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.
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.
Just off Central Avenue they’re tearing down Eastland mall—the dead mall as I like to call it. Bulldozers and cranes cluster near broken concrete and piles of rubble. In the beginning, I saw the front of the building removed, the insides exposed like a little girl’s dollhouse. As the rubble grew, I wondered if between the dust and crushed walls, a lone hanger could be found, a pair of new shoes, or perhaps a going-out-of-business sign. Do dead malls hold on to any of that?
“Mommy, what are they doing?” my preschool-aged daughter asks from the back seat. My throat tightens. In an uncharacteristic neutral voice, I explain the demolition of the empty building and the city’s desire for something new. Given Sekai’s keen sense of observation, I wonder if she notices how I stare when we drive this block of Central. How can I explain to her my want to stop the car and bury my head in my hands when I can’t even explain this to myself? Who cries over a mall?
As a recent arrival to Charlotte, I never knew the dead mall when it was alive with the hum of eager shoppers and squalling children. I never walked through the stores and ran my hand across soft fabrics or sifted through piles of sale CDs. I never sipped lemonade while middle schoolers exchanged first kisses just beyond the food court. I don’t know what it was to circle and circle around bright green trees in search of an elusive parking spot. Still I keep driving by, watching the demolition of a mall I never knew. A few more weeks and the dead mall will be a wasteland of concrete. Hundreds and thousands of parallel and perpendicular lines will provide parking for nothing. Not even an abandoned building.
What happens each day off Central makes me think of my hometown. A few blocks from Anchorage’s local college is the University Center. Or to be more accurate: my own dead mall. Mine. As in the theater where I watched movies with high school friends I no longer know. The stores where I spent my babysitting money on books, cheap jewelry, and the occasional hair scrunchie. The studio where my family posed for one of our final portraits before the divorce. My dead mall.
I’m not sure anyone else—my parents or my sister—remembers that day where we slipped in the back entrance by the movie theater. Still dressed in our church clothes, we walked through the doors as the smell of liquid butter coating stale popcorn flooded my nose and the click of my sister’s high heels tapped the tiled floor. That family portrait remains among the last with frozen smiles on a mother, father, and two girls. Did my parents allow their fingers to entwine with each other’s when I stopped to flip through comics at the bookstore? Did my father’s face shine with pride as the sun’s rays streamed through the skylight and streaked his wife and daughters’ coordinated spring dresses? Does it matter that no one remembers the photo except for me?
A few hours before dawn, the baby’s hiccupped cries shake me from my dreams. Before I can shrug off the weight of sleep, the mattress creaks as my husband, Nyasha, rolls out of bed, and his bare feet pad across the carpeted floor. He brings Shamiso back to me where I fall asleep nursing her. Both of us too tired to return her to the crib, she’s still there when the door handle turns, and Sekai shuffles towards us with a blanket dragging behind. She exhales a hot breath near my cheek. “I can’t sleep, Mommy.” As I drift back to sleep, she climbs onto the foot of the bed. A few hours later when the blue-black shadows of night dissolve into day, we still remain there with our bodies brushing against each other. Shamiso sleeps between Nyasha and me, and Sekai is perpendicular to our feet. The stuffy smell of sleep sweat wakens me, and my baby’s warm hand touches my nose. Lying there I wish the sun would forget for a moment its command to climb higher in the sky and let me stay here, near my family, forever.
When my sister and I were small, the dark of night and the quiet of the house made us tiptoe towards our parents’ bedroom. We crept down the hallway in our pajamas, tapped the wood, and pressed our faces to the slit between frame and door. In soft voices we said, “We’re scared. Can we come in?” Then the click of the knob turning, and my sister and I piled into the warm bed.
Back when I used to whisper to my parents in the middle of the night, could they have guessed the light in their marriage would dim, and they would clutch regret amidst their crumbled dreams? When the morning sun snuck through the blinds, and they saw their daughters resting next to them, could they have predicted what they had wasn’t the kind of structure to survive a generation?
It’s senior year of high school, and I lie on my bed with a book in my hand. The radio on my nightstand spits out one pop song after another, and I hum along, a disconnected soundtrack for the plot unfolding in my book.
“Well aren’t you just righteous.” I hear my father’s words from beyond my closed door. My mother’s cries muffle her response before I can make them out. “You think you’re better than everyone else.” And then I am not on my bed, the book tossed on the floor where the cheap pages display their frailty against the carpet. On the middle stair, I stand between the volley of words moving up the steps and sliding back down. From the bottom of the staircase, my father stares at me, and I feel my mother standing behind.
“Stop it. Stop it,” I say. “Don’t say that. Stop saying mean things.” My voice grows louder as something in me bubbles. Anger? Annoyance? Fear?
“Go back to your room, Patrice. You don’t understand.” My father walks away, and I hear the door to his basement office slam. Behind me, my mother disappears into their bedroom. I am left on the middle step where I lean against the cold wall. By the time I stand up, I wear an imprint of the wall’s texture on my temple and the side of my forehead. In the background the soundtrack continues with the levity of top forty hits.
I’ve seen other dying malls. A few cars may sit near the entrance while a scraggly tree or two sway in the wind. In the parking lot dotted with potholes, a gush of wind skips across deserted concrete that once held rows bursting with cars. A large sign hangs over the entrance. Yes We’re Still Open, the taut plastic reads. Inside an elderly couple rummages through the clearance rack. A handful of workers stand behind the counters of the food court peddling soft pretzels and day-old cookies. Of the shops with the lights still on, the names display unfamiliar words since the chain stores have vanished leaving behind only local establishments. Still Alive. For now.
But declining marriages elude me. Growing up in the eighties, the culture of divorce no longer shocked as in previous generations. During childhood, friends and classmates shuffled between parents every other weekend and through the summer. Still, my breath shortened into rapid pants when my parents separated after twenty-three years when I was eighteen years old. What makes a marriage survive? A cup of love? A bushel of respect? The anchor of loyalty? Uncompromising fidelity? Extra laughter? A shared purpose? A common faith? Perhaps all of that? Perhaps more? Holding my wedding pictures, I stare at my scarlet dress that reminds me of the small, faded photograph on the wall of my childhood home. Framed inside, the twenty-something version of my father wears a bright red suit. His arm loops through the arm of my mother, who’s dressed in a traditional white gown. When Nyasha and I lace our fingers together and sit close, is there something our eyes ignore, hidden beneath what we create? A sign to illuminate what stretches beyond our view?
In the middle of the night, a few months after I marry Nyasha, my water glass accidentally crashes into shards against the tiles of our kitchen. In the dark I stand with my bare feet against the cool floor. Crumbs of glass splay around me, stretching beyond the beam of moonlight shining through the window. Not even a moment passes, and he stands at the light switch.
“Let me get your slippers,” he says as he flips on the light.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “So sorry.” Fat tears appear in the corners of my eyes.
“Not to worry,” he says, setting my slippers on the ground, reaching his hand to me. “Why don’t you go back to bed,” he says. “I can take care of this.”
Back in the room under the comforting weight of the duvet, I see the yellow light from the kitchen, hear the crinkle of swept glass, and wonder why I am still crying.
In the year following my parents’ divorce, I asked my sister if she was surprised when she heard. Beneath my question, there was a longing to share the remembrance of the unexpected. “Not really—they used to fight,” she said matter-of-factly.
A while back, I returned to my hometown and walked through the University Center. I was surprised to see the building still limping along. Even a year earlier, the mall’s fate had seemed destined for dark hallways and caves of empty shops. “The local university gave it new life. They reclaimed it as an extension of their campus,” my mother explained.
My mother and I joined a sprinkling of other mall walkers in search of sanctuary from the single-digit temperatures beyond the sliding glass doors. We walked the faded hallways with a spattering of shops: a furniture store, a hair salon, a restaurant, all butting up against the green and yellow wing owned by the university. In the repurposed section, I saw the portrait studio had transformed into meeting rooms. The bookstore had become an office or a classroom. When I reached the entrance of the old movie theater, the lights were turned off. The locked door refused to let me see what now existed in the dark space.
As my hand touched the metal handle of the once familiar door, I felt transported back to my final time in the old theater, several months before my parents announced their divorce. In that awkward summer between high school graduation and the start of college, when my friends and I had shed girlhood but had yet to determine what womanhood looked like, we filled a row in one of the dark theaters. Tubs of warm popcorn and boxes of M&M’s moved up and down the line. In the smooth vinyl seats, I watched as Julia Roberts tried to sabotage her best friend’s wedding. Along with everyone else, I walked out of the theater believing something magical about marriage.
I’m six or seven years old. In front of their bedroom mirror, my father’s arms wrap around my mother’s body. He leans over and kisses the top of her head and feels her silky hair beneath his lips. For a moment I watch and then burrow between them to stretch their hug to include me.
Despite the past, I still believe in lifetime marriages with elderly couples and their wrinkled palms pressed together. On my wedding day, I walked down the aisle sandwiched between my parents. I rested one arm on the curve of my father’s elbow while I looped the other through my mother’s arm. As our trio of bodies moved as a unit, I pretended that I walked between something breathing, something that still flourished. Moments later I stood before my husband where, with our hands entwined and eyes alive, we made vows to begin. We slipped rings on our fingers, the cool metal sliding on clammy flesh. While my sister held my white calla lilies with the scarlet bow, my husband and I declared forever to each other. And with our fingers laced together, we walked back down the aisle into something new.
And I still give my subconscious space to imagine. In routine moments of life like a drive home, I let myself see my parents together. I envision my daughters speaking of Grandma and Grandpa as a single phrase. When my palm brushes my daughters’ smooth cheeks, I pretend the place I thought I would bring my children to swaddle them in the memories of my childhood still exists.
I started running after my parents called during my first year of college to announce their divorce. First down the hallway to where everyone gathered in a friend’s dorm room. Then to the mall where I swiped my credit card as if it were a magic wand that could give me a different life. Ribbed turtlenecks, soft sweaters, double-zip boots. Perhaps beautiful clothes draping my body could make my life beautiful, I thought.
Finally, I sprinted across the world. A decade of traipsing the globe. I called it “finding myself” or “spreading my wings.” I believed tired clichés could disguise my desire to not go home. A year in England, ten months in Madagascar, a semester in Spain, a first job in upstate New York where I knew no one. Thanksgivings were spent with a college friend’s family to avoid interacting with my father and his new wife. During a backpacking trip across Europe, as a night train zipped from Rome to Venice, I refused to admit to a friend that I longed for a beautiful marriage that lasted. Instead I said that I didn’t believe in love and certainly not the kind of love that could survive the years.
And then I met Nyasha. On the final stretch of my lap around the world, during a ten-week trip to South Africa to fulfill the requirements of a grant I wrote, twenty minutes after my plane landed, I met this quiet man. He listened while I made sweeping statements about how I would make the world a better place. He challenged me to give greater thought to what I said. Our conversations hovered in the realm of ideas, and his reserved ways balanced my impulsive personality. At the end of the ten weeks, we stood in the international departures terminal of Cape Town’s airport.
“I’ll write,” Nyasha said.
“Once a month?” I asked, attempting to make the moment light. I forced a teasing smile to appear on my face.
His face mirrored mine. “At least once a month. Absolute minimum.” His arms wrapped around me and drew me close before his whispered response tickled my ear. “And maybe more.”
Nine months later, he slipped an engagement ring on my finger, and six months after that we exchanged our wedding vows.
Fifteen years after my parents divorced, they still don’t communicate with each other, and I don’t talk much with them about the past. My father speaks in hyperbole tainted with anger, a conversation combination I avoid. My mother’s eyes grow sad. It’s a clothing store of blame where everything that could have gone wrong fits the other person. But crumbs of the past trickle between their words, and I become a timid mouse trailing behind, grabbing phrases, sniffing them inside. “Be careful. Some women don’t care that your husband is married,” my mother says as she helps me bring in the groceries. “Don’t try and change him,” my father remarks while the ocean salts the air and our feet sink into sand near where Nyasha and I will wed.
“You remember Grandpa,” Sekai says to my mother. My daughter stands in the doorway of the laundry room and holds the phone to her ear. From where I crouch pulling warm clothes from the drier, I can hear her side of the conversation unfold. My father and his wife left yesterday, and Sekai is telling my mother about their visit. “Gammy, you remember Grandpa. When Mommy and Auntie were girls, you were together a mommy and a daddy.” For the length of my mother’s response, I stop my work. Instead of remembering the past, I linger over the fresh smell of my husband’s shirts and my daughter’s pastel socks.
One day I may ask my parents what happened to their marriage. Maybe we’ll sit across from each other in an all-night diner with thick slices of blueberry pie between us. As my fork scrapes the remains of the violet filling, I’ll ask them if they understand what happened or how their marriage could have been different. I imagine my father raising his diet coke with beads of condensation sliding down the glass and my mother squeezing a fresh lemon in her hot tea. From across the table, they will look away from me for a moment. All around us waitresses will take orders, plates will hit tables, and perhaps a glass will break in the kitchen so the silence at our table won’t become awkward. Then they’ll begin to speak; slow at first but gaining momentum. Perhaps the talk will center on what disappeared, how they changed, or what may not have been there from the beginning. Maybe I’ll discover some answers. Or perhaps just sitting together will be more important than what I hear. As the night transforms to morning and the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon wafts past us, I will reach my hands across the table and rest mine in theirs. With damp cheeks, I’ll tell them, “It’s okay. We are okay.”
A few weeks before Christmas, Nyasha, the girls, and I slip in the side entrance of a mall. Not Eastland mall with its empty parking lot stretching wide, its wrecking balls and broken concrete. But another mall in Charlotte where cars circle and circle in search of a spot near the door. The windowless structure beckons for people to disappear behind the guise of shiny trinkets and the smell of new clothes. With our outfits coordinated in red and faces ready to smile, we join other families in the portrait studio waiting our turn. Just as I straighten Sekai’s dress and slide a matching headband on the baby, the photographer calls for us.
Christmas music bounces in the background mixed with the rumble of waiting voices. “Move in. Your faces almost touching,” the photographer says as she snaps an image. Then she stretches us into a row and with the help of stools and boxes, our heights stagger into a descending staircase. Arms rest on shoulders, and I hold Shamiso in my lap.
In a week or so, I will find a slim package with our family prints waiting on the stoop. Sekai will sit near me as I tug at the cardboard to release our memories. Later, I will hold up the two 8x10s of our family for her to choose between. “Which one should we display?” I will say to her.
Sekai will first stare at the one of our faces almost pressed together and then at the one of our staggered heights. She will point to the second photo, the one where Nyasha and I sit in the middle, Sekai leans against her father, and I hold Shamiso in my lap. “We are all looking ahead in this one,” she will say. As I slide the new family photo into the frame and place it on our bookshelf, I will think that she is right. We all look ahead, this small family, linked together, staring at what may come.
But today, after we sit for the portrait, we slip out the side entrance of a mall. I hold Sekai against my hip, and Nyasha carries the infant car seat. Beyond the doors, thick raindrops plop against the ground, and the musty smell of wet cement tells me to inhale this moment and remember the day. We stand beneath the massive umbrella of awning that stretches over our heads for just a moment before Nyasha suggests I wait while he gets the car. As he sets the baby next to me, his palm brushes against my bare hand. The touch of warmth against the chill creeping through my fingers reminds me of the beauty of all that remains. I watch my husband walk across the parking lot, through the rain, and I think this moment could be hallowed ground.
Leslie had been deployed nine months when Troy tried to grab my dick. He lived in the apartment next door, and I would go over there when Carmen went to sleep for the night. I would bring the baby monitor so I could hear if she woke up while Troy and I drank Dominican rum and smoked cigarettes. He was a flight attendant and would be gone for weeks at a time, but when he returned, he was always looking to hang out. His place provided brief moments of relief from the loneliness of our apartment. I always felt guilty, like I was doing something dangerous or neglecting my kid, but she was a good sleeper. Once she went down for the night, she wouldn’t wake up until the morning. Plus our building and apartments were so small; in his kitchen, I was literally two rooms away from her crib.
He was a nice guy but kind of a weirdo. Overly cheerful about his obviously isolated life. Overly enthusiastic about his one year in college at Colorado and his choice to drop out and follow Phish for a couple years. He was a rambler, jumping from subject to subject, not ever really allowing or needing me to get a word in. A bit spaced-out in his explanations about the beauty and connectedness of things, like he’d dropped too much acid in his twenties. Troy was also a close talker, always leaning in my face or ear as he talked, as if he were divulging something important and as if I were the only one he made privy to that information, though he probably told those stories to anyone who would tolerate them.
His stories always had to do with him on vacation. As a flight attendant, he got free trips to the places on his airline’s routes, so on his breaks, he would take advantage and travel. It seemed these free rides were pretty much limited to the eastern seaboard or the Caribbean, and appropriately, so were the settings of his stories; this limited his stories to places less exciting than I’d like to hear about.
“Where else have you been?” I’d ask.
His favorite place was the Dominican Republic where he would always describe lazy beach days and wild nights clubbing with a woman name “Tamia” who he called his girlfriend. I always found his relationship with her suspect. How could he spend enough time there to not only find someone but become romantically involved? It’s not like he was visiting every week. He could only take off a couple days a few times a year.
Another thing always in the back of my mind when he described Tamia was that a couple of neighbors who had lived in the building long enough to know Troy more than I did had indicated that he was gay.
Adam, in the unit directly below mine, said that Troy tried a little too hard to hang out with him all the time. That Troy was “trying to put moves on him.”
Ashley, in the first floor corner unit, outright asked Leslie about Troy. “He’s gay, right?”
Gay or straight, his life paralleled my own. We were both guys who lived in small apartments. Our partners were far away from us. This, besides the fact that he was generous with his booze, was one of the reasons I liked hanging out with him. We shared a similar struggle. He would sometimes ask me about Leslie, and what is was like for her to be in Iraq while I was taking care of our one-year-old.
That night he added, “You have a beautiful family. You’re so lucky, dude.”
I took a deep breath and said, “It’s not that hard.”
This was how I responded to most people in my life:
“Seems like I’m able to handle it.”
“Sometimes it’s easier than when she was here because there’s less conflict.”
Or: “I get to make all the decisions”
Even though I felt that way sometimes, it was mostly that I wanted to come off strong to my friends, coworkers, and family members. I didn’t ever want to be someone who needed sympathy or help. What was I going to do? Wallow in tears because my wife was in a war zone? I was in grad school, writing poetry while she was off driving tractor trailers over the Tigris River. Stereotypical gender roles were reversed. I was trying to be tough and macho.
Other times I had to admit to myself that parenting is hard, especially for one person. And for all the stories I heard growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the largest Naval Base in the world, about military wives recklessly spending their husband’s money, letting the house go to shit, or sleeping around on them, I came to realize it’s not easy to be alone with the kids for so long. When a spouse is so far away, so close to death and destruction, to war, the absolute worst thing in the world, so near the possibility of being killed or maybe even worse— having to kill—there’s a certain longing for recklessness back at home, even though it seems everything in our nature should guide us toward the opposite of that, to comfort, stability, and safety.
I was thankful that family gave me great support. My mom, who lived close by, would take Carmen any time she could. And every once in a while Leslie’s parents would come down from Winchester and take Carmen for a week or so. We called it Camp Grandparents. These week-long breaks allowed me to catch up on the overwhelming amount reading, writing, and grading I had piling up, and gave me a chance to live momentarily as a carefree bachelor—kind of. I would have no child to take care of and no wife to answer to, more or less, so I would try to go out and have a good time. But there was something odd about having a good time in public when my friends knew my wife was deployed. So mostly, I found myself not doing much. I wouldn’t really go out or spend a lot of money. I mostly just drank some beer by myself and went to sleep earlier than I would when Carmen was there. This, I thought, was probably more relaxing than calling my single friends and hitting a bar. So I didn’t regret it.
One morning when Carmen was away at Camp Grandparents, I ran into Troy in the hallway. He’d just returned from a two-week trip. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so we agreed I’d come over that night. I could drink and smoke, and at least I didn’t have to do it alone.
That night as we settled in, he picked up a framed picture of him and Tamia standing at a hotel pool. He shoved it in my hand and looked at it with me.
“She’s so beautiful, isn’t she? We are in love.”
In it she was wearing a server or staff uniform and looked like she could just be an employee who agreed to take picture with him. There was no indication of romance.
I gave a general response like always. “That’s nice. She seems great.”
He took it back and stared at it longingly before putting it down on the table. I could imagine he needed someone or something in his life that he could say was permanent. Flying around and staying at hotels for weeks on end would probably compel most people to latch onto any connection they might make—whether it was real or imagined.
We shot rum and chased beer. I lit a cigarette and feigned laughs as he told me work stories.
The buzz provided a moment of clarity. I was putting on a front. Some of my strength and resolve at that point in my life, like Troy’s relationship with Tamia, was just imagined.
He put on a cassette tape of some Pink Floyd, closed his eyes, and swayed. He was drunk. I was drunk. Realizing it was time to go, I pointed to the clock.
“It’s pretty late, man. I should roll out.”
Not ready to end our “chill session,” he swung around me in the narrow, galley-style kitchen, reached across my chest and shoulder into a top cabinet, and grabbed a bag of weed and a pipe.
“I can’t smoke ’cause they’ll test me, but you should smoke some. It’s so good.”
His eyes were just slits. His grin curled.
I was reluctant, but I relented even though I knew it would mean I’d have to hang around even longer. I couldn’t just smoke a dude’s weed and leave. He said he wanted to close the door, so I didn’t smoke out his whole apartment. I thought this was odd because he didn’t have a problem with chain smoking Camel Lights in every room. Breaking up the nuggets of weed and loading up the pipe took me back a couple years—back to undergrad when I worked in bars, before I was married, before Carmen.
When I found myself making stupid decisions during the time Leslie was deployed, I chalked it up to the fact, that as a country, we had found ourselves tumbling recklessly into a war we should never have started, so I could justify letting myself tumble recklessly into something stupid, into places I should have never found myself. I was a stateside casualty of war. The terrible foreign policy decisions that got my wife deployed begot any terrible life decision I could make. This was a lame excuse, and I knew it.
I lit the pipe. Troy flipped the tape.
An hour or two later, the bottle of rum was empty and the kitchen was starting to turn at a carousel pace. I needed out. I made my way to the kitchen door.
“All right, Troy-boy. I gotta go.”
He snapped out of his musical trance and hurried after me. “Just drink one more beer.”
I turned so my back was against the door, the fridge to my right. Before I could respond he had opened up the fridge and was grabbing two more beers. For a second I was pinned between the two doors. He emerged and dropped a can at my feet. As he bent down to grab it, his hand didn’t move toward to floor. It stayed at crotch level and his body lunged forward. He was right on me. He went for me. I opened the door and moved back and out of the way. On one knee now he looked up at me. He suddenly seemed completely sober.
“Aww, come on… What’s wrong, man?”
It was like he knew his move didn’t work, but he still had some hope that something might happen. I turned my head at him in confusion.
When I got back to my bedroom, I noticed how messy it was. Clothes on the floor. Baby toys scattered around Carmen’s crib. Disorganized changing table. I don’t think I made the bed once since Leslie left. I had escaped, but Troy was still just two rooms away.
I couldn’t give much more thought than that to what just happened—I didn’t really want to be sure that it did, but there was an awkward feeling, a sense that this dude had just tried to grab my crotch, molest me. I tried to rationalize. Maybe he was just falling or not paying attention. It was an accident. He couldn’t have really…
But I knew. When he moved at me, it was like the way I had moved at girls in high school—I’d be ready for things to escalate, to get under their shirts or in their pants. The way I moved away tonight was like how those girls might have moved away from me. Okay with staying close but not ready for that kind of touch. I felt creeped out that I had made someone feel the discomfort I now felt. It was that discomfort that let me know his move was real. That he was going after something. And what if I’d let him? What if I didn’t move away? What did he think was going to happen? What was his end game? This I still don’t know.
As time went on, I tried to avoid Troy as much as possible. It was pretty easy since he really wasn’t home much. When I ran into him weeks later outside the building, I just gave a passing nod and said, What’s up? There wasn’t any bad blood or even real tension. It was just that we both knew we weren’t going to be hanging out anymore. We went back to being our lonely, isolated selves. I could consider my loneliness and isolation as a lingering effect of war. Something that absolutely affects every military spouse, something that isn’t calculated with cost and casualties. But if they can’t even provide proper treatment for soldiers with PTSD, it’s understandable why a depression like this often gets pushed to the side, forgotten about. But I had Carmen, so I wasn’t really alone. Right? Troy was still alone. Leslie was still alone.
The next day when I Skyped with her, I told her about it. She seemed as surprised and confused as I was.
“Oh man,” she said. “I’m glad you got out of there.”
It became a joke between us, and we thought that any questions we had about Troy’s sexual orientation were answered.
“Well, Adam was right.” I said. I even joked that now I knew I was desirable to men.
“Don’t you cheat on me,” Leslie joked. We could make light of it, but when she would bring up the guys she was deployed with and how they would constantly say how horny they were, how they objectified the women, their fellow soldiers, I got worried.
What if something like that happened to her? That was the one and only time anything like that had happened to me, but women in the military are more likely to be sexually abused or raped than to suffer injury or be killed in combat. The abuse often occurs during periods of deployment. The majority of women who are sexually abused don’t feel like they can report it. Out of those who do report, large numbers have faced worse repercussions than the men they accuse. She’d have no door to escape. She’d have no apartment to hide in. I couldn’t imagine what she would do if she found herself in that situation.
Another part of me was scared of the possibility that she’d want someone to make an advance. She could in be in a such a state of isolation and fear and trauma that intimacy would be the one thing she needed—that so many of the those lonely, horny men would be willing to provide.
I’m not mad or weirded out by the thought of what Troy did. I do wonder what would have happened if I had gone super-hetero on him, punched him in the face, and said terrible things to him. How dare he do some gay shit like that? But I don’t fight. I’m not macho. My wife is the warrior. I write poetry.
I can understand that his attempt at having something, even just for a moment, to feel like someone wanted to be with him, to touch another human, wasn’t necessarily something so terrible. I can say that during that year Leslie was gone I don’t know how I might have reacted if a woman made the same move. I may have been just as vulnerable and desperate as he was.
I woke up the morning after, sore in the head and body. My eyes peeled open to the messy bedroom, Leslie’s side of the bed and Carmen’s crib, empty. First the bells, then the lyrics from Pink Floyd’s “Time” rushed into my blurry mind, “Ticking away, the moments that make up the dull day… “ It would be three more months before Leslie came home. Before I could touch, be touched by her.
NOAH RENN is writer and teacher living in Norfolk, Virginia. His poetry and nonfiction has appeared in The Virginian-Pilot, The Quotable, Undressed, Princess Anne Independent News, and Whurk, among other journals. He is a 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee. He teaches composition and literature at Old Dominion University, and he leads a poetry workshop at the nonprofit organization, The Muse Writers Center.
In high school after lunch I goofed off in the library with my misfit friends Richard and Joel. Richard: grubby, overweight, and indifferent, with taped-together glasses that sat crooked on his head. Joel: milk-white skin, wispy hair, and translucent, vaguely bluish eyes, like an alien. Voice so deep it was almost inaudible. My boys.
On this day, I was getting over a bad cold. My entire face hurt. We sat at one of those round study tables. Joel, who would die of a rare disease a few years after graduation, said something unexpectedly funny and I laughed—really more like a snort, with unintended oomph.
My entire sinus cavity … disgorged.
There was a lot.
The result was not something that could be discreetly nostrilled up, like a worm that poked from its hole (maybe they saw, maybe they didn’t). It was a hot, greenish-yellow blob, like something from another world that covered my lips, and half my chin, and was advancing. The jackpot of snot.
As teenage boys we reveled in bodily functions, of course, but in the seconds after my blast each of us knew in his own way that I had gone too far, albeit helplessly and by surprise. Richard and Joel gaped. They cackled. I did the only thing I could think of.
With a cupped paw, I wiped away the seeping, viscous wad. Then I chased Richard and Joel around the library with it, my handful of disgrace. We howled with a kind of weird joy, they scrambling, me in pursuit as the masters of world literature gazed down at us from the shelves, disdainfully.
Fast-forward a decade or so. Joel was no longer among us, and I’d lost track of Richard, as one often does after high school. I was getting married. In those days, state law required emissions tests not only for cars but that, too. The doctor used one of those cotton-swab sticks, like a Q-tip but about nine inches long. It didn’t have to be that long.
“Wait,” I said. “Why is this even necessary? My fiancé is the only person I’ve ever had sex with.” This was true. Go ahead and feel sad for me here if you want. I felt a little sad for myself.
AIDS wasn’t around back then, but herpes was, and syphilis, and gonorrhea. Also human papillomavirus, or HPV. I read the other day that every sexually active person will come into contact with HPV at some point, if not one of the others. Think of it. An ordinary person’s loins are seething with contagion. Maybe you’ll meet someone new tonight.
The doctor muttered something about public health. “We just want to keep you honest,” he said, and I realized, possibly for the first time in my stupid existence, that I could lie but my body would tell the truth.
Next I was a new husband, with a job: photographer for the weekly newspaper in our northern Illinois town. One day my editor sent me to shoot the girl’s swim team at the high school, which had won some kind of award. I arrived at the appointed hour during practice, everybody out of the pool, lined up. Thanks to a powerful strobe flash on the camera, I was able to stand far enough back to fit all of these nubile beauties into the frame. I left the school feeling good. I’ve always felt good, leaving schools.
In the parking lot I heard distant sirens, then closer, and then a line of squad cars followed by an ambulance heading into the cemetery across the street.
Because I was a newsman, I followed them. To the body, which lay face-down on a grave in front of the headstone. I captured that image, and next the overall scene, then zoom: the lad’s half-open mouth, tousled hair, the cassette player near his elbow.
A guy came over yelling and waving his arms. Owner of the cemetery, private property, get out, no pictures, get out get out. Because I was a newsman, I photographed that guy, teeth bared and veins bulging on his forehead.
Later he phoned the office and apologized for his rage. Just came out in the moment, he said. I lost control. But he also threatened to sue if we used the pictures. A boy who lost his girlfriend, as people like to call it, in a traffic accident had shot himself on her resting place while their favorite song played.
We consulted our lawyer. Yes, any cemetery is private property. But the usual rules don’t apply when an event of public concern takes place on it. An event, he said, of public concern.
We didn’t use the pictures.
I peered over my editor’s shoulder at the prints of the swim team. It must have been the strobe flash, the water still on the girls fresh out of the pool, and the weave of their nylon suits. Two rows of beaming maidens faced us looking—except for the faintest shadows of what they wore—as naked as newborns, albeit more interesting. “Nice,” my editor said. “We can’t use these either.”
Fast-forward another ten years into my starter marriage, as people like to say afterward. Let’s extend the housing metaphor and say it was a fixer-upper. Let’s say it had a weak foundation, and was falling down around us. It did.
They say the body is the house for the soul, the body that secretes and excretes and blurts. The body that things come out of, not always planned, and can’t be put back in. The body that’s cut and bruised in wrecks of all kinds. The body that’s brokenhearted. That might be hidden, and—in a flash—exposed.
Wikipedia defines flesh as “the soft substance of the body of a living thing.” The body: private property we have no choice about showing other people, since the body is where we meet them, in our mutually arranged or accidental events of public concern. It’s the site of inevitable trespass, too, at least until the house is foreclosed on, emptied, and then gone altogether.
I still think about that swim team.
RANDY OSBORNE’s writing has appeared in various online literary magazines. In 2014, his work was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces, which first appeared in Full Grown People, is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book of personal essays.
To become a parent in a hospital in a city somewhere in the United States you hear: Beeping machines, the institutional whir of apparatus such as a metal birthing bar that automatically lowers from the ceiling with the click of a switch, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on linoleum sheen, the medical snap of a glove pulled on, the growl and roar of a woman who you are later surprised to learn is yourself, the knuckled clenching of her hands on the metal bar, a pause of silent fear, the bleat of an up-to-the-minute new, miniscule person.
To raise an infant you understand that you must become the owners of mountains of items, gear, devices, such required equipment as strollers (newborn carriage; upright jogger; portable umbrella stroller; add-on car-seat click tray with SafeAssure™ technology), vibrating bouncy seats, bottle warmers, feeding timers, car-seat adapters, and automatic milk pumps. This gear helps you transport, feed, comfort, but it also must be parented in turn—assembled, folded, stored, charged, disinfected, adjusted. You have a whole catalogue of new children now, littered around the house.
You hear: The din of advice from family, advice from friends, advice from co-workers, advice from your husband’s boss, advice from mommy bloggers, advice from elected representatives, advice from newscasters, from grocery clerks, from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the hated Pinterest, advice to slow down to rock her to sing louder sing more softly to bathe once a week at maximum to vaccinate right away to wait to let her cry try gluten free soy free dairy free to switch detergents, but whatever they say you infer what they all really mean is, never let anyone see your nipples.
As you learn a new, completely clock-worked dance with your partner, there sounds the tinkle of a very old tune, perhaps a Scottish fiddle song, to which couples have been swirling for centuries and the days roll into nights that collapse into days that become nights and you realize at some point that you are not really sleeping or even touching each other at all because she eats and cries a lot and life while beautiful is not really a Scottish fiddle tune but now more of a platonic Metallica marathon.
Someone advises you buy a white noise machine. You learn this is a lunchbox-sized device, available at all baby superstores, takes four AAA batteries. On one end of the cloud-colored box is a speaker, on the other end is a dial that adjusts to the settings: BIRDS, OCEAN, WIND, RAIN, HEARTBEAT. That night after swaddling the baby in the style passed down to you by the ancient tribes, you lay her in her bassinet and your partner switches on the white noise machine, which he is calling the noise maker (this would be funny to you—he never gets the names of things quite right—except that you are too exhausted for funny). He moves the device to the loudest setting and the baby’s crepe paper eyelids leaf down obediently.
In your own bed you lay flat on your back like the mummies, arms by your sides, and you hear the white noise of the noise maker floating down the hallway and into your airspace, sidling up to your ear, rolling in, an auditory fog that lulls you quickly into your own twilight sleep. Next to each other, holding your breaths, your pinkies brush.
It works. Your daughter is approaching a trimester old now, and she can get her frequency turned up pretty good (colic, they say, or reflux). The magical combination, you have finally discovered, is to turn the bath tap on as soon as the fall sun sets. You sit on the edge of the tub with your tiny person and your sore, flappy body parts, listening to the rush of the bath filling. Her face is out of this world, from another place you’ve never heard of. Her eyes are open more often these days; she looks like an endearing alien, all shock and pucker. In the tub, you cradle her sideways and latch her onto your breast. The tap is still gushing, baby gulps drowned out. It must sound to her like she is eating inside Niagara Falls, or somewhere more familiar, her former planet.
After the bath meal, drying off, the laying of hands, lotioning, swaddling, rocking, shushing, she is placed in her cradle with the noise maker on high. You have become loyal to the OCEAN setting. It works every night, despite the creeping feeling that this enchanted solution could in fact fail any minute, leaving you back in Metallicaland. You and your husband steal into your own bed down the hall. The synthetic, looped surf pipes in through the crackling baby monitor, which has a transmitter in the baby nursery and a receiver placed three inches from you on the bedside table. A fake ocean filtered through a transmitter carried by invisible radio waves, pushed through a plastic speaker into your ear, soothing you all, with a manufactured quiet, into the natural state of sleep.
One night at the end of that first trimester of parenting, you lie in the bed and think suddenly it must be time to give your body back to your partner, to yourself. You hear the faint remembering of a previous system of connection, long slow sessions of fusion, swift slam of thirst-slaking, rustle knock tear knead soft moan all that fucking. As the battery-powered waves roll onto their radio beach you reach for each other, sift around, try to be the way you’ve been before. But your body is an alien, come from a place as out of this world as your daughter. It is in its inchoate state, too, a nautilus. The lull of the ocean of rest is so loud that you cannot hear your foreign body at all. You return to your arrangement as mummies, bound together, and drift off.
More weeks pass. The baby settles in, acts more and more like she might stay around. You hear everyone tell you how to navigate—buy this brand of sippy cup, ask these questions when interviewing day cares, lay her down at this angle to prevent unexpected crib death. A turbulence. But quiet, too, is terrifying. Alone at home with the baby all day, you use as many devices as you can. The TV is turned up. The Internet always there. Tea kettle, radio, coffee pot, the toaster’s glowing coils and companionable ding. A swing that oscillates. Tesellating mobiles.
The energy of the earth is a circuit from pole to pole, you realize: zings and jolts supplying the system, sometimes knocking things out, towers and wires strung over the hills, in and out of houses, of hearts, of tiny pink mouths, an electrocuting love.
One night sleeping to the looped white noise of OCEAN, you dream a memory of the real ocean. You are a girl, about eight, visiting your grandparents in Florida. You have your own bedroom facing the Atlantic, which is about 150 feet from your windowed wall. You lie in bed at night, the giant breath of the sea inhaling, then crashing, in the black just outside. This, the ocean’s waves, its body, shushing, thunders over you, three-dimensional sound, wet and gaping. You remember.
Your daughter a couple of months older now. The world is still talking at you about how to be her mother. The strollers and wipe-warmers have made room, too, for toys―blocks that play “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and baby dolls that go “waaaah.” It is getting busy in the house. You pack a box, items you feel you should let go of, to make room for other items, board books, doorway bouncer, something called a play mat (monographed)—the catalogue children helping you to raise the organic one. You place the noise maker on the top of the storage box.
That night the three of you lie in the mysterious new quiet. The sheet bunches. The baby whistles unconsciously down the hall. A neighborhood dog howls. You hear the zzzzzzt of desire click on, like the buzz of conductivity when a wire in the dark canister of a device brushes against its charged opposite, the sound of a current in a bedroom somewhere in the United States in a house in the suburbs.
NATALIE SINGER-VELUSH is a journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post; Brain, Mother, the blog of Brain, Child magazine; Literary Mama; Alligator Juniper; Clamor; This Great Society; Huffington Post; and the 2015 anthology Love and Profanity. Natalie is the editor of ParentMap magazine, where she also writes about parenting issues. She is earning her MFA in creative writing and poetics from University of Washington and lives in Seattle with her husband and two children. She can be found @Natalie_Writes.
I wear my tall brown boots and short white dress and walk with you like we haven’t been married over a decade and don’t have three children. They are at your parents’ house, baking ginger cookies and picking daffodils and dandelions, for me, because they’re sweet.
We will not talk about the kids tonight, not because we do not love them, but precisely because we love them.
“Just imagine, in four years,” you say, “we could tell Lydia we’ll be back in a few hours and just… leave.” I try to imagine it and can’t.
We talk about anything except upcoming coach-pitch practice, Cub Scouts, and gymnastics. We order two sides and a couple of drinks at The Lockview. It’s our kind of crowd, our kind of bar, hipster, and you secretly love hipster-ish things.
“I can’t pull off hipster,” you say.
“Yeah, skinny jeans don’t work for you,” I say.
“No way, but if big-ass-baggy-short-white-guy jeans were popular, I’d be in.”
“We could market that,” I say, “It has a nice ring to it.” We drink and people-watch. That guy diagonal from us, he could be my grandpa’s cousin. “Maybe he is my grandpa’s cousin,” I say.
Grandpa’s been dead for over seven years. Our middle son, Elvis, was four months old when I sat alone next to Grandpa’s hospice bed and prayed for him to give up his spirit while Mom and Grandma rested, my skin prickling as he sighed one last time and I half-spoke and whispered, “Brandon? I think he’s gone.” You came in quick with Elvis in your arms, our tiny cranky infant who nearly died just four months earlier because he couldn’t breathe as he exited my interior, capillaries sticky and stubborn.
But we’re not talking about them now, because the sun is shining and it’s just us this evening, just us and your Old Fashioned, my Lemon Ice martini. I am determined to take as many selfies with you as you do with the guys when you’re on the road for work. I tag it on Facebook, “Bold and the Beautiful?” and you say, “You mean baold and the beautiful,” because it’s been almost twelve years since we married and you feel bald and old, though you are neither. It doesn’t matter because you feel it, my Mr. Smooth who walks slow sometimes, suave through his back pain, knee pain, elbow pain. Mr. Smooth’s hairline is receding but come on, husband, I don’t notice. You grew out your goatee again, and I love you with a goatee, its bristles against my chin when we kiss.
This is the second time we’re seeing Lyle Lovett and the third for John Hiatt. You raise your drink and toast, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” these tickets a gift from me to you. One Valentine’s Day, we saw a Christian rock group and the next we spent in the hospital for a follow-up miscarriage procedure. It’s April 26 and the second time we’ve been out together this month, with so many road trips and conferences, gymnastics and softball practices.
I have my hand on your thigh and your hand covers mine. Our knees are touching in orchestra row J, seats three and four, and we are keeping time to the beat with our touching knees. John Hiatt finishes singing, “Marlene, Marlene, my love for you’s obscene,” and Lyle Lovett says something to John Hiatt about his songwriting, how he knows Mrs. Hiatt and Mrs. Hiatt’s name isn’t Marlene. Hiatt has been married twenty-nine years, and I squeeze Brandon’s hand. I try to imagine life in another seventeen years.
The guy in front of us is passed out and hasn’t moved for at least an hour. You lean in close and whisper-yell how that happened to you once at a Merle Haggard concert, back when you were dating Devin, maybe? We call that “BS,” before Sarah. The guy in front of us will have a crick in his neck when he wakes up. He still isn’t waking up, even as Lyle Lovett sings, “Some things, my baby don’t tolerate from me.”
Twenty-four hours ago, you asked, “Do you mind if I go play golf with Jerry?”
I stuffed one sock inside the other as I folded laundry and said, “No problem. Do you know when you’ll be back?”
You smiled with your golf gear in your arms and said, “I don’t know.” I grabbed a shirt and folded it the way my mom taught me.
“Well, are you going to play nine holes or eighteen, are you going to eat dinner together? Do you think you’ll go to sing karaoke after?” I replied, the way my mom never replied, and you laughed, “I just don’t know, okay?”
I dropped a pair of Henry’s underwear into the stack of minion-printed briefs, the way you prefer because it’s stupid to fold boys’ underwear. It’s underwear, you say.
“Well,” I said, “I think it’s only fair to give some clue as to when you will be home—it’s not that I care, I don’t,” I lied, trying to negotiate the same space as usual, quality time and childcare and your priorities and my neediness. “I just want to know so I know whether to be excited you’ll be home soon at eight or to settle into an evening of reading, knowing you’ll be back after I’m in bed. Either way is fine. I just want to know.”
“I don’t like these kinds of restraints,” you said, and I started to say, “Then maybe you shouldn’t have gotten married.”
As the words fell out, I remembered our confessions just a week earlier, my blubbering, “Why can’t you just say you think I’m pretty?” at the most intimate moment, when things weren’t working in harmony, in that fragile space. You rolled off of me and sobbed, “You make me feel like such a failure!” How we held each other, how we apologized, how we touched each other’s faces and whispered all our truths into old wounds.
I remember this as the words drip, maybe you shouldn’t have gotten married.
When we hit an impasse, you angry and calling off your golfing, me angry and finishing folding laundry, I carried our daughter’s clothes back to her bedroom to find her with her friend tucked behind the door. “What are you doing?” I asked, reading their guilt.
“Nothing,” they said, “You can leave those on my bed, I’ll put them away,” Lydia said and left. I wondered what she overheard, what she was listening for in between our living room remarks. I thought back to my own ear against the door eavesdropping on my parents as my dad yelled his frustration in the dark of night. “You never…” he said, my ears too young to hear or know what she never did but old enough to know my mom was crying and lying in bed, my dad standing somewhere in the dark bedroom. I wondered if they might divorce, maybe even cried into my pillow and prayed before drifting off to sleep.
“She said they weren’t listening to us,” you told me when I returned to the living room, “‘We didn’t hear one word you said,’ she said.” We rolled our eyes and smiled thin lines. You went out to the front of the house and I went out to the back of the house. Later, we would lean close into each other in our bedroom and forget, but until then, you shot hoops and I cut shrubs all afternoon, one of each of our children by our sides, separate.
But we’re not talking about them now, or that. Like love keeps no record of wrongs, it took me a long time to remember exactly what it was Lydia and her friend might have overheard, and now that I have I’ve remembered, too, a long list of other wrongs dealt and received. I flinch a little because now John Hiatt is singing, “I’ve been loving you for such a long time, girl, expecting nothing in return, just for you to have a little faith in me,” and your fingers are interlaced with mine. This is the song you burned onto that CD you made me a month after we met, along with a dozen others I remember.
I remember it all again in a moment, it’s all here, Grandpa and my parents and your parents and our exes, our vices, our joys, John Hiatt singing, “Have a little faith in me,” all of it is here between us now, held in between our interlaced fingers.
Okay, so our love keeps record of wrongs, but also mercies. After all, we are here. We hold our wrongs and mercies together in careful intimacy. I run my fingernails across the grooves in your big-ass-baggy-short-white-guy jeans and you put your hand on my knee, just below my dress’s white hemline.
At any moment, I think John Hiatt’s voice might splinter and that’ll be it, but he just keeps hanging on to those notes, he just keeps singing, Won’t you have a little bit a, a little bit a, please! Please! Please, now baby! Ohh, won’t you have a little faith in me? By the time the concert is over, the drunk man in front of us is up and clapping. It’s only 9:16—you guessed 9:15 and I guessed 9:30, so you win. We want them to play more, longer, but they are finished.
We slip out the side exit, your fingers grazing the small of my back as we walk through the sheep-shuffle concertgoers. “Want to get a drink and a bite in the Valley?” you ask, even though it’s Sunday and I have to get up for work tomorrow, you have to take our children to school. We are not tired, and our children might not even be asleep yet.
Let’s stay away a little while longer, darling.
SARAH M. WELLS is the author of a nonfiction e-book, The Valley of Achor, a collection of poems, Pruning Burning Bushes,and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce. Her essays have been listed as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays 2012, 2013, and 2014. She recently completed a memoir-in-essay collection about love and attention, marriage, parenting, and desire titled American Honey. Sarah serves as the Managing Editor for the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and as Associate Editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.
On my first night living alone, I found myself in a room containing only a bed, a nightstand, and a single Tiffany-style lamp—the only thing I requested as inheritance from my aunt who passed away just over a year before.
It was Wednesday. Monday I had been in court petitioning an end to our marriage. Tuesday I had closed on a house. It was late at night and the next day my sister and parents would be coming up from Salt Lake and St. George to my little townhome in West Haven, Utah, to spend Thanksgiving with me. There would be no turkey cooking in my oven that year, but I was thankful they came all the way to spend it with me.
I’d received the keys to my house just hours before, and I stayed up late that night prepping the walls of my new bedroom with blue tape, getting ready for a fresh coat of paint. I chose a dark brown color named “Bay Colt” from the Martha Stewart line of colors. It was a comfortable color, grounded, and it would contrast perfectly with my new heavy, red bedspread that I had my eye on buying in the next couple of days. I painted accent walls that included the wall behind my bed. A healthy, rich soil color was perfect as a place to replant myself. Besides, the designer Vera Wang, three-hundred-dollar bedspread would be my way of being seductively mischievous (if only for myself!).
Just two days before, I sat in a courtroom with Jim, two bailiffs, the court stenographer, our lawyer, and the judge. All the gallery seats behind us were empty. Once the proceeding started, life’s reality began to settle in and the tears were uncontrollably escaping, enough that the bailiff brought me a box of tissues. I tasted the saline as the tears dripped past my lips. I had to swear the truth, the whole truth, and I had to convince the judge to grant an annulment to a marriage that could have/should have been annulled four years prior. Though Jim didn’t have to go under oath, he was there and nodded in agreement at the implications of an unconsummated marriage. The judgment was final. It was as if Jim and I were never married.
I never understood the phrase as if you were never married. That’s what our lawyer said an annulment legally meant. How can someone say that a marriage didn’t happen? I experienced it. I was there. It existed to me. Legally, however, it never happened.
Remarkably, I never felt like a failure. Even on that day in my empty bedroom, I was exhausted and relieved. It was finally over. I had done everything I could think of to save my marriage—twice. We’d consulted with therapists (good and bad), physicians, energy healers, and clergy, but none could give us an answer or a cure.
I never gave up until I knew we were done. It was over when the truth that he didn’t even want to want me finally resonated with me. If Jim did not want to want me, then there was no practitioner or prayer that could change his desire. So what was the purpose of discussing big purchases or planning future trips? What else could we get out of this relationship besides frustrated companionship? Those years felt like pedaling a bike on a treadmill, working so hard to go nowhere. There was no progression. If anything, I wished I had caught on sooner that this was a doomed marriage from the start.
We followed our belief to stay chaste before we were married. For a long time, I thought that if I hadn’t been so strict in practicing my religion, I would have known. When we dated, he often told me he was uncomfortable with my forwardness. I thought I was the one whose sexual perspective was skewed due to a handsy ex-boyfriend. After we were married, I felt justified to find a way to ease the frustration outside of the marriage. I could have cheated on him and felt I could defend my actions, but I’m thankful I never strayed. Ironically, there were times I hoped that he would cheat on me so I would be angry enough to call it quits and feel justified to call off a God-sanctioned marriage. Other times, I would entertain the thought of getting him drunk and taking advantage of his stupor. Damn our religion. No sex outside of marriage and no drinking.
After so many years of silence, never telling anyone outside a professional few, I finally opened up. No more secrets from society. My mom lost a lot of her hair trying to take in what I told her. When it grew back in, it wouldn’t hold the color as it did before. She had been caught up in our myth of perfection. Opening up also meant answering a lot of questions. Answering questions about that marriage has always been complicated. To those casual friends or acquaintances I would simply answer the question of “what happened?” with “It just didn’t work”—only sometimes divulging the secret pun on the word “it.” “It just didn’t work” and it didn’t. Others that got more detail would ask, “Is he gay?” or “Was it pornography?” Having been his wife, I could honestly answer “no” to each of those. I wished I had the answer as to why it didn’t work.
That day in my new bedroom was the beginning of my new life. I was McKel Nobody and I could be me and love me and want to be me. And, although I was surviving the trauma of an upturned life, I was going to be selfish for once.
After I moved in, I had a point of realization: this was my house, and I had complete, creative control. There was no compromising, no rationalizing, no male opinion, no collaboration of details. I was going for it. The color: Brazilian Blush. The room: my home office.
I then found a can of bright white, semi-gloss paint that I had used to paint floorboards in another house. I dabbed paint onto a small sponge and pat it onto a stencil of a butterfly. Instead of following straight lines as the stencil intended, I rotated each butterfly, one at a time. I worked myself around the room. I even hid a couple behind the door knowing I would be one of a select few who would get the secret.
By the end, I had a room full of butterflies gliding over my desk and around the black bookcases filled with books, over and around the window and above the closet. The idea of one butterfly being alone made me sad, so each butterfly was paired off with a companion or in families. “Well,” I thought, “only this one can fly alone.” So I let one independent butterfly have her space to prove that she could make it.
About a year into our marriage, Jim finally sat me down to explain what he saw was going on. We sat in our 1975 split-level home that we bought a month before we were married. It had fake hardwood floors that were installed incorrectly by the previous owners.
“I, uh,” he staggered to get the words. “I’ve been praying a lot about us.”
My breath slowed.
“I’ve known I’ve needed to tell you for a while, but…” He stopped again. I thought we had a relationship where we could share anything, but his delay of telling me something made me uncomfortably aware that this wasn’t going to be a fun conversation.
He then proceeded to tell me in the most logically constructed way that he could. “I am not physically attracted to you.”
This is where friends would say, “Well, why did he marry you?!” But it would be a few more years before I would ask that question and when I did, he replied, “I didn’t want to be shallow.” At this time, though, my mind processed everything slowly, methodically. I needed to obtain every bit of information I could to make a valid judgment.
“I am not physically attracted to you.” Maybe I needed it repeated because the first one didn’t take. “I see girls on campus that dress immodestly, and I instantly get excited,” he confessed. “I don’t get excited with you.”
I sat there, honestly not knowing what to make of the information he was telling me.
“I think it has something to do with chemistry. We don’t have any chemistry.”
Chemistry. Sex is sex. What does chemistry have to do with it? Besides, isn’t compatibility more important in a relationship than chemistry?
He sat there relieved, grateful that he was finally freed from the weight of his confession. I sat there heavy, burdened and wondering when the tears would start. They didn’t for another twelve hours.
“Well, what do we do now?”
Jim was the one that suggested going to a therapist. When we arrived, we met with a tall, thin man who seemed as if he rode his bike to work and wasn’t willing to make mid-morning appointments because it interrupted his morning ritual. I had no idea how to find a therapist that could help us, especially when we weren’t asking for referrals from friends. I found him on an internet search on a whim. His name wasn’t worth remembering.
“So, tell me what’s going on?” he asked us.
The two of us sat closely on the couch, our arms crossing as we held on to the other’s thigh. Jim explained our situation due to lack of chemistry, that thing that couples have that makes you bubble inside and want to jump on each other. “We don’t have chemistry,” he said. “I don’t want to have sex with my wife.” It never got easier to hear, although at the time I was thankful that I didn’t have to guess what he was thinking.
The therapist smiled as if Jim had made a joke. “You don’t need chemistry.” He then continued with a question to Jim, “What do you not find attractive about her?”
Jim squirmed, “Nothing. I think she’s beautiful.” If he thought I was beautiful, why did we have a problem?
“There is nothing you would change about her to make her attractive to you?” He asked again as if I wasn’t sitting right in front of him.
Ironically, I was hoping he would state something, anything—give this therapist some meat to work with! “No. Nothing,” he admitted again.
I sensed the therapist and I had the same idea; he needed more than just crumbs, “What do you find attractive in a woman?”
“Well, I like redheads,” he stammered.
At this point, the therapist turned to me and asked, “Have you tried dying your hair red?”
Apparently he thought that a year’s worth of sexual incompetency would be remedied by a ten-dollar bottle of L’Oreal. “No,” I said, though secretly wondering if it would work—if only for a second.
It was becoming painfully clear that all the therapist saw were two overweight virgins who got married and now couldn’t figure out how sex worked. “We’re asking for help, not to be your entertainment,” I wanted to say but didn’t. We scheduled two more appointments with that man.
After that, we had a handful of therapists before I settled on one for myself. Her name was Tam, and she was there during my transition from as-if-it-never-happened to single. As I was preparing for my new house, she was the only one that didn’t think I was silly for losing sleep over wall colors and furniture placement. “This is all part of your process for coping,” she said. “You are focusing on your future, and that’s good.” If she had visited me in my house and saw the boldness I expressed in that blushing pink room, she would have been proud.
Although that room was my home office, I referred to it as my Alice in Wonderland room. I spent the following weeks and months finding trinkets and sayings that would fit into the theme. I handcrafted phrases such as “Why, this clock is exactly two days slow!” and “Off with your head!” and placed them on my bookshelves. Displayed on the far wall first seen when you walk were three black frames each holding a word in the phase “Whoo are you” and a fourth frame holding the tailing question mark. There was a time that Alice didn’t know who she was either. Throughout the following months, I added a ceramic tea set, a large Mad-Hatter hat, ceramic mushrooms, a black, old-fashioned alarm clock and a caterpillar on a mushroom.
My fascination with Alice in Wonderland started one year before when Jim and I went to see the new Tim Burton movie in the theatre. Two months before the film’s opening, I found myself forty pounds overweight (trying to fill my emptiness) with back, hip, and neck problems that caused serious discomfort and lots of chiropractic bills. That night at the theatre I was two months into my progressive goals of losing weight and obtaining therapy for myself and not for him (or us). Perhaps that is why I was so open to receive the messages of the film and why the Mad Hatter’s line to Alice—“You have lost your muchness”—resonated with me. Alice couldn’t remember who she was.
Two weeks later, friends and family from both sides descended on our house to celebrate my thirtieth birthday. And since I was born in 1980, what better way to celebrate than by a 1980s theme? Guests arrived in leg warmers, side ponytails of crimped hair, blue eye shadow, brightly colored mixed-matched socks, jelly shoes, upturned shirt collars, and the macho style single earrings that would make George Michael proud. My brother wore his letterman’s jacket from high school that was a little tighter than he remembered. Jim wore a thick, black glamour rock wig and a Goonies t-shirt. People were smiling. I was smiling. The smell of freshly grilled hamburgers hung in the air as my family presented me with a cake with six-inch long candles jetting out of it.
Before the smoke from the extinguished candles reached my nose, I remember thinking, “This year will either be the best year of my life or the worst.” Things would either begin to work or they wouldn’t. I knew a change was coming. I had thought this during the weeks leading up to the dreaded thirtieth birthday, and I added it to my broken-record thought collection which already included the lyrics of the song “I Want You to Want Me” from the band Cheap Trick. That song had been on repeat for over a year already. No one knew about my thought collection. Surrounded by people that truly loved me, I knew that they couldn’t hear my thoughts just as I knew that they couldn’t see the gaping hole hidden behind my new “Everyone loves an ’80’s girl” tee-shirt. McKel had lost her muchness.
The pinkness of that butterfly-filled Alice in Wonderland room proved that I hadn’t quite lost everything. I had made a place for myself. I was still undecided if my thirtieth year was the best or the worst year of my life. It was certainly one of the hardest but deciding to leave that marriage was a relief. For the first time in years, I felt like I could finally progress, even on my own.
As the months followed, I finished painting my house—except one room. It was the third bedroom, between the Alice in Wonderland room and the second bathroom. My L-shaped couch was wall-to-wall without an inch to spare. I dubbed this room the “makeout room,” mainly as a joke. Having been married to a man who couldn’t perform and wouldn’t accept me (and a lousy kisser, at that), I figured, as the phrase goes, “If I build it, they will come.” Pun intended. It must have worked because once, while making out with a guy, the man suddenly jumped up, said, “I’ve got to go,” and ran out of my house. I never got an explanation.
That house served its purpose well through the seventeen months that I lived there. I healed in that house. I started grad school and did my homework while in that house. My husband, Daniel, and I found chemistry in that house while we were dating.
I met Daniel six months after moving in. He was from Brigham City, thirty minutes north of West Haven, and the thought that I almost bought a house closer to Salt Lake made me wince with what-ifs:
“What if I had bought a house farther away from you? We may not have met!”
“I would have found you,” he replied.
Nearly a year after Daniel and I started dating, we were married. And while preserving the sacredness of my marriage with him, I will confess that it is blissfully normal and that it works.
McKEL JENSEN is a newbie to the world of published personal essays. She has worked behind the scenes in the non-fiction book publishing industry and currently works as a technical writer/editor for a large manufacturing company in Utah. She has recently received her MA in English from Weber State University, where she was selected to be commencement speaker for her graduating class. She lives in northern Utah with her wonderful husband and ever-curious son.
I took the last fortune cookie that came with our bill at the dim sum place near my office. My friends and I were celebrating the end of a long week, and we were all loud and slightly buzzed from our cocktails. The thin slip of paper fell into my lap as I crumbled the cookie between my fingers, and I almost simply tossed it on my plate amongst the small pools of soy sauce. Instead, I wiped my fingers and straightened out the strip. I laughed at a joke half-heartedly, not taking my eyes off the words in front of me.
“An old love will come back to you.”
“Well, you are going to have to be more specific,” I joked after I read my fortune to my friends. But I really only had one old love in mind.
The last time I had seen Peter was thirteen years ago when he flew halfway across the world to show up at my office, unannounced, two months before my wedding to another man. We had lunch, then later that afternoon we met up at my apartment and talked for maybe an hour about … I don’t even know what. Definitely not about our six-year, mostly long-distance relationship—by now more of a friendship rather than a love affair—or what was about to happen to that relationship. I think back and wonder why he was there, why he drank tea with me in my kitchen, why he told me that his girlfriend was looking at wedding magazines. Was he looking for a certain reaction from me? Was he there to change my mind? Or his?
We held each other and he kissed my forehead. Then he walked away.
We stayed in touch through infrequent e-mails and occasional phone calls through this thick, juicy part of life filled with marriage and children and careers. Somehow our friendship deepened over the years despite the distance, and our interactions always buzzed with that faint undercurrent of lovers who fell victim to time, distance, circumstance. We could have been. But we aren’t. And now we never will be.
The good thing about meeting up with an old love after a long time is that there are no expectations. When I first fell in love with Peter, I wanted desperately for him to rescue me. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college, and all I wanted from life was to graduate—although I think I would have given that up for him too—marry him, have his babies, and iron his shirts. Everything else in life seemed too scary, and loving him was very easy. He was irresistible—all blond hair and blue eyes, easy humor, and cool confidence. I fell in love with him the moment I heard his name—one of those pit-of-your-stomach, butterflies-around-your-heart, love-at-first-sight, unexplainable affairs that I believed only happened in very cheesy movies. It sounds ridiculous now, but I remember the feeling clearly—giddy and out of control and all-consuming.
When I saw him a few months ago for the first time after thirteen years, I had no expectations of our time together. A nice dinner, maybe. Pleasant conversation. But that was it. I know now that I don’t need to be rescued. I have a baby. I have shirts to iron. I have love that is giddy but not all-consuming or out of control.
What I didn’t expect was that the moment I saw him, I would constantly have to remind myself that I can’t touch him. I can’t just take his hand in mine. I can’t run my fingers through his hair. I can’t wrap my arms around his waist as we wait to cross the street. But even after all these years, some weird reflex compelled me to reach for him. We used to kiss and caress and grab and now here we are, trying to find this restaurant in the rain and the darkness and I can’t take his arm, so I don’t lose my balance? Seems ridiculous.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” we told each other when we first awkwardly embraced. I know we both said it to break the ice, to acknowledge the absurdity of standing face-to-face after all these years.
But it’s a lie.
We have changed. Maybe not the basics, maybe not the important parts. But we are softer around the edges, maybe a bit tougher on the inside. We’ve seen things and we’ve done things that we never thought would happen to us: dead babies, illness, disappointment, messy relationships. Our bodies are plumper with age, scarred from surgeries, birth, accidents. The hairs are finer, dusted with gray; the eye crinkles are deeper, a bit sad. We have loved and fought and bought cars and houses. We changed diapers and stayed up all night with sick kids. We have savings accounts, retirement funds, houses, employees, vacation time, car-pool duty, in-laws.
We are grown-ups.
We are nineteen.
Sitting across from him at dinner our time apart didn’t feel that long. Then the thought hit me: if we wait another thirteen years, he will be fifty-seven. I will be fifty-one. A lifetime gone, pretty much. How many more thirteen-year chunks do we have left?
Dinner was a blur—catching up after so much time is hard work and it takes concentration. It’s possible that I drank my wine a bit too quickly. My mind had trouble catching up with what my eyes were seeing: HE was sitting right across from me. He had the steak. I had the veal. We took bites of each other’s desserts. Like it was no big deal.
After dinner we walked slowly in the cool, rainy darkness to my hotel. Not yet ready to end the evening, we circled each other once we got to my room, our conversation suddenly faltering. Here he was, amongst my things—my travel-weary suitcase, my patent-leather shoes under the desk, my coat on the back of the chair, my jewelry spilling out of its case, my work notes and business cards in a neat stack on the desk, next to my keys from home.
“You drive a Honda,” he noted, and I laughed and said it was a soccer mom car. He asked “May I?” and rifled through the stack of papers and magazines and the flowery notebooks and postcards I’d bought.
I remember that when I first loved him, I always wanted a piece of him. Something that belonged to him. I would have given anything to be able to stand in his room like he was in mine now, surrounded by the things he touched every day. Once when he visited me in college I hid his white undershirt from the previous day under my pillow. The shirt smelled of him for a couple of days after he left and I hung on to it for years, even after his scent was gone. Another time I stole a pair of his socks—blue, with little teddy bears on it. I don’t know if he ever noticed—I doubt it. But I still have that pair of socks and, now in that hotel room in Germany, I thought I should have brought it with me, given it back to him. But then again, that’s probably the only piece of him I’ll ever have.
The next day we walked the cobblestoned streets of the city together—sometimes arm-in-arm, but mostly not. We talked; he took a couple of work calls and walked away from me as I sat on a bench. It was a Saturday; there were weddings at the town hall and we watched as happy couples took pictures in front of medieval buildings.
We wandered into the church on the main square and in the quiet, musty hall we walked our separate ways. I lit a candle, but it was just an excuse to stand still for a moment and breathe. I knew we’d have to say good-bye in a couple of hours and that the countdown would begin on our next thirteen years. I wandered over to the tomb of a German prince and his wife and felt jealous of their eternal togetherness. I looked around to find him and saw him across the church, writing something on a piece of paper to be pinned on the church’s prayer wall.
I never asked what he prayed for.
Over the candles I prayed for strength and composure, but neither of those things were granted that day.
“We were able to pick up right where we left off a lifetime ago,” he wrote in a text after we said good-bye. And he was right. The slow burn, the thrumming background noise of our past was right there, ready to spill over.
When I got on the plane the next morning to head home to my husband and little boy, I felt suspended between my nineteen-year-old self and my current life. Somewhere over the Atlantic, settled down by the plane’s gentle rocking and the clouds passing outside my window, my twenty-one hours with Peter started to feel otherworldly. My destination on the plane’s map became clear, a fixed point on the horizon, comforting, promising.
I thought about how, in the end, the fortune cookie wasn’t exactly correct. Old loves don’t just “come back.” They visit, they haunt, they poke around in the sensitive flesh right around the heart with their deft, nimble fingers. Old loves are beautiful and tempting and so, so delicious. And for a moment it seems like yes, yes, a comeback is possible. A moment of weakness. A look. A shared memory. But then… life. The real one. The one waiting at the airport.
I stared at the little “x” on the map for a while as the plane flew through some turbulence and thought about how the engines just keep on whirring and pushing forward, no matter what shakes them.
We wait out our thirteen years and then for a couple of hours we lie and pretend that nothing has changed. We keep walking on cobblestones, through crowded streets; stop to eat chocolate, to watch weddings and street performers. We stand under an awning during a quick rain shower and we wind our arms together as one of us peeks out, looking for a small break in the clouds.
[This essay has an equally excellent companion. Read Zsofi’s other essay about the old love here. —ed.]
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, and Kveller. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
I could sort of make out the outlines of the tattoo on my husband’s arm on the small photo on my phone. He took it in front of our bathroom mirror, holding up his right forearm in front of his face. I had to turn my head to the side to see that there were sun rays and a sword and a heart—some Masonic symbols that I don’t understand and perhaps I am not even allowed to understand. The tattoo stretched from wrist to elbow and wrapped all the way around his arm.
When we got married thirteen years ago, Drew did not have a single tattoo. I don’t think we ever talked about his desire to have one. Now he has four, with a fifth one in the plans. The first ones were modest, easily covered up by shirts and forgotten. I was away on a business trip this time and I knew that it was “tattoo day,” but the size and scope of this latest ink caught me off guard. I scanned myself for a reaction: how am I supposed to feel when my spouse turns from a baby-faced, soft-haired man into a bald, tattooed dude? I know how his mother feels about his tattoos and, when I think about my own sweet, soft-skinned baby boy getting inked when he is older, I completely sympathize with her. But Drew is not my child—he is my husband. So I should be supportive, right? I want to be—and I am—but I can’t help but stop for a moment to acknowledge the unease in the pit of my stomach. Is it the tattoo itself that makes me pause? Or the change that the tattoo signifies? Does it signify a change? How do I know?
Drew and I met at work a year or two after graduating from college. We were in the same class and, in fact, he is in some of my graduation photos, sitting a couple of rows in front of me. But we never met while in school. When he got a job at the same newspaper where I was working, I was dating one of his good friends. When my heart was broken, Drew was right there, ready to comfort me with late night conversations and trips to the mall and movies. We spent long afternoons in his car, driving around rolling Pennsylvania hills and forgotten small towns. We ate bad food at bad chain restaurants and then over drinks we shared the contents of our wallets. His: foreign currency—just in case—cash, credit cards, EMT certification cards. Mine: Hungarian ID, cash, and a handwritten note from my college roommate: “The map is not the terrain.”
I don’t think it was love at first sight—we even joked about how we weren’t each other’s soul mates—but it was definitely comfort and friendship at first sight. I didn’t want any more friends with privileges or long-distance boyfriends who never called. I wanted someone who was there and who wanted me. Drew was—is—a grounding force: solid, steady, warm. He has a way of simplifying life down to its essential elements: “You love me, I love you. We are a family. What else do you need to know?”
We first kissed on a summer afternoon in my apartment. He brought in a bowl of apricots from the kitchen and told me to close my eyes. He split the fruit in half with his fingers and slowly fed one to me, wiping juice from my chin with his thumb. I heard the clink of his glasses as he put them on the table. The next bite was not an apricot.
We got married in Budapest the following January. We giggled through the ceremony and our vows, and the next morning in our honeymoon suite overlooking the Danube, we drank champagne for breakfast and watched as people on the street below us hurried to work. We felt content and close and didn’t take this whole marriage business too seriously.
What do we promise when we say “I do?” Sure, we promise for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. But life rarely comes down to such stark choices, especially early in a marriage. We never really have to make a conscious choice to stay married when the other person is seriously sick. Or when money runs out. Extremes happen, sure, but rarely.
When they do happen, it’s obvious that it’s one of those big, life-defining moments where one’s job is to stand by and be supportive. Your husband calls to tell you that he is in the emergency room because he burnt off half his arm in a firefighting accident. His father has a brain tumor. His father dies. He gets the job. He doesn’t get the job. These are clear-cut cases. You know what to do about them. You know the right amount of alcohol to pour into your evening cocktails. You know that a rare steak and chocolate cake will bring comfort. You know what words will spur the other person to action or to a different way of looking at the situation. You know when to shut up. Or take your clothes off. Or just get lost for a couple of hours. You know that whatever the thing is, it will pass.
What nobody mentions before marriage is the vast gray area between rich and poor, sick and healthy. That there can be shifts and trembles and almost unnoticeable movements and changes in your life together. When your spouse is going through something personal, a little crisis or journey—one that you are not necessarily invited to. And that’s okay, because you do not want to be invited to everything, but still. This person lives with you and you’d like to know where he is going. Will the tattoos lead to a Harley? To a girlfriend? A sports car? Or are they just tattoos? Does he even know for sure?
Looking at the picture of his new ink, the skin around it still raw and red, made me think about my own scars—the ones on my belly from an exploding gallbladder, the ones around my breasts from my breast reduction surgery, and we are not even going to go into the scars and flab and rolls of fat left behind by pregnancy and childbirth. It’s easy to forget about those, and even easier to forget about the invisible scars left behind from what everyone goes through in life: becoming a mother, losing loved ones, trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in a career, figuring out friendships, lost loves, family. It’s easy to not look at my own path, to just blindly go on, day-by-day, not glancing back at the big picture. It’s easy to not stop and consider how the shifts in my life made an impact on the person I promised constancy to. The heart and the dagger and the rays of sun on Drew’s arm made me look at all of that, and I realized that I am fooling myself if I think that he is living with the same woman that he married.
I also realized how it’s possible to know someone so well, and yet not at all. How everyone’s life is full of topsy-turvy roads and blind spots and how sometimes the person we think we know best is the one who will surprise us the most. Sometimes the person we love wants lots of tattoos.
Our son is five and has a very vivid imagination and his pretend-play is very complex, detailed. He always wants us to play with him, but usually it’s hard to follow where he wants a particular scenario to go. He just wants us right there, sitting on the floor with him as he lines up his toy soldiers. I am really not playing with him; I just serve as the audience. He leans on me, touches my hair, or gives me a kiss between battles. He sits on my lap for a while, then just holds on to me with one hand while he rattles on and on. It’s obvious that he has a clear picture in his mind about where things are going, who will win the battle, who will capture the castle.
That’s how I’ve been thinking about our marriage lately. Our careers have taken off. We are out of the trenches—or in-between trenches—when it comes to parenting. We have a comfortable life. There are no life of death decisions immediately in our future—hopefully. But on any given day, I remind myself, one of us is on the floor, lining up soldiers. We are off, battle plans in our heads, fighting on, figuring out the next steps. All that we can do for each other is ask questions, listen, and sit there, in case the other one needs a soft, comforting embrace, a hand to hold.
Even before his latest tattoo, Drew’s been gently teasing me about getting one too over a small scar on my right shoulder. The scar has mysterious origins—for a long time I thought that it was from a childhood immunization, but my mother told me that happened on my other arm. It looks like a pink bite mark—two distinct, uneven spheres right next to each other. I know exactly what my tattoo would be: a pink peony, the flower that bloomed every spring in front of our summer cabin when I was a child. They somehow became “my” peonies, and even after I moved far away from home, I would get timely reports from my grandparents and parents about the size of their early buds, their expected bloom date, their dark pink color, their fragrance filling up the garden.
So I would have this pink peony over my scar on my shoulder. I think about it every now and then, talk to Drew about it, but deep down I know that I am never going to do it. Whatever Drew is expressing through the pictures on his body is his alone and I know that eventually we’ll both understand their meaning in his life—what they are covering up, what they are exposing. I help him apply lotion on his arm in the evenings and make sure that he can be free to go for his next appointment with the tattoo artist to finish the work. That is all I can do.
In return, I know he will tuck our son in bed and bring me tea—or wine, depending on the night—so that I can write these words, perched in bed, listening to the two of them laugh and read. I know that later he will come to bed, smooth his hands over the scar on my shoulder, over my breasts, belly. The skin on his forearm will be still rough under my fingers as it heals. We’ll hold on tight to each other so we can battle on. “I love you. You love me. What else do you need to know?”
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, and Kveller. She has a son, a husband, and, as of press time, still no tattoos. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @hunglishgirl. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.