Face Value

papers
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Randy Osborne

“I don’t expect you to remember me,” she says. The Atlanta bar is loud around us. She’s maybe late thirties, with dark hair and eyes, apple cheeks, a certain kind of defiance about the lips. She tells me her name. “We were pen pals almost twenty years ago,” Jessica says.

I stare hard at her and ransack the mental files. Nothing. Later I will learn that Jessica heard my name from what turned out to be a mutual friend, who knew I’d be in the bar on this night for a special event. It’s over and the crowd is shuffling out.

Jessica goes on, apparently untroubled by my blank stare. “You worked at Creative Loafing.” Dimly I recall that job at the weekly alternative newspaper, but Jessica not at all. “I was a college student at Oglethorpe. I read one of your columns—something about family, I think—and sent you my poems. You wrote back.”

She lowers her eyes. “I still have those letters. I just wanted you to know how much they meant to me.” She was ready to quit writing in those days and I encouraged her, she says.

“Do you want to see them?”

•••

In the past couple of years, I’ve started collecting old handwritten diaries and letters. The hobby arose as if out of nowhere, intense and mysterious. When asked to explain it, I tell people about my father.

Tom prowled yard sales for antiques he could mark up and resell. At his bank-teller job, he sorted bags of coins, plucking the rare finds and replacing them with his own pocket change, worth only face value. One of the first to own a metal detector in the 1960s, he haunted public parks on weekends, waving his wand like a dowsing rod. He unearthed tiny balls of tinfoil and flip-tops from soda cans, an occasional brooch pin or bauble.

One day, as a toddler, I stood at his side when he dumped onto the table his latest pile of flea-market junk. A hardcover book fell to the floor. When I opened it, the spine crackled. Spidery script in ancient ink lined the crumbly yellow pages. Wedged between them was a lock of hair, snipped and preserved more than a century before. I exhaled and the filaments trembled as if alive.

My spare bedroom is piled with crates full of folders and padded envelopes, the scribbled records of the pasts of strangers. Not that I plan to profit by passing them on. These I am keeping.

•••

The scans arrive by email from Jessica. My letters, dated between June and November 1996, are not handwritten as I hoped but generated by an old-style dot-matrix printer, probably in Creative Loafing’s office. Most striking about them is how little my “correspondent” voice has changed, given all that history. Brisk, jaunty, self-deprecating. Is there an essential me? An immutable set of qualities that add up to an entity, myself, never to be mistaken for another?

As part of my day job—I’m a biotechnology journalist, handling the daily news of DNA and disease—I was assigned a few months ago to write about a saliva-based genetic test that purports to find predisposition to disease. I spat in the test tube.

“You have really good genes,” the consultant tells me after checking the results. Except for one hitch: one copy of the APOE3 gene, which confers an average risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and one copy of the APOE4 gene, which means high risk. About 22 percent of the population bears this genotype, and it doubles my odds of Alzheimer’s.

When I am held down screaming in some filthy public hospital (so I envision it) as the nurse finds a vein, what of that essential me will exist?

In one of the letters to Jessica, I mentioned that although she has referred to prose as a blind corridor, she did not go so far as to call it a brick wall. “Even those who pretend we know what we’re doing are really groping along,” I wrote to her. I described my father’s recent accident, which rendered him a paraplegic, and my fumbling attempts to handle his affairs.

Maybe this is what prompted Jessica to send me an essay next. “I like the way you folded into the second version of the truck-stop story how your father is aging,” went my reply. At the end, I wrote, “Maybe I will get to meet you someday! That would be good. I have things to ask you about fiction vs. non-fiction, and the difficulties of each.” How non-fiction can become fiction so easily, as recollections fail.

November 1996. In another year, the newspaper job would end. In two years, my wife would leave me a letter—also dot-matrix, in a business-sized envelope—on the pillow of the guest room where I had been sleeping for a while. And then I was divorced.

•••

They tow my car from the parking deck of our apartment complex. Having misplaced the title to the decrepit Subaru, I avoided the hassle of getting new tags after I moved here from California. The truth is, I pretty much neglected the car altogether. Probably because of the flat tire, someone reported it as abandoned. I don’t bother visiting the impound garage to harangue some bored clerk in his cage. What’s a car anyway but the means of transport? Like the body hauls the soul around, until the soul alone is transported … somewhere. No doubt the Subaru will be auctioned or flattened for scrap, so I let my driver’s license expire, too. My watch quits working and I throw it away. All of this I recognize as the wordless language of relinquishment.

I’ve waited a long time to get old. After high school, I knew that I needed more life in order to have anything worth saying to a blank page. I wanted to claw the calendar pages off in bunches and accumulate a past. I wanted to let time etch lines in my face and scorch my soul. It happened, but I don’t know much more today than before, though I feel friendlier with the questions, more patient. Less patient, too, almost violently so, as the death clock ticks on. I’m pushing sixty. It’s not pushing back.

Still left to quit is my job. I phone a financial advisor to ask about retirement prospects. He wants a list of assets and I almost laugh. As he will, when he gets the “list.” It’s on the night after this conversation when shy Jessica sidles up to remind me about the letters.

“You did a good thing,” she says.

I guess Jessica’s age is about the same as mine when our letter exchange began. Such women look away from me in the street, sick of goons inspecting them. Then, too, it’s instinct, simple biology, and nothing personal. Their DNA makes them not return my gaze for the same reason my DNA makes me hope (absurdly, because what’s next?) they will. Our respective strands of chromosomes, our stranded chromosomes, want only to replicate with the optimal candidate. For mine, they are it. For theirs, I am not.

Yet another, larger part of me feels a wash of relief at not caring. The soul separates from the body, hardly a big deal. Can it be starting already? What’s astounding, so lucky, is that they came together in the first place, for however “long” or “short” a time.

“A few years ago, I ended a relationship that was murdering the joy out of me,” Jessica writes in a follow-up email to the letter scans. Quickly she apologizes for the “melodrama.” She’s “re-entering the world” and trying poetry again, she says. I tell her I’m glad. Her father has just turned eighty-three, she adds. “My parents had kids late, which makes them the age of my friends’ grandparents, which gives me an odd perspective sometimes.” She mentions his “creeping Alzheimer’s. At least he’s still around, which I know isn’t ever guaranteed, and everybody expected him to be gone by now.”

•••

One of my letters to Jessica closed with, “I want to help and am running out of time.” Another scrap of unintended melodrama, true in one way during the moment of composition—I was headed out the door, late for a flight—and more broadly true in another way now.

If I see her again, I’ll tell her, since it’s possible she will understand, about my stockpile of handwritten letters and diaries. About the form of treasure that they make up for me in the language of those who’ve relinquished everything, happily or not. About how the once-blank pages are filled with insistent claims, clamoring to be heard, silently bursting with what we’re expected to remember.

•••

RANDY OSBORNE writes in Atlanta, where he teaches fiction and creative nonfiction at Emory University. Represented by the Brandt & Hochman Agency in New York, he is finishing a collection of personal essays.

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What Living Feels Like

ocean cliffs
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

 

By Susan McCulley

My husband, Frank, and I read about the island of Dominica in the travel section of The Washington Post. The article touted the island as relatively undeveloped without much tourism, but with uncommon natural beauty and variety—from beaches and rivers to rain forests and volcanic hot spots, spectacular hiking, and snorkeling in Champagne Bay, a warm cove bubbled by an underwater hot spring. We were intrigued. After our first visit, we were in love. At the end of our two weeks of exploring the island from beach to mountain, we sat in the tiny open-air airport, drinking local beer, absolutely furious that we were leaving. I had been sad and even a little depressed to return home after a vacation before, but at the end of our time in Dominica, I was pissed.

We scheduled our return trip almost immediately.

One of the things that makes Dominica special is that the two sides of the island are vastly different. The west coast is on the Caribbean Sea with calm waves and smooth beaches. It’s great for snorkeling and it’s where cruise ships dock to briefly discharge their passengers for trinket shopping, beer drinking, or whirlwind three-hour touring. The Atlantic Ocean is on the east side and has inlets of craggy beaches with wild, crashing waves. We loved the east side. On our first visit, we played in the rough, exhilarating ocean until we were waterlogged and breathless. When we planned our return, the east side was where we wanted to go.

We rented a small cottage at the top of a tiny east side village. There really wasn’t much there except the astonishingly riotous beauty of the steep, rocky island plunging into the sea. We could not wait to be in it.

The moment we arrived, we ditched our bags and followed the path to one of the beaches near the village. Even the walk to the ocean was intoxicating. The green in Dominica is not just green but glossy, luminous, achingly vibrant green. In back yards and along the road were trees heavy with fruit that we were used to seeing in mesh bags at the grocery store: bananas, mangos, grapefruit, and avocado. Most houses had a garden of (mostly unfamiliar) crops that betrayed the generosity of the soil. Every inch was fragrant, lush, and full of life.

As we walked through town, a boy bounced along with us. Skinny and excited, with huge brown eyes, he looked about ten years old. “Are you going to swim in the sea?” he asked.

“Of course,” we said, and when he asked if he could come along, we were happy to have him join us. He ran ahead, occasionally looking back to make sure we could follow the steep path down to the ocean whose deep, rumbling waves we could already hear. As we wove down the trail, we caught glimpses of deep blue waves edged with white froth against jagged black rocks in the cove below. We could barely keep up with our impatient child of a guide.

As we wound down and around, we could see a small curve of black sand tucked into an imposing rocky coastline with a fresh water river snaking down from the mountain into the sea. The Atlantic crashed, rhythmic and thunderous, against the rocks and sand. It was just as we’d remembered. We dropped our towels and ran into the water.

The water, sharply salty, cold and churning, felt like something alive. We dove into the relentlessly pounding surf, shouting to each other over the roar. We stayed just a few meters from shore in waist-deep water so we could keep our footing on the constantly moving sand. I kept my eyes on the open ocean to evaluate each wave. In the raw power of the ocean, I knew that one unexpected breaker could toss me ankles to armpits, completely disoriented in a swirl of sand and sea. Even with my vigilance, I was knocked off my feet and caught a nose-full more than once. It was thrilling to scout each wave, one after another, and make the split-second decision to jump up and over it, or dive into its base. The three of us hooted and swam, diving and jumping over each successive wave, then coming up again to look out and see what was coming next.

It happened fast. So fast, so suddenly. All at once, I realized I couldn’t touch bottom. I looked toward shore and saw that we were too far out. Way too far. Frank and the boy were just beyond me, also unable to touch. Frank clasped the boy’s hand and started swimming hard toward shore. I turned toward the curve of beach and swam as hard as I could against the harsh pull of the rip tide.

I’m a strong swimmer. I’ve been in the water my whole life and have taken lessons, done laps, and completed life-saving courses. I’m competent in the water, and I’m strong and healthy. But this? This was a whole different thing. Enormous waves kept pounding over my head, leaving me coughing and blind. A pause from kicking and stroking for even a second whisked me quickly even further away from shore. I watched as Frank struggled with the boy. I poured myself into every stroke but the beach kept getting, little by little, further away.

Frank and the boy were just a few feet away from me but I had to shout. “I’m not getting anywhere!”

Frank looked at me with wide eyes. Glancing at the boy, he screamed, “He can’t swim!”

We were in a powerful rip tide that was shredding us. The waves were impossible to swim in and threatened to throw us onto the rocks on either side. Swimming as hard as I could, I was getting nowhere. And now, this child, this boy we’d brought out to the sea with us. This boy can’t swim. “You’re the stronger swimmer,” yelled Frank. “He’s pulling me down. You have to take him.”

The boy shrieked in terror and pleaded with Frank, “Don’t leave me out here!”

Frank got closer to me and shifted the boy in my direction, “I’m not going to leave you, I would never leave you, but she’s a stronger swimmer than I am!” What he didn’t say, and what we both thought was, “I would rather drown than to have anything happen to you.”

I know what to do with a frightened non-swimmer: hook your arm under his armpits, and swim on your back, pulling him using the strength of your legs and the opposite arm. It’s the most efficient and powerful way to swim someone to safety and prevents the panicking victim from pulling you under. I knew what to do … and I didn’t do it. As Frank handed the terrified child to me, I had this thought: “If I take him in the life saving tow, I’m admitting this is a full-on emergency. I’m admitting that this situation is really, really bad.” I was already scared. Admitting how bad it really was was more than I could take in. So I grabbed him by the forearm and dragged him through the surging water with everything I had.

There was something in the deafening sound of the waves and the jagged dangerous-looking rocks on either side of us that gave the ever-smaller beach straight ahead a hypnotic pull. A wave would crash over the boy and me, and I just kept my eyes on that little crescent of sand and kept pulling. Frank called out, “We’re supposed to swim to the side!” He was right. I knew that when caught in a rip tide, the way out is, counter-intuitively, to swim parallel to the shore to get out of the current. But here, in this narrow, rocky cove, to swim parallel to the shore meant to go straight into the teeth of rocks on either side. I squeezed the boy’s arm and swam harder. But as a concession to the whole “swim parallel” thing, I aimed on a slight angle: rather than directly at the beach that I so desperately wanted to get to, I oriented us a just little to the left. I pulled and pulled the whimpering boy behind me.

It didn’t seem that I’d moved at all but as I made a big scissoring kick on my new, angled trajectory, I felt sand. Incredulous, I dropped my feet and found solid ground. My body and heart surged with relief as I stood and pulled the boy’s body into mine. I could feel his warm, slippery, skinny limbs, his pounding heart. And I could feel my own heart hammering hard against my ribs. I squeezed the boy even tighter, looked to my still-struggling husband, and shouted, “Frank, put your feet down!” He told me later that at that moment, just a few feet from me, he couldn’t touch the bottom. He desperately reached his long toes and felt the sand, then swam another stroke and stood.

The waves were still deafening. The water surged around us. The rocks were dangerously close. But we were standing. In a small, staggering line—woman, boy, man—the three of us walked slowly and unsteadily in to the little black beach. We wrapped the trembling and silent boy in our towel, and he sat on the sand and ate a crushed granola bar. Frank and I stood behind him shakily drinking water and watching as the disinterested waves continued to pound the shore.

The days that followed had a paradoxical combination of feeling both dream-like and surreally vivid. Mangos were some kind of crazy, sensuous, cacophony of sweetness. The sky was so beautiful we could barely look at it. The water tasted like life itself. We would squeeze each other tight and say, “We’re here. We’re okay. We’re alive.” My mind would reel and I’d look at him and say, “Frank, we had that boy with us. What if…” I was unwilling to complete the thought. Frank just shook his head. And then, in his precise way, he would say, “I was seventy-five percent sure I was going to die.” We mostly just held onto each other. We were dumbfounded to find everything from the papaya trees to our land lady’s garden so perfectly normal and yet so extraordinarily extraordinary. The vivid island landscape felt simultaneously unreal and hyper-real. This is what living feels like.

Word of our brush with death flew through town before we even made it back to our cottage. God was praised. Prayers were said. We were invited to church. We nodded and agreed and wore our best clothes on Sunday—the only white people in that pink sanctuary singing praises. We were grateful. We were so deeply grateful for being alive, but also for every taste of food, every bird song, every wave from someone on the road. In a way that I never had before, I felt the intense sweetness of living and the absolute connection we have to each other. In some ways, that day is with me every day. The reverberation of it isn’t as intense, but it’s still there. I still remember. I’m still awake to the wonder that we have every day.

Frank says he took the boy back into the water, just for a few minutes so he wouldn’t fear the sea, but I don’t remember it. I don’t remember speaking at all as the three of us picked up our clothes and slowly walked back up the trail to the village. I don’t remember anything about that walk except placing one unsteady foot in front of the other. If I ever knew the boy’s name, I don’t remember it. But I do remember, as we came to a turn at the top of the trail how that boy, our boy (and he will always be our boy), turned and waved almost imperceptibly and disappeared into the village.

•••

SUSAN MCCULLEY is a mindful movement educator and a Black Belt Nia Instructor who has been dancing and moving, traveling and teaching since 2000. Her blog, Focus Pocus: The Magic of Inquiry and Intent (www.focuspocusnow.com), is dedicated to taking body~mind practices from the studio into life. Her essays have been published on Elephant Journal, and she is working on a book. She lives with her husband in Charlottesville, Virginia.

First Thing

snowy couple
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By William Bradley

My Hodgkin’s Disease had returned—my doctor was fairly certain. It turns out he was wrong, that the strange glows on the scan were … well, something other than cancer. But Emily and I didn’t know that at the time.

This was in 2006, six years after my last radiation treatment. This time, it was in my thigh rather than in my neck and chest area, but nonetheless, the doctor seemed sure that it was back. I would need to have a biopsy performed, of course, but that felt like just a formality. A hunk of lymph nodes would be cut out, and then we’d begin treatments—likely radiation therapy, but a bone marrow transplant remained a possibility as well. Time was off the essence. I was likely going to die. My wife and I had serious thinking to do.

What we did know was that, when I’d had my bone marrow transplant in 1998, my doctor had said that I had a forty percent chance of living for more than five years. We also knew that I had radiation therapy to treat a recurrence two years after the transplant. Emily and I didn’t meet until after I had completed these treatments, but we had discussed my medical history, and what it meant for our relationship, once we were “seriously” dating—we met in grad school while working on our Ph.D.s in English, and had tried to keep things relatively casual so that we wouldn’t be tied down to another person. Neither of us wanted to compromise on our professional ambitions by becoming too attached to someone similarly ambitious, so we self-consciously tried to limit our relationship to one of hanging out and hooking up—a bit more intimate than friends-with-benefits, but nothing too emotionally consequential.

But at some point while hiking through the Missouri wilderness, or discussing the latest academic scandal reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education over coffee, or drinking cheap wine in her small basement apartment, we fell in love with each other, and we decided the best thing to do would be to get married. I couldn’t quite tell you when I realized that Emily mattered more to me than keeping all of my options open for the sake of my career, but I know that it happened.

Our life together was filled with reading, writing, sending out academic articles and creative work, supporting each other when the eventual rejections came, applying for academic jobs, worrying about money. We also played Scrabble, sought out strange landmarks like the world’s largest statue of a goose (“Maxie” in Sumner, Missouri), watched livestock shows at state fairs, and—in the words of the girl in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”—we would “look at new things and try new drinks.”

We had both been involved with other people before we met each other, of course. Both of us had been in college relationships that had continued for far too long, with protracted break-ups and broken hearts. After my bone marrow transplant, my college girlfriend and I were breaking up for the final time. I reflected on what I wanted in a romantic relationship. Someone adventurous, willing to travel and have new experiences. Someone who loved literature as much as I did, but who could also enjoy the same type of lowbrow culture I enjoyed—I wanted to be able to talk about books and art with someone who could also appreciate the sublime genius of Don Knotts’s performance in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Someone who had a sense of humor, who would laugh if I called her “scumbag” and would be willing to high-five me after sex. In short, I wanted to be in a relationship that was fun—I’d had enough of passive-aggression and adolescent angst.

As it happens, Emily had recently reached similar conclusions about her own love life. It wasn’t love at first sight, but we immediately knew that we made each other laugh and had fun together—she was not only down with the high-fiving but was willing to call me “dude.” Things grew from there.

As Emily and I contemplated what a malignancy would mean for our relationship, I realized I couldn’t really say that life was unfair. I had been fortunate to be disease-free for as long as I had been, I figured, and I had experienced a powerful love and friendship the likes of which I don’t think too many people get to experience. The only disappointment was that we couldn’t make it last forever, and it looked like our time together was coming to an end.

In the week between the tentative diagnosis and the biopsy that would ultimately be reassuring, we spent our days crying, our evenings drinking wine and trying to reassure each other that this would be okay, nothing we couldn’t handle. I’d done all this before, with only my parents for companionship and support, listening to depressing music like Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya or Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss alone in the den that my parents had hastily converted into a bedroom when I’d been diagnosed. With Emily beside me, it wouldn’t be nearly as lonely or depressing. She knew how bad things had been before, how dark those days had been.

“I’m going to take care of you,” she said, looking at me from across the table on our screened-in porch while we drank our Pinot Grigio. “It’s not going to be like last time.”

I nodded and tried to agree. We said such things to each other, but hanging between us—unspoken, but mutually understood—was the understanding that a recurrence at this point could very well mean I would die.

The morning of the biopsy, Emily drove me to the hospital. After the nurse called me from the waiting room to the pre-op area, I handed Emily my wedding ring, which she put on her thumb. I kissed her goodbye.

What followed seemed to take forever—the shaving, the pre-surgery talk with the doctor, then watching the anesthesia drip through my IV.

I shut my eyes, then opened them to find myself sitting up, in recovery. It happened that fast. Emily and a nurse were laughing. I had a Diet Coke and a glass of water in front of me—my usual beverage order, if I’m not drinking wine or beer.

“Where did this Diet Coke and water come from?” I asked.

Emily smiled. “You asked the nurse for them when you woke up after your surgery.”

“Oh,” I replied. “I must have thought I was at a restaurant.”

At this, both Emily and the nurse exploded in laughter again.

“That’s the fourth time you’ve asked that question,” Emily said, “and then followed with ‘I must have thought I was at a restaurant.’”

I laughed too—although I should tell you that, later, when we told the story to friends, they were horrified. “I would have been afraid that it was permanent,” one friend replied. That obviously hadn’t occurred to Emily—or else, she is so used to the way I am normally that she didn’t worry that any lasting brain damage would be noticeable or change her life in any fundamental way.

At one point—still foggy and a bit confused—I glanced down at my left hand. My wedding ring was back where it belonged.

“When did you give this back to me?” I asked, holding up my hand.

This time, Emily did not laugh as she ran her hand up and down on my arm, telling me that it was the first thing I’d asked for—before the beverages, even—when I saw her after coming out of surgery.

“You said that you missed it,” she told me.

Emily and I have been together for eleven years, and as happy as that time has been, I have to tell you that we argue as much as any couple. Maybe even more—we can both be strong-willed and opinionated, especially when it comes to matters of teaching and writing, which are important parts of our careers. Sometimes, we argue over a work of literature. Sometimes, it’s pop culture. We rarely argue about politics, but it happens, sometimes.

More rarely—but more seriously—we fight about the important things in our marriage. Whether one of us takes the other for granted. Occasions of self-centeredness. Concerns that one of us prioritizes work over our relationship with each other. These are the serious fights. The ones that result in tears for her, or me stomping out of the house to “go for a walk, to clear my head.” These are the times when we get overwhelmed with thought—fears, suspicions, and pressures that probably come from outside the marriage itself, but are nonetheless real when we contemplate them.

But what I like about the story of my recovery from surgery is that it testifies to the fact that loving her isn’t something I have to think about—that even when my mind is wrapped up in a confused fog, when I’m basically just a being incapable of reflection, operating on instinct, unconscious habit, and biological imperative, I still love her. More than I love my job, more than I love literature, more than I love anything in the world. And I love her first, even before I get my Diet Coke and glass of water.

•••

WILLIAM BRADLEY has been married to the poet and Renaissance scholar Emily Isaacson for almost nine years now. She was the one who encouraged him to try to publish the creative nonfiction he wrote, and since then, he has had work appear in Fourth Genre, Brevity, The Normal School, Utne Reader, The Missouri Review, and other magazines. They spend most of their time in Canton, New York, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University.