Letting Go

letting go
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

Content warning for scenes of sexual abuse. —ed.

By Carla Sameth

I take my first shaky step and see my eight-year-old son standing on the same thin rope one hundred feet above the ground as he takes a step in my direction. “Raphael! Are you okay?” I ask, panic edging my voice.

Raphael looks directly at me from what seems like an insurmountable distance across the tight rope. He stands still for a moment, balanced. “Mom, I’m okay. You need to just think about yourself now,” he says.

I see my son’s intent gaze, long eyelashes, café-au-lait–colored skin, the face of my father, the face I know better then my own. I am barely holding steady and realize that in order for me to make it across and hug him briefly, as instructed, for this trust-building exercise, every last part of me needs to be focused. I need to let go and be in my own moment in order to reach Raphael.

We are on a challenge ropes course at Camp Tawonga, near Yosemite, at a special family camp weekend for multi-racial, Jewish, inter-faith families. I’ve tried a couple different family camps and it’s hard to find one that fits our family: LGBT, “Keshet” (rainbow), inter-faith, biracial, single parent. I’m hoping for “spiritual renewal,” to find kinship, perhaps some answers, by connecting to similar families, or maybe just some rest, when Raphael spends time with his father or other kids. But much of the time Raphael is clingy, not wanting me to be far away, often not wanting to participate in the camp activities. So when he enthusiastically demands we do the ropes course, I know I have to go.

We have on harnesses, but for me, it’s still terrifying. I’ve only stepped up because Raphael asked it of me, knowing that this exercise is not something his dad would ever participate in—the heights, the tightrope. His dad and I have been separated since Raphael was eight months old, but he agreed, warily, to travel with us for this family camp weekend. It’s still a time in our lives that we sometimes attempt to be a family, though not together as a couple. Perhaps he too is hoping to find examples of families like ours to look to for a model to co-parent together. He is down below, looking up at us, standing alone.

Raphael and I walk towards each other. I am utterly present; to do otherwise, I’d fall. My worries slip away—financial, mother-son tug of wars, ongoing tension with his dad. The still uncut umbilical cord propels us closer, step by step. With one big step, we meet, hug, and somehow find the coordination to move as if in one graceful motion as we edge past each other to the opposite side, and then go down to the ground. We hug again, longer. “I love you,” we say to each other.

•••

It’s October 9, 2015, about eleven years later after the ropes course we did at Camp Tawonga. In the near future, Raphael will move out of the recovery house that he will have been in for almost two years, since January 2014, when he was just short of eighteen years old. During that time, he’s graduated from a local high school, found his first real job, gotten sober, and managed to turn his life around; he’s excited, following the plan of moving out to an apartment with two other graduates of the recovery program.

I’m suddenly terrified. The scaffolding of the young man’s recovery house, the “New Life House” will still exist as a place to go for support, but in reality it’s time for him to go out and live his life. He’s only nineteen, soon to be twenty, and I’m fucking scared.

I have spent the last three weeks spinning out of control myself, worried perhaps I won’t graduate from school, the long awaited book and MFA maybe not completed. Perhaps I won’t be able to support myself in the world as I get older. Perhaps I’ll lose my mind like my mom. Seeing my mom as we knew her vanish adds to my sense of shakiness, utter lack of control, as I prepare for Raphael to go out in the world.

My mom talks about fairies that might come rescue her from the assisted living residence she calls prison and take her home to the Bronx where she hasn’t lived for more than sixty years. Recently she was questioned by a social worker to determine if she still had dementia and qualified for her long term care plan: “I can’t tell you how old I am. But I can tell this—I do exist,” she said.

•••

Five years ago, when I was fifty-one, I decided that I needed to make a visible statement and get a tattoo. Hineni: I am here. I had the Hebrew words tattooed on me. My brother in his Mr. Spockian way said, “I am here? Is this a map?” (Like “you are here.”) I have a Hamsa (to ward off the evil eye) on my back and Hineni in Hebrew letters is inscribed below. Very tiny Hebrew letters, because after all, I don’t want to be a target.

For years I contemplated a tattoo and went over what I’d want and where. I researched the rules on Jews and tattoos and found out that it’s urban legend about the ban on tattoos, and in fact, in Israel, some very high percentage of people, ages, say, nineteen to forty, have tattoos. And you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I went to a tattoo artist who turned out to know me and my son from a co-op preschool that our kids went to in Sierra Madre many years ago.

The place I went to get my tattoo was called Shangri-La, and it looked like that, vines of bright scarlet, purple, and orange bougainvillea intertwined with Province Blue Morning Glory, and sweet-smelling jasmine. The studio was in the backyard of the tattoo artist, and I felt as if I were walking into another dimension. After I approved a mock up of the tattoo based on my ideas, she started her work, turning her needle buzzing quietly into my skin, while she explained that the natural endorphins would kick in after a bit of pain.

At first I did feel intense jabs of pain. (I’d asked a woman getting a tattoo in Old Pasadena which hurt more—getting waxed or getting a tattoo—and she had said waxing for sure.) But the pain was sharp enough that I gasped and I asked the tattoo artist to tell me a story about herself and how she decided on her profession. Her dad, a biker and also a rocket scientist, suggested it to her as a way of making a living; she’d been trained as an artist and illustrator.

And then miraculously those endorphins did kick in as she was asking me about myself. I told her all about me, about the recent episode getting my nose broken by a sheriff’s deputy when I couldn’t immediately find my metro ticket, and about losing everything because of my marriage break up and unblended family. (I didn’t yet know what more I might lose or have the potential to lose because of addiction). But at that point I’d decided I had survived. By the time, I got to the point in my story where I was saying that I was now okay, “and that’s what happened,” she’d put the finishing touches on my tattoo.

•••

In the last three weeks, I thought that now I had the freedom to go off the deep end myself because my son seemed to be doing beyond well and my step-daughter had stopped talking to me and everyone else for a bit. So I felt free to obsess, agitate, and generally neglect my own wellbeing. I’ve thought about using heroin—for real—and for the first time. I’ve “self-harmed.” I dug a hole in my leg with my fingernails as I tried to feel, to give a face to the pain that wracked me following an argument with my girlfriend. My first cutting like incident at age fifty-six. Is there a support group for older onset cutters?

I’m glad the black and blue mark, the jagged scar/scab, remains so I can remember. I did that. I went there. I knew I was bleeding inside and I wanted the red, the injury, to be visible. Then perhaps the pain would stop: I would be seen. But perhaps I’m only seen as insane. I’ve also contacted my old ex—“mi Chiquita”—via text, and I’ve cut it off, seemingly for good. She’s my heroin and I’ve had to stop.

I started looking at violent Internet porn, something I’ve got control over, unlike my dreams. Throughout my life, I’ve often dreamt of being raped and I have an orgasm while still resisting. It reflects the real-life complications of my sexuality, how many times I have been aroused in my life by what seems to be something, somebody so wrong, and yet some kind of twisted sexual friction is created, a Pavlovian response that I imagine began when I was around eleven or twelve and was sexually abused by my piano teacher back in the woods where the Jewish Temple was being built.

We’d recently moved to the hated suburbs outside of Seattle—Bellevue—from the inner city where I had been a tough tomboy: “Sammy Boy.” Now we were outcasts in the WASPish land of what we called ultra-suburbanite snobs. In those days we stayed out all afternoon and evening playing increasingly complicated games with the local kids where I tried to teach them about spying, starting a gang which was a cross between my “West Side Story” (which I had memorized in entirety) and my old rough playground.

I went back to the woods with another piano student, a girl from the neighborhood who was developing already, popular with the sleazy guys for her breasts and willingness. We walked into the woods with our nineteen-year-old piano teacher, who was crater-faced with bright, inflamed pimples. I can’t remember how we first began these walks out to the woods, the same woods where the older kids would sneak out late at night to play spin-the-bottle and smoke pot. Did we think it odd that our piano teacher wanted to go back into the woods alone with him; did we do this after our piano lessons? We walked through the path in the woods and it was probably already dusk. It gets dark early in the winter in Washington and we must have walked back there, the trail behind our neighbors’ house in the fading light, surrounded by moist, lightly rained upon ground and trees. The hammers of the workman who were building a Jewish Temple could be heard in the distance, but they would soon cut out for the day. Did we take a flashlight?

I remember once out there sitting down with him and perhaps one of us asked him about what was the lump in his pants—or did he guide one of our hands to it? Or did he just start talking about “his handkerchief” as he moved our hands and we felt it through his pants first? I began to get a funny sick feeling in my stomach. “Touch it, it’s soft,” he told us. He moved our hands on his pants where the crotch went from being soft and full to feeling much harder after he moved our hands back forth and then he pulled it out—a big wide fleshy penis; it seemed enormous and swollen, the color reddish purple, not exactly like the large pimples that covered his neck and face. I imagined he touched us too because I remember starting to wonder, to even be curious to see what it would be like to have that penis inside me. “It would bust you wide open, so we have to wait,” our piano teacher told us.” Some days we stayed out there kind of late, almost dark, dinnertime, but I always made it back before my dad would come looking for me.

I can’t remember what happened exactly that last time, only the sound of my dad entering the woods, his flashlight, annoyance in his voice as he called out for me, and the sudden rush of shame and fear as the three of us stood up and walked quickly out of the woods.

•••

I’m guessing I was sexually aroused because I sense that was when those dreams and those feelings started. And thinking about the possibility of having been aroused as a child, when I was being sexually abused—a memory which makes my stomach churn, now even as I picture the bright blistery pimples on his face—offers a clue as to why I might turn to something completely wrong, like the violent porn I had begun watching for the first time.

Until someone more knowledgeable than me said, “Stop—it’s an extremely difficult addiction to break.” After the post-menopausal drought of libido, and the despair I had been feeling but not understanding, my body was beginning to respond to the rough, sometimes even brutal sexual images, almost like a drug. All my past years of being sexual with the wrong” person, getting driven by those intense pulsating hormones and endorphins that immediately turned to shame after an orgasm and resulted in so many twisted, dangerous, near-rape and actual-rape experiences. This was coupled with my inability to keep feeling sexual with someone who felt safe. My feelings changed so quickly to shame and inertia that I’d rather just sit and watch videos, eat, ruminate, or anything else other than try to rouse my shut-down body.

The thing that has held solid for me now for so many years is writing, and I finally thought I’d made the space to concentrate on it. But I found myself focusing on everything else but the writing. I was yanked away by the rip currents of my mom leaving us as the mom we knew. Moving her close to her children in Southern California from where she had lived more than forty-five years in Washington, propelled her into a much more advanced state of dementia. Now we have to wipe her butt, try to get her to take her medication, and leave her as painfully as leaving a pleading toddler.

I’ve just simply been thrashing about. I still long for something that I don’t believe I have—complete freedom to write and the belief I’ll be okay. In reality I could decide to believe that I have that kind of choice and abundance. Then again, I might never write another intelligent word or decent story that anyone will read. Over the years, I’ve painstakingly eked out some writing here and there while attending to the more urgent needs of others: son, step-daughter, work, aging parents. After witnessing how fragile life could be, watching my mom start to lose her mind and my son almost lose his life, I decided I couldn’t put off seizing my time to write. But it’s hard, this business of focusing on and believing in oneself.

•••

For many years, I held an image of sitting in the woods, head leaning against a long-haired woman. She was comforting me, perhaps stroking my hair and singing and our child was in my lap.

I held onto this image as I lost baby after baby and endured rage after rage and suffered my own rages and bouts of craziness flailing about in my desperation to “be seen.” (And what the hell does that mean anyway?) What was that urgent despair that demanded I be a mother, I carry a baby, I create this safe haven, this nurturing and nurtured family? That I didn’t actually create—or rather what I did create was so distorted, it didn’t look like that safe home in nature. But I did create something, something solid, a strength my kids know exists. They know I’m there day after day; my family and my friends know that in my so-very-imperfect mode of being in the world—messy, interrupting, inconsistent at times—I’m a person who loves unsinkably, solidly loyal. Now it’s time to look that love in the mirror.

•••

I’ve felt secure enough in my son’s recovery, his sobriety, to believe that I was free to go back to my old ways, the self-torture, rumination, all the anxiety I was raised with by my family, in particular my dad. Instead I discover I must be vigilant. Lack of gratitude will cause life to simply slap the shit out of me. If I don’t enjoy or at least appreciate every moment I have on the earth with a living, vibrant life-loving son out in the world, well, I’ll get kicked in the butt. Even if I can’t always sing with gratitude, I need to stop this genetically ingrained journey to the hellhole of regret and worry. And when I remember Raphael staggering about with his eyes rolled back of his head, saying he didn’t have much more time, then I need to remember how lucky I am that he does exist, that he’s found a spirituality, a core of inner strength, and support system that I alone could not create for him.

I want there to be some kind of “letting go” ceremony. “It all happened too quickly,” one friends says, lamenting the absence of her two sons finally gone off to live their lives, university and beyond. I remember my son saying to me so long ago on the tightrope walking that rope’s course we did together, “Mom, I’m okay, I will be all right. Worry about yourself now.” I’m not so sure I’m ready to let go. I’m not so sure I’m ready to worry only about myself.

•••

CARLA SAMETH is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several anthologies and has appeared in online and print publications including Mutha Magazine, Narratively, Pasadena Weekly, Tikkun, La Bloga and forthcoming in Brain, Child.  Her story “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which originally appeared in Narratively, was also selected for Longreads, “Five Stories on Addiction.” Carla was awarded a merit scholarship from the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program in 2014, and is currently an MFA candidate with the Queens University of Charlotte in Latin America. She has helped others tell their stories as co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project, through her business, iMinds PR, and as a writing instructor/mentor with WriteGirl working with incarcerated youth. Carla is working on a memoir of her non-traditional journey as a single mother to two children, born four months apart, now twenty years old.

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On Usefulness

By Tim Parkinson/Flickr
By Tim Parkinson/Flickr

By Kristin Kovacic

On my sixth day in England, a Tuesday, I catch the first appearance of the sun. It’s a warmish day for January, about forty-five degrees (the temperature, I will learn over the course of a semester in Sheffield, of roughly every English day). House-bound in one of the million tiny duplexes clinging to the wet city’s hillsides like barnacles, I suit up for a ramble in mud boots, impermeable layers (the sun makes no promises here), and my wonderful new backpack, which I bought my college son for Christmas and he, horrified, rejected (as though I’d attempted to pick out his underwear).

The subtly stylish pack is one of the nicest things I’ve ever owned, a really useful object, as they used to say about obedient British trains on the “Thomas the Tank Engine” television show he adored as a child. My pack has pockets on the side where I can stash my smartphone (another really useful object) and gloves and tissues and umbrella, yet still reach them when I’ve got the bag fully on. It has a front pocket that snaps, with a carabiner inside for my new house key, which I am afraid of losing. It has another front pocket that snaps, for other fears. It has thick straps and is strategically padded on the backside, so that it feels cozy, like a hug, even when full, especially when full. It is cavernous inside, with an open top that rolls neatly down if you don’t need so much space, or blossoms up so that a bouquet or baguette can poke through. I can put a whole day’s shopping inside, including wine and bananas. It has a secret zippered panel for my laptop. It is waterproof, though the outside fabric is a soft, slate gray, like a business suit, and the inside fabric is seersucker. Its elegance was apparent to me when I ordered it from a catalogue, but its usefulness continues to dawn on me, as I find it is perfectly suited to every day’s needs—reading and writing, airplane and bus and train journeys, walking by myself in a new city.

With my backpack, I feel alone and armored, invisible and capable. With my phone’s GPS, I can locate exactly where I am—a glowing blue dot on the magical map, like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, alive with my movements. I don’t need the phone for long, as I soon find the route through the park I am seeking, Endcliffe (what could possibly go wrong?), and I am drawn down its paths, along a powerful stream punctuated with waterfalls and reservoirs and duck ponds, drawn by the force of water and desire, along with everyone else out and profiting from the mercurial sun: dogs of every size untethered (some charging into the water, harassing the ducks), children under school age in whimsical caps and ballooning coats, afoot with their grandparents, and babies bundled up in tank-like prams (the parents no doubt in thrall to their usefulness). The river takes me down to the Endcliffe Cafe, a simple timbered shack with tables inside and out, where one must clearly stop, for tea or ice cream, or hot soup, or beans and toast, or a chip butty, whatever that is (I am afraid to ask, still shy to broadcast English words, like “bespoke” and “butty,” from my drawling American mouth).

I’ve been walking for an hour, so I can have lunch, but I don’t want to get full and slow down; I have errands to run, a backpack’s worth of necessary things to buy. And so I order tea, and when I retrieve from my pack (snap pocket) a five-pound note to pay, the long-haired girl at the till takes it curiously, turns it over and over, and says she’s never seen one like it.

“It must be very old,” she says, and the other cashiers come around and marvel at it, like children who’ve found a toad on the path.

“I’ve just arrived in England,” I explain. “Will it work?”

They all look to a pimpled boy, presumably the manager. “I’m afraid not,” he says cheerfully. “You can try taking it to the bank.”

I go back into my pack for a crisp twenty-pound bill. “How about this one?”

And they all laugh and chime, “Brilliant!” For change, the girl gives me three more five-pound notes, which look a great deal like the old one, the inscrutable Queen not having aged a bit.

“The colors are different,” she says, but I can scarcely tell.

The old fiver must be left over from the last time we were in England, when my husband and I cycled around the British Isles in 1991, before we had kids. He didn’t tell me, when he was loading my wallet, where the pounds had come from. One of his useful habits is keeping things, like spare change, and knowing, years later, where to locate them. It occurs to me that I’ve just tried to pay for my tea with currency from before these cashiers were born, which is funny (funnier than if I’d asked about chip butties), but it also makes me feel like a time traveler, which, I suppose, I am.

I have traveled out of my normal work life in Pittsburgh and into a sabbatical year abroad. I often forget what day it is, what time (England has its own time zone, separate from the rest of Europe, and sets its clocks backwards in a daylight savings scheme called, unironically, British Summer Time, shortening winter days to roughly six hours of gloom). Useless, too, my calendars; I haven’t marked one in weeks.

I take my tea to a table outside and watch the parade of souls at leisure—granddads, toddlers, new mums, some students, me, every variety of shepherd. Off-leash, the dogs are hyper-alert, not barking, noses in deep divination. The toddlers squat purposefully over feathers, pebbles, twigs. Buggies corralled, the mothers gossip, and the students smoke languorously on the grass between fits of happy talk. The reluctant sun blesses us all. A massive green playing field stretches beyond the cafe, but no one is on it, save for a small terrier, comically chasing a ball into the void.

The field, and the brilliant sky above it, create a stunned hush, like the earth’s silence from space. I remember last night’s long restlessness, my jet-lagged body in a galactic battle with British Summer Time. I remember the scattered obligations I am avoiding (a book review, the proofreading for my sister, my writing, my writing, my writing), and my mind flits from thing to do, to thing to buy, to thing to write. Sipping my tea, warm and milk-gray, I notice how shockingly good I am at doing precisely none of it. Though I am clearly wasting my time, I feel it’s somehow useful to be here. I take off my pack and place it on its own plastic chair, where I admire, again, its handsomeness. I take my first deep inhale of open English air—dewy and sweet, laced with wafts of grease (everyone else is having the butty). Witnessing the day suddenly feels like my purest and most important obligation.

Of course, this feeling comes because I am alone. My husband’s at work, teaching at the nearby university. He would rush me along, his natural pace easily doubling mine. He’s good at accomplishing things, prefers to cycle than to stroll. Together, we would create a bland and audible reading of the landscape (look, a duck) and briskly carry on. But mostly, I am remembering my kids, their dazzling childhood beauty, and I can vividly picture each of them waddling along these paths, cheeks glowing under snug hats, those years of days I was alone with them.

I have often regretted that time, an era during which I accomplished ostensibly nothing. I was a mother at home for five years, a slice out of my timeline, a bright space on my resume. It was the last time in my life, in fact, that every day sprawled out before me like this, offering its circadian pleasures: walks, talks, snacks, songs, stories, sleep. Here, at the end of the cliff, I remind myself that we harvested each day of that bounty we could, profited, dropped everything for glorious weather, ran in open fields. That’s why I am so good at this. I could have been, should have been, doing other, more useful things, too, my grasping mind told me even then—furthering my career, renovating a house, mastering Pilates—but now I see my lazy mind was right. It was there, their beauty, those long days we played down. Winter mornings, when the sun occasionally streamed through the stained glass windows of our dim old house in Pittsburgh, the kids and I used to catch it in baskets, and then pretend to eat. Strawberry, blueberry, kiwi—we devoured the sun, tasted every flavor. That’s how you save daylight. And then they were gone, gone. Those radiant days with my children will never come back, but I had them. I had them good.

The tea is entirely satisfying, and I understand why here it is considered a meal in itself, accompanied by a biscuit or nothing at all. It, too, has done its job, which is to arrest time, halt my anxious American galloping. I strap on my marvelous backpack, still light, still full of its astonishing capacity. It will carry me the rest of the day.

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC has returned to Pittsburgh, where she teaches writing in the MFA program of Carlow University and at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She edited Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press), and her chapbook of poetry, House of Women, was recently released in the New Women’s Voices series of Finishing Line Press.

Read more FGP essays by Kristin Kovacic.

The Long Way

mother and child
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Corrina Wycoff

At six-thirty on the morning of October 1, 2015, I drove a rented minivan down Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, trying to figure out how to get to Brooklyn. I’d taken the red-eye flight from Washington State, where I live, to Newark Airport the night before. I had no internet access, no GPS, no interstate road map. I’d brought hard copy directions for only one route, which highway construction had promptly rendered irrelevant. So, after an unplanned pre-dawn detour through Elizabeth, New Jersey, I blindly picked my way to the Holland Tunnel, subsequently missed the exit for the Brooklyn Bridge, and now hunted for the Manhattan Bridge. On the radio, weather forecasts worried over newly christened Hurricane Joaquin, which could soon make landfall in New York.

I’d grown up in New Jersey and, long ago, had frequented New York City. But now, at forty-four, I felt disoriented by even the few landmarks I recognized. In truth, disorientation had been the leitmotif of my forties. When I was forty-one, Asher, the child I’d raised, moved to Bellingham, Washington, three hours from home, to attend university. Now, three years later, he was a twenty-one-year-old college graduate and had relocated again, this time to New York to begin a doctoral program on a fellowship. He’d initially rented a room in Manhattan’s Vanderbilt YMCA. Today, he began a lease on his own Brooklyn apartment.

After an hour rectifying wrong turns, motorists tailing me, honking, I found the bridge and crossed the East River. Asher had arrived in New York with two suitcases of clothes and books. He needed everything. I had a rented mini-van, a two-night stay at a Brooklyn inn, and $1,500. And, in the next forty-eight hours, Asher and I needed to buy, haul, and build an apartment’s worth of IKEA furniture, procure every necessary household item from cutlery to curtains, and cobble together a grocery larder from merchandise sold at neighborhood bodegas and Duane Reed pharmacies. Still, as I drove the unfamiliar Brooklyn streets, I paradoxically felt newly grounded, about to be reunited with Asher and with my previous raison d’être: day-to-day tasks of single parenthood. Without those tasks, I’d lost my bearings completely.

I got pregnant with Asher when I was twenty-two, too old to be unprepared and too young to be well-prepared. Parenthood gave me direction; like many young mothers, I grew up because of my child. Before motherhood, I’d been a tepid student who did well in subjects I enjoyed, struggled in subjects I didn’t, and spent very little time studying. As a mom, I had a perfect GPA; I earned a bachelor’s degree when Asher was four, a master’s degree in English when he was five, and a Creative Writing MFA when he was seven. Before Asher, I reliably held down dead-end jobs. By the time he finished first grade, I had a profession. Teaching community college English, I designed curriculum, spearheaded committees, and received tenure shortly after Asher’s tenth birthday.

It’s not as if we didn’t struggle. Motherhood, though, made small triumphs seem not only possible, but necessary. Statewide budget freezes stalemated my salary, but I managed to save four years’ worth of in-state college tuition for Asher in a 529c. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune digestive condition, Crohn’s Disease, but I managed to maintain my schedule despite the disease’s erratic flares. No matter how sick I got, I rarely missed work and never missed Asher’s school concerts, back to school nights, fund-raisers, or doctor’s appointments. I was awake at five o’clock many mornings and still awake most nights at midnight. I taught twenty-five to thirty credits a quarter, a sixty-hour work week I organized, as best I could, around Asher’s six-hour school days. And yet, I managed to read and write a lot. Before Asher, my rough drafts remained unrevised and unpublishable. Now, my stories and essays got finished, sometimes got picked up by journals, and, just before Asher entered high school, my first book was accepted for publication.

I approached his adolescence with considerable apprehension, but Asher was a teenager with excellent grades and SAT scores. He fell in love with political theory and read difficult texts, which he could discuss with striking recall. He amassed an impressive vocabulary, played guitar, maintained friendships, sometimes dated and sometimes didn’t, and sang bass in his high school choir. He had no worst-case scenario teen problems—no tendencies toward violence, self-harming, substance abuse, or devastating dishonesty. He had no trouble at school, with his friends, or with the law. And he had no trouble with me. We shared a 425-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in Seattle. We invaded each other’s space with our music, habits, and moods. During tense, protracted moments, we got on one another’s nerves. But with the exception of occasional, brief temper flares, we got along. We had to.

During those years, we shared certain tastes: Tim O’Brien, Slavoj Zizek, Phil Ochs, and college radio. We saw Neutral Milk Hotel and The Mountain Goats in concert. He taught me to like folk-punk. I taught him to like Stephen Sondheim. My leftist political leanings influenced his until his radicalism far outstripped mine. At sixteen, he marched in anti-capitalist protests and wrote original songs, one of which contained the lyric, “Please don’t call me a socialist. You don’t know what that word means.” Once a week, we’d go out to dinner at mid-priced neighborhood restaurants. One hosted a trivia game, and we’d lose spectacularly in categories dedicated to pop culture or the Beatles. We had favorite servers whom I tipped lavishly, a habit Asher lauded and would later adopt.

It was halfway through his senior year of high school when Asher decided to attend college in Bellingham. He would begin undergraduate studies shortly after his eighteenth birthday. That summer of 2012, fueled and afflicted by an almost unimaginable level of anxiety, Asher and I took long walks whenever time allowed. We walked from our Seattle neighborhood, Capitol Hill, to Ballard, a neighborhood seven miles north, and back. We walked around Lake Washington. We walked the entire length of the cities of Eugene, Oregon and Olympia, Washington. We walked five or six hours at a time, barely speaking except to recycle familiar, longstanding exchanges about punk music, politics, superficial happenings, and light memories. Maybe we were both too terrified of what came next to talk about it. We probably should have talked about it.

The day I moved him to Bellingham, we played Frank Turner’s “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the One of Me” in the car and sang along to calm our nerves. By the time we’d driven through two counties, even singing was too much, and we played that game of finding letters of the alphabet, in order, on billboards, road signs, and business marquis. We seized happily on the Quality Inn when, for several miles, we’d needed a Q.

In his dorm room, I helped him unpack his belongings, putting sheets on his plastic mattress, stacking his jeans and T-shirts in the cramped, musty wooden dresser drawers. I couldn’t identify the lumpy, khaki-colored goo on one of the bedposts and was glad that Asher had arrived before his two roommates so he wouldn’t get stuck with that bed. Even having lived in small apartments my entire adult life, I couldn’t imagine how the room would possibly accommodate three occupants. And, in fact, by winter term, one of the boys would have left school and Asher would have moved off-campus, into an apartment of his own that he’d keep until he moved to New York. But in that moment, I imagined this would be his home for the full year. Before I left, Asher stood just inside his small room, and I stood in the hall. We looked at each other over the threshold. I said, “Well,” and it seemed to occur to both of us, possibly at the same second, that I was getting back in the car to drive three hours home without him. I saw my own panic mirrored in his expression.

Over the next several months, as Asher got increasingly acclimated, and then attached, to academic life, I’d probe the anxiety I continued to feel. Particular fears, I knew, necessarily accompanied launching a child: What if they get lonely? Hurt? Hungry? Disappointed? What if they fail in the very ways they’d most hoped to succeed? What if they begin to regard us—their parents—in our increased obsolescence, with embarrassment and contempt? I shared those fears with most parents, but, like most parents, I also knew these things would happen to my child at some point, that they happen to nearly everyone. So, what was it, exactly, that I was afraid of?

I recalled that, during my years of single parenthood, I’d sometimes optimistically anticipate the roomy, productive life I’d lead after he left for college. I’d exponentially increase my writing and reading; I’d foster animals, go to conferences, make new friends, go to happy hours with colleagues, and join a gym. Instead, my life lost its shape. I went to work and I went home. I carpooled with my boyfriend, a single parent himself with a seventeen-year-old son. We’d say good-bye before dinner-time. He’d go home to the fully occupying duties of parenthood, and I’d regard the long hours ahead of me with alarm. He’d look at me with concern. What happened—he seemed to wonder—to the girlfriend he’d known, to the competent woman who made productive use of her time? I didn’t know. My time, I realized, was now the source of my fear.

I fostered no pets, attended no conferences, and made no new friends. I went to happy hour twice before declining further invitations. I joined a gym, attended briefly, and quit. I couldn’t sleep. Unable to focus, I’d squander hours looking through other people’s Facebook pictures, people who still had at-home children, who smiled with them at dance recitals and family dinners. Or I’d pace my empty apartment, saying mundane things aloud, like, “My goodness, I’m nearly out of shampoo!” Still awake at two in the morning, I’d watch through the window as my neighbor, a woman in her early sixties, staggered to her kitchen sink to pour out the remnants of her long night’s second or third box of wine. I knew she had a grown, far-away child. I worried that, in her, I glimpsed my own future.

I stopped reading and, worst of all, I couldn’t write. I revisited an old manuscript, revised it, re-revised it, and sent it to a publisher. But that was the most I could do. Whenever I tried to begin a new project, the blank document on my computer screen stayed blank. Or I’d write a sentence or two, lose heart, and delete everything. More than writer’s block, I felt the same “blank page” horror about writing as I did about every area of my life.

By late spring of 2013, Asher had been settled at his university and in his off-campus apartment for some time, and—still unable to sleep, read, or write—I started spending evenings in my kitchen, baking. I’d been a competent, though unadventurous, scratch baker when Asher lived with me—occasional cookies or muffins for him, occasional cakes or pies for company. But now, I became fearless. I figured out cream puffs, cake pops, and Turkish delight. I went from someone who knew how to clarify butter to someone who knew how to make butter. To justify the time and money I spent on my habit, I baked for my students. I baked for my boyfriend and his son. I brought goodies to colleagues. I mailed them to Asher and to out-of-town friends. I baked pies for my apartment manager, for workmen coming to fix my sink, for my physician and his staff. I baked all evening, nearly every evening. Then I branched out into meals, doing everything the long way: Manicotti with handmade shells, enchiladas with handmade tortillas, saag paneer with handmade paneer. I bought fenugreek and sumac and saffron. I made meals for anyone I could think of, including a group of women I barely knew, whom I’d met through a Crohn’s support group I began attending because, one evening a week, the group gave me somewhere to go.

More than a year after Asher left for college, a handful of women from the support group began coming to my apartment every Tuesday, after our meetings, to cook with me. They were busy wives or moms with at-home kids, dependent on pancake mixes and boxed foods the way busy people often are. They wanted to learn, and figuring out how to teach them became the organizing principle of my post-parenthood life. No, I couldn’t read novels, but I could read ethnographic cookbooks. I couldn’t write essays or stories, but I could write recipes. We called ourselves the Crohn’s Crones, and we cooked together for nearly two years. At our zenith, we provided make-ahead meals for up to seventy people. For the Crohn’s Crones, I planned menus, disseminated shopping lists, determined the division of cooking labor, cooked, oversaw other people’s cooking, and coordinated packaging and distribution of food. Every Tuesday evening, we’d cook until after midnight, elbow to elbow in my tiny kitchen, crowded so tightly that bruises and burns and broken dishes became weekly expectations. And, every Wednesday, after delivering my portion of the previous night’s food, I’d begin figuring out the next week’s recipes.

Meanwhile, my brainy teen became a true academic. On track to finish his BA one year early, he began to prepare graduate school applications. He applied to five programs, four at others people’s suggestion, and one, the CUNY Graduate Center, which he’d chosen because its faculty included theorists whose writing he admired. I imagined him walking down subway steps in Manhattan, freshly dry-cleaned shirts on hangers, over his shoulder. Compared to his scholarly acumen, my time-consuming cooking project seemed senseless—evidence, I worried, that the productive focus I’d found during motherhood had been permanently replaced by nebulous, dead-end ventures similar to those I’d known before he was born. And as though to punctuate this worry, the very day Asher received his acceptance and fellowship offer from CUNY, the publisher to whom I’d sent my re-revised book, and who’d held it in hand for more than a year, rejected it.

I sent the manuscript out again just before Asher graduated university, Magna Cum Laude, in June, 2015, the day before his twenty-first birthday. He would move to New York that summer and begin his doctoral studies that fall. He seemed delighted, full of hope and excitement. I, on the other hand, lying awake at night, still unable to read or write, anticipated his future with a kind of terrified admiration. Asher had been to New York City exactly once before—a tenth grade choir trip. At just barely twenty-one, he was moving across the country to a city of nine million strangers. He had no housing lined up beyond an extended stay at the YMCA. “I’m figuring it out, Mom,” he told me. “Don’t worry.”

But, during those anguishing weeks he spent at the Y, it seemed perhaps that it wouldn’t get figured out. He answered Craigslist ads for roommates, went to see person after person, place after place. He waited outside a shabby month-to-month basement rental in Queens for a landlord who didn’t show. He’d text me every day. “Moving to New York was a terrible idea,” he wrote once. Finally, he secured a rent-stabilized studio in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and now it was October 1, 2015, and I was here—on a quiet, residential street, outside a charming, old brownstone—enjoying the chance, however ephemerally, to be a mom again. Brooklyn is fewer than thirty miles from Newark. The drive took four times longer than it should have.

We started in high spirits—maladroitly stacking boxes of IKEA merchandise on a flat-bed cart, too heavy for us to push with any accuracy, laughing as we wrangled the boxes into the back of the rented mini-van and then, again, as we heaved them up the narrow stairs of Asher’s walk-up brownstone. We laughed at the municipal, unwelcoming “NO SMOKING” signs in his building’s hallways and at the industrial garbage can his landlord had left behind, a giant in Asher’s 300-square-foot apartment. We laughed as we spent an hour, and then two, and then four, building dressers and bookshelves, and trying to figure out the inscrutable IKEA instructions for his daybed. We got hungry and tired. We hammered our fingers and swore. Just past midnight, we called it a day. Because we hadn’t finished building his bed, he stayed in my hotel room that night. We tried to maintain good humor, noting that one of the room’s beds was a Murphy and that the bathroom’s strange shower, straight from horror movies, had a wall of tiny spigots that looked like grimacing mouths.

The next day, we went to the Target store on Atlantic Avenue. Hurricane Joaquin had blown out to sea, but Brooklyn suffered collateral rains, deep puddles, and strong wind. Crowds filled the store where shelves were largely bare. There were no microwaves, no brooms or dustbins, no curtains, no curtain rods. An emergency exit alarm blared for an hour before someone deactivated it. Later, we would be able to find humor in the young Hasidic children, whose mother was not much older than Asher, tunelessly playing plastic kazoos in the cleaning supplies aisle. Asher glared at one of them and said, “Enough of that,” in Yiddish. The child stopped, looked at him, quickly determined Asher held no authority, and, with increased volume, resumed playing. Later, we would be able to find humor in how the storm blew our cart down the block after we’d unloaded it, about the confused way I’d parked in a taxi loading zone, about my nervous, incompetent driving back to Asher’s apartment. But, at that moment, tense, rain-soaked, and exhausted, we still had a daybed to finish building and groceries to buy. I flew home the next afternoon. We were running out of time.

We finished the daybed at two that morning, went back to the inn, slept a few hours, then spent the next morning finishing whatever we could. We found a small market and bought groceries. Asher would have to purchase and hang curtains on his own. He planned to go to the Bed, Bath, and Beyond in the Village. He said, “But I think I should go with you to the airport first.” And this time, when I got disoriented trying to find the Manhattan Bridge, Asher was in the passenger seat, telling me, turn by turn, how to find my way in a city he was learning, in a life that was becoming wholly his own. This time, the drive between Brooklyn and Newark took forty minutes.

We said good-bye on the shuttle I’d take to the airport terminal and he’d take to connect with transit back into the city. My stop came first. From the platform, I could see him, still on the shuttle. During my visit, he frequently took short breaks from furniture building in order to exchange text messages with new friends. Now, he already had his phone in hand.

I slept most of the return flight. Something had shifted, though I couldn’t pinpoint what. Asher would come to visit in December. By then, I would have gotten engaged, moved into my boyfriend’s house, disbanded my cooking group, and started reading again. But on the plane back to Seattle, I only remembered something another mother had once told me, after her own child had moved away: “The only thing that makes life as different as when they’re born is when they leave.” And now I recalled that, during Asher’s first year of life, when he was colicky and unable to sleep, days and nights blurred. Then, as now, I needed years before I could discern their structure.

The day after I returned from Brooklyn, the publisher I’d sent my manuscript to, and then had largely forgotten about, accepted my second book. And now, four years after the end of custodial parenthood, I’m trying to relearn how to write. For weeks now, I’ve tried to reorient myself by writing these words. Getting here took four times longer than it should have.

•••

CORRINA WYCOFF is the author of two books of fiction, the short story collection O Street (OV Books, 2007) and the novel, Damascus House (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016). Her fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies, journals, and magazines. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, and teaches English at Pierce College.

Forever Sports

By rhettallain/ Flickr
By rhettallain/ Flickr

By D’Arcy Fallon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha, ha,” Rudy says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

Animal House

dog curtain
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Jody Mace

It’s been a couple months since my dogs started wearing diapers.

So far just a few people know, mainly the people who have visited my house since the diaper regime began. I’m guilty of the worst kind of Facebook hypocrisy. When I post pictures of my dogs (and I do it a lot), I employ angles that hide their diapers. It’s kind of like that studied angle that many women use for their selfies—the camera slightly elevated from the face so that the face is looking up. It’s more flattering, but everyone knows what they’re up to.

Before one friend came over, I texted her, “I should tell you, we’re making both dogs wear diapers now. You will know soon enough.”

I didn’t want things to be awkward for her. There’s not a polite way to ask about dogs wearing diapers and I feared that the silence would feel weighty.

My dogs aren’t wearing diapers because they have a medical problem or because they’re old. It’s because they are acting like jerks.

My first dog, Shaggy, is an elegant little creature. He’s a schnoodle, a schnauzer/poodle mix, and sometimes I think he’s not really even a dog. He’s got this meaningful way of looking into your eyes as he tries to speak English. He can say “hello” and “I love you.” My husband, who is not as skilled at listening as I am, disputes this, but trust me.

Our second dog, Harlow, is not a specific breed exactly. He’s a medium-sized, white hairy dog. Someone found him abandoned in a nature preserve and for reasons I don’t understand, we took him in. He had clearly been neglected in every way for some time. His coat was a matted mess. He wouldn’t take food from people. He didn’t know how to walk up steps. He was distrustful of everyone.

We took him to the vet, got him his shots, and had him neutered. I took him to a behavioral trainer, one that looks beyond commands like “sit” and “stay,” and, instead focuses on building his confidence and decision-making skills. I kept him by my side every waking hour, for months, at first on a leash, until he learned to follow me around, to come when I called. The change was like a miracle. He’s relaxed now, and he bonded with us. He’s got a sweet temperament. He’s almost the perfect dog.

Except he pees everywhere. Everywhere. If we put a bag on the floor, he pees on it. He pees on the furniture, on the walls. Once my husband Stan was lying on a couch downstairs and Harlow parallel parked next to the railing in the upstairs hall and launched a perfectly aimed stream of urine onto Stan’s head.

If I’m going to be totally honest—and at this point, what do I have to lose?—I’ll mention that Harlow has also, on rare occasion, pooped in the house, too. It’s a measure of how troublesome the urine is that I have no particular emotion when I find a pile of poop. It doesn’t happen often and is fairly easily picked up. One time he left a pile that was perfectly formed into the word “HI.” Since it was kind of a miracle, I took a picture of it before cleaning it up and posted it on Facebook. Then I learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who is disgusted by pictures of dog poop, no matter how literary, and the kind that suggests I create a line of greeting cards featuring messages spelled out in dog feces.

We had this idea, before we adopted Harlow, that it would be good for Shaggy to have a dog friend. That if he spent time with a dog and not just us humans, he would learn to be more dog-like. It turns out that he didn’t learn much from Harlow. Except peeing. Our graceful, intelligent, little dog-person was now lifting his leg and peeing on the side of the couch. There really is such a thing as a pissing contest.

We worked more with the trainer. I don’t want to relive it all here, but trust me when I say that we did all the things. All the things. Finally she dropped her voice and said, “You could try belly bands.”

Belly bands are just what they sound like. Cloth bands that wrap around a male dog’s middle, attaching with Velcro. When my kids were babies, I thought it was sort of weird the way some moms went nuts over cloth diapers and cloth diaper covers. I don’t mean in a utilitarian way, but for the aesthetics. When I heard them gush about the cute patterns I thought it was a little pathetic. They’re diapers! They’re just going to be soaked in urine.

Now I get it. I started out utilitarian with the belly bands, buying just a plain white one for Harlow. But it made him look like an old man in tighty whities. Or like Walter White, cooking meth in the desert. So I bought a belly band with a cute peace sign pattern. And another one with stars. And one with tiger stripes. It made it all a little bit less sad.

I’m convinced that they have no idea why they’re wearing diapers. They don’t like them but they’ve come to accept them. When they come inside they wait in a little line for me to put the diapers back on them. If I could have just five minutes during which time they’d really understand English, I would tell them one thing: “Don’t pee inside.” That’s it. I believe that if they really understood that I wanted them to never pee inside again, that they’d make their best effort to avoid doing so. They want to please me. And yet they do the very thing that pleases me the least.

Since we started the diaper regime, our life has gotten better. The dogs don’t have to stay glued to my side. We’re not cleaning the carpets all the time. Speaking of cleaning carpets, now I’d like to share with you the secret of getting dog urine out of carpets. This is a bonus, a takeaway from this essay, if you will. It’s a process that’s very inexpensive but time-consuming.

First you need to find the spots where the dogs have peed. If your carpet is tan like ours is, it may be hard to see the spots after they have dried. That’s why you need a black light. Wait until nighttime, turn off all the lights, and walk around, shining a black light on the carpet. The urine spots will glow. Some other fluids will also make the carpet glow, but that’s your own business and who am I to judge? Once you’ve found the spots, mark them by surrounding them with masking tape. Turn on your lights. Then spray a mixture that is 50/50 white vinegar and water. Soak those spots. Wait for them to dry. If you’ve saturated them sufficiently, this will take a day.

Next spray them with hydrogen peroxide that has just a little bit of dish liquid mixed in. Really lay this stuff to the stains.

When that’s dry (and it will take overnight at least), sprinkle baking soda on and then vacuum it up. This gets out the odor and the black light test will verify that it did the trick.

So compared to that process, diapering a couple of dogs several times a days is not a big deal. Their diapers are almost always dry. The belly bands discourage them from peeing inside because there’s no fun in it. So it could be worse.

But still, I can’t help but consider the complexity we’ve added to our lives. Our kids, at sixteen and nineteen, are old enough to be pretty self-sufficient. I can forget to cook dinner and nobody is going to call child protective services. They can make their own damn macaroni and cheese. Things have gotten simpler for us from the days of busy, demanding toddlers who were hell-bent on electrocuting themselves and breaking all the eggs from the refrigerator. From those days, life has, year by year, gotten simpler. And yet, instead of taking advantage of the simplicity and lack of demands on our time, we did this thing that has made our lives infinitely more complicated.

We brought animals into our house. Sometimes when I think of it, the whole concept of pets seems bizarre. We do all these things to insulate ourselves from the unpredictability of nature and the outside world. We build houses, we seal the doors and windows. We avoid building a house on a flood plain. We install locks on the doors and a security system. We buy homeowners insurance in case there’s an act of nature.

Then once we have this safe, controlled environment, we bring in animals. I believed all along that Shaggy was kind of a person. But people don’t pee on the ottoman. They just don’t. When the whole peeing thing started I’d sometimes look at these dogs and think “My god. They are animals.” They seemed like just one step away from raccoons. Once I hired an expensive pest control expert to lure a raccoon family out of our attic. But we invite the dogs into our house. To live. We say, “Yes, you are a being who likes to chew on a beef bone that’s been buried and left to rot in the ground for a week. But by all means please live in my house, which up until now, has been kept in a fairly sanitary condition. Here, sit up on the couch with me and I’ll scratch behind your ears and possibly kiss the side of your face.”

And they’re unpredictable. When we adopted Harlow, we didn’t consider the possibility that he would be an unrepentant urinator and that he would get Shaggy started too. But it would have been reasonable to assume that he’d do some things that would bring complexity into our lives. Dogs do all kinds of things. They run away. They bite. They bark at the nice couple pushing a stroller down the street as if their baby was the antichrist. They tear up cushions, leaving the cushion carcass surrounded by mountains of fluff.

I think about entropy a lot. I mean, I think about it on a superficial level, the way non-scientists do, because as soon as I start reading words like logarithm and microstate and quantum thermodynamics, I find that I need to quickly click on Youtube and watch a video of a chimpanzee riding a Segway. But the idea of entropy is that systems naturally move from order to disorder. If you put an ice cube into a cup of hot water, the water doesn’t freeze; the ice cube melts. The molecules of the ice cube, which were frozen into a rigid order, are freed to move around as a liquid.

So is there also a sort of entropy at play in our personal relationships? When things become too simple, do we have a tendency to add elements that complicate them? In a sense, any time we take on the responsibility of caring for another being, we’re opening ourselves up to complications that we can’t predict. How do we know that the child we bring into the world won’t have a disability that will require us to reshuffle our lives? Or that the man we marry won’t have a stroke a year later? We don’t.

The issue of nurturing is all mixed up in this idea of personal entropy for me. I took in these dogs and that means I made a promise to take care of them, even if they brought chaos into my life.

I think we have pets because at a very fundamental level we have a need to nurture. And with that nurturing comes all kinds of risks. In the scheme of things, the diapers aren’t a big deal. But every time I put a diaper onto a dog, I’m struck by the ridiculousness of the situation. Dogs, healthy dogs, wearing diapers. But I’m also sometimes reminded of the bond we share with these animals, and the promise we make when we teach them to love us. When Harlow learned to trust us, to sit by us and awkwardly lean against our bodies, looking at us as if to say “Is this how it’s done? This love thing?” we lost the choice of letting him go. He was ours.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Comma Momma

comma
By Leo Reynolds/ Flickr

By Kristin Kovacic

1. Use a comma to set off introductory elements.

After over a month away, my college freshman sends me an email containing, in its entirety, her opening paragraph for an essay (probably due in a couple of hours). No need to comment; she wants me to check the commas. It is our only inside joke; she doesn’t “get” commas. More precisely, she gets that commas are the only necessary punctuation, allowing the harried, headlong writer to separate ideas, go to the bathroom, dramatically pause, enumerate, whatever—commas are like school paste, hastily completing one ring before the next in the brilliant paper chain of her thinking.

She is brilliant, let me not fail to mention, attending a, cough, elite university. She’s also sensible and diligent, witty, humane. How terrible is it to have one grammatical fault?

Not very. But I know what you’re thinking, you, parent-who-is-not-me. You’re thinking she should be correcting her own comma errors. You’re thinking, how terrible to have only one funny intimacy between you and your daughter, one (count it) joke, after eighteen years of positive, thoughtful, healthy, creative, stable, mindful, whatever, parenting? How lame to get one lousy email in a month?

You tell me, chuckling momma. And I know you will, momentarily. I became a mother just in time for the zeitgeist of self-conscious parenting—we stared, compared, wrote books (guilty!), blogged, bragged. Currently, we buzzfeed our anxieties across the wired universe—Are You Enabling Your Adult Child? Is 25 the New 18? 10 Signs You’re a Helicopter Parent. Or Are You a . . . wait, what’s the opposite of a helicopter?

Tricycle? Dirt bike? Wheelchair? Somewhere on the primitive terrestrial level of emotional locomotion is where my daughter and I bust our moves. My cousin and her daughter exchanged 212 texts and seven phone calls in her first week at college—in this digital parenting age, there are so many new ways to keep score—but that’s not how we roll. We don’t talk, much, my daughter and me. We don’t text. A grammatical point is the center of our intimate universe. So boo me.

Boo her, too, charging ahead, comma-tose, in her spectacular, mother-free life. I envy her, let me put that out there. I’d like to go back to college, belly-up to the buffet table of knowledge, and feast. I’d like to peek out from behind my shiny hair at the smart and sultry guys peeking back.

But that’s a feeling I like to keep separate from missing her. She’d like that, too, and if we had one other joke, she and I, that’d probably be it. How can I miss you if you won’t go away?

Do I miss her? Yes, no. No, yes.

2. Use a comma to separate the elements in a series (three or more things).

Like you, attached parent, I’ve spent the better part of two decades observing this beautiful human. I watched while she composed her tiny arguments with me. At two, holding my gaze, she walked backwards with the juice she was not allowed to take out of the kitchen, already seeking an escape hatch from the Mothership. First sentences included “You’re not the boss of me,” and “I want my privacy, please.”

She was tough, contained, stubborn, true, quick, observant, thorough—from the very start of life. Unfoolable, she refused all bottles and pacifiers, forcing me to breastfeed until she finally got a cup with her own damned name on it.

From the moment she could write, she liked to bring her universe to order by making lists: Jews We Know; Christians We Know; Ask Mom About. One of her lists, “Rules,” composed in crayon during a particularly disastrous play date, virally migrated to copier rooms across America after I taped them to my office door at work:

Rosalie’s Rules

  1. No telling secrets!!!!!
  2. No whining.
  3. No phisical contact.
  4. No trowing shoes.
  5. Listen to grownups.
  6. Don’t waist electrisedy.
  7. Have fun !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  8. Be nice.
  9. Be polite unless your being funny!
  10. Always follow theese rules!

My brother-in-law used to begin corporate staff meetings by handing out Rosalie’s Rules. In fact, all of us who took this list to work understood that following Rosalie’s Top Three Rules—No telling secrets. No whining. No physical contact—would pretty much eliminate conflict. And it was sobering to realize that this insight came from a six-year-old.

My six-year-old. I remember her early bodies. Fine white hair standing straight as wheat on her head. Her fat square foot in my palm. The berry birthmark on the side of her nose, fainter each year. Her delicate frame in a white tee-shirt, pink rosebud on the collar. I was watching, admiring, evaluating—every minute, all the time—like the rest of my friends did with their kids. And for a time, in clear violation of Rule #3, I’d catch her up just to dance with me; she’d kiss me as many times as she could count; I’d knead the warm dough of her after a bath, when we played “Make me a pizza!”

At thirteen, however, she reverted to Rule #3, stopped returning hugs and accepting kisses, pulled up the drawbridge of herself and peered down at me from a high parapet. She was polite (Rule #9), but not funny. I couldn’t get a laugh out of her to save my soul (which sorely needed to hear her laugh). It was a long and difficult period, five years of her disciplined, disapproving distance—my girl backing away, still holding my gaze.

In the spirit of Rule #1, I should say that before she was born I feared having a girl, and this is precisely why: this regard. I know, because I was a girl who once regarded her mother from the same high place—with love, but without mercy. I needed my mother in very specific ways (a pumpkin pie, a prom dress, a crisply ironed shirt), but I couldn’t, for a long time, talk to her. Like Rosalie, I was never one of those girls who told their mothers everything. Yet I couldn’t help feeling, over the years of my daughter’s childhood, that I should become one of those mothers.

I simply didn’t know how. Shamed, I listened hard while other mothers filled me in on juicy news my daughter never reported—classroom antics, crackpot teachers, drama-club drama, teen romances, breakdowns, and bad behavior. I accepted their pity—their daughters dished, while I got my updates from the school website—and internalized their unspoken question: Doesn’t she know her own daughter?

In the newly empty house, her wee face on a stray refrigerator magnet can slay me.

3. Use a comma + a conjunction to connect two independent clauses.

So I’ve been getting out more, and today took a walk when no one else thought of it. I had the park to myself, sky quietly blue and the trees starting to riot. A shift in season announced itself in my lungs. As I got into rhythm, I felt my energy rise up to my demand: heart delivering, muscles stretching, bones holding everything aloft. A shift in me, a space in me, opened up. Here I am, I thought: moving, alone, separate.

It was a concrete experience, nothing mystical about it. I’ll turn fifty in a few days. I’ve been a woman for thirty-eight years, a wife for twenty-eight, a mother for twenty. My body, me as object in space, has been caressed, ogled, stretched, shoved, squeezed, sized up, sucked, fucked, fondled, leaned on, burdened, stuffed, starved, examined, cut, drained, cleaned, sullied. There have been many hands upon me, hands I love and want to return to. Hands I slapped back (or should have). But this body, and the mind inhabiting it, has been returned to me, whole, completely capable of its animal and spiritual work: propulsion, going on.

And along with the impatient leaves, this other, thrilling idea came down: No one is watching. I have my privacy, thank you.

Like most empty nesters and the officially middle-aged, I certainly have regrets. But one of them is wishing for the wrong things. I wished for childhood to be perfect for my kids, not one molecule damaged or opportunity ignored. I wished to be perfect myself—more ambitious, more confident, less judgmental. I wished my daughter and I were closer. But I didn’t wish for this—for my sole self returning after a long journey through other lives, other bodies, other selves.

Of course, I wished my kid would get into her dream school, which, in fact, she did. At the freshman convocation, I squinted from the bleachers to pick out the pony tail that belonged to me—my beloved yellow head bobbing in the sea of promise. But the chaplain who delivered the invocation caught me in the act. “These are your children,” he said to the flock of proud parents, who, let’s be honest, felt we, too, had arrived. “But they don’t belong to you. They belong to themselves.”

My daughter has been telling me this very thing, in various ways, her entire life. There’s a difference between privacy and secrecy, and I suspect that in prior generations everybody knew that, not just six-year-olds. Gathering a new space around her (albeit with a roommate I don’t know much about), I think my daughter has been returned to her self, too, untethered, no one looking over her shoulder, however lovingly. That’s a heady feeling, I know. In the compound sentence of our lives, we’ve both arrived at a comma. Something has gone; something is coming, but we’re going to stop here a moment and, privately, catch our breath.

Don’t judge us, oracles of parenting, friendly rivals I run into at the coffee shop who ask how Rosalie is doing at school. (I don’t know; fine, I guess.) We’ve taken a break from judgment and are composing ourselves for our futures. No secrets. No whining. No throwing shoes.

And in this new, quiet space I hear a faint voice calling from the distance. I love you, now, will you please, shut up and tell me, where the commas go?

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC is the editor, with Lynne Barrett, of Birth: A Literary Companion . She teaches in the Literary Arts department of Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts School and in the Masters of Fine Arts program at Carlow University.