Leave Her Alone

By Alyssa L. Miller/Flickr
By Alyssa L. Miller/Flickr

By J. Lin

It was a sick joke between me and my two closest friends.

“I know you’re busy, so you don’t have to call. Wouldn’t want you to feel obligated.”

“I know you have a ton of stuff going on, so don’t feel obligated to come to my kid’s recital.”

“Don’t feel obligated to attend my birthday party.”

“I just broke up with my boyfriend, but don’t feel you have to check on me.”

I don’t remember how the joke started. Somewhere in our college years, but it always made me vaguely uncomfortable. They were my best friends. Weren’t we supposed to go out of our way, not out of obligation, but out of love? Every time Fran or Karen cracked that joke, I wondered if that was their way of asking for space. It was no secret that I could be intense. I loved them fiercely—and wasn’t afraid to show it, which could be unnerving to most folks. My desire for sisterhood was borne out of having no close girlfriends in high school. It was from years of growing up with an older sister whom I yearned to emulate and befriend but learned to outshine when I realized how much she resented my existence.

So when teased about obligation, I held back. I was not the first one to arrive at the party. I did not call after a break-up. When Karen’s mom was diagnosed with cancer, I waited. But I may have waited too long.

•••

When someone tells you to leave her alone, you comply. Especially when that person’s mother is dying, something no one has said explicitly, but it is strongly implied. Despite your instincts or concerns, you stay away. It would seem cruel otherwise.

But if you joke about obligation, it could mean the opposite; it could be a cry for attention. Or it could mean what it implies: you are welcome to come, but not too early, and don’t stay to clean up. With Karen, I could never be too sure which way she was leaning on any particular day.

Fran and I got her mother’s initial cancer diagnosis—and subsequent update—from Karen over text. It became her preferred method of communication, which was understandable. She could cry while typing. She could sit by her mother’s sleeping side and send updates. She could be as terse or verbose as she needed or wanted. Luckily she had upped her data plan before her mom’s diagnosis. I was always very careful with the amount I texted her, the memory of the time she chided me about my multiple texts, explaining her data plan could not support me. I felt as if my mom had slapped my hand but only after offering me cookies from the cookie jar.

Of course I wanted to call Karen. I wanted to call every day, but I didn’t. I held back. I checked in with Fran instead. “Have you heard from Karen?” She had not.

Instead I stalked Karen on Facebook and Instagram. She infrequently posted about her parents, given her natural private tendencies. Out of the three of us, Karen was the least dramatic, the most pragmatic, and the least likely to overshare—or even share. When she first started to date her now-husband, she casually informed us that she would share all her problems with him, not us, thank you very much. She made it clear that it was her and him, no longer her and us.

Her posts showed an otherwise happy family, daughters in swim meets, plays, concerts, horseback riding—and trips with other families, two in particular. That gutted me in a way that made me feel nineteen years old again. After years of living on opposite coasts, I finally found myself in the same state as two of my best friends. And one of them had dying mom and asked for space, yet seemed to be hanging out with everyone but me.

•••

The three of us have seen each other through every major milestone in our adult lives. We hung out in Karen’s new condo the night before her wedding. We were bridesmaids for each other. They called me from their hospital beds after the birth of their first children, often waking me up in the dead of night. Karen was the second person I called (after my husband) when I unexpectedly went into labor. She drove straight to the hospital and stayed with me for hours until my husband could fly home. It was the most amazing thing anyone has ever done for me. I had always doubted her love for me throughout the years, but after that, to doubt would have been offensive. And when I returned home with my new bundle and a huge case of post-partum depression, she and Fran were waiting for me with food. They washed my dishes, folded my laundry, and helped me through my fog.

•••

When I moved back East, I had fantasies of hanging out every weekend with my friends, becoming an aunt to their children and watching their kids become best friends with mine. Only part of that came true.

We managed to establish little traditions such as annual apple picking and group dinners and the like. As the kids grew older, we became busier. My children became invested in their school activities and I became head of the PTA. Still, we were never as busy as Karen seemed to be. Maybe it was because her children were older. Maybe it was because she was keeping up with the Jones, the Smiths, and the Reynolds. Whatever the reason, every query to meeting up was met with hesitation, a glance at the calendar, and then a litany of what they already had planned with other families. Sometimes we would get a “no” only to see that the week after, they had gone somewhere with someone else.

It was hard not to be jealous, especially when it seemed to be the same families. I found myself justifying the actions, but at some point, Fran plainly stated, “They don’t make time for us. It is just the way their life is.” Unlike me, Fran is accepting, calm, and Zen. Or maybe she already figured out what Karen needed and was waiting for me to get on board.

Instead I went on the defensive. I stopped making Karen and her family a priority, giving their time slot to new families in our community. I stopped asking if Karen wanted to join whenever we saw Fran’s family. It was easier to assume she was busy than to hear once again how she could not fit us into her schedule.

Her mom received a bone marrow transplant. She seemed to get better. Then she got worse. Then she did not leave the hospital at all.

•••

The end came a little over two years later. I had received scant details: little bits I could glean from the occasional conversation. Maybe she thought she had told me. Maybe she did. I felt intrusive even asking how her mom was doing. Sometimes we had whole conversations about everything but her mom.

A couple of weeks into the new year I received a text from Karen’s husband, Sam. He said Karen had been by her mom’s side continuously; her brothers were flying in. The end was near. I waited by the phone for days. They said it would probably happen on Monday. Nothing. Tuesday passed. On Wednesday I texted Sam, not wanting to bother Karen. When I finally heard from Sam, her mom was gone. The funeral would be early next week.

•••

My husband was out of town, and my sitter offered to stay late. I drove north to meet up with Fran and her husband Josh. I didn’t have to ask; Fran automatically waited for me in the parking lot to walk in together.

Karen and her brothers were standing by a white casket in the front with their father. I hadn’t seen them since her wedding almost fifteen years ago. I reintroduced myself, but they remembered me. Or if they didn’t, they faked it really well.

Karen smiled through her tears. She had curled her long hair and wore a very flattering dress that I learned later was on loan from a neighbor, who had marched into her house, like the Today Show ambush makeover with stack of garment bags. I had assumed Karen had the ubiquitous little black dress to wear with the standard black cardigan. I was startled to learn that she did not—and uncomfortable that I was learning about it so late in the game. We used to swap shoes and clothes all of the time in college. Karen’s friend Jane made some comment about how she wanted to bring dresses over, but her dresses would’ve been too large since she was so much taller than Karen, yet she should’ve known Karen needed a dress because she had been in Karen’s closet so much over the years, blah blah. Jane looked at me as she said this. I wanted to punch her in the mouth.

Josh and I hung out with Karen’s sisters-in-law and their children and Karen’s daughters in the back room. We made jokes, helped one of the girls find a lost earring, both of us uncomfortable with not knowing what to say or do. Probably more me than him, since Josh lost his own father ten years prior.

There was no eulogy, per Karen’s mom’s wishes. Just well-wishers gathered to pay respects to the family. The family invited everyone across the street for a Korean style wake. They had reserved several tables: older generation on one side, younger on the other. I sat with Fran and Josh with Sam’s friends and their wives, whom had become close to Karen; the group included Jane and their friend Mel. We had all known each other in some capacity since college. I love Korean food, so this was a treat, but today it felt wrong. I noticed both Sam and Karen picked at their food, glancing every so often at their daughters eating with their cousins at the next table. In comparison, Karen’s dad ate and drank, the onset of loneliness not fully felt until everyone left town a few days later.

It was Jane who reminded me of how much space I had given Karen—and that maybe I had given too much. Jane had known Karen almost as long as I have. They met the summer between our freshman and sophomore year of college at a Korean American program in Seoul and stayed in touch even though Jane was in Indiana and we were in Pennsylvania. It was during a time when Karen and I were on one of our “outs.”

As a result, there seemed to be an unspoken competition between Jane and me. I saw Jane an interloper, always trying to be closest to Karen, jealous of the bond Fran, Karen, and I shared—and making sure I knew it. In hindsight, we were both insecure, but at the time, she was annoying. I remember especially during Karen’s wedding, there was a showdown of sorts among the bridesmaids. Out of the five of us, only Jane had attended a different college. Jane, who had been chosen as the maid of honor because anything else was Sophie’s Choice, was in charge of the bridal shower. But two weeks prior, we still had yet to hear from her. As it turned out, Jane was on vacation and had arranged for a friend of hers to contact us, including soliciting money for a shower that we were sure had not been planned yet. Naturally the rest of us leapt into planning mode, and it resulted in many hurt feelings; Jane went on the defensive, and we wondered why she just didn’t tell us about her plans and ask us to help. In the end, we all agreed to keep this from Karen, least the poor bride become more stressed. We college pals did not want Karen to feel badly that her besties were fighting, but Jane told her everything the minute Karen returned from her honeymoon. Jane explained she wanted to be transparent. I said she wanted to cover her ass.

I always suspected Jane wanted to fit in, desperately. She dated two of Karen’s good friends and later went on to marry one of Sam’s best friends. There was always an unspoken competition between the two of us: who knew Karen better. At Karen’s mom’s funeral, she was winning. And she let me know it. After all, she was not the one who gave Karen so much space that I was practically shouting over the chasm.

•••

Karen’s recollections started small. Soon they increased in page count, emotion and frequency. They became missives with an agency of their own. I had reminded her of the memoir type narrative she had sent me two months after her first daughter was born. She had been in the throes of post-partum depression, something I hadn’t realized when I was childless and living in California at the time. A couple of weeks after her mother was laid to rest, I sent Karen what she had written. She obviously remembered the events, but not writing it—or even sending it to me.

Each of her emails carried the weight of grief mixed with the pressure of moving forward and holding her remaining family together. She didn’t want me to respond, just wanted to send it out there, she said. It was another variation of “don’t feel obligated.” I tried to say something each time my mailbox filled up, a penny for her thoughts, a wish for peace, but I knew she wouldn’t want something long. So I kept it short. In some cases, I said nothing at all.

The most recent missive chronicled her mother’s last days. I couldn’t read it—at first. I started to, but by then I had moved back to Seattle, a place that had unhappy memories, and I was mourning the wonderful life I had smashed in order to chase some dream of extended family that probably would never come to fruition. I couldn’t handle any more sadness. Seeing my sons’ faces filled with disappointment and longing was already too much.

When I finally made myself read Karen’s most recent email, I knew it would be the last of its kind. It was not only the last of her mother, but Karen’s way of purging those feelings to make room for her father’s growing complexities. Perhaps that is why I resisted reading it. Or maybe I was just being a bad friend. I told myself this was space. I was giving her space. Or maybe I was withholding to punish her for pushing me away. When I finally read it, it was raw, but very detailed. Calm, a little haphazard, but very Karen. It was straightforward, chronically. I read it and felt ashamed. Sorry that I still had a mother and Karen did not. Ashamed that I was not there for her. Angry that others were there instead. Bitter that they knew what was going on and I did not because I had been asked to give her space. Did others not give her space? Or maybe she only wanted space from me?

Grief is a funny thing, but one can say that about friendships as well, especially the long, old kind that never forgets, always forgives, and is ever-changing. I don’t know the depths of Karen’s grief; there is no way for me to know. I understand there is a mother-shaped hole in her being, a devastation that she will never recover from. She will instead find a way to live with it, alongside it, accept it as a part of her new life.

There are other things she is accepting too, some better than others. Some welcome, most often not. When I sat down with Karen at a diner somewhere between our homes on a rainy summer day, two weeks before I left for Seattle, I wanted to ask her about us. But only an asshole would be so petty to bother a grieving person. Yet, here I was about to embark on my own journey of grief, mourning the happy life I had created that I was about to leave behind.

Strangely enough Karen had a story about three neighborhood friends who had been close, but were now feuding. Choosing one over the other, friends who had been together for thirty years. They sounded very much like us. In the parking lot, I asked tearfully if she thought that applied to us.

“Are you worried that will happen?” she asked incredulously. I don’t know why she was surprised. She knows me well enough that I would worry about this. She hugged me. “No! That’s not going to happen.”

You could say we’ve been friends for too long. You could throw every cliché in the book at us and say it applies. But it’s true. We have been friends too long for this, but space is also the nature of old friends.

•••

What does one say when one reads her friend’s broken heart on the page? I couldn’t ask Karen out for coffee. I couldn’t help her choose flowers to plant on her mother’s grave. I couldn’t bring her a casserole. I was already—physically—so far away.

I had asked Karen to be my oldest son’s godmother, a position she gladly accepted. After we moved to Seattle, she flew out for a whirlwind weekend to participate in the ceremony. It was rainy, but that did little to dampen our spirits. The baptism ceremony was lovely, and the dinner after was lively. Karen and I stayed up late at night to talk and talk and talk. Drink tea and talk. It was then I had my friendship epiphany.

Apparently I wasn’t the only person who felt Karen had abandoned them. Jane and their friend Mel had felt slighted over pretty silly reasons. Karen had missed a few of their outings and they felt rejected. They were being petty and jealous. Karen felt defensive and exhausted.

I practically shouted that they’re the ones who see her all of the time, but I should have realized that social media lies. They were the ones posting about the amazing times they had. Karen’s priorities—her daughters, her husband, her father—hadn’t changed. All of us had misread her, horribly.

It turns out that space was what Karen needed. And wanted. She was thankful that I had given that to her, to allow her to navigate this new, unwelcome existence without her mother.

Karen left Seattle with an uncertain future and I watched her go, worried about her, but I felt the most secure in our friendship ever. So now I call her. I call Fran. We text, sometimes we group text. Sometimes Karen calls me. And we never ever mention obligation.

•••

J. LIN has been a twice resident fellow at Hedgebrook and a waiter at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Her work has appeared in the book Philly Fiction, SoapNet.com, ABC.com, Seattle Weekly, MetroKids Magazine, York Daily Dispatch, AsianAvenue.com, haveuheard.net, and forthcoming in 2017 Women of Color Anthology: All the Women in My Family Sing. She was also part of the Emmy-winning writers’ team at “One Life to Live.” She lives in Seattle with her husband and two sons.

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Unresolved Sexual Tension Between Friends

By David Rosen/Flickr
By David Rosen/Flickr

By Jerry Portwood

It wasn’t meant to feel like a date, but when Guillem arrived outside our apartment, helmet in hand, he looked like my silver suitor ready to whisk me away for a night of romance on his bike. I’d cleared it with Patricio, asking him several times if he was okay with my heading out with Guillem, and he’d told me he wasn’t jealous.

“Sure—I want you to go,” Patricio assured me. He knew I missed having a social life these past three months after we’d moved to Barcelona together.

While I lived in Atlanta, I’d been a dedicated culture vulture, usually going to a gallery opening, a concert, the theater, or dance event five nights a week. Our long distance relationship—he lived two hours away from me, where he taught architecture at a South Carolina university—turned out to be perfect for that first year of dating. I’d spend weeknights absorbing whatever the city threw at me; weekends were our time together. Exhausted from his week of teaching, Patricio wasn’t much for spending two hours in a dark theater. I didn’t try to force it. Maybe we’d go out dancing, or I’d coax him to the latest Malaysian restaurant I was reviewing, but mostly we spent our time together in bed—which worked. We didn’t have to share every interest; I didn’t have to parade him around with my friends. But now living in Spain together meant new negotiations. So when Guillem mentioned he had free tickets to a production of a Catalan version of Glengarry Glen Ross, something that sounded bizarre and intrigued me, I wanted to go. But I needed reassurance.

“You’re sure you don’t mind?” I asked again.

“Stop asking. Just go,” Patricio said. I realized he may be just as glad to have an evening free of me. It was the first time either of us had lived with a lover, and we’d spent every waking and sleeping moment together for the past three months in Barcelona. I’d introduced Guillem to Patricio and they had hit it off. Guillem had dark hair, a sexy goatee, and piercing eyes. He was attractive and, unlike most of the Spanish guys I’d met, worked out regularly at a gym; he liked to show off his sculpted chest and biceps in tight shirts. Patricio had explained that it was next to impossible to make a Catalan friend, and he was impressed that I’d managed it in such a short period of time.

Guillem was a writer for the most popular Catalan soap opera, El Cor de la Ciutat. Although the show meant nothing to me, Patricio had explained it was the most popular TV program in Barcelona. Since Catalan had been forbidden during the Franco dictatorship and could have been lost for future generations, the regional government now supported any artistic endeavor that developed the language and supported the national identity, so this soap reigned as the most beloved family entertainment for millions. It was like Dynasty, without any other competition. I was excited to join him for a night of theater.

“Have you ever been on the back of a moto before?” Guillem asked.

“A what?” I wasn’t sure if he was attempting some sort of a flirtatious tease, and I was just missing the subtlety. “I like your Vespa.”

“My moto is a Suzuki,” he clarified and told me to snuggle up behind him. He helped me with my helmet as I fumbled with the straps, buckling it below my chin. “Put your arms around me. Nos vamos, here we go!”

We slowly inched backward until we faced north and he gunned it. I tried to hold on to the plastic of the seat, but when we lurched forward, I instinctively gripped Guillem’s waist. He glanced over his right shoulder and said something, but it was lost in the road’s rumble.

I was wary of the cars in Barcelona, but the mopeds, motos, scooters, and motorcycles that dominated the streets were entirely different beasts. They didn’t seem to obey any rules as they hopped curbs, hurtling toward you down the middle of the sidewalk. Women wearing skimpy skirts and high heels weaved through cars to mark their spot at the front of the pack. Then, seconds before the light turned green, they’d zoom by you, ignoring crosswalks, crouched for sudden impact. Now I was one of them.

I tried to remember if I was supposed to lean in for the turn, or worried that, if I slouched the wrong way, we’d suddenly lose control and plow through the people in front of us. My hands on Guillem’s waist, I felt that erotic thrill of being nuzzled against a man on a machine. At the red light, I would make space between Guillem and myself, and he leaned back. “Move with me,” he explained. “Or you might make me fall over.” He gunned the engine, and I gripped his hips harder.

When we made it to the theater, intact, he told me I could bring my helmet inside with me. It felt like a badge of honor, proof that I lived here, I wasn’t a tourist. Of course, how many tourists would show up opening weekend to see Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross entirely translated into Catalan?

The theater was beautiful, inserted into the agricultural building from the 1929 Expo and, for the purposes of this play, the stage was converted into a “black-box” viewing space. I felt I had already cheated on Guillem: Before he showed up, I read a complete scene-by-scene synopsis of the play, since it had been years since I’d seen the movie. I wanted to at least imagine I knew what was going on as people spat epithets in a foreign tongue.

So as these slimy real estate salesmen tried to swindle people with bogus property in Arizona and Florida, I attempted to fill in blanks. Somehow Mamet’s Chicago setting wasn’t American enough, so the designers had created an abstract Texas-like terrain with a big cactus next to a glass cube that represented Chop Suey, the Chinese restaurant where the first act’s action takes place. As the cube turned slowly on a circular dais, I glanced at Guillem who was concentrating on the subtleties of the actors’ deliveries. He caught my eye and leaned over and whispered, “Do you hate me?” thinking that I was despairing over the difficulty of the opaque verbal barrage.

True, I had no clue what they were saying—except for a few joders (fucks), putas (bitch/whores), and some nicely punctuated merdas (shits)—until a strange interlude in which all the characters suddenly broke out into an English language rock & roll song for a major set change. “This director always has people singing in his plays,” Guillem had warned. After the bows, Guillem admitted he was nervous that I was going to come out dazed and confused and once again he asked, “Do you hate me?” apologetically.

“No, I don’t hate you,” I said. “I’m so happy. This is one of the best nights I’ve had since moving to Barcelona. Plus, I learned all sorts of new Catalan cuss words.”

“Well, actually Catalan doesn’t have enough coarse language, so they have to use Spanish words when they want to curse,” he explained. “Catalan is too refined. It’s why I like having sex in Spanish. It’s sexier. But fucking in English is the best.”

Seeing my confusion, he went on to explain. “There’s nothing sexy to say, nothing fuerte, very strong, in Catalan. It’s all a little weak. But telling a guy, ‘I want to fuck,’ that’s the best. Fuck is the best English word, sometimes it’s the only one that works.”

I laughed and agreed, filing away that bit of intel. I remembered how awkward Spanish still felt on my tongue, making me feel like an imposter when I tried to deploy it during an intimate moment.

“There was one word I didn’t understand,” I said, slightly changing the subject. “And they said it like a thousand times. Oh-stee-ya?”

“Ah, you did learn the queen of all curse words,” he said and smiled. “Ostia. It’s the Spanish word for the communion wafer? We use it like damn. It’s like taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

Part of me felt guilty for having such a great evening without Patricio, so we called him and told him to meet us at a bar in the Raval area. Guillem and I hopped on his moto and headed off to the Merry Ant, a sort of speakeasy where we had to know the correct, unmarked door and then a secret knock. I was worried that Patricio may decide he didn’t want to join, but I was glad when he showed up, and I threw my arms around him, relieved that he didn’t seem mad after my date night without him. We ordered Estrellas, the weak Spanish beer I’d resigned myself to, and the three of us talked about books, theater, movies, boyfriends. It was the type of casual hanging out I’d been craving the entire time in Spain, and I’d finally found it. Although I felt the intense attraction to him, I vowed to make Guillem my friend and not screw it up by screwing him. I didn’t want to lose my one Catalan friend.

•••

I showed up around nine-thirty for dinner and a movie. Guillem was still on his healthy kick and had prepared a simple, yet tasty meal: a spinach salad with sunflower seeds and golden pasas (the word sounded so much better than raisins), followed by arroz con setas (rice with mushrooms), and a big salmon steak in a soy sauce glaze. I had picked up a nice bottle of Spanish red—“Any Crianza will do,” Guillem had instructed since I confessed I was nervous I’d make a poor wine selection—to get us lubricated for our night in.

He’d invited me over after I’d gushed about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the indie film about a transgender rock & roll troubadour searching for love. He’d never seen it, and I’d brought the DVD to Spain with me but couldn’t watch it on our player due to regional restrictions. Guillem, who was obsessed with American pop culture, had a machine that could read the American format. So we made a date.

We’d invited Patricio to join us, but he’d already tired of my preoccupation with the film, which he’d bought me as a birthday gift, and begged off, preferring to stay home alone. It felt sophisticated to be dining together at Guillem’s table, since Patricio and I had transformed our dining table into a desk and ended up eating our meals in front of the TV most nights. After eating, we sat together on Guillem’s small sofa and watched the film with English subtitles for extra language reinforcement. I resisted singing along to the songs I knew by heart and glanced over to notice if Guillem was enjoying himself. The awkwardness of the situation hit me: This definitely felt like a date.

Although Patricio and I had easily agreed upon our own version of an open relationship, it meant we had sex with other men, not romantic flings. Our rules were fairly basic: 1. no sleepovers; 2. no repeats; 3. be honest and tell one another everything. The idea was to curb the possibility of emotional attachments. Having an affair wasn’t what we desired, so dating was definitely off the table. Although the movie watching was intended as a friendly get together, I now wondered if it was an excuse so we could easily fall into one another’s arms. Plus, Guillem was clearly boyfriend material. But I already had a boyfriend. I wasn’t looking for another.

The truth is, I’m a romantic. Although many people would claim the opposite because I can be blunt and critical—and I believed their assertions for years, convincing me that I didn’t have a romantic bone in my body—I’m a sucker for a great love story. The trouble was I didn’t believe in the cheeseball stuff found in most pop songs or what Hollywood tried to sell us.

The Hedwig plot, loosely adapted from Plato, was that we had another half and were searching for that part to make us whole again, a concept I’d romanticized from an early age. I remember in adolescence saying I didn’t care if it was a man or a woman—I wanted to find the person that “understood” me. That was my thirteen-year-old way to articulate the idea of a soulmate. And through the years I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to jam myself together with someone even when that fit wasn’t there. It’s an ongoing, solitary crusade for billions: How do we join with our other half, and how do we know when we found that person?

With Patricio, I felt like I’d finally found that person. I was too self-conscious to use the term soulmate, but when I learned the Spanish word for it, media naranja, I understood it. A half of an orange: The phrase sounded strange, but I identified with the image of two juicy halves that come together but also function as separate parts—that should be squeezed and enjoyed.

I felt guilty. I was already thinking how I’d explain to Patricio that it was something less than a date when I got home. I didn’t want him to think Guillem was trying to seduce me since that could mean I’d lose the only friend I’d made since moving here.

Guillem must have felt something too because, when we paused the film for a bathroom break and a refill of Rioja, he returned, saying, “You know, when we write soap opera scripts, we have this term we use. We call it URST.”

“URST?” I thought I’d misunderstood him. He spoke English fluidly, with a sexy accent and enough Britishisms to make it sound incorruptible. “What’s that?”

“When we have a scene between characters that have some chemistry, we use the English acronym: URST. It stands for Un-Resolved Sexual Tension.”

“Hmm,” I replied, unsure what I was supposed say. “That’s fun. An interesting concept.”

“So?” he said. “I think there’s some URST between us, don’t you?”

“I don’t know,” I said and laughed, trying to diffuse the situation. Part of me was thrilled that he found me attractive, especially since he was a total catch, but I tried to play naive, not sure if this sort of seduction fit into my relationship rules or was somehow outside the boundaries. If I pretended it wasn’t true, maybe that could get me off the hook. “I guess so. Sure. I think you’re great.”

I wasn’t sure what I should do. If he made a move, would I stop him? But I knew I shouldn’t be the aggressive one. Playing stupid, a passive player to someone else’s wishes seemed like my best defense.

“Well, I thought I’d get it out,” Guillem said, picking up the remote.

“Want to finish the movie?” I asked, not sure if I’d ruined the mood.

He pushed play and it resumed. I’d already watched the film a dozen times, but I couldn’t focus on the familiar story. I imagined a director reading our night’s script, taking a red pen and marking it everywhere. It would be bloody with URST.

•••

I’d confessed the night’s sexual tension to Patricio, and he wasn’t surprised. “Well, why didn’t you get it over with then?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I thought maybe you’d be mad? That maybe it was against the rules?” I knew he wouldn’t kick me to the curb over such an indiscretion, but what if he forbid me from seeing Guillem again? I wasn’t willing to lose my first friend in a foreign place.

“Nah,” he said. “He’s hot, but I’m not worried.”

I was anxious though: That once this particular URST was satisfied, perhaps Guillem might not find me as interesting. What if it was that unresolvedness that was keeping us on friendly terms?

I’d been telling Guillem that I wanted to repay the dinner by inviting him to a meal at our place, so I returned the favor by offering to create a big curry stir fry, something outside his comfort zone. “Catalans don’t like spicy, don’t make it spicy,” he urged. I promised I wouldn’t scorch his sensitive palate—but I did want to push his boundaries.

I chose a night that I thought would work for the three of us, but then Patricio reminded me he had a dinner with a colleague visiting from the States. “Do you want me to join?” I asked. “I could cancel.”

“No, you’d probably be bored. You and Guillem have dinner,” he said. “I won’t be late.”

Guillem brought the wine, and I tried to memorize the labels, so I knew the best bottles to purchase next time. He complained the food was still spicy, and I teased him that he was a wimp. We got toasted soon enough, and when we curled up on the loveseat, I told him, “Bésame.” I said it in Spanish, partly as a provocation, partly because it didn’t seems as real in a foreign tongue. The words still worked, and he did. He kissed me.

I felt the shock of the lip contact, that powerful surge of passion that comes with finally getting the thing that you’ve imagined and withheld far longer than normal. Luckily, I liked kissing Guillem. We fit together and our arms were around one another. We stood up and I started pulling his shirt over his head. We giggled as we unbuckled and pulled at one another’s clothes. This felt right. We were soon naked on the bed, squeezing each other and shivering in anticipation.

Then I heard the door lock click.

“Shit!” I said.

“Qué?”

“Shhh. It’s Patricio.”

“Hey, are you there?” Patricio called from the front of the apartment. It was a small space so I knew in a few more steps he’d see us sprawled naked together on the bed.

“Oh, well, I guess you guys got that over with,” he said as he reached the wide-open room. “Get up and get dressed. Let’s go out—I want a drink.” He laughed and left us there as we scrambled to get our clothes. We laughed too, realizing how stupid we must look, naked on the bed, like two children caught stealing a cookie. Still feeling awkward and silly, I tried to smooth things over.

“Sorry we got interrupted so soon,” I apologized to Guillem. “I didn’t know. But…”

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

“Yes, I think so.”

Although I thought I had made up my mind not to act on the URST, part of me wanted to get it over with. It seemed our roles were already written, and, luckily, we were in a romantic comedy, not a Lifetime television drama. Now that it was over, we could finally be friends.

The fact is, over the years I’ve had an intimate naked moment with most of my good friends—and many gay men I know share a similar bond. After I met Patricio, I’ve spent the next fifteen years figuring out how our puzzle pieces fit together, but it doesn’t mean that one doesn’t remain curious about the curves and hidden places of others. Those encounters with other men aren’t just a notch in the belt—rather it’s proof: No, we don’t fit together in that way; that was fun, let’s move on. We may understand it, but it can make for awkward moments at a dinner party.

When a straight woman asks gay guys how they met, we hem and haw, trying to figure out a palatable explanation if we hadn’t already come up with some sort of euphemistic backstory. Unlike many heterosexual groupings, where I’ve seen men awkwardly try to talk to female friends, the URST thick in the room, many of us have managed to neutralize that strain on familiarity to get closer. “We hooked up,” was the easiest rejoinder. “And now we’re the best of friends.”

•••

JERRY PORTWOOD is currently the Deputy Editor of RollingStone.com. Previously he was the Executive Editor at Out magazine and the Editor in Chief of New York Press and the founding editor of CityArts. His work has recently been published in the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Backstage, and DuJour magazine. He teaches an arts writing course at the New School in New York City. Jerry and Patricio were legally married in January 2015 in New York City.

We’re All, For Now, Expanding

lights on water
By Edwin Rios/Flickr

By Seth Sawyers

This is a story about drugs, but not only about drugs. It was the night before the Y2K glitch was supposed to happen. Do you remember it? It was three hundred fourteen big news stories ago, just a blip now but back then, end of 1999, it was the big one. The idea was that there was a decent chance we’d all wake up on January 1, 2000 to computers freaking out, banks failing, planes falling. We, the five of us, thought watching for the apocalypse would be a fun thing to do while on drugs, and so, after work, we drove from the city to the beach. We were twenty-two and thought ourselves very clever.

We loved ourselves, is the truth, loved each other, even if we couldn’t have articulated it like that at the time. It was merely where we lived, this fragile, warm world we’d built, as taken for granted as air. We’d all, by then, had a look around and we’d chosen each other, is what I’m saying.

I was the fifth wheel on this beach trip, which is better than being the third wheel, by a little. It was Dave, who was my best friend and roommate from college, and his girlfriend, Julie, the two of them newly in love, always touching. And there was Alis, a girl I also cared a lot about, and her boyfriend, Skeet, the two of them no longer, I think, so much in love, touching a bit less. What we did that night, in that fierce way, was listen very closely to Radiohead songs, afterward only smiling, sure everyone really got it. Though I’m not saying we were the only clever twenty-two-year-olds who’d ever had this kind of love, and though it comes and goes, comes and goes, we had it, and still do.

And we were doing drugs. We were doing ecstasy, which I don’t think is called that any longer, which tells you a little about how old we all are now. We had a hotel room, two beds, where the couples would sleep, and a couch, where I’d sleep. We drank a little, smoked a little, and then we took the pills we were there to take. We listened to more Radiohead, wrote some bad poetry, smiled some more, said oh my god a lot.

•••

Peaking, bundled up, we went to the beach. There was no one else there, of course. I remember there was crusty snow on the part of the beach where the ocean didn’t reach. I was clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth so much that I had little white pockets of foamy spit at the corners of my mouth. I know because there’s a picture of me from that night, pupils huge. And in that photo with me, our arms around each other, to all the world brothers, is Alis’s boyfriend, Skeet.

Skeet and I were never great friends, and probably we were never more than two guys who cared about the same girl. But there we were, ecstatic, walking along that magical line where water meets sand, retreats, and then meets it again, forever. The others had found something else that delighted them and were well behind us.

And maybe it was that repeat-repeat-repeat of the waves, but I remember, just before we saw what we saw, Skeet was talking about the universe, how he was sure the Big Bang was just one of an infinite number of Big Bangs, how eventually the universe would stop growing, race in upon itself and collapse to a point until it again exploded in yet another Big Bang. We were merely, Skeet was saying to me—just me, on that beach—living in a moment between Big Bangs. Soon, everything would collapse, and explode. Collapse and explode. And I thought: Holy fucking shit, he might be right. There’s a reason people take drugs, is what I’m saying. Drugs have their moments.

I saw it first. Skeet was still talking, but my eyes were fixed on a cluster of bright, very bright lights, maybe a mile up the shore, softly expanding, collapsing, expanding, coming from what looked like yet another beach house, three stories, decks, the whole thing so bright against that black night. Then he stopped talking. He’d seen it, too. The light, yellow, orange, shimmered, moved, rose. We had the same thought at the same time.

“Is that building on fire?” I asked him.

“Fuck yes, it is,” he said.

•••

Do you remember sprinting? When was the last time you sprinted? Have you ever sprinted toward what you think is a building fully engulfed in flames, the thought, unspoken but as alive as your blood, that once you got there, you just might be able to do something about it? If you have, you’ll know that there are four stages.

At first, you are a catapult, released. You just fire, and go, and after the initial awkwardness in your thighs, the stiffness in your hips, you are convinced you can go, screaming through the cold, dark night, forever. After that, not yet tired but muscles now accustomed, you settle into a groove. This is by far the most pleasurable part. You merely run, free, fluid. Third comes the onset, gradual at first, of the burning of the lungs. You slow, not because you want to, but because your body makes you. Fourth, finally, chest heaving, legs on fire, stomach ready to rebel, you stop, because you cannot go on without some essential part of you failing. And that’s what happened to us. We stopped running, exactly at the moment that we got close enough, heads no longer bobbing, to see the truth.

“I think,” Skeet said, “that those are Christmas lights.”

“I think,” I said, “that you are right.”

In that blackness, our friends catching up to us, also breathless, Skeet and I found the other’s eyes, laughed and then coughed, the black Atlantic Ocean behind us, swelling and retreating, over and over again, both of us knowing, I think, that all of it, the ocean, one day would die. And we would die. But not this, somehow, not this.

•••

SETH SAWYERS’ writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Millions, Salon, Sports Illustrated, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Morning News, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He has been awarded scholarships and residencies to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Writers@Work, and VCCA. He is working on a novel about two ten-foot-tall people who find each other in the time just before the internet. He is online at https://sethsawyers.wordpress.com/.

Woman Versus Compliments

anxiety weight loss
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Becca Schuh

One of my favorite professors from college stood five feet away from me, staring at me as though I was a minor celebrity she was trying to place. An off-off Broadway show? The bassist in an obscure girl band?

“Becca?! Is that you?!” She seemed genuinely shocked. “You look so different, you look so … professional.”

I admired her word choice. Most people were not so quickly able to exercise discretion. Almost everyone else who commented on the changes in my appearance over the last year went for the obvious: You look so thin. You’ve lost so much weight.

They weren’t wrong. Between the summers of 2014 and 2015, I lost around twenty pounds, not a small sum on my five-foot frame. Chipmunk cheeks became cheekbones, flabby arms turned muscular, an obviously round stomach was now relatively flat.

Also in that year, I worked over fifty hours per week at a brunch restaurant where each plate weighed ten pounds. I went from eating five meals a day to one or two—a meal at the restaurant and some granola bars at home. I decided to move across the country. And, for eight of the months of that year, the time during which I lost the majority of the weight, I was in the throes of an intense resurgence of the anxiety disorder that has affected me, on and off, since I was a child.

I did not simply lose weight because I was anxious. Panic made me eat less, made me move more. I began running; at first I didn’t count the miles. But when the sun-drenched blocks stretched long enough that they began to seem countable, I did, and then the miles ticked up—three, five, seven. Those runs were one of the only things that helped my jilted brain.

People came up with many creative ways of expressing their approval over my new look. You are so slim now! How did you do it? They loved to talk about it, as though it were a pop culture phenomenon or a collective accomplishment. You look the way we’ve always wanted you to look. People that I did not realize ever thought about me came out of the woodwork to comment—friends’ parents, friends’ coworkers that I’d met once, the boyfriends of my own coworkers.

There were things in life that I had not necessarily loved but that had been easy and joyful: eating, sitting, chilling. These are things that normal people do, and they provide contentment.

The clearer it became in my mind that I was not normal, the harder it was to take pleasure in these simple acts of joy. Innocuous comments thrown out in conversation at a bar would send me nearly to tears, and I could sense the discomfort in my companion’s voices as they tried to carry on a normal discussion. Standing in the kitchen overhearing the banter of my roommate and her boyfriend made me twitch, I started hoarding cups of water in my room so I wouldn’t have to listen to their easy comfort. If I was so strange that even my friends recoiled from my bare emotions, why should I be allowed to partake in the simple pleasure of cooking and eating a meal? If I was to be barred from the intimacy that others found so easily, why did I deserve contentment?

And yet, despite all these connections my brain made, the weight was separate. I didn’t notice it until it was gone. I had never seen myself as fat, so now I did not see myself as thin. I was the same. My pants were looser, my cheeks were gaunter, but I was the same.

Only to everyone else was I different.

I didn’t notice that I was thinner, but I noticed other changes: I noticed that I was no longer laughing, I was no longer eating, I was no longer able to sit and think without my breath quickening and my chest hurting. I spoke in shorter sentences, if at all. Nervous tics sprouted, my eyes darted around every room. If people could notice weight off my midsection, I’m sure they could notice the changes in my personality as well. But all I heard was this: You look slim. You look different. You look healthy.

I probably am healthier, physically at least. A person who is capable of running four, then six, then eventually ten miles is likely healthier than a person who cannot run one before giving up and going home to eat hot Cheetos.

As a byproduct of the anxiety, I became a person who was able to run four, then six, then eventually ten miles. I didn’t suddenly love running. But I could no longer do the things I loved—painting, writing, sitting in bed and eating a snack. I couldn’t sit stationary without screaming or crying, without nearly imperceptible shrill noises of fear coming out of my mouth. I had to move. I had to run.

People loved to hear about the running, too. I’d always been a sloth. You couldn’t get me out of bed before dinner on a Sunday in college. If my sorority did a 5k run for charity, I walked. The weight loss and the running were the favorite conversational fodder of acquaintances and friends alike that spring. But I didn’t need to talk about running or about my weight. I needed to talk about my anxiety. They did not love to hear about my anxiety.

If it’s that bad, even if you’re exercising and eating healthy, you just need to get a therapist. But I have a therapist. Then you should go on medication. Nobody wants to hear you talk about how upset you are this much.

It’s just, kind of boring, okay? You aren’t interesting when you’re like this.

Of course, the unspoken words were louder than these comments. The friends who I normally texted back and forth with all day suddenly weren’t responding. I used to go out with friends every Friday and Saturday, and I found myself at home curled in bed at eleven, realizing I’d never been contacted about the bars that they were Instagramming from. Eventually I heard the complaints about me through the grapevine, a chorus that I couldn’t hear: Why is she like this? Does she do this to you, too?

And I get it. Dealing with someone with manic anxiety is frustrating. I know incredible people, so I firmly believe that this discrepancy was not intentional, but nevertheless it disturbs me that nearly everyone in my life had more to say about my weight loss than my obvious personality changes due to the anxiety. They were happy to discuss how different I looked (Not that you looked bad before…), but when I tried to reach out for help with my addled brain, people recoiled. I don’t blame anyone for this—I didn’t want to deal with myself, so why would anyone else? But again, the discrepancy is startling, is scary, is something that deserves to be known.

I want to reiterate: I love the people in my life, I blame them for nothing. I understand that it was easier to concentrate on the socially acceptable (a thin body) than the taboo (a ravaged mind).

I can’t claim lack of culpability. Part of me relishes the compliments that I look better than I ever have (Not that you weren’t good looking before…) Especially now that my anxiety has fallen to the flow of a nearly dry creek, trickling along, whereas before it roared like an ocean. I’m able to appreciate that more men want to sleep with me, that more clothes fit, that I look better in the clothes I buy. Pictures are more flattering, and I’m asked to model the new uniform at work.

Now, you look like a small person. Well, you were always a small person but, you know…

And I do know. I do know what she means. Before, I was short in stature, but I was not truly small. And the culture loves a small woman. I’ve never been able to reap the benefits—nothing about me is small. I talk loudly, I talk too much. My personality ricochets off the walls instead of staying in a neat box. I’ve always taken up far more space than is allotted for a woman. Now that my body seems to fit into that space, even if my words and actions do not, I occasionally get to cash in on the rigged pleasure that the slot machine of society delivers. It is not a large pleasure; it is not the pleasure I feel when having the first long conversation with a new friend, when completing a piece of writing, when meeting a woman I admire. It’s a sick one, like a fifth drink when you know you should already be walking home, like reading old emails from an ex-lover.

I don’t blame anyone for being afraid of my anxiety. When my brain enters the place it was living in last spring, it’s frustrating, it’s intoxicating, it comes alive like a virus that can mutate anything into a curse. If we lived in a different cultural climate, I might be able to work myself into anger at my friends, but I can’t. It isn’t their fault that we are taught to fear a woman who is seemingly crazed with her thoughts. I can’t find fault with anybody I know because all of us are taught to praise a woman for dropping pounds off of her body like hail in March and to shun her for letting words of anxiety and fear exit her mouth at the same frequency.

I know that I’m not the only woman I know who has felt such intense anxiety, but no one has ever come to me in the state in which I tried to reach people last spring. Is it because my anxiety is outsized, abnormal, problematic? Or is it because others were taught better than I to hold it inside, to only contact appropriate outlets? I want to say now what I have never said aloud. Please, come to me if you are ever so afraid that you cannot breathe, cannot speak, can only cry.

I don’t want people to be afraid of complimenting me on my appearance. I love hearing that I’m having a good hair day as much as the next person. What I want is for people to not be afraid of telling me that I look good, but to also not be afraid of telling me that I seem bad. Of asking me if I am all right. Because I was not all right. Although I feel stronger in some ways for pulling myself out of that hole alone, I also yearn for the feeling of floundering in the trenches with the people I love and knowing that we can show each other the messiest parts of ourselves, not just the thin ones that fit into the smallest spaces.

How to stop the fear of the anxious woman? I don’t know, but I want to try. I can’t stop anyone else from turning away from the ruminating thoughts turned into monologues, the wide eyes, the tears that are louder than anyone is comfortable hearing. But I can turn into it when I see those signs in others, and ask, attempt to ask, despite the fear: Please, tell me the truth: are you all right?

•••

BECCA SCHUH is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Southern California and Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has recently appeared in the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and the Soundings Review. She is a graduate of the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands. Follow her on Twitter @TamingofdeSchuh.

Little Mouse

frozen scissors
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

Because they could not get everything they needed to get laparoscopically, they cut into him. They cut through his fatty tissue and his muscle to get into his abdomen where his gangrenous gallbladder was swollen and bloody and actively disintegrating. When Dr. Robinson tried to remove it, he told us, it fell apart in his hands. When he tried to clip off the bile ducts afterward, Steve’s abdomen was so swollen and bloody that the clips would not hold. They fell right off. Dr. Robinson used a sealant called Tisseal, and as he told us this, he swooped his hand down and back to mimic the motion one imagines using to seal off a hole. All I could picture was a driveway.

Steve had been wheeled into the operating room at one-thirty that afternoon. I had been expecting surgery to last about an hour and a half. While Dr. Robinson was pretty sure from the exam that Steve’s gallbladder was infected, he still believed he could remove it laparoscopically. After I kissed Steve goodbye, I went over to the surgery waiting area and introduced myself to the two volunteers who answer the phones. Steve’s name wasn’t on their official list of surgeries for the day, so they wrote his name at the bottom of the page and noted that I was here. “I’m just gonna run out and get something to eat. I’ll be back soon,” I told them.

I had imagined, as late as that very morning, that I’d be able to teach my classes that day, the day of Steve’s surgery. The hospital was so close to the university, and we didn’t know what time Steve’s surgery was going to be, so I’d just run back and forth, keeping my phone on me in case I was needed.

Walking the dogs that morning before we left, it hit me that my husband was having surgery and I was his next of kin and if I wasn’t there waiting for him, nobody would be. What kind of wife was I? Of course I wouldn’t be teaching that day! Later, when I told Steve’s stepmom Janet this, she laughed. “You’ve never had to do this before, have you?” I said I hadn’t. “It’s a steep learning curve, that’s for sure,” she said.

•••

I grew up in an abusive home, and the further I get from that environment, the more clearly I can identify the characteristics of it that have had a lasting effect on the person I have become. Two things stand out. The first is that I have an overabundance of empathy. This comes, I’ve recently figured out, as a result of being told again and again that it was in my best interest to identify with my abuser.

“Stay away from her,” my mother told me.

By telling me this, my mother was also telling me that the perspective on the world that mattered was my sister’s, not mine, that the person responsible for the abuse was me, not my sister, and that the way to remain safe was to take on the perspective of the other. Your perspective—that your sister is hitting you—is not the one that matters. The one that matters is your sister’s. Appease her.

One result of this overabundance of empathy is that, for a long time, I had trouble with friendships. Simply put, I gave too much and didn’t expect much in return. I took on others’ perspectives on the world and negated my own. I gave and gave and gave until, as happens in every life, a point came when I needed love and care and found that the friends to whom I had given so much were unable to reciprocate. This prompted essential self-care work, including reassessments of more than one friendship.

The second effect of growing up in an abusive environment is that I, as all children do, built my understanding of myself based on the narratives I had available to me, and those narratives I had available were that I was nothing, a nobody, destined to amount to nothing because I was no good, not worthy, stupid, fat, and ugly.

Because of this, I developed an early habit of calculating my chances at things as basically zero, not—as popular reasoning might have it—so that others might encourage me, but because it is what I believed deep in my body was true about me. This means that anything good that happened to me—that happens to me—is essentially icing. This has always gotten me out of existential dramas. I was persuaded early that I wasn’t meant to be here, so I don’t necessarily have a need to make some big meaning of my entire life, to feel that I was somehow meant to be here or that I have a purpose, to feel like I’m here to do something good. Anything I do that is good is better than the nothing I was supposed to have done. Some may read this and characterize me as a pessimist, but I think that those who have been abused could perhaps help me articulate why that’s not quite the case. It’s not that I expect the worst. Rather, I expect nothing.

One effect of this is the ingrained habit of imagining and preparing for my death. My oldest friend Hillary and I have been promising each other since we were kids that, should the other one become incapacitated in any way, the other would swoop in and take care of things. Neither of us is afraid to die. We grew up thinking we wouldn’t make it much past twenty-seven.

•••

Muscles provide strength. We get the word muscle from the Latin musculus meaning, literally, “little mouse.” Our strength comes from what we might otherwise perceive as small and insignificant.

•••

When I return to the surgery waiting area at two-thirty, I see that a few people are gone, but there are still probably ten families waiting for news on their loved ones. The electronic board tells me that Steve’s surgery officially started at 1:59. I settle in to a chair, take out my laptop, and begin working on revising the calendar for my rhetoric course. At about three-thirty, one of the volunteers comes to tell me I have a phone call. Steve’s nurse, Brian, tells me that things are going well and they’re hoping to be able to finish the surgery laparoscopically, but they may have to make an incision if they can’t get it all. This will mean three to five days in the hospital. “We should be done in about an hour,” Brian says. I ask if this would be a good time for me to run home and take care of the dogs. He asks how close I live and I tell him I can be back in an hour. He says yes, this would be the time to do that.

I tell the volunteers that I’m running home and I’ll be back in about an hour. They’re both elderly women dressed in baby pink hospital jackets. One tells me that they leave at four, so when I get back, they won’t be here. “You’ll have to answer the phone yourself.”

Sure enough, when I return a little more than an hour later, the surgery waiting area is nearly desolate. A man and I are the only two still waiting. At 4:45 the phone rings. I look around, as though somebody else is going to answer it. “Surgery waiting area,” I say as I pick up the phone. It’s Brian calling to tell me that they’ve had to cut Steve open and they’ll be working on him for about another hour. “Shit,” I say. “But he’s okay?” Yes, he assures me. He’s okay.

I text the friends who are waiting to hear how Steve is doing. The news that they’ve had to cut him open isn’t good, as it suggests things were more serious than even the doctor had anticipated.

This is not the first time I’ve imagined what my life would be like as a widow. Mostly when I imagine this, I think about how others will respond because I know I have the constitution to be okay. I’m self-sufficient. Icing, remember?

The hour passes without a phone call. It must be because they’re finishing up and they want to call me when they’re finished.

Meanwhile, two friends come to visit for a little while and distract me with hilarious stories about their early vacations as a family. I can’t help but envy them their stories. But they have to leave before too long.

The phone rings. I answer it, “Last one standing.”

“Amy?”

“Yep.”

“It’s Brian. I know your voice by now. We’re still working. We’ll need about another hour.”

Deep sigh. “Okay. Everything okay?”

“Yeah, he’s okay. Things were messy.”

I sit back down in the waiting area. It’s seven. He’s been in surgery for five hours. The lights go out in the waiting area.

I’m sitting alone in the waiting area. In the dark. My husband has been in surgery for five hours. I’m beginning to get scared.

Instead I get angry. I think about all the love and care and empathy I’ve given over the years since I arrived in Illinois. So much love and empathy. And none of it is coming back to me right now as my husband is lying cut open on an operating table and I’m all alone.

Later, with a clearer head, I’ll think back on this moment and say to myself, well, what could you expect? Your friends didn’t know you were sitting there alone in the dark.

And the answer, of course, was nothing. Of course I could expect nothing.

•••

As he recovers, Steve needs to be reminded every so often that Dr. Robinson cut through his abdominal muscles, so things he used to take for granted are going to be hard for a while. The first time he sneezed was particularly painful. He’s sneezed a total of five times since the surgery.

Cutting through muscles is, I imagine, a gruesome task. As they heal, muscles that have been severed settle differently.

As I walked the dogs the morning before Steve’s surgery, it hit me that I could no longer rely on my own habits of thought, on my own muscle memory, to get me through this kind of situation. I couldn’t just maintain my identity as some kind of teacher hero who manages to teach her classes even while her husband is under the knife. I had to accept that, despite the earliest and most profound lessons of my life, I am important to people and that this recognition brings with it responsibilities that I cannot simply brush off with claims that my students need me. Until Steve’s surgery, when I was the one person in the world responsible for the well-being of another human being, I had never had to puncture, let alone cut, that muscle memory.

I don’t really trust myself to be that person for Steve or for anyone, really. I have never wanted to be the one solely responsible for anything, but especially another person’s life.

My muscle memory has been cut, just this once. It may not be enough, but it’s a start. The cut will send the little mouse scurrying just a bit, into cracks and crevices of my constitution that I don’t even know are there, settling perhaps the tiniest bit off-kilter, surprising even me.

Things I’ve taken for granted may be harder for a while.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley Field, and one named Essay. They all love the Cubs.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

Two Field Guides

By AfroDad/Flickr
By AfroDad/Flickr

By Patrice Gopo

Field Guide to the Unraveling of Your Interracial Friendships

To start with, you need to accept that you are here because you and your white friend decided to talk about race. This choice produced problematic consequences. Otherwise this might merely be called a “Field Guide to the Unraveling of Your Friendships.” But you’re here. The topic of race has surfaced. You both engaged in discussions beyond the harmless acknowledgement of your different shades of skin.

You and your white friend tiptoed before leaping into talk about the presence of systematic racial injustice. Together you considered how society’s marred and sad history around race cast a troubling shadow over the present. You exchanged opinions about the shooting of unarmed black men, the riots in Cincinnati, the potential for the first black president.

No matter which white friend, when she said, “Give me examples of how race had an impact on your childhood,” you sliced open old hurts and shared stories of being a little black girl in a predominantly white environment.

Then you nodded when your friend said, “I’ve always wanted to be friends with black people.”

Since you liked the person you sat across the table from, since you discovered you wanted the friendship to develop, you chose to ignore it when she said, “I felt just like that once when I was around a group of really wealthy people,” in response to how you felt when all the little girls were doing hair at the slumber party, and you didn’t get to take part. You decided to overlook the time she told you, “I don’t see color,” because you believed—and why shouldn’t you have assumed the best?—that she didn’t mean she didn’t see you and your brown skin. Instead, you hoped she meant that she formed friendships based on character alone. Still, the statement made you feel like the wide sweep of the dominant culture wanted to brush away pieces of your identity. But you kept these things to yourself. You knew your words might make her uncomfortable and make this friendship falter.

What you couldn’t know is that overlooking something just means shoving your hurt inside, shoving it so far you don’t even know it exists. This, of course, will have its consequences too.

Which is why, one day, a conflict will develop between you and your friend. Not about race. About something petty like the fact that she doesn’t answer your emails or the way that you whine when you are sick. The issues will appear trivial to the outside world, but they will be thick rain clouds over your friendship. As you try to sort out these frustrations, you will both discover new things to be annoyed about until it just seems easier to not be friends.

Of course the real problem is your conversations about race, the way she made comments that made you shrivel, the way you felt it better to ignore statements than discuss them. This is what leads to irrational levels of irritation about the unimportant. However, you won’t yet recognize how the mind shifts conflict from the uncomfortable issues to the ones that seem easier to address.

And when your friend says, “I just don’t understand,” (which of course she will say since you’re both in conflict about a substitute conflict) you will sit and stew and rant and rage.

Still, somewhere deep within you, in an almost hidden place, you will wonder what you can do to fix this. Is there a way you both can once again sit across from each other over warm drinks and hear the air saturated with the sound of your laughter?

 

Field Guide to Reconciling in Your Interracial Friendships

One day when you are glancing at a burst of wildflowers along the highway or tugging towels from the hot cave of the dryer, your drifting mind will puzzle through the unraveling of your friendship. In that unexpected—perhaps even supernatural—moment, bright signs will point to the truth that this wasn’t just any friendship that unraveled. This was the unraveling of an interracial friendship. Only then will you recall the way your friend told you how her experience was so similar to yours. Only then will you remember the words your friend said that made you feel small. Only then will the memory of remarks that you overlooked in your effort to be gracious gush from your mind in the form of warm tears.

Now is when you start to understand all the conversations you had, all the easy thoughts you shared about injustice, in all this you missed the fact that with white friends who want to talk about race, you have a greater chance of sinking. You think everyone is fine and comfortable. Then you realize this friend who is your good, good friend can say things that hurt you, can make comments about race that burn. You see your mistakes. Maybe you should have just circled around the topic, never really stepping into that conversation, the same strategy you use with so many of your white friends. You could have talked about other topics like weekend plans or your children and thus remained in safer realms.

But the divine spark of recognition has found you, and now you know race is at the core of the problems with your friend. So consider your friendship. Think about her qualities that are wonderful. Think about if you want to keep the friend. Observe if you have some sort of nagging feeling that there might be something to preserve. As will sometimes happen, you may realize that you’re okay if this friendship slips away. If so, just embrace this truth as an unexpected gift.

If, however, you believe in preservation, now is when you can make several choices. You can continue to ignore the statements your friend made about race that bothered you and slap a Band-Aid over the relationship. Call your friend or write an email and apologize for your nutty behavior and anger over inconsequential issues. Then tell yourself that you need to check your responses and conjure up a bunch of gracious feelings that overflow from your soul in calm, quiet, and even conversation.

(It is important to note that if you choose this path, the path without rocks and bumps and large potholes, know that in the future you will again read the, “Field Guide to the Unraveling of Your Interracial Friendships.” You will then wonder how you got here once more. That’s okay. Repetition of experience may usher in greater understanding.)

Alternatively, you may decide that this friendship matters and that honesty should leave little room for Band-Aids and quick fixes. So now you need to wait for time to do the thing that time does best: pass. And have patience. Have lots and lots of patience because repair work can be slow. On both sides of the friendship, whatever hurt exists needs to soften. Even if you long for everything to resolve, value the silence that might stretch from weeks to months to beyond a year. Think how this gives you time to mull over the friendship and the casual way you both spoke about race. Be thankful for the space to sort through why you felt unable to tell your friend when her words hurt. Perhaps she will be doing the same thing. In these silent times, the friendships meant to last will separate from the chaff.

Remember patience. The waiting might give you hope that this story will find a way to continue. Still you should know that there is never a guarantee. If relationships are like wine, some get better with age and some become no better than vinegar. Keep praying yours becomes the one you want to drink.

Then just maybe one day, on a random Tuesday afternoon, in the near or distant future, one of you will decide to pick up the phone, sit down at the computer, or knock on the other person’s door. The air will smell fragrant. Time will reach an unexplainable point of being “right.” Contact will happen again. And you will both discover yourselves to be changed people.

Together you will begin talking, and this time you will embrace an uncomfortable authenticity, speaking the words you once hid. A conversation here. Another conversation later. Even later a longer conversation maybe stretching into the dark night. Together you will see how your friendship—your interracial friendship—began to unravel. You and the other person will accept that as much as you don’t want to be people who hurt their friends, you both wear the cloak of humanity. When it comes to discussing race, the risk of wounding each other becomes high.

Still you will remember why once upon a time you saw her cream skin, she saw your brown skin, and you both wanted to stay. As you talk over weeks or maybe months or even beyond a year, you will understand that racial reconciliation can’t be reduced to a list of what to say and what not to say. It might be the intentional journey to discover the experience of another person, another culture, another part of the human race. Woven in with all the mess, you and your friend will get to touch this profound beauty. If that happens, run your fingers across the fibers of this life, touching each unique thread, knowing your friend touches a different version of the same.

•••

PATRICE GOPO’s recent essays have appeared in Gulf Coast and online in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in North Carolina, and she is currently at work on a collection of essays.

 

The Soft Substance of a Living Thing

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

By Randy Osborne

In high school after lunch I goofed off in the library with my misfit friends Richard and Joel. Richard: grubby, overweight, and indifferent, with taped-together glasses that sat crooked on his head. Joel: milk-white skin, wispy hair, and translucent, vaguely bluish eyes, like an alien. Voice so deep it was almost inaudible. My boys.

On this day, I was getting over a bad cold. My entire face hurt. We sat at one of those round study tables. Joel, who would die of a rare disease a few years after graduation, said something unexpectedly funny and I laughed—really more like a snort, with unintended oomph.

My entire sinus cavity … disgorged.

There was a lot.

The result was not something that could be discreetly nostrilled up, like a worm that poked from its hole (maybe they saw, maybe they didn’t). It was a hot, greenish-yellow blob, like something from another world that covered my lips, and half my chin, and was advancing. The jackpot of snot.

As teenage boys we reveled in bodily functions, of course, but in the seconds after my blast each of us knew in his own way that I had gone too far, albeit helplessly and by surprise. Richard and Joel gaped. They cackled. I did the only thing I could think of.

With a cupped paw, I wiped away the seeping, viscous wad. Then I chased Richard and Joel around the library with it, my handful of disgrace. We howled with a kind of weird joy, they scrambling, me in pursuit as the masters of world literature gazed down at us from the shelves, disdainfully.

Fast-forward a decade or so. Joel was no longer among us, and I’d lost track of Richard, as one often does after high school. I was getting married. In those days, state law required emissions tests not only for cars but that, too. The doctor used one of those cotton-swab sticks, like a Q-tip but about nine inches long. It didn’t have to be that long.

“Wait,” I said. “Why is this even necessary? My fiancé is the only person I’ve ever had sex with.” This was true. Go ahead and feel sad for me here if you want. I felt a little sad for myself.

AIDS wasn’t around back then, but herpes was, and syphilis, and gonorrhea. Also human papillomavirus, or HPV. I read the other day that every sexually active person will come into contact with HPV at some point, if not one of the others. Think of it. An ordinary person’s loins are seething with contagion. Maybe you’ll meet someone new tonight.

The doctor muttered something about public health. “We just want to keep you honest,” he said, and I realized, possibly for the first time in my stupid existence, that I could lie but my body would tell the truth.

Next I was a new husband, with a job: photographer for the weekly newspaper in our northern Illinois town. One day my editor sent me to shoot the girl’s swim team at the high school, which had won some kind of award. I arrived at the appointed hour during practice, everybody out of the pool, lined up. Thanks to a powerful strobe flash on the camera, I was able to stand far enough back to fit all of these nubile beauties into the frame. I left the school feeling good. I’ve always felt good, leaving schools.

In the parking lot I heard distant sirens, then closer, and then a line of squad cars followed by an ambulance heading into the cemetery across the street.

Because I was a newsman, I followed them. To the body, which lay face-down on a grave in front of the headstone. I captured that image, and next the overall scene, then zoom: the lad’s half-open mouth, tousled hair, the cassette player near his elbow.

A guy came over yelling and waving his arms. Owner of the cemetery, private property, get out, no pictures, get out get out. Because I was a newsman, I photographed that guy, teeth bared and veins bulging on his forehead.

Later he phoned the office and apologized for his rage. Just came out in the moment, he said. I lost control. But he also threatened to sue if we used the pictures. A boy who lost his girlfriend, as people like to call it, in a traffic accident had shot himself on her resting place while their favorite song played.

We consulted our lawyer. Yes, any cemetery is private property. But the usual rules don’t apply when an event of public concern takes place on it. An event, he said, of public concern.

We didn’t use the pictures.

I peered over my editor’s shoulder at the prints of the swim team. It must have been the strobe flash, the water still on the girls fresh out of the pool, and the weave of their nylon suits. Two rows of beaming maidens faced us looking—except for the faintest shadows of what they wore—as naked as newborns, albeit more interesting. “Nice,” my editor said. “We can’t use these either.”

Fast-forward another ten years into my starter marriage, as people like to say afterward. Let’s extend the housing metaphor and say it was a fixer-upper. Let’s say it had a weak foundation, and was falling down around us. It did.

They say the body is the house for the soul, the body that secretes and excretes and blurts. The body that things come out of, not always planned, and can’t be put back in. The body that’s cut and bruised in wrecks of all kinds. The body that’s brokenhearted. That might be hidden, and—in a flash—exposed.

Wikipedia defines flesh as “the soft substance of the body of a living thing.” The body: private property we have no choice about showing other people, since the body is where we meet them, in our mutually arranged or accidental events of public concern. It’s the site of inevitable trespass, too, at least until the house is foreclosed on, emptied, and then gone altogether.

I still think about that swim team.

•••

RANDY OSBORNE’s writing has appeared in various online literary magazines. In 2014, his work was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces, which first appeared in Full Grown People, is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book of personal essays.

Read more FGP essays by Randy Osborne.

Must Love Horses, Must Love Dogs

playgroundhorses
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lisa Romeo

The first thing I remember about Nancy is her laugh—full throated, companionable, frequent, wise. Nancy was about thirty-three then; I was nineteen, in college studying journalism. With her, I felt secure and mature, understood and supported. We met at a competitive hunter-jumper show stable in upstate New York, where we both boarded horses, hers bought with a husband’s money, mine with a father’s funds. Nancy encouraged me to be more serious about my riding goals and slightly less serious about school, to have more fun, because if I wasn’t at the stables, I did little but study. Nancy was confident, capable, and spontaneous. She had grit, and what my father used to call gusto.

Nancy’s interest in me felt palpable, and it seemed I could tell her everything, if I wanted. I watched her keep confidences and protect others in the often snipey, political world of horse showing, and I saw that she was loyal. I knew a secret sent her way was sealed. And so I told her mine. That I was secretly in love with a black stable manager back home in New Jersey, that I was occasionally and of course also secretly seeing a married horse show manager, and that despite the horses and ribbons and Dean’s List and my father’s polyester money, I’d always felt like an outsider.

But here’s the funny thing about a friendship rooted in a shared and specialized activity: two people can spend a lot of time together—in riding lessons, on the trail, in the stalls, setting jumps, sitting up overnight when the other’s horse is sick, driving to look at horses to buy—and know everything about how the other rides and what she can and can’t do in the saddle, and what she dreams about in that narrow arena of equestrian longing, and still know little of that person’s life outside, in the world. It’s shocking then, and a bit sad, to find that the person you already counted as your closest friend (or maybe that’s closest horse friend), has another life away from you, and that it is also wide, satisfying, and absorbing.

Slowly, I realized that what I knew of Nancy was only what she chose to reveal to other horse people. It wasn’t until six months after we became close that I realized in many ways I did not yet know her at all. I knew she was married, but not to an erudite, urbane man twenty-one years older than she. I knew she was a part-time stepmother, but not to an out-of-control teenage girl who routinely told her to fuck off, and to a twenty-two-year-old money-sucking manchild. I knew the horses came via her husband’s money, but not that he was the founding partner of a prominent local law firm. I didn’t know she’d first met Mark when he was on a business trip and that it broke up his marriage and that his first wife went a little crazy over it and once tried to hurt some people she loved. I didn’t yet know that Nancy had started out in a lower middle class family and floundered after college, but that by the time I met her she could stage a charity gala, do the New York Times Sunday crossword fast and in ink, or that while she loved having time and resources to ride, she secretly speculated about doing something else entirely.

I learned all of this almost all at once the first few times Nancy invited me for dinner at her house, which was about midway between the stable and campus. I’d unknowingly driven past it almost daily. I quickly became a regular, eating, watching movies, playing Scrabble, settling in. I loved having a family to hang out with, a house to feel at home in, where I could walk in the back door without knocking. We three spent many nights, for many months, then for years, around their kitchen table, me trying to figure out so much, including what I should do about the married horseman and how much of my post-college life to spend on the show circuit. Because I took college courses over the summers, Nancy and I grew closer, and because the twenty-mile drive between campus and stable worried my father, I moved into a condominium steps from Nancy’s house.

•••

I was five when my only sister left home in New Jersey for college in New England; the void seemed unfillable, but soon Laura and her family moved in next door. She was two years older; our connection was immediate and intense, and until midway through high school, we were often mistaken for sisters. We liked being called “Lucy and Ethel” for the hijinks we got into, especially when she traveled with my parents and me. Though Laura temporarily abandoned me for a boy, her future husband, I forgave her because I abandoned her, too, when my father’s business profits spiked, bringing me the horses I’d yearned to own.

Once I started riding—late, at age fourteen—I always also had a “best horse friend,” though typically not another spoiled teenager. I drifted instead toward young women who were older than me and either could afford only mediocre horses or whose parents managed a promising horse but not the monthly board and show fees—riders who were “working off” expenses by mucking stalls, resetting fences, cleaning tack, packing the horse van. I liked their workmanlike demeanor and pragmatic approach, because though I never needed to work to whittle expenses (at one point I owned three horses at a time or, I should say, my father did), I also had parents who didn’t brook entitlement.

Laura, a runner, had no interest in horses, and I had no interest in training for a marathon; she had a steady boyfriend, and I had a steady need to spend every moment with my horse. While this might have broken up other teenage girls who had been friends since preschool, it didn’t break us.

•••

Mark and Nancy were good neighbors, and I burrowed further into their family. It was Nancy who found a handyman (before Mark came home) to fix the garage door that I backed into. It was Nancy who folded me in her arms and poured me a scotch and talked me over the unfamiliar grief when the married guy was killed in an accident. It was Nancy who kept me fed when I was too busy studying and too nervous about finals to shop or cook.

When I graduated, it was Mark who gave me a generous check and conducted mock job interviews, and helped me weigh unpaid internships and low wage journalism starter jobs against my father’s offer to fund a few years on the horse show circuit while I tried to make it as a freelance writer—and didn’t criticize my inevitable decision to light out for the West Coast horse show circuit, typewriter in tow.

And when, after eighteen months in California, I moved my horses back to New York and the East Coast circuit, it was Nancy and Mark who gave me their guest room while I apartment-shopped and healed from another break-up, and Nancy who performed a mini-makeover when I plunged into a depression about my big-boned, brown-haired, Italian-girl appearance, fueled by constant exposure to California girls, horse show princesses, and the hopeful actors who had lived in my Los Angeles apartment complex.

Nancy wasn’t classically pretty – she had a long nose, big teeth, kinky hair, freckles, chunky calves—and I liked that about her because I had a wide nose, a broken (and not very elegantly fixed) front tooth, frizzy hair, and thick thighs. But Nancy knew how to buy cosmetics and use them, what expensive clothes could do for a soft figure, the wisdom of paying for a great haircut, and how to use the right blow dryer and brush. She knew, in the early 1980s, about teeth-whitening, juice cleanses, all natural facials, the tonic of a weekly pedicure (manicures were a waste for riders), and what not to wear. She suggested, I nodded. She selected, I agreed. And though I could have paid, she treated.

I’m not sure what I did for Nancy, what I offered or gave her. Perhaps I was the stepdaughter she didn’t get—guileless, rule-bound, happy to hug and hang around the dinner table, who valued her counsel. Maybe I felt like family, when her own was hours away and disapproving, and her husband was consumed with work, and all around town she kept running into people loyal to Mark’s ex-wife. Though she was friendly with other riders, I was the only one whose reach extended beyond the stable driveway. Maybe there was no other reason except, as I’ve always believed, we just clicked.

•••

What I knew about friendship by then was only this: you stuck, until the other person peeled away. And then, you stuck still; things might change. During college Laura was consumed with pre-med studies and her future husband; me with horses and writing, but we reconnected on college breaks and pretended to still understand one another’s lives. I was a bridesmaid in her wedding a few weeks after I graduated; she helped pack when my parents moved to Las Vegas; we loaned each other shoes.

After college, while I was riding on the West Coast circuit and writing for equestrian magazines, Nancy and I kept in touch with phone calls and letters. But her letters grew shorter, clipped, the calls abbreviated. I often reached her answering machine, and I wondered if she was standing in her kitchen listening, as I’d seen her do many times when someone she didn’t care much for phoned with some request. Soon, the letters and calls were mostly about why Nancy and her horses were leaving the fancy equestrian center for a smaller, less competitive stable when she grew more interested in the slow dance of dressage and the science of horse breeding—and in dogs.

When I moved back and settled in an apartment near her house, I returned to our old stable and trainer, but Nancy never visited me there, though I spent chunks of days at the barn where she’d moved her horses.

One chilled spring night she and I met a plane at the nearest major airport, where a flight attendant passed us a sealed medical bucket, a tube of high-priced semen from a champion dressage horse inside. We drove an hour back to Nancy’s stable, freezing because we blasted the air conditioning to keep the sperm active, and when we arrived, I held her mare’s tail aside as Nancy inserted the baster-like syringe. Eleven months later, we slept on horse blankets tossed over hay bales, taking turns to check on that mare every twenty minutes, and I was the one who first spotted the steaming foal in the straw.

Perhaps experiences like this seduced me into thinking we might stay bound, for a long time, forever. When my three-year post-graduate “parentship” of riding and writing ended, I left for a regular job in Manhattan and an apartment back home in New Jersey. There, I found a place at Laura and her husband’s kitchen table, where I also eventually found someone special, someone appropriate and available. I’d still occasionally make the four-hour drive north to visit Nancy and Mark, and one weekend I brought Frank. By then they were living on twenty acres in a stunning Danish modern house they’d designed together. Nancy, by then, had her own barn, but owned more canines than equines and was considering becoming a dog trainer.

•••

For someone who, for thirteen years, had been spending much of each day in a stable and at horse show grounds, where dogs of all kinds and sizes were always in residence, I was surprisingly intolerant of the animal. I found many dogs cute and sometimes admired their loyalty and how their humans loved them, but I did not love dogs. I detested being licked, and I was always tamping down blades of fear that rose whenever any dog, large or small, got too close: as a child, I was once charged by my grandmother’s huge Collie, who lived, wild and wolf-like, on acres of his own.

I wanted to be good-friend-enthusiastic about Nancy’s dog plans, and I thought I was, but that weekend I sensed that she wanted more from me, wanted me to be invested in her three dogs and bigger dog dreams, to be physical with them, and to want to know everything about them, as we once wanted to know everything about one another’s horses. These were Australian Shepherds, energetic, and to my mind, frenetic, aggressive dogs, and I couldn’t get beyond an obligatory pat. The time I’d hoped we’d spend with her horses while Frank and Mark watched a tennis match, we instead spent in an open field, Nancy showing off her dogs’ natural and learned skills. I watched, muttered faint praise, but I was bored and at moments, frightened. I know it showed.

Years later, I would come to think of this as the reason our friendship fractured, but at the time it was clouded by something else that seemed more threatening. On Sunday morning when Frank was in the shower and the three of us were around the kitchen table, I asked what they thought of my boyfriend. Oh, he’s nice, they said, a really great guy—but. But he has no college education. But he’s kind of unsophisticated. But we always pictured you with someone older, someone with money.

I laughed it off, tried to lighten the moment: Ha! I know! Opposites attract, right? But the kitchen air felt heavy and no one was laughing.

I had valued Nancy’s opinions and Mark’s, too, for years, maybe too much. I wanted to remind Nancy that, years before, her friends had warned her off Mark (too old, too married, two kids). I also wanted to say that they were not the only people to think this, that what they were saying I had even said to myself a few times, but that my heart pulled me. But no words formed in my mouth. The subject changed.

A year or so later, I married him.

Since the weekend visit, Nancy and I had talked by phone, written letters. In those conversations, on those pages, everything seemed the same and also different. Though I still had a horse, my equestrian life was winding down, my career and home life expanding. Nancy was selling off her horses, immersing herself in the dog world.

Years later, re-reading those letters, it seemed clear that she was losing interest in what had tied us together, the horses and stables, and maybe more in the idea of keeping up a long distance friendship with someone whose life and interests now no longer matched hers. All I knew then was that so much was left unsaid, unexamined, so unlike in our previous friendship, the one we’d forged in person, on horseback and around a kitchen table.

•••

Frank and I were getting married on Mother’s Day, and several people had replied “regretfully cannot attend,” citing mothers or mothers-in-law or stepmothers. Months before, Nancy had laughed off my request that she be my matron of honor (I’m too old. You should ask your sister), and she’d shown little interest in my wedding planning. Still, this didn’t alarm me. She’d always favored the unfussy approach to traditional events. I was confident I’d see Nancy and Mark at our wedding; Mark’s mother was dead, Nancy’s then estranged, and they disliked “Hallmark holidays”.

But they did not come to our wedding.

When no response appeared, I called, left messages (Did you get the invitation? Are you guys okay? Are you coming?). Even if the invitation had not arrived, my letters had all the details. I knew only that they were just 200 miles away, and that someone who they once held dear was getting married, and they did not respond, did not come, did not send a gift, or a card, did not.

In the end, one of those who stood by my side was my old friend Laura, and her husband handed Frank the ring. They had a child by then, were settling in to parenthood, had a sprawling expensive house, and ascending careers. None of that resembled the life Frank and I were then forging. But we’d stuck.

I thought I might try contacting Nancy and Mark again after my honeymoon, thinking that there must have been some major problem. Mutual acquaintances, however, shrugged and said they knew of nothing that might explain their absence. In the months that followed, I cried, but that was all I did. I did not call, did not write, did not.

In the silence of rejection, guilt and regret rose up. Something precious and important to me was ending and there must have been something I’d done.

•••

Eight years later, I saw Nancy one more time.

After several years of infertility, I then had a two-year-old son and had just miscarried another pregnancy. What had always helped me after an emotional setback was a weekend on my own. I drove upstate on a Friday and spent Saturday visiting a beloved college professor and my old stable—people and places that once made me feel strong and confident, back at a time when I was sure so much good was ahead.

I knew Nancy and Mark had moved ninety miles away, and I took a quiet, long, out-of-the-way route home on Sunday, see-sawing in my mind those first eighty-five miles, debating if I’d stop in or not. I didn’t have an address, but I assumed it wouldn’t be hard to locate them or perhaps Mark’s son Alex, now a caterer in the same small town. When I phoned information, Alex’s number was the first offered, and when I called, he immediately realized who I was, his greeting so effusive that I wondered if we had once been friendlier than I remembered. He said he’d call ahead to let his dad and Nancy know I was on my way, that he was certain they’d both be so very pleased to see me after so long.

As I turned off the main road, it was Mark who was already waving, already trotting out the front door and across the porch and down the front steps, Mark who was smiling when he jogged to meet my car in the gravel drive that separated their large home, a converted Dutch colonial barn, from a huge metal pole barn and kennels where, I’d learn, Nancy ran a major dog training, breeding, and boarding business.

It was Mark who said how happy he’d been when Alex called, Mark who hugged me. It was Mark who assured me that Nancy would be thrilled to see me when she got back from the farmer’s market. And so it was Mark who I talked with for an hour over coffee, Mark who took me on a tour and explained how they’d moved the barn to the property and restored it with period materials and furnished it with regional antiques. It was Mark I told about my small struggling child and his developmental issues and the babies I’d lost and how I might not have another, and it was Mark who said how he was never so happy to have been wrong about someone, meaning Frank. As he talked, I realized that for the first time—which even then I knew was ridiculous given how obvious it suddenly seemed and must have been since the first night I’d had dinner with them—how much Mark reminded me of my father.

He said Nancy would show me around the dog operation, would want to tell me everything about her thriving new business, and why she didn’t ride anymore.

But none of that happened. Nancy came home and registered surprise but little other obvious emotion. She scrubbed vegetables while we talked, and the conversation didn’t have that intense compressed quality of reunited old friends who talk over one another’s sentences and are unable to stop grinning. She did not show me the dog buildings, and we did not talk of horses or the show ring gossip I’d heard the day before. Since I had already told Mark my other stories, I glossed over it all, hoping he’d fill her in later (hoping, too, that he would not). I felt the visit slipping from me. Until then, the weekend had done its job, replenishing my depleted energy, balm for my sore heart, reminding me of all that can still lie ahead; now, I was spiraling back in the other direction.

I had to go.

First though, and while Mark was out of the room, I did ask what I had come to say: “I’ve always wondered—why you didn’t come to my wedding? Did I do something?” I chickened out at the last moment from adding, Why did you leave me? Was it me? I missed you so much. You broke my heart.

I was prepared for anything—a secret illness, scandal, a simmering grudge, an argument that I’d forgotten or pretended was trivial when it wasn’t, some slight I’d once dealt and then denied—but mostly I was prepared for something, some reason, any reason.

The answer came, on waves of Nancy’s throaty laugh. She couldn’t remember, she said. It was years ago, she said. There must have been something going on, she said. Maybe that was when Mark’s business collapsed. The time she’d had kidney stones. Or when they were moving. It could have been breeding season. Maybe they were in Europe.

•••

I am now warm friends with several women at least a decade older than me. Occasionally, when I’m having brunch or a glass of wine with one of them, I find myself thinking, this is someone Nancy would like. When I’m keeping in touch with them via text, Twitter, and Facebook, I occasionally think, if only we had so many ways to stay in touch back then, maybe Nancy and I would still be in touch. Maybe.

I thought of Nancy most recently when Frank and I were setting out food for the New Year’s Eve board-game-party we toss together at the last minute every year with Laura and her husband. Over the years, they have gone as far in the opposite directions as possible from us in matters of politics, religion, child-rearing ideas—even sport teams. But we stick, still. That night, in those quiet moments between our laughter, I drifted, as I do sometimes, to new theories about losing Nancy: I was searching for another older sister who, unlike my own, thought horses were important, and later, when my sister and I grew closer, Nancy sensed that I had less need of her. I was the younger sister Nancy always longed for, and then I eventually, naturally, outgrew the role. I took advantage of their hospitality too constantly. I was the child that she’d agreed, when she married Mark, never to have, and once I’d moved on to adulthood, we’d all outgrown those poorly understood roles.

•••

A few years ago, I looked for them both on Facebook. Mark returned my friend request within hours: So glad to reconnect…what nice looking sons you have…I hope you and Frank are well. He was in his late seventies, posting about running road races, new business ventures, fine wines. He looked great, fit and friendly. For a year, I hit Like on many of his posts. Then they all stopped. I was afraid to find out why.

My friend request to Nancy (Hello old friendI’d love to be back in touch…I have so many great memories…) languished, and when finally she approved it, there was no personal reply. Her Facebook page was all about dogs. I had nothing to say about that, and finally, nothing to say at all.

•••

LISA ROMEO is a freelance editor and founding faculty member of Bay Path University’s online MFA program. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Under the Sun, Sweet, Hippocampus, Sport Literate, Under the Gum Tree, and several anthologies. She is seeking a publisher for her memoir, The Father and Daughter Reunion: Every Loss Story is a Love Story. Lisa lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo, or at her blog, where she posts interviews and resources for writers.

Picking Sides

laughing
By Danor Shtruzman/ flickr

By Amy E. Robillard

We’d talked about going to the German restaurant in Gibson City for years. Well, my friends had talked about it and I’d played along, neither enthusiastically nor unenthusiastically. When I thought of German food, what came to mind was the German restaurant we went to in high school as part of the German class field trip. I didn’t love it. Sausage and schnitzel don’t rate high on my list, I guess. But then Elise reminded me about strudel. Who doesn’t love a good strudel?

So the six of us—Chris and Christy, Elise and Jeremy, and Steve and I—all drove the forty-five minutes through the cornfields of Illinois one Saturday night to give it a try. I’d been hearing wonderful things about Bayern Stube for more than ten years now, and Steve loves sausage. Oh, does he love sausage. He’d studied the online menu for days and he knew just what he wanted: the huge platter of assorted sausages.

We’re seated at a huge table in the very back room, past the rooms decorated in the dark tones we’d come to associate with German-themed anything. This room is too brightly lit and feels more like a banquet room. It’s decorated—if you can call it that—with both parts of and entire dead animals. A deer head here, an entire turkey splayed out and flattened onto the wall over there. Antlers. Bearskins. “Do you get the sense that Grandpa went a little nuts decorating this room?” Jeremy asks. But only Elise and I can hear him because the table is so big and the chairs so wide and the room so loud that conversation is limited to those sitting closest to us. There’s a party of six at a round table behind us, a party of probably ten at the table next to us, and a party of five or so plus a toddler over there in the corner.

The waitresses are wearing dirndl dresses with the gathered white blouse and it’s hard not to notice how prominent their breasts are. It’s like the German version of Hooters. Our waitress takes our drink orders and disappears for a half hour. A half hour. We beg a waiter for water. It arrives only after our drinks. Steam is coming out of Steve’s ears and I’m beginning to feel the stress of his frustration. I try to make him laugh. We joke that we’d get up and leave except that this is the only restaurant in town.

We study the menu. I’m still not quite sure what a schnitzel is, but the one with apples and gruyere cheese on top sounds good. The Bismarck. We watch our waitress deliver a tray full of drinks to the table of six behind us. We salivate. “I’m feeling a little parched,” I say, smacking my lips together. I tell them all about our plans to go on vacation with the dogs up to Door County in June. We’ll be staying at a dog-friendly inn right on the lake and, as part of the “Hot Dog” package, we’ll get a gift card to a local dog-friendly restaurant whose selling points include a doggy menu. It kills me to imagine Wrigley and Essay sitting at a table with us, looking over the menu, deciding what they’re in the mood for. Yes, we’d like four of everything, please, says Wrigley to the waiter. “They’ll probably be served before we are,” someone says.

At last, our drinks arrive. Steve’s full liter of beer is in a huge glass stein and he drinks it very quickly. Mine is in a smaller glass stein and not nearly as impressive looking. Soon our waters arrive and we order. We’re in it for the long haul, it seems, so we’d better get comfortable. These chairs. They’re huge and hard and the baby over in the corner cries every now and then, a sound that grates on some of our nerves. In order to hear each other, we have to practically shout and still some of us are lost in our own conversations.

I come from a long line of loud people. My mother’s sneezes could wake the dead and her laughter could be heard up the street. In nearly every job that I’ve ever had, my loud laugh has been the subject of attention, both good and bad, but mostly good. When I move my office at school from one in a long hallway of colleagues to a much bigger but more remote one, my colleagues tell me how they miss hearing me laugh.

Our food arrives to much fanfare. We’re hungry. We need another round of drinks. One of the tables behind us clears out, making the toddler’s cries more prominent. Midway through our meal, a woman from the toddler table comes over to our table, and I wish I could describe better what happened but I couldn’t look at her and only Jeremy and Elise and Christy and I heard her ask me to please stop laughing because every time I laugh it scares the toddler and she starts crying. I can’t look at her. Jeremy doesn’t look at her. I probably set my lips tight together and nod. Later I learn that Christy gives her the stink eye. I don’t know what we say to her, if anything, to get her to leave, but she’s apologizing as she’s asking me to stop being so loud. Steve doesn’t hear her and we have to report to him and Chris what just happened. I’m mortified. I try to summon anger as my friends respond with outrage as they process what just happened.

“Why isn’t that baby home in bed?”

“It’s clear who runs the show in that household. Baby gets what Baby wants.”

“A kid who’s afraid of laughter. Christ.”

“You are not too loud. I love your laugh.”

“Who does that?”

Steve, realizing what’s happened, says in their general direction, “We’re too loud?”

I want the subject to change. I’m mortified and all I can think about is how I couldn’t even look at her when she was talking directly to me. But my friends continue defending me and I almost can’t bear it. Because I can see the woman’s point. Almost too easily, I slip from my own perspective into hers and I imagine that if I were at a restaurant with my toddler and there was a woman at a nearby table whose laugh was particularly loud, I, too, might ask her if she could perhaps be a bit quieter. Maybe I would have done it differently, more kindly perhaps, but I couldn’t inhabit my own position, feel my own anger and self-righteousness for more than a minute or two before shifting to empathy for her position.

We’re a culture concerned with empathy these days, the popular sentiment being that we don’t have enough of it. But having too much of it and accessing it too quickly can be as destructive as not having any.

Christy asks me what I would have said if I’d been able.

“Probably something along the lines of ‘Fuck you.’”

“You should’ve,” she says.

Our table goes quiet for a little bit as we all absorb what’s happened. I remind my friends of the time that another friend of ours, sitting next to me at patio table on a summer day, got up and moved to another chair after dramatically covering his ear with his hand in response to my laugh.

“Well,” says Jeremy. “This puts a damper on the evening.”

Steve is upset that he didn’t realize what was happening when it was happening because he would’ve defended me better, he says.

I often tell my rhetoric students that once I’m done with them, they’ll never be able to see the world the same way. I tell them that I’m out to ruin their lives. Experiences they’d never thought twice about would become fodder for analysis, and they’d recognize dominant ideology everywhere they turned. As my friends rushed to my defense, I wanted the subject to change because I kept thinking that if they’d been sitting at the table with the toddler, they’d be rushing to the mother’s defense just as vehemently. And they would’ve been very good at it. Their defense of me, I couldn’t help but think, was so obviously biased.

And then, a few days later, telling the story to another friend, I found myself saying that it’s not as though I would’ve wanted the opposite situation: to be called out like that and to have my friends agree with the woman. Yeah, Amy, you’re way too loud. We’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. Could you please just stop laughing?

That would’ve been a nightmare.

A few more days later and now I think I get it. It’s never just about what we think it’s about.

When I was a kid, my older sister abused me. She hit me and insulted me and told my friends how stupid and fat I was. She told me to shut up when I sneezed. Margie’s bedroom was next to mine, and the house was configured so that to get to her room, she had to go through mine—just a few steps, but enough to make me feel like I could never really shut the door or shut her out. My door was always open.

Bedtime. Margie walks through to her room. “You little shit. You’re dead.”

Middle of the night. Margie walks back through to the one bathroom in the house. “Little fucker. Fat shit.”

Back to her room. “Skank.”

Morning. “You’re dead, you little shit.”

And so it went, with our mother doing nothing to stop it. I always had the sense that Ma didn’t believe me when I told her about Margie hitting me, giving me bloody noses. But now I think that she couldn’t bear to see it and so she just didn’t. She looked away. She told me to stay away from her. She made it about me, what I was doing or not doing.

When my friends sought every possible way to defend me, to protect me from the shame they knew I’d probably eventually be feeling, they were doing what my mother never did, and I didn’t know how to accept it. I just wanted to change the subject.

I never got my strudel. They had cherry or apple/raisin. Steve and I were going to share dessert, but he doesn’t like cherry and I didn’t want raisins in my apple strudel. Instead we passed around a piece of black forest cake and when the family with the toddler left, Steve said to them, in his most sarcastic voice, “Have a nice night.”

•••

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

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

Friendship and a Bottle of Mirto

bikes
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Powell Berger

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

She nodded and shrugged.

“I loved him, you know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No shit,” I said in return.

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

•••

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