The scorpion’s name is Cupcake and Cupcake looks pissed.
“Oh, come on,” a zoo official with a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist says. “How scary can it be with a name like that?”
He’s talking to a girl. The girl is on Cupcake’s side of the safety rope. The zoo official is on the other. It’s the girl’s job to pop Cupcake’s carrying case open. Then she’s supposed to reach in and scoop out Cupcake like a gerbil.
From the way the girl is shaking, I’m sure it’s her first time.
I should say, “Honey, are you crazy? Don’t do that.”
I should say, “Sweetheart, how much are they paying you?”
To the zoo official, who is about my age and still wears his baseball cap backwards, I should say, “Why don’t you put your hand in there, dickhead?”
Instead I bring my ten-year-old son over to watch.
How I became this person, I don’t know.
Earlier, I wanted to hang out at the shark tanks. Then on the rickety bridge over Otis the Alligator.
Zoos trigger something primal in me. I don’t pay attention to the cute animals. I’m interested only in animals that, if things were fair and cage-free, would kill me. A zoo visit is about defying mortality, maybe. Most things are. It’s something not to talk about, though, especially with my sensitive ten-year-old son, who worries the snow leopard is depressed, wonders if the komodo dragon is lonely, and likes the penguin house most of all.
We were on our way to check out venomous snakes when I saw the Live Animal Demonstration sign.
How I justify watching:
I read somewhere that most scorpion stings are the same as bee stings.
I convince myself Cupcake is some sort of eunuch, a domesticated nub where a stinger used to be.
I think if someone’s going through the trouble of picking up a scorpion the size of a Pop-Tart, the rest of us should pay attention.
“You’ve got to see this,” I tell my son, who is a more decent person and who would rather not see this at all.
Cupcake’s whole body is a claw. She’s backed into the corner of her carrying case. Inside the reptile house, under ultraviolet light, Cupcake glows like a club kid at a rave. But out here, in the sunshine, she’s so black she’s almost purple, one oil-slick bruise. Her carrying case is pink, plastic, the kind usually reserved for hermit crabs, starter pets. It’s the kind of case kids store Barbie shoes in.
“Look, sweetie,” I say to my son. “She’s going to pick up that scorpion.” I point, like I’ve just said something wise, a life lesson.
I’ve become the muscle-guy from earlier, back at the aquarium. He flexed, pointed to a tank, and said, in a low and serious voice, “What we have right here are fish.” His pretty girlfriend clung to his bicep and cooed.
My son doesn’t coo. He backs up, because he’s not an adult, because the world hasn’t worn his heart to a nub, an overused eraser, because he still feels things.
“Why would she do that?” he wants to know.
The girl is ponytailed, in a powder-blue polo shirt with the zoo logo stitched on the chest. She looks like summer help, an intern, maybe. Maybe she’s getting minimum wage. Maybe this is unpaid life experience and she’s chalking up college credits she’ll have to take out loans to cover.
“Because she’s in training?” I say, and of course it comes out as a question.
“In training for what?” my son wants to know.
I’ve had a lot of awful jobs, terrible internships. “Life training,” people called some of them. None involved handling a scorpion, but still.
Once when I was a flight attendant, a pilot made me hold a door shut during take-off and landing.
There was a mechanical problem—the door wouldn’t lock completely and the handle would start to open on ascent and descent. It was something that would normally ground the plane, but the pilot had a date in D.C. that night—one hot blonde, one strip-club steakhouse, jumbo margaritas served up in glasses shaped like boobs.
The pilot didn’t want a delay.
He said, “Did you bring a parachute?”
He said, “You’ll love the way you’ll fly.”
He said, “Come on, I’m joking.”
He said, “Just don’t let go,” and winked.
I was young. I needed that job. I did what I was told. I pushed my whole weight against the handle and the handle pushed back. I don’t know how dangerous it was really, but I could feel the cold air whistle around the door seal. The steel handle frosted and shook and any minute it seemed the door would burst and I’d jettison out, cartoon baggage, still strapped in my jumpseat and smiling. I’d been taught to smile on the job no matter what. I did that. The door handle inched open and I kept calm and the passengers kept calm. They looked at me like I knew what I was doing and I pretended to know what I was doing.
We went on like that until one guy started hitting his call button. He kept at it through the short flight. He was doing sign language to show he needed a drink, that he might choke and die if he did not get a drink, like this lack of drink was cutting off what little oxygen he had left.
I smiled. He did not smile back. I shrugged and pointed my chin toward the seatbelt sign overhead, which demanded I stay seated, too—sorry, sorry—and that we’d both just have to hold on.
I held on. He kept pressing his call light like a game show buzzer. The door stayed shut. By the time we were on the ground, I was shaking. A red imprint marked my palm from the handle, and the man who wanted a drink was so angry he wrote down my name. He threatened to write a complaint even though I got him snacks and a diet Coke to go.
The pilot heard all of this but pretended not to.
“I think I can, I think I can,” the pilot said. He pulled his pilot-cap low, gangster-style. “Nice work, little engine,” he said, and patted my hip on his way out of the cockpit, off to his margarita-boobs and his blonde and the thick steak he liked juicy and medium-rare.
It’s been a dozen years since I had a job like that, which is maybe one reason I can keep watching the girl and the scorpion now. Empathy is an easy thing to lose, like car keys, like the name of that one actor who played in that movie about scorpions, you know the one.
“You can do it,” the zoo official says as the girl loosens the clasp on Cupcake’s case.
“You forgot what work is,” my father used to say, meaning me and what I do for a living, the way I push words around a page. He meant, watch it. He meant, first you’re on one side of the glass, then the other. He meant, be kind.
He meant, it’s not work if it can’t kill you.
He meant what work does to a body, but work kills people in many ways, I think.
At the entrance to the machine shop where my father worked for thirty years, a sign counted down the days since the last accident. The numbers were flip charts. The numbers didn’t go above two digits much. It was someone’s job to turn those numbers forward and back. Imagine that job.
My father had so many metal shavings in his skin he’d joke that he’d set off metal detectors at airports. He never wore a wedding ring because rings could catch in the machines and take a finger or worse.
“I want to keep all my fingers,” he’d say, “so I can show the foreman where to stick it.”
“I mean, seriously,” the zoo official is saying, “Cupcake?”
It’s a punchline he’s sharing again and again.
When our son was first born, he cried all the time and no one in our house slept much. At first we thought it was colic, but it went on and on and the pediatrician shrugged and said some children are born sensitive like that.
“He’ll get used to it,” the pediatrician said about my son and the world.
My husband worked a terrible corporate job back then. His boss liked to stretch an eight-hour day into a fifteen-hour day too often to count.
Once, after a stretch of six long days in a row, my husband came home and went into the kitchen. He took a serrated bread knife to his forehead. He carved. Blood ran into his eyebrows and down his cheeks. He came out and showed me. He looked proud. I felt sick. But then he called his boss and said he’d been in a car accident and wouldn’t be in to work the next day and maybe the next. I cleaned his forehead with peroxide and we celebrated with drinks and take-out from an Italian restaurant nearby. Everything felt, for a moment, manageable. We remembered we were happy. We remembered we loved each other. Our son slept some. We did, too.
“Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said.
A knife going across a forehead wouldn’t make much of a sound.
“In training for what?” my son wanted to know about the girl.
The girl shakes even more now, like she’s about to stick a fork in a toaster. Cupcake’s case is open. Inside, Cupcake flexes her tail, her very operational stinger. I look down at my son, who’s squinted his eyes shut.
The girl tries to breathe. She cups her hand and lowers it into the case.
“Okay,” she says to the zoo official, who’s beaming. “Now what?”
“It’s not what you look at,” Thoreau said. “It’s what you see.”
“Things do not change,” Thoreau said. “We change.”
The girl nudges her hand under Cupcake.
She brings the creature out to show us, a heavy dark heart in her palm.
LORI JAKIELA is the author of three memoirs—most recently Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books 2015)—as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point 2012), and several chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more. She teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and co-directs the summer writers’ festival at the historic Chautauqua Institution. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. For more, visit http://lorijakiela.net.
The old lady comes up short, but she didn’t budge, failed to budget, couldn’t fudge it. She with her Camels and six-pack of beer and chips who stares at the checkout screen with eyes of disbelief, or what she wants Register Man to believe. Need’ll make you fake things.
She mutters to Register Man, who replies the total again, blank-faced. Nods past the old lady at me, as if to signal: Sorry sir, you’re next. Though I have no purchase, am not in line yet. About my age, the old lady, let’s just say.
The standoff: She fingers her envelope—CURR. scrawled on it (Register Man, take this dog by the ears!), and CHANGE scrawled on it (our only certainty), with rows of meager totals. Silver hair shags out the back of her baseball cap. Imagine her school pictures in forgotten shoeboxes. The small round face, peg teeth, beaming into the future. This one.
We have a problem, each of us edgy for slightly different reasons, but mostly it’s our possible sad destinies standing in front of us smacking her pockets in faux astonishment. Or the old lady has a problem. Register Man only seems to, really. He owns the place.
Last week he scolded me, shrill: Why you not buy case wine, ten percent discount! You in here almost every day, buy wine. You like Whitehaven so I add supply, boxes in behind for holiday, I am overstock!
I scan a row of jars. Gourmet pickles, truffle paste, rare Italian beans. How did she find her way here? Our neighborhood swarms with youth. They slog to dreary, high-paying jobs—an equation: the more numb your soul, the fatter your paycheck, they learn to accept—and avert their gaze from stray elderlies, the ones I pretend I’m not. As I do right now, and to escape at least mentally, I get on my phone and call Joyce. A few blocks away, she doesn’t pick up. Stirring dinner.
As a kid I once hurled a telephone to smithereens. One of those runkenclatter rotary-dial apparatuses, so unlike the wafers children of today tap and smile into, hefty with the promise of serious plaster damage, which it delivered thereon. To me, the possibility that one person could talk to another not within sight or earshot seemed deeply, even infuriatingly wrong. That I caught myself up in trying, worse. Maybe you think I’m crazy to feel this way still.
The silly cell-phone burble repeats in my ear. Pick up, pick up. No Joyce.
And then it starts again—a different kind of ring.
The diagnostic term, tinnitus, reminds me of that light tap of stick on cymbal that drummers sometimes do. Unlike the noise in my head, where a jet engine revs, whines. Or locusts drone in trees. Or a uniform tone beeps long: this is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. It arrives at the oddest moments for no apparent reason and subsides the same.
I consider paying for the old lady. Not because I am an exemplary person. Not because of the season, this pageant of do-goodism looming over us a week before the 2015 calendars flip. I consider paying for her because of reprieve. For the old lady, who wants only to recline in her distant hovel with suds and smokes. For Register Man, who knows that if she blocks the flow of commerce a few minutes more he must give her the heave-ho, and nobody wants to haul a crone out the door screaming this time of year. For me, of course, phone still clamped to head as I pretend to listen and converse. I actually say a few words—to nothing.
Now I am outside, under the strung lights. Now at the street. Cross.
Three nights ago, on the fifth floor of our gated complex’s parking deck, I peered over the wall (an easy climb) to the cement below. Could happen fast. Up and over. Air whistling past my ears, the delicious impact.
Briefly I left myself.
Back in the body. How long passed? No more than a few seconds—amazed, I saw my foot drop from the ledge where it had waited for the rest of me to follow. Half over, like bounding a country fence. How the deed gets done when it does. A moment of inadvertency.
The near-George Bailey episode followed a night of trying to write through the confluence of agitations become chronic. At my keyboard, all the world’s clamor. Pop-ups and videos, Facebook ever hailing. The full internet of tags and links, chains draped, hung off my invisibly distributed personhood, not anywhere.
Now, almost home. Outside the tall-paned bar I pause to examine the women, fresh, much hair-toss and throat-show. Gust of wind chafes my face, a filthy looker, and suddenly I realize that if I don’t go back and help the old lady, I’ll fret hours over my inaction. Another clog in rusted wheels.
I turn. Cross.
To find the scene unchanged, as if time stopped. Incredulous old lady. Register Man with fists on hips. A second queue open, twitchy adolescent handling the overflow.
My voice comes out how much. What does she owe? Register Man, whom nothing surprises, says $3.27. What about the tax on, I say, there’s tax on, tax on—a fool stammer, I throttle—everything. At last I step in. Swipe the card. We’re almost touching. Let the fossil be gone, into the dark.
I want to chase her down the street, deranged, and grab her by the knob shoulders and shake answers out. I want the grand epiphany, balm. I want to know that everything I believe I understand is more than a stuck-on symbol.
Instead, I’ll let the elevator hiss-groan me to the top deck again. Trace the city skyline with bent finger. Dream what’s nearing from beyond, if there even is.
RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
I hoped to say goodbye to it in 2015. But the year ended and I was still here.
So many factors revolve around being homeless. I can look at the factors all day long, and we as a society can engage and look at the factors all day long. But the truth of the matter is I can only look at myself.
I was always uneasy with looking at myself in the mirror, even as a child. But I find it even harder to do now. I may glance at myself for a minute to make sure my cornrows are neat and well kept, but when I look in the mirror—I mean really look in the mirror—I see the embarrassment of the adult I’ve become. I see an embarrassment to the little girl I was, who grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, New York. I haven’t been fair to the little girl who loved to create, create something, and create anything that would lead her away from the harsh reality of the projects. Her imagination was her key to unlock her way out, her creativity the strength to push open the door. To a world of possibilities, or so she thought.
I’m watching myself in the mirror, standing over a sink and trying to squeeze enough water out of my washcloth to quickly wash before someone in the church (where I will stay tonight out of the cold) needs to come in. I monitor the door and try to finish up, and I think about how I got to this point in my life. Especially with two college degrees. I didn’t think an A.S. in Theater and a B.A. in English were so great, but down here where I am located, it’s like a prize just to finish high school.
Someone bangs on the door and curses that they need to use the bathroom. Sighing, I turn off the water, dry off, and put fresh clothes on (especially underwear, since they’re scarce around here for women). Opening the door, I walk past a young guy who is looking at me all angry. I ignore him as I walk over to my mat, squinting my eyes in the semi-darkness. On several other mats, some people are whispering in conversation, others cough, and some have settled down for the night.
I finally spot my mat that has a small red blanket on it, and my heart soars with relief, thankful to be indoors from the cold. Except for the hardness of the mat, it’s okay. It’s much better than sitting in an airport, hospital, or stairway building all night. Removing my dirty sneakers that already have holes formed in them, I step onto the mat and lie on it, but not before trying to find a comfortable spot. When I do, I adjust my now-dirty cross bag like a pillow and lay my head on it.
Immediately my mind starts to wander back to a time—eight years ago, in another state—when I sat at a bar in a strip club. I don’t want to go there; I often pray I don’t. I fight hard to move on from that chapter of my life as well as other chapters, but the human brain is fascinating at recapturing things you don’t want to remember.
This was not my first time being met with homelessness. You’d think after years of knocking on doors for jobs, jobs in my field, any kind of jobs, I would be settled by now. But, it hasn’t worked that way. I’ve run around town, dressed in my best interview clothes, and talked in my proper professional etiquette, and I’ve had years of experience working in corporate office setting. How many closed doors in one’s face can one take? No criminal background, no drugs, no illegal history of any kind. That would hinder me to getting that “dream” job that I dreamed since I was a child. Timing? Maybe. Years of inquiring, and still knocking, honing skills needed the best as I could.
I was weary. I fell into a deep dark depression, and I couldn’t see my way out of it. Usually I could, but this time, it was like a black hole that sucked me in deeper each day. Destructive habits were starting to resurface, ones I had long tried to suppress, work on, or pray about. But they found a way back, a door open, and a trigger. Growing up in a family full of destructive habits, it was easy to fall into the same pattern.
Not able to meet a motel room I stayed in briefly, I headed down to the local city shelter. It was place that was surrounded by all kinds of people that were destructive on many levels. Strangely enough, I felt at home. I felt a kind of high being there. This was my first time in one. Feeling alone and abandoned by family, church, and friends, I didn’t care. Old thoughts of sexual abuse as well as other abuse I faced as a child kept popping up in my mind. Years of trying to “let it go” had not worked for me. Suddenly it was like a gulf overtaking me, the years of rejection gnawed at me.
I guess it made sense—I was just rejected by a guy I was semi-getting to know a few weeks ago. I felt the need to prove myself and show him I was what he wanted.
All around me I heard bits and pieces of conversation about local strip clubs in the area. The idea to feel beautiful and sexy at the same time and become every man’s fantasy was alluring. Not to mention, I heard if you were “good” at what you did, the money rolled in rather quickly. Naive to this, I didn’t understand all of what “good” meant.
A woman who was a former stripper said to me, “You’re not ready,” when I asked her about it. She briefly schooled me on the basics of the “business,” and the more she talked the more excited I became. It sounded like a glamorous lifestyle. I was feeling desperation and a need for attention from this guy, so I took what I wanted from our talk and ignored the rest. After all, it was only one night. What would it hurt? I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t get any lower than where I was.
I had heard about amateur night at this local club everyone knew about, where all you wear is a bikini and dance for money. Sitting at the bar, I watched a nude woman with stilettos on stage dance, surrounded by colored lights. I was mesmerized by how this woman boldly worked the pole, dancing in sync to the hip hop and R&B music, moving in time with the music. Men threw money gracelessly at her feet. Excitement building in my chest, I wanted to be like this woman, who was not only attractive but had men falling at her feet. I felt self-conscious about my apparel: no bikini, but jeans and sneakers. Not to mention my puffed-out relaxer and slight odor from not being able to use the showers at the shelter that day.
I turned towards the bar and ordered a Hennessey and Coke. I took a sip, enjoying the way it tasted on my tongue. I wasn’t a drinker, but this was what I needed. As I sipped my drink, I causally chatted with a guy who sat next to me. I held onto my drink and watched him carefully. He encouraged me to get up on stage and said I could do it.
Insecurity settled on me like a familiar blanket, and I again scanned the room to see women in bikinis and thongs handing out drinks to guys at the tables. Their hair and makeup fixed in sexy styles, neatly done, they skillfully walked in stilettos. I kept wondering what was I doing there. These women were gorgeous. They had an art to dancing and working the pole that I would never master, I thought.
I ordered another Hennessey and Coke. I felt like I was inside a dream, a hazy dream. The pulse of the music sounded out sexual and raunchy things to be done. Time was going by quickly. I wanted desperately for the guy to call me back and say, “Shorty, I am on my way.” (He always called me shorty). But in the whole hour, his phone just kept ringing and going to voicemail. Left messages. No answer. Glancing at the door now and then, I still expected him to walk through the door. I was frustrated and hurt. I stopped calling. I imagined he must be laughing at me with his chick. Taking another sip, it went down my throat easily again.
A couple of drinks later, I felt myself loosen up as I relaxed and waited for them to call us new girls to the stage. All the while I felt myself falling into a deeper depression. If this was it for me, I at least wanted to enjoy the night. Death was on my mind. I felt it all around me. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to live anymore. Consumed with my thoughts as I listened to the music, a loud voice snapped me out of it.
“IT’S AMATEUR NIGHT LADIES! TO THE STAGE!” I looked up at a short guy with a booming voice. The guy in the seat next to me waved me on and winked. I grinned slightly at him. The music was lowered a bit. My favorite song by rapper TI—”You Could Do Whatever You Like”—was playing.
I asked the female bartender, “Is it time?”
My head felt woozy as my heart beat against my chest. I steadied myself on the bar stool.
“Yeah,” she said eyeing me briefly, before she gave the guy next to me a quick glance. I quickly jumped off the seat and followed behind a group of girls to a back room. I noticed everyone else had their bikinis on, and I didn’t have anything.
“Here.” A girl threw a bikini set to me. It landed easily in my hands. “Keep it.” Nodding, I rushed to the bathroom and tried to wash myself.
Doing the best I could with a small piece of soap and paper towels, afterwards I changed into the bikini, so small the thong part showed my butt cheeks. I guess this was supposed to be the desired effect. Adrenaline pumped through my veins—just the excitement of it was like drug.
Before I hit the stage, I tried to straighten out my semi-afro with my fingers and some water. I really wished I had found someone at the shelter to cornrow my hair for me. For free. Glancing at myself one last time, I looked down at my shoes. Church shoes, it looked like, with a heel. Not cool. But this was all I had. Everyone said it was okay. It was just “amateur” night. This was to see if they really wanted to keep you.
“Okay, ladies, let’s go!” a woman said outside the bathroom.
I took a deep breath, walked out, and headed to the stage with the other girls. At first, I danced with the other girls as a group, my nerves and fears getting the best of me.
It was different from what I had imagined. When it was my turn, I danced solo. My name was “Candy, and as I danced, I felt some money hit my leg and foot. Pleased, I kept moving until my turn was up.
Backstage, the lady who worked at the club grabbed my arm and said, “You gotta fix yourself up more, then you’ll have a chance.” I nodded and went to change. I knew I shouldn’t, but the wheels in my mind kept spinning as to who I could find to do my hair and coach me some more.
It was an early October morning and dark outside. I prepared to stay in the club until daylight when a big, built guy with glasses appeared in front of me and asked if I needed a ride. “Sure, thanks,” I said, uncomfortable.
“Come on.” He waved me outside. I followed as I tried to push away the advice the lady at the shelter gave me a few days ago.
I hopped in the black Jeep and slammed the door. He made small talk along the way. His car swerved the car a bit as we rode down the dark road. “I liked your dancing,” he said, taking turns eyeing me and the road.
I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in him at all. I laughed, smiled, and flirted a bit to try to buy time.
“You live around here?”
“No.” I shrugged my shoulders coolly. “With a friend downtown.” I held tight to the twenty-five dollars he threw at me on stage.
“I really liked what I saw. You’re sexy,” he said, staring at me in the dark car as we sat waiting for the light to change. We were almost downtown. My heart was doing flip-flops. I was for this ride to be over.
“Let me give you my number,” he said.
“Yeah, let me get it,” I said calmly, with a giggle in my voice.
We were finally downtown, and he quickly wrote down his number. “Call me.”
“Let me get a hug, shorty.” Expectation still lingered in his eyes.
I moved over and hugged him, and he squeezed as he hugged me. Smiling, I told him, “I’ll call you.”
We moved away from each other and I quickly grabbed the handle and got out of the Jeep. With one finally smile and a wave, I walked away quickly around the comer. Leaning against a wall, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I waited for my breathing to return to normal. Then I opened my eyes and walked the few steps towards Landmark Diner, my favorite diner. I went inside and ordered my favorite meal.
As I ate, I thought about the events that took place. I was happy I had tried this new thing. A surge of excitement passed through me as I quickly pulled out my phone and redialed the guy again.
He picked up. “I see you’re answering your phone now,” I told him. I was nervous about what he would say next.
“What happened?” he asked a little too calmly. I went over the details with him. We stayed on the phone briefly because most of the time I was jotting down information he was giving me. He seemed impressed by my “attempt” at stripping so far and gave me a club to go to the next day and he said he would meet there. Although I was doubtful he would, my hopes still soared. This one would at least be closer to the shelter downtown.
I left the diner and headed back to the shelter. Things were busy as usual there, people trying to get help with getting placed, men standing outside looking for a hustle. People on in wheelchairs, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes, women with children, women with baby daddies by their side. Impatient, sometimes grumpy, social workers.
I walked into the nearest bathroom ready to take a shower after getting a paper pass to do so. All that ran through my mind was getting ready for tonight. I’d find someone to do my hair to make it look halfway descent and find a sexier bikini this time and find someone to do my make-up. The excitement was building, the attention, the need to make more money, the glamor of it all.
I was about to step into the shower when, all of the sudden, I fell. My right ankle slammed against the floor hard. Not noticing the pool of water in front of me, I started to get up when the ankle or leg couldn’t hold me and I fell to the ground again. I cursed aloud, and I saw my right ankle begin to swell.
A lady who came in the bathroom, said, “Don’t move, honey. Someone gonna call the ambulance.”
She rushed out the bathroom. I sat there silently in shock, upset. My plans to self-destruct weren’t exactly working out as I had hoped. All I thought about was the guy I wanted to impress and how I wanted to be in his arms again. Really be in his arms, not some quick trip seeing me at a hotel room and that was it. I wanted to be his ride-or-die chick. I wanted to have his baby—I told him many times.
But I guess that wasn’t going to be. These thoughts went all around me, and that was more devastating than that my dreams of becoming a dancer were over.
I didn’t hear from the guy anymore. And when I did call, it was brief and or voicemail or a female who answered.
I wanted to die. I wondered why God had let me live. I hated my life. Not only was I homeless, but I was in a boot, walking around in crutches. I was reduced to nothing; the women in the shelter called me “Crutch.” What‘s up, Crutch?, You doin okay, Crutch? or Go, Crutch, as I struggled down the hall.
As time went on, I stayed at different shelters for my ankle to heal—in the snow, rain and sleet at times—going out, to get clothes, documents needed, as well as information. That all basically led to nowhere. I was worn out, tired, hurt and confused.
People didn’t understand—that I would expect them to—that I wasn’t just homeless to be homeless. It was a reason behind it. I was struggling in life to get my life together. I was thankful I wasn’t in a corner of a shelter, rocking back and forth in a seat talking to myself, or receiving disability, or waiting for it to come, or waiting on child support. Or drug addicted. These were real problems to the shelter system people.
Not some woman who was clearly educated and so they thought she was trying to take advantage of the system. What was I to do when I pushed myself for years to get a better job more stability?
I still was with family until now. I don’t know, but maybe it wasn’t important. Maybe it wasn’t a big thing that my grandmother lived in a senior building, and for years the manager has been harassing me and her because the only people are supposed to be there are seniors. It doesn’t matter if I help her or go shopping for her, and still look for work and a place to stay for myself. It doesn’t matter that each day, I am on my grind. Doing what I have to do. Doesn’t matter that they threaten her if I continue to stay overnight with her. Where I have to try to sneak in and out just to have a place to stay. And after a while I am told I have to leave.
I guess it doesn’t matter or mean anything that I can’t stay with my mom in the projects I grew up in because the front door always locks to keep drug dealers and users out. And the only people who have the key are the people on the lease. Maybe it doesn’t matter that my mom has kicked me out of her apartment (if did get inside) and cursed me out and yelled at me and has physically put her hands on me.
Maybe that doesn’t matter to people because I am a grown woman and should be on my own. Not their problem. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the rest of my family doesn’t care. Again not their problem. I don’t know.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that I’ve traveled to another place to make a better life for myself and people seem kind at first, but then there is no money rolling in from you, and they tell you to leave. Or you return to their place at after looking for work all day and you can’t get in the house, or the key they gave you doesn’t work.
But in order get “help” from one of the shelter programs, you have to be literally homeless. If that was the case, then why couldn’t I get help when I was sitting in a chair in the airport, or sitting in the city hospital all night, or sitting in a stairwell of a building hoping no one would catch me just so I could be off the streets for the night? Then to go back to the local woman’s shelter to shower and eat lunch, but at three p.m., I have to leave, only to do this all over again until the shelter program for the week at a church opens up. Where I can lay on a floor on a mat. It wouldn’t bug me so much if I wasn’t still dealing with this right now in my life.
Yes, I am still dealing with this.
I am grinding every day to find work, more than temp that I’ve done many years now so I can at least secure a steady place to stay of my very own. I have to catch myself many times.
That child that once dreamed in the projects of Brooklyn still resurfaces a lot especially times like this. I have to tell that child, you’re an adult now—stop fantasizing about winning that Oscar and having your favorite actor by your side as you receive it. I try not to think about how I want to complete this novel I’ve tried to work on for years so I can make my grandmother proud. That how she took care of me most of the time was not in vain. I try to tell that little girl on a day like today when depression sets in, and I know she’s crying inside of me thinking about the abuse she suffered and the physical violence she witnessed and experienced. I tend to her for a minute—just for a minute—because if not she’ll want to live in the past and this is not the time or day to be stuck in the past.
This is not for people to feel sorry for me. I don’t like that. It’s to know and try to understand that not all homeless people are the same. But as I’ve sat, eaten, and slept with the homeless, I see that I have things in common with the women. The need to be loved and cared for, broken pain now and in the past, needing to get our lives together.
The only difference is I can say I am here because of God. No other reason. Why, I don’t know. But all I can do is stay on my grind one day at a time and hopefully make something wonderful happen out of all this pain and suffering. Maybe.
CHAREEN IBRAHEEM is a writer living in Portsmouth, Virginia.
I was on my way home from a writers’ conference. I was about to get on the highway when I noticed it was a three-lane parking lot. So I kept going, That’s when the GPS started freaking out, trying to turn me around. I put my turn signal on, until I realized it was taking me back to where I’d started.
“No! I will not turn around. I will not go back.” I was white knuckled, jerking my father’s pickup truck around unfamiliar roads in the middle of Ohio. I clicked off the screen, tossed the phone in the console, and started looking for a place to pull over to consult a map.
“Damn it. I fucking hate Ohio!” I screamed in frustration as no shoulder wide enough to keep a Dodge Ram safe from passing traffic appeared.
I’ve been in these situations before, unsure of where I am, just driving forward, fear growing in the pit of my stomach. It rises to just below my ribcage and sits, nagging, anxiety pushing my pulse higher no matter how many times I count to ten.
“When you find yourself in a situation that causes you stress, take a moment to stop, find your center and breathe,” the yoga instructors always say, calm, peaceful, so fucking Zen you want to push them over and hit up a pastry shop.
Which may be why I have never actually been able to find that rock-solid island in the middle of adrenaline- and coffee-fueled chaos.
But for some reason, as I started to feel the blood pounding behind my eyeballs, I simply stopped. Not literally, because I was still cruising through cow-infested verdant fields of summer green, dotted now and then with absolutely adorable farmhouses, many with hearse-like black buggies next to cherubic boys in dark pants, white shirts and wide-brimmed hats, standing like tiny undertakers all in a row.
But for a single, blissed-out moment I didn’t care if I was lost, or where I was going. The truck said I was going east. That was good enough for me, because I needed to be in Ithaca, New York.
The fields sped by in my peripheral vision. Farmhouses, barns, buggies all started to look the same; I worried I was just going around in circles. I thought about life: Just because the scenery changes doesn’t mean you’re going forward. Or anywhere at all.
Was I going anywhere? What the hell was I doing anyway?
I’d spent nearly a decade taking dozens of road trips with my husband, Sean. We’d driven between Pennsylvania and Virginia more times than I could remember, the most epic when we headed south pulling a newly-purchased twenty-nine-foot travel trailer. This was before either one of us had smart phones―maps and calls to my mother-in-law had to suffice for directions or information on where to get a half-decent cup of coffee―and well before our best efforts at making a life together imploded.
Now, he was in Philadelphia in a full-blown crash and burn―the countless calls and text messages I’d received over the course of the conference confirmed that. He was broke, out of work, homeless, and battling addiction. He blamed me, his mother, and anyone else who, in his mind, had let him down over the course of his life.
I know the fairytale grown-up world I thought existed when I was in my teens , where my―of course, British―rock star husband provides me with enough disposable income to chase whatever creative muse might flit by. I’m cool with working my ass off in conjunction with an equally driven partner. But that’s not how things had turned out.
We’d gone to hell and back during the recession, but we’d managed to finally eke out a somewhat decent existence. He’d returned to masonry with a small company outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and I had lucked into a job as a screenprinter—finally utilizing my BFA—after nearly a year working retail for eight dollars an hour. I’d also found an amazing group of creative, talented friends. I’d never imagined anywhere below the Mason-Dixon could feel like home, but it was tolerable, considering I was northeast born and bred.
“I can’t do what I want here,” he’d started saying from almost the moment we moved to C’ville. “No one here plays the kind of music I do.”
His musical talent is unmatched, so I was sympathetic. I don’t feel that way because I married him―I wouldn’t have married him had he been mediocre. Cold, yes, but if I were going to fully support his creativity, I had to believe in it. He was the real deal. I wanted to see him succeed.
“What do you want to do?” I asked with some trepidation when his misery finally reached a fever pitch three years into our foray in the south.
“I need to move back north.”
He’d made several weeks-long trips to Philadelphia that year to practice and play with his band, which consisted of the same guys he’d been in a previous band with before I met him. He’d handed me their CD shortly after we met―I put it in my car’s player knowing that if it sucked I’d have to break up with him. They were amazing, with the kind of chemistry that doesn’t come around often.
“Well, so, what do you want to do?” I repeated. “What’s your plan?”
It seemed straightforward enough: He’d move back to Philly, where we’d met and lived before the recession kicked us south. I’d stay in Cville and continue working, providing a steady stream of income, stability, and health insurance. He’d get settled, and then I’d pick up stakes and move north.
It fell apart almost from the get-go. He said he couldn’t hold it together without me, and he sank into addiction. I found myself repelled by his neediness. I saw my life with him as a trap. So instead I moved further north. It wasn’t a plan so much as a reaction.
I felt like an asshole, like I’d somehow abandoned him. The guilt still burned red hot as I navigated the winding Ohio roads a full year after he’d packed up a rented van and driven north, away from our cramped, aged camper and onto a completely different life. He wasn’t my kid, he wasn’t a child—he was a full-grown man who refused to take responsibility for his actions. His mother and I had spent countless days and dollars to keep him afloat until it became obvious no amount of assistance would ever be enough. Yet I still felt like a jerk, and I couldn’t shake it. I didn’t know if the guilt would ever go away.
And I was sad. I knew in my heart that, in the end, we’d go our separate ways, but it’s not that I didn’t care about him. It didn’t stop me from feeling paralyzed, plodding through life’s motions under a heavy weight. It felt like just another failure, another way I’d managed to veer off life’s path, whatever that was supposed to be.
In many ways the hardest part was the external judgment, which just added to my uncertainty about what I was doing, or should be doing, or should have done. It was almost like the second Sean fell down, those around me headed my way with knives out. They’d been holding back, barely, their disdain, but all bets were off. I found myself putting up walls, forcing my own disdain at what had been, so completely, my life, as if by swearing it off I could convince the world—and those around me—I wasn’t like him.
“I always knew he was bad,” they’d say. “What were you thinking?”
And I’d nod my head in agreement—“Yeah, what was I thinking?”—afraid that if I defended him, they’d judge me harshly, too.
Thing is, he wasn’t actually a bad person. He may have looked like your typical bad boy, and he most certainly embodied the stereotypical rock and roll persona. He was tall, thin, his body angled in sharp lines from hard living and hard labor. He smoked like a chimney, swore off whiskey and the rages it put him into, and sported one—intentionally—amateurish tattoo: a skull and crossbones with the words “fuck off.” He was wholly, unabashedly, loudly uncouth. But he was also a voracious reader and a constant questioner of the kinds of things most people just accepted as fact, which the journalist in me found a kinship with.
When the financial sector collapsed and everyone I knew turned their backs while we struggled, we only had each other to rely on. Losing my ally, my—albeit damaged—champion was like another floor dropping out. He may have been alive in the corporeal sense, but I wasn’t sure the real Sean was ever coming back. And if I waited to find out? How many second chances could I give him before it was too late? I hated myself for even thinking this way, and I hated him.
He’d dropped out of school at sixteen, lived wherever he could find a place to lay his head and was, for the most part, married to music, his second wife. I was his third. Drugs were, and always had been, his first.
I wasn’t sure about moving north, but winter was coming fast and the camper was falling apart. I had to make a decision. I had family in Ithaca, but for all intents and purposes I was broke and alone, save for my two terriers. I was forty-four, not a single possession worth calling my own. Even my own truck, which I’d left for my dad to drive if needed when I headed to Ohio, was a slap in the face: I had a car I loved somewhere along the east coast, which I’d been forced to leave after its water pump quit. Sean was supposed to drive from Philly to Virginia to get it after I moved, and we’d trade in the spring―I’d headed north driving what had been our tow vehicle, our Behemoth, a ’97 Suburban. I had no idea where my car was, or whose dubious possession it might be in, along with the rest of my belongings. So I was limited to very local trips considering the advanced age and state of disrepair of the tow beast.
Which is how I wound up driving more than four hundred miles each way to Ohio in my father’s pickup. I’d attempted to rent a car, but was turned away when it was discovered I was a nomadic ne’er do well.
“My dad’s going to pay for everything,” I said sheepishly, handing over my driver’s license at the rental counter. I was, after all, well beyond the age of my father paying for anything. But he’d offered, and I was in no financial situation to say no. I’d taken a part-time job in Ithaca with the same chain store that had plucked me from jobless perdition in Virginia just to make sure I didn’t go without work. But the pay and hours provided little more than spare change in the adult world I had once been accustomed to living in.
I’d spent thousands of dollars on this particular car rental company; I had no reason to think there would be a problem. They’d gained my loyalty when the engine of my Volkswagen Golf self-destructed in 2010, melting to a puddle of oily, metallic goo on the side of Route 495 in Delaware, leaving me, Sean, and our puppy stranded as traffic zoomed by. Their gimmick was they’d come get you. We’d needed a car. I’d wound up renting from them for well over a month.
So it was a shock when they rejected me.
“If you don’t have a major credit card, we need proof of income and residence,” the woman behind the counter said. “And you’ll have to pay for everything yourself. No one else can pay for you.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I asked, still not comprehending the situation. “Why can’t he just rent the car and add me on as a second driver?”
“Because we need the same information from all drivers, so even if you’re a second driver and you don’t have a major credit card, you still need to prove income and residence.”
My cheeks grew hot, my pulse started to race, and my favorite feeling―enraged embarrassment―took over. I could prove my pittance of an income but not residence. I hadn’t had an actual, legal address in years. By federal law, even as a full-time RVer, I was considered homeless.
“This is outright discrimination,” I stated, digging my fingernails into my palm. “I do not have proof of residence, and why, exactly, do you need proof of income?”
As if I didn’t know: Because if you’re on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, you’re a lazy, shiftless thief. Because people without credit cards don’t work. Because being chosen to hold credit certifies you are an actual citizen in the eyes of the rest of society. That’s what matters―money. Anyone who doesn’t have it is scum and banned from normal activities. Like renting a car to attend a conference. Because lazy impoverished scumbags don’t go to conferences. They’re too busy collecting welfare and doing drugs.
It makes even the strongest-willed person want to crumble. Which is why I can almost understand Sean’s compulsion to numb himself no matter the consequences. Almost.
It’s no secret: I bought into the lie that as an educated person I deserved to live a life of comfort, free from things like being turned away when trying to rent a car. But the life I’ve lived and its choices—some made by me, some hoisted upon me—have shown me that there’s really no escaping the mess that is life.
But I was neither a total failure nor the victim, but something in-between. I loathed working retail and the pittance I earned, but I also hated working seventy-hour weeks in uncomfortable shoes so some CEO could feel impressive and buy something else. I’d been given the chance, an existential Scrooge story in reverse, to decide what, exactly, had to change. Would I keep pushing forward until I found my way? And if it all went to shit, if the traffic stopped moving, was I agile enough to veer off and figure it out without crashing again?
I figured I needed to find the fine line between living in the moment and looking at the long-term ramifications of what I was doing. I’d been cruising along for decades, certain I’d always find another on-ramp and everything would work out for the best. There’s merit in that approach, but also some nasty potholes. Getting hitched in the basement of a bland, brick apartment complex with no witnesses and celebrating afterward with a cup of Dunkin Donuts might have been a place to start thinking about the path I’d been on. But I hadn’t. I needed to find balance. I dreaded becoming stuck, but the other option—full-on hedonism—was also something I couldn’t even bear witness to, let alone indulge.
With the conference behind me, and its amazing writers inspiring me to just get to fucking work, I had to accept I was alone, wandering on the eastern edge of the Midwest. The guilt, the hurt, and the anger still burned in my gut, and probably always would. But was anyone else’s happiness my responsibility? Was it okay to put myself, my ambitions, first?
I’d been taking the most circuitous routes my entire life, but they were mine. I owned them. The writing conference was just another start, a way to meet people like me, wake the muse up and keep going. It wasn’t fucking up so much as it was just life. Could I cut myself some slack? Should I? And more importantly, could I stop feeling sorry for myself and everyone else and do what needed to be done?
“Aha!” I hollered as I spied a sign for the highway. I could see it off to my left, cars and semis flying along. “So there!” I exclaimed, slapping the wheel in triumph, shaking off the melancholy.
ERICA S. BRATH is a non-fiction writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She works as a graphic designer and editor, and has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing her experience living full-time in a travel trailer during the Great Recession. Her website is esbrath.com.
She Stopped Taking the Pill—but What Happened Next Shocked Everyone!
She and her husband wanted a child—a “little-Nick-and-Sarah-baby.” She stopped taking the tiny daily pill. Nothing happened. Her body, young and healthy, refused to ovulate more than three times a year— a practice of inadequate irresponsibility it had begun with Menstruation Number One, when she was almost sixteen. She worried, a lot. She could become one of the women forced to smile through tight teeth. The mouths sing-songing, “We’re trying!” “Whenever God blesses us!” “Someday!” The ones who cry to see blood on the soft, snowy cotton, those who stare surreptitiously at the lucky. The experts on aiming a bad-news-bearing pee stream on a plastic stick, the minds trying to will nothing into a pink line.
After Months of Suffering, She Made an Amazing Discovery That Would Change Everything!
In the end, her body would fail for only a little over a year. The worry had eaten away at her for no reason. She could have saved the tears for something better. When she felt her way to the gray dawn bathroom and she vomited into the bowl, she knew it must be true and it was. It was a bad time—they had just moved across the state—and they had stopped actively trying, wanting to get more settled in their new city. But she hadn’t started using birth control again; she’d been lulled by their failure thus far. Now they were, at the same time, happier and more worried than they had ever been.
The Appalling New Ways in Which Her Body Betrayed Her!
She should have spent those worry-months picking up extra waitressing shifts. When the sickness came, she wasn’t ready. Her body failed her in a new way now. Her blood rushed harder through the highways. Her doctor, bony and cruel faced, the only female doctor who’d accepted Medicaid, berated her for gaining weight—it was too much, too quickly. She’d thought only a woman could understand what she was going through, but she saw no sympathy in the stony eyes, just disgust. The prescription for high blood pressure—get off your feet and stop eating so much. Her worry over her inability to conceive morphed quickly into another worry, as her body struggled, as the money quickly became not enough.
Groundbreaking Research Uncovers the Top Five Things to Avoid When Pregnant!
She needed to keep waiting tables—they couldn’t pay their bills with only his tips. She left her restaurant and he left his, so they could get a new restaurant together. This way, he could carry her heavy trays. Sinking into their sofa after midnight, after working a double shift, her feet and legs rebelled. They tingled, ached, screamed at her as she held onto the stove for support. She stirred canned soup and heated hot dogs—all against doctor’s orders, but they were quick, cheap, and she was too tired to deal with more. They sat on the green sofa with the Southwestern design—ugly but free—and binge-watched episodes of Friends he had downloaded—illegal but free—as they fueled their bodies with salt, sugar, and fat. These nutritional sins were the only luxuries they could afford so they savored them. They went through all 236 episodes in that dark apartment. She doesn’t think Friends is funny, anymore.
They Had Nowhere to Turn—and Then, an Unexpected Phone Call!
They had to choose which bills to pay. The apartment’s rent was the most important, of course, the truck payment second. All frivolities had already been cut, and all bills were already in or past their grace periods. The truck insurance was allowed to lapse, which meant they now were in danger of their only vehicle getting repossessed. One chilly night, his parents called him. They weren’t rich, or even super comfortable, but they had read between the stress lines in foreheads and the pauses in phone calls. They offered to share what they had. They offered to make room. She threw everything in cardboard boxes, nervous and relieved about the offer. He used their last dollars to rent a U-Haul, and they drove it, along with their uninsured truck. They drove from Dallas to the Hill Country; from the cold apartment complex surrounded by strangers to the warm house surrounded by family.
The Aging Effects of Stress—Doctors Say You Can IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH by Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations!
The stress wasn’t over, but it was lesser. It was now the stress of preparing for childbirth, of two women sharing a kitchen, of heads butting, of chore parceling, of packed cardboard boxes in the garage with no plans to unpack them anytime soon, and of feeling beholden by the knowledge that this graciousness could not be repaid. It was no longer the stress of unpaid car insurance, eviction, and having to choose cheaper food over healthier food. She still couldn’t bring herself to care what the scale said—she’d deal with it later. Her new doctor-who-accepts-Medicaid was a man; she felt that she could accept the advice that resonated in her and release the rest as “something he knows nothing about.” He didn’t mention her weight—either he was more compassionate toward her feelings or too busy and uncaring to take the time. Either way, she was grateful to ignore it for now.
The Shocking Aftermath of Her Life Choices!
She gave up canned soup, doctors with cold eyes, waitressing, and Friends. She gave her body her blessing to grow their baby girl for the remaining three months. His parents gave all they could spare to the preparations for their granddaughter’s arrival. She and her husband felt the relief of release as hope returned to their eyes. It wasn’t the perfect start for a young family, but it was a safe and loving one. They accepted it gladly.
SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER lives on a hill in beautiful Portland, Oregon. She is a senior at University of Portland. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Eastern Iowa Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Mulberry Fork Review among other journals. You can visit her at sbweaver.com or tweet hi @sarahbweaver.
A Korean adoptee, I had just spent a month in my birth country teaching English for a school that wanted me to be white. In order to quit, I had to spend a day overseas, so I was in Japan because of visa laws. I figured I’d make a little trip of it. For three days and two nights, I wheeled a suitcase around Fukuoka, temple-watching and feeling sorry for myself.
I had only a hundred dollars in my bank account. Since I’d broken my contract in my first month, I hadn’t gotten paid. On the first night, I headed to the beach. It was still warm in October, and I lay on the hard sand and tried to sleep. After a few minutes, I moved to a bench instead. I was there for less than an hour when it started to rain. My clothes stuck muddily to my body, but when I unzipped my suitcase, I realized that the reason I could change outfits was because I was dragging my life behind me in a piece of luggage.
I had nowhere to go. I asked myself, What would a homeless person do? I made my way under an overpass. There I laid my head on my suitcase and attempted to cry myself to sleep. I wasn’t even thinking yet of how I had been left under a bridge in Seoul as an infant. I wasn’t ready to confront my adoption. I had only been in Asia for a month, and it was the first time since I was two years old. I didn’t make the leap to thinking that my birth mother might have left me under a bridge for the same reason I found a bridge in Japan—rain. I stayed under the overpass until the rain faded to mist, and then I dragged my suitcase back into the streets, planning to empty my bank account on a hotel room, call my parents, and tell them I needed to come home.
I might have done just that if I had found a single hotel in my one-hundred-dollar budget. When everything was too expensive, I made my way to a bar. In Korea bars stay open until early morning and I hoped the same would be the true in Japan. I took a table in the back, low to the floor, where people could sit cross-legged. I parked my bag there and ordered a single beer. I used the table as a pillow. Whenever anyone came by, I took a tiny sip to make the beer last. It had cost something like ten dollars.
Someone must have taken pity on me and let me sleep.
In truth I might be mixing this memory up. I might have started in the bar and ended under the overpass. I wonder why I remember it in this order. Maybe I want to think that when I hit bottom, a stranger helped me—because that is how I have always thought about my adoption. Maybe I want to think that I made myself move on from the bridge, and not that I ended up there because I could go nowhere except my past.
When I woke in the early morning in a closing bar in Fukuoka, I returned to the city with my suitcase and my shame, and I temple-watched again in a sleepless haze. I hated the city’s artificial cleanliness. My legs hurt—that was real pain. The malls were full and the temples empty. The desire to fly back to Connecticut grew stronger and stronger. But I didn’t call my parents. The real reason was that I had left a new girlfriend in Korea and I wasn’t ready to throw something away before I knew what it was.
I searched again for a hotel until I found a room that maxed out my account. As sad a place as it was, the hotel held plenty of wonders—there were slippers, a heated floor, a bidet built into the toilet seat. I had never seen a bidet before. I used everything in the room and took a long bath and got ready for bed. It was maybe six in the afternoon. Before I slept, I tried to find perspective. I wasn’t truly alone, of course—I could call my girlfriend and ask her to wire money, or I could call my parents and ask them bail me out. I didn’t know what it was to be truly alone—or I hadn’t since I was an orphan.
With a calling card, I phoned my girlfriend so that someone would feel bad for me, someone other than myself, and I told her about sleeping in the bar. I didn’t tell her about sleeping under the bridge—that seemed too much. She was more shocked than pitying. And soon I was defending myself. I couldn’t appear to be so poor that she wouldn’t want to date me. The phone shook against my ear. I said I had to go to sleep, and I listened for a minute or two to more shock that I would sleep before sunset. Eventually my girlfriend shamed me into actual perspective. I was simply being cheap or punishing myself. I wanted to appear as if I had a pitiable life, but I was just making choices she couldn’t understand.
She never wanted to save me. I let that sink in, in that hotel room in Japan, sleeping naked in a borrowed robe. Rescue hadn’t drawn my future wife, a Korean woman, to me, a Korean adoptee. That was my expectation. Those were my rules for myself. I felt oddly relieved—and oddly disappointed. I harbored the half-hope that she might still change her mind and I wouldn’t have to save myself. But of course I would.
MATTHEW SALESSES is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood, which was named of the season’s best books by Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Gawker, and others, and was a Best Book of September and a Kindle First pick at Amazon. He has written for NPR, The New York Times, Salon, Glimmer Train, The Millions, and The Rumpus, among others. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Houston.
The sight of demure violets and shaggy dandelions against the deep green of recently mowed grass has always delighted you. Normally you don’t like the combination of yellow and purple or yellow and green, because you hate team sports and those eye-searing pairings are often team colors, spotted on high school basketball jerseys or the itchy polyester cling of cheerleading uniforms. But in the context of spring, you love it, those three colors coming together for a few short weeks, radiant under the still-shocking intensity of midday sunlight. It calls to mind a suburban idyll, those violets and dandelions asserting themselves against an herbicide-drenched carpet of lawn.
But it is night now and you are looking at your phone, even though you’ve vowed to spend less time looking at your phone, and one of the feeds of text on it alerts you that a cookbook writer you admire just made violet syrup. It excites you, the very sound of it. Violet syrup. You imagine the violet syrup in a dainty pressed-glass jar, illuminated like an isolated shard of sacred stained glass in the path of an afternoon sunbeam, high on the shelf of a shabby-chic hutch. It calls to mind tea parties and Anne of Green Gables, harkening back to an age before phones that offer tiny visual enticements of violet syrup in the first place.
In your house there are all sorts of things to do, things that get pushed aside because of your job, which is to arrange little black symbols in lines against glowing white screen. It is called editing. The things you edit are lists about food, and you correct the mistakes in these lists because you’ve had enough jobs cooking food to spot misinformation quickly. You know what food does, even though your editing job consumes enough of your time that you now resort to serving boxes of bunny-shaped macaroni and cheese for dinner more often than you are comfortable with.
You do this editing from home, because that’s where the screen is, and your daughter often sees you scowling intently at it, and the magnetic power it holds over you infuriates her. You try very hard to limit her own exposure to glowing screens, both large and small, and yet there you are all day, tapping away at buttons as she implores you to draw with her or listen to her rambling preschooler stories. You want to give yourself fully to those stories, but the lingering demands of unresolved symbol-arranging pulls you away. Her job is to go to daycare, where she can play with other kids her age and build up her social skills so you can be at peace with your screen and your keys.
Sometimes you need a break from editing, so you switch to a different screen for a bit and click on little boxes and stars under photos of babies and dogs. You didn’t click on the star under the violet syrup on your phone. Is this worth a star? What does one do with violet syrup?
You try to shove the violet syrup to the back of your brain, but the violets do not give up on you. They appear all over, suddenly, in low-lying mobs: in the green strip of medians, along the path in the woods where you walk the dog. They grow in clusters, making pinpricks of color at the base of stop signs and between the cracks in the sidewalk. They soothe and disrupt you, because they are just another thing that you won’t get to. If you don’t pick the violets and make them into syrup, you’ll forget about how the purple and the green of violets make you feel.
You go with your daughter to a park without your phone so you can be somewhere and not really think about stars and boxes, and she runs off and then returns, bearing a fistful of white violets collected indelicately in her small hands. “For you, Mama,” she says. White violets?Was that one of Elizabeth Taylor’s perfumes?
The white violets do it. After a whole week confronting their quiet menace, you surrender. It’s Friday and you have deadlines. You are alone at home, busy editing inside and it’s glorious outside and you evict yourself from your dining room-cum-office. You close up the screen and grab a mixing bowl and go to your front yard, which, despite its minimal lawn, is infested with violets. You squat down, and you pick.
And you pick. One violet, two violets, three violets. You need a murder of violets build up in the bowl. You think of saffron, collected from the stamens of tiny crocuses, and consider how ill-suited you would be for the life of a saffron harvester, since after five minutes you are ready to quit this violet-picking business. You cannot give up. You do not give up.
The violet syrup recipe on your phone says to gather three handfuls of violets. You succeed, and you take a close-up picture of the bowl of violets with your phone, and you think about sharing this picture so other people—friends, kind-of friends, vaporous friends—can click on a box or star to agree with you about how great your life is, this life of carefree front-yard foraging. But you look at the real violets and then the violets on your phone, and you notice that they look nothing alike. Your phone violets are blue-ish and stiff and cool, and your real violets are a vibrant violet-purple, and the shiny metal bowl is warm from sitting on your lap. You delete the photo.
You retreat inside, to the kitchen, to separate the tender petals from their green bases that hold them together (a part of their anatomy called, adorably, the pip). So many small flowers, so many pips to maneuver around. Hundreds. Steeping the pips with the petals would make the resulting syrup bitter and to skip it would be to negate the already frivolous work you’ve invested so far. This is exactly the sort of thing you’d love to recruit your daughter for, but pulling petals away from pips requires more finesse than her unruly five-year-old fingers can muster. And so you do it by yourself, outsourcing the supervision of your daughter so you can blow off work and pluck itty-bitty flowers apart for making an essentially useless condiment.
It occurs to you that you should probably taste a violet before you go through with this. For all of the wildflower’s loveliness, its fragrance and flavor is that of the most bland lettuce ever, and you don’t imagine exposure to heat doing it any favors, but by now you’ve decided that making violet syrup will fill some hole in your life that needs to be filled. Even if you are just filling it with lettuce-flavored simple syrup.
Building up a critical mass of violet petals feels Sisyphean, absurd, impossible. Many times in your life, you have repeated insignificant tasks. You pumped the handle of the hopper and squirted a blob of Bavarian cream inside the donut. You stripped away the stranger’s slept-on sheets and unfurled a fresh sheet for a new stranger to sleep on. You took the rectangle of plastic from the customer, slid it through the reader, and made small talk as they paid for their pig-shaped corncob holders or glittery pink silicone spatula.
Do you receive our catalog?
Would you like a bag for this?
Enjoy your day!
You took the rectangle of plastic from someone else and slid it through the reader, and then another rectangle from another person, and then another.
A good place to eat around here? What do you like?
That meat grinder’s aluminum, so I don’t recommend putting it in the dishwasher.
Caribbean is my favorite Le Creuset color, too.
Your favorite Le Creuset color is actually Flame. The violets are tedious, still. Twenty minutes in, you have a pint of pip-free petals, not nearly the quart you need for the syrup. Screw it. You instead opt to make violet sugar, which requires only one handful of petals and one cup of granulated sugar.
It’s the big dirty secret of foraging that, with enough refined sugar, all things are possible. Only a few centuries ago, it was an expensive luxury. Crews of African slaves labored around the clock on Caribbean plantations to placate white people’s hunger for the laser-like precision of white sugar sweetness. On those islands that inspired a Le Creuset marketing expert to name a soothing shade of turquoise blue after their waters, there was a constant need for boatloads of new slaves, because they died before they got around to having children. Some fell into the boiling vats of cane juice, and some bled to death after getting their limbs caught in the rollers that pressed the cane, but most were simply worked to the point where they collapsed and never got up again.
Sugar is commonplace now, unavoidable. It infiltrates the snacks your daughter eats at daycare, the Nutri-Grain Bars and Fruit Roll-Ups. Now, the ability to afford eschewing sugar is a sign of membership in the upper class. Your white sugar, though, will not be white. After this, it will be violet.
A few blitzes in the food processor and that’s it. It tastes like regular sugar and looks like wet purple sand. To give it a boost, you add a grating of Meyer lemon zest, but it’s still not punchy enough.
You look at the windowsill over your kitchen sink and spy a vanilla bean pod. Of course you always air-dry the hulls of scraped-out beans after the majority of their flavor has been sucked into custards and compotes. They cost about a hundred dollars a pound and are actually the cured seed pods of a specific orchid, one that’s pollinated by hand a hemisphere away. The producers of these seed pods sometimes use a needle to prick a unique brand on them, just as a cattle rancher would, so the beans can be traced back should a vanilla seed pod rustler come to plunder the crop. Sometimes, before eviscerating them with a paring knife, you examine vanilla beans and you spy the tattoos, looking like leathery runes from another age, and you imagine having to prick thousands of still-green seed pods on orchid vines.
You realize you now have a small stockpile of dried vanilla bean hulls, and you grind them to several tablespoons of fine brown dust in your spice grinder, and you add a fat pinch of this dust to your violet sugar, and it does the trick. They’re kindred spirits, these two esoteric floral essences.
You retrieve your child from daycare, and you both return home to a big bowl of intact violet blossoms, ones that were not massacred into sugar, and you give this bowl to your daughter and send her to the yard and say, “Do you want to play with these?” She sprinkles the violets on the sidewalk and scatters decapitated dandelions and mangled clumps of grass among them, announcing, “I made a store!” and you approve.
The violet sugar is in a jar on the counter. It is subdued in color and soothing to look at, nothing at all like the cartoonish hues of purchased decorating sugar that you sprinkle on cutout cookies, and you just leave it there, even though you have no immediate plans to bake anything. Maybe you will divide it among smaller jars and give it to a few of your friends, the ones who appreciate things like the glancing presence of violets. The violet sugar means you are not entirely a useless and shallow person. You think about it and think about it and then sit and tap on keys and sort those feelings out, and then there it is, Violets, Boxes, and Stars, a few teasing lines on the screen of a phone, and you tap on them, and see this.
SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She lives in Ohio.
Two years ago, my husband and I moved away from Portland, Oregon, on purpose. We left behind friends, career prospects, and a two-bedroom rental house that cost a mere $875 a month. And we loaded our dog and kid into our Outback and drove as fast as a ’99 Subaru can go all the way to Marietta, Ohio, the town where I grew up.
“We just need to be closer to family,” I told people in the perplexed silences that inevitably followed when they heard our plans to relocate. What illustrious family could possibly woo us away from an artsy Eden on the Willamette?
The family thing was true and untrue. We needed to be closer to them because we were perpetually broke, and the broke-ness had become such that it was time to deploy the emergency move-in-with-my-folks plan.
But there was also an ache that hadn’t gone away despite five years of gamely trying to adore that adorable city where we fit in so well, in so many ways. Portland loved me, and I could not love it back, and I felt like a shithead because of it.
We arrived in Portland in 2007, three mayors and at least two ultra-bougie New Seasons food markets ago. Before that, we lived in New York City, and in comparison Portland seemed preposterously quaint and manageable. Our first months in Oregon, my husband and I would admire the downtown skyline and the conifer-studded hills rising behind it and coo, “Oh, look—it thinks it’s a city!”
The intensity of city life was what we moved to escape, and our new no-name strip of neighborhood between I-205 and the used car lots of Southeast 82nd Avenue struck us as a quiet haven of playgrounds and modest houses, with a few hookers thrown in for color. Two greasy old-school Chinese joints bordered us, Hung Far Low to the south and Chinese Garden to the north. We had a spacious backyard, where I doggedly pruned an overgrown apple tree and hacked away at diseased lilac bushes. We got a dog from the Humane Society. My husband joined a few bands. On heady Portland summer days when the sun cascaded down like a shot of heroin, he haunted a skate spot under the Hawthorne Bridge. Though magazines and newspapers in New York barely gave me the time of day, in Portland I wrote freelance stories for the food section of Portland’s major news daily, eventually worked in their test kitchen, and also taught cooking classes on nights and weekends. My husband had a string of long-term temp assignments in administrative offices. It was almost enough to keep us afloat.
All the while, we looked for better jobs. And looked and looked and looked. There were two main problems we grappled with in Portland: rain and money. Too much of one, and never enough of the other.
Let me tell you about Marietta, Ohio. Founded in 1788, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, which means it’s in spitting distance of West Virginia. It’s an Appalachian Interzone, at once very Midwestern and not Midwestern at all; a generous pinch of twang runs through the local speech. The population is staggeringly white, though there might be about twenty black residents now, and if memory serves, back when I was in high school there were maybe five. So that’s improvement. As for other ethnicities, if you live here and you’re Asian, you’re probably a doctor. There’s one shop that serves decent coffee, but it’s a nutritional supplement store/smoothie bar that doesn’t open until nine in the morning. Vietnamese food? A taqueria? Fat chance.
Portland feels like another universe in comparison. I still struggle to define the charms and drawbacks of each place. Both are defined by the big, dirty rivers that run through them. Portland had innumerable food carts and strip clubs; Marietta has innumerable churches and fracking rigs. You’ll have to wait for hours to score a table at Portland’s Tasty n’ Sons for breakfast on a Sunday, but in Marietta, the Busy Bee Diner offers immediate seating and a waitress who wears her hair in, yes, a beehive. Sure, Portland has scads of idealistic youths engaged in civic activism—but you’d never guess how many grumpy retirees in Marietta volunteer their time for charitable causes. Instead of laptops, they might carry concealed weapons. John Deere pajama bottoms worn as all-purpose outerwear are a common fashion statement, true, but the population overwhelmingly accepts proven science and public health—that is, you don’t see citizens coming together against fluoridated water that way they do in Portland.
Living here is a bit like going back in time. After my high school experience as the resident misfit weirdo, I skipped town with a happy shrug, never suspecting that decades later I’d come to crave Marietta, with its scenic bridges and dozens of historical markers and goofy festivals and rickety, underfunded little museums. It’s an all-American community with a picturesque downtown of antique stores and brick streets. The thrift shops and flea markets are great, because the records and mid-century furniture aren’t all picked over. Baby boomers abound, as do minimum-wage positions in nursing homes. Among the ladies there’s an unfortunately popular haircut, this wedged-in-the-back/spiked-in-the-front chemical-drenched thing with streaky highlights that my husband and I call “crispy hair.”
And I have to be slightly more mindful of what I say in mixed company. In Portland, most people likely lean Democratic, or support reproductive rights. In Marietta, I have friends who vote for Tea Party candidates.
Free from the confines of that infamous Portland bubble, I like walking around and not running into endless clones of myself and my political views. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the rest of America is like, and a window into the goodness of people who don’t think like me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I’d get asked when we first moved back to Marietta. The old guard here clings to a deeply ingrained Midwestern/Appalachian skepticism of outsiders, and they are reluctant to embrace change, even small ones, like installing pedestrian crosswalks on the busiest street downtown.
“I grew up here, actually,” I delight in replying. Not fitting in is my comfort zone. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable in Marietta.
My California-bred husband still wakes up dazed upon realizing that he resides in the ass-end of Appalachia. He loves record stores, ethnic food, post-rock bands, and independent movie theaters. He’s trying to be a good sport.
But once we had our daughter, those things phased out of our Portland lives, anyway. By then I’d veered away from my culinary career, landed job with the county library, and was thoroughly enjoying the best employee benefits of my life.
Which was great, because we needed those funds to cover childcare. It became apparent that raising Frances in Portland would present increasingly complex logistical problems. For our one-car family, Frances’s daycare had to be reasonably close to my library. Both Joe and I worked until six many nights, and nearly all daycare centers closed before then. Through desperate combings of Craigslist we found a few options, but there was precious middle ground between total sketch-fests that reeked of sour milk and tiny palaces of early childhood education where the tuition was higher than my paycheck.
When my husband’s temp gig with a Portland city agency ended, even though he wanted to work, we realized we couldn’t afford it. We reluctantly pulled Frances out of the loving daycare we’d been lucky to find and had him stay home with her, collecting unemployment until he got a job offer high enough for us to clear her monthly fees.
That put us more in touch with the day-to-day struggles of the working class than we were comfortable admitting. We could have chosen housing that was even lower-cost than our moldy house of sadness, where I had to make wiping the backs of our bookcases down with bleach water a weekly task. I developed a ceaseless runny nose that eventually blossomed into massive sneezing attacks, ones that disappeared once I walked out our door, and I realized I was allergic to our own home. We knew we had food, a roof over our heads, and a bank account that was barely ever overdrawn.
The biggest ache was a battle we raged with our privileged identity. We’re educated, liberal, and artsy. People like us are supposed to gentrify neighborhoods, not get pushed out of them. For extra money, I picked up sub shifts at public library branches; eventually, I worked at least once at all eighteen branches in the county system, the grand slam. It was a great way to see the parts of city that the alluring travel features in magazines don’t show you. That was the Portland I ultimately fell in love with, the one that didn’t trump itself up. I saw a lot of meth teeth and smelled the stench of urine wafting from clothes that had not been washed in years, sure, but I also saw people who were more or less…normal. People who needed jobs and barely had any tech literacy, so I’d have to walk them through filling out a resume online as they raced to submit it before their allotted time for the day ran out on the library’s public computer. People who needed referrals for free legal services, or were trying to locate their parent’s birth records, or who just wanted recommendations for a good book.
To a casual observer, I looked like the Portland dream: The librarian-writer! With nerdy glasses! Who used to be a chef! But really, I was one of them, the other Portlanders. The ones who constantly did the utility bill/paycheck triage. The ones whose shady landlord, when asked to take down the 1970s wood paneling because it’s housing a robust colony of mildew, replies “But if I take down the paneling, it’ll expose the hole in the wall!” The ones who shopped at the discount grocer not because thrift is trendy, but because thrift is necessary. A few strokes of massive bad luck and I could have been the urine-reeking patron, or the patron who lived in her car, or the patron who lost visiting privileges with her kid.
We were tearing our hair out, working with a tiny margin of error from month to month, with no bright future in sight. We cobbled together our work schedules for Frances-watching duties, doing that frantic parent-to-parent handoff as one of us headed out the door; I worked every weekend, and we rarely had relaxed family time together. What’s the point of living in an amazing city when you can’t access its best attributes?
“You know that feeling you get when your plane descends to land in Portland, and you look at the city below and think, ‘I’m home’?” A friend posed this question, and I had to confess I’d never once felt that way. It was more like, “Huh. Here we are again.”
The love that Portlanders have for their city borders on romantic. I felt like a third wheel, immune to the giddiness. While tall bikes and food carts made out on the couch, I skulked in the corner of the rec room, alone. I became cantankerous about the stupidest things, hundreds of soggy twigs to fuel the brush fire of animosity shouldering inside me. I think of myself as a person with pluck, a problem-solver who deals with the situation at hand, but I’d somehow let my circumstances neuter that part of me. On I went, pruning the apple tree. Bleaching the furniture. Polishing a turd.
But really, I was angry for us at not getting it together enough to thrive in one of the most livable cities in the country. Portland was often good to us. We had lovely friends, and I adored my library job. Every morning I’d wake up and resolve to bloom where we’d planted ourselves, and then the sad numbness would settle in, and it became impossible to suss out which part of that sadness was Portland’s fault and which was mine.
There’s that TV show. You know the one I’m talking about—it pokes affectionate but absurdist, sketch-comedy fun at Portland and its charming yet maddening idiosyncrasies. It’s big there; it’s very Portland not to get enough of Portland. If you live, or once lived, in Portland, people will inevitably bring up That Show.
Please don’t bring it up with me. I can’t watch it. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s too close. Why watch a parody of something that felt like a parody the first time around, in real life? “Come sit with me,” my husband implored as he sat on the sofa a lifetime later, in Marietta, enjoying That Show. He says it reminds him of bygone times, times when it was unlikely that he would have a co-worker named Delmus who wore a t-shirt that read “Dicky-Doo Champion: My Tummy Stick Out More Than My Dicky Do!”
I recognized all of the spots on That Show that Portland people recognize, the cutesy storefronts and brunch places and busy intersections, and I felt both so glad to be rid of them and so idiotic for my inability to flourish there. That Show is a little like my past punching me in my gut.
We had a big garden in our Portland backyard, which I spent many pleasant hours tending, and we curated a collection of the jagged, dirt-crusted bits of metal and plastic and glass that perpetually worked themselves to the surface of the soil in an ornery dis to gravity. It was not a pretty garden, but it produced enough vegetables that it created a decent dent in our grocery bill during the summer months, and yanking at its prolific weeds was an excellent outlet for the bad juju I carried around. Besides, I love to be outside in the sun. With three dependable months of it, I had to soak up as many Pacific Northwest rays as I could.
One day, Frances, who was out playing with the broken Fischer-Price farm I found for free on someone’s curb, called out, “Mama, look at what Scooter did.” I looked up from my weedy reverie and saw a bloody rat between the parsley and Swiss chard. Our dog looked up at me, beaming over his fresh kill. The rat, I assume, had been nosing around in our compost heap. I dug a shallow hole at the base of our fruitless apple tree to bury the thing, and in the process unearthed two corroded AA batteries. Who knows how long they’d been lurking down there? It was nothing, really, but after that, I was done with Portland. The rat-battery incident was my final straw.
I was poised to score a coveted Library Assistant position at the library, one that would nearly double my pay. But I didn’t have it in me to hold out any longer. I couldn’t be content in a saggy dump of a poorly-insulated house, donning two sweaters indoors to stay warm and buying organic spinach and avocados on our credit card. We aged out of that, but couldn’t get it together to bring in the income for necessary creative-class trappings we saw our friends enjoy: Waldorf preschool, annual beach house rentals, February trips to Hawaii in order to remain sane until mid-June, a compact, tidy home in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of a bar full of synth music and unevenly executed vegan menu options. Portland is a shitty place to be broke, though I guess you could say that of any city.
Still, on most days, Marietta squeaks ahead as a less shitty place to be broke. We lived with my parents until we found a house that does not give me allergy attacks. Its rent matches what they raised the rent to in our old Portland dump after we moved out. To the new tenants of the putty-colored house on SE 89th Avenue with the collapsing back patio: I hope the apple tree’s fruiting now. The flower pot of rusty nails and glass shards you found in the shed are the spoils of my unintentional garden archeology digs. Let me know if you ever accidentally encounter that rat.
Sometimes in Marietta, I look at the lazy bends of the Ohio River’s familiar brown muck, and waves of profound contentment wash over me, a strange mixture of bliss and relief. We came back to Portland in July for a visit, our first since moving to Ohio. I rode busses all over town, savored frequent cups of expertly-brewed coffee, and enjoyed the absence of crispy hairdos. At the tail end, I started getting a twinge of the coolness fatigue I had when we lived there. Boutiques selling tiny terrariums, bars built to resemble libraries, movie theaters selling rosé by the glass. In Marietta, maybe a dozen things are cool, and half of those are cool because they are utterly not cool at all. It’s special to be cool.
When we got back to Ohio, our cherry tomatoes were ready to pick. The first sweet corn of the season hit the farm stands. Vinyl banners advertising dozens of vacation bible schools crinkled in the breeze. My daughter returned to her preschool, where she played with classmates named Kolton and Kaylee instead of Mabel and Forester.
The flight back was uneventful. The plane took off and I looked out the window at the familiar vista below, crisply outlined in the magical Portland summer sun, and I thought, “There it is. That was my city.” Keep on loving it for me, okay?
SARA BIR is the food editor of Paste Magazine and a regular contributor to Full Grown People. “Smelted”, her essay from this site, appeared in Best Food Writing 2014. She lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter.
Lauren smiled a little from behind her half-moon desk, running her hands over my resume, my writing samples, and my list of references. We had spent the last hour going over everything I could have wanted to know about a job—work/life balance, office culture, and maybe most importantly, at least in the nonprofit world, a compelling mission. If I was going to commit to raising money for a living, I wanted it to be for something I believed in myself. People can smell a snake oil salesman a mile away. This was a place I could really get behind, though. The director seemed like the kind of woman who wanted to see other women succeed; the kind of boss who understood that her successes were her team’s successes. I was slowly falling in love with the idea of being employed here. “So, don’t feel like you have to answer, but … what exactly happened with your last job?” She rested her eyes on the gap in my work history, then brought them up to meet mine.
I smiled and measured the words building in my throat. Which ones to let out, and which to leave out? I had to be careful, diplomatic, but, above all, honest.
Almost one year before, at noon on a beautiful, bright spring Wednesday, I was called into the office of Greta, the headstrong, no-nonsense director who reviewed my grant proposal drafts and splattered them with Xs and question marks. My supervisor Jill, who reported to Greta, followed close behind and shut the door to the office as I sat down at the cheap beige particleboard table. At that point, I had been working at the small but venerable arts organization for less than two months, still getting my bearings, trying to decipher the acronyms, and laughing my way past the unrecognizable names that were dropped at my feet. Oh, did I see Smith Von Lichtenstein’s new one-man show that was staged in a refrigerated meat truck under the Ben Franklin Bridge? Totally. I was out of my depth, a fish on a bicycle, but I was employed. I had worked at far worse jobs for far less money. At least here, I had a desk to sit at and regular bathroom breaks.
“What’s up, ladies?” I had no immediate reason to be worried. Sure, things hadn’t been going great—the jump from my long-term, albeit limiting position at a very large nonprofit to a higher position at this more modest organization had been anything but smooth. I had decided to leave my first real job after almost four years acting as everyone’s de facto assistant. It was a great place to work in that it was a resume-builder, but in actuality, I was sick of fetching coffee, submitting invoices, and collating binders full of information for the people doing the real work. I hugged my coworkers, who had become like family, packed up my note cards and photos and figurines, and did what you do when there’s nothing more to do. I left.
My new colleagues, mostly arts administration lifers, possessed the welcoming spirit of ice sculptures, and all the original writing I submitted—the crux of my job responsibility, in fact—was struck through with red pen, condemned for being “inconsistent with the organizational language.” My co-workers ate lunch at trendy restaurants without me and exchanged gossip just outside my door; several mornings, I entered the tiny, badly lit office I awkwardly shared with Jill, only to find her perched at the edge of her swivel chair and ready to ask me if I had “a moment to chat.” (This, for those who may not know, is nonprofit-ese for “You’ve done something stupid, and I’m trying to find the nicest way possible to tell you to stop.”)
Even my interest in musicals—which, at my culture-less high school had been deemed an obsession—paled in comparison to the show tune–whistlers that one-upped each other on obscure Tony Awards trivia and prattled off Bernadette Peters’s roles in alphabetical order for fun. That I was consistently missing the mark was no mystery to anybody. But it takes a while to adjust to a new place, my friends kept saying. Just stay the course and trust your instincts. I remembered the fights I’d have with my parents every time I left another thankless retail job in my early twenties. Impetuous, impatient, flighty, they called me. Can’t stay in one place for long, they said. Make up your mind, they chastised. I wasn’t ready to quit this one yet. I hated it, but not as much as I hated disappointing people I loved.
“Rae,” Greta sighed, “I think we all know this hasn’t really been working out, on both sides. You and Jill have spoken a few times about this, right?”
“…Right.” I pursed my lips, afraid to say anything that might incriminate me. My gut started to drop, and I could feel my pulse in my throat. Could they see the vein in my neck, I wondered?
“We’ve discussed it, and, well … we think it’s best if you leave.” Oh, God. No no no. “We’re happy to issue you a severance, and we’ll plead no contest to unemployment compensation.” Unemployment? Wait, did she say I’m unemployed? “Now, why don’t you head back to your office and pack your things, hmm? Jill will walk you out.”
My ears filled with a fuzzy static. My eyes locked in on her mouth as the words dripped out, in slow motion. I couldn’t even hear myself ask her, Now? I only knew that I had finally spoken out loud when she said to me, straight faced, “Yes. Now.”
The next few moments merged into a nightmare montage. Did I pack my lamp and my photos before or after I landed on a bench outside, crying into the afternoon sun? Who did I call first, my mother or my roommate? Why did Jill place her hand on my back as she led me outside, as though I might spin around and strike her? Did she secretly like me—did she feel bad? Did I cry on the train? Why was that damn sun so bright?
Like a tiny ten-car pileup, everything after that happened so fast. What felt like only minutes later, I was in bed with my laptop, Googling unemployment forms and blubbering. And then my new routine began: Collect paltry benefit checks. Go out drinking with girlfriends. E-mail every contact I have to ask for part-time work. Obsessively check job boards. Work shifts at the coffee shop for tips and free sandwiches. Continue drinking with girlfriends. Send out resumes. Send out resumes. Send out resumes.
The interviews and phone calls came easy enough—but so did the rejections. Everyone was so sorry. They wanted me to know how nice it was to meet me, how very qualified—even overly so—I was for the position that they had so easily given to someone else. A few times, I even made it to the second or third round of interviews, meeting with more and more people, answering harder and harder questions. I found myself heartily defending my commitment to nonprofit fundraising, a line of work just a few years prior I hadn’t even known existed.
Pulling myself up out of bed got harder and harder, the weight growing on me with every month. I started writing little Post-It note reminders to myself and sticking them all over the place—voices that would speak back to me as I went about my day. On my way down the stairs: LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU’RE BUSY MAKING OTHER PLANS! As I brushed my teeth in the bathroom mirror: NOTHING IS PERMANENT, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE! Inside the kitchen cabinet where I kept the cereal: DON’T KILL YOURSELF TODAY! MOM WILL NEVER RECOVER! I was constantly convincing myself to keep going, to turn the other cheek while the struck one throbbed hot. But at the bottom of my relentless interviewing, my hopeful monologues, the peppy Post-Its, I was so angry.
I was angry with myself for turning my back on predictability, security, and professional boredom, for the moving target of bigger, of better, of more challenging or meaningful or true. I was angry at every employer in Philadelphia for emailing me back, chatting with me jauntily over the phone, inviting me into their offices, smiling as I answered questions in their conference rooms—telling me not this time, not this job. I was even angry at Greta and Jill—even though I would have quit that stupid job, had they given me a chance to secure a landing pad—for not giving me a heads up, not even an hour or two to get used to the idea that by lunchtime, I’d be made redundant, totally afloat, rationing out the handful of change I had to my name.
Someone once told me that the best thing about your thirties is “productive anger.” When you’re younger and something devastates you, destruction is the next logical step: you rage, get drunk, leave livid voicemail messages for people who don’t deserve them. You want everyone else to hurt as much as you do. But once I realized that a couple of months of consistently unrewarded effort were closing in on half a year, “productive anger” was sorely needed. The ugly, unrelenting fire in my gut pushed me right out to the door and to the big conglomerate gym a mile away. I convinced my mom to front me the ten-dollar-a-month fee, and I spent almost every morning chugging away on elliptical machines, perfecting yoga poses I had forgotten, and pushing increasingly heavier weights away from me, above me, and behind me. I turned the Beyoncé and Biggie Smalls and Girl Talk in my headphones up loud and locked my eyes on Fox and Friends, Maury Povich, the Rachael Ray Show. Every ounce that fell from my frame made me feel a little less keyed up. I could feel myself getting lighter.
My creativity even benefited from this burst of usefulness. I enrolled in a couple of writing classes, held at community writing centers in neighborhoods that I’d hardly visited. The change of scenery was stimulating—suddenly the inertia and boredom lifted, and I couldn’t stop writing. Every story I submitted for workshop vibrated off the page, each word having landed there after fighting its way through my clenched teeth. But my jaw slowly loosened, and the little wrinkle between my eyebrows smoothed itself every time I sat with those people—the nurse, the retired schoolteacher, the émigré cook with a bum hip—and let my focus drift away from the pile of resumes, the dwindling money, the mind-numbing tedium.
The more anger I fed into my pursuits, the less there was to draw from. The pool of it got more and more shallow until my fingernails dragged along the floor, finding only the sediment, the good stuff, the concentrated trust in myself that was left behind. I could see that I had almost drowned trying to get down there, but once I did, I found what I was truly made of—what kind of person I was in the face of ruin.
“So … your last job?” I cleared my throat, brushed the hair from my forehead, and smiled at Lauren knowingly.
“You know, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you think they will. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity they gave me, but the culture, the people … I knew I belonged somewhere more collaborative, more supportive. And I’ll be honest—this summer was hard… more than half a year without consistent employment really does a number on a girl, you know?”
She laughed, nodded slowly. “Oh, I know. Trust me. I really, really know.” We smirked at each other like two friends with an inside joke. “And collaboration, support? I totally get it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t run an organization that believed in those two things. So don’t worry. I think you’re in the right place.”
I felt hyper-charged and tranquil all at the same time. I didn’t know whether to do cartwheels or cry uncontrollably. Maybe later, once I knew something official, I’d do both. But in this moment, in this room with Lauren, after an hour of talking and laughing, after the longest year of my life was almost safely behind me, all I could manage was, “Yeah … I think I’m in the right place, too.”
All names have been changed except Rae’s. —ed.
RAE PAGLIARULO is an MFA Creative Writing Candidate at Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Daedalus: A Magazine of the Arts, Full Grown People, Ghost Town Literary Magazine, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is also the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. She works and lives in Philadelphia.
There was likely a time when I didn’t know that that long stretch of 47th Street on the west side of Manhattan was called “the diamond district,” but I can’t remember it. There was a sort of shorthand for streets in Manhattan that I learned as a kid: diamonds: 47th street, shoes: 34th Street, Indian food: 6th Street, and so on. This is the old city, the city of my parents and grandparents, that remarkably still exists inside the twenty-first century one, if you know where to look for it.
So when I found myself at the end of my marriage, panicked nearly every second about money, with my only valuable possession a diamond engagement ring buried in a tiny box on the top of my dresser, well, I pretty much knew where to go.
And so, on a hot summer day, a couple of years ago, I stood in front of a diamond exchange store on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, considering my options.
I don’t know what drew me to this particular store, but there I was. It was simply the first one I noticed. It was large and on the corner, which seemed like important details. Now, as a rule, I don’t excel at comparison shopping. In fact, when I am looking for something, I will pretty much snap up the first thing I see, and that’s it. Then I spend the next day? month? year? hearing about everyone else’s great deal on the very same thing that I should have gotten if only I’d bothered to shop around. In front of that store, I told myself that I could just see what they had to say and then try a few more places. But I knew this would be the only place I would enter.
The tiny ring was now in the pocket of my jeans. I hadn’t worn it in about a year.
The minute I entered the store, some young people rushed over. Really, I’m remembering this as a sea of twenty-somethings, men and women, descending on me. I told someone that I wanted to sell my ring. A young woman took a look at it and then there must have been some unseen communication going on (why is there no HBO drama set in the underground world of the diamond district?) because seconds later, a man in his late seventies, wearing a rumpled suit, came sweeping past everyone, took one look at my ring, and said, “Come with me, young lady.” He grabbed me by the arm and led me away. I knew at that moment that my ring was valuable. There was an actual charge in the air.
The man swept me past the crowd of young people all the way to the back of the store and up a flight of stairs into his crowded messy office, which looked probably exactly the way it had looked for the past forty years. Was there a manual typewriter? I know I’m not getting this right. He introduced himself and I’ll call him Abe Feldman, which may be his actual name; I no longer remember.
Abe Feldman was of a time when people said things like “how do you do” upon meeting someone and I wish I’d had the foresight to say such a thing. It might have given me an advantage. Instead I came across exactly as I was: hopelessly out of my element. I knew I would have to play the game I had been dreading, the ancient ritual of figuring out a price. Some people find this thrilling, I know, but for me it is simply exhausting. But Abe Feldman was raring to go.
Here is what I knew: the ring had cost six thousand dollars. The man who would become my husband, and then my ex-husband, had bought it with a credit card, which eventually we both paid off. I couldn’t imagine what the ring would be worth now, and probably I should have done extensive research into this, but I hadn’t. I knew that Abe Feldman would say some number and I would succumb pretty quickly.
I can’t remember if Abe Feldman wore one of those eyepieces that jewelers wear to look at diamonds, but let’s just say that he did. He spoke fast and urgently as he examined the ring, explaining that it had a slight crack in it (which I suddenly remembered) but that it was in decent shape.
“I’ll give you two thousand for it,” he said. He opened the safe on his desk, which I hadn’t noticed, and took out a big pile of cash. He started counted out hundred dollar bills, one at a time, flipping them onto the desk like cards, hypnotizing me. Abe Feldman was a master of seduction. He looked at me carefully and then said, “I’ll throw in another hundred,” and placed one last bill on top of the pile.
This was a ton of money. And yet, the number sounded right to me, which made me think that it was worth even more. But I wanted to stop the game, which Abe Feldman clearly knew. “Now, come on,” he said, “It’s nearly four. I have to leave. You should take the money. I’m giving you a good deal.” I had the feeling that Abe Feldman had all the time in the world. It was me who wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.
I must have agreed to it, because I remember him asking for some identification, which surprised me. Nothing at all felt legal in that tiny crowded office, but I handed him my driver’s license and he copied everything down.
It hit me at that moment that Abe Feldman was getting the deal of a lifetime and I knew that I couldn’t just give up so soon. I realized that he had seen my name. “As one Jew to another,” I began (I could be seductive too), “you know I’m supposed to bargain with you as long as I can, right?”
He smirked. “As one Jew to another,” he said, “I’m giving you a good deal.” And then I really knew there was nothing left to say.
I don’t really remember this part, but eventually I must have left his office and gone back downstairs and out onto the hot summer sidewalk. I remember thinking about Abe Feldman laughing to himself the moment I left. And maybe he did, but the best part about this was that I had a pile of money now in place of a ring that had been sitting in a tiny box on top of my dresser. And that ring, which, to be honest, I had always felt conflicted about, as I never really saw myself as a diamond-ring–wearing woman, had become more important, more useful, at the end of its life than it ever was before.
I would love to end this story with me throwing my hat in the hair all Mary Tyler Moore–like and then skipping down the street to buy myself something fabulous with all that money, or just simply strolling down the street, grinning, with an enormous sense of relief. And I would get there, eventually.
But this story actually ends with a sudden flash of memory: the man, who would later become my husband, and then my ex-husband, but now still my boyfriend, sitting on the end of our bed and asking me to marry him. And then, as we were both laughing and crying, just beside ourselves with feeling, he said simply, “I have a ring.”
And then there I was, standing on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, with thousands of dollars in my pocket and a terrible sinking feeling.