The Mark I Chose

Photo courtesy Pennie Bisbee Walters
Photo courtesy Pennie Bisbee Walters

By Pennie Bisbee Walters

I tried to talk my sons out of getting tattoos. To me, tattoos seemed like something for circus performers or punk rockers: a way to mar lovely, pristine skin. They were ugly, in design or placement, sometimes both, like the one of a snake I’d seen creeping up the cheek of a man’s face at the beach. I’d been noticing more and more tattoos during our summer beach vacations. Military sayings like Semper Fi stretching across a young man’s shoulders, the black words stark against his sunburnt skin. An intricate lacy sleeve of bright flowers and ivy covering a barista’s arm from wrist to shoulder. The odd trail of pink stars on the calf of the mother holding her toddler’s hand.

Snakes. Someone else’s words. Flowers and ivy. Colored stars. They were all unnecessary and permanent, I told Tim and Sam. What design could you get that you’d never regret? Don’t forget. You have a tattoo forever. But kids are all about the here and now. Tim, who was sixteen at the time, talked about getting a tattoo of Pittsburgh’s skyline or the small black-and-tan outline of our family dog. Sam, who is nearly four years younger, wanted a tattoo of the Coca-Cola polar bear, but with a bottle of Mountain Dew instead of the cola, claiming to be a rebel. I didn’t know if they were serious or just trying to provoke me, but I hoped the urge would pass before they turned eighteen and could get one without my assent.

•••

The idea first came to me while skimming through a small tabloid newspaper while I waited at a restaurant. Maybe it was the colorful ads for punk band concerts and head shops or the small brown tattoo of an owl on the back of the hostess’s calf that my daughter Meg pointed out. Something made me turn to her and say, “I’d like to get a tattoo someday. One of Tim’s birthdate or name or something.”

Meg snickered, then said something like, “Oh you’d never do that.” But my sister Kim said, “Yeah, that would be a nice thing to do. To remember him.”

•••

After getting a haircut one bright afternoon in August, I walked the four blocks to a Starbucks for a mocha, a drink that, in my grief, had become a staple—something about the warmth of it in my hands and its decadence. Allowing myself that indulgence was, in a weird way, a self-kindness that was still hard for me. I had to remind myself I was worthy of it. Like I reminded myself kids with good parents were dying every day. From cancer or car accidents maybe, though not drugs. Maybe I had been a good parent. But despite the number of drug overdoses—in Pittsburgh and everywhere else it seemed—it was still something I didn’t believe.

Kayla was standing beside the tattoo parlor three blocks down from my hairdresser, her head shaven except for a small blue tuft above her forehead. One side of her skull boasted her newest tat: a black tarantula beside the pink open bloom of a flower. Weeks before, I’d seen her photo on Facebook and thought, as a mother would, Oh Kayla, what are you doing to your body? That tattoo was just the latest in a series that spread across her chest and legs and arms. What led her to get one after the other after the other? Wouldn’t she someday regret at least one of them?

“Hey,” she said.

“Hi, how are you?” I walked up and hugged her. I remembered the card she sent to me after. I remembered all of them.

“I’m good. You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m doing okay.” I noticed the blue lipstick around the filter of the lit cigarette dangling in her hand. Blue lipstick looked so natural on her. The tattoos probably helped with that. “Hey, I’m thinking of getting a tattoo. Of my son’s handwriting. Can they do that?”

“Oh, that is so cool. What a great idea.” She dropped her cigarette to the cement and ground it out with the toe of her shoe. “Come talk to Ed about it.”

Ed was tall and in his forties, with a long gray ponytail and tattooed arms. His stencil machine could make an exact tattoo of Tim’s handwriting for just fifty dollars—what seemed a pittance. Before the parlor door even closed behind me, I knew that I would do it. It would go on the inside of my right wrist because he was right-handed. I could peek at it whenever I wanted to. It would be my secret.

•••

I made myself go into his bedroom, hoping to find his handwriting on a school paper in his desk drawer or a page of his Narcotics Anonymous workbook, if I could bring myself to read through it again. I’d read it the day after he was found, but remembering anything from those first days was like pulling something out of the ocean’s center, bottomless and dark. Some memories were just gone. I was thankful for that.

As soon as I stepped onto the dark blue shag carpet, I took a deep breath. This room still held things from his good years, before he got sick, before things went so far they could never be the same. Baseball trophies, bobbleheads from Pirates games with his brother and dad. The faceless brown bear I’d named Bruno before Tim could talk. The thin white poster board covered in pictures of him. Of us all together. After the viewing, I’d propped it up against the mirror of his dresser, unable to pull the pictures off.

And now I wanted the tattoo there on the inside of my wrist. To look down and see it throughout the day and night. We had lost so much of him. He left his belongings on buses or at friends’ places where he’d stayed briefly those days he had nowhere else to go. And items I suspected he’d sold for drug money—his Xbox 360, my favorite Laurel Burch earrings, Meg’s nano iPod. Other things had probably been stolen by roommates when he lived at three-quarter-way houses after rehab, things we’d bought him before realizing just how much shit we were in, things that were cheap but desirable to someone who had little: the e-cigarette we bought him to keep him from the real, more dangerous kind, the black rainproof jacket with the warm fur lining, the silky soft throw because he loved the feel of soft things against his skin. All those things had gone missing, along with the son I’d known.

•••

When I couldn’t find anything with his handwriting in his room, I remembered the Mother’s Day card he wrote to me when he was seventeen and still living at home. It was a bright shade of yellow, an oddly cheerful color for him to choose then; he always seemed to be somber, even sullen. The front of the card read “from your son. Mom, because of you, I grew up a healthy, well-mannered person who always tries to make the right decision,” and the inside read “As far as You know anyway.” Those words mocked me, since I knew he was already smoking marijuana then. Arguments about it had replaced civil conversations between us, despite the therapists and doctors, despite my pleading. Below the typed words “Happy Mother’s Day!” were the handwritten words, “From Tim!” that he’d scratched out and replaced with “Love, Tim!” when my husband Ken pointed out “From” was unnecessary. Tim sometimes needed to be reminded of what was obvious, lost as he was in the outer-space regions of his teenage mind.

•••

My tattoo would be monochromatic and simple: the words Love, Tim! in black ink. What my son wrote to me. His printing. His words. I imagined seeing them whenever I turned over a soapy dish in my hands or spread lotion that smelled like oranges and ginger across the dry palms of my hands. I’d linger in those tasks, seeing the black, block handwriting that wasn’t yet there. I could feel him write the words, his hand twisted around the pen, face tight with concentration. He had hated his handwriting homework, even before the torture of writing cursive letters began, but now those shapes he hated drafting seemed to be all I had left.

•••

On my fifty-fourth birthday, I felt like a switch had flipped inside me. I had to get the tattoo that night. The urgency I felt was a wave pushing me along. I didn’t resist.

“Hey there. What can I do for you?” Ed said. He was the only one working at Jester’s Court Tattoo that night.

“Hi. I was here before. I’m Kayla’s friend. I wanted to have a tattoo made from this card.” I opened it and pointed to Tim’s words.

“Oh yeah, I remember. Just words, right? We can do that. It’ll be fifty dollars.”

We stood together looking at the card, and I explained how I wanted to include the exclamation point but not the thin underlining that Tim had drawn under his name. Meg and I had debated in the car whether to include those extra markings. At first, I thought I’d just include his name, but then decided that Love was an equally important word, since I knew in my heart that it was true. Despite how things had ended.

One of our last phone conversations had convinced me of that love, relieved me of a little bit of my guilt. That talk had been an absolution, a gift, though I didn’t see it at the time. Love, however powerful, was not, it turned out, strong enough to cure or rescue or tame. But love lived on in spite of death, of heartbreak, of a parent falling short. I had learned that much.

Meg liked the punctuation mark because it showed the exuberance and energy he had then. I liked the idea of a marker that showed who he once was, before the addiction took full hold. Thinking of him adding the exclamation point made me smile, although it made me feel sad, too. Every memory had those two opposing sides: happiness and sorrow. Glad to have known him, so sad that he was gone. I lived a dichotomous life now.

“Take a seat here and get comfy. I’ll be back in a flash,” Ed said, walking to the stencil machine. When he returned and handed the card back to me almost gingerly, like he knew its value, I slipped it carefully back into the plastic sleeve I’d brought it in and laid it beside me on the chair. He rubbed my wrist down with alcohol and then a milky lotion to help the stencil ink stick to my skin. He showed me the stencil first, then peeled the back of it off and held it parallel to my wrist, ink side down.

“I want it tilted so I can read it.”

He shifted the paper, waited for my okay, and then pressed it onto my skin for several seconds, rubbing it once with his thumb. When he peeled the stencil back, Tim’s words were left behind.

The needle, when he took it out of sealed plastic wrapping, was longer than I’d imagined and reminded me of the IV needle the nurse had pushed into my skin the night I went into labor with Tim nearly two weeks early. I’d felt so unprepared to parent him.

I watched Ed feed the needle into the top of the small machine and turn a stubby knob until the needle was in place. Holding the gun in his hand like a pencil, he dipped the needle into a cup of black ink the size of a thimble. I heard a thick buzzing noise as he tested the machine, operating it through a small pedal on the floor near his feet. He bent over my wrist and I heard the buzzing again as he began at the top of the letter L. I watched as the needle punctured the skin on my wrist, leaving ink on top of the purple stencil markings. When I asked Kayla what getting a tattoo felt like the day I stopped into the parlor, she said like a cat scratching your sunburn. For me, it was just a subtle scraping, dull and somehow distant, like it was imagined or in the past. Maybe I wanted to feel Tim so badly that I welcomed the feeling of his words being etched into my skin, my body that had held him for those eight and a half months, kept him safe. Maybe the tattoo really didn’t hurt much. Maybe it did, but I was too numb to feel it. Or maybe I wanted to feel pain to feel him again, I don’t know. I only know the needle felt light and quick.

When we left the tattoo parlor, my wrist wrapped with bright purple tape, I was euphoric, a feeling little known to me since Tim’s death. I felt lit and warm and accompanied in a way I hadn’t when I walked in. My skin was now home to a secret kinship, a shelter for a part of my tender, vanished son, suddenly found.

•••

When I’d seen him last, his hair had grown shaggy and wild again like when he first started using. He mostly wore black cotton t-shirts that hung on him like a tent and bore the silhouettes of Notorious B.I.G. or Big Pun. I’d grown used to those XL shirts that swallowed up his five-foot-eleven frame, his narrow hips and shoulders, as if he wanted to hide, his pants so long and wide-legged they billowed up around his bright green and white skate shoes. His clothes were more than a fashion statement: He didn’t want anything pressing in on him.

•••

For weeks, I babied the skin of my right wrist, following Ed’s instructions carefully: wash three times a day with an antibacterial soap, pat it dry with a paper towel, then rub in a fragrance-free lotion and let the tattoo get some air. I enjoyed the ritual of it, the patting dry with a gentle touch, the feel of the lotion, cool and soft.

•••

When I first considered the tattoo, imagined the script carved into my wrist, I kept going back to my penultimate conversation with Tim. I said before it was a gift, though I spent much of the call pleading with him to listen, to hear me, when—I see it now—he was no longer capable of it. The addiction had suppressed his ability to listen, the way that other diseases suppress your immune system, leave you unable to fight. Maybe if I tell you what he said, you’ll understand. Even without having been in my shoes those six years. Maybe it will be enough to recount his words that day.

I had been at my office with a stack of pages to edit, but I was getting little done. Most days were like that for me then. A struggle to focus, to care about work when my son’s life—and therefore mine—was becoming a natural disaster. He’d been texting me for forty-five minutes, seeking my approval, my acknowledgement that his plan for the immediate future held merit.

Here’s what he was planning to do just weeks after his second overdose and week-long hospitalization: move into an apartment with Jake, a young man about his age whom he met at rehab. Two addicts who thought the occasional use of marijuana or can of beer would be no problem. Two addicts still living in denial, unable or unwilling to face the reality of their disease.

When the phone rang, I considered not answering. I had so much work to do, and debates with him took a circular path, his reasoning so illogical there was no possible resolution. Afterward, I had trouble retracing the tangled branches of his thought. It was, I suppose, a symptom of his drug use, his brain struggling to follow its own thoughts, the connections numbed or diverted. But I knew I had to try.

“Hi, Tim,” I said, doing my best to not sound annoyed and probably doing a poor job of it. I was lousy at hiding how I felt, especially with him, especially when I felt afraid or angry—two emotions he always seemed to bring out in me.

“Hey, Mom.” His voice always sounded monotonic, flat and emotionless, his mind forever planted firmly somewhere in the middle of happy and sad. I wondered if he ever felt anything anymore without drugs.

“Tim, I think you need to go back to rehab now. It’s what you need. Not moving in with Jake.” When he didn’t respond, I kept going. “You almost died. Again. Tim, you need help.”

“Mom, it’s okay. I’m done with that shit. Jake and me are gonna get an apartment and it’s gonna be fine. I got my job now, and he’s working. We can afford it.”

“Jake is an addict, Tim. He’s a nice guy and a friend, I know, but he’s not good for you. Remember what they said at rehab? That you need to change your friends, your habits, your hangouts. It’s the only way. You need to find friends who are clean and have been that way for a while.”

“It’s fine, mom. He does a little marijuana now and then, but that’s okay. We can do that. A lil marijuana or a beer ain’t gonna hurt. I’m off the hard stuff, I promise.”

I swung my chair away from my desk until it faced the window. Hearing him talk that way was scaring me. Most of my knowledge of addiction came from the Sunday family sessions at rehab, and I remembered what the counselor said every week: Addicts had to leave their old friends behind. Old friends led to old habits and old habits led to relapse.

“Mom, did you hear me?”

“Yeah. You know you can’t drink at all anymore, Tim. Or use any drugs.”

“Mom, it’s okay. I can do it once in a while.”

“No, you can’t. Mel was clear on that. You can’t. You have to stop it all. And you have to get new friends.”

“Mom, I can’t. And I don’t want to. I have a job now, and I want to be out on my own. I can do this.”

I stood up and looked at the sky, at the single bird gliding toward the building just a hundred feet away. Tonight, when I was locking my door and heading out, the whole flock, black and busy, would be gathering on its rooftop. “Tim, you can’t. It’ll happen again and this time—” My voice fell into my throat and I started to choke up, my voice suddenly thin and wispy. “Tim, you can’t. You won’t survive it again. You…you will die. And I can’t take that, I can’t.” I started to cry. “I can’t let that happen, Tim. I love you. You have to do what you can to stay clean.”

“Mom, I love you too, but it’s my choice. I can’t go back to rehab. I just can’t do it again. I’m gonna move in with Jake, after I get a few more paychecks.” He paused, and I watched the lone bird land on the rooftop, his black silhouette clear against the darkening sky.

“And Mom, no matter what happens…if I die, it’ll be my fault, not yours.” The quiet between us thinned and stretched out, but I was too terrified to speak. I could hear the ticking of my office clock, the blood rushing in my ears. I began to sob openly, holding a wet Kleenex to my face.

“Mom, I know you and Dad love me. You guys are the only reason I’m still alive.”

•••

Looking back, I knew. The way he was talking, there was only one way things could turn out. He wouldn’t go back to rehab. He wouldn’t stay clean. He would make what few choices he could, decide the few benign things that drugs had left him control of, like it or not, without my help.

Today I wonder, was he saying goodbye to me? Did he know it, too? To leave me with those words I’d cling to just weeks later, words full of his love for me and Ken, proof that he knew all we had done to try and save him.

I don’t know the answer. But the word Love—the way he wrote it—on my wrist above and just to the left of his name—is how I remember that call, his words, uttered to me with all the certainty his numbed heart could feel, a mark of his love for me, true.

•••

PENNIE BISBEE WALTERS, who works as a technical writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is currently working on a memoir about loving and losing a child who suffers from the disease of addiction. Her poems have appeared in Voices from the Attic.

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Trying to Have Sex With My Husband

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

By Tatyana Sussex

This very evening. Right after I get home from work I will take my husband by the hand, walk him into our bedroom and have sex with him. I’ll unbutton his shirt, spread my fingers over his swimmer’s pectorals, the perfect spread of chest hair, a mix of brown and silver. I will place my lips there and the salty hairs will prickle my nostrils. I will unbutton his pants. He will stand above me rubbing my shoulders and try to kiss me, but I will be busy doing other things to him.

This plan develops as I drive home from work on a Monday. I head south on I-5 with a glittery Lake Union to my west, the sun pushing gold against the clouds, sprays of light landing on the shiny dynasty we call Downtown. Sex on a Monday, after work, what a fun surprise! It will get us out of our slump!

I change the radio station, from news of a suicide bombing to a piano sonata. My stomach growls. The idea of dinner pushes its way in. Maybe we’ll eat first, and then the sex parade will start. And this, of course, is my first tactical mistake. A full stomach does not lead to sex in our household.

Earlier that morning, five a.m., I watch the beautiful back of my husband rise out of bed. He doesn’t see me turning my owl head to watch him. The swimmers shoulders rolling up and away from me. The ruffled silver hair. A hand stretching back to pat me. “Good morning,” that patting hand says.

While my husband goes off to swim, I lie in bed and stare out the window, at the clouds hanging like an old man’s eyebrows in the sky. I spend a half hour thinking about the sex we didn’t have all weekend. We weren’t too busy; there were no arguments and no body-part problems. There were two straight days of rain, a lot of cozy time in bed, plenty of napping and cuddling and binge-watching our favorite British mystery. And no sex.

•••

I’ve counted. I’ve kept score. In the beginning there was so much regular sex for middle-aged people, something sexy popping and fizzing every day, every night despite my bladder infections, the new sensitivities, despite the doctor’s visits, the antibiotics—we powered through. And then. It whittled down. Normal, right? First, a few times a week, then two, then the weekends for sure. But there was always an element of playfulness even as the snap-crackle-pop evened out. Sometimes I’d roll over in the morning, say, “Quickie?” and my husband would wolf grin and come my way. Or when we both worked at home, I’d send a text with the word “nooner?” Ten seconds later, footsteps stomped down the hallway.

We held at twice a week then fell to once, on the weekend, still able to blame my delicate sex organs, the sensitive bladder, an inability to bounce back so fast. Consecutive days were pretty much out for us. I saw naturopaths, shifted my diet, and took my “estrogen poppers” to settle some of my womanly discontent, and things did improve.

Then I just got lazy.

•••

I need to address something. Did you know that a woman’s vagina atrophies? Did you know that the general story arc of our orgasms—timing, intensity—can change with age? I guess it makes sense. Our skin loosens, our boobs sag; the butt drops, our muscles soften, the joints ache. And our vaginas are part of this aging ride. It’s different for everyone, of course, but this is how it went down for me.

Let’s say you’re a woman in your mid-forties. You’re single. You’ve had a relatively inactive sex life for that decade and then suddenly—you meet a man when you’re forty-seven. You’re ready to rock and roll.

You could be in for a few surprises.

After a succession of bladder infections, I eventually went to see a urologist. This is the kind of doctor I thought specialized in the dick problems of old men. My dick doctor, as it turned out, was a woman, about ten years younger than me. She was petite and no-nonsense, and she gave me a precise de-briefing on what my body had been up to while I was mindlessly careening through my forties.

“Your vaginal wall gets dry and droopy just like your skin as you age,” she said, pulling on her perfectly smooth forearm. “Gravity gets it just like everything else.”

She diagnosed me with Sensitive Bladder Syndrome, recommended acupuncture and gave me a list of foods to avoid. Her philosophy around having sex with an atrophying vagina was bold. “Really go for it—pound away!” she said banging a fist into one of her open palms. “Get in there and see what works.” Then she handed me a prescription for painkillers.

•••

My husband and I weren’t young when we married. I was forty-nine; he was fifty-seven and a widow. It was his second marriage, my first. The ceremony took place at a friend’s house. My parents walked me down a sprawling lawn to an open-air altar. We stood before our friends and family, beside a small lake populated by the white blooms of lily pads. Three days later we went on a road trip to the Canadian Rockies.

We didn’t have a lot of sex on our honeymoon. I started my period, the beds were so soft that my back hurt, and I was also having some of my sensitivities. Instead of waking up mid-sleep to make love with my new husband as one might imagine, I woke up and reached for my Kindle to continue the science fiction trilogy I was obsessed with.

During the day we sat at the mountain town cafes and watched people go by. We explored the ice blue rivers of Banff, stood with hung jaws before the crystal green of Lake Louise; we hiked through wildflowers and past the high glaciers of Jasper. At night we cooked dinner in our wooded cottage, and I stared out at the small lake giddy with the fact that I never had to answer the question of whether I would find a mate and who that mate might be ever fucking again. We rifled through the collection of DVDs and glommed on to a long-running British series we became enamored with called Midsomer Murders. The show falls under a genre I call “gentle garden mysteries.” While bodies fell and the investigation heated up under the charge of fifty-something Chief Detective Inspector Tom Barnaby, I was lulled into a deep state of relaxation by the comfort of the mature cast, the bursts of trees and bushes, so much Eden green, like the worst calamity the universe can conspire is the death of a water colorist.

We went to bed tired and content, spooned our warm bodies in the soft bed, my husband’s breath on my ear. His hand on my breast, my foot stroking the bone of his shin, and in my right hand my Kindle, where I blissfully continued on with my sci-fi drama. It rained at night, the scent of sage breezed through the open windows, the air was cool against our shoulders and arms, the rest of our bodies snug under the comforters. There was nowhere to go, nobody waiting for us. We were so happy. I was home.

•••

It’s Monday morning. As my husband swims laps in the pool I lie in bed imagining him next to me later that night, and I choreograph: how I will open my legs, throw one over my husband’s resting, unsuspecting body; put my hand on his chest, move my mouth over his neck, over the light brown belly hair, down his body, the lean legs. Move around the canvas of his body slowly—kiss here, kiss there, swirl a body hair in my tongue, rub my teeth against his rough skin—and then spend the other half of the night returning to the home of his lips.

But here’s what really happens Monday after work.

I drive into our garage at five-thirty with a hunger headache from too little for lunch. Visions of seduction are long gone; they fell away somewhere between Lake Union and merging onto I-90.

“Lovergirl is home!” my husband exclaims in his usual way, popping his head out of the garage door. He walks toward me opening his arms, right to my car door. When I stand up he gives me his lips, a full kiss. Every night I come home, he’s there for me right on the lips. I lean into him, my cheek against the tee-shirt he’s been gardening in all day. I breathe in the smell of bark and branches. He grabs my bags and we go into the house.

All the overhead lights are on, the news blaring. I see the crumbs and salt flakes in clumps on the small kitchen island, and pick up a sponge to wipe them off. Why do I make cleaning the stupid island more urgent than seducing my husband?

We have dinner, watch an episode of Midsomer, and go to bed where I don’t make one tiny move on my husband. Tomorrow, I think. Tomorrow, I’ll be on it. I won’t get side tracked; I won’t look at any kitchen surfaces; I’ll stay focused on those blue eyes, the swimmer’s hips. Tomorrow!

•••

Tuesday morning I wake up slowly, next to those pillowy lips and the bent, crooked nose I love, those arms that reach for me, after an argument, when I shout in my sleep. I think back to how it was in the beginning. What I remember are flashes of body parts over the bed, under the covers—yes, we’re conventional, but so what? I remember him inside of me, his fingers on me, feeling lost among my own body parts, the undulations of narratives building and bursting in unexpected waves. We were a story—a romantic thriller—unfolding beneath a tangle of sheets.

We get up and go swimming together. I am filled with resolution. Tonight, I tell myself as I swim sets of two-hundreds in line with my lane mates. Tonight, I tell myself as I speed over the express lanes of the I-90 floating bridge. I am determined! When the day is done, I’ll drive into the garage, greet him with a kiss, grab him, pull him by the crotch of his pants down the hall to our bedroom, take off my shirt with the other hand. First my jacket, then my shirt, then my camisole, maybe keep the bra on for him to remove—I’ll position myself on the side of the bed, ass down, legs up and parted and wait for him.

“Do anything,” I’ll say, and he will and it will be exactly what I expected. Over dinner he will turn to me with a gooey smile, the blue of his eyes will darken and my husband will say “Thank you,” which I still find strange. I will look back at him, put my lips in a kiss position and respond point blank, “You’re welcome.”

After making love he will be so content! He will take my hand as we glow in the reflection of our day’s end Midsomer Murders. It will be the episode that features a hospital for troubled people in one of the villages, and a spate of “suicides” that were really murders committed by a trinity of jealous children.

“There’s no way all three of those kids would do that!” I will exclaim.

“Oh, it keeps the old folks on their toes,” my husband will say in his soothing voice. Then, at the moment of reveal, just as Barnaby confronts the nymphomaniac mother of the murderous children; just as I’m concentrating on the British-accented dialogue, those blue eyes will turn to me and proclaim, “You’re my love.”

He’ll move in closer, stroke my cheek with his gardener’s fingers. “Oh my love,” he’ll murmur, coming in for a kiss.

I’ll miss the climax of the show and I’ll try not to be irritated because—and I have to remind myself of this—we can always rewind the scene and play it later.

•••

TATYANA SUSSEX is working on a collection of stories about being a late bloomer. She writes, swims and coaches big dreamers from the watery city of Seattle. You can visit her blog at Everyday Creative Coaching.

 

 

Knee Jerk

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

By Amy E. Robillard

When the birds wouldn’t stop shitting on our new patio furniture, I tried everything and then I called our friends who have guns. I asked them a) if it was legal to shoot birds within the city limits and b) if so, did they want to help us get rid of the birds who were making a mockery of us.

It’s not like this was just a pile or two of dried bird shit. No. I’m talking about multiple fresh globs of shiny white liquid bird shit. So many that they bled into one another. The birds weren’t flying overhead and shitting from the air. They were coming specifically to our furniture, resting on it, and shitting. The chair at one end of the table seemed to be a particular favorite. They were using our new teak furniture as their personal toilet. And the stoop right outside the sliding glass door, what we called Essay’s perch, where she liked to lie and sun herself.

We thought we had solved this problem two years earlier when we’d just moved into this house. At the old house, we kept two bird feeders, and my husband Steve diligently refilled it when it ran low. This was his project. I didn’t hate the birds the way I do now, but I didn’t participate either. When we moved into this house and the birds we were feeding began to show their gratitude by shitting all over the patio and our furniture—not quite as nice as the new teak, but not the point—I suggested moving the bird feeders to the back of the yard. When that didn’t help, we removed the bird feeders altogether. When they continued to shit, we bought a bobble-head owl and a falcon and staked them into the yard, moving them each time we mowed the lawn. Problem solved.

Until this spring. Looking back, I think it may have had something to do with the two dead birds we found in the yard within the space of three weeks. Were the birds who wouldn’t leave our airspace—the ones who constantly flew overhead cackling and cawing and landing on our end chair to shit—actually grieving? Was there a mourning period they had to observe before they could move on to shit in someone else’s yard?

To the branches of the trees I tied shiny reflective tape specifically designed to detract birds. It looked like we were gearing up to have a party. Festive streamers blowing in the wind. The damn birds flew right past them.

I ordered plastic snakes from Amazon. When they arrived a couple days later, I was pleased with their life-like slithering tongues sticking out of their pebble-sized heads, satisfied that they might make even me jump if I happened to forget that they were fake. I distributed them on the patio and on the furniture, paying special attention to the favored end-chair toilet. Steve and I ate dinner that night on the patio beneath the stars with three rubber snakes at the other end of the table.

I ordered yellow eyeball balloon detractors from Amazon. Three balloons per package. Except they’re not really balloons. They’re more like beach balls decorated with six red “eyes” that are supposed to resemble the eyes of predators and cause birds to redirect their flight patterns. When they arrived, I went to the basement to find the foot pump. I came back up to the kitchen, attached the silver stickers to the six red circles on each of the balloons, and set to pumping. Both dogs cocked their heads, puzzled by my project. By the time I got them inflated and hanging from the branches of the trees in the yard, I was sweating, my hair was falling loose from my ponytail, and I was desperately thirsty. But before going inside, I stepped off the footstool to admire my handiwork.

From each of the biggest trees hung reflective streamers, two per tree, each five or six feet long, and one yellow inflated balloon decorated with six red eyeballs. A bobble-head owl and a falcon each staked its claim to the lawn. A dozen rubber snakes littered the patio and the table. The overall effect might be described as quasi-festive, and I could imagine a newcomer backing away slowly upon entering, wary of the invisible traps surely hidden strategically throughout the yard. I may have lost my sense of perspective.

•••

I have never once shot a gun. I’ve never held a gun or even a bullet and I’ve never had any interest in doing so. We do have three guns in the house, all given to Steve by family and all kept in cases primarily as family heirlooms. Two are shotguns and one is a Winchester rifle and I wouldn’t be able to name the differences among them if my life depended on it.

We have friends who hunt. They’re gun enthusiasts, you might say. One day Steve and AJ got to talking about Steve’s guns, and AJ asked to see them. Steve told him about their history, and AJ offered to teach Steve how to clean them. They set a date to do so, and they spent hours taking the guns apart, AJ showing Steve the tiniest details and intricacies of cleaning them. The one he couldn’t quite get apart, though, was the Winchester. “Okay if I take this home with me and ask a buddy to help me figure this out?” he asked Steve.

“Of course. No problem. Do whatever you can.”

“And then I’ll bring it back and one of these days I’ll teach you to shoot.”

I had been teaching most of the time they’d been cleaning the guns, but I was back home by this point. AJ looked over at me and chuckled. “And Amy can join us.” He looks at me. “If you want.”

“Yeah, I’m thinking I’d probably shoot my own foot off or something.”

When AJ returned a few weeks later with the Winchester reassembled and cleaned, he also brought with him his AK-47 to show Steve, who has an avid interest in military history. It was a monstrous case. He heaved it up and lay it on our kitchen counter, opened it up, and I saw, in my home, an honest-to-God military-style assault rifle. I had never seen one before. I took a quick look and backed away, uneasily, as if it might jump out of its case at me. I made a joke about knowing some people I’d like to use it on, and even as the words escaped my mouth, I was shocked. But I kept going. “I now have access to an AK-47,” I said. “Somehow that makes me feel better.”

I think sometimes we don’t have control over the words that come out of our mouths. Maybe they come from the most primitive part of our reptile brains, the part responsible for regulating our breathing and our balance. My words were a knee-jerk reaction, and while we commonly think of a knee-jerk reaction as something we say without thinking, it is also something that literally provides balance with little conscious thought. Our knee jerks out reflexively to keep us standing when we might otherwise collapse. The words that come from our reptilian brains, the deepest parts of ourselves, are those that keep us balanced, the ones that help us maintain equilibrium.

The family I grew up in did not communicate well. We were not taught how to express our emotions and we were not affectionate with one another. We isolated ourselves from one another, my mother with her soap operas in the living room, me with my books in my bedroom, and my siblings with who-knows-what in their bedrooms. We walked past each other on the way to the refrigerator at home and in the hallways at school. My sister expressed her own frustration and anger by beating me. “As soon as Ma leaves, you’re dead. I’m going to kill you.” I stored my anger inside for years, feeling it solidify into depression and shame, and ever so very gradually, as an adult, working to alchemize it into a tentative and ultimately confident belief that I have a right to my own feelings. Some days I still have to work at it.

What I am trying to say is that, though I make my living teaching others about the value of language, the power of the written word, the lingering, life-or-death effects of the words we choose to speak, I understand that sometimes we don’t choose our words and sometimes violence just seems easier, so much more efficient.

•••

When I teach undergraduates about the concept of ideology, I ask them to think about it using the metaphor of marinade. As products of an ideology, we are the meat that is being marinated. The marinade is the ideology—the coherent set of values, beliefs, and ideals that guides our thoughts and actions, that shapes our perception of reality, and that largely remains invisible. When a piece of meat has marinated in a mixture of seasonings and sauce for a long time, the marinade becomes part of the meat. It infuses and is therefore inseparable from the meat. One can no more easily remove the marinade from the meat than one can remove the brain from the body. And a piece of meat needs time to marinate. One cannot marinate a piece of meat in five minutes, just as one cannot subscribe to a new ideology in a week.

The marinade I grew up steeped in was this: Your life is not valuable. Nothing about you is valuable. You’re fat and ugly and stupid. I’m going to kill you.

You’re dead. You’re dead. You’re dead.

My life was not precarious because my life was not valued. I have never been afraid to die. I am still trying to understand that most people value life. Most people love their families. Many days there’s still a mental hitch I have to get past when I consider this. Infused in me is a belief that I am not valuable. I marinated in it for too long a time when I was too impressionable. Beliefs can change. Of course they can. But the original beliefs, the original flavor of that first marinade is still there. It cannot ever be removed. It can only be masked.

There’s a certainty for me in sadness. I know sadness. I know boredom. I know depression and I know fear. I’m comforted by disappointment because I know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond to good fortune. It’s not where I live.

I have always felt most comfortable in discomfort. I learned from my mother that when things were calm, when nothing was unsettled in the house, the way to make it so was to pick a fight. What are you thinking about? Why don’t you ever talk to me? Why don’t you ever fill up the sugar canister when it gets low? Why am I always the one who has to do the grocery shopping? You don’t really love me, do you?

Bring what’s inside out: the self-loathing and the bottomless insecurities. Share them so that you’re not so alone loitering in your despair.

•••

When the birds would not stop shitting on our patio furniture, I wanted to shoot them. I thought of AJ and how I had access to guns now. I tried shooing them off using the jet setting on the hose nozzle, but that didn’t work. It didn’t stop me from trying. Picture me standing there in my yard on an early summer evening, on a quiet street in a quiet city in the Midwest, in my shorts and tee-shirt, no bra, among my plastic birds of prey and my predator eyeball balloons, shooting the jet spray straight up in the air, onto the roof and into the dense branches of the trees, cursing under my breath at the birds who would not leave us alone.

Knowing that I had access to an AK-47 changed my thinking when I couldn’t get rid of these nuisance birds. I was being reasonable. I was doing all of the things the internet told me to do. They were still in our airspace. “This is a no-fly zone!” I yelled at them as they flew by. My rational approach wasn’t working and I knew something that would. Shoot the motherfuckers.

Not that I would actually use an AK-47 on the birds. Of course not. I would ask AJ to come over and use whatever kind of gun one uses to shoot birds. I had figured out that these weren’t random birds. It seemed to be just four or five birds who kept coming back to the yard to shit, stopping on their way to our neighbor’s yard for food. This strengthened my theory about their being in mourning. Maybe it was a family.

After the horrifying shooting in Orlando, I decided to give blood not because I thought it would help anybody there, but because I felt helpless after signing the petitions to ban military-style assault weapons and imploring Congress to do something about terror suspects’ access to guns. Doing something physical felt good. While going through the preliminary health screening, the technician was surprised to find that my pulse was just fifty. “Is it always this low?” she asked me. I shrugged my shoulders. “I have no idea.” A pulse of fifty is the Red Cross’s minimum for blood donors, so I just made the cut-off. Usually it was my iron level that was a cause for concern.

Later, when I told Steve about my pulse, he remarked that that’s the heart rate of an athlete. It means I’m really healthy, that my heart doesn’t have to work very hard to pump the blood throughout my body. “Maybe it’s all the walking I do with the dogs,” I said. “Or maaaaaybe it means I’m dying.” This was a familiar trope in our home. I was always turning the slightest problem, the tiniest bump or bruise, into a life-threatening disease. I was always dying. I am always dying. I have never really learned how to expect this life to continue, to believe that what I do matters, to think of any of it as permanent.

Just the other day I read a piece in the New York Times about therapists’ developing understanding of depression being rooted not in past traumas but in an inability to anticipate a positive future. And it occurred to me how much of my life I have spent unable to anticipate a future. Yet here I still am.

I heard a rumor a few months ago that one of my colleagues has a gun and he wants to use it. This comes to me fourth- or fifth-hand, so its veracity is anybody’s guess, but though my response when I heard it the first time was an exaggerated disgust, I think I understand that desire. When you have something shiny and new, you want to use it. It occupies your thoughts. You shape your actions and plans around it. You think, When I get home, I’m going to switch my old purse for my new one right away. You think, I can’t wait to find an outfit that works with these new shoes. You think, I can’t wait to try that new lens on my camera. You think, I can’t wait to use my gun.

Possession of a shiny new object changes your thinking. Likewise, knowing you have access to that object changes what is possible. This knowledge affects the ways you troubleshoot problems.

Writing this makes my pulse go up a little. It scares me to think of myself as somebody who professes to believe in the power of language but at the same time sometimes understands the will to violence.

I recently lost respect for somebody in almost an instant, and it occurred to me just how long it takes to build up respect for somebody, how long it takes to earn somebody’s respect, and how quickly we can lose it. Respect is earned slowly, over time, in tiny increments, through actions that show again and again what kind of person one is.

•••

The bird shit all over our brand new patio furniture was the ultimate sign of disrespect, day after day. At first it seemed so trivial. I mean, I was being driven to distraction by bird shit. But each morning, before I could go outside to enjoy a beautiful early summer morning with a cup of coffee on the patio, I’d have to get a roll of paper towels and the spray cleaner, grab a plastic bag, and gag my way through cleaning up globs of fresh shiny liquid white bird shit. I could feel my pulse rising. I took it personally. Why this yard? Why this furniture? Why us?

I wanted to reason with the birds, to show them that I’m really a good person, that we’re good people, that my dogs are lovely, that we deserve a little bit of peace. I’d have to do it slowly, over time, but birds don’t understand language. I knew I couldn’t really shoot them.

Violence is a perceived shortcut to respect. And a gun is nothing if not a symbol of violence. To have a gun or have access to a gun is to have near-immediate respect. A gun says, You will respect my power to snuff out your life in an instant.

A gun says, I don’t have time to earn respect. Instead I demand it.

A gun says, Look at me. Now.

A gun says, I don’t have time to persuade you. What if I can’t?

A gun says, I am afraid.

•••

My knee-jerk reaction to other people’s families, to animal families is to believe that they love one another. I never experienced that love, and I can name dozens of friends who have similar experiences with their own families, yet still I simply assumed, when considering why it was the same four or five birds flying over our yard, that it was probably a family in mourning. It seems that at the same time that I’d been marinating in the belief that I was worthless, that nobody loved me, I was also receiving and holding on to the message that other families were not like ours. Other families love one another. That’s what a family is. Never mind the stories you hear about domestic violence. Never mind the stories you hear about husbands shooting wives. Never mind your own experience.

I want to use this new understanding. It’s shiny and new, like a gun. It will not always seem so.

This new understanding says, Family members do not necessarily love one another.

This new understanding says, Blood is thin. It runs in times of danger.

This new understanding says, You were not alone.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays have also been published on The Rumpus and in Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Creative Nonfiction.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

You’re My Only

Photo courtesy Linda Kass
Photo courtesy Linda Kass

By Linda Kass

On the day my father turned eighty-eight—just over six years ago—my mother shuffled down the hospital corridor to visit him after surgery. Her five-foot stature diminished by degenerative arthritis and a series of falls, Mom had been the needier of my parents; my dad her loyal caretaker, driver, friend and, most of all, loving husband. She slowly pushed forward her walker, a metal substitute for my father’s arms that until then had always been there for her. This was the first time in their sixty-two-year marriage that she had to manage without him.

At the elevator, Mom stopped to sign a birthday card my sister bought for her to give to my dad. My husband gave her a book to steady the card and a pen.

She grasped the pen and, without pause, began to write. I looked over her shoulder and read her words.

You’re my only.

•••

I watched Mom sit in the chair at Dad’s bedside and gaze at his face. His decision to get knee replacements was part of his plan to keep the two of them together, to live independently. His bowed legs were failing him. By getting new titanic knees, he could continue taking care of my mother. As he slept, Mom held his hand in hers.

They were always holding hands. I’d often meet them for lunch at our neighborhood cafe. After we kissed goodbye, I’d watch them shuffle along the sidewalk to their car, Mom bent over, her eyes focused on the ground; Dad, a foot taller when they were younger, stooping to clutch her hand and support her weight. This image always left me wondering if it would be the last one I would see of them together.

•••

My parents were born within six weeks of each other in 1923, both to Jewish families—my father in the “waltz city” of Vienna, my mother in rural eastern Poland. Dad’s family immigrated to the United States in 1938, narrowly escaping the Nazi take-over of Austria. My grandmother wanted to live in the mainstream of American life, in a university town, in a place of opportunity. Dad was fifteen when they settled in Columbus, Ohio.

He finished high school and was halfway through college at Ohio State when, in 1943, he was drafted into the army. He served first with the ski patrol in the 10th Mountain Division located at Colorado’s Camp Hale. He contracted rheumatic fever there and, because of his understanding of the German language and culture, was transferred to an infantry unit and placed into military intelligence school at Camp Ritchie in Hagerstown, Maryland. His unit was redeployed to a military camp in Manchester, England, and assigned to the 63rd Division, with which he remained throughout the war.

From September of 1944 until April of 1945, Dad was part of a regiment in Paris during the time when Germans had infiltrated that city after the Battle of the Bulge. Reaching the level of staff sergeant, he assisted in the Alsace Mission, top-secret work involving the translation and analysis of captured papers on the German V-2 rocket, and helped locate installations at the Ziegfrid line, the defense demarcation between Germany and France. For his war efforts, he received a Bronze Star. Back in the U.S., he finished college on the GI Bill.

During this time, my mother’s family was fighting oppression—first, at the hands of the Soviets, then the Germans. When Mom was sixteen, her mother was deported to a Siberian work camp. Later, my mother and her father hid in a bunker underground to escape a Nazi concentration camp. Mom’s family reunited after the war, travelling to Krakow then Vienna, where my mother spent a year in medical school. Finally receiving affidavits of support to sponsor them, Mom and her parents set sail for America and settled in Atlantic City.

Shortly after their arrival in 1947, an aunt and uncle from Columbus invited my mother to live with them. Mom could resume her education at Ohio State, they said, quickly adding an even more persuasive argument to the parents of a single, twenty-four-year-old Polish daughter: a nice and handsome young man from Vienna finishing his degree at the university worked for them in their small office supply business.

A match was made.

•••

Other than feeling self-conscious about their foreign accents, I never thought much about my parents’ dramatic entries to the only country I knew. I took for granted their journey toward freedom and didn’t grasp the struggle that must have been part of their legacy as I was growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s. Now, I can only imagine the challenges for an immigrant woman still wrestling with a new language and culture, married with two young daughters—a former medical student turned Midwest suburban homemaker in an era when the work of being a wife and mother carried such urgency and social expectations.

I grew up thinking my mom hadn’t accomplished anything, all those afternoons she was waiting for me at the door, fixing me a snack, and making sure my sister and I understood the importance of an education. I watched my dad strive to build his business and spend many evenings doing volunteer work, part of his commitment to repay the kindness of a stranger—a Chicago businessman—who took a calculated risk on a Jewish family and sponsored their entry, a journey from Trieste to Ellis Island that spring of 1938. I didn’t know then that in the coming months and years, the war they barely escaped would destroy my father’s Viennese home, along with so many other residences, businesses, and synagogues.

Like most children and teenagers, I was in my own world and trying to fit in as one of very few among my peers who were first-generation Americans. I went on to college unaware of the deepening renewal of my parents’ commitment to each other. Their union seemed an anachronism back in the early seventies. During my twenties, while developing my career, I lived in Detroit and New York and was in a marriage that produced a son and ended in divorce. After I remarried at thirty-three and returned to Columbus, I was able to see my parents with fresh eyes. I used my journalism background as a license to ask detailed questions about their pasts to collect family history.

Over time, I gained a different lens, one that revealed two young European immigrants who found one another through quite distinct journeys but shared a deep desire for a safe haven in the middle of their new country. Shutting one door, opening another, and never looking back.

•••

Two years before Dad’s knee replacement surgery, my sister and I helped my parents move out of their condo to an apartment building with assisted-living and dining services. My sister was already at the condo when I arrived on the first day of what became a six-week process of thinning out the belongings of a lifetime. Mom sat in a chair wrapped in a white linen shawl that had turned up earlier that morning.

“Don’t be so quick to throw things out,” she said, watching my sister rummage through papers in the kitchen drawer. “Let me see them first.”

As I scanned the handwritten lists of names and phone numbers covering the desk, and the brief reminders scratched out and rewritten, my vague observations morphed into a troubling realization of the secret that our father had kept from us. It was confirmed as we later found Dad’s cell number scattered throughout the condo, neatly written on no less than three-dozen pieces of paper.

Mom had also saved countless birthday, Mother’s Day, and anniversary cards. Dad came through the kitchen as I was trying to gauge the sentimental value of one particular card. “Throw it away. It’s from our neighbor.” Muttering, as he walked away, “He’s dead.”

As we uncovered photos and albums from as far back as the early twentieth century, my sister and I realized that Mom had kept every card, every photo, every newspaper article, every memento. To her, everything mattered and she wanted to remember it all.

On the afternoon I planned to wade through Mom’s closet for giveaways, Dad went with my husband to watch the Buckeyes play Northwestern. My dad never used to miss Ohio State’s fall football season; I remember attending games with him throughout my childhood. But as Mom’s needs rose, attending a football game moved farther down his list of priorities. Left alone for hours with my mom, I took her to lunch and looked at old photos. I wasn’t prepared for the greeting I witnessed when Dad’s key turned the doorknob. Their eyes lit up for one another as if they had been separated for months.

•••

While Dad’s knees were like new, Mom’s physical condition continued to deteriorate. She had frequent falls. Her memory lapses became more numerous, although she continued to call forth the most obscure details of decades past. Dad still drove, played bridge, and voraciously read magazines and books—and continued as Mom’s loyal custodian. But in the fall of 2015, both of them ninety-two, he began admitting that taking care of my mother—something he’d considered a life’s mission—was no longer sustainable. For the first time in their enduring union, they would need to live apart.

A new memory-care facility opened just fifty yards from their apartment building. Mom became its first resident. For nearly a year, Dad visited almost all day, every day. I’d often come by and find my parents in Mom’s sizable room—she in her wheelchair and he sitting on an ottoman close beside her. They were holding hands and watching television, the sound blasting down the hall. She cared little for what was on the screen. The man at her side was the source of her happiness.

When she left this world last May, eerily on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mom and Dad were one month shy of celebrating the sixty-eighth year of their love affair. Instead we celebrated Mom’s life, and buried her on Mother’s Day. Dad had brought over Mother’s Day cards that he’d picked out weeks earlier, one for each of the moms in our family. I found a sealed envelope among his stack with my Mom’s name front and center, a heart drawn around it. I slipped the card from the pile and, later, unsealed the envelope, as if opening it for Mom. After the printed message from husband to wife—that she was the woman he would marry all over again—came three words in Dad’s shaky handwriting: “To my treasure.”

While Dad was heartbroken, he did what he always did in life. He pressed on. At Mom’s funeral, he told my best friend that he needed to “reinvent” himself. He added a fourth bridge game to his week, attended a few more Columbus Symphony concerts with friends from his senior residence, and even took a trip with my husband, our daughter, and me for part of my book tour in the Florida Panhandle. He engaged more deeply with friends and family. Always a realist, he knew life was precious and was determined to live fully for whatever days he had left.

When a nodule showed up on a lung CAT scan during an ER visit prompted by a fall last October, Dad handled the news with his usual pragmatism. He was uninterested in pursuing medical interventions.

“I’ve lived a long life,” he said. “A good life.”

By November, pneumonia and a lung infection left him weaker, and he developed an uncontrollable cough. Still, he’d get up around seven a.m., shower, put on a nice shirt and pants, a handsome sweater, and go down to breakfast. He continued to play bridge and would win most games. He read when he could. Right up to his last days, he possessed his gift of connection, a fellowship he’d built for a lifetime: with his business associates, with innumerable colleagues encountered through volunteer work, with his growing family from whom he took great pleasure, and with his network of friends.

Just eight days before he died, Dad had a nonessential physician appointment on his calendar that he had made months prior—to see his ear doctor. He seemed bent on making this visit to get his ears cleaned and have his hearing aids checked. He was extremely weak that morning and had trouble standing up with his walker. I told him I didn’t see how I could take him out that day. He was terribly disappointed—the appointment was on his calendar and Dad always showed up for every commitment he made. This one was no different.

So I called the doctor’s office and asked them to let me know if they had an opening in the afternoon. The receptionist phoned two hours later. They had a 3:45 p.m. cancellation and I took it. Dad rallied, as he often did, his will and determination pushing through. My sister came over as reinforcement and, together, we took him to the appointment. In the waiting room, we laughed; we shared personal stories. Dad voiced his impatience even though we were early and told him so. We laughed more. When finally in the treatment room, he chatted with the doctor and staff. My rather fast driving even got him back to his residence in time to have dinner with his friends. He was happy, grateful. He’d had a victory—one more in a life that he saw as so full of them.

•••

I keep going back to that March day of Dad’s first knee replacement, our trek with Mom to the fourth floor of the hospital. Except for the slightly glazed look in Dad’s eyes from pain medication he preferred not to take but did, he was alert, lying in a slightly reclined position, a serving table hovering over his lap. We placed his favorite Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream pie in front of him. On cue, the nursing staff came in to sing happy birthday. As they filed out, Mom handed Dad her special card, bending to kiss him. My camera in hand, I automatically pointed and clicked to capture the moment.

•••

LINDA KASS worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications, such as TIME and The Detroit Free Press, early in her career as a journalist. She currently serves as an assistant editor at Narrative, an online literary magazine. Her debut novel, Tasa’s Song, inspired by her mother’s life in eastern Poland during World War II, was published in May 2016. She is working on a novel of linked stories, this time inspired by her father’s life. She is the founder and owner of an independent bookstore, Gramercy Books, in Bexley, Ohio.

Falling

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

By Betty Jo Buro

Yesterday I ran into my mother at the mall while I was waiting for the elevator outside the food court. It was midafternoon, and I had just finished eating for the first time that day.

I’m going through some stuff. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat or even if I wanted to eat, so I settled on turkey soup. After the first bite of salty broth and soft noodles, I realized I was starving. And since I had just overspent on a pair of ripped jeans, I decided it was time to go home. When the elevator doors parted, the usual crowd of mothers with babies rolled out, a teenage couple—obviously and thoroughly in love—and then, the very last person to walk off was my mom. And I was surprised to see her because my mother is dead.

I’ve been in love a bunch of times. There is really nothing like that free-fall into desire. The whole world seems friendlier, more sharply focused, like when I got my first pair of glasses in fourth grade and I could suddenly see each individual leaf on the maple trees, and the sharp letters on the street signs felt like precise miracles. Falling in love warps time, making it speed up then slow down and it’s difficult to sleep or concentrate.

I’ve fallen out of love, too. It’s happening to me now. And it’s not nearly as much fun as it was going in. There is that sense of falling, but into darkness, into a mysterious place that may be cold and lonely. The butterflies in my stomach are more like panic. Sometimes insomnia wakes me at four a.m. I imagine the imminent scene where we’ll tell our daughters. I picture the For Sale sign piercing the grass in front of the house where we’ve raised our family, where our bones have settled into a quiet routine. On the days I’m especially sleep-deprived, I wonder if I’ll die alone.

My husband and I saw our first of many marriage counselors twenty years ago, when our oldest daughter was still a baby. We brought her with us to our appointments in her infant carrier. We went at night, in winter, the baby bundled into a tiny snowsuit, the black cold biting through our coats. I remember, on our first visit, the therapist told us we had an opportunity to change not only ourselves but generations to come. We quit her, like we quit all the therapists that came after, and I wonder now what kind of disservice we’ve done to our children, and our children’s children. How many generations have we fucked up?

We plan to tell our girls over spring break, since the college student will be home and in a rare alignment of schedules, we will all be together under the same roof. The date looms with a dread similar to the one I felt traveling to Boston two years ago, to sit with my mother while she died. Anticipatory suffering lodges itself under my sternum, and accompanies me wherever I go, an uninvited guest. Yesterday, while tossing a pair of sneakers in her room, I catch sight of my high school daughter’s desk calendar. SPRING BREAK!! is written across an entire week. I look away, quickly, but my body has already registered the all caps, the bright pink sharpie, the joy in the exclamation marks. Later, it will occur to me that this may have been one of the saddest moments I’ve ever experienced, but at the time it’s visceral. A punch to the gut. My knees go a little weak.

My mother left my father when I was the same age as my oldest daughter, and I was angry with her in vague and selfish ways. It’s disturbing how accurately history is repeating itself. My mother stepped out on her own in the late nineteen-seventies, when divorces where rare in my predominately Catholic hometown. What is commonplace now, was for her, an act of fierce independence. Maybe, I think now, my mother was setting an example, modeling for her daughters the kind of strength we might someday need: this is how to be courageous, this is how to walk into the face of the unknown, this is how to take care of yourself.

In the elevator, there’re just two older women and me. After a couple of minutes, they tell me, in the kindest way possible, that I need to push the button to make the elevator descend. I apologize and say, “That woman reminded me of my mother,” and then I start to cry on the elevator in the mall with the strangers, holding the bag with my ridiculous jeans. “It’s hard,” they say. “It’s never easy,” they say, and “Have a nice day,” when the door finally opens onto the floor where the overwhelming scent of Abercrombie blankets the air, where the fake greenery rings the fountain in perfect rows, and a new batch of stroller-moms wait to get on. I wonder if this may be a sign, that my mother is going to help me, that she is going to send me surrogates, glimpses of her to remind me to be strong, and kind ladies in elevators to comfort me.

•••

BETTY JO BURO holds an MFA from Florida International University. Her work has appeared in Cherry Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Hunger Mountain, The Lindenwood Review, The Manifest-Station, Compose Journal, and Sliver of Stone. She was a 2016 finalist for Southern Indiana Review’s Thomas A. Wilhelmus Award, and a 2016 semi-finalist for American Literary Review’s Annual Creative Writing Awards. She lives and writes in Stuart, Florida.

True Love or Serial Killer?

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

By Tracey Lynn Lloyd

“You should come here.”

Here was there and there was Aberdeen, Scotland. I lived in New York City, USA. Surely he was kidding, just proffering the beginning of a joke in which I ran off to Scotland with a man I met on a dating app. At that point, our relationship consisted of ten days of texting, a few international calls, and a meeting of the minds on nearly every relationship issue there was. Connection aside, what kind of woman heads across the world to be with someone she barely knows?

“I’m very serious.”

His name was Henry and he was “very serious” about me visiting him while in Scotland on business. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t be returning to New York in little more than a week. Maybe his trip was getting a little boring and he needed some company after hours. Perhaps he was just that impetuous and prone to grand romantic gestures. I puzzled over my situation as Henry sent his next missive.

“I’ll fly you over here. I just really want to meet you.”

Part of me was flattered. Wasn’t it a big deal, finding someone who’d shell out some dough for the pleasure of your company? Henry was turning out to be the romantic he claimed to be, and I was definitely smitten. But I also wondered how sane it was to want to spend a week with a near-stranger. And whether he could be a serial killer.

If you believe the police procedurals on TV, serial killers have a type. All the victims share commonalities. Maybe it’s hair color or age. Maybe it’s gender or socioeconomic status. Serial killers search for the victims that they want, monitor their behavior, then lie in wait until they get their opportunity. They’re often sociopaths who woo their victims with charm and sass. And they are mostly men who mostly kill women. Aside from the eventual murder, how, then are we to distinguish a serial killer from a serial internet dater?

The next time we spoke, I told Henry that I couldn’t possibly meet him in Scotland. True, I was swept up in the intrigue of it all. He’d professed his romantic nature and the desire to sweep me off my feet. He talked about his relationship with God and we shared aspects of our faith. He professed his desire to marry a woman like me, a good woman from a good family who was funny and caring and pretty. It all sounded great, and I thought I deserved it. Henry was the first man I told about my mental illness and he accepted it. When he read my published work, he was full of compliments. After dating my share of disinterested losers, I was relieved to be talking to someone who paid such careful attention to me. But still I couldn’t make up my mind about going to Scotland. Even when he started sending me love songs that reminded him of me. It all just seemed too good.

After all, serial killers have a tendency to have dazzling personalities. Ted Bundy was always described as charming and handsome. Charles Manson had a coterie, a “family” of followers mesmerized by his speeches and theories enough to kill for him. Glen Rogers, “The Cassanova Killer” used his charisma to pick up victims at singles bars. These men are probably the reason that women are taught not to go to a second location with a man we don’t know. Or to be alone with a man we don’t know. I was starting to wonder if Henry was one of these magnetic sociopaths, trying to seduce me to my death with kind words and wonderful fantasies.

No matter how wonderful a man seems, we think a private location could be where he maims, rapes and murders us. So we date like we’re dealing with serial killers. We meet in public places. We give our friends the names and phone numbers of our dates in case anything happens. We Google and background-check to ward off the possibility of criminals in our dating pool. We’re distrustful of men who seem too nice, or too charming, or too much like what we want because it could be a trap. But isn’t nice, charming, and appropriate exactly what we want?

For days, Henry pushed the issue of my impending trip. I reiterated that I couldn’t go because a trip overseas wasn’t in my budget at that moment. He rejoined by offering to pay for the trip and for the hotel where we’d stay. I’d heard about men who fly women to exotic locations. I knew some of these women, beautiful, vivacious women who’d been treated to vacations. With Henry’s invitation, I was becoming one of those women. Someone to be desired, whose worth was seemingly more than the cost of a transatlantic plane ticket.

But I started to wonder, as you do, if Henry was too good to be true. I decided to tell my girlfriends the whole story, about meeting a man online and having him invite me out of the country only two weeks later. They, too, were taken by the romance, thinking about the interesting stories I’d be able to tell about my trip. We fantasized until my friend Nira realized a critical piece of information. She’d been approached online by Henry as well.

Now, the world is incredibly small and the chances of two women being approached by the same man are pretty high, especially if the women live in the same city. But this was an eerie occurrence because Nira and I have so many things in common. We went to the same college. We’re both curvy in stature—in fact, we wear the same clothing size. We’re both Black women who wear their hair natural. We’re the same age. At first, I thought that it was funny. Henry had a type, and it was clear what that was. Then I thought that the similarity was strange.

Presumably, men looking for women online have a type. A set of characteristics that they look for time and time again. Tall women. Women without children. No fatties or crazies. These male daters comb through dozens of internet profiles to find a woman who meets their standards. In my experience, I’m rarely anyone’s type. I’d been languishing on the proverbial vine for so long that my grapes, it seems, are no longer good for wine. My vintage has passed, or never was. My category was closed for business. Or so I thought until I realized that maybe Henry had targeted me—and my friend Nira—as a particular variety of woman.

I started to feel like a mark, a type of woman that Henry had chosen for other than romantic purposes. I asked him if he’d ever dated Black women before. He said no, that I was the first. That didn’t sit well with me, considering that he’d approached my nearly identical friend. I shouldn’t have been that suspicious. After all, Nira had shared with me her exchanges with Henry and all of the details checked out. Still, I was beginning to think that all of Henry’s kind words were just a ploy to woo a seemingly desperate middle-aged, overweight Black woman into some subterfuge. A type of woman who was among the least desirable groups on dating sites. A type of woman who might start to question her desirability after thirty years of dating without so much as a marriage proposal. Maybe Henry was manipulating me into a situation of his own creation. Like maybe a trip to the U.K. with a tragic end.

Listening to my intuition, I started to act on my suspicions. I tried to Google Henry, but no results came up. Sure, I found other men who shared his name but none who bore any resemblance to him. I reverse-searched his phone number. I did a Google image search on his profile pictures. I tried to do a background check. No results from any state that he claimed to have lived in. One day Henry told me that he had to call me from a pay phone, and the caller ID read “Nigeria.” Not Scotland. Not even close.

When I confronted Henry about not being able to find him online, he started to give me excuses about being a private person. He explained away the Nigerian pay phone call, saying that payphones often had out-of-country numbers. Was I supposed to believe that? I asked him to prove that he was who he said he was by sending me a photo of himself or talking to me via Face Time. He refused, saying that he still used a flip phone (really?) and that his tablet didn’t have photo capability. Convenient excuses they were, even if they were lies.

It turns out that Henry wasn’t a serial killer, if Henry was his real name. He was a catfish, and he baited me with a hook of sweet-sounding lies of love and forever. Shortly after I confronted him, he asked me for $1500. Apparently he needed the money to close a financial deal that would net him a five million dollar million payday which we would use to begin our life together. Just like the rest of Henry’s promises, this sounded too good to be true.

Of course I didn’t give him the money—how could I give a significant sum of money to a man who couldn’t even prove his identity? I held fast to my position and, like a true sociopath, Henry tried to make me feel guilty for not helping him, turning on me for rejecting his affection, claiming that he was heartbroken. I deleted all of his contact information, wondering who I would’ve met had I accepted the trip to Scotland.

Dating can be a minefield of emotional pitfalls and fears of danger. If only we could skip past the uncertainty of meeting someone new and get to the meat of having a relationship. But then we wouldn’t experience the rush of new love or the excitement of new possibilities. And there are only a few serial killers lurking among the honest dating profiles. So I’ll make another go of using Hinge or Bumble or another dating app. I’ve probably depleted my share of fake suitors with Henry, so I’m due my happy ending.

•••

TRACEY LYNN LLOYD has been a marketer, a writer, a mental health advocate, and a sarcastic smartypants. She lives in New York City where she drinks lots of coffee and fights her cat for access to the laptop. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, The Establishment and xoJane.

On Brooding

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

By Kristin Kovacic

It’s winter; I’m in Sheffield, England, where I have accompanied my husband on a semester’s teaching exchange. I’m alone most days in our tiny temporary house, and I’m supposed to be writing, which I am doing (see, right now, I’m doing it). But frequently, I find myself walking out into the city by myself, with no particular destination except the pretense of an errand, and no one, not even my husband, aware of my whereabouts (although he trusts I’ll be home for dinner).

There’s an urge in me, call it procrastination (which may be its truest name), call it restlessness—but it feels like curiosity propelling me most days, to assess the forecast (always the same, cloudy and just above freezing, with a fifty percent chance of rainbows), to assemble the frumpy all-weather ensemble I have fashioned to survive an English winter (new Wellingtons, old leggings, wool skirt, undershirt, sweater, anorak, umbrella, backpack, bandeau) and to take a long walk down our quite steep hill (Sheffield boasts seven of them, and we are on top of the most perilous, requiring some courage to descend) in order to, I don’t know, look at England.

I haven’t been in the country since 1991, when we cycled for an entire summer all around the British Isles together. I feel as though the last time we were here, though we slowly traversed a great deal of the Old Sod—villages, towns, moors, downs, dales, shores—I didn’t really see it.

What was I doing? Trying to stay on my bike, for one thing, and to not get wet (pointless—our sleeping bags wouldn’t dry, and I believe there’s a twenty-five-year-old drop of Scottish rain still battering my inner ear). Dying for a decent cup of coffee (impossible to find in Britain then), and trying not to be angry at my husband, who seemed insensitive to my suffering (he enjoyed climbing hills and fighting wet winds—a true cyclist, which I will never be).

I was looking at my marriage, too, and brooding a lot, as my wheels reluctantly turned over whether it had been a good idea (we had been married five years by then) to marry so young, to hitch my ride through life so firmly to another person’s journey. Mostly I felt slow, slower than him, and he had to let me ride ahead to keep from speeding off and losing me entirely. My journal from the trip, useless as material, is a tedious record of such petty laments.

Now we’re married thirty (the sleeping bags dried). We’ve done a good deal more traveling, together and with our children, with stays in Italy, France, Spain, Miami, Qatar—on bikes and boats and planes and trains and automobiles; in tents and campers, houses, apartments, gîtes, and B&Bs. Traveling is at the core of who we are together, for better and for worse, with many stories and shared adventures (“The Day of the Bora (Croatia),” “The Night of the Avalanche (France)” to chew on as we approach the evening of our days together.

Though young, I’d traveled a lot before I married, too—to Yugoslavia, where my father’s family is; to Paris, where I learned French on a study abroad; to New York City, where I interned for a summer. I was a young bride for sure (just twenty-two), but I was also a woman who could speak a second language, had lived in major capitals, had been in love before, and was not afraid of new experiences. And we had them, the two of us, together, one after another after another. I’ve always thought of our trips as the best part of being us, of being married—having a faithful traveling companion.

But here, alone and on foot, in this new city, I start to wonder. A new kind of attention, like a compulsion, flows through me. What’s this all about? I’m fifty-two years old. I’ve been around the world. I’ve held jobs, published books, had babies and—and maybe that’s it. My senses suddenly feel electrified, as they did when I was pregnant, but here, now, when I’m menopausal and mostly by myself, sauntering through the muddy parks and sooty streets of Sheffield.

Sheffield! The Pittsburgh of Britain, most prosaic of industrial cities in the unsung heart of England. Orwell once called it “the ugliest town in the Old World.” Today I go out into its spitting rain with my old leather boots, heels hollowed by use and filled with mud, in my backpack. My ostensible destination is the cobbler’s, whose shop I smelled yesterday before I saw it. The essential oils of animals and humans, commingled with turpentine and polish, drew me up Ecclesall Road to peek into the doorway and reinhabit my childhood: my daily stop in Tony Minetti’s shoemaker shop in the Pittsburgh of America, where I checked the gumball machine for stray nickels and candy and occasionally picked up our family’s repairs, paying with dimes my mother wrapped in paper to keep me from worrying them out of my pocket.

Today I’m greeted by a brawny, red-faced man: Are you all right?—a Yorkshire formality I no longer hear as an expression of true concern. He has burnished cheeks and a genuine leather apron, just like the automaton cobbler stiffly turning in his shop window. He takes both my boots in one broad tarry hand, says I’ll need soles as well, hands me a paper ticket, and tells me to come back tomorrow. What time tomorrow? I sputter, aware of my strong accent of surprise, and he says, with a wink, We’re open until eight, and goes whistling back to his bench, buried in piles of collapsed loafers and Oxfords. I stand there for some awkward seconds, a few mechanical swishes of the window cobbler’s hammer, while I understand that he means to fix my shoes overnight, like a shoemaker in a fairytale.

I hold on to this wonderful idea, this ordinary magic, like a coin wrapped in paper, hesitant to spend it. I resolve to come back first thing in the morning, to test my fairytale theory.

And then I think about telling my husband the story, and worry that in the telling some of its wonder will come off; the mad idea of dashing down the hill at dawn to fetch my boots will reveal its true lunacy. Of course, for a man pounding leather all day, my boots are a trifling job, one more ticket in the till. My husband, though a poet, is a practical person who can replace a bicycle tire in minutes, and he will likely not be impressed. And he can pick up my boots any day of the week, swinging by on his bicycle on his way home from work.

And so there, in the cobbler shop, I start to put my finger on it, this … thing, this wandering I’m wondering about. What am I looking for? What do I think I’ll find? I imagine lobbing my magical story over the dinner table, then watching it sink into a mild anecdote, a trivial observation from an obviously dull day.

This, too, is marriage, an audience of exactly one, who comes to your show every night. I am generally mindful, however minimally, of my performance, and apologetic when I repeat myself (my husband, like a lot of men, has little tolerance for being told something twice). For thirty years, I’ve been careful of what I say, to not bore the person most likely to be bored by me. Why am I still brooding about this?

To console myself, I dash across rain-slicked Eccleshall to a chocolate shop, announcing its treacly name, Cocoa Wonderland, in deco pink and green. My ostensible reason (why do I always need a reason? who am I explaining this to?) is to search for some full-fat ice cream, for an old, ill friend we’ll see tonight and who, according to his wife, needs to put on weight. Surely, I think, Cocoa Wonderland will have it. A freckled young man with a blush of ginger beard pops up from behind some pyramids of bonbons. He’s wearing a striped, mauve apron (a recurring delight of England is the men—cooks and barmen, fishmongers and butchers—going about their work in their smartly striped smocks).

He informs me, with real regret, he’s terribly sorry, that he can only scoop me a cone, not sell me a tub, of Wonderland ice cream. But he can offer all varieties of delicious hot chocolate—Thick, Milky, Extra Milky, Spicy—and soberly suggests that if I haven’t had their authentic, traditionally prepared cocoa, then I have never really tasted chocolate at all.

Which, in my hyper-alert state, sounds like a serious question: Have I ever really tasted chocolate? I can’t exactly say. To be very certain, I order the Thick, a choice that pleases my young guide, and he directs me to an ample chintz armchair in the back parlor, where I can wait while he works.

Uncomfortably damp, I sink down and start peeling off layers of my get-up, blooming into the chair like a cabbage rose. I listen to the chemistry of chocolate—liquid, metallic—and take in, with each breath, slightly more of the dark brew he’s concocting, carefully and exclusively for me. Maybe because I’m sweaty or maybe because I’m alone, it smells like sex, like desire ripening in an intimate space.

Because I am alone. The idea continues to confront me, like a persistent mist. As I’ve rolled through the years, of a life abundantly accompanied, what else have I missed? What smells and tastes and sounds and whimsical conversations? What carnal acts and dramas? Inhaling the intoxicating chocolate gas, I consider that I’ve had precisely one lover over the past thirty years, a fact I’ve never felt proud or ashamed of—the condition of long marriage. But is this a condition, like blindness or anosmia or some other sensory limitation, my entire being has adapted to? Are there sensory pleasures, like this one, I might die without experiencing, or worse, never be able to feel?

I turn the idea over, in the swoon of Cocoa Wonderland, a swoon that doesn’t flare up into lust; I don’t want to molest the sweet young chocolatier or anyone else (that I can think of). I just want to sit here with it, my condition, and nibble its bittersweet self pity.

Until at last, with a flourish from a silver tray, my enthusiastic new friend brings my cocoa in for a landing on the tea table beside me: dark brown pitch in a delicate rose china cup. Since I’m still the only patron of the Wonderland, there’s a breathless minute while he watches me examine, sniff, and taste the thick elixir. Alarmingly dense, like cake batter, the chocolate crawls slowly over my tongue and down my throat, an experience more like drowning than drinking.

Wow, I choke out.

And the bearded boy beams, leaning jauntily on the Victorian parlor’s mantelpiece, like a satisfied, life-sized gnome. He just knew I’d like real chocolate, loads better than what passes for cocoa in the markets, and as I try to find a polite method for sipping it—short of throwing back my head and upending the cup—he tells me about his studies; he’s a food science major at the university, one of its best departments, he’s about to graduate, already has a job lined up in Product Development at Yum!, have I heard of it?

The company that owns Pizza Hut and KFC is one that I, bona fide American, have heard of. I try to chat knowledgeably about American food trends (pork bellies, bacon novelties, fantasy potato chip flavors like Biscuits ‘n Gravy), the unchecked proliferation of Starbucks, and as I warm up, literally, my American drawl thickening, my digestive tract radiating like a pot-bellied stove, I feel an accelerating freedom of speech, of talking ad libitum, not subtly checking my opinions with my life’s partner, my husband, for accuracy and corroboration. I am full of chocolate, full of myself, and I happily blather on in this way until I whip out my sad little tale of slogging through Britain on a bicycle, searching in vain for a proper cup of coffee.

The boy barks out a laugh. Coffee! There’s a Costa on every corner! He squints at me with puzzlement. How long ago?

Examining my muddy dregs, I have a hot realization. 1991, I have to confess, probably before you were born.

Just a year before, he says, encouragingly.

I swallow the last gob, thick as regret. Armoring up again in my comical outfit, I feel already slightly sick, like Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and probably already a joke the young man is cooking up to tell his mates at the pub tonight—the crazy old American lady who was surprised there was coffee in England.

Being married has largely spared me this, this singular shame, or at least it has divided shame equally between me and one other person, as we endlessly deflect and reflect each other—mirror facing mirror, odd couple. I can feel the beacon of the boy’s attention, and here, for once, I miss my husband’s corrective commentary (it wasn’t that bad; she’s exaggerating), which checks my wilder flights of storytelling and, normally, enrages me. Over a long, long union with shockingly few disputes, this unconscious habit, of policing my conversation, has been at the source of most of them.

As well as his inclination to leave a scene without ceremony, forcing me to follow backwards, trilling our polite goodbyes. I could use this talent now, as I extricate myself from Cocoa Wonderland, moving slightly less nimbly towards Sharrow Vale Road, along the Porter Brook, toward The Porter Brook Deli, where the food sciences major has assured me they’ll have buckets and buckets of artisanal ice cream.

I can hear the rushing water of the brook, one of Sheffield’s many small but mighty streams that pour down the hills and feed the five rivers that powered the mills and forges of its storied industrial past. A week ago, out for some exercise, my husband and I followed it. (A “walk” with my long-limbed mate is a rapid, almost military maneuver. Unable to match his gait, I march slightly behind, like a traditional Chinese wife, lungs heaving.) The brook took us to The Shepherd Wheel, a four-hundred-year-old mill, now a museum, where some of Sheffield’s world-famous cutlery was forged. Within its low stone house that appears elfin from the path, the enormous wheel churned, and the brute force of water, not a splashing but a pounding, came around in a terrifying rhythm; we could scarcely endure the noise. As my husband hustled us away, I tried to read the historical marker—about the workers who toiled there, days and years on end, deaf from the din, blind from the gloom, wet hands forged into claws.

Today Britain, as Napoleon famously derided, is “a nation of shopkeepers.” It continues to be every British person’s dream, according to The Guardian, to own a shop just like Cocoa Wonderland or The Porter Brook Deli where, with one step inside, I create a crowd with the other customer, standing in front of a display case crammed with cheeses. Tucked behind the case is yet another aproned man, trim in blue stripes, slicing a wedge of Stilton with a wire. I can practically touch the walls on both sides of the deli, lined floor to ceiling with crackers and biscuits, mustards, jams, and chutneys.

Though I see no ice cream, I wait my turn to ask, not wanting to rudely empty the shop in one go. But the deli man is thrilled by my request and invites me behind the counter, where there appears a slender door, through which we enter a smaller, darker room, hung with aging cheese and curing sausage. It occurs to me that my sister’s newly remodeled bathroom in America, which has an antechamber for washing up and a foyer for the toilet and a back room, with seating, for the shower, is considerably larger than The Porter Brook Deli.

The deli man flicks a light inside a miniature fridge, heretofore invisible, revealing several shelves of wee, colorful tubs. With great care he picks up each of the palm-sized pints and announces its flavor—some Asian and strange (Jasmine, Lychee & Rose, Black Sesame), some Yorkshire and plain (Strawberry, Chocolate, Vanilla). One of the flavors he describes as simply “Ice Cream.”

I laugh. No flavor?

And the deli man crows, Cream is a flavor! His wide smile sparkles in the mini-fridge light.

Ice cream is a flavor. Had I not asked, had he not illuminated and humored me in professional patience, I would never have known this rather basic fact of the universe. Triumphant, I buy four tiny tubs—Lemon Ginger, Chocolate, Strawberry, and Ice Cream—for my friend, hoping one of them will suit, imagining each offering its own small pleasure.

I know. I know. I’ve wasted half a day on this errand, the mission of an afterthought, profligately spending time (and money) in a way my husband will never understand. I am embarrassed, even here in my own writing, to set the events of this squandered day down. Were we together, none of this frivolous chasing, this bantering with mongers, this dallying, would have happened, except, perhaps, the five-minute stop for the boots. My husband is good at accomplishing things, quickly and efficiently; he can charge through a grocery store (where they also sell ice cream, he’ll likely point out) like a running back, lap me on a bicycle, write an entire book in the time it takes for me to compose a shaky page. By comparison, I’m a dawdler, an idler. I’m slow.

In comparison. In comparison I have lived my life, much more than half of it now, to this one person: quick, handsome, stoic, focused. Quiet, wise, impatient, strong. I am none of those things or, more precisely, I have some portion of those qualities in comparison, and of others I have a surplus: sociability, curiosity, generosity, languor. In marrying him, once upon a time, I halved my life and doubled it. I am some measure of myself and some of him, and together we are a book of marital history, which we read from, occasionally, at parties (when we stay long enough to tell a few, well-polished tales).

Separately, though, it occurs to me now, I continue to brood, have always brooded, turning the heart’s wheel around those questions, who am I, who are you, what are we, the terrible knowledge crashing and receding. Here I am, finally witnessing my own private England, and yet I’m still mulling our differences, whining to no one but her journal, like the grumpy girl on her bicycle.

Separately, I have to imagine, he broods, too, has always brooded. As he’s forced to watch my ass from behind, wobbling up a steep hill; as he waits for me at a crossroads, cooling his heels; as he endures my circular chatter.

And here we are, arrived to see our old friends: Don, pale and nearly skeletal, sits by a window, pair of binoculars in his lap. His wife Margaret, hale and still chic at eighty, bustles about their small apartment, assembling the “bits and pieces” of our tea. We’ve known and admired this couple for twenty years, from long stays in the small village in France where they lived for decades and where we camped every summer we could afford it. But we haven’t seen them for almost seven years, during which time we sent our kids to college, and Don—once an indefatigably merry Yorkshireman, championship talker and rugby player—collapsed into dementia, and they returned to England for the Health Service.

Now Don stares morosely into his lap (he’s forgotten the purpose of binoculars and simply fiddles with the apparatus). It’s in his hands that I can see the vestige of his old, kinetic energy. Not so long ago, were you to idly mention that you needed a new table, he would leap up to his woodpile and assemble one for you. His mind has forgotten nearly everything, but his hands recall their mission, turning the dials, measuring the length of the strap.

At the table, Don worries his napkin into a mushy ball, occasionally muttering nonsensical phrases, and we carry on catching up with Margaret, updating children and grandchildren, trying hard to show Don, with our eyes and by saying his name as often as possible, that he is part of this warm reunion. But he is lost to us, and the sad interiority on his face, the mumbling, suggest he understands how far adrift he really is. I swallow some tears with the canapés, and Margaret, frequently darting into the kitchen, is, I suspect, shedding a few there, too.

Throughout our meal, Margaret soothes her husband’s hands, filling them with crackers and olives and other foods to mangle, holding them down when his fidgeting threatens a plate. She calls him darling and luv, as she always did, but more maternally now. Their witty marital bickering, which we always enjoyed and sometimes imitated, is years behind them. They’ve been married sixty years. She encourages him to eat, but he doesn’t. Come on, now, darling. Look at the lovely salmon.

And in these moments my husband and I are cast out, to our own coupling, silently sharing a roll, avoiding the obvious. If Margaret were not able, or willing, to care for Don so constantly, so intensely, he’d be strapped to a wheelchair in a ward. Still, it’s not clear how much longer she’ll be able to do it. They face a short future together, each day slightly worse than the last.

The English winter day fades rapidly at the window, and Margaret hustles out dessert before Don gets too tired to sit. Tarts for us, and the lovely ice creams Kristin has brought for you, Don. We watch as she tenderly feeds him a bit of each, dipping his spoon into Lemon Ginger, Strawberry, Chocolate, and Cream. His dear face comes alive for a few, brief moments, anticipating the sweetness of each bite—he likes all the flavors, but especially Cream—with his mouth puckered up, like a kiss.

We make the drive home to our hilltop, scanning the right side of the road for the harrowing oncoming traffic, grimly digesting the evening. True love is not endless, as they tell us in fairy tales. It is relentless, like the Shepherd Wheel. Or, more accurately, like the bent, clawed souls with their noses to the grindstone, some of us continue to do it—this brooding, this soothing, this work. And some of us, maybe one of us, won’t.

Are you all right? my husband asks me, once we’re settled into bed. And unlike a baker or a cheesemonger or a cheerful cobbler, I know he truly means it, and that he means much more. It is the longstanding prelude to our lovemaking, this question, setting us off on our most intimate journey together. It means that he saw it, too, Margaret’s work, the work of love. It means that he’s ready, as am I, to put his shoulder to the wheel.

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC teaches writing in the MFA program of Carlow University and at Winchester Thurston School. She edited Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press), and her chapbook of poetry, House of Women, was recently released in the New Women’s Voices series of Finishing Line Press.

Read more FGP essays by Kristin Kovacic.

Judgment Mountain

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo by Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sobrina Tung Pies

They say the first year after you lose your husband is the hardest. Ironically, it even has a cute name: The Year of Firsts. The first wedding anniversary, the first Christmas, the first baseball season—everything is the first time without him. The first birthday without Alan brings a picture to my mind of the candle-less pile of his favorite donuts that I strategically arranged on a plate into a circular cake shape. (Even as I write this I know memory deceives me. If I dig back hard enough, I remember our friend Grace made Alan’s cake that year. Carrot, his favorite. I was too numb to have been so thoughtful.) Then there was the first time I went in for a teeth cleaning that fall: the way the entire staff looked at me, how certain I was they all already knew without my saying a word, how I couldn’t bring myself to meet their gaze, how I was grateful for each scrape of the dentist’s scaler to distract me from the weight that pressed into my sternum. And there was the first time I tried and failed to talk about Alan using past-tense verbs, the sound of them ringing too final in my ears.

What no one tells you, though, is that the firsts don’t end after those twelve months. In terms of frequency, they start loosening their grip, but still they come, slow and steady. Sometimes when you least expect it.

•••

I should have known another first was happening when something I saw on Instagram made me cry. A man I’d never met before was getting married. He had kind brown eyes and she had a wonderfully proportioned face. They could have been in a teeth-whitening ad. They were young, around thirty, and from the looks of his Instagram feed, did your typical around-thirty-year-old things. Except they seemed to do it better. There were pictures of her twirling in the sunlight in front of a vintage car and drinking a milkshake alluringly at one of those diners that are so old they’ve become hip again. I saw him, too, on the other side of the camera, laughing because he’d been too caught up watching her, missing the moment, and accidentally taking a picture of the table. Of course, I didn’t know if that’s what actually happened. I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me. But we did share something. I saw it in his profile. One word that didn’t match the happiness I saw in his face: widower.

I clicked on the link in his profile, searching his personal blog for clues. How did he get his eyes to twinkle like that? Over the course of two hours, my phone casting a glow in the otherwise dark room, I uncovered the life-bones of the brown-eyed man, using them to build a person with a past, a present, and a future. He’d been married to his best friend and the love of his life for close to eight years. She was an artist with curly brown hair and a ready smile. Her funeral was standing-room only. Everybody who met her loved her. Reading about her and looking at her pictures, I loved her, too. She looked like the type of person I’d want to share my fries with. She’d been sick, though, and then suddenly, as it sometimes happens with sickness and young people, she was gone. Four months later, her husband started dating. Soon after, he met his current fiancée, and their smiles have been gracing dental-office posters ever since. Somehow Brown Eyes had managed to hit the jackpot. He had found not just one true love, but two. And he was marrying the second in a month.

For having never met the guy, I didn’t know why I cared. All I know is that I did. I pictured Alan in Brown Eyes’s shoes and me in the role of the artist wife. I imagined him going on dates a few months after I’d died: him wearing his favorite button-down shirt, her in form-fitting jeans. Dim lighting. Sangria. Furtive thoughts and shy glances. My face felt hot. If Brown Eyes had really loved his wife, how could he move on so quickly? He was wheeling past, rushing to forget. I felt betrayed by a man I didn’t know, on behalf of a woman I’d never met.

But I knew that wasn’t all. Reaching that conclusion did nothing to quell the spring of emotions welling up in my chest. I turned my phone off and lay back in bed, letting the darkness of the room seep in and swirl inside me. And then, before I could stop it, it happened. It was just for an instant, but it was enough.

I am Brown Eyes out on a date. Feeling not-Alan’s arm around me. Letting myself be drawn in closer.

Liking it.

The guilt sliced me in half. I shook the image from my head, and hot tears slipped down my cheeks. Of all the things I’d felt in the past year and a half since Alan had died, I’d never felt anything like this. It was a string waiting to be pulled. Thinking about finding the loose end made me feel sick, so instead I climbed a mountain and looked down at Brown Eyes from my perch. What kind of widower wanted to find someone new to share his milkshakes with? To go on adventures with? Who wanted that? Not me. I didn’t want any of it. And neither should he. Clearly, he didn’t love his wife as much as I loved Alan. It was an awful thing to think but it was easy. He was a stranger who couldn’t tell me otherwise. But that’s what made Judgment Mountain so great. It was a place where I could focus on assessing other people’s lives so I didn’t have to think about my own.

•••

I was still up on the mountain, deluding myself, when I met up with Eddie for dinner a few weeks later. He sat across from me, smiling. I tried to read his eyes to determine if it was a real smile or the kind that hid things that hurt too much to think about. We most often exchanged the latter in the short time we’d known each other. We had met at a now defunct Kaiser bereavement group for young spouses. Most of the people in the group, including Eddie and me, had partners who’d been on hospice. Alan and Eddie’s wife Jeannie had had cancer. Paul Kalanithi described it best when he wrote, “Yes, all cancer patients are unlucky, but there’s cancer, and then there’s CANCER, and you have to be really unlucky to have the latter.” They both had the all-caps kind, one of the main commonalities in the intersection of the Sobrina-Eddie Venn Diagram.

“So how was your holiday?” I asked reflexively. I kicked myself as soon as I said it. Holidays sucked. “Sorry, dumb question.”

“You know, it was surprisingly good. I spent it with my friend and his family. His little girl made it her mission to make me smile. She even waited for me to get there to open her presents. It was really, really sweet. How was yours?”

“I visited the park where we scattered Alan’s ashes. I hiked up to the bench at the top of the hill, and it hit me for the first time how nice it was that he chose that spot. I never realized until then that he probably did that on purpose so I wouldn’t have to go visit some sad arbitrary plot somewhere.” My words caught slightly in my throat. Then I realized that Eddie might visit Jeannie at a cemetery, and I kicked myself again.

“I still don’t know what to do with Jeannie’s ashes,” he said. His eyes misted over, and I could tell he wanted to say something. A moment passed and he shook his head, changing his mind. “Leave it to you to make me cry.”

I laughed. We both cried at every single meeting.

We studied our menus in silence, and I debated between my usual chicken biryani and trying a new fish dish.

“I decided to make some changes,” Eddie said, smiling. It lingered in the corners of his lips, revealing a side of Eddie I’d never seen before. So it was a real one. “I’ve been exercising more. I’m up to doing an hour and a half on the elliptical machine every day at max resistance. And next week, I’m playing Ultimate Frisbee with people a lot younger than me. I hope I don’t break anything.” He laughed.

“Wow, that’s great.” When I first met him, he couldn’t walk or do the elliptical for more than ten minutes. I closed my menu but not before silently picking something to order for Alan: the lamb shank. He would like that. Another reflex.

“Oh, and I asked a woman out.”

“You did?” I put my menu down. Now this was news. “Who?”

“A woman from my sci-fi book club.”

“Wow.” My vocabulary was very impressive tonight.

“She said ‘no,’ but that’s okay.”

“Still, that’s huge. And you felt okay doing it?”

“I did,” he said. “I mean I did then, at the time. I might not the next time. Who knows.”

He looked back down at his menu, while I did the math. Jeannie had died in January. It was less than a year later. If it had been anyone else, I would have thrown him down the mountain already, but Eddie was different. I knew for a fact how much he loved Jeannie. I could see it in him, full, whole, and remarkably intact. And I realized, after the initial shock faded, that his asking another woman out did nothing to change that.

•••

Dinner with Eddie gave me hope. I thought about coming down from the mountain, even if just a little. But when I told my sister about Eddie starting to date again, she texted back, “Whattt!!! Do people just not fall deep in love anymore?!?!?!?” And it put me right back up on the summit. It seemed that’s where everyone else thought I should be. I didn’t dare tell her how I’d found him brave.

•••

It took a while before I found the courage to tell anyone else, until one day it came up in conversation with my friend Angela. We’d met at the same grief group that I knew Eddie from. Her husband Raymond didn’t have cancer; he had died suddenly in June from a blood clot after surviving a stroke the previous month. We were both in our early thirties, and I knew she knew what it was like to walk around in the world like a ghost, only to have that feeling subside and be replaced with the sensation that your skin is turned inside out. She texted to ask how dinner was with Eddie, and I texted back about how he’d started dating again.

“I swear men move on so much faster than women,” I said, dipping a toe in to test the water. I hoped I sounded nonchalant.

“Who did he ask out?” she asked.

“A woman from his book club,” I said.

I waited for her to blast him, but all she said was, “I’m glad he’s doing well.”

Her reaction emboldened me. I ventured further out up to my knees.

“Are you surprised about Eddie asking someone out already? It hasn’t even been a year yet,” I said, holding my breath.

“I used to be surprised by it, that people find other people so quickly. But everyone deserves to be happy.”

I exhaled.

And then she told me she had started dating, too: a really great guy who made her happy. He was a friend with whom she had lost touch over the years and recently reconnected with.

In true Angela fashion, she worried immediately after telling me that she had hurt me.

“No, you didn’t at all. I’m truly happy for you.” And I really meant it. I expected to feel the surge of emotions as I had with Brown Eyes, but all I felt was relief. She loved and missed Raymond deeply. We talked about it all the time. And now she was seeing someone new. She was proof those two things could coexist. The realization radiated through me.

•••

Judgment Mountain began to crumble, and as it did, I recognized it for what it was: a place where I judged myself. I judged people for moving on too quickly because the truth was I was afraid I was moving on too fast. I wanted things to stay the same for as long as possible, to live in the world that Alan still lived in. But that world didn’t exist anymore. Could I still love Alan forever and simultaneously want to find someone new to share my life with? I hated myself for even wanting to ask. As if asking was somehow an admission that Alan’s love wasn’t enough. That I was replacing him. That he was even replaceable. It was out of the question.

But Eddie, Angela, and Brown Eyes helped me understand that it wasn’t the question that I had wrong—it was the answer. I wasn’t asking because Alan’s love hadn’t been enough. I was asking because it had been more than enough. It had lifted me and filled me and carried me gently when I didn’t even know I needed it. I could feel it when he watched me sleep in the morning, by the patient way he answered my questions on everything from foreign policy to the way last night’s movie had ended after I inevitably knocked out.

I miss the blond hairs on his arms. I miss his smell. I miss sharing life with him. The yearning to find someone new isn’t a way of replacing him as I’d feared. It’s a testament to how wonderful I know life can be with someone. And it’s because Alan showed me that that kind of love exists that I want to find it again. I don’t fully know what that means, but I’m ready to let myself find out.

•••

SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.

Read more FGP essays by Sobrina Tung Pies.

Loz in an Elevator

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

By Sara Bir

It starts with a song. Maybe it’s on the radio, maybe on TV. It could even be the artwork on the cover of an album. Or it could be an interview.

Initially I’d not even liked the band, and the first time I saw them play, I left the all-ages music hall early—it was a sparsely attended weeknight lobby show—and fled with a friend to a scuzzy bar a few blocks away. I’d moved to Sonoma County because I wanted to be a wine writer, but that all went out the door when I discovered the area’s extensive indie band scene, complete with its own tabloid-sized free magazine published cheaply on newsprint with ink that left telltale smudges all over readers’ hands. Something about it all resonated with me, this hidden but vital world of scrappy bands thriving among the vineyards and bucolic golden hills.

Later, I shoehorned myself into working as the magazine’s managing editor for free. The editor gave me a copy of the band’s demo and after listening to it once out of duty, I was surprised to find I couldn’t stop. I played it every morning, usually twice in a row. The songs were soundscapes, heavy with blissed-out distortion, and I liked how they set the tone of the day I wanted to have. At one of the magazine’s weekly editorial meetings at a mediocre coffeehouse that also served beer and sandwiches, we decided to run a short profile of the band in the next issue, and they dispatched me to interview them.

The house where the band rehearsed was on a poorly lit rural road, easy to miss. Like many dumpy rental houses that play host to various band members over the years, it had a name: The 116 House. Inside, it was dim and there were about five old couches in the living room. They guys welcomed me in and we all sat on the couches and did the interview. I recall little else about it, though I still have the microcassette recording.

It was the night I met my husband. Joe was the band’s drummer, and he’d said just a few words that evening. He still has a drummer’s predilection for staying in the background.

•••

We liked a lot of the same bands, as it turned out. Joe and each I had Ride CDs separately before we coupled, and our devotion to Ride is still such that we can’t bear to part with the duplicates. I shelve our CDs alphabetically by artist, and the Rs—I also love The Ramones—are disproportionately gnarly. In its purest sense music does not take a tactile from, but in a practical sense I adore the plastic and vinyl flotsam of albums and their colorful sleeves and inserts. Even if the music isn’t on the stereo, I like knowing it’s there twice.

Some of the guys in Ride were still teenagers when (to deploy a trite phrase of music journalism) their band exploded onto the British music scene. It’s almost criminal how fully realized their sound was at such a young age. Listen to Nowhere, their first album proper, and it’s still fresh and epic. Their music was noisy and angelic and gorgeous but always had a solid pop sensibility at its core. Unimportant to Joe but very notable to me, they were also really fit. That, my friend, is arty chick bait. I was an easy mark.

Even so, there was little evidence of Ride’s physical deliciousness on Nowhere, the cover of which is a blurry image of a cresting ice-blue wave, so the songs themselves had to be the heartthrobs. I got into Nowhere my freshman year of college, hijacking my roommate’s copy and eventually listening to it every single morning twice in a row, blissfully existing inside of it the same way I would with Joe’s band’s demo years later. On an opposite coast, a world away, Joe was nowhere, too.

•••

Music was everything to me in my teens and early adulthood. School, jobs, responsibility: these things made no sense. Music did, and by first channeling a real-life situation through the glorious prism of a band, it came out as something I got.

I saw a lot of rock bands back then. They spiritually realigned me, helping me function the rest of the week. Everything else was planned around their shows. At a release show for a compilation CD Joe’s band was on, I got drunk and gave Joe my business card. A few days later he actually called me, instantly distinguishing himself from all of the other guys I kept tabs on at shows. We had our first date. And then we kept on dating.

I liked Joe because he was sincere, and I liked his friends and the other guys in the band because they were fun and not mopey, self-obsessed weirdos. Joe and I liked a lot of the same bands, too. We saw bands together, plus I tagged along to almost every one of his shows. For a four-piece, they had an insane amount of gear: a Farfisa, a Moog, two drum kits, assorted amps and amp heads, a few suitcases full of pedals and cables, and a film projector (I know, I know). It took a long time for them to load in, but it took forever for them to load out. Joe may be sincere, but he had no hustle. I grew adept at lugging bursting-at-the-seams drum hardware bags up and down narrow club steps and onto filthy San Francisco curbs. All those dingy clubs, all those pints of Lagunitas IPA, the residue of the stamp on the back of my hand giving away the cause of my next-day grogginess at work. I lived for it.

•••

One of the most disappointing things about being married to a drummer is that, no matter how mind-blowing their playing might be, it gets to a point where the person practicing on the kit in the garage is just making an unbearably loud racket. At least I appreciate Joe’s drum kit. It’s a set of vintage Ludwigs in a coppery sparkle wrap called Champagne. I see them glimmer every time I bring in the groceries. Those drums have traveled quite a bit, in the backs of vans and then in moving trucks. They’ve spent years in their drum bags, and then in the basements of friends, and then, finally, in our basement. Now that we have space for them, Joe does not have anyone nearby who jives on the kind of music he’d most like to play, and at best he sometimes does shuffle beats at casual jam sessions with friends. But he never gets to really wail.

We have a Ride poster that’s the cover of their 1991 EP, Today Forever. The poster was Joe’s initially, and for some reason he got it laminated when he bought it, and that’s probably why it’s still around now. I love that EP; the cover is a photo of a shark baring its teeth and RIDE is superimposed in capital letters and it’s cryptic and badass. I tried to put the poster up in the basement to remind me that we used to be cool, but no matter what kind of tape I used, the combination of cinder block walls and humidity conspired to make the poster fall down. It bummed me out. I think I was hoping it would spur Joe to play his drums more often.

I’m still plotting ways to hang that poster. Loving a band is like having a crush. Simply saying their name out loud feels gratifying, almost illicit. This is perhaps why music journalism has decayed into an endless stream of lists: assembling and deconstructing them allows you to handle the names, the bands, to build them up into a gigantic consolidated tower, an epic hypothetical luxury condo of rock and roll exclusivity that’s just to your liking. Even just typing certain band names now gives me a rush: The Charlatans. Sonic Youth. Dinosaur Jr. The people from these bands are officially old dudes now but not to me. Rock music is commonly thought of the music of youth, perhaps because only in youth do we have such an abundance of potent feelings in need of a vessel.

You’d think music would take energy from you, but that’s not how it works at all. It only gives. What a privilege to have that in your life, a special thing that’s all yours to obsess over.

•••

When my appetite for new bands took a nose dive about a decade ago, it disarmed me. Who was I if I didn’t care about current music? I wound up getting into really square stuff like Henri Mancini and Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis—the kind of music I used to make fun of. The albums were plentiful and affordable; I could get a whole box of crappy vinyl at the Goodwill for a dollar, pick out the good stuff, and turn right back to re-donate the rejects.

I missed leaving a club feeling both spent and entirely filled up. Live shows stopped doing it for me. I was tired of standing in a crowd on dirty floors in my impractical rocker-girl black vinyl boots, tired of sitting at a cocktail table in a sparsely populated club, tired of scoping out a spot to pee in an alley off San Pablo Avenue because the toilet got clogged at the artists’ loft party. The toilets at loft shows always got clogged.

Going musically frigid changed me, or I changed and then I went frigid. To care so much seems petty, but the emotional significance of a single song can run so deep, like a fissure in the ocean floor. Some people find God. Others find bands, and their music fills a void. Listening to a song is at once completely universal and profoundly individual, and the people who made that song you come to carry in your heart because they created something that lifts up your life and articulates this roiling feeling you either have or yearn to have.

•••

“Ride’s getting back together!” Joe said right when he came home from work. “They’re touring and will be in Cleveland.”

This was huge. “When?” I asked. “Did you get tickets? This will sell out. We need tickets.”

“But what if your mom can’t watch Frances?”

“THIS IS RIDE. Get the tickets.”

He got the tickets. I arranged for Mom to watch Frances, and we booked a hotel not far from the venue, because Cleveland is a bit of a trip for us, and I’d done enough drowsy post-show drives in my life to know how stupid it is to get in a car with your ears ringing and a body full of adrenaline and blood tinged with alcohol, only to later doze off going 75 on the interstate with still over an hour left to go, thinking, “Crap, am I going to make it home alive?”

Neither of had ever seen Ride, who broke up in the mid-1990s. They hadn’t played together formally in over twenty years. Joe and I left for Cleveland in the afternoon, and when we got downtown, the traffic was outrageous and Joe nearly had a panic attack. It turns out there was an Indians game that night, and our hotel was blocks from the stadium, so by the time we checked into our room, we’d weathered a nightmarish hour of gridlocked rerouting and impossible parking.

Key cards in hand, we got in the elevator. Joe was surly, swearing under his breath, and I had to give him the kind of wifely “get your shit together, man” look reserved for public situations.

But something quickly drew my attention away from my irate husband. Right before the elevator doors closed, a man rushed in and stared intently at his black rolly suitcase. In the understated dark clothing of a traveler, he didn’t look like any of the garishly dressed Indians fans we’d just seen by the bucketload, and he was giving off a powerful vibe I recognized but couldn’t quite place. The doors slid closed, and the typical awkwardness of a crowded elevator ensued. I thought about asking the intense guy which floor he needed—he was cute, a good excuse to be polite—but opted not to because he was actually closer to the buttons than I was.

I spent the following impossibly long elevator seconds mulling this over, and then bing! the doors opened to our floor. The intense dude quickly scooted out before us to the opposite wing. Once we got down our end hallway, Joe turned to me. “I think that was Loz.”

“What?” I said. Loz is Ride’s drummer. It’s short for Lawrence. I think there’s a rule that all British rock band percussionists need to have nicknames with a Z. Joe’s always admired Loz musically. He’s not the kind to idolize people, but he’s told me a few times how the song “Leave Them All Behind,” which is crazy-full of drum fills, had been one of the things that motivated him to start playing drums in the first place.

“Yeah—in the elevator. His suitcase had a luggage tag that said OXF.” Ride is from Oxford.

I was dubious, because Ride was a distant thing from a mythical realm, one that did not include blasé, overpriced rooms at the Radisson. “Let’s just figure out where we’re having dinner and relax a bit,” I said. But I was not relaxed. I’d suddenly slipped back into the old Sara, a person who was impulsive and excitable. We headed out and kept our eyes peeled.

Dinner was awful. Ride was fantastic. The reunion was not at all a pandering or opportunistic. I always wonder about this, the motivation bands have to reunite. Every person has events that define their lives, but for a band who achieves renown in their youth, that becomes—to the public, at least—the defining thing in their lives. Joe had certainly not spent the ten years of our marriage being nothing but the former drummer for his band, though they never exploded onto any music scene.

We go through the years, and ideally become more sorted-out and mature. There are jobs that don’t involve musical instruments or amp heads or tour vans that stink of farts and t-shirts in bad need of laundering. There are relationships and families and prosaic things of incredible, meaningful depth: homework on the refrigerator, walks with the dog, lopsided birthday cakes spattered with droplets of pink and blue wax. But there are also the lingering fumes of four guys who were on a stage together and did this incredible, transformative thing, and while other life events can eclipse that in significance, nothing can duplicate it.

•••

Pop culture holds such a mighty sway over our society that we tend to define ourselves by what we like, not what we do. Those filters—favorite bands, favorite books, favorite movies—are handy, but they’re not airtight. I might meet a person who agrees with me that Ejector Seat Reservation is Swervedriver’s best album start to finish, because duh, it is. But you can love Swervedriver and be an asshole. Joe and I can relate to each other over somewhat obscure music, but that’s not what makes a relationship endure. I’m not sure what does, actually. Maybe not knowing is the key.

After the concert, Joe and I agreed it was for sure Loz in our elevator that night. While the show itself had been the main attraction, this one fleeting non-encounter gave the whole weekend a symbolic significance. The Pope had just concluded his North American junket, but screw that. Loz stayed on the same floor of our hotel.

That following week I spent electrified, floating in a heady altered state. Joe and I dug up a documentary about Creation, Ride’s record label, and it included this offhand home move footage of Ride from back in the day—they couldn’t have been any older than twenty-one—and they were just these totally hot little shoegaze babies peering out from a lost window of time that held so much promise. What was I doing when that was filmed? What was Joe? I couldn’t even fathom it. I wanted to go back and re-watch that snippet about fifty times, which is exactly what I would have done in 1991.

My body surged with my own teenage fervor, churning with pheromones long unused. The intimacy and immediacy of all the music I’d ever loved came rushing back, and my ears were receptive in a way they hadn’t been in years. I daydreamed a lot and was not terribly productive with work, instead going on runs more frequently, the pace brisker and the route longer. Joe sat at his drum kit in the basement and played it hard, like he used to before we learned to automatically default to common respect for our neighbors.

The world nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos and algos—“pain” and “return home,” respectively. The pain isn’t from the past itself, but the impossibility of fully experiencing that home again. I was afraid I’d feel pained from what I’d see up there onstage, that the reality of a middle-aged Ride today would maybe squelch a vision of the past I cherished, a time of dewy skin and dreamy faces. But I didn’t. (It certainly helped that the band’s members have aged well—hiya, Loz!)

I could listen to the interview I recorded at the 116 House in 2001, but do I even need to? Part of the 116 House lives here. Home is dynamic. At its kernel is the eternal awe of youth, embers that you can’t let die. We move artlessly though time, as dumb today as the day we were born, and the day we skipped class to go flip through the bargain bin at the record store, and the day we drunkenly handed a drummer a business card after that show at Bottom of the Hill, and they day we put our kid to bed for the thousandth time. Every morning we wake up again, and it is today forever.

•••

SARA BIR is a chef and writer living in Ohio. Her book Foraged, Forgotten, Found: Rediscovering America’s Abundant Wild and Unusual Fruits is forthcoming from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

Another John

By BuzzFarmers/Flickr
By BuzzFarmers/Flickr

By Sue Granzella

His one-inch thumbnail picture was cute, but that wasn’t why I stopped on the online profile of “Another John” that Saturday morning in 2003. It was his profile header that grabbed my attention, proclaiming, “You will never be a guest on the Jerry Springer Show because of me.”

Visions sprang to mind of a curly-haired woman in a red tube-top, flinging fistfuls of deli meats at her boyfriend. A bald guy in a tight t-shirt chomping on another guy’s bare calf. I remembered a woman’s tearful confession to her outraged spouse, who then stormed backstage and punched a hole in a wall. One thing was clear. The guy who’d written that headline was funny.

•••

Though I’d spent most of my adult life in a series of long-term relationships, I always felt like it was a fluke, like I was an impostor. The real me had no idea how to date. Maybe my ineptitude had taken root in elementary school where the nuns punished the whole class whenever boys and girls bucked the rules and played together during recess. Or maybe it was due to my love of sports; I’d been outdoors playing baseball with my brother’s friends the summer my female classmates were indoors teaching themselves to dance, apply make-up, and shave their legs. Perhaps it was what I’d noticed from a young age: girls who were little and cute got more practice talking to boys. Whatever the origins of my discomfort, when I imagined dating, I felt as graceful as a linebacker doing ballet.

Thankfully, I’d managed to sidestep true “dating,” since most of my love relationships had grown out of friendships. Only rarely had I gone out with strangers. But things felt different now. I was single, finally emerging from months of hibernation after the excruciating breakup of a six-year relationship. Now forty-four, I was past the age of having lots of single male friends.

So I thought about how I could meet someone. I taught elementary school; 98% of my colleagues were women. Bars and nightclubs wouldn’t work; I didn’t drink, and only my dog was allowed to see my dance moves. Though I started reading personals ads, I never made a conscious decision to try online dating, still not widespread in 2003. Reading the ads on Craigslist reminded me that if other people were out looking, too, maybe I wasn’t such a freak.

But entries like “52-year-old married man seeks slender woman, 20-25, for discreet affair” only reinforced my feeling that I was an awkward alien, lost on a planet of dating-proficient people. Eventually, I decided that it might be less depressing if I went to a website that was solely for dating, rather than one that also told me where to recycle my scrap metal.

•••

I’d been window-shopping on Match.com for six weeks. Following my instructions, the website was showing me single men in their forties who lived within five miles of me. If anyone’s intro paragraph passed my test for “smart” and “funny,” I’d read the rest of his profile and hunt for shared values and interests. So far, I’d granted a few men ratings of “mildly interesting,” but no one had intrigued me enough to make me break out the credit card and pay for the privilege of contacting him. The Jerry Springer guy had my attention, though. I read on.

Then I saw them, my magic words, standing tall and proud in the second sentence: “friends,” “committed,” “monogamous,” and “very long-term.” I felt a little flutter inside from a part of me that had long been paralyzed. I had wondered if my last relationship had killed it, but as I continued reading, I could feel that hope had survived.

Another John sounded like he knew what he wanted. I knew what I didn’t want—another six years with a man who ultimately didn’t want to commit. With each sentence, though, I got a sense of someone who knew himself, someone who wanted a true partner. I scanned the rest, waiting for the one-liner that would stop my forward motion.

But it didn’t come. He wasn’t a rock-climbing, parachute-jumping super-stud longing for a woman who could comfortably strut the red carpet as well as stroll the beach. Neither was he looking for a supermodel fifteen years younger than he.

Instead, he hoped for someone who could watch films with subtitles, who would never cross a picket line, and whose stance toward religion was one of tolerance. If he needed a weekly bungee-jumping fix, he didn’t mention it. He liked having dinner with friends, eating M&Ms in movie theaters, and camping in the mountains.

He was open to a rainbow of ethnicities, and under “you could be,” this agnostic man, Another John, had marked everything from Taoist to Muslim to Jewish to atheist. He didn’t require a younger woman, and he’d even marked that he was open to someone several years older than he. In online dating, that was a rarity.

That was it. It was time to pay up.

I felt a ridiculous sense of urgency as I ran to grab my credit card. After all, Another John had been out there for the entire forty-four years I’d been alive. But now that I’d found him, I didn’t want anyone else to snag him before I’d had my chance. Hurriedly, I re-entered my username and password.

Then I had to decide the length of my pay-in-advance membership. Even though the monthly price would be cheaper if I went long term, wasn’t it pessimistic to assume that I’d need a whole year to find someone? And anyway, hadn’t I already found him? He just didn’t know it yet. So I chose the bare minimum, the one-month plan.

I was dismayed to discover next that I’d have to create a profile before I could contact him. As precious minutes ticked by, I typed sentences about myself that I hoped would appeal to Another John. Would it seem too scary if I used the word “crazed” in my headline? And if I said “Baseball-Crazed Hiking Teacher,” did that make it sound like I taught hiking or like I was a teacher who liked to hike? Was it too much too soon if I wrote that I ultimately wanted to get married? Oh, man. Why hadn’t I thought about this stuff beforehand? My hands trembled as the panic raced through me.

After whipping out a paragraph that I hoped was both funny and substantive, I reached the step where I got to specify the traits I was looking for in a partner. It was like building my own omelet at Denny’s. And in selecting the ingredients that were exactly to my tastes, I found that the omelet-person I was creating sounded an awful lot like Another John.

Finally, I clicked on the “contact” link, and it was done. Feeling giddy, I closed the laptop. All I could do now was wait.

That evening, while congratulating myself for my boldness, I reread his profile. Suddenly, my eyes widened, and I scanned the list of religions that Another John had deemed acceptable. It wasn’t there!

Distracted by my pleasure at how open-minded A.J. was, I’d failed to notice that the one religion missing from his “approved” list was the one that was in my bones. I’d attended Catholic school for twelve plaid-skirt-wearing years and had gone to daily Mass for nearly a decade of my adulthood. I’d been courted by hopeful nuns who’d recognized my potential as a future convent-dweller, and I’d worked for Catholic organizations. Though I hadn’t attended Mass or believed in most Catholic teachings for many years, I couldn’t deny who I was. I was pretty damned Catholic.

Another John hadn’t listed “Christianity” in his comprehensive “Muslims and Taoists are fine” list. And since Catholicism came under the Christian umbrella, I’d contacted him under false pretenses, the internet-dating equivalent of a sin.

So I dashed off an, “Oh, no! You didn’t want to meet Christians! I didn’t ignore that on purpose!” email to him.

The next day, I received a very polite response. Another John apologized for the delay, explaining that he was being very conscientious about sending a response to every single person who’d contacted him.

Well, now. It certainly sounded like he’d been very busy. I pictured his frenzied fingers typing wildly in an effort to keep up with the hordes of single women in their forties who, like I, had recognized his potential. I read on.

He gracefully accepted my unveiling of the Catholicism, explaining that he’d left “Christian” off in case he attracted someone who might want to convert his agnostic self. My profile must have communicated, “I do not need to drag you to church”; he assured me that he wasn’t worried about my Catholicism.

The one point on which he did want clarification was my long-time vegetarianism. Fascinating! He was okay with my religious upbringing that believed that dry bread could be turned into Jesus, but he was cautious about my love of garbanzos and cauliflower?

His earnest questions were endearing:

Do you avoid meat on moral grounds? Does it bother you if your dinner partner eats meat? Can you tolerate meat in your house?

The answers were easy. I’d stopped eating meat decades earlier when I’d been a camp counselor and could think of no other way to stop gorging myself at the buffet. After that summer, I’d just let the meat habit die. There was no moral ground; I was simply a recovering glutton.

The rest of my email continued:

“I hope your fingers are okay. Sounds like they’re getting worn down to nubs, what with all the emails you’re sending to interested women.”

We continued back and forth for a few days, lighthearted jokes sprinkled in among the “So what kind of person are you?” questions. Then we decided we didn’t need the website to be our chaperone anymore and exchanged email addresses.

My heart would happily skip a beat when I’d see Another John’s name in my inbox. I thought of him as “The Serious One,” even though it was his humor that had attracted me immediately. In his profile photos, he looked intent and businesslike. Me? Digital cameras were still uncommon in 2003, so I had only one digital picture to post, a shot of me wearing a shiny gold crown. John’s emails were brief and politely inquisitive, usually including a line that made me chuckle. My emails to him were newsy and energetic.

“Hey, John. So my city-kid third-graders are on a field trip in the forest, and the naturalist does a ‘notice what’s around you’ activity. She gathers the kids, then tells them to sit down and listen to the sounds of nature. Kenneth turns to me and whispers, ‘Does she mean sit in the dirt?’ I roll my eyes, nod, and point to the ground. Kenneth looks appalled, and says, ‘But won’t that be—dirty?’ Sheesh. Hope your day was okay. Sue”

His response:

“Hi, Sue. I got home early, so it’s all good. Do you think you’d feel comfortable exchanging phone numbers? I would if you would. Then we can figure out a time to talk. John. P.S. Hope Kenneth cleaned up okay.”

We agreed to talk the next night, a Tuesday, after he got home from work. At six-thirty, the phone rang, and I ran toward the bedroom, my collie-mix dog Cody bounding after me.

“Hi, it’s John.”

His voice startled me. I’d been imagining it as deep and maybe slow. Instead, his pitch had a lighthearted, smooth energy that attracted me instantly. Not that anything would have been wrong with deep but hearing his voice was like biting into a cookie with my eyes closed, expecting a ginger snap. Instead, it was chocolate chip, fresh-baked, with the chocolate all warm and swirled and melty.

I didn’t tell him that I’d expected his voice to be deeper. Instead, I told him how funny I’d thought his Jerry Springer headline was. He said he’d figured it would be a humorous way to convey that he wasn’t into crazy drama.

“Yeah, looking for someone is pretty nerve-wracking, so ‘no crazy drama’ sounds excellent,” I said. “It’s been six years since I’ve gone out with anyone new. And I’ve usually only dated people I already knew. I don’t know what I’m doing.” There. I’d confessed to being a dating neophyte. It was a relief.

John topped me, though. “I know what you mean. My last relationship ended two years ago. And we’d been together for thirteen years. So… it’s been a long time.”

I had not considered this possibility. He was even more unaccustomed to the dating world than I was! And yet, he seemed so … so normal. I instantly felt less alone, less like the awkward alien on a planet of dating-proficient people. There was another alien inhabiting my planet. I liked having company.

We talked for half an hour. John made it clear that he wasn’t around on Wednesdays, so we agreed that I’d call him on Thursday. I hung up, and floated from room to room of my little Craftsman bungalow, filled with a sense of accomplishment. I was thinking more about myself than I was about John. “I did it! I did it!” The words sounded loud in my head.

•••

Over the next two weeks, we spoke most evenings. I assumed my position: lying on the floor, feet up on the bed, Cody at my side. Sometimes we’d talk for an hour or more. As our familiarity grew, we experimented both with kidding each other and with sharing parts of our past. And we talked about this experience of seeking a connection with an unseen stranger.

“One thing I liked about your profile is that you were willing to consider women who are a little older than you,” I told him. “So many men only want someone who’s way younger than they are! What is that?” That trend in men’s profiles had infuriated me.

John knew I was a teacher, and his deadpan reply was, “Well, sure, I could try to find someone who’s twenty. But then when I’d ask how her day at school had been, it would mean something very different from when I ask you.”

My laugh rang out. That was happening often. John’s humor would come at me from surprising angles, and I’d laugh from sheer delight.

Another Wednesday was rolling around, and so on Tuesday evening, John reminded me that he wouldn’t be available the following night. Over the past two weeks, I’d been curious about his regularly scheduled Wednesday activity but knew it wasn’t my business to ask. I couldn’t help wondering though.

One thought I had was that maybe he’d not been truthful on his profile when he said that he didn’t have kids. Maybe he had a couple of kids, and maybe his custody agreement was that he got them every Wednesday. I decided that would be okay. After all, I liked kids. And wouldn’t I rather he be a dedicated parent than some deadbeat dad who disregarded his responsibilities, responsibilities who, after all, were little human beings? Yes, I would. Sure, John hadn’t been totally upfront with me about his kids, but at least he was doing right by them. Good for him.

But then I wondered if maybe rather than being a secret parent, he instead was an alcoholic who faithfully attended AA every Wednesday. That seemed more plausible. Respondents were asked about their parental status on the dating profile, but there wasn’t a single question about one’s substance-abuse status. So John could have filled out his profile with total honesty while still being an alcoholic. And I understood that at first he’d hide something so personal. I mean, why should he tell me that right off? No sense in scaring me away. He’d confide in me if we ever got close enough. I decided I would be okay if he were an alcoholic, given that he was an AA regular and all. That way he was a recovering alcoholic, instead of a still-raging alcoholic.

These thoughts were in the back of my mind until that Tuesday night. John brought them racing to the front when he said, slowly, “Well—I guess it’s about time that I tell you what I do on Wednesdays.”

I wasn’t prepared. “Okay,” I said, trying to sound casual. I felt my heart speed up, and I took a big breath. I reminded myself that at least he was a responsible parent/alcoholic.

The silence ticked on. I waited in what I hoped would be perceived as a supportive silence.

John took a breath, and slowly, the truth came out. “On Wednesdays—I bowl.”

My sudden burst of laughter was a cross between a bark and a scream. That innocent little word struck me so funny that I could barely suck in air. “Bowl” was evocative of the wholesomeness of the 1950s, completely undeserving of its role in a shameful confession.

I choked out, “Why do you say it like it’s such an awful thing?” I imagined him in his house, grinning broadly at his success in reducing me to gasps and sputters.

“Well, you have to admit—‘I bowl’ isn’t something you lead with. A person needs time to build up to it. Expecting someone else to accept that right off? It’s too much.” I could practically hear him smiling.

Still giggling, I said, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I play an instrument that’s the musical equivalent of ‘bowling.’ Want to guess?”

We laughed some more after I said, “Accordion.” I decided not to tell him that I’d already decided to embrace him despite his being a lying alcoholic parent who denied the existence of his two children.

•••

It was that night that we discussed meeting in person. We liked the idea but wanted to make sure neither of us would feel pressured. John already had a little experience with online dates and offered some guidelines.

“They say it should be a neutral meeting place, out in public but not right near one person’s house. And we should also set a time limit the first time, so no one feels trapped.”

“That sounds good. Anything else?”

We agreed to meet during the day, for no more than an hour. We decided on ten-thirty that upcoming Saturday morning at a coffee house equidistant from our homes.

In addition to the guidelines, we agreed on something else—our feelings about the experimental process we’d undertaken, this method of looking for love. We both were finding it liberating. There was something deliciously freeing about starting off already knowing what the other person wanted. There was much less guessing. And the invisibility of the other person only enhanced that sense of freedom. When we dated someone who was already in our everyday life, there was a risk of losing a friend if it didn’t work out. So maybe we’d compromise what we wanted, trying to avoid awkwardness.

But for both John and me, starting with a total stranger helped us commit to being our most honest selves. We each had already found ourselves thinking, If this doesn’t work, I’ve lost nothing because I don’t even know this person. I’m just going to be myself, and if myself doesn’t work, then this wouldn’t work. I can’t try to shape myself into someone else.

I’d entered into the process of online dating because I’d felt so inept at meeting men. Now that I was on the threshold of meeting someone in person, I couldn’t remember ever having felt more clear and free about the prospect of a date. I knew that I’d like to find a partner, but that I didn’t have to find one. I knew I’d be okay. I had good friends, a job that I loved, and a heart that was healing.

I couldn’t have known at the start where things would lead with Another John. I couldn’t know that I’d feel daring enough on the first date to confess my scary health secret to him, or that I’d have trouble falling asleep after our three-hour dinner on the second date because I hadn’t known I could be that happy with someone. I couldn’t know that for him, the decision point would come when we saw Bad Santa two weeks later, when he heard me crying with laughter at the twisted, offensive humor and he realized that we belonged together.

All I knew then was that I was looking forward to that Saturday morning with more excitement than I’d felt in a long time.

•••

SUE GRANZELLA has won awards from MemoirsInk and in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Punchnel’s, Gravel, Citron Review, Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Ascent, Crunchable, and Prick of the Spindle, among others. Sue teaches third grade in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her no-longer-bowling husband, John. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, road trips, and reading the writing of eight- and nine-year-olds. Find more of Sue’s writing at www.suegranzella.com.