I arrive at Timberwood Court carrying our wedding album. It’s our twenty-fifth anniversary. I sign in, punch the code, and walk into the activities area. Fred is sitting on a sofa in the front row of the residents listening to an accordion player and a guitarist. He’s leaning forward, neck muscles straining as he sings along, making sounds that aren’t exactly words but close.
He looks at me, then looks away. An aide brings a chair and I sit next to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge my presence, even though I smile, say hello, and kiss his bristly cheek. He continues to focus on the music, occasionally glancing at me with a look that seems to say, “Who are you and why are you sitting so close to me?”
My husband lives in a memory care facility in Albany, Oregon, seventy-two miles inland from where I live on the coast in the house we bought together twelve years ago. He has Alzheimer’s disease. We’d been getting along at home with occasional twenty-dollar-an-hour aides until he fell and hurt his back. Suddenly he couldn’t stand up on his own, and all the doctors said I could no longer take care of him. He dominoed from one institution to another until he landed at Timberwood Court. He can walk now, but he shuffles and stumbles. His cognitive functions have deteriorated to the point where even if he could run, he could not live with me.
He doesn’t know my name anymore. For a while, I wore a nametag. But it was just a collection of letters. It didn’t really matter as long as he still knew we loved each other.
The first time he didn’t recognize me happened a few months ago. He looked at me with the eyes of a stranger. I bit my lip and pretended to be cheerful, struggling to find funny stories to tell him about the dog or something that I saw on the road. He thanked me for coming as if I were someone he had just met. I held my tears until I got to the parking lot.
The following week, he knew me again, but I can’t count on it anymore.
Now the activities director hands me a card that Fred’s son sent to him. I show it to Fred. He traces the words with his stubby index finger. They have no meaning for him. I explain that it’s our wedding anniversary. He seems confused.
“Yes. To me.”
It doesn’t register. He goes back to singing while I fight to hold back my tears.
The music seems to go on forever. When my thigh touches Fred’s, he moves away. I stare at his left hand on the arm of the sofa, the ring that matches mine shining gold in the soft light.
“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…”
Pauline, who spends all day wandering like a ghost, brushes past me and walks straight toward the musicians, easing between them like ectoplasm. Sometimes she’ll lift a foot in a quick dance step as she goes by, but most days she’s like a windup toy that goes until it hits something, then turns and goes again.
“I been workin’ on the railroad…”
Usually I sing along, providing harmony to the guest musicians and to Fred’s rich bass voice. Today I can’t move any sound past the lump in my throat.
“Roll out the barrels…”
Finally they finish. Fred applauds while I nod at the musicians and watch them fold up their music stands. Now what should I do?
I tell Fred I have something to show him, and we go to his room. Sitting in his mother’s old mauve easy chairs, I open the photo album and start going slowly through the pages, explaining everything.
“This is our wedding day. Remember, we set up canopies in the back yard? See, here’s your folks.”
He nods, yeah.
“Look, here we are.”
He points to me in my white dress, a crown of white flowers around my curly hair. “She’s pretty.”
“That’s me,” I whisper. He looks at me, disbelief in his eyes.
I keep turning the pages. He puts a finger on my mother’s picture. “How is she?” he asks.
I swallow. “Honey, she passed away.” Eight years ago. He was there.
The hours here are dog hours. I thought about bringing a cake, creating a party for everyone, but now I’m glad I didn’t. When an aide brings us plastic bowls of vanilla ice cream, I’m grateful for the distraction. Snack time. Halfway to dinner and my escape.
Fred glances at the anniversary card I picked out for him but shows no interest. How different from those years when we would exchange cards, softly kiss and promise another year together, when we would dress up and go to a fancy restaurant, feeding each other bites of lobster and chocolate cake, so in love it was disgusting. One anniversary he picked me up at work and took me to a posh hotel where he’d filled our room with roses and photographs. We made love… Oh God, I can’t think about that now.
I just want to go somewhere private and cry. I’m about to leave when the woman who runs the facility hands me a form to fill out. POLST: Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. In English, it’s the form that asks what we want done in case of a medical crisis: CPR? Transport to the hospital? Tube feeding? Life support? Of all days to make me answer these questions. Struggling to control my hand, I try to remember what Fred wanted when we filled these out before, right after his diagnosis. He was only sixty-five. I had just turned fifty.
I leave the form at the desk and hurry out the door. Usually I make it to the car but not this time. Sobbing in the car, I startle as the director knocks on my window. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says. I missed a question. I don’t care what I write. Pull the plug. Kill me, too.
I cry so hard on the way home I’m afraid I’m going to crash the car. I feel as if my chest is going to crack from neck to crotch, as if I could not possibly survive this, as if I ought to park and call 911. But I can’t stop on this mountain road. It’s getting dark.
Returning a week later, I see Fred long before he sees me. I see his balding head, his white goatee, his neck stretched awkwardly forward as he sits on the couch watching a black and white TV show from the ’50s. Beside him, Jean is slumped over sideways, sleeping. On the next sofa, Rachel babbles to herself, shaking her massive bony hands at me. From one of the bedrooms, a woman cries, “Help me! Somebody help me!”
I ease into the empty space beside Fred, saying, “Hi.”
He looks up, blinks for a moment. I hold my breath, praying he will recognize me today. He smiles and begins to laugh. He holds out his hands like a child wanting to be picked up. I lean into him, kissing his soft cheeks, putting my arms around him. Heat comes at me from the thin undershirt he wears. I can feel bumps on his back. He smells of sweat, urine, and decay. But for this moment, I sigh and let myself fall back into being Fred’s wife.
He introduces me to his new friend Beverly. “This is my wife, Ann.”
That’s not my name, but I guess it doesn’t matter.
SUE FAGALDE LICK is a writer, musician, and dog-mom living on the Oregon Coast. Her books include Childless by Marriage and Unleashed in Oregon. A former newspaper reporter and MFA graduate from Antioch University, Los Angeles, she is working on a memoir about her journey with Fred through Alzheimer’s. Fred passed away a few months after she wrote this essay.
They gazed at me impassively, the man and the woman, each carefully neutral face masking—or so I imagined—the boredom of the entrenched bureaucrat settling in for a fifth hour of substitute teacher interviews.
“You arrive at the classroom,” said the guy, reading from a paper in front of him. “You find a vaguely written lesson plan. There are no administrators around to help. No one in the main office at all. What do you do?”
It was an implausible scenario, containing a hole a second-grader could have spotted. I was not here to point that out, I reminded myself. I was not here to be a wise-ass. This was my first formal job interview in seventeen years. I was here to play the game.
Back in the 1980s, yanked by divorce from the stay-at-home life she’d imagined would continue indefinitely, my mother took the first job she could find, writing jacket copy for a major evangelical publishing company. My sister and I snickered at the freebies she brought home from the office: Christian Archie comics; spiritual marriage advice; and our favorites, a series of YA novels by a guy who operated a ministry for teen prostitutes, each book titled with the name of a girl (Vicki, Lori, Traci), its plot detailing her sordid downward spiral from teenage rebellion to the streets, followed by an uplifting finale at the ministry’s safe house, and a tearfully repentant Lori (or Vicki or Traci) flinging herself into the arms of Jesus.
My mother was an agnostic whose crammed bookshelves reflected her highbrow literary tastes: Jane Austen, Henry James, The New Yorker. But the divorce settlement favored my father, a man with a sometimey attitude toward child support. So with kids to raise and bills to pay, Mom peeled from our VW’s bumper the sticker proclaiming the Moral Majority to be neither, pulled on her nylons, and went to work.
“A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do,” she used to tell my best friend Clare’s mother when they got together on weekends to drink cheap white wine and swap stories about their lawyers and no-good exes.
“It’s not about how good you are,” Clare counseled a few days before my interview. Like me, my old friend had quit teaching years ago. She’d recently gotten back in. “It’s whether or not you can speak the lingo.”
I remembered the acronym-larded professional development sessions back in the day, mandatory powerpoint presentations aimed at tired teachers surreptitiously trying to grade papers and plan lessons while simulating dutiful attention to the flavor of the month in educational strategy.
“It’s way worse now, with all the Common Core,” Clare said. “Don’t get me started. But you remember: redirect, assessment, collaborative learning, ownership, SSR.”
“SSR—shoot, I forgot all about that.” (SSR, for the uninitiated, stands for Sustained Silent Reading. SSR is to regular old reading as “sanitation engineer” is to “janitor”: the same damn thing.)
“Don’t worry, sister, you know what you’re doing,” Clare said. “Just tell ’em what they want to hear. Play the game.”
I quit teaching high school at the turn of the millennium to stay home with my baby. It was a choice I was able to make because my husband earned just enough to support the three of us. But there was another reason I quit my job: I didn’t have the passion. The great teachers had it. Walking past their classrooms, you heard the bustle, felt the energy. Those teachers shone, with a core of dedication that couldn’t be faked. Sure, they griped about the troublemakers. They rolled their eyes, recounting some mouthy tenth grader’s outrageous comment. But their voices—exasperated yet understanding—gave them away. They loved those troublemakers.
I was a decent teacher. I worked hard and planned my lessons carefully. I told my students that everyone has a story to tell. Real or imagined, we all have that story. I explained point of view, and starting a new paragraph every time the speaker changes, and providing necessary background information. I reminded them, more times than I ever imagined I would, to end sentences with punctuation.
My students wrote stories and essays and workshopped them together, drafting and revising multiple times before presenting their finished work. As a class, we applauded each presentation, and I pinned the finished pieces ceremonially to a special bulletin board with a shiny silver border. The kids acted like all this was no big deal, but it was.
When I informed my ninth graders that they would memorize the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, they didn’t believe they could do it. “Fourteen lines, guys, fourteen lines,” I told them. For the next month, we started every class by standing up and reading the prologue in unison. Sometimes we marched around the room reciting it. My students made a great show of rolling their eyes and muttering. (“Dude, can you believe this?”) But around they went, quietly at first, shuffling on the scuffed floor, then with increasing gusto: Two houses, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene…They had it down in two weeks. It was only fourteen lines, after all.
Sometimes, even at the end of a long day, the thrill of this would hit me: these words, ringing in the California air, four centuries and a world away from their birthplace.
But I didn’t have the passion. I was weary of contending with the core of disruptive students who filled my classroom, angry kids I couldn’t seem to reach. I envied people who were done at the end of the workday. My job was a never-ending slog of lesson-planning, essay-reading, and grading. It ate up every evening, and every weekend, and I couldn’t imagine continuing and raising a family, too. When I quit to stay home, the freedom was exhilarating.
Still, four years later, I felt a pang when my license expired. I didn’t want to teach again, but it was disquieting to realize I couldn’t. The licensing commission had a lot of nerve, I thought. No longer good enough were my master’s degree, years of experience, and the slew of National Teacher Exams I’d passed. Now they wanted coursework before I could renew. That meant going back to school. My children were one and four. It wasn’t going to happen.
But what if the worst occurred? What if I was left on my own, like my mom, to raise my children? All the stay-at-home mothers talked about that. Few of us were in a position to easily re-enter the professions we’d left. Without my teaching license, what job was I qualified for that could support a family?
I tried to ignore those questions. Life insurance would take care of me if anything happened to my husband. As for the other possibility, I tried not to think about that, either. My husband brought me flowers every Friday and sent hand-drawn postcards when he was out of town, even for a night. He wasn’t going to leave me.
Part of me didn’t believe that. It was the part that remembered the wave. That’s what we call it now: the divorce wave, the surge of broken marriages beginning in the 1970s and peaking when my mother got her job with the Christian publisher. By the time those waters receded, not one of my friends’ families remained intact. Forty years later, Clare and I are still sloshing through the ruins, trying to spot the faulty foundations, the unstable beams, to identify exactly which imperceptible weaknesses rendered our parents unable to withstand the tide. Even now, part of me can’t help thinking of divorce the way I did as an eleven-year-old: a catastrophe that strikes without warning, a tsunami on a clear day.
That teaching license was my only route to higher ground. I needed it back.
When the kids were finally in school, I dug out my expired license and called the state to find out how much coursework was involved in renewing it.
“Fill out Application C and send in fingerprints and $225,” said the young man on the phone.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “But what about the education credits? How many will I need?”
“No credits. They changed the law four months ago. All you need now is the application, the fingerprints, and the $225. Do you want me to send you the forms?”
They changed the law.
I was unprepared for the elation that surged through me, the rush of astonished gratitude—all of which I promptly poured forth upon the hapless guy on the phone. It felt, at that moment, as though he had personally intervened on my behalf; if I could have reached through the phone to embrace him, I would have. Then, like Cagney or Lacey interrogating a perp, I proceeded to grill him. Was he absolutely sure about this? It applied to all licenses? Finally, I thanked him profusely, my brain thrumming like a violin string. In the space of a few minutes, with no effort at all, my employment prospects had shifted from service industry to professional grade.
Not that I wanted to teach again. I’d built up a freelance editing business over the years, and it was paying for extras, like summer camp and music lessons. I was done with the classroom. We didn’t need the money. I didn’t have the passion. But now—now I had the option. I was standing on higher ground.
Just ask an English teacher, and they’ll tell you: nothing gold can stay. The easy license renewal turned out to be a one-time deal. Four years later, it wouldn’t be so simple.
“I don’t care what you have to do,” Clare said. “Don’t let that license expire.”
She didn’t need to elaborate. For three years now, ever since her husband left their marriage, Clare had been wading through deep water. From the opposite coast, I’d cheered her efforts get back in the classroom: enrolling in graduate school, taking after-school teaching gigs, updating a resume with a thirteen-year gap. The hardest part was renewing her expired license, an epic bureaucratic campaign spanning eighteen months and involving the tracking down of records in three states.
“Letting the license expire was my biggest mistake,” she warned me every time we talked, a speech that always reminded me of the anti-drug commercials of our youth. “Don’t let it happen to you.”
I didn’t intend to. After a semester of online coursework at my local community college, I possessed the fresh transcripts necessary to satisfy the state licensing commission for another three years.
Now here I was in the district administration building, interviewing for a job. Not that I wanted to be a substitute teacher, exactly. But this time, it wasn’t about whether or not I had the passion. What I had was two teenagers, one of whom would be applying to college in a year. What I had was residency in a city where substitute pay is among the highest in the nation. I could set my own schedule if they hired me here, contribute to the college fund, and still have time to write and edit. What I had, in fact, was the prospect of an ideal side gig. Yeah, I wanted this job.
But I didn’t need it.
My husband’s position at a public agency survived the recession, thanks to a stable tax base. And after his seventeen years there, we’re no longer balancing on a financial tightrope, the way we were when I first quit teaching. The mortgage would be paid on time if I bungled this interview, and the orthodontist’s bill. No one would go hungry in my house if these two didn’t like my answers.
I wasn’t thinking about that—not consciously, anyway—as I explained how I would amend that vague lesson plan on the fly, make it specific. I was focused on playing the game, nimbly referencing stalwarts of the Language Arts curriculum, like Of Mice and Men and Raisin in the Sun. I avoided pointing out that under no circumstance—except possibly the Rapture—would a public school’s main office be devoid of personnel at eight a.m.
Neither interviewer spoke when I finished. They looked at me expectantly.
I’d already described my disciplinary strategies and my approach to lesson planning. I’d talked about meeting each learner at their level. Wasn’t I speaking the lingo? Hadn’t I demonstrated my professional competence?
I launched into another example, this one based on using classroom clues to devise a lesson. Art on the wall indicates a unit on the Middle Ages? I’d have students write a dialogue between a serf and a knight, or an artisan and a priest.
Still no response. What more did these people want?
“I could do dozens of things in this scenario,” I said, perhaps inexpertly masking my exasperation. That was when it happened, when I heard myself add, “You know, this really isn’t rocket science.”
My interviewers flicked glances at each other, then fixed me with identical fishy stares. After a long pause, the woman said “Do you have any questions for us?”
No, I did not.
I berated myself all the way to the parking lot. Substitute teaching is not, of course, rocket science. But Clare, or anyone who really needed that job, would never have permitted herself to say so. She wouldn’t have been so careless, not with the water rising around her.
But we all have a story, and in the one that’s mine to tell, my toes have never even gotten wet. I’m still not certain how to account for it.
At forty or fifty, not everyone is the same person they were at twenty or thirty or wants the same things. No one understands that better than people like Clare and me, who lived through the wave, who watched our fathers—and it was mostly the fathers—decide that, after all, our mothers were not the women they wanted to grow old with. For us, marriage felt like an extraordinary gamble, like stepping aboard a rocket, equipped with nothing to calculate its trajectory but love and hope.
My judgment is no better than Clare’s, or her mother’s, or mine. I haven’t worked at my marriage any harder than they did. Yet in my story, the man who seemed fundamentally decent and kind at twenty-five is still both of those things twenty years on. The young woman who decided to spend her life with him hasn’t changed her mind about that. The waters have held back from us. Which is why I’m standing here on dry ground, secure enough to be a wise-ass at an interview, a writer who doesn’t actually need a day job. Most of the time, it all feels like the sheerest luck.
Maybe they appreciated my honesty. Or maybe anyone with a credential and a pulse was going to get that job. Either way, I was hired. And that felt lucky, too.
KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, OZY, Slate, and other venues. A regular contributer to Full Grown People, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.
This very evening. Right after I get home from work I will take my husband by the hand, walk him into our bedroom and have sex with him. I’ll unbutton his shirt, spread my fingers over his swimmer’s pectorals, the perfect spread of chest hair, a mix of brown and silver. I will place my lips there and the salty hairs will prickle my nostrils. I will unbutton his pants. He will stand above me rubbing my shoulders and try to kiss me, but I will be busy doing other things to him.
This plan develops as I drive home from work on a Monday. I head south on I-5 with a glittery Lake Union to my west, the sun pushing gold against the clouds, sprays of light landing on the shiny dynasty we call Downtown. Sex on a Monday, after work, what a fun surprise! It will get us out of our slump!
I change the radio station, from news of a suicide bombing to a piano sonata. My stomach growls. The idea of dinner pushes its way in. Maybe we’ll eat first, and then the sex parade will start. And this, of course, is my first tactical mistake. A full stomach does not lead to sex in our household.
Earlier that morning, five a.m., I watch the beautiful back of my husband rise out of bed. He doesn’t see me turning my owl head to watch him. The swimmers shoulders rolling up and away from me. The ruffled silver hair. A hand stretching back to pat me. “Good morning,” that patting hand says.
While my husband goes off to swim, I lie in bed and stare out the window, at the clouds hanging like an old man’s eyebrows in the sky. I spend a half hour thinking about the sex we didn’t have all weekend. We weren’t too busy; there were no arguments and no body-part problems. There were two straight days of rain, a lot of cozy time in bed, plenty of napping and cuddling and binge-watching our favorite British mystery. And no sex.
I’ve counted. I’ve kept score. In the beginning there was so much regular sex for middle-aged people, something sexy popping and fizzing every day, every night despite my bladder infections, the new sensitivities, despite the doctor’s visits, the antibiotics—we powered through. And then. It whittled down. Normal, right? First, a few times a week, then two, then the weekends for sure. But there was always an element of playfulness even as the snap-crackle-pop evened out. Sometimes I’d roll over in the morning, say, “Quickie?” and my husband would wolf grin and come my way. Or when we both worked at home, I’d send a text with the word “nooner?” Ten seconds later, footsteps stomped down the hallway.
We held at twice a week then fell to once, on the weekend, still able to blame my delicate sex organs, the sensitive bladder, an inability to bounce back so fast. Consecutive days were pretty much out for us. I saw naturopaths, shifted my diet, and took my “estrogen poppers” to settle some of my womanly discontent, and things did improve.
Then I just got lazy.
I need to address something. Did you know that a woman’s vagina atrophies? Did you know that the general story arc of our orgasms—timing, intensity—can change with age? I guess it makes sense. Our skin loosens, our boobs sag; the butt drops, our muscles soften, the joints ache. And our vaginas are part of this aging ride. It’s different for everyone, of course, but this is how it went down for me.
Let’s say you’re a woman in your mid-forties. You’re single. You’ve had a relatively inactive sex life for that decade and then suddenly—you meet a man when you’re forty-seven. You’re ready to rock and roll.
You could be in for a few surprises.
After a succession of bladder infections, I eventually went to see a urologist. This is the kind of doctor I thought specialized in the dick problems of old men. My dick doctor, as it turned out, was a woman, about ten years younger than me. She was petite and no-nonsense, and she gave me a precise de-briefing on what my body had been up to while I was mindlessly careening through my forties.
“Your vaginal wall gets dry and droopy just like your skin as you age,” she said, pulling on her perfectly smooth forearm. “Gravity gets it just like everything else.”
She diagnosed me with Sensitive Bladder Syndrome, recommended acupuncture and gave me a list of foods to avoid. Her philosophy around having sex with an atrophying vagina was bold. “Really go for it—pound away!” she said banging a fist into one of her open palms. “Get in there and see what works.” Then she handed me a prescription for painkillers.
My husband and I weren’t young when we married. I was forty-nine; he was fifty-seven and a widow. It was his second marriage, my first. The ceremony took place at a friend’s house. My parents walked me down a sprawling lawn to an open-air altar. We stood before our friends and family, beside a small lake populated by the white blooms of lily pads. Three days later we went on a road trip to the Canadian Rockies.
We didn’t have a lot of sex on our honeymoon. I started my period, the beds were so soft that my back hurt, and I was also having some of my sensitivities. Instead of waking up mid-sleep to make love with my new husband as one might imagine, I woke up and reached for my Kindle to continue the science fiction trilogy I was obsessed with.
During the day we sat at the mountain town cafes and watched people go by. We explored the ice blue rivers of Banff, stood with hung jaws before the crystal green of Lake Louise; we hiked through wildflowers and past the high glaciers of Jasper. At night we cooked dinner in our wooded cottage, and I stared out at the small lake giddy with the fact that I never had to answer the question of whether I would find a mate and who that mate might be ever fucking again. We rifled through the collection of DVDs and glommed on to a long-running British series we became enamored with called Midsomer Murders. The show falls under a genre I call “gentle garden mysteries.” While bodies fell and the investigation heated up under the charge of fifty-something Chief Detective Inspector Tom Barnaby, I was lulled into a deep state of relaxation by the comfort of the mature cast, the bursts of trees and bushes, so much Eden green, like the worst calamity the universe can conspire is the death of a water colorist.
We went to bed tired and content, spooned our warm bodies in the soft bed, my husband’s breath on my ear. His hand on my breast, my foot stroking the bone of his shin, and in my right hand my Kindle, where I blissfully continued on with my sci-fi drama. It rained at night, the scent of sage breezed through the open windows, the air was cool against our shoulders and arms, the rest of our bodies snug under the comforters. There was nowhere to go, nobody waiting for us. We were so happy. I was home.
It’s Monday morning. As my husband swims laps in the pool I lie in bed imagining him next to me later that night, and I choreograph: how I will open my legs, throw one over my husband’s resting, unsuspecting body; put my hand on his chest, move my mouth over his neck, over the light brown belly hair, down his body, the lean legs. Move around the canvas of his body slowly—kiss here, kiss there, swirl a body hair in my tongue, rub my teeth against his rough skin—and then spend the other half of the night returning to the home of his lips.
But here’s what really happens Monday after work.
I drive into our garage at five-thirty with a hunger headache from too little for lunch. Visions of seduction are long gone; they fell away somewhere between Lake Union and merging onto I-90.
“Lovergirl is home!” my husband exclaims in his usual way, popping his head out of the garage door. He walks toward me opening his arms, right to my car door. When I stand up he gives me his lips, a full kiss. Every night I come home, he’s there for me right on the lips. I lean into him, my cheek against the tee-shirt he’s been gardening in all day. I breathe in the smell of bark and branches. He grabs my bags and we go into the house.
All the overhead lights are on, the news blaring. I see the crumbs and salt flakes in clumps on the small kitchen island, and pick up a sponge to wipe them off. Why do I make cleaning the stupid island more urgent than seducing my husband?
We have dinner, watch an episode of Midsomer, and go to bed where I don’t make one tiny move on my husband. Tomorrow, I think. Tomorrow, I’ll be on it. I won’t get side tracked; I won’t look at any kitchen surfaces; I’ll stay focused on those blue eyes, the swimmer’s hips. Tomorrow!
Tuesday morning I wake up slowly, next to those pillowy lips and the bent, crooked nose I love, those arms that reach for me, after an argument, when I shout in my sleep. I think back to how it was in the beginning. What I remember are flashes of body parts over the bed, under the covers—yes, we’re conventional, but so what? I remember him inside of me, his fingers on me, feeling lost among my own body parts, the undulations of narratives building and bursting in unexpected waves. We were a story—a romantic thriller—unfolding beneath a tangle of sheets.
We get up and go swimming together. I am filled with resolution. Tonight, I tell myself as I swim sets of two-hundreds in line with my lane mates. Tonight, I tell myself as I speed over the express lanes of the I-90 floating bridge. I am determined! When the day is done, I’ll drive into the garage, greet him with a kiss, grab him, pull him by the crotch of his pants down the hall to our bedroom, take off my shirt with the other hand. First my jacket, then my shirt, then my camisole, maybe keep the bra on for him to remove—I’ll position myself on the side of the bed, ass down, legs up and parted and wait for him.
“Do anything,” I’ll say, and he will and it will be exactly what I expected. Over dinner he will turn to me with a gooey smile, the blue of his eyes will darken and my husband will say “Thank you,” which I still find strange. I will look back at him, put my lips in a kiss position and respond point blank, “You’re welcome.”
After making love he will be so content! He will take my hand as we glow in the reflection of our day’s end Midsomer Murders. It will be the episode that features a hospital for troubled people in one of the villages, and a spate of “suicides” that were really murders committed by a trinity of jealous children.
“There’s no way all three of those kids would do that!” I will exclaim.
“Oh, it keeps the old folks on their toes,” my husband will say in his soothing voice. Then, at the moment of reveal, just as Barnaby confronts the nymphomaniac mother of the murderous children; just as I’m concentrating on the British-accented dialogue, those blue eyes will turn to me and proclaim, “You’re my love.”
He’ll move in closer, stroke my cheek with his gardener’s fingers. “Oh my love,” he’ll murmur, coming in for a kiss.
I’ll miss the climax of the show and I’ll try not to be irritated because—and I have to remind myself of this—we can always rewind the scene and play it later.
TATYANA SUSSEX is working on a collection of stories about being a late bloomer. She writes, swims and coaches big dreamers from the watery city of Seattle. You can visit her blog at Everyday Creative Coaching.
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.