By Caroline Davis2010/Flickr

By Deborah Linder

I stand before the mirror in the hotel room with my legs planted wide and my arms outstretched in a V. I’ve never attempted a power pose before, but I’ve heard it’s a great way to boost your confidence. Apparently, just mimicking the stance of a powerful person can make a poser feel powerful, too. It’s also been suggested that the pose can raise testosterone and lower cortisol levels and that the subsequent hormonal adjustment will reduce anxiety. Since, at this moment, my mouth is parched, my palms are clammy, and my heart is palpitating wildly, anxiety reduction seems like an excellent idea.

I hold the pose for a full minute. It occurs to me that this is the body language equivalent of a positive affirmation, a fist-pump, a Go get ’em, Tiger. And while I’m normally skeptical of pep talks, tonight I’m willing to suspend disbelief.

As I stare at my expanded self in the mirror, I am reminded of the time I was hiking in Glacier National Park. Posted along the trails were warnings of mountain lion sightings and instructions on what to do when confronted with a big cat. “Make yourself appear as large as possible,” the signs directed. “Act defiant, not afraid.”

The three men I am about to meet are not mountain lions, I tell myself.

Nor am I easy prey.

Nonetheless, I have never felt more vulnerable.

Now I’m in the elevator, in a free fall of floors passing too quickly. Sixteen, fifteen, fourteen… I’m tempted to push all the buttons to buy time, to catch my breath. Somehow, even after decades of waiting, I’m still not ready.

But it’s too late: The elevator doors open onto the ornate marble lobby. I’d chosen this majestic old hotel for its substantial heft, its art-deco grandeur, its storied history and roster of illustrious guests. But Winston Churchill and Elvis Presley are no longer on the premises, and at this moment, I’m surprised by the seeming-ordinariness of the hotel.

Clusters of people stand laughing at the entrance of the restaurant, others peer at their phones from overstuffed chairs. The clerks behind the desk don’t even bother looking up as I stand alone for the last time. A neighboring elevator arrives with a ping! and I step out.

The inevitable awaits.

There, at the far end of the lobby, are my mystery dates. They are bigger than I expected, solid, strong presences, a triumvirate of maleness. Ruddy-complected. Short-cropped, grey-blond hair. Button-down shirts. Shifting stances. Anxious smiles.

And now I am walking towards them, a preordained gravitational pull, even as I am conscious that each step brings me closer to a place I’m not sure I want to be. The lobby feels, at that moment, insurmountably vast. As I finally approach them, I look quickly from one face to another, struck suddenly by the pairs of dark blue eyes regarding me. There’s something disconcertingly familiar about those eyes, the blue a hue I recognize, a hue I know from seeing it every day. Those eyes, their eyes, are the same as mine.

Because, after all, the men are my brothers.

To be precise, my half-brothers.

Now I am hugging them, one at a time, and they give good hugs, full squeezes, no holding back. They start to introduce themselves but there’s no need—I know them already. I’ve studied their faces, their photos, the images that have filled my computer and mind since all this began.


A few months earlier I had sent three identical letters to three separate addresses:

“Dear ___,

           I’m writing to you—and concurrently to your brothers—as your half-sister. I have no idea if you know of my existence; if not, I will explain that my mother was your father’s first wife. Their marriage was short and soon after my mother remarried it was decided that I should be adopted by my stepfather.”

In the letter I explained that I’d had no contact with anyone from my biological father’s family since the 1960s and that, in fact, I had done my best to obliterate reminders of my early life, specifically those relating to my father. It was only recently—when, surprising even myself—I’d spontaneously searched the Internet search and discovered his obituary.

What I didn’t explain was that I closed and re-opened the laptop three times before making it to the end of the death notice. The most difficult part to read? Not that my father had been young when he died or that his type of cancer would likely have been protracted and painful. No, the worst part was the list of survivors. Specifically, the absence of my name from that list. Could there be any wound deeper than a denial of my very existence? None perhaps, save the revelation of three other names, those of my father’s sons.

For a long while, I told no one of my discovery. It was too big. I was uncertain what to do with the information, uncertain, even, of how I felt. Yet I whispered the names of those unknown men to myself and I doodled their initials on the backs of envelopes, just as I’d done years earlier with my first crushes. According to the obituary, they all lived near one another, in the same state where my father had died. Other searches revealed little else. Who were these guys? What did they know about me? Why had they never been in touch? And, alarmingly, what else didn’t I know? I began to wonder if our paths had ever crossed. And if so, would we have recognized each other? Were there traits we shared? Interests, predilections, hopes, fears? Not even Detective Google could help me there.

I allowed myself to imagine what it could be like to reveal some version of the truth: Oh, yes, I have three brothers. I’m the eldest of four, with three younger brothers. Even though we live far apart, my brothers and I are very close.

Until one day, tired of imagining and yet preparing myself for the worst, I mailed them each a letter.


Now we stand grinning at one another in the hotel lobby, talking at once about my trip and their traffic and how it was so easy to recognize me, until finally, it’s clear that somebody needs to take charge, and I guess that should be me because after all, I’m the oldest in the family and even though for my whole life—at least until now—I was an only child, one with a distinct lack of experience in birth order dynamics. I’ll do it, I’ll take charge. That is the role of the eldest, right? Which I hope does not come as too much of a surprise to the oldest brother, the one who’s used to taking charge in the family.

“Should we head out?” I say and we start toward the stairs before one of them asks, “Okay, where should we go?”

I find this deeply unsettling. They haven’t thought about this before now? We’d arranged this date nearly a month ago and yet no one has thought beyond this moment? It hasn’t occurred to them that something needs to happen, that we can’t all just remain here in the pretty lobby of this hotel in Cincinnati all evening?

Five minutes in, this sister is already exasperated with her brothers. And it occurs to me that perhaps this lack of planning is just the beginning of the things that are different about us.

“Well,” I say, “How about somewhere we can go for a drink?” It’s clear to me that one of us, at least, could really use a drink.

There’s a brief conference. It’s obvious that none of them frequents the bars in town, which is, I decide, probably a positive. There’s a little bit of bickering: “No, that place’s no good,” “Not on a Friday night,” “Nah, we’d have to get in the car to go there,” before the youngest says he knows a place a few blocks away. And so we step out into the warm spring evening.

Arranging ourselves on the sidewalk proves awkward. Demonstrating gentlemanly politeness, they all want me to go ahead. Or maybe they’re just afraid to walk with me. Finally, after a bit of jockeying, we pair off and start down the street.

“Man, you’re tall,” my walking partner says, and it’s true that at five feet eight, I’m not a small person. At this moment, though, standing next to his six-foot plus stature, I don’t feel tall at all. In fact, suddenly, I feel like a little girl.

And I’m reminded that the last time I was part of their family, I was a little girl.

What remains of that child wants to put our her hand to be held, to feel safe and reassured that taking this risk has been the right thing to do. But I don’t yet know that, nor do I really know these men and so instead, I tuck my hand into my pocket and try to keep up with them as we head down the street.


As it turned out, my letters proved to be lit firecrackers that had landed in their mailboxes. No real damage was done, but a lot of commotion ensued. “It was quite a shock for me and still is,” one of them wrote. Another explained that, “I am … trying to face this as reality.” It was surprisingly reassuring to know that they had been unaware of the circumstances all these years, and to know, too, that unearthing that long-ago secret felt significant to them as well. A third wrote, “Your letter did indeed catch me and my brothers by surprise. We did not know any of this. We are all … trying to process this information.”

And thus began the exchange: emails, letters, photographs, confidences. Giddy, I sent off friendly notes and flattering photographs. There was so much to know, to discover. Like the little frisson that accompanies flirtation, it felt exciting and strange to have new people interested in my life story. And for those long-married men, I suspect it was similar. After all, when was the last time that anyone had expressed genuine curiosity about what they thought, how they felt, who they had wanted to be, and who, in fact, they were?


We settle into a booth and order drinks. Thankfully, everyone is drinking, even the one with a medical condition that makes it unadvisable. “Except every now and then,” he tells me. I’m both glad that this is one of those times and worried that it’s a genetic disease I’ll eventually inherit.

They reminisce about the day my letters arrived. “Thought you were after Dad’s money,” one of them admits. “I thought there was no way this could be true,” one says. When confronted, their mother, my stepmother—a woman I vaguely remember meeting but had never really known—eventually confirmed my story. Their father hadn’t wanted them to know, she told them, although she now regrets having kept quiet. Dad was a very private person, the men tell me. Secretive, even.

We order another round of drinks.

I bring out a photo album I’ve put together, a highlights reel of my life. This photographic history seemed like a good idea when I was planning the trip, a way to catch them up on my last fifty years. There are pictures of what I now think of as my “real” family standing in front of houses in California, in Chicago, in St. Louis, and in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And much earlier, worn snapshots from when I was a toddler, although none with our shared parent. I hear myself chattering a monologue, eager to fill them in, introduce them to everything I’ve been and have become. That’s me on study abroad, have you ever been to the south of France? And here’s my college graduation, and, oh, yes, that’s my wedding day. San Juan Capistrano? It’s in Southern California, where I was living at the time. And here’s Henry as a baby, what a rascal, and here he is holding Andrew at the hospital, nearly four years later. I know, they don’t look much alike. That black Lab? Let’s see, that would be Lucy, or maybe Stanley, hard to tell, but both really great dogs.

It suddenly occurs to me that this compilation of photographs will come in handy at my funeral some day. I’ve seen slide shows like that, Kodak moments commemorating a person already gone. Hell, maybe that’s happening right now. The person in the album has already disappeared, an only child replaced—tonight—by a woman with three (half) brothers.

The men flip through the album quickly, occasionally glancing up as if to check the resemblance of that younger person in the photo to the woman now sitting across from them. Stop turning the pages so fast and pay attention, I want to tell them. There will be a quiz. Who is my younger son named for? How did I meet my husband? Where did we last go on vacation? It worries me that they might not appreciate the importance of backstory.

But as the night goes on, the possibility of catching up with one another’s lives seems increasingly remote. As we continue talking I have a hard time remembering which one of their daughters is a karate black belt and which is studying to become a nurse. Whose job requires travel? How old are their boys again? Which one of them likes to ride motorcycles? (That one, at least, is easy: It turns out they all do.)

When we order food, I learn that one of the brothers has a shellfish allergy. For a moment, I marvel at the vagaries of biology. How is that the other two – and me – have been spared? Accustomed to singularity, I feel awakened to the idea of commonality.

One of them has ordered a Scotch egg as an appetizer and I am offered a bite. I hesitate, not wanting to be rude, yet reluctant to press my lips onto the same surface that his touched. Suddenly this all feels uncomfortably intimate. Dad was a very private person, I hear them say.

My husband has sent along a list of questions to keep the conversation flowing. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done? Is there a family tradition that’s meaningful to you? Which song do you play really loud when you’re alone in the car? As much as I’m grateful for his thoughtfulness, as much as I want this to be a light-hearted romp of a family outing, I can’t help but wonder if the situation is actually less comic than tragic.

For what does this meeting represent, anyway? The word “reunion” has such a cheery lilt. Are we reunifying? But we are not East and West Germany, although it strikes me as portentous that my separation from their family was approximately the same length of time as those two states spent apart. Nor are we a band that is getting back together thirty years after its records went golden. The cheesy lyrics to a song, “reunited and it feels so good,” float across my mind and I swat at them with an inward, Nope, not exactly. Which feels like a betrayal because the men sitting here with me right now are kind and decent. They are funny and sincere and, I suspect, dependable. They are, indeed, solid. I bet they’d help me build a backyard deck or teach me to shoot a gun. In fact, if there were a Dating Game equivalent for choosing a brother I would want to pick all of them. Plus they seem ready to welcome me into their clan. Maybe I’d like to bring my family to their Thanksgiving? I’m asked.

But when I try to imagine my husband and our two sons giving up our own holiday traditions—abandoning the neighbors with whom we always share the meal, relinquishing the special tortellini soup we have as our first course, foregoing the after-dinner walk, the cheese course, the assigned seating we’ve tweaked for years—the concept of What Might Have Been veers abruptly into What Will Never Be.


When I was a girl, an only child growing up in a lonely house, I yearned for siblings. How much better life would be if I had someone to catch my Frisbee, to deflect my parents’ focus, to help me understand boys. I was aware of the sacrifices I’d have to make: the endless arguments about the bigger piece of cake, riding shotgun, or being the first to press the elevator buttons. I knew from friends that familial arguments would likely include the phrase, “That’s not fair!” and that, as an only child, I’d have to become less spoiled and more adept at sharing. That was all fine with me. I’d have traded my frilly canopy bed for one with bunks any day, especially if it came with a brother or sister to giggle with in middle of the night.

But I am no longer that girl.

While I like these men, and while I have tried so hard to make myself likeable, nay, loveable, to them, I’m not sure there’s a space we can all inhabit. I’m suddenly skeptical that the overlap between my life and theirs is enough for a real relationship to ever develop. Not now, not after so many years. Any scientist will tell you that blood is a weak binding agent. Without the underpinning of a shared history, does our kinship offer anything other than a possible source for a replacement kidney?


Now the meal is over. Before we head out, I ask to take their picture. And because they’re still willing to humor me, they huddle together at one end of the table, pressed closely against one another and yet comfortable together. They smile and I click. Is it significant that the only photo I have from that night is one in which they are apart from me? No matter. I will text the photo to my family back home who are waiting to hear how my night has unfolded. “Those eyes!” my son will immediately text in response. “They’re your eyes!”

Later, back in the hotel elevator, a friendly couple will ask if I had a good evening. “Oh, you know,” I tell them. “Just a family thing. Out to dinner with my three brothers.” They nod and smile and I smile in return. I don’t acknowledge how long I have anticipated being able to speak those words or how exquisite they feel as they spill carelessly from my mouth.

And maybe, for now, that is enough.


DEBORAH LINDER writes fiction and creative nonfiction in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Remedy Quarterly, Rapportage, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Smithsonian.com, and the margins of her favorite cookbooks. More of her writing is at www.deborahlinder.com

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We’ll Always Have Frankfurt

clouds w:plane
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofi McMullin

I took the last fortune cookie that came with our bill at the dim sum place near my office. My friends and I were celebrating the end of a long week, and we were all loud and slightly buzzed from our cocktails. The thin slip of paper fell into my lap as I crumbled the cookie between my fingers, and I almost simply tossed it on my plate amongst the small pools of soy sauce. Instead, I wiped my fingers and straightened out the strip. I laughed at a joke half-heartedly, not taking my eyes off the words in front of me.

“An old love will come back to you.”

“Well, you are going to have to be more specific,” I joked after I read my fortune to my friends. But I really only had one old love in mind.

The last time I had seen Peter was thirteen years ago when he flew halfway across the world to show up at my office, unannounced, two months before my wedding to another man. We had lunch, then later that afternoon we met up at my apartment and talked for maybe an hour about … I don’t even know what. Definitely not about our six-year, mostly long-distance relationship—by now more of a friendship rather than a love affair—or what was about to happen to that relationship. I think back and wonder why he was there, why he drank tea with me in my kitchen, why he told me that his girlfriend was looking at wedding magazines. Was he looking for a certain reaction from me? Was he there to change my mind? Or his?

We held each other and he kissed my forehead. Then he walked away.

We stayed in touch through infrequent e-mails and occasional phone calls through this thick, juicy part of life filled with marriage and children and careers. Somehow our friendship deepened over the years despite the distance, and our interactions always buzzed with that faint undercurrent of lovers who fell victim to time, distance, circumstance. We could have been. But we aren’t. And now we never will be.

The good thing about meeting up with an old love after a long time is that there are no expectations. When I first fell in love with Peter, I wanted desperately for him to rescue me. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college, and all I wanted from life was to graduate—although I think I would have given that up for him too—marry him, have his babies, and iron his shirts. Everything else in life seemed too scary, and loving him was very easy. He was irresistible—all blond hair and blue eyes, easy humor, and cool confidence. I fell in love with him the moment I heard his name—one of those pit-of-your-stomach, butterflies-around-your-heart, love-at-first-sight, unexplainable affairs that I believed only happened in very cheesy movies. It sounds ridiculous now, but I remember the feeling clearly—giddy and out of control and all-consuming.

When I saw him a few months ago for the first time after thirteen years, I had no expectations of our time together. A nice dinner, maybe. Pleasant conversation. But that was it. I know now that I don’t need to be rescued. I have a baby. I have shirts to iron. I have love that is giddy but not all-consuming or out of control.

What I didn’t expect was that the moment I saw him, I would constantly have to remind myself that I can’t touch him. I can’t just take his hand in mine. I can’t run my fingers through his hair. I can’t wrap my arms around his waist as we wait to cross the street. But even after all these years, some weird reflex compelled me to reach for him. We used to kiss and caress and grab and now here we are, trying to find this restaurant in the rain and the darkness and I can’t take his arm, so I don’t lose my balance? Seems ridiculous.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” we told each other when we first awkwardly embraced. I know we both said it to break the ice, to acknowledge the absurdity of standing face-to-face after all these years.

But it’s a lie.

We have changed. Maybe not the basics, maybe not the important parts. But we are softer around the edges, maybe a bit tougher on the inside. We’ve seen things and we’ve done things that we never thought would happen to us: dead babies, illness, disappointment, messy relationships. Our bodies are plumper with age, scarred from surgeries, birth, accidents. The hairs are finer, dusted with gray; the eye crinkles are deeper, a bit sad. We have loved and fought and bought cars and houses. We changed diapers and stayed up all night with sick kids. We have savings accounts, retirement funds, houses, employees, vacation time, car-pool duty, in-laws.

We are grown-ups.

We are nineteen.

Sitting across from him at dinner our time apart didn’t feel that long. Then the thought hit me: if we wait another thirteen years, he will be fifty-seven. I will be fifty-one. A lifetime gone, pretty much. How many more thirteen-year chunks do we have left?

Dinner was a blur—catching up after so much time is hard work and it takes concentration. It’s possible that I drank my wine a bit too quickly. My mind had trouble catching up with what my eyes were seeing: HE was sitting right across from me. He had the steak. I had the veal. We took bites of each other’s desserts. Like it was no big deal.

After dinner we walked slowly in the cool, rainy darkness to my hotel. Not yet ready to end the evening, we circled each other once we got to my room, our conversation suddenly faltering. Here he was, amongst my things—my travel-weary suitcase, my patent-leather shoes under the desk, my coat on the back of the chair, my jewelry spilling out of its case, my work notes and business cards in a neat stack on the desk, next to my keys from home.

“You drive a Honda,” he noted, and I laughed and said it was a soccer mom car. He asked “May I?” and rifled through the stack of papers and magazines and the flowery notebooks and postcards I’d bought.

I remember that when I first loved him, I always wanted a piece of him. Something that belonged to him. I would have given anything to be able to stand in his room like he was in mine now, surrounded by the things he touched every day. Once when he visited me in college I hid his white undershirt from the previous day under my pillow. The shirt smelled of him for a couple of days after he left and I hung on to it for years, even after his scent was gone. Another time I stole a pair of his socks—blue, with little teddy bears on it. I don’t know if he ever noticed—I doubt it. But I still have that pair of socks and, now in that hotel room in Germany, I thought I should have brought it with me, given it back to him. But then again, that’s probably the only piece of him I’ll ever have.

The next day we walked the cobblestoned streets of the city together—sometimes arm-in-arm, but mostly not. We talked; he took a couple of work calls and walked away from me as I sat on a bench. It was a Saturday; there were weddings at the town hall and we watched as happy couples took pictures in front of medieval buildings.

We wandered into the church on the main square and in the quiet, musty hall we walked our separate ways. I lit a candle, but it was just an excuse to stand still for a moment and breathe. I knew we’d have to say good-bye in a couple of hours and that the countdown would begin on our next thirteen years. I wandered over to the tomb of a German prince and his wife and felt jealous of their eternal togetherness. I looked around to find him and saw him across the church, writing something on a piece of paper to be pinned on the church’s prayer wall.

I never asked what he prayed for.

Over the candles I prayed for strength and composure, but neither of those things were granted that day.

“We were able to pick up right where we left off a lifetime ago,” he wrote in a text after we said good-bye. And he was right. The slow burn, the thrumming background noise of our past was right there, ready to spill over.

When I got on the plane the next morning to head home to my husband and little boy, I felt suspended between my nineteen-year-old self and my current life. Somewhere over the Atlantic, settled down by the plane’s gentle rocking and the clouds passing outside my window, my twenty-one hours with Peter started to feel otherworldly. My destination on the plane’s map became clear, a fixed point on the horizon, comforting, promising.

I thought about how, in the end, the fortune cookie wasn’t exactly correct. Old loves don’t just “come back.” They visit, they haunt, they poke around in the sensitive flesh right around the heart with their deft, nimble fingers. Old loves are beautiful and tempting and so, so delicious. And for a moment it seems like yes, yes, a comeback is possible. A moment of weakness. A look. A shared memory. But then… life. The real one. The one waiting at the airport.

I stared at the little “x” on the map for a while as the plane flew through some turbulence and thought about how the engines just keep on whirring and pushing forward, no matter what shakes them.

We wait out our thirteen years and then for a couple of hours we lie and pretend that nothing has changed. We keep walking on cobblestones, through crowded streets; stop to eat chocolate, to watch weddings and street performers. We stand under an awning during a quick rain shower and we wind our arms together as one of us peeks out, looking for a small break in the clouds.

[This essay has an equally excellent companion. Read Zsofi’s other essay about the old love here. —ed.]


ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Role Reboot, and Kveller. She blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Reunion Blues

By Frapestaartje/ Flickr

By Alicia Catt

The night before my ten-year high school reunion, I join an online dating website and peruse the singles living in the town where I grew up. It’s late and I’m lonely and nursing a large bottle of plum wine. Most of my potential matches are farm-grown cowboys and college girls going through self-described “experimental” phases. I find just one promising profile; he’s barefoot in his pictures and mentions a love of bacon and grassroots democracy. I send him a message. I tell him to meet me at the reunion bar at eight p.m. the next evening, because I’ll surely need a break from my classmates by then. He doesn’t write back. Later I realize I’ve given him the wrong bar name—the reunion is at Junior’s, but I told him Johnnie’s. Or maybe Jimmy’s. There are more bars than churches in River Falls, Wisconsin, and most of them seem to be owned by men whose names begin with the letter J.

Though I now live only sixty miles away, I haven’t been back to River Falls in almost a decade. I spent most of my childhood there, but I don’t claim the town as my home. I don’t follow its sports teams or wear the colors of my high school alma mater. Containing ten thousand townies, six thousand bushy-tailed undergraduates, and a single homeless man named Artie, River Falls is every average, small-minded college town that people love to hate. Nestled on the banks of the Kinnikinnic River, River Falls is an hour’s drive from the urban center of Minneapolis. People from River Falls think they live in a suburb. Most Minneapolitans don’t even know River Falls exists.

The next day, as I drive east into town, I realize I remember more than I expected to. I pass Ryan’s house, where I once gave a terribly inept blowjob in exchange for Chinese food and being told that I was pretty. I pass Perkins, where I’d taken my girlfriend Rebecca on late-night dates and tried, usually unsuccessfully, to feel her up under the table. I pass Billy’s house, where I blacked out drunk for the first time on watery Rolling Rock and passed out topless in the driveway. And I pass the high school, now renovated to house the junior high. Here I have to stop the car for a minute and cry.


I graduated from high school before the days of anti-bullying campaigns, before teachers posted rainbow stickers on their doors to signify LGBT alliance, before celebrities made YouTube videos assuring students that it gets better. Rebecca and I would navigate the gauntlet of the west wing hallway to a rotating chorus of homophobic epithets. It was the first time in my school career that I hadn’t been entirely invisible to my classmates—so sometimes I almost liked the attention, the being-different-ness of it. Sometimes I would grab Rebecca’s hands, press her up against a locker and kiss her, our Chapstick-slick mouths slurping at each other. I would count the slurs as they were hurled our way and, even though it hurt, I’d smile a tiny bit to myself.

Coming out was no big production for me internally. I knew I liked girls in third grade when I mashed my Barbies into compromising positions in the cardboard box I termed the “Sexmobile.” In fourth grade I filled spiral ring notebooks with odes of girlish admiration to Mrs. Ferris, my teacher. And in seventh grade, instead of posters of contemporary male heartthrobs, I plastered my walls with magazine cut-outs featuring beautiful, exotic women with long hair—mostly vodka ads and fashion shoots.

But I knew I liked boys, too, because I spent most of eighth grade in a hopeless haze over dreamboat Levi and bad boy Zach, leaving anonymous love notes and fake roses from a craft store in their lockers. Most boys in my class weren’t aware I existed, but I let the ones that noticed me touch my hips awkwardly during slow songs at school dances. I liked it all. I wanted it all. I would take just about anything anyone was willing to give me.

So I came out to my band-geek friend Mike first, in tenth grade, as we were boarding the school bus to go home. You’re so gay, he said (as in the pejorative gay, referencing some teenage shenanigan I’d pulled, no doubt). And because I didn’t think there was anything unusual about that, I corrected him. Half-gay, I said. He grinned, and I grinned, and I figured that would be that.

I came out to my mother a few weeks later, in her car at a stop light. I’m bisexual, I told her. She retracted her head from its usual self-absorbed cloud long enough to glance at me. Oh? she said. That’s nice.


The trouble began when I met Rebecca. She was a grade below me, six inches taller, and perpetually clad in combat boots, black ruffled skirts, and Metallica T-shirts. On a field trip she confided to me that she liked girls. By the end of that week we were passing heart-shaped notes in the hallway.

Rebecca never wanted to go public with our relationship; in retrospect, considering our environment, she was a far more sensible girl than me. But I dragged us out of the closet anyway—grabbed for her hand and held it in the lunch line, snuck up on her at her locker and smacked her ass. By the time I realized the gay-bashing monster I’d awoken, it was too late.

On the two-year anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death—National Coming Out Day—I plastered the outside of my locker with a picture of Shepard and rainbow decals. Before noon, the picture had been torn down and crumpled on the floor, and my locker was smeared with big black letters inked in permanent marker: DYKE.

When a dye job gone bad left my hair a dirty dishwater green, I simply shaved it off. The next day, my scrawniest, most acne-ridden bully, Scott, threw a ball of wet clay at my back hard enough to bruise. Did you join the fucking army, lesbo? I held up my middle finger. I gave everyone the finger back then. Most of the time it was easier than trying to articulate a response to their ignorant comments.

Rebecca and I were walking targets for teenage cruelty. Once, someone smashed gum into her waist-length hair. Someone spit in my ear in the hallway and wedged spitballs into the vents of my locker. Someone threw a firecracker out a car window at Rebecca as she was walking home from school. And even after we broke up, after she stopped talking to me, after I swore to only date boys until I graduated and moved away, after I gave enough drunken, bored blowjobs to grant me the unofficial title of “school bicycle” because everyone had had a ride—even after all of that, the harassment continued.

At my senior banquet, I was voted the female “most likely to be on Jerry Springer,” an award that was consistently given to the black sheep of the graduating class. My male counterpart for the award was Dan, a boy who’d been held back twice and who’d been to rehab before he’d even turned eighteen. Oddly enough, Dan had always been accepting of my sexuality. Fuck ’em if you got ’em, he’d say to me, and we’d smoke cigarettes together in the school parking lot, crouching behind cars to block the wind and stares.


Ten years later, everything in River Falls looks slightly different and a little goofy, like someone twisted the kaleidoscope of my hellish adolescence and replaced a few nightmares with fun-house mirrors instead. The town has grown by perhaps three thousand people. They’re calling it a “city” now on the roadside signs that welcome visitors, but I know better. The downtown area hasn’t changed much—it’s still just one arterial booze-lined street—but the city limits now boast crops of identical modular homes that stretch to the horizon in eighteen shades of beige.

I find a strange comfort about River Falls, though, like I could shut my eyes and my body could do the steering from muscle memory alone. After my crying jag subsides into giggles, and then just occasional sighs, I light a cigarette and head for the river bluffs and waterfall on the west side of town. It’s breathtaking, desolate. I wander in the valley for a while, where the river is nothing more than a trickle through rocks. I hop between boulders and pebbles to keep my feet dry. I wonder how I lived here for eighteen years and never noticed the beauty of the place. Nobody is out here, and I wonder how everyone else could miss it, too.


I meet three old friends for a pre-reunion drink—a shot of something red and fruity for courage. They are, in truth, the only three people I really care to see. Ten years ago, Michelle was very pregnant and dating a boy who pressured her to drop out of school four months before graduation and forbade her to speak to her friends. Today, she’s a professional body piercer with a GED and two hyperactive, healthy daughters. Brian, formerly a chubby, lisping drama geek, dropped eighty pounds and now cooks five-star meals at a downtown Minneapolis restaurant. Krissy’s breasts have gotten suspiciously larger, but the change suits her, a formerly timid church mouse whose religious parents made her wear denim skirts and collared blouses to school.

We were all harassed in our own ways, by many of the same people, but my peers agree that Rebecca and I bore the brunt of it. I shrug and say that it doesn’t really matter anymore—I’m good, I’m happy. Maybe I’m lying. True, in the ten years since graduation, I’ve rarely thought of school bullies, rarely recalled teachers who stood by and let me be terrorized. But perhaps it’s not just because life has gotten so much better—it has, but it’s mostly just gotten more real, as life tends to do, and there are things to worry about that far eclipse name-calling and spitballs. Maybe that’s just the nature of adulthood.

The four of us finish our drinks and walk down the block to the reunion bar. It’s dumpy and far too dark. I’m bad with faces to begin with, and I find myself wishing for name tags. But it’s clear that this gathering was staged with minimal planning. There are no name tags—and no formalities, no surveys to fill in, no “Most Accomplished” or “Most Improved” awards to dole out. There’s only a cash bar and a pool table littered with old yearbooks and photographs. I sip another drink, sticking near my friends, until two ultra-tan blondes come crashing into me from behind.

“Alicia?” the shorter one squeals. “Oh my God!” She hugs me. I am not positive who she is, but when she pulls away, I recognize her as Megan, a girl I’d spoken to no more than five times our entire school career.

Megan gestures at her companion. “This is my girlfriend.” Blonde #2 shakes my hand and smiles limply. I am still looking at Megan. I tell her I had no idea she was gay, and good for her, and when did she know?

“Oh, ten years ago at least,” she says, averting her eyes to her feet.

I stare her down, my eyes on fire with disbelief. “Why didn’t you come out?” I ask. But what I really mean to ask her is why she never stood up for Rebecca and me, why she never said anything to discourage our bullies. Because Megan played volleyball, ran track, took photographs for the school newspaper. Megan partied like a teenage rockstar. Megan bought her clothes at the mall and never got government-subsidized free lunch. In other words, Megan was a girl with clout. One chastisement from her and my tormentors might have shut their mouths for good.

“I was scared, you know?” She speaks into her beer. “Everyone was so judgmental then. And my parents would have totally disowned me.”

I nod. Not because it’s okay, but because I understand. Or I’m starting to.

Scott, my former scrawny, acne-faced bully, swaggers dizzily in my direction. He is falling-over-himself wasted. “What’s up…Jessica?” he slurs at me, tipping his Coors Light to meet my glass.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “What’s your name?” No use, I realize, in giving him the satisfaction of knowing I remember him. After regaling me with tales of his life in River Falls as a forklift operator, he stumbles off to have another drink.

I came to the reunion for some kind of closure, but as I drive away from the small town of my youth, a strange sadness comes over me. I wonder if closure is too much to ask for. I’ll never know how things could have been different if Megan had spoken up, or if I’d kept myself sequestered in the closet until college. I’ll never know if Scott felt remorse, if any of my bullies did, if the waves of karmic retribution ever crashed over them. I suppose that’s not the important thing. Maybe I ought to simply be grateful for surviving, for getting out, for thriving. Maybe life really does get better. Maybe that’s more than enough.


ALICIA CATT lives and teaches writing in the center of the polar vortex—also known as southern Minnesota. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Yemassee, The Pinch, Word Riot, and others. She is the editor of Pentimento. She’s an extraordinarily cheap date.

Ghosts at the Table

By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Kristine Guay

“So what’s new in your life, boys? Is there anything you can share with 
us or that you even want to share?” My partner’s mother breaks a momentary silence at our holiday dinner table while unscrewing the cap off of 
her container of bottled water. I reach across a plate of spinach-pie
 wedges to grab the etched glass wine decanter and fill my glass in front
 of me. My partner Janyce is cutting into a lamb chop, swirling a forkful
 around in the egg-lemon sauce on her plate. Over on the far left, my 
older teen, Connor, is scooping up another spoonful of rosemary potatoes from the
 ceramic bowl and dropping them in a pile on his plate.

“I’m getting my license soon,” says Connor.

“Hey, did I ever tell you what my dad did to me when I got my license?” Janyce’s sister Agni blurts out from the far opposite side of the table. I can see the top of her head from behind the vase of 
orange and pink pastel tulips as she hoists her little black dog up on to 
her lap.

“Ag!” says Janyce, placing her wine glass down and shooting her sister a stare before looking nervously over at me.

“It’s okay,” I say. “Let her tell the story.”

“Well, on the day I passed my test, I asked Dad if I could take the car to drive to Peggy’s house,” she says, looking straight at Janyce as she pauses to shift the dog to her other knee. “And he said to me that I had to wait for him to go with me because I couldn’t drive the car alone for another three months. He said it was because the insurance would take three more months before it would go into effect. Can you believe that?”

“That’s not true, is it?” asks Connor.

“Of course it’s not true!” says Agni as she starts to giggle. “You thought you were being smart, didn’t you, Dad?” She gives a jab to her father who is sitting beside her and looking down at his plate.

“I don’t think he heard you,” says Janyce.

“Oh he heard me. Just look at that smile,” she says.

Janyce’s dad picks his head up and grins. “It worked, didn’t it?”

“It worked until I got my first car myself, and I made a comment about needing to wait a few months for the insurance, and they looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “The guy said to me, ‘You can drive the car out of here right now.’”

“I don’t get it,” says Connor. “Why would your dad tell you that, then?”

“We were going to try the same thing on you,” says Janyce looking over at me. “But too late now, huh,” she says to him. “Dad just wanted her to keep driving with another person in the car a little longer for the practice.”

“Oh! Yeah, well I don’t need any more practice. I’m ready,” he says.

I steal a sideways 
glance at my quiet younger teen, Aidan, to my left. It’s close to seventy-five degrees outside, but
 he wears a blue plaid flannel shirt buttoned up to the top, covering 
his black concert tee-shirt. The gaping metal tunnels in his ears are
 plugged up with a stopper of red, just barely visible from behind his
 shiny black hair. Behind me is only the sideboard table that I’d adorned with 
a rustic candelabra and a plate of shiny yellow packaged marshmallow peeps
 and boxed chocolate bunnies.

“Why do you let him do that to his ears?” whispers my Aunt Gail just over
 my shoulder. Nobody hears her say it but me, and yet I notice how Aidan sits a
 little straighter in his chair.

“Want to try some of the greens?” I ask Connor, motioning toward 
the bowl directly in front of his plate.

“No, thanks, I don’t like steamed daffodils,” he says.

“Those are wilted dandelion greens, wise guy,” I say.

“I’m all good, Mom.”

My partner’s father and sister are talking about something I missed, and Janyce is now leaning
 back in her chair, her plate pushed to the side. I dip my fingers in the
 shallow bowl of mounded mini jellybeans next to
 my flatware. Multicolor glass cordial glasses embellish the top of each
 dessert plate on the green tablecloth and remind me of the spring crocuses
 outside, just now beginning to push their way through the soggy earth.

“Is it okay if I go visit across the street?” asks Connor.

“Yeah, Mom, I’m done too. I want to go skate,” says Aidan.

“Sure, guys, you can go. Thanks for making an appearance,” I say.

I take in a deep breath. We all made it through the rushed first hour of a holiday meal in the new house, with all my new relatives.

As the teens perform their stiff goodbyes and get up from the table, I catch the end of Janyce’s sister’s and
 father’s conversation.

“I used to love YaYa’s shoes—remember those? They were so high and she
 was so short. They had those bows on them,” says Agni.

“Yeah, and she was always mad at us for wearing jeans,” Janyce chimes in. “I remember how she would be dressed and ready for me when I had to drive her to the Greek market. She was in her dress, those shoes with the bows, and she had her bag in her hand. We were only driving across town to buy feta!”

“Well, that’s how it was with the Greek women of that generation. You dressed properly to go out,” says Janyce’s mom.

“Okay, maybe to go out, but remember how mad she got at Dad when he was wearing ripped cutoffs to build the deck?” says Agni.

“That was hysterical,” says Janyce. “Remember that, Dad?” She turns to her father who smiles and looks down at the table while shaking his head from side to side.

I don’t add anything to the conversation; I watch my sons exit the
 room. On their way out, they pass by my long deceased Uncle Ray, who is 
leaning over Janyce’s shoulder to look into the main
 platter of leftovers still on the table. “Lamb and artichokes? Where is the ham and raisin sauce?” he asks, and I
 almost laugh out loud. I watch him in front of the brick fireplace 
tilting his head to listen to the Rembetika music playing from the stereo. He’s wearing a white button-down shirt with his white tee-shirt still visible, black pants, and gleaming polished shoes. Wisps of graying hair drape sideways 
across a partially balding head and half of his bottom lip is curled up in
 a crooked smile. His face droops slightly on one side.

“Who wants coffee and cookies?” asks Janyce. I start gathering and stacking dirty dishes as Janyce’s mom begins unwrapping the pink and green tissue paper from 
the small wrapped Easter package in front of her.

“Oh, aren’t these pretty,” she says.

“Those are from Athans Bakery, Mum,” Agni says. “I got
 you some filled with Nutella and some with mint. Those big ones have 
hazelnuts in them.”

“Oh, I can’t eat hazelnuts. I’ll have to give those to Daddy,” she says.

 pass Janyce on her way out of the kitchen as I’m on my way in,
 carrying the dirty dishes. She’s holding a bottle of ouzo in one hand and
 a plate of kourabiedes in the other.

“Kris and I are having some ouzo… Dad, are you having some too?” I hear
 her ask as I return to the entrance of the dining room. I stand
 perfectly still for a minute in the doorway as I watch my own grandmother, who we buried over ten years ago, looking at the pile of chocolates with 
the others. “I can’t eat hazelnuts either,” she says to the table. Then she fades

“Come sit and have ouzo with me,” says Janyce. She looks at me and
 pats the chair seat beside her.

“The teens were unusually silent, don’t you think?” I ask her as I 
lick white powder from my fingers and take a sip from my cobalt-blue
 cordial glass. Late afternoon sunlight streams through the windows and dances on the 
glassware. Nobody else is talking anymore, and we listen to the soft plucking of the bouzouki 
playing in the background.

“Well, they are getting older,” she says.

I nod in agreement, but to me that’s only part of the reason. It’s really more that the teenagers
 aren’t so comfortable with all the ghosts at the table. It seems that the smaller the holiday gathering, the easier it is 
for the relatives of the past to show up and make a comment or two. I was 
watching the two teens during dinner, anxiously looking at their cell
phones, glancing out in the direction of the backyard while sitting straight in 
their chairs, all sullen and still. They couldn’t quite get comfortable with 
this holiday, the first one with my new relatives in a new

And yet to me, their fortyish mother, I only wish I could stop time during 
these moments and linger over dinner with my new relatives while all
 the relatives I remember so fondly pass in and out to get a closer 
look. That’s the real reason for the holidays coming around every year. It’s our yearly chance to welcome back all the 
ghosts to the table.


KRIS GUAY lives in Franklin, Massachusetts, with her partner and two teenage boys. She works as a communications manager in higher education. Her work has been published in Moms Who Need Wine and the Middlesex News, and will soon be in Corium Magazine. She writes her own popular blog called “Life with Teenagers” at www.2teen.wordpress.com.