Go That Way, Very Fast. If Something Gets In Your Way, Turn.

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Erica S. Brath

I was on my way home from a writers’ conference. I was about to get on the highway when I noticed it was a three-lane parking lot. So I kept going, That’s when the GPS started freaking out, trying to turn me around. I put my turn signal on, until I realized it was taking me back to where I’d started.

“No! I will not turn around. I will not go back.” I was white knuckled, jerking my father’s pickup truck around unfamiliar roads in the middle of Ohio. I clicked off the screen, tossed the phone in the console, and started looking for a place to pull over to consult a map.

“Damn it. I fucking hate Ohio!” I screamed in frustration as no shoulder wide enough to keep a Dodge Ram safe from passing traffic appeared.

I’ve been in these situations before, unsure of where I am, just driving forward, fear growing in the pit of my stomach. It rises to just below my ribcage and sits, nagging, anxiety pushing my pulse higher no matter how many times I count to ten.

“When you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, take a moment to stop, find your center and breathe,” the yoga instructors always say, calm, peaceful, so fucking Zen you want to push them over and hit up a pastry shop.

Which may be why I have never actually been able to find that rock-solid island in the middle of adrenaline- and coffee-fueled chaos.

But for some reason, as I started to feel the blood pounding behind my eyeballs, I simply stopped. Not literally, because I was still cruising through cow-infested verdant fields of summer green, dotted now and then with absolutely adorable farmhouses, many with hearse-like black buggies next to cherubic boys in dark pants, white shirts and wide-brimmed hats, standing like tiny undertakers all in a row.

But for a single, blissed-out moment I didn’t care if I was lost, or where I was going. The truck said I was going east. That was good enough for me, because I needed to be in Ithaca, New York.

The fields sped by in my peripheral vision. Farmhouses, barns, buggies all started to look the same; I worried I was just going around in circles. I thought about life: Just because the scenery changes doesn’t mean you’re going forward. Or anywhere at all.

Was I going anywhere? What the hell was I doing anyway?


I’d spent nearly a decade taking dozens of road trips with my husband, Sean. We’d driven between Pennsylvania and Virginia more times than I could remember, the most epic when we headed south pulling a newly-purchased twenty-nine-foot travel trailer. This was before either one of us had smart phones―maps and calls to my mother-in-law had to suffice for directions or information on where to get a half-decent cup of coffee―and well before our best efforts at making a life together imploded.

Now, he was in Philadelphia in a full-blown crash and burn―the countless calls and text messages I’d received over the course of the conference confirmed that. He was broke, out of work, homeless, and battling addiction. He blamed me, his mother, and anyone else who, in his mind, had let him down over the course of his life.

I know the fairytale grown-up world I thought existed when I was in my teens , where my―of course, British―rock star husband provides me with enough disposable income to chase whatever creative muse might flit by. I’m cool with working my ass off in conjunction with an equally driven partner. But that’s not how things had turned out.

We’d gone to hell and back during the recession, but we’d managed to finally eke out a somewhat decent existence. He’d returned to masonry with a small company outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and I had lucked into a job as a screenprinter—finally utilizing my BFA—after nearly a year working retail for eight dollars an hour. I’d also found an amazing group of creative, talented friends. I’d never imagined anywhere below the Mason-Dixon could feel like home, but it was tolerable, considering I was northeast born and bred.

“I can’t do what I want here,” he’d started saying from almost the moment we moved to C’ville. “No one here plays the kind of music I do.”

His musical talent is unmatched, so I was sympathetic. I don’t feel that way because I married him―I wouldn’t have married him had he been mediocre. Cold, yes, but if I were going to fully support his creativity, I had to believe in it. He was the real deal. I wanted to see him succeed.

“What do you want to do?” I asked with some trepidation when his misery finally reached a fever pitch three years into our foray in the south.

“I need to move back north.”

He’d made several weeks-long trips to Philadelphia that year to practice and play with his band, which consisted of the same guys he’d been in a previous band with before I met him. He’d handed me their CD shortly after we met―I put it in my car’s player knowing that if it sucked I’d have to break up with him. They were amazing, with the kind of chemistry that doesn’t come around often.

“Well, so, what do you want to do?” I repeated. “What’s your plan?”

It seemed straightforward enough: He’d move back to Philly, where we’d met and lived before the recession kicked us south. I’d stay in Cville and continue working, providing a steady stream of income, stability, and health insurance. He’d get settled, and then I’d pick up stakes and move north.

It fell apart almost from the get-go. He said he couldn’t hold it together without me, and he sank into addiction. I found myself repelled by his neediness. I saw my life with him as a trap. So instead I moved further north. It wasn’t a plan so much as a reaction.


I felt like an asshole, like I’d somehow abandoned him. The guilt still burned red hot as I navigated the winding Ohio roads a full year after he’d packed up a rented van and driven north, away from our cramped, aged camper and onto a completely different life. He wasn’t my kid, he wasn’t a child—he was a full-grown man who refused to take responsibility for his actions. His mother and I had spent countless days and dollars to keep him afloat until it became obvious no amount of assistance would ever be enough. Yet I still felt like a jerk, and I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know if the guilt would ever go away.

And I was sad. I knew in my heart that, in the end, we’d go our separate ways, but it’s not that I didn’t care about him. It didn’t stop me from feeling paralyzed, plodding through life’s motions under a heavy weight. It felt like just another failure, another way I’d managed to veer off life’s path, whatever that was supposed to be.

In many ways the hardest part was the external judgment, which just added to my uncertainty about what I was doing, or should be doing, or should have done. It was almost like the second Sean fell down, those around me headed my way with knives out. They’d been holding back, barely, their disdain, but all bets were off. I found myself putting up walls, forcing my own disdain at what had been, so completely, my life, as if by swearing it off I could convince the world—and those around me—I wasn’t like him.

“I always knew he was bad,” they’d say. “What were you thinking?”

And I’d nod my head in agreement—“Yeah, what was I thinking?”—afraid that if I defended him, they’d judge me harshly, too.

Thing is, he wasn’t actually a bad person. He may have looked like your typical bad boy, and he most certainly embodied the stereotypical rock and roll persona. He was tall, thin, his body angled in sharp lines from hard living and hard labor. He smoked like a chimney, swore off whiskey and the rages it put him into, and sported one—intentionally—amateurish tattoo: a skull and crossbones with the words “fuck off.” He was wholly, unabashedly, loudly uncouth. But he was also a voracious reader and a constant questioner of the kinds of things most people just accepted as fact, which the journalist in me found a kinship with.

When the financial sector collapsed and everyone I knew turned their backs while we struggled, we only had each other to rely on. Losing my ally, my—albeit damaged—champion was like another floor dropping out. He may have been alive in the corporeal sense, but I wasn’t sure the real Sean was ever coming back. And if I waited to find out? How many second chances could I give him before it was too late? I hated myself for even thinking this way, and I hated him.

He’d dropped out of school at sixteen, lived wherever he could find a place to lay his head and was, for the most part, married to music, his second wife. I was his third. Drugs were, and always had been, his first.


I wasn’t sure about moving north, but winter was coming fast and the camper was falling apart. I had to make a decision. I had family in Ithaca, but for all intents and purposes I was broke and alone, save for my two terriers. I was forty-four, not a single possession worth calling my own. Even my own truck, which I’d left for my dad to drive if needed when I headed to Ohio, was a slap in the face: I had a car I loved somewhere along the east coast, which I’d been forced to leave after its water pump quit. Sean was supposed to drive from Philly to Virginia to get it after I moved, and we’d trade in the spring―I’d headed north driving what had been our tow vehicle, our Behemoth, a ’97 Suburban. I had no idea where my car was, or whose dubious possession it might be in, along with the rest of my belongings. So I was limited to very local trips considering the advanced age and state of disrepair of the tow beast.

Which is how I wound up driving more than four hundred miles each way to Ohio in my father’s pickup. I’d attempted to rent a car, but was turned away when it was discovered I was a nomadic ne’er do well.

“My dad’s going to pay for everything,” I said sheepishly, handing over my driver’s license at the rental counter. I was, after all, well beyond the age of my father paying for anything. But he’d offered, and I was in no financial situation to say no. I’d taken a part-time job in Ithaca with the same chain store that had plucked me from jobless perdition in Virginia just to make sure I didn’t go without work. But the pay and hours provided little more than spare change in the adult world I had once been accustomed to living in.

I’d spent thousands of dollars on this particular car rental company; I had no reason to think there would be a problem. They’d gained my loyalty when the engine of my Volkswagen Golf self-destructed in 2010, melting to a puddle of oily, metallic goo on the side of Route 495 in Delaware, leaving me, Sean, and our puppy stranded as traffic zoomed by. Their gimmick was they’d come get you. We’d needed a car. I’d wound up renting from them for well over a month.

So it was a shock when they rejected me.

“If you don’t have a major credit card, we need proof of income and residence,” the woman behind the counter said. “And you’ll have to pay for everything yourself. No one else can pay for you.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, still not comprehending the situation. “Why can’t he just rent the car and add me on as a second driver?”

“Because we need the same information from all drivers, so even if you’re a second driver and you don’t have a major credit card, you still need to prove income and residence.”

My cheeks grew hot, my pulse started to race, and my favorite feeling―enraged embarrassment―took over. I could prove my pittance of an income but not residence. I hadn’t had an actual, legal address in years. By federal law, even as a full-time RVer, I was considered homeless.

“This is outright discrimination,” I stated, digging my fingernails into my palm. “I do not have proof of residence, and why, exactly, do you need proof of income?”

As if I didn’t know: Because if you’re on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, you’re a lazy, shiftless thief. Because people without credit cards don’t work. Because being chosen to hold credit certifies you are an actual citizen in the eyes of the rest of society. That’s what matters―money. Anyone who doesn’t have it is scum and banned from normal activities. Like renting a car to attend a conference. Because lazy impoverished scumbags don’t go to conferences. They’re too busy collecting welfare and doing drugs.

It makes even the strongest-willed person want to crumble. Which is why I can almost understand Sean’s compulsion to numb himself no matter the consequences. Almost.

It’s no secret: I bought into the lie that as an educated person I deserved to live a life of comfort, free from things like being turned away when trying to rent a car. But the life I’ve lived and its choices—some made by me, some hoisted upon me—have shown me that there’s really no escaping the mess that is life.

But I was neither a total failure nor the victim, but something in-between. I loathed working retail and the pittance I earned, but I also hated working seventy-hour weeks in uncomfortable shoes so some CEO could feel impressive and buy something else. I’d been given the chance, an existential Scrooge story in reverse, to decide what, exactly, had to change. Would I keep pushing forward until I found my way? And if it all went to shit, if the traffic stopped moving, was I agile enough to veer off and figure it out without crashing again?

I figured I needed to find the fine line between living in the moment and looking at the long-term ramifications of what I was doing. I’d been cruising along for decades, certain I’d always find another on-ramp and everything would work out for the best. There’s merit in that approach, but also some nasty potholes. Getting hitched in the basement of a bland, brick apartment complex with no witnesses and celebrating afterward with a cup of Dunkin Donuts might have been a place to start thinking about the path I’d been on. But I hadn’t. I needed to find balance. I dreaded becoming stuck, but the other option—full-on hedonism—was also something I couldn’t even bear witness to, let alone indulge.

With the conference behind me, and its amazing writers inspiring me to just get to fucking work, I had to accept I was alone, wandering on the eastern edge of the Midwest. The guilt, the hurt, and the anger still burned in my gut, and probably always would. But was anyone else’s happiness my responsibility? Was it okay to put myself, my ambitions, first?

I’d been taking the most circuitous routes my entire life, but they were mine. I owned them. The writing conference was just another start, a way to meet people like me, wake the muse up and keep going. It wasn’t fucking up so much as it was just life. Could I cut myself some slack? Should I? And more importantly, could I stop feeling sorry for myself and everyone else and do what needed to be done?

“Aha!” I hollered as I spied a sign for the highway. I could see it off to my left, cars and semis flying along. “So there!” I exclaimed, slapping the wheel in triumph, shaking off the melancholy.


ERICA S. BRATH is a non-fiction writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She works as a graphic designer and editor, and has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing her experience living full-time in a travel trailer during the Great Recession. Her website is esbrath.com.

Read more FGP essays by Erica S. Brath.

Pin It

A Gift for My Mother

By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Amber Stevens

My mother called today to tell me her dog died. She spoke in halting, measured tones; she expected me to be devastated. I should have been. After all, I had loved that dog and had chosen her myself from a motley litter of neglected pups shivering in a hole in some asshole’s backyard, a piece of plywood thrown over the top for shelter.

“Twenty bucks for her,” he’d said, then spit a stream of tobacco by my shoe. “Hell, take two. Ain’t got room for ’em pups. Second goddamn litter this year.”

I glared at him. I was fifteen, fearless. These puppies were no more than four weeks old; I could see that. The one I chose would probably be the only survivor. I scooped her out, a trembling golden pup with liquid brown eyes, a gift for my mother, although I was really the one who wanted a dog. Her belly, pink and soft, thrummed against my palm; she mewed like a kitten. I shoved money at the man, muttered thanks, and walked home with that tiny, trembling body tucked in my coat. I loved her already, of course. Her uncomplicated love would fill a void for both my mother and me: for me, she would provide affection and acceptance, and for my mother, she would be the perfectly yielding and submissive creature she’d longed to raise.

When I left home nine years ago, fleeing cool mountain air for desert sky, my only regret was seeing that cocked head poised at the front bay window, watching me drive away. I couldn’t explain to her that I wouldn’t be back that night, or the next, or maybe ever. She had slept piled on my feet for four years, but she was technically my mother’s dog. I’d driven away and left her there and, after a few days, stopped imagining her sitting at the window waiting for my return. It’s a talent I have. Out of sight, out of mind. But I did know this, from conversations I had with my mother over the phone, when conversation with her was still possible: the puppy I’d once rescued from a hole in the ground had grown old, couldn’t run anymore, couldn’t climb stairs, had gone blind in one eye, and suffered from bad hips. So maybe that’s why I didn’t cry. I knew it was just her time to go.

With my mother, it wasn’t so easy. I pictured her on the other end of the line, frowning, broken heart warring with bruised ego, waiting for me to offer her some form of compassion, or break down in tears, or anything to flood the dam between us. I could hear her questions in the silence. What happened? What did I do? I was grateful for her pride, which I knew would protect us both from the answers. She would never ask out loud.


“Molly died,” I told my husband after dinner. Greg was at the kitchen sink, scraping leftover mashed potatoes and corn into a large coffee can. We’d recently begun composting, determined to transform our nutrient-depleted soil into something that could nurture a garden. That had been my idea. I had visions of sprawling zucchini, tomato plants with plump red fruit, flowering broccoli and crisp lettuce, thriving under the fierce desert sun. A garden against all odds. I soaked the hard ground and split it open, battling dry, unyielding earth with shovel, sweat, and stubborn will. I spread bags of musky fertilizer, breaking soft clumps against my gloves and sifting them through my fingers. I picked out stray bits of gravel and turned the soil until it was like silk, shaping perfect, even rows for sowing seeds.

The whole family planted together. My seven-year-old daughter methodically placed each seed according to the measurements on the packages, gently pressing a fresh layer of dirt on top. My son, who was two, dumped his seeds in a pile and brushed them roughly across his row, brow furrowed in concentration. Greg sprayed a fine mist of water across the plot, and we smiled at each other, hopeful. We watched the water sink in the ground, watched the ground deepen into rich, fertile black. The wet earth released pungent waves on the evening breeze, and the kids groaned, giggled, and pinched their noses.

Greg peered over the stove. “Who died?”

“Molly. My mother’s dog.”

“Awww. That’s too bad.”

He came back into the dining room, where I sat shoving food around my plate. The kids had already bolted to the backyard, Anne scattering bubbles across the lawn for the benefit of her little brother, who chased them maniacally, collapsing in laughter as they popped in his chubby hands. Greg leaned against the patio door and watched, grinning. “Look at those two. A ninety-nine cent bottle of detergent and they’re happy as clams. We could have wrapped some bottles for Christmas and saved a few hundred bucks.”


He turned to me. “What’s wrong?”

“I told you. Molly died.”

“She was pretty sick, wasn’t she?”

“Sure. But still.” I pushed my plate away. “She was kind of my dog, you know, before I left home.” It was an accusation.

“You never told me that. I’m sorry, hon.” Greg tipped his head and smiled gently. “I’m sure it was for the best.”

I looked away from his sympathy, hating it. It felt better to chastise him instead of myself, for feeling nothing. I was a wonderful person. I stared past him, at our children playing. Anne stood like a gazelle, her legs long and graceful. When she had slid into the world, slick and purple and showered in blood, my heart had swallowed her whole. How exquisite, the relief that swept through me as I clutched her tiny body to mine, gasping at the final expulsion of my pregnancy and all its secret fears. You can love a daughter, I’d thought. You can be a good mother. There is nothing wrong with your heart.


After Anne was born, we flew north to the little town nestled in the mountains where I’d grown up. Anne was my mother’s first grandchild; I wanted to give her every chance to form the bond with her granddaughter that had somehow eluded her with me. Perhaps the baby will even bring us closer, I thought on the plane. I imagined the hard lines of my mother softening as she watched me stroke my daughter’s smooth round cheek, sponge her tiny body clean, and swaddle her in soft towels; I imagined my mother gracefully relinquishing control and accepting her role as a grandmother.

The visit had been hell. She swooped in like a bat, folding Anne into her black embrace that was always more possession than affection. She pinned the baby against her shoulder while she stormed through the house collecting laundry; she clucked disapprovingly at Anne’s outfits, bundling her in blankets and whispering loudly to her husband, Tom, “The poor thing must be freezing!”

Tom would wink at me and shrug his shoulders. My anger at her dissolved into pity, for him. How could he stand it? But of course, he loved her. They had met and married shortly after I’d left home, eloping in Vegas in a move that shocked everyone. This woman who had never tolerated anyone. Tom was a good provider and she was able to quit working as a housekeeper; she took a part time job at a bookstore, spending her days quilting and working on her home. I was grateful that she had found someone she could live with; it relieved my burden of imagining how I would ever care for her later. It’s difficult to say who would be more miserable.

One morning on my way to the coffee pot, I glanced out the window and saw my mother feeding Anne a bottle of breast milk. She had spread a blanket on the grass and sat with the baby cradled in her arms, pressed against her bare chest where her button-down shirt fell open. Skin to skin contact. So Anne would know her smell. My stomach turned and bile burned my throat. You had your chance, I thought. I wanted to run out there, snatch my daughter away, and never return. Instead, I went back to bed, flinging myself down on the mattress she’d fitted with sheets from my childhood. I should never have come back here, I thought, and I began to cry, feeling all the ground I’d gained since leaving home shift underneath me, knocking me down.


She’d come to visit us several times since then, alone; Tom hated to travel. The pattern was always the same. We began cautiously hopeful, skirting the landmines of each other’s egos. She lavished praise on my housekeeping, my children, my career. I stayed up longer than I wanted to, listening to her plans for the garage shelves, the arguments with her neighbors, the peace she finds in her rose garden. How badly I wanted to love her. In those first days, we even shared secrets. She once confided her recent lab results, and how she woke the next day facing her own mortality. I once admitted to feeling like an inadequate wife, never completely at ease with an ironing board or a skillet. We smiled at each other, tentative.

By the third day, our smiles had worn thin, and all efforts to reach each other receded in mutual irritation. Her compliments would grow louder, thinning and tapering into sharp points that punctured the air, her sincerity popping like a balloon.

“It’s so smart that you let Matthew eat whatever he wants! They’re only little once, so what if they’re chubby? It’s so cute at that age!”

“Anne certainly has her own mind, doesn’t she? My goodness, what a feisty thing! I guess the less you discipline your children, the better off they are, right? So they’re strong, independent. Yes, things are different now, and I’m sure it’s for the best.”

Only I understood her. My husband was oblivious, and my children didn’t recognize sarcasm. I remembered the secrets I’d shared with her, and I felt embarrassed and angry for giving her more ammunition. Soon I was slamming cupboards and taking long walks at night, carrying on imaginary conversations where I politely told her to go to hell. I didn’t have to say anything; she knew. When it was finally time for her to go, she would ask Greg to take her to the airport, and we’d stiffly nod our goodbyes on the porch.

The guilt set in instantly, a churning in my belly, a fist around my heart. I pictured her at the terminal, sitting stoic, jaw set, wiping away angry tears. I cursed my weaknesses. What would it cost to indulge her? Why couldn’t I take the higher road? In another six months, I promised myself, I’ll try again. I’ll invite her down, and we’ll watch Anne of Green Gables and The Sound of Music and go out for huge, dripping hot fudge sundaes and swap our best salsa recipes.

And so I would invite her, and she would accept, and the goddamned trip would be just the same. Until the last time when everything changed.

When my mother called to tell me about her dog, I hadn’t seen her in two years. My husband had stopped asking, but of course, Anne persisted, fueled by the lovely, blind innocence of children. “Why doesn’t Grandma come anymore? When can we see Grandma?” I kept telling her, “soon,” hoping the knowledge would one day sink in and leave me blameless, like the truth about Santa Claus.


I stood to clear the table, glancing one more time at my son, chasing rainbows spun in soap bubbles that burst on the grass. I saw the breeze shift, saw the bubbles suddenly change course and drift toward the garden.


The dishes clattered back to the table; I threw the patio door open just in time to watch Matthew crash through the freshly cultivated plot, crushing onion stalks beneath his knees as he tripped. His arms flung out, his fingers driving through the dirt and ripping out several newly-sprouted carrots. He stared at their exposed, spidery roots, then looked up at us, uncertain.

“Bubba,” he explained.

“Oh, honey.” I stepped gingerly between the rows, scooped him out, and brushed the dirt from his clothes.

“It’s not his fault,” I said to no one in particular. “I meant to get a little fence up.” Matthew twisted away and raced back to the yard. I knelt at the edge of the garden to survey the damage, careful to avoid my husband’s gaze. Warm tears were slipping down my cheeks and I dabbed at them with my sleeve, feeling ridiculous. Here were my baby carrot plants, torn from their cool, dark shelter, where their roots had already begun to spread hungrily. I picked one up and gently placed it back in the ground, securing it with a fresh mound of earth, hoping it might survive. Greg knelt beside me and began to do the same.

We worked quietly together as the sun began its slow descent and cast honey-colored shafts of light across the patio. I felt his gaze pass over me like a shadow. He had learned not to ask. After several years together, I still didn’t know what you could and couldn’t share with a husband. No one can hear the whole truth of a person, and not walk away.

Later we made love in the dark, and after, the tears came again. I sat up and pulled my knees to my chest, wrapped my body in the blanket. I told myself it was time. In the dark, I wouldn’t have to see his face.

I told him about the last time she came, right after Matthew was born, when Tom came with her. I told him how one day, when I turned the water off in the shower, I heard Matthew screaming from the bed. I told him how I rushed into the room, laid next to my baby and nursed him, dripping water on his cheek. How I jerked the sheet over my naked body when someone knocked on the bedroom door, and then entered. How Tom paused at the bathroom door, then turned back and asked if he could watch. “I’ve never seen a woman nurse a baby before,” he’d said, and I thought it was all right, he’ll just look for a minute, and I was covered up, the baby latched on.

I told my husband how I wasn’t prepared when Tom sat on the bed and found the baby’s leg under the sheet, how I was too shocked to protest when he began stroking Matthew’s leg, rubbing my thigh in the process. I told him how my throat locked, and it seemed like it went on forever but it was probably only a minute and then the baby let go and my breast was exposed, wet with milk, and Tom gasped and then he stood and walked stiffly to the bathroom without saying a word.

Greg was silent. And then he said, “But are you sure he—”

“Don’t,” I hissed. “Don’t you dare question me. That’s why women don’t tell. But I’m telling you. A woman knows.”

Later, Greg held me under the bright lights of our kitchen. He stroked my hair. He asked me what I wanted him to do.

And I told him. Nothing. Because she needs him more than she needs me. Because their marriage is worth more than our fractured relationship. Because it’s too late for her to start over. Because I think the best gift I can give her is to let her go.


AMBER STEVENS is a pseudonym, for obvious reasons.