We moved a year ago, but my office is still cluttered with boxes, the dumping ground for random stuff without a home. I’ve made a goal to put away one box a week, so as I was digging, I rediscovered The Guys. Opening a drawstring cloth bag, I pulled out a tiny crocheted lion, its yellow yarn hair fanning out haphazardly. There were sixteen more little Guys in the bag. White and black panda bears, little tigers, other little animals that could have been bears, but maybe tigers. I received The Guys over thirteen years ago, gifts in a dark bar on slow afternoons.
It was quiet at the Rose and Thistle pub and I leaned back against the bar, watching a thin haze of smoke linger up near the ceiling. It was early so there were only few patrons, drinking and smoking. Later tonight, after ten, the smoke would be thick and dense in the dark. We didn’t care. We took drags from cigarettes at the edge of the bar in between drink orders.
My early afternoon regulars were there. Denny and Joe sat with their pints of Bud Light, and Carleen with her glass of red wine. Thomas was playing video poker in the back, where, alongside the bar, behind a curtain, there were three video poker machines. Thomas was the oldest of the group, who were all well over fifty. I figured Thomas was over seventy. His face was wrinkled up, both in good and bad places. He had soft white hair that straggled over his forehead in lazy curls that he didn’t bother combing. He wore the same jeans and plaid shirt over his thin frame every day. The curtain rustled and he stood at the opposite end of the bar, holding his empty glass.
“Ready for another, Thomas?” I asked, reaching for the bourbon. Thomas was always ready for another. I pulled out the milk carton.
“Yep, might as well.” He inhaled from his cigarette. “How’s that class going? Your class on all those old books.”
I smiled to myself as I poured the milk. “You mean my Milton class?” I was studying Eighteenth Century Literature.
“Yeah, that one.”
“Good,” I said, handing him his bourbon and milk. “I love Milton.”
“Glad someone does,” he replied and gave me a crooked smile.
I leaned over the bar toward him. “Why do you drink that stuff? It looks awful.”
“Good for the belly,” he replied. “You should try it.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Got something for you,” Thomas said and reached into his jeans pocket. He pulled out a tiny crocheted bear and held it out for me. It was orange with black stripes. It might have been a tiger, except for the ears, which were distinctly bear like. It had a thin, black yarn smile and two tiny googly eyes glued on.
“I love him!” I exclaimed, holding him up. “Look everyone,” I held him up to the three regulars at the bar. “A new little guy.” They nodded at me and Thomas, and Joe gestured to his empty glass. “Thanks, Thomas,” I said and stuck him in my apron, so his little orange head was poking out.
I had several of these Guys already. He crocheted them himself with tiny needles, straining his eyes over the thin yarn, and stuffing them with fluff. Frequently, he crocheted them tiny hats or gloves or little vests. He never left me any money for tips, but once every couple weeks, he threw his money into the machine, drank his bourbon and milk, and gave me one of his animals.
Denny and Joe knew him a little. He’d been an iron worker, but had spent all his money on bourbon. He’d had a family, but none of them talked to him anymore. He lived in a home with a couple other elderly people a few blocks away.
“Thomas,” I said once, as he leaned up against the bar and took a drag from his Pall Mall. “Don’t you have any grandkids to give these to? I feel bad taking these guys. I know it must take a long time to make them.” I ran my finger over a little brown bear with blue felt eyes.
Thomas sighed and the wrinkles in the sad places on his face seemed deeper. “I have some grandkids,” he said. “But their dad doesn’t much want to see me anymore.”
“Why?” I asked.
Thomas looked down as he talked. “I did some things. Made some mistakes.”
I leaned over toward him, holding out the bear and said in a soft voice, “Maybe you can undo those things. You know, start over.”
“No,” he replied and looked up at me with his clear blue eyes. “Too late for that, I figure. You might as well take them.”
By the time I quit working at the bar, I had seventeen of these little animals. I kept them in a shoebox as I moved from apartment to apartment, finished school, moved to Astoria, and married my husband. I pulled them out now and then to finger their tiny ears and look into their googly eyes.
When I moved back to Portland, my son, Logan, was just six months old. I brought him into the bar one afternoon, just to say hello. The smoke was still thick and I was much more concerned for my baby’s lungs than I’d ever been for my own, so I only stayed a few minutes. The owner told me Thomas had passed. He’d been transferred to a nursing home and died in his sleep there. Some of my old regulars had gone to the service, but no family had come.
When Logan was two, five years after I’d left the bar, I pulled out The Guys. They quickly became favorites. Logan named them all in ways that made sense to him—Motorcycle, Cupboard, and Window, for instance. We sat on the floor of the living room with a set of giant Legos and made enormous castles for the Guys. Motorcycle would be asleep in his bed, while Cupboard stood guard on the turret. Window rode in the back of the police car to jail, having been apprehended by Lion. The Guys had long conversations with one another, achieved great acrobatic feats, and slept in bed with my little boy. Many times I wished I could have let Thomas know that The Guys were alive and well, living in castles my son built.
Both my children are older now and don’t play as much with The Guys. The little vests and mittens had gotten separated from their owners and I was worried The Guys would be lost in the maelstrom of toys, so I gathered them up. Now they’re lined up on a shelf, looking down at me while I write. The crochet work is in great shape, with stuffing only popping out of a few. But they’re worn. They’ve been played with and kissed. Their yarn is grungy and some are missing eyes, although I superglued many back on. Their little smiles are frayed.
When I found out Thomas had passed away with no family attending his funeral, I was angry with his son. What could Thomas have possibly done to merit what I saw as this neglect? But there are things. I saw only the old man, kind and loving. But kind people can be terrible people capable of terrible choices. Kind people can harbor deep wells of regret. I have people in my own life whom I have cut off, who I will never invite back in, who will never know my children. It doesn’t matter how kind they are to the people in their lives now. But those little guys have spread love in my family. It was too late for Thomas with his own family, but it was not too late for him to spread love in mine. So one night as I took a writing break, I noticed The Guys looking down on me. I went upstairs and poured myself a bourbon and milk. “Cheers,” I said to The Guys. It wasn’t half bad.
NAOMI ULSTED is a memoir and fiction writer from Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her two boys and her husband. Her work has been published in Salon, Luna Luna, Maximum Middle Age, and Narratively. She is also the director of a Job Corps center for training under-privileged young people.
I take my first shaky step and see my eight-year-old son standing on the same thin rope one hundred feet above the ground as he takes a step in my direction. “Raphael! Are you okay?” I ask, panic edging my voice.
Raphael looks directly at me from what seems like an insurmountable distance across the tight rope. He stands still for a moment, balanced. “Mom, I’m okay. You need to just think about yourself now,” he says.
I see my son’s intent gaze, long eyelashes, café-au-lait–colored skin, the face of my father, the face I know better then my own. I am barely holding steady and realize that in order for me to make it across and hug him briefly, as instructed, for this trust-building exercise, every last part of me needs to be focused. I need to let go and be in my own moment in order to reach Raphael.
We are on a challenge ropes course at Camp Tawonga, near Yosemite, at a special family camp weekend for multi-racial, Jewish, inter-faith families. I’ve tried a couple different family camps and it’s hard to find one that fits our family: LGBT, “Keshet” (rainbow), inter-faith, biracial, single parent. I’m hoping for “spiritual renewal,” to find kinship, perhaps some answers, by connecting to similar families, or maybe just some rest, when Raphael spends time with his father or other kids. But much of the time Raphael is clingy, not wanting me to be far away, often not wanting to participate in the camp activities. So when he enthusiastically demands we do the ropes course, I know I have to go.
We have on harnesses, but for me, it’s still terrifying. I’ve only stepped up because Raphael asked it of me, knowing that this exercise is not something his dad would ever participate in—the heights, the tightrope. His dad and I have been separated since Raphael was eight months old, but he agreed, warily, to travel with us for this family camp weekend. It’s still a time in our lives that we sometimes attempt to be a family, though not together as a couple. Perhaps he too is hoping to find examples of families like ours to look to for a model to co-parent together. He is down below, looking up at us, standing alone.
Raphael and I walk towards each other. I am utterly present; to do otherwise, I’d fall. My worries slip away—financial, mother-son tug of wars, ongoing tension with his dad. The still uncut umbilical cord propels us closer, step by step. With one big step, we meet, hug, and somehow find the coordination to move as if in one graceful motion as we edge past each other to the opposite side, and then go down to the ground. We hug again, longer. “I love you,” we say to each other.
It’s October 9, 2015, about eleven years later after the ropes course we did at Camp Tawonga. In the near future, Raphael will move out of the recovery house that he will have been in for almost two years, since January 2014, when he was just short of eighteen years old. During that time, he’s graduated from a local high school, found his first real job, gotten sober, and managed to turn his life around; he’s excited, following the plan of moving out to an apartment with two other graduates of the recovery program.
I’m suddenly terrified. The scaffolding of the young man’s recovery house, the “New Life House” will still exist as a place to go for support, but in reality it’s time for him to go out and live his life. He’s only nineteen, soon to be twenty, and I’m fucking scared.
I have spent the last three weeks spinning out of control myself, worried perhaps I won’t graduate from school, the long awaited book and MFA maybe not completed. Perhaps I won’t be able to support myself in the world as I get older. Perhaps I’ll lose my mind like my mom. Seeing my mom as we knew her vanish adds to my sense of shakiness, utter lack of control, as I prepare for Raphael to go out in the world.
My mom talks about fairies that might come rescue her from the assisted living residence she calls prison and take her home to the Bronx where she hasn’t lived for more than sixty years. Recently she was questioned by a social worker to determine if she still had dementia and qualified for her long term care plan: “I can’t tell you how old I am. But I can tell this—I do exist,” she said.
Five years ago, when I was fifty-one, I decided that I needed to make a visible statement and get a tattoo. Hineni: I am here. I had the Hebrew words tattooed on me. My brother in his Mr. Spockian way said, “I am here? Is this a map?” (Like “you are here.”) I have a Hamsa (to ward off the evil eye) on my back and Hineni in Hebrew letters is inscribed below. Very tiny Hebrew letters, because after all, I don’t want to be a target.
For years I contemplated a tattoo and went over what I’d want and where. I researched the rules on Jews and tattoos and found out that it’s urban legend about the ban on tattoos, and in fact, in Israel, some very high percentage of people, ages, say, nineteen to forty, have tattoos. And you can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I went to a tattoo artist who turned out to know me and my son from a co-op preschool that our kids went to in Sierra Madre many years ago.
The place I went to get my tattoo was called Shangri-La, and it looked like that, vines of bright scarlet, purple, and orange bougainvillea intertwined with Province Blue Morning Glory, and sweet-smelling jasmine. The studio was in the backyard of the tattoo artist, and I felt as if I were walking into another dimension. After I approved a mock up of the tattoo based on my ideas, she started her work, turning her needle buzzing quietly into my skin, while she explained that the natural endorphins would kick in after a bit of pain.
At first I did feel intense jabs of pain. (I’d asked a woman getting a tattoo in Old Pasadena which hurt more—getting waxed or getting a tattoo—and she had said waxing for sure.) But the pain was sharp enough that I gasped and I asked the tattoo artist to tell me a story about herself and how she decided on her profession. Her dad, a biker and also a rocket scientist, suggested it to her as a way of making a living; she’d been trained as an artist and illustrator.
And then miraculously those endorphins did kick in as she was asking me about myself. I told her all about me, about the recent episode getting my nose broken by a sheriff’s deputy when I couldn’t immediately find my metro ticket, and about losing everything because of my marriage break up and unblended family. (I didn’t yet know what more I might lose or have the potential to lose because of addiction). But at that point I’d decided I had survived. By the time, I got to the point in my story where I was saying that I was now okay, “and that’s what happened,” she’d put the finishing touches on my tattoo.
In the last three weeks, I thought that now I had the freedom to go off the deep end myself because my son seemed to be doing beyond well and my step-daughter had stopped talking to me and everyone else for a bit. So I felt free to obsess, agitate, and generally neglect my own wellbeing. I’ve thought about using heroin—for real—and for the first time. I’ve “self-harmed.” I dug a hole in my leg with my fingernails as I tried to feel, to give a face to the pain that wracked me following an argument with my girlfriend. My first cutting like incident at age fifty-six. Is there a support group for older onset cutters?
I’m glad the black and blue mark, the jagged scar/scab, remains so I can remember. I did that. I went there. I knew I was bleeding inside and I wanted the red, the injury, to be visible. Then perhaps the pain would stop: I would be seen. But perhaps I’m only seen as insane. I’ve also contacted my old ex—“mi Chiquita”—via text, and I’ve cut it off, seemingly for good. She’s my heroin and I’ve had to stop.
I started looking at violent Internet porn, something I’ve got control over, unlike my dreams. Throughout my life, I’ve often dreamt of being raped and I have an orgasm while still resisting. It reflects the real-life complications of my sexuality, how many times I have been aroused in my life by what seems to be something, somebody so wrong, and yet some kind of twisted sexual friction is created, a Pavlovian response that I imagine began when I was around eleven or twelve and was sexually abused by my piano teacher back in the woods where the Jewish Temple was being built.
We’d recently moved to the hated suburbs outside of Seattle—Bellevue—from the inner city where I had been a tough tomboy: “Sammy Boy.” Now we were outcasts in the WASPish land of what we called ultra-suburbanite snobs. In those days we stayed out all afternoon and evening playing increasingly complicated games with the local kids where I tried to teach them about spying, starting a gang which was a cross between my “West Side Story” (which I had memorized in entirety) and my old rough playground.
I went back to the woods with another piano student, a girl from the neighborhood who was developing already, popular with the sleazy guys for her breasts and willingness. We walked into the woods with our nineteen-year-old piano teacher, who was crater-faced with bright, inflamed pimples. I can’t remember how we first began these walks out to the woods, the same woods where the older kids would sneak out late at night to play spin-the-bottle and smoke pot. Did we think it odd that our piano teacher wanted to go back into the woods alone with him; did we do this after our piano lessons? We walked through the path in the woods and it was probably already dusk. It gets dark early in the winter in Washington and we must have walked back there, the trail behind our neighbors’ house in the fading light, surrounded by moist, lightly rained upon ground and trees. The hammers of the workman who were building a Jewish Temple could be heard in the distance, but they would soon cut out for the day. Did we take a flashlight?
I remember once out there sitting down with him and perhaps one of us asked him about what was the lump in his pants—or did he guide one of our hands to it? Or did he just start talking about “his handkerchief” as he moved our hands and we felt it through his pants first? I began to get a funny sick feeling in my stomach. “Touch it, it’s soft,” he told us. He moved our hands on his pants where the crotch went from being soft and full to feeling much harder after he moved our hands back forth and then he pulled it out—a big wide fleshy penis; it seemed enormous and swollen, the color reddish purple, not exactly like the large pimples that covered his neck and face. I imagined he touched us too because I remember starting to wonder, to even be curious to see what it would be like to have that penis inside me. “It would bust you wide open, so we have to wait,” our piano teacher told us.” Some days we stayed out there kind of late, almost dark, dinnertime, but I always made it back before my dad would come looking for me.
I can’t remember what happened exactly that last time, only the sound of my dad entering the woods, his flashlight, annoyance in his voice as he called out for me, and the sudden rush of shame and fear as the three of us stood up and walked quickly out of the woods.
I’m guessing I was sexually aroused because I sense that was when those dreams and those feelings started. And thinking about the possibility of having been aroused as a child, when I was being sexually abused—a memory which makes my stomach churn, now even as I picture the bright blistery pimples on his face—offers a clue as to why I might turn to something completely wrong, like the violent porn I had begun watching for the first time.
Until someone more knowledgeable than me said, “Stop—it’s an extremely difficult addiction to break.” After the post-menopausal drought of libido, and the despair I had been feeling but not understanding, my body was beginning to respond to the rough, sometimes even brutal sexual images, almost like a drug. All my past years of being sexual with the wrong” person, getting driven by those intense pulsating hormones and endorphins that immediately turned to shame after an orgasm and resulted in so many twisted, dangerous, near-rape and actual-rape experiences. This was coupled with my inability to keep feeling sexual with someone who felt safe. My feelings changed so quickly to shame and inertia that I’d rather just sit and watch videos, eat, ruminate, or anything else other than try to rouse my shut-down body.
The thing that has held solid for me now for so many years is writing, and I finally thought I’d made the space to concentrate on it. But I found myself focusing on everything else but the writing. I was yanked away by the rip currents of my mom leaving us as the mom we knew. Moving her close to her children in Southern California from where she had lived more than forty-five years in Washington, propelled her into a much more advanced state of dementia. Now we have to wipe her butt, try to get her to take her medication, and leave her as painfully as leaving a pleading toddler.
I’ve just simply been thrashing about. I still long for something that I don’t believe I have—complete freedom to write and the belief I’ll be okay. In reality I could decide to believe that I have that kind of choice and abundance. Then again, I might never write another intelligent word or decent story that anyone will read. Over the years, I’ve painstakingly eked out some writing here and there while attending to the more urgent needs of others: son, step-daughter, work, aging parents. After witnessing how fragile life could be, watching my mom start to lose her mind and my son almost lose his life, I decided I couldn’t put off seizing my time to write. But it’s hard, this business of focusing on and believing in oneself.
For many years, I held an image of sitting in the woods, head leaning against a long-haired woman. She was comforting me, perhaps stroking my hair and singing and our child was in my lap.
I held onto this image as I lost baby after baby and endured rage after rage and suffered my own rages and bouts of craziness flailing about in my desperation to “be seen.” (And what the hell does that mean anyway?) What was that urgent despair that demanded I be a mother, I carry a baby, I create this safe haven, this nurturing and nurtured family? That I didn’t actually create—or rather what I did create was so distorted, it didn’t look like that safe home in nature. But I did create something, something solid, a strength my kids know exists. They know I’m there day after day; my family and my friends know that in my so-very-imperfect mode of being in the world—messy, interrupting, inconsistent at times—I’m a person who loves unsinkably, solidly loyal. Now it’s time to look that love in the mirror.
I’ve felt secure enough in my son’s recovery, his sobriety, to believe that I was free to go back to my old ways, the self-torture, rumination, all the anxiety I was raised with by my family, in particular my dad. Instead I discover I must be vigilant. Lack of gratitude will cause life to simply slap the shit out of me. If I don’t enjoy or at least appreciate every moment I have on the earth with a living, vibrant life-loving son out in the world, well, I’ll get kicked in the butt. Even if I can’t always sing with gratitude, I need to stop this genetically ingrained journey to the hellhole of regret and worry. And when I remember Raphael staggering about with his eyes rolled back of his head, saying he didn’t have much more time, then I need to remember how lucky I am that he does exist, that he’s found a spirituality, a core of inner strength, and support system that I alone could not create for him.
I want there to be some kind of “letting go” ceremony. “It all happened too quickly,” one friends says, lamenting the absence of her two sons finally gone off to live their lives, university and beyond. I remember my son saying to me so long ago on the tightrope walking that rope’s course we did together, “Mom, I’m okay, I will be all right. Worry about yourself now.” I’m not so sure I’m ready to let go. I’m not so sure I’m ready to worry only about myself.
CARLA SAMETH is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in several anthologies and has appeared in online and print publications including Mutha Magazine, Narratively, Pasadena Weekly, Tikkun, La Bloga and forthcoming in Brain, Child. Her story “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which originally appeared in Narratively, was also selected for Longreads, “Five Stories on Addiction.” Carla was awarded a merit scholarship from the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program in 2014, and is currently an MFA candidate with the Queens University of Charlotte in Latin America. She has helped others tell their stories as co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project, through her business, iMinds PR, and as a writing instructor/mentor with WriteGirl working with incarcerated youth. Carla is working on a memoir of her non-traditional journey as a single mother to two children, born four months apart, now twenty years old.
At six-thirty on the morning of October 1, 2015, I drove a rented minivan down Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, trying to figure out how to get to Brooklyn. I’d taken the red-eye flight from Washington State, where I live, to Newark Airport the night before. I had no internet access, no GPS, no interstate road map. I’d brought hard copy directions for only one route, which highway construction had promptly rendered irrelevant. So, after an unplanned pre-dawn detour through Elizabeth, New Jersey, I blindly picked my way to the Holland Tunnel, subsequently missed the exit for the Brooklyn Bridge, and now hunted for the Manhattan Bridge. On the radio, weather forecasts worried over newly christened Hurricane Joaquin, which could soon make landfall in New York.
I’d grown up in New Jersey and, long ago, had frequented New York City. But now, at forty-four, I felt disoriented by even the few landmarks I recognized. In truth, disorientation had been the leitmotif of my forties. When I was forty-one, Asher, the child I’d raised, moved to Bellingham, Washington, three hours from home, to attend university. Now, three years later, he was a twenty-one-year-old college graduate and had relocated again, this time to New York to begin a doctoral program on a fellowship. He’d initially rented a room in Manhattan’s Vanderbilt YMCA. Today, he began a lease on his own Brooklyn apartment.
After an hour rectifying wrong turns, motorists tailing me, honking, I found the bridge and crossed the East River. Asher had arrived in New York with two suitcases of clothes and books. He needed everything. I had a rented mini-van, a two-night stay at a Brooklyn inn, and $1,500. And, in the next forty-eight hours, Asher and I needed to buy, haul, and build an apartment’s worth of IKEA furniture, procure every necessary household item from cutlery to curtains, and cobble together a grocery larder from merchandise sold at neighborhood bodegas and Duane Reed pharmacies. Still, as I drove the unfamiliar Brooklyn streets, I paradoxically felt newly grounded, about to be reunited with Asher and with my previous raison d’être: day-to-day tasks of single parenthood. Without those tasks, I’d lost my bearings completely.
I got pregnant with Asher when I was twenty-two, too old to be unprepared and too young to be well-prepared. Parenthood gave me direction; like many young mothers, I grew up because of my child. Before motherhood, I’d been a tepid student who did well in subjects I enjoyed, struggled in subjects I didn’t, and spent very little time studying. As a mom, I had a perfect GPA; I earned a bachelor’s degree when Asher was four, a master’s degree in English when he was five, and a Creative Writing MFA when he was seven. Before Asher, I reliably held down dead-end jobs. By the time he finished first grade, I had a profession. Teaching community college English, I designed curriculum, spearheaded committees, and received tenure shortly after Asher’s tenth birthday.
It’s not as if we didn’t struggle. Motherhood, though, made small triumphs seem not only possible, but necessary. Statewide budget freezes stalemated my salary, but I managed to save four years’ worth of in-state college tuition for Asher in a 529c. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune digestive condition, Crohn’s Disease, but I managed to maintain my schedule despite the disease’s erratic flares. No matter how sick I got, I rarely missed work and never missed Asher’s school concerts, back to school nights, fund-raisers, or doctor’s appointments. I was awake at five o’clock many mornings and still awake most nights at midnight. I taught twenty-five to thirty credits a quarter, a sixty-hour work week I organized, as best I could, around Asher’s six-hour school days. And yet, I managed to read and write a lot. Before Asher, my rough drafts remained unrevised and unpublishable. Now, my stories and essays got finished, sometimes got picked up by journals, and, just before Asher entered high school, my first book was accepted for publication.
I approached his adolescence with considerable apprehension, but Asher was a teenager with excellent grades and SAT scores. He fell in love with political theory and read difficult texts, which he could discuss with striking recall. He amassed an impressive vocabulary, played guitar, maintained friendships, sometimes dated and sometimes didn’t, and sang bass in his high school choir. He had no worst-case scenario teen problems—no tendencies toward violence, self-harming, substance abuse, or devastating dishonesty. He had no trouble at school, with his friends, or with the law. And he had no trouble with me. We shared a 425-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in Seattle. We invaded each other’s space with our music, habits, and moods. During tense, protracted moments, we got on one another’s nerves. But with the exception of occasional, brief temper flares, we got along. We had to.
During those years, we shared certain tastes: Tim O’Brien, Slavoj Zizek, Phil Ochs, and college radio. We saw Neutral Milk Hotel and The Mountain Goats in concert. He taught me to like folk-punk. I taught him to like Stephen Sondheim. My leftist political leanings influenced his until his radicalism far outstripped mine. At sixteen, he marched in anti-capitalist protests and wrote original songs, one of which contained the lyric, “Please don’t call me a socialist. You don’t know what that word means.” Once a week, we’d go out to dinner at mid-priced neighborhood restaurants. One hosted a trivia game, and we’d lose spectacularly in categories dedicated to pop culture or the Beatles. We had favorite servers whom I tipped lavishly, a habit Asher lauded and would later adopt.
It was halfway through his senior year of high school when Asher decided to attend college in Bellingham. He would begin undergraduate studies shortly after his eighteenth birthday. That summer of 2012, fueled and afflicted by an almost unimaginable level of anxiety, Asher and I took long walks whenever time allowed. We walked from our Seattle neighborhood, Capitol Hill, to Ballard, a neighborhood seven miles north, and back. We walked around Lake Washington. We walked the entire length of the cities of Eugene, Oregon and Olympia, Washington. We walked five or six hours at a time, barely speaking except to recycle familiar, longstanding exchanges about punk music, politics, superficial happenings, and light memories. Maybe we were both too terrified of what came next to talk about it. We probably should have talked about it.
The day I moved him to Bellingham, we played Frank Turner’s “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the One of Me” in the car and sang along to calm our nerves. By the time we’d driven through two counties, even singing was too much, and we played that game of finding letters of the alphabet, in order, on billboards, road signs, and business marquis. We seized happily on the Quality Inn when, for several miles, we’d needed a Q.
In his dorm room, I helped him unpack his belongings, putting sheets on his plastic mattress, stacking his jeans and T-shirts in the cramped, musty wooden dresser drawers. I couldn’t identify the lumpy, khaki-colored goo on one of the bedposts and was glad that Asher had arrived before his two roommates so he wouldn’t get stuck with that bed. Even having lived in small apartments my entire adult life, I couldn’t imagine how the room would possibly accommodate three occupants. And, in fact, by winter term, one of the boys would have left school and Asher would have moved off-campus, into an apartment of his own that he’d keep until he moved to New York. But in that moment, I imagined this would be his home for the full year. Before I left, Asher stood just inside his small room, and I stood in the hall. We looked at each other over the threshold. I said, “Well,” and it seemed to occur to both of us, possibly at the same second, that I was getting back in the car to drive three hours home without him. I saw my own panic mirrored in his expression.
Over the next several months, as Asher got increasingly acclimated, and then attached, to academic life, I’d probe the anxiety I continued to feel. Particular fears, I knew, necessarily accompanied launching a child: What if they get lonely? Hurt? Hungry? Disappointed? What if they fail in the very ways they’d most hoped to succeed? What if they begin to regard us—their parents—in our increased obsolescence, with embarrassment and contempt? I shared those fears with most parents, but, like most parents, I also knew these things would happen to my child at some point, that they happen to nearly everyone. So, what was it, exactly, that I was afraid of?
I recalled that, during my years of single parenthood, I’d sometimes optimistically anticipate the roomy, productive life I’d lead after he left for college. I’d exponentially increase my writing and reading; I’d foster animals, go to conferences, make new friends, go to happy hours with colleagues, and join a gym. Instead, my life lost its shape. I went to work and I went home. I carpooled with my boyfriend, a single parent himself with a seventeen-year-old son. We’d say good-bye before dinner-time. He’d go home to the fully occupying duties of parenthood, and I’d regard the long hours ahead of me with alarm. He’d look at me with concern. What happened—he seemed to wonder—to the girlfriend he’d known, to the competent woman who made productive use of her time? I didn’t know. My time, I realized, was now the source of my fear.
I fostered no pets, attended no conferences, and made no new friends. I went to happy hour twice before declining further invitations. I joined a gym, attended briefly, and quit. I couldn’t sleep. Unable to focus, I’d squander hours looking through other people’s Facebook pictures, people who still had at-home children, who smiled with them at dance recitals and family dinners. Or I’d pace my empty apartment, saying mundane things aloud, like, “My goodness, I’m nearly out of shampoo!” Still awake at two in the morning, I’d watch through the window as my neighbor, a woman in her early sixties, staggered to her kitchen sink to pour out the remnants of her long night’s second or third box of wine. I knew she had a grown, far-away child. I worried that, in her, I glimpsed my own future.
I stopped reading and, worst of all, I couldn’t write. I revisited an old manuscript, revised it, re-revised it, and sent it to a publisher. But that was the most I could do. Whenever I tried to begin a new project, the blank document on my computer screen stayed blank. Or I’d write a sentence or two, lose heart, and delete everything. More than writer’s block, I felt the same “blank page” horror about writing as I did about every area of my life.
By late spring of 2013, Asher had been settled at his university and in his off-campus apartment for some time, and—still unable to sleep, read, or write—I started spending evenings in my kitchen, baking. I’d been a competent, though unadventurous, scratch baker when Asher lived with me—occasional cookies or muffins for him, occasional cakes or pies for company. But now, I became fearless. I figured out cream puffs, cake pops, and Turkish delight. I went from someone who knew how to clarify butter to someone who knew how to make butter. To justify the time and money I spent on my habit, I baked for my students. I baked for my boyfriend and his son. I brought goodies to colleagues. I mailed them to Asher and to out-of-town friends. I baked pies for my apartment manager, for workmen coming to fix my sink, for my physician and his staff. I baked all evening, nearly every evening. Then I branched out into meals, doing everything the long way: Manicotti with handmade shells, enchiladas with handmade tortillas, saag paneer with handmade paneer. I bought fenugreek and sumac and saffron. I made meals for anyone I could think of, including a group of women I barely knew, whom I’d met through a Crohn’s support group I began attending because, one evening a week, the group gave me somewhere to go.
More than a year after Asher left for college, a handful of women from the support group began coming to my apartment every Tuesday, after our meetings, to cook with me. They were busy wives or moms with at-home kids, dependent on pancake mixes and boxed foods the way busy people often are. They wanted to learn, and figuring out how to teach them became the organizing principle of my post-parenthood life. No, I couldn’t read novels, but I could read ethnographic cookbooks. I couldn’t write essays or stories, but I could write recipes. We called ourselves the Crohn’s Crones, and we cooked together for nearly two years. At our zenith, we provided make-ahead meals for up to seventy people. For the Crohn’s Crones, I planned menus, disseminated shopping lists, determined the division of cooking labor, cooked, oversaw other people’s cooking, and coordinated packaging and distribution of food. Every Tuesday evening, we’d cook until after midnight, elbow to elbow in my tiny kitchen, crowded so tightly that bruises and burns and broken dishes became weekly expectations. And, every Wednesday, after delivering my portion of the previous night’s food, I’d begin figuring out the next week’s recipes.
Meanwhile, my brainy teen became a true academic. On track to finish his BA one year early, he began to prepare graduate school applications. He applied to five programs, four at others people’s suggestion, and one, the CUNY Graduate Center, which he’d chosen because its faculty included theorists whose writing he admired. I imagined him walking down subway steps in Manhattan, freshly dry-cleaned shirts on hangers, over his shoulder. Compared to his scholarly acumen, my time-consuming cooking project seemed senseless—evidence, I worried, that the productive focus I’d found during motherhood had been permanently replaced by nebulous, dead-end ventures similar to those I’d known before he was born. And as though to punctuate this worry, the very day Asher received his acceptance and fellowship offer from CUNY, the publisher to whom I’d sent my re-revised book, and who’d held it in hand for more than a year, rejected it.
I sent the manuscript out again just before Asher graduated university, Magna Cum Laude, in June, 2015, the day before his twenty-first birthday. He would move to New York that summer and begin his doctoral studies that fall. He seemed delighted, full of hope and excitement. I, on the other hand, lying awake at night, still unable to read or write, anticipated his future with a kind of terrified admiration. Asher had been to New York City exactly once before—a tenth grade choir trip. At just barely twenty-one, he was moving across the country to a city of nine million strangers. He had no housing lined up beyond an extended stay at the YMCA. “I’m figuring it out, Mom,” he told me. “Don’t worry.”
But, during those anguishing weeks he spent at the Y, it seemed perhaps that it wouldn’t get figured out. He answered Craigslist ads for roommates, went to see person after person, place after place. He waited outside a shabby month-to-month basement rental in Queens for a landlord who didn’t show. He’d text me every day. “Moving to New York was a terrible idea,” he wrote once. Finally, he secured a rent-stabilized studio in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and now it was October 1, 2015, and I was here—on a quiet, residential street, outside a charming, old brownstone—enjoying the chance, however ephemerally, to be a mom again. Brooklyn is fewer than thirty miles from Newark. The drive took four times longer than it should have.
We started in high spirits—maladroitly stacking boxes of IKEA merchandise on a flat-bed cart, too heavy for us to push with any accuracy, laughing as we wrangled the boxes into the back of the rented mini-van and then, again, as we heaved them up the narrow stairs of Asher’s walk-up brownstone. We laughed at the municipal, unwelcoming “NO SMOKING” signs in his building’s hallways and at the industrial garbage can his landlord had left behind, a giant in Asher’s 300-square-foot apartment. We laughed as we spent an hour, and then two, and then four, building dressers and bookshelves, and trying to figure out the inscrutable IKEA instructions for his daybed. We got hungry and tired. We hammered our fingers and swore. Just past midnight, we called it a day. Because we hadn’t finished building his bed, he stayed in my hotel room that night. We tried to maintain good humor, noting that one of the room’s beds was a Murphy and that the bathroom’s strange shower, straight from horror movies, had a wall of tiny spigots that looked like grimacing mouths.
The next day, we went to the Target store on Atlantic Avenue. Hurricane Joaquin had blown out to sea, but Brooklyn suffered collateral rains, deep puddles, and strong wind. Crowds filled the store where shelves were largely bare. There were no microwaves, no brooms or dustbins, no curtains, no curtain rods. An emergency exit alarm blared for an hour before someone deactivated it. Later, we would be able to find humor in the young Hasidic children, whose mother was not much older than Asher, tunelessly playing plastic kazoos in the cleaning supplies aisle. Asher glared at one of them and said, “Enough of that,” in Yiddish. The child stopped, looked at him, quickly determined Asher held no authority, and, with increased volume, resumed playing. Later, we would be able to find humor in how the storm blew our cart down the block after we’d unloaded it, about the confused way I’d parked in a taxi loading zone, about my nervous, incompetent driving back to Asher’s apartment. But, at that moment, tense, rain-soaked, and exhausted, we still had a daybed to finish building and groceries to buy. I flew home the next afternoon. We were running out of time.
We finished the daybed at two that morning, went back to the inn, slept a few hours, then spent the next morning finishing whatever we could. We found a small market and bought groceries. Asher would have to purchase and hang curtains on his own. He planned to go to the Bed, Bath, and Beyond in the Village. He said, “But I think I should go with you to the airport first.” And this time, when I got disoriented trying to find the Manhattan Bridge, Asher was in the passenger seat, telling me, turn by turn, how to find my way in a city he was learning, in a life that was becoming wholly his own. This time, the drive between Brooklyn and Newark took forty minutes.
We said good-bye on the shuttle I’d take to the airport terminal and he’d take to connect with transit back into the city. My stop came first. From the platform, I could see him, still on the shuttle. During my visit, he frequently took short breaks from furniture building in order to exchange text messages with new friends. Now, he already had his phone in hand.
I slept most of the return flight. Something had shifted, though I couldn’t pinpoint what. Asher would come to visit in December. By then, I would have gotten engaged, moved into my boyfriend’s house, disbanded my cooking group, and started reading again. But on the plane back to Seattle, I only remembered something another mother had once told me, after her own child had moved away: “The only thing that makes life as different as when they’re born is when they leave.” And now I recalled that, during Asher’s first year of life, when he was colicky and unable to sleep, days and nights blurred. Then, as now, I needed years before I could discern their structure.
The day after I returned from Brooklyn, the publisher I’d sent my manuscript to, and then had largely forgotten about, accepted my second book. And now, four years after the end of custodial parenthood, I’m trying to relearn how to write. For weeks now, I’ve tried to reorient myself by writing these words. Getting here took four times longer than it should have.
CORRINA WYCOFF is the author of two books of fiction, the short story collection O Street (OV Books, 2007) and the novel, Damascus House (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016). Her fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies, journals, and magazines. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, and teaches English at Pierce College.
In my dream last night, I was raising a child in some kind of low-class addict’s crash-pad. She was a toddler. After I woke up on a mattress on the floor to the sound of some guys setting up a keg on the front lawn, I found her in the bathroom. She’d crawled up onto the sink for a little bath and had her clothes ready to put on. She couldn’t have been more than three. She was doing a good job looking after herself.
I realized I didn’t know what had happened, or if I’d tended to her at all the day before. She was happy to see me and my misery was deep. You should’ve seen the carpet in that place.
Look, I didn’t fuck it up. Not in real life. It was just a dream.
That parenting gig, I didn’t fuck it up even remotely. My son didn’t spend a minute in a place like that. Not a minute. And I wasn’t high when I was pregnant, nor when I was raising him. His dad was getting high a lot when I met him, but by god, he picked right up. He was already picking himself up by the time I got pregnant—okay, we didn’t plan that part—but there was no way we were going to mess up something so obviously meant to make us better people. There was just no way. We loved that kid fierce-like from moment one. Then we sent him to college. Follow-through like a medal of honor. I was always grateful to my son’s father for seeing things like I did when it came to loving our kid.
Recently, my son told me that his father and I consulted him more often on family decisions than he and his partner ever consult their son. They just tell him what’s what. We treated him like he was the Prince of the Place. We gave him choices, asked for opinions, provided opportunities as fast as most people change the TV channels. We weren’t perfect, but we gave the task our attention, our care, that’s for sure.
My grandson has opportunities too, but it’s different. They decide a thing and lay it down. He goes along. That kid’s happy. My son was happy. Sure, he had troubles; it’s life. And now he’s exhausted; they’re parents. They seem like good parents but they’re not precious about it like his father and me. They were both raised in households where nobody was drunk or hitting them or trying to have sex with them when they were kids. Okay, I yelled more than I wish I had, but I didn’t belittle him. I apologized. I provided. Lots of things, including lasting love. Maybe that made some difference.
I was up at two a.m. before falling asleep again to have that dream with the little girl who was probably hoping I’d get cleaned up, too, and go to the grocery store. Before I had the dream, I was awake and reviewing conversations in my mind with colleagues, with ex-lovers, reviewing things I wish I could say now. Mostly those “can’t we just take a look at ourselves?” kind of things that help people have a laugh, re-connect in a loving way, and get on with feeling fine. Damn it, I can’t stand not being able to just get on with it. I forgive everything. I mean, I do. I may not trust a person again in the same way after things get shitty. Or I may even decide to trust again. People aren’t all one way or another. People have to do what they have to do, be who they are, work out their own stuff. That includes me. I definitely want someone to cut me some slack, keep loving me even if I fuck things up. Mostly, I get back what I give in that regard. Mostly I’m still loved. Mostly.
So, I was up thinking through past conversations, as I do at two a.m. Sometimes I’m reviewing how I’d like to give someone a piece of my mind, but usually it’s not an in-your-face kind of piece of my mind. It’s more like, why can’t I get you to understand me? Jesus, will you just listen? It’s like that. I hate being misunderstood worse than most things, and somehow as soon as people are attracted to each other in some kind of big way, the possibility for misunderstanding skyrockets.
But even when I’m trying to get someone to understand me, it’s usually so we can just have a little look at ourselves, have a little laugh and get on with it. I value ease. I value intimacy.
Here’s what I don’t do at two a.m. nearly as often as I used to: pick up the damn phone and call the person. Send an email. Text or message them looking for a response.
So, at two a.m., I was thinking through what I would say to whom, if only there was someone listening. But even though my mind gets going enough that I can’t sleep, something’s still all right in there. My mind’s not all evil-carnival-at-midnight and goodness knows it can be. I’ve gotten into deep shit in my own head after dark. But not so often anymore. My mind can get going, and still, there’s that witness part of me that stands off to the side of those head-conversations and offers gentle observations and commentary. She never used to show up at two a.m. I used to have to go find her during meditation, or on a long walk, or in the calm after a good workout. This feels like progress that she’s with me almost all the time now. Not always, but hey, she even shows up at two a.m. on occasion and she was with me last night.
She was saying, wow, look how much you still want to be loved. Look how much you are still playing out the programming of your childhood, in which you longed to be valued and understood, no matter what you looked like. You felt so different and you just wanted to be known by a few people who got you. You didn’t want to feel used for someone else’s pleasure or pride or to soothe another’s misery. It all makes sense. Look at you now, trying to get the love you want. Good for you, not trying to use others to soothe your misery. Good for you. Good you. Good.
See how that works? The mind that wants to explain something to others and make me seem lovable again? It may still do that, and now explains that stuff to me too.
Look, it’s been decades since I’ve spent any time at all in those misery-hovels where people are broke and getting high and neglecting their kids and eating Taco Bell for dinner again. Holy shit, I recall thinking once. That guy’s eaten nothing but Taco Bell for, like, thirty years. How is he still alive? I mean, that was never, even remotely going to be my life. The witness in me knew it wasn’t going to happen and yet, I stood on that carpet enough times. Carpet that’s been puked on and dried up and scrubbed every few years by somebody’s new girlfriend, and worn through and plywood’s showing underneath and who could give one shit because the landlord never—I mean never—comes to even have a quick look. In my dream, I looked down at my feet on that carpet, and the scent of piss came back like it was yesterday. I still look down at my feet on that carpet and it feels like something I deserve. Sometimes I feel a rage when that happens. Sometimes I just feel small.
My god, when I saw her giving herself a bath in the sink and realized that I had fucked up, the pain was almost unbearable.
In the waking hours, the real time, the day-living in which all of the actual things happen, I don’t fuck things up. I don’t let people down. I’ve done things lovers didn’t like; I’ve left. But I’ve never lied about fucking around or disappeared or stolen from someone I loved or made the slightest vindictive move toward anyone when I’ve felt wronged. I’ve felt wronged and I’ve yelled about it. I can ride a sarcastic tone off into the sunset, but yippee-i-ay, I always hope someone comes looking for me there, sitting by my campfire sobbing, sarcasm sleeping in the sagebrush.
Sure, there may have been times when I could’ve done more to keep a friend from going off with that guy who raped her or to talk someone out of an abusive relationship, but that’s hindsight stuff. That’s in the probably-wouldn’t-have-worked-anyway category of things that might’ve been. I always did my best. I always pulled up out of my own pain on behalf of others.
Sometimes I didn’t even take the drugs so I could look after the wasters in my company. Like that time I pocketed a hit of acid at the last minute when everyone else dosed because wow, traffic. It’s like we were dropping acid in the middle of a racetrack. I was stoned but then that wore off and I acted as babysitter for the next eight hours and no one walked into the headlights on my watch. That’s just how I was. How I am. Always thinking it through.
Even still sometimes, I’m afraid. I’m afraid I could still be to blame for something. Two a.m. me is particularly suspicious. Maybe I think I have it together, but I really don’t. I want to be better than everyone else. (Because let’s face it, how easy will that be?) And I also want to learn to let it rest. It’s tiring. I do okay. And it’s tiring.
At two a.m., the witness asked me, “Will you always be trying to prove you’re worthy of love? Or can you just accept love?”
And I paused, in whatever review-of-the-pain I was conducting and said, “Shit man, I don’t know.”
That witness, she’s kind. She’s patient. No matter what.
Then there was enough spaciousness in my head to allow sleep. But that dream came. And when I woke, I shed a few tears, shook my head and thought, wow. The fear of forgetting, the fear of fucking up is long and wide and deep and maybe sometimes useful. It’s like a wound that doesn’t close. A long, beautiful blood-lake you could sail under the light of a full moon. Like a tear in the earth after a volcano erupts, making new land.
KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.
My girls like rocking out in the car to “Uptown Funk,” “Shake It Off,” “Insane in the Membrane.” One knows all the bad words now, the other still mispronounces the same words she did as a toddler, her Rs coming out, adorably, like Ws. I worry, worry, worry about them as much as I try to enjoy them and remember how fleeting this all is. I want for them to experience some kind of unorchestrated magic in this life.
When she was alive, my Mom used to complain every year at Christmas that she wasn’t feeling it, wasn’t feeling the magic like she used to. It used to annoy me—why couldn’t she just feel it?—but now I get it. I’m rushing too much. I want it to be all home-made snowflakes and fresh-baked sugar cookies for the girls, for me. But my to-do list is long, my grocery bags so heavy, and I don’t have a plan for Christmas cards yet. It’s not magic, it just is.
I read about this scientist who studied serendipity, that crazy pleasant insight or experience that can happen when you wander off script. She classified people into three categories, from those who were most likely to find happy surprises—the meandering super-encounterers, to those who were least likely, the boring, to-do list-bound non-encounterers. And even though I sound pessimistic and unfun and may be exaggerating a tiny bit to make a point when I say this, it seems to me that many of the skills related to good parenting place me in the latter category.
When you get up each day and say this is how the day is going to go and then your day goes that way, you’re not going to find much magic. And yet, as parents of young children, that’s kind of what we have to do—to measure out our days in routines and activities and downtimes to achieve maximum happiness and flow as opposed to crankiness and someone chucking her bike helmet from the back of a moving bike. It sounds mechanical, but it’s absolutely prophetic.
For those of us who are hard-wired to move through our days with a semblance of organization, to wake up and say, Today I will soak the beans and finish the scarf and write the thank you’s, well, having kids sort of reinforces that tendency. Their nourishment and well-being depends on your ability to keep their dresser drawers in seasonal clothes and to get the burritos on the table at a relatively similar time each day. Which is funny, really, because most kids I know don’t move through their days like structured beings at all. They stop to read every word of the signage and inspect pebbles and stuff oak galls in their pockets and build homes for baby snails. They resist rush in the most wondrous and infuriating ways.
How we let our stories and theirs write themselves while also keeping everyone on some kind of schedule is maybe the best flow. As we hunker down in the grayest, rainiest of indoor months here in Oregon, I find that the most difficult. Wintertime, especially where we live in the Northwest, is when we settle most into our routines.
Sure, it’s easy to be spontaneous in summer or on a vacation. But in winter, I know what our days will be like. There will be card games and mancala and lentil soup. There will be a couple of trips up to the snow, where we will forget something, where we’ll be ill-equipped for the wet cold, and then a damp ride in the car back to Eugene, with our lukewarm cocoa and the girls falling asleep in the safe womb of our rattly minivan. In February, I will desperately Google discount flights to Mexico.
One of my favorite people is my friend Diane, a true super-encounterer. I lived with her during the summer of 1995 while I interned at a small newspaper on Whidbey Island. Diane was in her fifties then, splashed her face with a little rose water every morning, wore charcoal eyeliner, and cut-off shorts, Birkenstocks. She always had red wine on hand, toasted with every fresh glass, quoted Shakespeare, ate chips and salsa for dinner, let the chickens come in the house, which was comfortable, full of dusty children’s art, dog hair, sand everywhere.
I’d never known a free spirit before, but I was drawn, and whatever parts of me that leaned that way were magnified, justified, made sense. Diane’s a vegetarian—a very persuasive one—and so I became one. I wore a batik dress and every morning I gathered the chickens’ eggs in its folds. I took the two unruly dogs to the beach, bought wine and loaves of bread from the Star Store, kissed the reporter from the local alternative paper, listened attentively to Diane’s many, many stories involving serendipity and new friends. Diane and I walked the beach downtown one night to the Clyde Theater to see “Muriel’s Wedding,” which we thought was hilarious. On the way back, the tide had come in, so we had to wade, waist-deep, all the way home. We sang ABBA in the moonlight, and I don’t think I have ever been so happy.
Even meeting Diane was serendipitous. I had applied for an internship at her local paper because I’d been turned down for a more coveted internship in a city that I loved. After moping around in my college apartment for a few days, I applied to Whidbey on a whim, thinking it might be soothing to sleep on an island for a summer. After I got the job, a columnist for the paper told me about her neighbor Diane, who needed a roommate for the summer, and then I found her eating chips and salsa and drinking wine on her sun-soaked back deck with a friend.
I met my husband around then—also serendipitously—and I think he’s sometimes disappointed that I’m not that long-haired girl anymore. Sometimes, I am, too. When I’m on Facebook too much or rushing the girls through errands or spotting a conflict on our calendar that’s three weeks away.
I’ve been trying to remember one of the things found by that the scientist studying serendipity. You can cultivate the magic. You can actually train yourself—and hence your kids—to notice more: to read the appendix or investigate the birds hanging out in the branches of the tree in the parking strip. Or maybe you get small doses of unexpected joy in a mixed tape, a snow day, a Goodwill find. That tall Dad getting down to bhangra in the elementary school gym at the diversity conference—just totally letting go amid a sea of kids and moms. That time when I was passing through Portland and called an old friend to see if she could recommend a family- friendly brew pub in the neighborhood where I was lost and she said, “I’m at a family-friendly brew pub in that neighborhood right now.” A small serendipity, for sure, but if I hadn’t been lost, if I had Mapquested my way through my trip as I sometimes do, I wouldn’t have spent a fun afternoon with my friend.
My girls love a road trip just about as much as I do. They seem to recognize that it means anything is possible, like ice cream in the middle of the day or gum balls at the rest area or pooping in a field of wildflowers. They’re still talking about the time we hung out on a beach in Northern California and when we went to fly our kite and a crow stole some of our picnic bread. We’d also seen the Redwoods that day and had rolled up our pants and jumped in the waves, but that crow is what they talk about when they talk about that trip.
And so, waking up from our winter slumber two years ago, the girls and I got a three-week housesitting gig in San Francisco. We were to watch two dogs, three cats, and four chickens who resided at a bungalow in the Outer Mission. We took our friends Chloe and five-year-old Lucien with us, and we drove all night to get there. The house was smallish, dusty, full of children’s art and games, familiar.
The trip was tough sometimes, especially synchronizing our different parenting styles, and glorious other times: dim sum in a big ballroom, a butterfly exhibit in Golden Gate Park, listening to one of my favorite bands play a concert in an old mortuary, marching the kids up and down hills in search of another park or mural, another ice cream shop. Once I found myself caught in the rain with all three kids as we walked up Mission Street looking for a bus stop. I don’t know why, but they decided to pound on the plate glass window of a wig shop and they wouldn’t stop. The shopkeepers came out and scolded them but they continued to pound more and more riotously until I bribed them with pie, which was very good and gave us a place to rest and for them to poop—the triple public restroom poop being an excruciating specialty of theirs when we were out and about. Our days in San Francisco were like that; there was something wonderful every day and something difficult, or three dozen difficult things.
Not surprisingly, we went a little off the rails. One morning we took the bus to the Gay Pride parade, but it was so crowded that we couldn’t see much of anything—a few rainbow wigs, the back of Nancy Pelosi’s head. After an hour or so, the kids, who’d been promised thrown candy and trinkets, revolted. There was a little scene on the sidewalk where a glass bottle was thrown precariously close to someone’s head. Chloe and I couldn’t agree on a plan and so we split up for the rest of the day. We were all tired, I think, worn out from so many different days, so much wonderful.
At the house in the Outer Mission, we left behind a broken plant pot, a torn curtain, a clogged drain, and a garbage bag full of the siding the dogs have gnawed off of the house. It had been a challenging and surprisingly cold and damp few weeks; I’d gotten three parking tickets. But the next spring, I contacted the homeowner to see if she wanted us back.
JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews, and essays have been published in The New York Times,theatlantic.com, The Sun, Utne Magazine, and Oregon Humanities Magazine, among other places. Her last essay for Full Grown People was “A Mild Suspension of Effort.”
“Will we be tying your tubes during the procedure?”
I was sitting cross-legged on the sticky pleather—the doctor’s sterile office familiar by now—my hands clasped under my full belly.
Moments earlier, my weight gain, blood pressure, and a healthy fetal heart rate were all scratched in tiny illegible marks on my overstuffed chart. The nurse with a tendency to call me “hun” had taken her two hands and caressed my bump as she spoke softly of her own family. Three boys, like me. And she tried, tried for that fourth. Three miscarriages later—the last at twenty weeks—she knew it wouldn’t be.
“Do you want your tubes tied?” I looked up to meet the doctor’s expectant eyes. The question was not new. He or the nurse, sometimes both, asked at each monthly visit.
I had yet to answer.
I once loved a man who kept coming back.
He’d show up at the side door of the seventies-style off-campus apartment in the Portuguese section of Providence. I’d let him climb the spiral staircase to my room in back, the one facing Ives Street, with the lone blue wall we’d painted together when our love was young. Back when we drank and smoked and snaked his shitty silver sedan up the coast over winter break, The White Stripes streaming through the speakers. Back when we jumped up and down on that old secondhand mattress on Williams Street when, wasted, he proposed marriage before we collapsed, slick with sex and sweat.
Years later, he’d show up in bars across downtown Manhattan. We’d drink together because that’s what we did, huddled at the bar or in some corner booth, our heads touching, our speech slurred.
We stood on the dark Soho street corner, embracing as the cab idled. I was already seeing someone else, but we kissed all the same, our mouths full of memory. As if we didn’t know how to part without it. The mere taste of his tongue made me think of the scar on my knee from that time on the car console just over the Arkansas border. Part of me cherished the memento.
“I’ll call you?” he mouthed through the taxi window.
“Okay,” I said. “Sure.”
I’d already be under the knife—that much was clear. My babies only came out with the help of a surgeon’s hand. After forty-eight hours of labor and over four hours of pushing, my first son—a week late—still held on.
Now I was facing my fourth C-section. At thirty-five, with a husband of thirty-eight, I had plenty of potentially fertile years still ahead of me. And, the doctor warned, a fifth C-section would be unwise. A tubal ligation is the recommended course. He—everyone—assumes I’m done.
And probably, I am.
But some of us have a hard time letting go.
There’s a bin under my bed that no one ever sees.
In it, a pair of socks with iron-on labels from an old summer camp beau, floppy disks with early drafts of college papers, locks of towhead blond baby hair, a burgundy waitress apron from a gig in a breakfast place fifteen years back.
There’s a box of decaying Godiva chocolates from a boy I dated in 1989. Midway through that year, he moved upstate and would send me letters on primary colored paper drenched in prepubescent cologne. I saved those too.
Affixed to a broken bookcase against the wall of my parents’ garage are index cards with phone numbers of old friends or lovers in faded Crayola marker. I haven’t called any of them in years; those aren’t even their numbers anymore. I don’t take them down.
There’s a pair of two-toned oxfords with frayed laces and eroded heels stashed in the corner of my closet. I keep shoes long past their prime; they’ve walked with me; their soles bear bits of where I’ve been. My shirtsleeves hang past my wrists, and I should get my pants hemmed, but I don’t. They drag in shallow puddles, soaking up the muddy moisture, and I take that with me too.
I’m heavy with the weight of all I hold onto.
I went into labor with my third son four days before my scheduled C-section. I was tucking my older two boys into bed when I felt an insistent gush of fluid between my legs. Some frantic Internet research confirmed: my water had broken. I called my husband to come home, my in-laws to get the kids. Two hours later, we were walking to the hospital four blocks down the road.
By the time we reached triage, the contractions were coming fast and fierce. They only intensified as we waited for anesthesiology. Four minutes apart, then two. It took eight tries to land my intravenous line, my veins thin and resistant, my hands and arms bruised from failed attempts. Each time, the nurses would beg me to lie flat on my back. It was unthinkable in the midst of a contraction, as my body tensed and fought to push this baby out.
“It’s not fair!” I wailed again and again, thrashing my arms against the crinkly bed paper. All the labor pain was for naught—they’d be cutting me open regardless. But what I mourned most were the four days I expected him still inside me.
Sometimes I try to trick time. I wake in the dark early morning, at three or four a.m., lengthening the days by stealing hours from the night. I am unwilling to let moments pass without living as many of them as I can.
One day, I look up the definition of tubal ligation online and read that it’s a sterilization procedure, according to Wikipedia, “in which a woman’s fallopian tubes are clamped and blocked, or severed and sealed…”
My mind wanders to the days and weeks following my firstborn’s birth. “I’ll remove them for you in a single swoop. You won’t feel a thing.” My husband, a surgeon, stared disapprovingly at the Steri-Strips that still railroad-tracked my incision, over six weeks since the C-section.
“What’s the rush?” I countered. “They’ll fall off eventually.” I feared not pain, but a sense of loss. The tape residue on the backs of my hands from where they inserted the IV was long gone; my body was steadily shrinking as my son’s swelled—he had already outgrown all the newborn-size clothing.
The Steri-Strips, cruddy and useless, were all that was left of the lengthy labor and delivery, of the day that morphed me into a mother.
“A woman’s fallopian tubes are…severed and sealed…” I flinch involuntarily and close the computer screen.
At my tenth college reunion, I pass the old dorm where, in room 150, we first made love. I close my eyes and linger there for a little, letting the wind whip my face, my feet unsteady. I force myself to feel back there—to remember the room, what I wore, how we laughed and worried we were doing it wrong. I try to conjure any scraps of conversation my imperfect memory will allow.
For a long time, on that date—of lost virginity to a lost love—I would carve out a few moments to recall whatever I could. Each year, it was less. Eventually May 8th came and went without me even noticing.
I lie awake in bed and feel the flutter of the baby low in my abdomen. Soon my body will be emptied of another for good. I will the days before the birth to pass slowly.
It’s not aging that fazes me; I’m not particularly attached to my youth. But it’s the letting go, the slipping away of anything I’ve been, known, loved.
Maybe if I carry enough with me through this life, I’ll move so slowly that nothing will change.
My belly feels heavier this time, if that’s possible, my mood constantly shifting. Most of the time, I feel damn lucky. But tired, too, weighed down. Laden with another life.
For weeks, I hedged. I never felt uncertain of my answer, but the utter irrationality of it kept me from admitting it to myself, from speaking it aloud. One Tuesday, halfway through the pregnancy, I found the words:
“It’s the finality of it,” I start. “I’m just not ready to have my tubes tied, even though this is likely our last. So no.” My voice gains strength. “I can’t.”
The rain pounds mercilessly on the roof, ricochets loudly off the metal gutters. It’s only three p.m., but the skies are black. My oldest son’s school bus turns slowly onto our street, delivering the last of my three children home.
I’ve collected the stray lawn chairs and trash pail lids from along the driveway, stowed them in the garage. I gather whatever I can, keep it close.
We are safe against the storm.
DINA L. RELLES is a writer with work published in The Atlantic, Atticus Review, River Teeth, STIR Journal, Full Grown People, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. A piece of hers was recently chosen as a finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s Livershot Memoir Contest. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and is currently at work on her first book of nonfiction. You can find her at www.dinarelles.com or on Twitter @DinaLRelles.
I held his hand as we crossed the street from parking garage to hospital. The black-and-white lines painted on the asphalt guided us to the automatic door that whooshed us into the building. He was eight years old, and his fingers felt sticky from breakfast, sugar, and sweat. I let go of him only for a moment so I could check my watch. We were on time. Neither of us wanted to do this, though I had tried my best to spin it as a grand adventure.
“You’ll get to see a cool video of your own heart,” I had told him at least two hundred times leading up to this day.
“I know, Mama,” he had come to say. “I know.”
“Don’t you think that will be cool?” I had said it again that very morning at the Dunkin Donuts.
He had plucked a sugar-covered chocolate donut hole from a bag, and said, “Yes.” He popped it in his mouth and licked the sugar from his fingertips. “Very exciting.” He was like this all the time. Even his understatements were understated. He endured me.
I had known what would happen when I told his doctor what Owen was regularly saying. “He says his heart feels like it’s beating funny, and sometimes his chest hurts.” You can’t say those words to any responsible medical professional and not set this chain of events in motion. Though our doctor had said all the appropriate “I’m-sure-it’s-nothings,” she ordered an x-ray, EKG, and an echo, and referred him to a pediatric cardiology practice no fewer than one hundred and ten miles from our rural home.
“Oh, look,” I said, finding the name of the practice on a directory. We had entered the cool and quiet of the medical building. The floor glistened beneath our sandals. “We need to go to the fourth floor. We get to take the elevator. Want to press the buttons?”
“Yes,” he said, scanning the length of the hallway. “I do.” He was carrying Tiny White, the floppy, dirty, white bear with a blue hat and scarf that Santa brought to our house many holidays ago. The bear didn’t exactly go everywhere with us, but he was pressed into service for special events.
In the elevator, he reached up and pressed the four button. The doors dinged and closed and the floor started to rise. Owen smiled. “I like elevators,” he said.
To call our area “rural” doesn’t quite capture the experience of living over a hundred miles from the nearest Starbucks, airport, shopping mall, or franchised restaurant without a drive-up window. In easternmost Maine, we all drive to Bangor to do anything much of anything. We grocery shop, do our banking, and fill our prescriptions locally, but if we need running shoes, jeans from someplace other than Walmart, a roller rink, or to see a medical specialist, we all make the trip across Route Nine, through the dense, endless wild. So to Owen, an elevator was a relatively big deal. A trip to Bangor was a celebration, and I was determined that our day would include some fun to underscore that this was nothing.
We found the right door and let ourselves into the waiting room. The receptionist gave me a clipboard and a pen, and Owen flipped through a Lego magazine while I wrote his name and birthday on at least nine different pieces of paper. Then we waited together in side-by-side chairs with wooden arms and scratchy upholstery. I ran my fingertips across the surface of his back, scratching him through his tee-shirt. He had picked out a Lego Star Wars shirt especially for today. With his tee-shirt, Tiny White in his lap, and the Lego magazine opened across his knees, he looked exactly like who he was, and it was my own heart that assumed an irregular rhythm.
In the first room, where they did the EKG, he told the nurse or the PA or whatever she was that he had an irregular heartbeat. She nodded, looked at me, and said, “He’s right. He does.”
I thought about how our family doctor had looked at me and said, “I’m sure it’s nothing,” and for the first moment since she said that, I doubted. This doubt would not linger past the appointment’s end, just an hour later.
While we waited for the next room, for the next nurse or PA or whatever she would be, I said to him, “Let’s do something fun after this.”
He was looking at something. What was it? The Lego magazine? A book? The television? The floor? I have no idea, but I know he said, “Okay, Mama. Like what?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, trying to think of something we could do in Bangor, something fun, something different. It was summer in Maine. There has to be something.
Something, yes, but this was nothing. It would be nothing.
The echocardiogram was, as predicted, incredibly cool to him, but only for the first ten minutes. “Is that my heart? How is that my heart?”
The black and white, fuzzy images on the screen, constantly in motion may as well have come from a probe on the moon or from distant Tatooine, so unlike were they from any images we understand of the human heart. It was not pink, not red, not even heart-shaped. No black outline, no arrow through it. Its valves opened and closed the way a praying mantis lifts and lowers its legs, and the cross sections were bell-pepper-shaped.
“I don’t see how that’s my heart,” he insisted once more before drifting into the spell of the cartoons on the television high on the wall, strategically placed for viewing from the table. Then he added, “These aren’t very good cartoons.”
The echo tech did her job by not interpreting anything. She didn’t share any reassuring commentary. It was like the ultrasound I had when I was pregnant with my oldest, Abby. Because of her positioning in my uterus, I had a lot of ultrasounds throughout that nine months, and most of the techs were like tour guides of the baby, pointing out toes, elbows, her heart, her little space-alien movements. But one tech was wordless throughout, creating an absence of sound that was louder than any noise I had ever heard. She spoke only at the end when she said, “Do you have an appointment with your doctor this afternoon?” Panic set in, and I went to that appointment already in tears, prepared for a terrible piece of news that was, of course, nonexistent. It was just a tech doing what they are supposed to do: collect, not interpret.
There, next to my son, who was complaining about bad cartoons, I listened to the silence of the tech. She was clicking on her keyboard, capturing measurements, snatching images of Owen’s heart doing various tricks. And I knew. I knew it was bad. I knew it the way I know that there is gravity and that the sun sets and rises each day and the way I knew that I too would eventually die. The scenario spun out in my head—he would need a transplant. This would be our life now. That very day, everything would change and whatever fun thing I thought of to do that afternoon might be the last moment of fun we would have for years, or for months, or maybe forever. This news sank into my bones like a cold front. I checked my watch again. I interpreted, then misinterpreted. We had been in here too long.
It gets hot in July, even in Maine, and it was a day too warm for go-karts. But go-karts were what we decided to do. I drove us across the bridge from Bangor to Holden, following a rush of summer traffic; tourists heading to Bar Harbor, heading to the coast. Owen sat behind me in the back seat, and together we watched for the signs for the go-kart track I had found online. I spotted it. “Is this it?” Owen asked, leaning forward against his seat belt for a better look out the window.
“Yes!” I almost shouted. “Let’s have some fun!” My emphasis on that last word was, perhaps, much more enthusiastic than the situation called for. But he was eight, and I was his mother, and we were going to have some fun.
It was about ninety degrees, and the go-kart track was in full sun. The young attendant who sold us our tickets asked how many minutes I wanted to ride. Rides were sold in seven-minute chunks of time, so I bought three. I looked down at Owen and said, “Let’s ride for twenty minutes the first time. We can go again after that if we want.”
He looked across a grassy expanse that sloped down to the fenced-in go-kart area. A fleet of small vehicles, with lawn-mower-style engines, was lined up, ready to go. Not a single other driver was on the track. We had the entire, squiggly-shaped road to ourselves.
Owen was too small for his own kart, so we were assigned a two-seater. The attendant showed us how to buckle ourselves in, how to steer, and how to brake, then he pulled on the start and the engine noisily fired up. I pulled onto the track, got a feel for the quick, tight steering. With hot wind now blowing through our hair, I stomped on the accelerator, and the kart responded by quickly coming up to racing speed, but there was nobody to race.
Owen gripped his seat. “Mama, I’m not sure you should go this fast.” He was like this all the time: a worried, middle-aged little man in dark-rimmed glasses.
I leaned into a tight turn, felt the tires grip the track. “We’re okay, Owen,” I reassured. “Are you nervous?”
He nodded but was grinning a grin that I took as evidence that I was being an awesome mom in the face of a hard day. We were having fun. His expression proved it, even though his little knuckles were ivory-colored and he had that edge in his voice when he said, “I think you should slow down so we don’t crash.”
I eased off the accelerator and slowed as we took a turn. The breeze stirred up by our forward motion fought the heat. We settled into a comfortable speed, and I steered the vehicle around and around the track. Owen’s body seemed to lighten as he relaxed into the activity, though I did not sense any actual joy. He watched the scenery pass by—the entrance gate, the parked row of karts, the booth where the attendant sat, the highway, the entrance gate again—over and over and didn’t say anything. I sped up and slowed down and leaned over and yelled over the noise, “Isn’t this fun?”
He met my eyes with his, grinned, and nodded, then went back to watching things go past us. His heart, I knew, was beating its irregular rhythm under his Star Wars tee-shirt and moving blood through all the veins in his small body. It ran through the small veins in the fingers he was using to grip the sides of his seat, though his grip had become less fierce. His small heart—how small was it? They say the adult heart is the size of a fist, but perhaps that is an adult fist. Perhaps his heart was the same size as his little, seat-gripping fist that was given its gripping ability by his irregular little heart. Perhaps it was my adult-fist-sized heart that made me grip him this tightly.
Another family appeared at the ticket booth, buying some turns in the go-karts. I thought that this was good, that it would be more fun if there were some obstacles, some challenges, some easy, fun competition. I navigated two turns while watching the group walk to the gate. They waited there. The attendant did not make a move to let them in. I wasn’t sure how many minutes we had been spinning around these arcs, but it seemed that we had a lot of time left.
The other group watched us through the chain link fence, and I felt obligated to pick up the pace. Owen’s knuckles grew white again, but he didn’t say anything. Members of the other group shuffled their feet, glanced at their wrists or their phones, the sun hot on their bare heads. We flew past them, past the parked fleet, past the attendant, letting the hot July wind blow across our bare heads.
“Are we almost done, Mama?” Owen asked me, but I couldn’t hear him over the din of the engine, and he had to say it again. If he had been wearing a watch, he might have checked it.
“I think so,” I shouted back, then added, “This is fun, isn’t it? Do you like it?” I reminded myself to stay in the moment, to experience this summer-in-Maine joy, to stop interpreting and do some more collecting. In a few weeks, Owen would start fourth grade. Summer was short. And here we were, with this new clean bill of health—he did not need a transplant. “A lot of kids have arrhythmias like this one,” the cardiologist had told me. “He’ll grow out of it.”
He will, I know, grow out of all of this. He will grow out of summer and Lego tee-shirts, and go-karting with me. I should be grateful. We should finish this joyous ride in triumph, then go inside the pizzeria next door and order the largest one they make with whatever toppings we want. We should drive home with Owen’s favorite band, The Beatles, cranked all the way up and with both of us singing. We should be awash in summer-healthy-heart joy. I pressed the gas pedal and took a turn as fast as I could. The g-forces pressed Owen into my hip. The wind flattened his hair against his forehead, and he squinted up at me, still hanging on tight to the seat, and I thought, “This is something.”
PENNY GUISINGER’s first book Postcards from Here, published by Vine Leaves Press, will be released on February 16th and is available for pre-order on the 1st. In 2015, one of her essays was named a notable in Best American Essays, and another was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the Founding Director of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. To learn more, visit: www.pennyguisinger.com.
There is a visiting writer scheduled to visit the military hospital where I lead writing sessions with recovering Service Members. I’ve been planning his visit for months. The patients have read some of his stories and are looking forward to this opportunity. Some have even bought their own copies of his book. I was informed, as I was leaving the end-of-the-year elementary school parent social, that the class play was scheduled for the same day as his visit. A few of the mothers were leaning over the granite-topped island in the gleaming kitchen, becoming wine-affectionate with one another. I came in to say goodbye. Thank you so much. I’ll see you next week. Is the play at 5:30 or 6? There is an exchanged glance (I may have imagined this).
The play is at 2:30, Alisha Stoneman tells me, eyebrows raised. That was definitely not imagined.
There had been about thirty minutes of conversation over white wine about how best to simulate a boulder on stage, about whether fake blood would traumatize the children. The husband and wife parent team that sews the costumes for nearly every school play—they are an adorable couple—has been discussing their plans. They both work. They both have important, high-profile jobs. I’m the asshole who didn’t know when the class play was.
Which means I will have to make a choice: class play or veterans. This is how my choices always unfold: birthday party or veterans. Sick day or veterans. Rollerblading, swimming pool, elaborate home-cooked dinner or veterans. I make a plan to have it all: I will leave early, see him through the workshop with the patients who are in the partial hospitalization program, the session I have to be there for, and have a colleague cover the other writing workshop which is open to the entire hospital, including staff.
He’s generous and honest with the group of twelve or so service members in the workshop I attend. Each of them writes about their military experience, even those who are openly angry whenever they are assigned to my writing group. Each wants to share their work. The group is supposed to end at 1:50. I planned to run to my car at 1:55 and make it to the play, which starts at 2:30. It is 2:00 and they are still reading and waiting for the writer’s comments, which he offers slowly and thoughtfully. I can’t leave before I’ve asked them to applaud and thank him, before I remind them to take their work, if it stirred something that will not settle, to their respective mental health providers. I jiggle my leg impatiently, clench my hands and then relax them, remind myself that my job is to maintain calm in the room. When finally we close, it is 2:05. I thank the writer, shake his hand with both of mine and run to my car. It is summer, an afternoon storm has begun, and my drive is delayed by a downpour that limits visibility. I enter the church basement just as the final applause has broken out.
I stand in the back, soaking wet, a halo of frizz forming around my head, and join the clapping. Other parents turn to look at me sideways, sympathetic and judgmental. Glad they are not me. My plastic hospital badge is still clipped to the collar of my dress.
In the third row, my older son Sam is sitting with his father and a woman I recognize (from light social media research with my cousins) as Karim’s girlfriend, who lives with my children half the time, in the house I raised them in and left behind two years ago. Who I have not yet met. Her hair is straight and brushed and dry. She is carrying a Burberry bag and looks more like the other private school mothers than I do.
One of the teachers—who just last week began reading my blog and sent me an email saying she is proud to know me, that Zaki brags about me—leads me to the makeshift backstage, puts her hands on my shoulders, and tells me that Zaki only had three lines, the play was short, that she is so sorry.
You’re better than this, Seema, she tells me while I cry. I wipe my tears, thank her, and face the room of parents milling about.
Zaki is showing Karim and the girlfriend his schoolwork, which is laid out on a table for parents to peruse. Karim is dressed in a blue button down shirt tucked into salmon colored trousers. He is wearing yellow alligator loafers. He glances at me briefly when I approach. He has new glasses that do not suit him. This is a small gift.
Hi, I’m Seema, I say, reaching forward to shake her hand. We haven’t met. I’m Sam and Zaki’s mother. This comes out harsher and more pointed than I meant it to; the emphasis on mother sounds jealous and territorial.
Her smile is nervous. Yes, I’ve heard so much about you. Nice to meet you.
I turn away to make small talk with some of the other mothers. Alisha Stoneman is serving punch. What I need in this room are established allies. What I really want to do is hang out with kids. When I’ve made some loose promises to definitely get the kids together sometime over the summer, I go play with the kids, who are high from the combination of unsupervised cupcake eating and post-performance exhilaration. We are having a dance party on the part of the blue-tiled floor that had been used as the stage. After a few minutes, a teacher comes over to tell the kids to calm down. I don’t know why you think this is a way to behave indoors, She tells them sternly without looking directly at me. You should know better than this. I want to flick her off as she stomps away. I shrug at the kids, who roll their eyes and giggle.
It’s Tuesday, so the boys will be going home with Karim. He and Sam come to where I’m standing and the crowd of children disperses. The girlfriend is sitting in a chair looking at Zaki’s new yearbook, which I purchased, and so should be going home with. The order form came to both of us. If Karim wanted a copy for his house he should have ordered one. This is petty of me, and I know it. I turn to Sam and ask him to just make sure the yearbook makes it back to our house, which, while still petty, seems less so.
This infuriates Karim. Just because you’re standing on a stage doesn’t mean you have to be so dramatic. He walks over and snatches the yearbook out of the girlfriend’s hands and pushes it at me. He turns on his alligator heel and walks toward the door. The boys give me quick hugs and the girlfriend offers her hand. It was nice to meet you, she says before quickly following after him.
She has such nice manners. Where is her mother? Shouldn’t someone warn her?
That night in a lover’s bed, the heat of his body wrapped around mine disrupts my sleep and her face rises again and again.
SEEMA REZA is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, DC, where she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care and socialization among a military population struggling with emotional and physical injuries. An Alumnus of Goddard College and VONA, her work has appeared or will appear on-line and in print in The Beltway Quarterly, Duende, Bellevue Literary Review and Hermeneutic Chaos among others. When the World Breaks Open, a collection of essays and poetry will be released by Red Hen Press in March. Pre-order the book here.
I was run over by a school bus once, but it was the best-case scenario for getting run over by a school bus.
I was sitting in my Honda Civic in a school parking lot, waiting for my son’s bus to show up, and a different school bus was right in front of me. Then it started backing up. When a school bus starts backing up into you, it’s a little surreal because your mind doesn’t understand it all at once. It can’t. School busses don’t just back up and run over your car.
So everything felt like it was in slow motion. I laid on the horn, released the parking brake and started backing up to get away from it, but there was no escape. That school bus was dead set on running me over. When I finally was able to pull away I heard a noise that sounded like the ripping of metal. It turned out to be the ripping of metal. Something was hanging off the back of the bus and I thought, “That must be part of my car.”
But when I got out of my car and noticed that it didn’t have a hood anymore, I was still a little bit surprised. The entire hood was attached to the back of the bus. It was such a clean break, like peeling the lid off a sardine tin. Nobody was hurt. That’s what made it the best-case scenario for getting run over by a school bus.
When I retell this story, friends always ask if it was scary. It was not. As soon as I heard the bus come into contact with my car, I knew that my day had just gotten a lot more complicated. I knew that my evening plans were in jeopardy. I knew that I’d have to deal with a repair shop, with the police, with the insurance company. I knew it was going to be a pain in the ass. But it wasn’t scary. Not then.
In general, I like when things happen. I like things to be interesting. Zoos, for example, are boring to me unless something goes wrong. I don’t want things to go too wrong, but maybe a zebra could escape. Or two chimpanzees could copulate in front of a group of children on a church preschool field trip. Or a gorilla could throw his excrement at the Plexiglas wall and glare at the onlookers. Otherwise, what’s the story? It’s just a zoo.
So during the school bus incident, a part of me realized right away that something unusual had happened, that it was a story, and I began collecting details:
The fact that, since I didn’t expect to get out of the car, I was dressed in clothes that could be mistaken for pajamas. (But which were not pajamas.)
The way the middle school children on the bus thought the accident was the greatest thing ever and also mocked me as I walked past them in my clothes that could be mistaken for pajamas.
The fact that they pissed me off and I said something to the effect of “You think this is fucking funny?”
Which made it funnier to them.
The way the school safety officer assured me that the school district has good insurance because the buses get into accidents all the time. It’s true, too. All the time. Ever since this happened, I’ve noticed that.
The way the police officer was surprised that, when he arrived, the hood was still hanging off the back of the school bus. “You didn’t get it down yet?” he asked. “No, I left it there,” I said. “For your investigation.”
There was no investigation.
This fact that I learned: It’s legal to drive a car in North Carolina without a hood, as long as it has two working headlights and one taillight. My car had a taillight to spare.
The way that after a minute of driving without a hood, you kind of forget that your car doesn’t have a hood. It’s a little loud but you can’t see the engine from your vantage point behind the steering wheel. So you stop thinking about it. It’s surprising, really, how quickly you can get used to something like that.
The silver lining of things going wrong is that there’s something to talk about. I don’t like being bored, so I’m always grateful when there’s something to talk about. It’s a break from the ordinary.
And getting run over by a school bus actually wasn’t that big of a deal anyway. The car got repaired and insurance paid for the work. I drove a Hyundai SUV while the car was in the shop, which I thought was fun because I’d never driven an SUV before.
But as part of a bigger picture it was a little unsettling. It was the second of three car accidents members of my family were in with very large vehicles within an eighteen-month span, and the only one that didn’t result in our car being declared a total loss by the insurance company. In the first accident an eighteen-wheeler swerved into my daughter’s lane and pushed her VW Beetle down the interstate for some distance before she was able to steer to the side of the road. She was fine. Later, she said that she absorbed the power of the truck, superhero-style, and it made her stronger. But the Beetle was history. In the third accident, a young woman turned in front of my husband, lost control of her SUV and spun out and hit him twice. He was driving my Honda Civic (with a brand new hood) and that was the end of that car.
The problem is that when enough things go wrong, like members of your family being run over by large vehicles, you start wondering what the ordinary actually is. Is the ordinary state of the universe such that at any moment someone can make a thoughtless decision and put your life in jeopardy?
Actually, it is. We’re trusted to navigate massive pieces of metal at high speeds in close proximity to hundreds of other people doing the same thing, sometimes within just inches of each other. Think about how little you have to move the steering wheel to effect a significant change in the direction of the wheels of your car. That’s mechanical advantage happening right there, aided by a bunch of magic engineering stuff that I don’t understand. The margin of error is too small and we are too powerful. In the best of situations it seems insane to drive a car on a road.
Add to that the distracted, intoxicated, and impatient drivers. And the assholes. And the kids who haven’t quite learned to judge time and distance yet and don’t have the life experience to know to be afraid. And the elderly driver whose middle-aged offspring are debating if he should still be driving, and how to stop him if he shouldn’t, while right at this very moment he turns the key to his Buick to drive to Publix and buy a loaf of rye bread and ice cream sandwiches. And the school bus drivers who are so annoyed and beat down by snotty, defiant middle-schoolers that all they can think about is getting through the day and working enough years so they can retire. It’s not being dramatic to say that we’re putting our lives in these people’s hands every day. Maybe we are some of these people.
Our trust in each other’s judgment, attention, and adherence to the law is an amazing social construct. Our safety is a flimsy fiction. Yet we put ourselves in the path of this potential disaster every day, because if we don’t, then what? This is the world we live in. Driving to work without fear requires the suspension of disbelief.
The danger is real.
It becomes even more real when my own kids drive. I may be able to inflate my confidence in my own driving, my ability to out-maneuver the cars gunning for me, but I don’t have that same confidence in my kids. Not enough anyway, not when measured against the potential loss. They’re seventeen and twenty but I’m not sure it would matter if they were thirty-seven and forty. No matter how competent they are, I remember the times they got their heads stuck in the bannister or busted their lips by trying to fly off a stool. It’s not fair, I know.
So every time they leave with car keys in their hands, I tell them to be careful. They’ve stopped replying, “I’m always careful” or “Do you think if you don’t say that I won’t be careful?” because they’ve learned that I won’t stop. The words are a talisman I hand them as they step out the door. Like a coin I slip into their shirt pockets as they prepare for battle. As small as it is, it might absorb a bullet. I say it every time.
I don’t leave it as just “be careful.” Every time, I try to impress on them the specific dangers of that point in time.
“Be careful. With the change to Daylight Savings Time, people are tired.”
“Be careful. It’s the last day before a holiday weekend. People won’t have their minds on driving.”
“Be careful. The roads are wet.”
“Be careful. People were up late watching the Panthers game. ”
“It’s Saturday night. Every single driver out there is drunk. Be careful.”
Sometimes I can’t think of anything specific dangerous, so I say, “Statistically, today is the most dangerous day of the year for driving.” I say that several times a year.
The fear of your kids getting hurt is a cliché, but that’s only because it’s true. It’s the one truest, deepest thing that all parents share. It’s a fear so real that letting the thought percolate in my head for even a minute causes a stabbing pain in my gut.
Things are going to happen. They will have stories to tell, which is good, because I like to be entertained. But parts of their life narratives will be awful, and there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can hope for is that when they’re run over by metaphoric or real school buses they’re okay enough to tell the stories and that the stories are eventually funny, or at least bearable. I hope that their hoods always come off clean.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
It’s the end of October, it’s my birthday, and my husband and I are on our way to grant me some wishes, one of which I’m already realizing—to be traveling in October (every teacher’s wish). I also want to see the Atlantic from the French side, I don’t remember why, and we are four hours from the coast when we stop to have some lunch and fulfill my third desire—to eat cassoulet, in its region, in its season. A chilly mist penetrates the Languedoc today, and the French people filling the restaurant around us—we’re the only foreigners, an attendant wish—are tucked into their somber winter scarves.
I’m experiencing all of this with my interior eye half-open, a psychological squint. I’m not accustomed to such indulgences, to even having words like birthday and wishes, refer to me alone. Semi-retired from parenting, with my two kids at college, it feels strange to be on the receiving end of some of the world’s booty. For more than twenty years, I’ve been tending to other people’s dreams and desires. Teacher, mother, Santa—that’s me. I’m not sure who this woman is, here, free from so many obligations, taking the heavy menu at Restaurant Le Tirou, her life served back to her. Que desirez-vous?
Suspicious of my luck, I talk to my husband about unpleasant things, like the fact that I forgot my debit card PIN code, took my husband’s card and somehow botched the transaction, and now we’re shut out of the ATMs here and are penniless, cashwise. We have to rely upon the mercurial power of our credit card, which has a computer chip, just like European chip-and-PIN cards, but no PIN number, for an unfathomably American reason, and so, well, there’s nothing to remember with the credit card, except how to sign our own names, except that some places here can’t accept the signature and our card simply doesn’t work.
I worry aloud if this could be of those places.
Did a new card come in the mail before we left? my husband asks reasonably, and I’m forced to face one of the spaces in my memory that have recently opened up, white and empty rooms, like the ones in heaven you see in movies where no trace your life as it was actually lived survives. By now, at age fifty-two (a new number I will need some willpower to remember) I have visited these rooms before, and I know with certainty that I could walk around in here forever, feeling the walls, asking his question—Did a new card come in the mail?—and never get out.
So I pick up the wine list, also heavy. Another wish my husband is granting is driving our car on this trip, so I can—unspeakable pleasure—enjoy wine the way French people do, savoring a modest glass or two over the large unhurried lunch they call midi, but which actually starts at 12:30. I scan my choices, pretending to evaluate vintages and terroir, when in fact I’m looking at the prices and wondering how little we need to spend, really, for my solitary uneducated palate, and noticing that there are words on the menu I’ve recently looked up, like Corbière, which may or may not mean crow, and whether the fact that my French is not sticking the way it used to, or that I’ve lost consciousness of something as essential as my bank card, is a sign of dementia, until I stumble across an odd word on the Rouge list: Fitou.
Fitou. Fitou. It sounds like something you say when you can’t say the worst, like Fitou! You forgot the PIN code! but then, I remember: my friend Lynne liked a wine called Fitou; I had it at her house in Miami the year we lived there. This factoid is all I have to go on, so I order the Fitou, une demi-bouteille, and am rewarded by the waiter, who compliments me on an excellent choice.
Of course, he also compliments our choosing cassoulet for lunch, which is simply what one orders in October at midi. We are in Castlenaudary, after all, one of the trinity of cassoulet cities—Castlenaudary, Carcassone, and Toulouse; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Everyone here will be having the Father.
Le Tirou (which means something I once looked up) is a cassoulet itself of haut and bas décor, lamps emerging out of teapots, houseplants from the necks of Victorian dolls, tables set with the overblown goblets Americans think of as wine glasses, but which in France indicate that you’re about to pay too much for your meal. I remind myself that today is my birthday (fifty-two, which sounds suspiciously like Fitou) and should not be wasting my desires, whatever they may be, on the check.
The wine arrives and I taste it. A French word I’ve recently relearned returns, souple—supple, gentle in the mouth. I take another easy swallow. Why have I retained the memory of this wine, not well known or expensive, which I drank just once in 1992, when I have forgotten so many more important things: how to formulate the subjunctive, the time it takes to hard-boil an egg, where the hell I think I’m going. It makes me wonder what this says about my priorities, now, our children’s futures banked at universities, our retirement years on the near horizon. Is this what will stick, the wine? Will my husband, in addition to driving, be designated to remember everything else? What is going on, here, in the newly foreign country of me?
A busboy comes by to brush our breadcrumbs with that . . . thingy, and I look away to see two donkeys pass by the dining room’s sliding-glass doors. Diners at the next table send their children out to visit. I am puzzled by the French passion for donkeys. They are installed everywhere around here, like living stuffed animals, eating and excreting and making a sound like agony finally expressed. Nobody seems to ride them, or, thankfully, eat them. Close up, they’re dirty, with flies in their eyes. There could be a reason for the donkeys I’m just not remembering, or perhaps it’s one of those things you can never understand about another culture, like our neighbors back home on Halloween, installing inflatable, light-up, fog-emitting graveyards on their lawns.
Which reminds me of when our kids were little (by which I mean Once upon a time, by which I admit the years have blurred together), when we used to bring them to France to create delightful, unDisneyfied memories together. Here in this region, in fact, we stayed in a renovated farmhouse (a gîte) and I mapped out places to visit—Roman aqueducts and forums, medieval fortresses and cathedrals—that could be both historical and fun. Which is how we once arrived at Carcassone, the Son, a few kilometers from here.
From a distance, Carcassone looked magical, its crenelated walls and turrets rising up to form a fairy tale kingdom on a hill. Inside, though, on the other side of the drawbridge, it was a roiling cauldron of tourists suffering that summer’s (I don’t remember which) record-breaking heat (the record has since been broken). Like the people expiring all over unairconditioned France, we were heatstruck in Carcassone, our feet swollen and appetites evaporated, yet we saw blazing plazas full of foreigners like us consuming souvenir bowls of steaming cassoulet. Just thinking of putting a hot spoon inside my mouth made me want to bray. We stumbled with our miserable kids along Carcossone’s authentically buckled cobblestone streets, lined with gift shops selling cassoulet keychains and cassoulet refrigerator magnets, and looked for shady places to duck into that weren’t restaurants serving cassoulet.
Which is how we came to be seated at an animatronic sideshow about the massacre of the Cathars, former religious inhabitants of Carcassone, who held, among many heretical beliefs, that Catholics could not possibly, in the thirteenth century, still be eating Christ’s body. Christ just wasn’t that big. And anyway, they asked the Pope, do you know where those wafers have been? First they were straw, that went through a donkey’s ass and fertilized a field of wheat. The Eucharist was donkey poop, according to the Cathars.
I’ll never forget watching rock’em-sock’em robot Crusaders knocking off the heads of the poor literalist Cathars, accompanied by a weird English voice-over narration that sounded like Bill Murray playing a drunk, screaming New Zealander (their jowls, their bloody jowls!). Like any real massacre, the story was complete chaos, impossible to follow, and the kids closed their sweaty eyelids against it, slumping heavily into our overheated laps.
Carcassone was one of the first reconstructed historical sites in the world, setting the path for preservation destinations like Historic Williamsburg and Historic Greenfield Village and all the candle-dipping, blacksmithing field trips my husband and I went on when we were kids. What we failed to remember, as we dragged our own kids through it, is that we ourselves never came to appreciate history, at least in the form of blacksmithing or the Revolutionary War, and even if all the power went out in France we still couldn’t summon light from a string. We’d also failed to notice, though we thought about our children constantly in those days, that they weren’t of the castle-knight-dragon-princess-obsessed variety. Look at the turrets! we screamed at them in Carcassone, in what we suddenly heard as our Bill Murray voices, The bloody turrets! They never had their eyes on the prize, it seemed, never truly saw the things we had paid extravagantly for them to see.
Like the donkey at the gîte we rented, advertised as a family-friendly, authentically renovated farm, though when we arrived at the property the stubborn âne wouldn’t come out of the barn. He doesn’t like children, our hosts explained merrily, and the feeling was mutual.
What they did like was a German police drama they caught in reruns on TV at the gîte, featuring mod, smoking detectives and a crime-solving shepherd dog named Rex. They became obsessed with “Rex,” though his barking was the only dialogue they could possibly comprehend. They wanted to stay all day in the gîte to watch “Rex,” please, torpedoing my memory-making itinerary. They liked all gîtes, in fact, all hotels, motels, B&Bs. Like birds or dogs, turning in concentrated circles, they liked scoping out a new nest: opening the drawers, sniffing the soaps, changing the channels. Like Goldilocks, they tried all the beds. With her one-button plastic kid’s camera, our daughter took a photograph of the toilet in every place we stayed, making a serious study of the variation of the species.
As is traditional, our waiter brings the cassoulet to table, in its signature earthenware pot (cassole), fired at a kiln nearby. He deftly dishes out a portion of every meat—duck confit, pork shoulder confit, house sausage, all shining dully with fat—then ladles some of the famous white (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) beans artfully over that. There’s a pause, during which I’m too shy to applaud. Instead, I take a deep inhale of the scent of my desire—a warm dish on a cold day, a hunger about to be satisfied. He leaves the cassole on the table, still bubbling and brimming.
The word confit derives from the French verb confire, which means to preserve. Le Tirou does their own confiting, in a stainlessly cozy meat atelier next door (which could be, now that I think of it, what le tirou actually means), where animals are slow-cooked in lard, then put up in jars and cans. Paradoxically, it’s the fat that creates a sterile environment, an impenetrable barrier to bacteria, allowing something as delicate and ephemeral as the thigh of a duck to be kept on a shelf a long time. With a pantry full of confit and a bag of beans, you could make cassoulet any day of the week, all year long. To hell with the seasons. You could feed four hungry people with just the bowl they’ve served us.
As I imagined once upon a time when I made my wish, watching a German shepherd dig a femur out of a flower bed, cassoulet is delicious in October. Wild, savory, rich, father son and holy ghost, all the separate ingredients melt together into one texture and flavor—something like a warm, salty, ice cream sundae. Then comes the Fitou, souple, gently washing all the fats away. Fitou is made around here, too, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it pairs perfectly with cassoulet, but it surprises me that it is my wonky memory, and not the sommelier, that has made this excellent choice. I think about the hundreds or thousands of hours (the math is beyond me now) we passed together with our children–at tables, theatres, zoos, in castles, cars, beds, on couches, bicycles, airplanes, trains, funiculars, carousels, boats. I wonder what is sticking with them now, as they drift into their own history, what will be preserved in the mind’s impenetrable fat. I wonder, not for the first time, if I’ve been a good mother. It’s my fitou birthday, which I’m trying to remember. My memory stinks, a fact I’m trying to forget. I wonder if what’s scrambling the signals right now is that what I truly desire and can never have again is my children’s uncomplicated presence beside me. I tuck into the cassoulet, so my husband doesn’t see me cry.
You can eat a cassoulet almost without chewing—everything’s that tender. Soon I am seriously full—Thanksgiving-full. I excuse myself for a stroll to the toilettes, passing by vitrines displaying jars of confit you can take home to make your own cassoulet, if you so desire. You can even pick up a monstrous silver can, of a cassoulet already assembled, happy pig skipping across the label, offered by a formally dressed Teddy bear. It makes me a little sick, actually, thinking about everything I’ve just swallowed and may never properly digest. It occurs to me it really doesn’t take that much faith to believe in a meal that lasts forever.
Before he left for college, our son filched some pictures from our albums to paste into a scrapbook to leave behind for his sister. Though touched by his sentiment, I was furious that he’d raided the family photos without asking. Then I saw the book he made, intended only for her, captioning seemingly random photographs (not the ones I would have missed) with inside jokes. The book is called LMAO (Laugh My Ass Off, I had to look it up), which is exactly what our daughter did when she read her little book.
She shared it around, but no one else, including me, could see what was so funny. Like “Rex,” their childhood was a story they’d been telling to themselves all along. In LMAO, my husband and I are pretty minor characters, smiling like cartoon pigs on the sidelines, and I had to consider that while we were earnestly plotting their futures, arranging the scenery (fortresses, spaceships, windmills, caves) to be as inspirational and educational and pleasant as possible, they were naturally oblivious, laughing their asses off, following their own desires.
In LMAO, there’s just one photo from our Carcassonne trip. Remember, my son wrote to his sister, under a picture of the two of them, adorably eight and nine, or seven and eight, standing on the reclaimed wooden fence next to the stone barn where the donkey was brooding, those amazing pillows?
The credit card works, and my husband excuses himself to walk off his cassoulet, or maybe the shock of the bill, while I finish, yes, the whole half-bottle of wine. With my sidelong eye I watch him lope away, slender back I still have a crush on. It really is just the two of us now, and that’s more than a girl could wish for on her birthday. I pick up his pen to write a note on my hand: Remember. To thank him for the lovely lunch. To apologize again for the card thingy. And to tell him about the chef in his toque, white and wide as a sail boat, navigating among the groaning diners towards me. He asks, with a shyly satisfied smile, if the cassoulet has pleased me. I take his hand, and my fingers disappear into the largest palm I’ve ever held, a deep bed of warm, meaty flesh, softer than the softest pillow. I am, oui, pleased. This I will remember.
KRISTIN KOVACIC is a teacher and writer currently on sabbatical in France, where she is watching, with sympathy and recognition, the traumatization of a culture. Winner of numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize, for her essays and poetry, she makes her home in Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Carlow University. A new chapbook of her poems, House of Women, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.