on his shoulder and take his hand. We sit for a time. The only sound is the creek rushing past, the occasional birdsong from the woods. I point in silence to a fat squirrel, and we watch him scramble up the side of an alder and fling himself like an acrobat at a neighboring tree.
Then Dad clears his throat and says, “You know, honey, your ma and I didn’t plan for things to turn out the way they did.”
Startled, I lift my head and look into his momentarily lucid eyes. I find myself willing him back into his fog; the memories he might dig up are painful, and in that moment I want him spared. Or is it me I want to shield?
“I know, Dad,” I tell him before he forgets again. “I know.”
JOYCE TOMLINSON is the mother of four and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband of forty-three years. She received her MFA in Creative Writing for Pacific University, and her work has appeared in The Gold Man Review and in We Came to Say, a collection of essays. She is working on a full-length memoir about learning to accept human flaws and frailties, including her own.
We go to see a counselor. Karim will not accept that he should see someone for his anger, but he agrees to couple’s therapy. I’ll take what I can get. Based on the bio on the office’s website, it appears that the primary focus of this therapist’s career has been on issues of gender identity and homosexuality. But she is available on the day we need, and I don’t want Karim’s compliance to dissipate. Lainey has short hair, thick wire-rimmed glasses, black socks, and orthopedic shoes.
Karim tells the story of spanking Sam with a shoe in our hotel room on our vacation. Of telling me, when I stood between them, I have another shoe for you. In his retelling, Sam pushed his brother and sent him flying headfirst into the wall. He could have seriously hurt him. It was unacceptable.
I see, Lainey says. So you wanted to make a strong statement.
Yes. And then Seema challenged my authority in front of the kids. I got mad. I shouldn’t have said that to her.
It seems so simple, so reasonable explained this way. I wonder if I’ve been overreacting all along. Maybe we’re not so badly off. Maybe we just have a few little issues.
She asks Karim, Why do you want to stay married?
Because of the kids. And she can’t afford to be on her own.
She turns to me. Seema, what do you think about that?
My teeth are white, my hair is thick. I know this man, know that he loves me. I laugh. That’s bullshit. I’m an excellent cook and the sex is fantastic.
For the rest of the summer and into the fall, we see Lainey nearly every Monday evening. Lainey prods us to say kind things about one another and encourages us to implement date nights.
In October, after the push that changed my perspective, that shook me from my slumbering pretense, we go back to see Lainey. I’ve decided that I’ve outgrown the fight. Now, he begs me to visit the therapist one last time. I agree, taking along a ball of wool and knitting needles. We sit in the now familiar office, meeting at our regular time, but days are shorter and the room is darker than usual. He begins to talk, and I begin to knit. He catalogues my crimes: making him jealous at seventeen, rekindling a friendship with an old boyfriend at twenty, disliking his mother from the start, dancing with another man at a nightclub one night. He tells it chronologically, has clearly been rehearsing this narrative—collecting the evidence.
Several times anger rises up from my core, forces my mouth to fall open, but I knit more furiously, shut my mouth. I am determined to give him this opportunity. After thirty minutes, Lainey interrupts him. The clock is ticking; he needs to wrap up. He moves to my most recent crimes: not believing him when he said he didn’t make romantic advances toward my friend, forcing him to have to push her because he felt backed into a corner, because he thought we were ganging up against him. Forty of our fifty minutes are up.
Lainey looks at me. Seema?
I look up from my knitting. I let it fall to my lap, push my glasses up. I take a deep breath. I’m done. For a moment, I consider responding to the accusations he has made, defending myself, reminding him that he has left out his responsibility in all of it. But the feeling evaporates with my exhale. I don’t want to do this anymore.
Okay, she says. Let’s talk about divorce counseling.
Afterward, Karim is livid. How could she have given up on us like that? What kind of counselor is she? It’s your fault. Why were we seeing a social worker anyway? He goes to see a therapist on his own, and he tells me that therapist said we shouldn’t get divorced. That therapist thinks that Lainey was wrong to have told us what to do.
She didn’t tell us what to do. I told her I was done.
You told her you were done after she told us to get divorce counseling.
The order of things is always uncertain with us. He remembers it one way; I remember it another.
SEEMA REZA is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, D.C., where she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care, and socialization among a military population struggling with emotional and physical injuries. Her work has appeared The Beltway Quarterly, HerKind, Duende, Pithead Chapel, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. When the World Breaks Open, her first collection of essays, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.
In the early mornings of the spring that I turned twenty-nine, I drove on a stretch of Ohio’s Route 68 to work. I liked it best when the road showed up for me alone, when I could steer in a kind of solitary silence from village into county, from Epic Books and Ha Ha Pizza to the stoplight on Cemetery Road, then past pastures and swaths of farmland and the occasional framed house onto which the sunlight warmed the lives of families rising into day. I had known the road so long—not just the yawn of corn and soybean fields, but also Young’s Jersey Dairy with its red barn and white fence; Ebenezer Cemetery with its crumbling cement wall; the turnoffs for Sparrow, Collier, and Cottingham roads; even Walt’s, the junkyard where the highway doglegged—yet that spring I studied each moment of the way as if remembering it well meant that I could somehow keep it.
Back then, I wanted to believe in beginnings, but I can see now that I held onto the ends.
Corazón: the Spanish word for heart. The admissions receptionist, Joann, had scrawled the international student’s name—Miguel Corazón—next to mine on the interview sheet for later that May morning.
“With me?” I asked Joann.
“He said he was from Torreón, Mexico,” she said. “He asked for you.”
“Because I know Spanish?” (I’m half-Mexican. My relatives live in Torreón.) “Does he know my family?” Another Wittenberg University admissions officer typically handled foreign applicants.
“Well,” I said, “then I’d better get ready.” I plucked brochures and an international application from the shelves and settled in at my desk, right off the lobby.
I had worked in this very office from my freshman year until graduation then returned years later to my alma mater for full-time work. But in three months, I would be giving up this job, my home state, the places where I belonged, to move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My fiancé, Bill, refused to stay in Ohio, where he had come only to earn his master’s degree, and I had acquiesced to leaving, even though my chest tightened when I thought about it. When I was twenty-nine, I believed that surrendering what I wanted for the sake of someone else was the cost of love, and that I should bear it.
Through my office wall, I could hear Joann’s muffled voice mingled with a deep one. Apparently, Miguel Corazón had shown up early. I was sitting at my desk, talking on the phone, my back to my door when I heard it open, and Joann say, “You can sit down, she’ll just be a minute.” Always, I met prospective students out in the lobby, but I hurried off my call and only after hanging up did I then swing my chair around and rise to meet—
I froze. The words I’d begun to say hung mid-air.
From his chair, Michael rose, too, like an apparition ascending from memory.
* * *
For the appointment, as a ruse, and to back up his false claim of hailing from Mexico, Michael had used the Spanish version of his first name, and Corazón in place of his last.
Five years earlier, Michael and I had fallen in love. After only a few months, I wanted to marry him, move across the country for him, never be apart. I spent much of the first part of our relationship longing for not just a ring, but to come before the stack of priorities standing between me and first place: his research, post-graduate school goals, his solo life plan that only vaguely—perhaps later—included me. Eventually, I had fled to Mexico to teach, and when this propelled him to propose, I turned away entirely, no longer sure of who I was or what I wanted. It was easier for me, by then a mere twenty-five years old, to move on alone than to figure all that out with him.
In the years that followed, when I was twenty-six and twenty-seven and back in Ohio, Michael had shown up. One time he drove eight hours from DC through a snowstorm to see me; another time, when I was lonely and depressed, he drove two hours from his hometown in Indiana, where he was staying for the summer, to take me salsa dancing. He wrote me letters, even when we had just talked or seen each other. Over the years, he’d given me a book of Neruda love poems, a picture frame with blue flowers pressed beneath glass, a bird feeder. His biggest gift, though, was a sacrifice: Michael put off a semester of his Ph.D. program in Nebraska to live closer to me. He had gone to great lengths to show me that I came first, but I had told myself, repeatedly and with admonition, only foolish girls believe a man will change.
Until he showed up in my office on that warm and clear May day.
* * *
Michael stood before me and grinned, clearly proud of having flown in from Nebraska and surprised me. We had been in contact, but eighteen months had passed from the time that we’d last seen each other to the moment Joann led him to me. My hands trembled because I was happy to see him—and aware I shouldn’t be. He knew about my engagement. This fact stood between us, arms folded across its chest, and shook its head.
The best that I could blurt out was, “What are you doing here?”
He laughed. “I wanted to see you.”
A few moments later, I said, “If you’re here to change my mind, I won’t.”
He didn’t hesitate or blanch. His impeccable posture alerted you that this man held few, if any, doubts about anything he set his mind to. He looked me straight in the eye. “I only want to see what’s possible,” he said. Then he asked me to lunch.
We walked across campus in the brightness of the late morning light to the student center cafe and found a table by a wall of windows. We laughed and lingered as if we were undergraduates and had all the time in the world for big choices and hard lines, as if none of those things mattered now. Later, we rambled around Wittenberg, eventually settling on a bench overlooking Myers Hollow, near the slope I had slipped down after an ice storm my freshman year before smacking into a tree.
For a minute, we stared out onto the hollow.
Ever fearless, he broke the silence. “Marry me,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the same ring he had, four years earlier, offered me. Except now, instead of a diamond in the setting, a green stone the size and color of a pea perched on top.
As he looked at me, I studied him: his blue eyes I remembered squinting at me in the dim morning light before he would reach for his glasses; his freckles that faded, forgotten in winter, but that would sprinkle across his nose and cheeks when flushed out by summer sun; his bushy brown hair, unruly after sleep, that could be tamed with water and a comb.
Finally, I said, “I can’t.”
“I don’t believe you,” he whispered, almost to himself.
“I won’t,” I said. The words tasted metallic.
We sat in silence and let the sun break against us on our bench and let the gap—between now and his flight back to Nebraska, between now and my future husband and married life in North Carolina—get a little narrower.
Then we ambled, taking the long way back along the hollow’s edge toward the place he had parked. We descended via a tree-lined path veiling us in shadow and emerged into the glare of sun and asphalt. When we embraced goodbye, I held onto him longer than he held onto me, and when I stepped away from him and toward Recitation Hall, toward my office and the life I knew, I had to force myself to do so, to train my eye on the glass door, push the metal bar that spanned it, and go through and not look back.
He left me the little gold ring with its pea stone, and it burrowed into my pocket, planting itself deep: a seed of doubt that would grow and grow.
Three and half years later, in late and cold November, my marriage disintegrated into the fifty percent statistic I had sworn that I’d never belong in. It would be a lie to say that I’d been in love with my ex-boyfriend during my marriage because I had not, but his big love, big gestures had become the ruler against which I—however unfairly—had measured every disagreement with Bill, every incident in which I felt not loved enough. I mourned not just my impending divorce but what might have been, had I only chosen differently.
A few months earlier, Michael had moved from Nebraska to North Carolina, but I had found this out only weeks before the divorce decision. I’d discovered through a mutual acquaintance that he lived a mere twenty-five minutes away.
In late November, I wanted to go right to him, but the grief of my marriage ending clouded and rumbled in my chest. I knew, too, that grief passes, that it is only weather in the vast sky of the heart.
In early January, I asked Michael to come over. He showed up with a loaf of bread that he’d kneaded and baked for me, with all the ingredients he still remembered I loved: whole grains, seeds and nuts, and plump, black raisins. Just as he had years earlier, he took me to a salsa club that night, and I clung to his hand as he twirled me, as if we could wind back to where we had stopped and start again. Just as before, he gave me gifts as the weeks passed: a white cotton top with three-quarter sleeves and a buttonhole neckline; the fragrance of gardenias, a bouquet on my front stoop; a white colander; a brown umbrella with faces of dalmatians and cocker spaniels splashed across the fabric. But unlike before, he had become born again, and now he threaded Bible verses into emails and letters and tried to stitch me back together with Jesus’s words.
Although my spirituality was private and quiet and rested in a God who favored heart over creed, I didn’t say no when Michael asked to pray out loud with me; I didn’t say stop when he offered biblical passages as balms.
Without the physical intimacies and commitment of real couples—because of his religion and because I was still emotionally reeling from the divorce—we became, still, devoted to each other. I drove him to Lasik surgery and nervously thumbed through magazines in the waiting room. I helped haul his truckload of furniture into his new house, and together we painted a clean coat on each wall. It was he who steered the car through hordes of I-95 traffic to whisk me to DC for a weekend and to point out landmarks and pick restaurants. It was he who rubbed my back the day I officially divorced, when I wept face down on the bed, boring into a pillow. And it was he who sat beside me as the mortgage broker shuffled refinance papers across the desk for me to sign, the pages stacked like a book that I could not bear to read alone.
God, I loved him. He resurrected me.
But our differences sank into my belly. At night I felt them, cold and hard and unmoving. I thought the world was too big for only one religion, so we argued about how many paths led to God and about interpreting the Bible literally. I also conjured up hypothetical questions to test how he would prioritize his beliefs in relation to me; I know now that I was really testing his love. I asked inane questions like, “If you and I were married, and you believed God wanted you to go live in Africa, even if it meant leaving me behind, would you go?”
In the end, Michael always said he would have no choice but to do whatever he thought God or Jesus wanted him to do, but that God would not ask him to do something that would harm our relationship.
You’re stirring up trouble, I chided myself, and for a while I stopped peppering him with questions I didn’t want to know his answers to.
Then one night over the phone, I prodded more about his beliefs, poking a fire I knew that I could not contain if the flames leapt. I thought about all of my gay and lesbian friends, and I jabbed the topic open. He told me that homosexuality was a sin, and I asked him how he could make such a judgment. He said that he was not making that judgment: God was.
Suddenly, I wanted to dampen all of it, and I flooded him with questions until I found a concocted safe and middle ground: yes, he loved all people, straight or gay, and though he did not think gay couples should be able to get married or adopt, yes, he thought all people were equals.
Though I cried when we hung up the phone and lost my appetite for a day and a half, I clung to the word “equals.” I reminded myself he had always been nothing short of welcoming and warm to all of my friends, and I convinced myself that the place where he stood and where I stood were not so far apart, that if we both leaned toward each other, we could still touch.
It was spring by then, the season of possibility.
This was not the first time our views had clashed, that we’d tried to convince each other of our rightness, of the other’s implied wrongness.
Over the years, Michael and I had argued about little things—the safety of microwaves, whether eating organic fruits and vegetables was really better for you—and big things: whether we should get married, whether we should break up, and (after we had finally ended our relationship, back when I was twenty-five) whether we should get back together. This last disagreement endured more years than it should have. Sometimes we had talked about it; other times, I had avoided the talking, and in doing so, I must have hurt him more by what I did not say.
If you have ever not felt loved for exactly who you are—by someone who professes to—then that love is the one thing you will seek. After my divorce, I craved it as if my life depended on it. But he must have, too—not after my divorce, but in all the times he had shown up in my life and asked me to try again, long before I married or had even met my ex-husband, in all the times we had both been so young, so free to choose each other.
One time he had called to check on me and rescue me from loneliness when I was twenty-seven and living in Oxford, Ohio. He was spending the summer just two hours away in his hometown in Indiana, and he felt like a lifeline.
“Come on, Shuly. We’re going dancing,” he’d said when I picked up the phone. A statement, an urging, not a question—so rarely a question from him—something I both loved and resented.
I had given in. It was so easy to give in then. I changed from shorts and t-shirt to blouse and skirt, and when he arrived at my door, I followed him out of my apartment, down the narrow hallway and stairs and out to the parking lot. I got into his car. He could have driven me anywhere that night; I would have gone.
I let the air blow onto my face through the half-down window as he drove, as he stole me from Oxford. How I wanted to be stolen. He steered and gunned the engine toward highway and Cincinnati and city lights, away from small town, small apartment, what felt like such a small life. I do not remember where exactly we went salsa dancing, but if I close my eyes, I can feel the weight of his hand in mine on the dance floor, and his touch on my back as he led me in turns. I can taste the sweetness of the vanilla frozen yogurt he bought me afterward, something he had done dozens of times when we had been dating and had strolled along the gritty sidewalks on Ohio’s summer nights.
I remember that I laughed and laughed next to him in the car, and for those hours I forgot everything that hurt in my life. The sadness lifted and floated from my body like a bad and broken spirit only he could command away.
For that evening, I leaned into him. I had always been able to because he exuded confidence—his wiry frame buzzed with energy and a can-do attitude. An extrovert, with a near-constant smile on his face, he uplifted me. The summer we had fallen in love, and then that summer when I lived in Oxford, he shone: like a sun, like a full moon, like a star that could lead me home.
He drove me back to Oxford on highways then two-lanes and pulled off South College Avenue and idled in my parking lot as I got out. I walked to my building’s entrance, toward the glass door which led to a dark stairwell and to my apartment where loneliness clung like webs to the corners.
Before I went in, I looked back.
I did not want to go inside, and I did not want him to drive away, but I did not stop him when he did. I waved goodbye.
In all those years before my marriage, I had let him go each time. I had said no until it hurt, until he hurt, until I could not say it anymore. I had said no until the word became its own kind of religion that I did not question anymore.
And now, after my marriage and its implosion, I wanted to believe in yes so badly, I prayed for it.
In late summer—that time of year in North Carolina when the heat feels more like rage, when stems and leaves go limp in reply—Michael wrote me a letter, as he sometimes did.
I had always loved his script because I knew it so well: small loops in perfectly straight lines across the page, as if he were sewing sentences on white fabric. I could nearly feel their softness if I ran my hand across the words.
He started the letter by calling me precious. On page three, he told me my heart was beautiful, and then that Jesus wanted all of it. “Choosing Him is the most important prayer I have for you,” he wrote. “Please commit your heart to Him fully.”
He wrote that he knew it would not be easy. “Turning from your past, and breaking from the pressure of family and culture can be difficult.” What he meant was that I needed to steer away from how my parents—the most generous-hearted people I knew—had raised me religiously, a blend of world faiths.
On the hardest days, their beliefs, now mine, buoyed me: that everything happens for a reason I might not understand yet; that life is a series of lessons I can get right or repeat; and that kindness and respect matter more than doctrine.
He was asking me, in essence, to take it all back: relinquish what I had known, abandon what had come before.
But what I wanted to take back was not my faith, or my God, or my version of the Truth. I wanted to take back that night in Oxford—not the whole of it, just the moment when I had pulled at the door handle, stepped outside his car, and moved away from him and toward the building’s entrance. If I could have taken it back, I would have let the car idle with me still in it, let the exhaust drift from the tailpipe like grey plumes into the darkness, let the humidity crawl in through the window and around us. I would have said to him, “Don’t go.”
But Oxford lay 534 miles northwest of Chapel Hill. In another state. Six years too late.
And in the end, if I had taken it back, what then? Would that have severed the storms from our story? We might have never saved ourselves from the rest of it.
Maybe in Oxford, I had let him drive away because I’d had the kind of faith in myself that I thought only other people had in other things. The kind of faith that pushed you past your failures, made you rise up from the pain; the kind of faith that waned and nearly broke in two, but if you kept it, it kept you.
We have not spoken in a decade, but I remember him. Now, I use the dog umbrella, but only during light, un-slanted rains, as it’s small. I wear the top with the buttonhole neckline, but only when the seasons shift, as it’s made for neither hot nor freezing weather.
I still have the ring, although I don’t wear it or keep it in my jewelry box. Instead, the ring with the round stone drifts like a vagrant around the bottom of a purse. I move it from handbag to handbag but without any reason I can find logic in now.
Sometimes many months pass before I happen upon the ring again, and when I do, I am surprised by the little gold band, and how shiny it is, and the smooth stone that looks like a green eye staring up at me from the pit of the purse, and how fine and slight the ring is for how large a promise it once held, how big its memory.
SHULY CAWOOD is a writer and editor who is currently in the MFA creative writing program at Queens University. Her creative writing has appeared in publications such as Red Earth Review, Naugatuck River Review, Camel Saloon, Rathalla Review, and Under the Sun. Shuly has work forthcoming in Ray’s Road Review, Fiction Southeast, and Two Cities Review. Her website is www.shulycawood.com.
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