The Other Side

otherside
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Reyna Eisenstark

He wasn’t a handsome man, but he had a handsome man’s chin. And a voice that made up for pretty much everything else. I could not get over his voice. It’s the only thing about me, he once said, that I can control. He was on his college debate team and I could only imagine the suckers that thought they could actually talk him out of anything. I spent years trying to find a voice that resembled his, just so I could hear it again, but I never could. He was also quite tall, which was nice in theory, though I really didn’t ever get to see him all that much.

When I was twenty-six, we had the briefest of brief love affairs that lasted really only a couple of weeks; well, really only about four nights. But then, after it was over, we swirled around in each other’s heads for years, each not really aware that the other had never forgotten those four nights. Was, in fact, still thinking about them.

We had met in the backyard of my first real boyfriend four years before our actual love affair. I heard that voice and saw him casually snap a cigarette out of my first real boyfriend’s hands and I thought, Oh. This is the kind of guy I should be with. And then when a bunch of us were hanging out a few years later, after he’d moved out west, and then returned briefly, I realized I still felt the same way. But he had to go back west, he told me, as we stood in the dark outside a bar, and he continued to explain why, even though it seemed like we could be dating, we couldn’t really be dating.

But we both thought about it for a long time. Long after he moved back west and after I got married and after he got married. We had been in and out of touch for all those years that followed. I would write to him out of the blue and he would write back and it was just basic how are you doing sort of emails, nothing much, really. But it thrilled me anyway.

And then one time I wrote to see how he was, and it turned out he just happened to be visiting relatives back east, not far from where I was now living with my husband and two children. And we thought that hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we got together? It was. He came with his wife and his young son and we all got along well. At one point, when the two of us were talking alone together in the kitchen, he leaned against the counter and knocked a bowl to the floor. It shattered. And he was incredibly flustered, but I told him it was no big deal at all, just a bowl, jeez, wanting so much to make him feel comfortable. I noticed again that he was really quite tall. Thirteen years had passed. I was almost forty.

One night, soon after this, when he was safely back across the country, I asked him, in an online chat, to tell me something he’d always wanted to tell me. There was something about how he had knocked that bowl onto the ground. There was something I thought I knew. And eventually, after asking me if I was sure I wanted to know, he wrote that he should have never gone back west way back when we should have dated but didn’t. We should have, in fact, dated. I mean, there was more, of course, but that was basically it. We had never stopped thinking about each other for all those years. So now what?

There are people that make an appearance in our lives at exactly the right time. Sometimes you recognize it immediately but, other times, you don’t quite see it until long after the fact, when a series of events that seemed random and scattered begin to line up in your memory with a surprisingly linear precision.

So for instance, not long after the online chat just described, I was with my husband at a friend’s birthday party when I started talking to a woman I had known just a little bit. We were both giddy and a bit drunk at this party, and she told me about a writing workshop that was offered through a local university. I suppose we were talking about writing, but I can’t really remember how we got there. She told me that the university got good writers to lead these workshops and all you had to do was apply. If you got in, it was free. “You should do it!” she said, hardly knowing me at the time.

And I did. And it was at this workshop, where I found myself sitting at a table with total strangers, not a mother or a wife but a writer, where I began to feel my real self emerging again, the one I had buried for years, buried so that I could not see what was right in front me: my terrible unhappiness, my difficult, exhausting marriage.

When I think of the beginning of the end of my marriage, I always return to that random conversation with a woman who had been an acquaintance, a conversation that very casually set off a long series of events that quite simply changed the entire direction of my life.

But what about the man with the handsome man’s chin? Did you think this was going to be a love story?

It was, in a way.

After our online confession, he wrote me gorgeous poems, the sort of poems you dream of receiving when you’re twelve years old, studying your face in the mirror, and imagining love. It was intoxicating, of course. There were secret phone calls in which we talked about our love for each other, with a plan to meet secretly, somehow, even though we still lived thousands of miles away. We were never going to run away together. But maybe we could meet just one time. We had never, in all those years, spent more than a few hours together.

This is the guy you’re supposed to wait for your whole life: the one who gets you, who thinks you are more beautiful, more special, more interesting, than any other woman in the world, who says exactly the things you want to be told, things that you assumed no one could possibly know you’d want to hear.

We had never, in all those years, spent more than a few hours together.

In the end, we stopped talking. He had to stop. He couldn’t see me. He thought he could come all those thousands of miles by himself, just for a time, but in the end, he could not. And in the end, it was too much, too sad, too painful for everything. And then his emails got less and less frequent; he would not answer his phone when I called. It was too hard for him to keep up with his normal life and to have this secret life. I got that. But I missed him. I kept trying to contact him, but he was gone. For a long time, I was angry, frustrated, sad. Years passed. My life took a turn for the worse, and then, after another series of events, a turn for the better. Which is where I am now.

When I think of him, this man whose love for me was like the love you are told to wait for your whole life, I can only think of him as someone who, more than once, simply showed up in my life at exactly the right time. He was never going to be the love of my life, not really, much as I thought so at the time, but the one who would make me think (more than once), Oh. This is the kind of guy I should be with. Not him, exactly. We were never quite real to each other. Our relationship, if it had really happened in our twenties, would have ended. Maybe after a few months. Or a few years. Instead, nearing the age of forty, it was one last gasp at our youth, a way to recapture those few weeks, or really, those four nights, that we barely spent together. Even at the time, I could see that we were setting ourselves up for a disappointment, but not quite the disappointment that it turned out to be.

But I like to think that we both showed each other a window in which a different swirling life existed, and then once the blinds were quickly drawn, we could keep that image in our heads. We could hear a faint voice on the other side, waiting for us to get over there, to see what was possible.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her writing at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.

 

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The Curious Thing about Doubt and Faith

man in street
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Shuly Cawood

In the early mornings of the spring that I turned twenty-nine, I drove on a stretch of Ohio’s Route 68 to work. I liked it best when the road showed up for me alone, when I could steer in a kind of solitary silence from village into county, from Epic Books and Ha Ha Pizza to the stoplight on Cemetery Road, then past pastures and swaths of farmland and the occasional framed house onto which the sunlight warmed the lives of families rising into day. I had known the road so long—not just the yawn of corn and soybean fields, but also Young’s Jersey Dairy with its red barn and white fence; Ebenezer Cemetery with its crumbling cement wall; the turnoffs for Sparrow, Collier, and Cottingham roads; even Walt’s, the junkyard where the highway doglegged—yet that spring I studied each moment of the way as if remembering it well meant that I could somehow keep it.

Back then, I wanted to believe in beginnings, but I can see now that I held onto the ends.

•••

Corazón: the Spanish word for heart. The admissions receptionist, Joann, had scrawled the international student’s name—Miguel Corazón—next to mine on the interview sheet for later that May morning.

“With me?” I asked Joann.

“He said he was from Torreón, Mexico,” she said. “He asked for you.”

“Because I know Spanish?” (I’m half-Mexican. My relatives live in Torreón.) “Does he know my family?” Another Wittenberg University admissions officer typically handled foreign applicants.

Joann shrugged.

“Well,” I said, “then I’d better get ready.” I plucked brochures and an international application from the shelves and settled in at my desk, right off the lobby.

I had worked in this very office from my freshman year until graduation then returned years later to my alma mater for full-time work. But in three months, I would be giving up this job, my home state, the places where I belonged, to move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My fiancé, Bill, refused to stay in Ohio, where he had come only to earn his master’s degree, and I had acquiesced to leaving, even though my chest tightened when I thought about it. When I was twenty-nine, I believed that surrendering what I wanted for the sake of someone else was the cost of love, and that I should bear it.

•••

Through my office wall, I could hear Joann’s muffled voice mingled with a deep one. Apparently, Miguel Corazón had shown up early. I was sitting at my desk, talking on the phone, my back to my door when I heard it open, and Joann say, “You can sit down, she’ll just be a minute.” Always, I met prospective students out in the lobby, but I hurried off my call and only after hanging up did I then swing my chair around and rise to meet—

I froze. The words I’d begun to say hung mid-air.

From his chair, Michael rose, too, like an apparition ascending from memory.

* * *

For the appointment, as a ruse, and to back up his false claim of hailing from Mexico, Michael had used the Spanish version of his first name, and Corazón in place of his last.

Five years earlier, Michael and I had fallen in love. After only a few months, I wanted to marry him, move across the country for him, never be apart. I spent much of the first part of our relationship longing for not just a ring, but to come before the stack of priorities standing between me and first place: his research, post-graduate school goals, his solo life plan that only vaguely—perhaps later—included me. Eventually, I had fled to Mexico to teach, and when this propelled him to propose, I turned away entirely, no longer sure of who I was or what I wanted. It was easier for me, by then a mere twenty-five years old, to move on alone than to figure all that out with him.

In the years that followed, when I was twenty-six and twenty-seven and back in Ohio, Michael had shown up. One time he drove eight hours from DC through a snowstorm to see me; another time, when I was lonely and depressed, he drove two hours from his hometown in Indiana, where he was staying for the summer, to take me salsa dancing. He wrote me letters, even when we had just talked or seen each other. Over the years, he’d given me a book of Neruda love poems, a picture frame with blue flowers pressed beneath glass, a bird feeder. His biggest gift, though, was a sacrifice: Michael put off a semester of his Ph.D. program in Nebraska to live closer to me. He had gone to great lengths to show me that I came first, but I had told myself, repeatedly and with admonition, only foolish girls believe a man will change.

Until he showed up in my office on that warm and clear May day.

* * *

Michael stood before me and grinned, clearly proud of having flown in from Nebraska and surprised me. We had been in contact, but eighteen months had passed from the time that we’d last seen each other to the moment Joann led him to me. My hands trembled because I was happy to see him—and aware I shouldn’t be. He knew about my engagement. This fact stood between us, arms folded across its chest, and shook its head.

The best that I could blurt out was, “What are you doing here?”

He laughed. “I wanted to see you.”

A few moments later, I said, “If you’re here to change my mind, I won’t.”

He didn’t hesitate or blanch. His impeccable posture alerted you that this man held few, if any, doubts about anything he set his mind to. He looked me straight in the eye. “I only want to see what’s possible,” he said. Then he asked me to lunch.

We walked across campus in the brightness of the late morning light to the student center cafe and found a table by a wall of windows. We laughed and lingered as if we were undergraduates and had all the time in the world for big choices and hard lines, as if none of those things mattered now. Later, we rambled around Wittenberg, eventually settling on a bench overlooking Myers Hollow, near the slope I had slipped down after an ice storm my freshman year before smacking into a tree.

For a minute, we stared out onto the hollow.

Ever fearless, he broke the silence. “Marry me,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the same ring he had, four years earlier, offered me. Except now, instead of a diamond in the setting, a green stone the size and color of a pea perched on top.

As he looked at me, I studied him: his blue eyes I remembered squinting at me in the dim morning light before he would reach for his glasses; his freckles that faded, forgotten in winter, but that would sprinkle across his nose and cheeks when flushed out by summer sun; his bushy brown hair, unruly after sleep, that could be tamed with water and a comb.

Finally, I said, “I can’t.”

“I don’t believe you,” he whispered, almost to himself.

“I won’t,” I said. The words tasted metallic.

We sat in silence and let the sun break against us on our bench and let the gap—between now and his flight back to Nebraska, between now and my future husband and married life in North Carolina—get a little narrower.

Then we ambled, taking the long way back along the hollow’s edge toward the place he had parked. We descended via a tree-lined path veiling us in shadow and emerged into the glare of sun and asphalt. When we embraced goodbye, I held onto him longer than he held onto me, and when I stepped away from him and toward Recitation Hall, toward my office and the life I knew, I had to force myself to do so, to train my eye on the glass door, push the metal bar that spanned it, and go through and not look back.

He left me the little gold ring with its pea stone, and it burrowed into my pocket, planting itself deep: a seed of doubt that would grow and grow.

•••

Three and half years later, in late and cold November, my marriage disintegrated into the fifty percent statistic I had sworn that I’d never belong in. It would be a lie to say that I’d been in love with my ex-boyfriend during my marriage because I had not, but his big love, big gestures had become the ruler against which I—however unfairly—had measured every disagreement with Bill, every incident in which I felt not loved enough. I mourned not just my impending divorce but what might have been, had I only chosen differently.

A few months earlier, Michael had moved from Nebraska to North Carolina, but I had found this out only weeks before the divorce decision. I’d discovered through a mutual acquaintance that he lived a mere twenty-five minutes away.

In late November, I wanted to go right to him, but the grief of my marriage ending clouded and rumbled in my chest. I knew, too, that grief passes, that it is only weather in the vast sky of the heart.

In early January, I asked Michael to come over. He showed up with a loaf of bread that he’d kneaded and baked for me, with all the ingredients he still remembered I loved: whole grains, seeds and nuts, and plump, black raisins. Just as he had years earlier, he took me to a salsa club that night, and I clung to his hand as he twirled me, as if we could wind back to where we had stopped and start again. Just as before, he gave me gifts as the weeks passed: a white cotton top with three-quarter sleeves and a buttonhole neckline; the fragrance of gardenias, a bouquet on my front stoop; a white colander; a brown umbrella with faces of dalmatians and cocker spaniels splashed across the fabric. But unlike before, he had become born again, and now he threaded Bible verses into emails and letters and tried to stitch me back together with Jesus’s words.

Although my spirituality was private and quiet and rested in a God who favored heart over creed, I didn’t say no when Michael asked to pray out loud with me; I didn’t say stop when he offered biblical passages as balms.

Without the physical intimacies and commitment of real couples—because of his religion and because I was still emotionally reeling from the divorce—we became, still, devoted to each other. I drove him to Lasik surgery and nervously thumbed through magazines in the waiting room. I helped haul his truckload of furniture into his new house, and together we painted a clean coat on each wall. It was he who steered the car through hordes of I-95 traffic to whisk me to DC for a weekend and to point out landmarks and pick restaurants. It was he who rubbed my back the day I officially divorced, when I wept face down on the bed, boring into a pillow. And it was he who sat beside me as the mortgage broker shuffled refinance papers across the desk for me to sign, the pages stacked like a book that I could not bear to read alone.

God, I loved him. He resurrected me.

But our differences sank into my belly. At night I felt them, cold and hard and unmoving. I thought the world was too big for only one religion, so we argued about how many paths led to God and about interpreting the Bible literally. I also conjured up hypothetical questions to test how he would prioritize his beliefs in relation to me; I know now that I was really testing his love. I asked inane questions like, “If you and I were married, and you believed God wanted you to go live in Africa, even if it meant leaving me behind, would you go?”

In the end, Michael always said he would have no choice but to do whatever he thought God or Jesus wanted him to do, but that God would not ask him to do something that would harm our relationship.

You’re stirring up trouble, I chided myself, and for a while I stopped peppering him with questions I didn’t want to know his answers to.

Then one night over the phone, I prodded more about his beliefs, poking a fire I knew that I could not contain if the flames leapt. I thought about all of my gay and lesbian friends, and I jabbed the topic open. He told me that homosexuality was a sin, and I asked him how he could make such a judgment. He said that he was not making that judgment: God was.

Suddenly, I wanted to dampen all of it, and I flooded him with questions until I found a concocted safe and middle ground: yes, he loved all people, straight or gay, and though he did not think gay couples should be able to get married or adopt, yes, he thought all people were equals.

Though I cried when we hung up the phone and lost my appetite for a day and a half, I clung to the word “equals.” I reminded myself he had always been nothing short of welcoming and warm to all of my friends, and I convinced myself that the place where he stood and where I stood were not so far apart, that if we both leaned toward each other, we could still touch.

It was spring by then, the season of possibility.

•••

This was not the first time our views had clashed, that we’d tried to convince each other of our rightness, of the other’s implied wrongness.

Over the years, Michael and I had argued about little things—the safety of microwaves, whether eating organic fruits and vegetables was really better for you—and big things: whether we should get married, whether we should break up, and (after we had finally ended our relationship, back when I was twenty-five) whether we should get back together. This last disagreement endured more years than it should have. Sometimes we had talked about it; other times, I had avoided the talking, and in doing so, I must have hurt him more by what I did not say.

If you have ever not felt loved for exactly who you are—by someone who professes to—then that love is the one thing you will seek. After my divorce, I craved it as if my life depended on it. But he must have, too—not after my divorce, but in all the times he had shown up in my life and asked me to try again, long before I married or had even met my ex-husband, in all the times we had both been so young, so free to choose each other.

One time he had called to check on me and rescue me from loneliness when I was twenty-seven and living in Oxford, Ohio. He was spending the summer just two hours away in his hometown in Indiana, and he felt like a lifeline.

“Come on, Shuly. We’re going dancing,” he’d said when I picked up the phone. A statement, an urging, not a question—so rarely a question from him—something I both loved and resented.

I had given in. It was so easy to give in then. I changed from shorts and t-shirt to blouse and skirt, and when he arrived at my door, I followed him out of my apartment, down the narrow hallway and stairs and out to the parking lot. I got into his car. He could have driven me anywhere that night; I would have gone.

I let the air blow onto my face through the half-down window as he drove, as he stole me from Oxford. How I wanted to be stolen. He steered and gunned the engine toward highway and Cincinnati and city lights, away from small town, small apartment, what felt like such a small life. I do not remember where exactly we went salsa dancing, but if I close my eyes, I can feel the weight of his hand in mine on the dance floor, and his touch on my back as he led me in turns. I can taste the sweetness of the vanilla frozen yogurt he bought me afterward, something he had done dozens of times when we had been dating and had strolled along the gritty sidewalks on Ohio’s summer nights.

I remember that I laughed and laughed next to him in the car, and for those hours I forgot everything that hurt in my life. The sadness lifted and floated from my body like a bad and broken spirit only he could command away.

For that evening, I leaned into him. I had always been able to because he exuded confidence—his wiry frame buzzed with energy and a can-do attitude. An extrovert, with a near-constant smile on his face, he uplifted me. The summer we had fallen in love, and then that summer when I lived in Oxford, he shone: like a sun, like a full moon, like a star that could lead me home.

He drove me back to Oxford on highways then two-lanes and pulled off South College Avenue and idled in my parking lot as I got out. I walked to my building’s entrance, toward the glass door which led to a dark stairwell and to my apartment where loneliness clung like webs to the corners.

Before I went in, I looked back.

I did not want to go inside, and I did not want him to drive away, but I did not stop him when he did. I waved goodbye.

In all those years before my marriage, I had let him go each time. I had said no until it hurt, until he hurt, until I could not say it anymore. I had said no until the word became its own kind of religion that I did not question anymore.

And now, after my marriage and its implosion, I wanted to believe in yes so badly, I prayed for it.

•••

In late summer—that time of year in North Carolina when the heat feels more like rage, when stems and leaves go limp in reply—Michael wrote me a letter, as he sometimes did.

I had always loved his script because I knew it so well: small loops in perfectly straight lines across the page, as if he were sewing sentences on white fabric. I could nearly feel their softness if I ran my hand across the words.

He started the letter by calling me precious. On page three, he told me my heart was beautiful, and then that Jesus wanted all of it. “Choosing Him is the most important prayer I have for you,” he wrote. “Please commit your heart to Him fully.”

He wrote that he knew it would not be easy. “Turning from your past, and breaking from the pressure of family and culture can be difficult.” What he meant was that I needed to steer away from how my parents—the most generous-hearted people I knew—had raised me religiously, a blend of world faiths.

On the hardest days, their beliefs, now mine, buoyed me: that everything happens for a reason I might not understand yet; that life is a series of lessons I can get right or repeat; and that kindness and respect matter more than doctrine.

He was asking me, in essence, to take it all back: relinquish what I had known, abandon what had come before.

But what I wanted to take back was not my faith, or my God, or my version of the Truth. I wanted to take back that night in Oxford—not the whole of it, just the moment when I had pulled at the door handle, stepped outside his car, and moved away from him and toward the building’s entrance. If I could have taken it back, I would have let the car idle with me still in it, let the exhaust drift from the tailpipe like grey plumes into the darkness, let the humidity crawl in through the window and around us. I would have said to him, “Don’t go.”

But Oxford lay 534 miles northwest of Chapel Hill. In another state. Six years too late.

And in the end, if I had taken it back, what then? Would that have severed the storms from our story? We might have never saved ourselves from the rest of it.

Maybe in Oxford, I had let him drive away because I’d had the kind of faith in myself that I thought only other people had in other things. The kind of faith that pushed you past your failures, made you rise up from the pain; the kind of faith that waned and nearly broke in two, but if you kept it, it kept you.

•••

We have not spoken in a decade, but I remember him. Now, I use the dog umbrella, but only during light, un-slanted rains, as it’s small. I wear the top with the buttonhole neckline, but only when the seasons shift, as it’s made for neither hot nor freezing weather.

I still have the ring, although I don’t wear it or keep it in my jewelry box. Instead, the ring with the round stone drifts like a vagrant around the bottom of a purse. I move it from handbag to handbag but without any reason I can find logic in now.

Sometimes many months pass before I happen upon the ring again, and when I do, I am surprised by the little gold band, and how shiny it is, and the smooth stone that looks like a green eye staring up at me from the pit of the purse, and how fine and slight the ring is for how large a promise it once held, how big its memory.

•••

SHULY CAWOOD is a writer and editor who is currently in the MFA creative writing program at Queens University. Her creative writing has appeared in publications such as Red Earth Review, Naugatuck River Review, Camel Saloon, Rathalla Review, and Under the Sun. Shuly has work forthcoming in Ray’s Road Review, Fiction Southeast, and Two Cities Review. Her website is www.shulycawood.com.

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Roman Holiday

coupleonstone
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Lisa Lance

Shivering in the crisp December air outside Papà Giovanni, a restaurant on the corner of Via dei Sediari and Via del Teatro Valle in Rome, my husband, Chris, and I wait for the sliding glass door to open. We see couples inside, nestled in red leather banquettes and wooden chairs at two of the half-dozen close-set tables. Red and white tablecloths set off vintage china, and glittery poinsettia decorations remind me that it is just a few days after Christmas, even as fresh tulips in the center of each table hint at the coming spring. Dusty wine bottles line the room, tucked into alcoves or perched on ledges. An eclectic mix of drawings and paintings, along with faded postcards of Sicily, clutter the brick walls.

It is just as we remembered.

We are in Rome to celebrate our tenth year of marriage and also to escape a stressful year at home. Our relationship is strained by a multitude of factors: family drama due to the messy divorce of my husband’s parents, which has taken a broader emotional toll than we expected; Chris’s demanding job, which keeps him out of town for weeks at a time; and my perpetually tired and frazzled state due to graduate school, with two classes each semester on top of a full-time job. We need a break, and I hope our holiday to Rome will be a bright spot in the brewing storm—if not a full repair, then at least a period of some romance, a reminder of what it was like when we were happy.

After we are seated at one of the small tables, the waitress brings us aperitifs of warm spiced wine in small china cups on saucers, and the chill of the evening retreats as I sip. She hands us menus, blue for “the gentleman” and pink for “the lady”: the blue version includes prices for each item, while the pink version lists calories. If this were a restaurant at home in the United States, I would be offended, but here it seems charming.

The wine list is a worn tome that resembles a guest book from a wedding. As Chris turns the pages, I notice the list of wines written by hand, some entries scratched out or modified, others smudged by water stains. I laugh at the small size because, in my memory, the wine list has taken on mythical proportions. As I recall from the first time I saw it, the book had been the size of a dictionary and had been wheeled out on a cart, attracting stares from the other customers.

•••

Our first trip to Rome ten years ago was my initiation into the world of international travel, and all of my memories shine with the luster of this perspective, fresh and new. We had an extravagant five-course dinner and then wandered the cobblestone streets to the nearby Piazza della Rotonda, where people milled around one of Rome’s most impressive monuments, the Pantheon. Sixteen towering Corinthian columns support a triangular pediment inscribed with the stamp of Marcus Agrippa: M. AGRIPPA.L.F.COSTERTIUM.FECIT. The domed roof is larger than that of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and, at 142 feet in diameter, nearly the length of an Olympic-size swimming pool. In the center is a large oculus from which red rose petals rain down on Pentecost.

The interior of the Pantheon was closed that evening, but we passed the obelisk-topped fountain that pierces the sky like an upturned sword, water babbling from the mouths of the marble masks at its base, and climbed the steps of the monument anyway. We stood among the columns of the portico, and Chris suddenly dropped to one knee.

“What are you doing? Get up,” I said. I thought he’d had too much wine at dinner, and I pulled his arm, trying to get him to stand.

“Oh, no,” he said as he reached into his pocket. “I’ve been planning this.” He pulled out a gold band accented with a row of seven small diamonds and held it up to me.

“Really?” I was floored. We had moved in together after dating for only a few months, but in the past year of our shared life we hadn’t discussed marriage. Our relationship was comfortable and fun, and I had assumed it would be at least five years before we took the next step.

“Well?” He was still on one knee.

“Really?” I still didn’t quite believe it. “Really?”

His brow, framing earnest, clear blue eyes, started to crease with worry. “Will you say yes already?”

“Yes!” He put the ring on my finger, and we kissed. The streetlights around us seemed to brighten, and the other people in the piazza faded away.

An enterprising street vendor approached us, and Chris purchased an armful of red roses and presented them to me. As we walked back to the hotel, the outlines of buildings seemed fully in focus; everything was crisp and clear. We passed the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II in Piazza Venezia, and its marble walls and columns glowed bright white against the night sky, the twin statues of the winged goddess Victoria and her chariot soared, it seemed, in celebration high above us on the roof of the monument.

•••

Back in 2002, we were still going through the transition from college student to adult. We’d had internships and temp jobs, but hadn’t yet started our “real” careers. We had academic knowledge but little actual experience; we were fairly broke but full of optimism. Our tastes then had only recently shifted from Boone’s Farm and Miller Lite to Tanqueray or Chateau Ste. Michelle. Now, after years of wine tastings, we can tell the difference between a Malbec from Argentina and a Cabernet from California, and on our return visit to Papà Giovanni, my husband confidently makes a selection from the list.

The wine decanted, we look again at the menus as we nibble on focaccia with truffle butter and reminisce about our last visit. “What did we even order?” I say.

Chris recalls some kind of eggplant stack, slices of the vegetable layered with tomato sauce and cheese and balanced on a plate like a small, square Tower of Pisa. I’d had veal for the first and only time in my life, a choice that had seemed so elegant then, but after eight years as a vegetarian would be unthinkable to me now. We had tried to order five courses and share them, but we were unable to convey our wish to the waiter and ended up with two of each dish. It was the biggest and most expensive meal we have ever had in a restaurant.

This time around, we order separately, and only one course at a time. I begin with a salad of arugula, pears, walnuts, and parmesan—a medley of sweet and salty, soft and crunch. The server returns to take our orders for the main course, and I select Cacio e Pepe, a traditional Roman dish of spaghetti with black pepper and parmesan. The strength of the dish lies in its simplicity. The noodles are al dente, and the sharp cheese and spicy pepper flavors mingle and dance on my tongue. For dessert, a decadent chestnut soufflé is perfect with a cup of Italian espresso, strong and smooth enough to clear a path through the gastronomic haze that begins to cloud my mind.

After dinner, we wander the cobblestone streets. Strings of lights twinkle overhead, criss-crossing between the buildings like spider webs weighted with shimmering drops of dew. I catch faint whiffs of cigarette smoke as we amble along. Italian couples walk arm in arm, parents navigate strollers over the uneven pavement, and Asian tourists pause to take photos. Unlike cities at home, nobody here seems to be in a hurry. As we exit the narrow alley, the Pantheon, bathed in golden light against the dark night sky, rises before us.

The enormous bronze doors are open. “Do you want to go in?” Chris asks.

“Yes.” Entry is free, so we join the flowing crowd to explore the space together. The interior of the temple is harmoniously symmetrical—the distance from the floor to the top of the dome is equal to the dome’s diameter. The floor and walls are inlaid with marble, rectangular patterns of muted gold, maroon, and blue interspersed with swirling veins of grey and white.

As we wander through the vast interior, I am suddenly hungry to learn everything I can about this building that has such a prominent place in my memory, and I stop to read every information plaque available. Built by Marcus Agrippa around 25 B.C., the temple was originally a place to worship Roman gods, but, like so many historical places in Rome, it was later converted to a Christian church. Alcoves along the rounded wall hold statues and murals—some of Christian significance and some depicting more ancient figures. The more I learn, the more appreciation I have for the detailed architecture, the majestic beauty, and the fascinating (if not always pleasant) history of the temple. Grand tombs hold the remains of Vittorio Emanuele II, the first ruler of a united Italy, and Umberto I, a king in the late nineteenth century under whose orders hundreds of starving peasant protesters were killed. The famed Renaissance painter Raphael is also interred there, along with his fiancé, Maria Bibbiena, despite rumors that his early death at age thirty-seven was the result of a tryst with one of his mistresses.

How could I have missed all this on our first visit?

Chris and I have weathered our own conflicts over the past decade. We’ve dealt with jealousy and baggage from past relationships, struggled to find time for each other, moved far from everything familiar to a new city with no network of social support. We married young at twenty-four, and we’ve worked hard to create harmony in a home where our evolving personalities, interests, and worldviews are often at odds. Any discussion about politics, for example, quickly spirals downward from friendly debate to contentious argument. We’ve felt the ripple effect of marriages crumbling around us, from my step-sister and brother-in-law, who filed for divorce barely a year after their wedding, to my husband’s father and step-mother, who called it quits after more than two decades together. How long can we avoid the afflictions of infidelity, boredom, and financial distress that spur the downfall of so many other couples? Other couples who began their lives together just as we did, filled with optimism.

Even an edifice as strong as the Pantheon needs to be rebuilt from time to time. Agrippa’s original structure burned in 80 A.D. Then, after being rebuilt by Domitian, it burned again in 110 A.D. It was restored by Hadrian in 126 A.D. and could not have remained “the best-preserved building in Rome” without periodic restoration projects throughout the centuries.

That monument was an apt place to begin a marriage, and restoration is precisely the reason we returned to Italy. More than just a building, the Pantheon is solidly built, with walls that are twenty-five feet thick, and it can certainly withstand the occasional crack—even a deep one—as well as the repairs necessary to maintain its majesty. It has survived two thousand years of wars and conflicts and cultural changes. It has been home to dueling religious and political philosophies, and it serves as a place to remember and celebrate people with complicated pasts. Yet despite its age, or maybe because of it, the temple is still a magnificent site to behold. Instead of shutting out the elements, the oculus remains open, and allows sunlight to shine and rain to fall inside its walls.

Chris’s proposal to me in Rome has become something of a legend for us, the first story we tell when others ask about our relationship, the memory we recount each year on our anniversary. It’s as much a part of our history together as the day we first met. Revisiting a place with such personal significance carries risk, and I had been worried that this trip might be a disappointment, that the rosy glow of recollection and the passage of time might have morphed the actual events into something mythical that could never be recreated, that the story now only held its romance in the retelling. My memories of the first visit are like a giant Impressionist painting, vivid, yet vague. Ten years later, I pay more attention to the details—the postcards on the walls, the dust on the bottles, the inscriptions on the tombs—than I did the first time around. Will the cathedral of our marriage weather another ten years?

The passage of time allows for physical wear, for philosophical shifts, for falls from grace, but it also allows for rebuilding. Perhaps we can learn from past mistakes … a bit like I learned to order the perfect dinner from a foreign menu. Perhaps we can learn to communicate clearly. Not to be greedy. Learn to appreciate simple flavors, and to savor each bite. I will think of this when times are difficult, as they have been lately, and I feel the way I did outside Papà Giovanni, shivering in the cold, waiting for the door to slide open and let me back into the familiar warmth inside.

Coda: As it turned out, our marriage would not weather another decade, and two years after Chris and I returned to Rome, our divorce was finalized. Restoration isn’t always possible, but while we may not always be able to depend on the strength of buildings or institutions, in their destruction we sometimes find a greater strength in ourselves.

•••

LISA LANCE is a writer living in Baltimore, Maryland. She earned an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She currently serves as an editor for The Baltimore Review, and her articles and essays have appeared in publications including Baltimore Magazine, National Parks Traveler, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Seltzer, neutrons protons, Bmoreart, and Sauce Magazine. This is her second essay for Full Grown People. Learn more at www.lisalance.com.

The Love of My Life, The Thief of My Sleep

sleepy dog
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

When he first started to stay over at our house, my then future-stepfather brought my mother a curious gift. It was a rather large brass horn, used by hunters, he said. The brass curled around itself; the flare of the horn was handsome. But it was odd, this object. We all stared at the horn and then at him when he presented it to her. The gift wasn’t romantic, nor did it have to do with dreams of hunting trips. It was supposed to be practical. “If I snore too loudly,” he explained, “just blow the horn.”

My mother practically giggled at the gift. She certainly blushed. She mumbled something along the lines of his snoring being “not that bad.” She was happy, that much was clear, and I was relieved and pleased for her.

By rights, though, he should have brought me a kazoo—or a foghorn. His snores traveled through the ceiling of what had been her room and quickly became theirs right through my bedroom floor. He was, indeed, a loud snorer—the loudest, in fact, I’ve ever known. The sound resembled a cross between a drone and a series of honks. You could picture some cartoon character with a big bill or an outsized schnozz.

Their romance began near the end of my high school career and my leaving for college. The snoring served as a tiny sign to get out, a harbinger. Things were changing in the household. That was fine—I was ready to leave. Most of the time, I found the incredibly thunderous sounds from below more amusing than annoying. It was loud, but it was at a safe remove.

•••

Years later, I met the love of my life. It turns out that Hosea, too, snores. His snoring is a honking, snuffly, schnozzy, start-and-stop affair. Sometimes, it reminds me of a monologue, comedic to the listener, dramatic to the performer. Except the performer sleeps through it and the listener finds herself in a tragedy, the one of being awake to hear it in the middle of the night. I can’t say whether he snored less early in our relationship or whether I was so entirely smitten for the first decade and a half that I just didn’t care. I care now.

My boyfriend-turned-husband displayed an uncanny ability to sleep through anything. Hosea snored and he slept, the one never disturbing the other. At the beginning of our relationship, in fact, I was in the midst of a kitchen renovation that required some work on the roof just beneath my bedroom. Think hammers that pounded loud enough to seem as if the work were going on inside your bedroom. He slept right through the ruckus morning after morning, long after the sun rose high in the sky. My usual wakeup time was more in the dawn hours and so I’d go about my day, incredulous that neither heavy construction nor full sun woke him. He often worked into the wee hours; he wasn’t a slacker. Our opposite tendencies had advantages from the perspective of an early riser: Hosea didn’t bother me when I did my best work, because he was fast asleep during my most cherished work hours.

When we became parents, his natural night owlish tendencies cut both. Chicken or egg, the first baby was a night owl, too. They hung out—and the baby slept in, once he was old enough not to wake up all day and night long. We had to wake him for preschool. On the positive side, the middle-of-the-night stuff could fall to my dear husband before he’d actually want to go to sleep. On the negative side, every early morning waking—with each child, the hours got more “kid normal”—fell to me and my precious early mornings evaporated. Back on the up side, Hosea can drive teenagers at night and recently chaperoned a cast party at our house that began at one a.m. and ended at four. I slept through the entire shebang. Also on the up side: I tend to go to bed before he does. Often, he’s in bed, reading, and turns the light off for the two minutes it takes for me to drift off. That’s sweet—quiet and sweet.

I’ve come to imagine snoring is much like the ripeness of high school and college-age males. Back when our bodies first discovered one another’s, the funky ripeness became part of the appeal. A strong scent was a strong sensation. Their funk was, when we were together, mine in a way.

At some moment over the last few years, when the very dear and lovely and loud husband’s snoring woke me, I ceased to be charmed—or forgiving. I went from unflustered to fully furious with flip-of-a-switch speed. I’d poke him. “You’re so loud!” I’d call out, not quite yelling but certainly not whispering. Whispers had no impact at all. I needed to put more muscle into my voice than was readily available in the middle of the night, which is part of why I got so enraged. Ginger prods did not rouse him either. I had to poke or shake. This required effort. The act of attempting to get him to roll over or shut up woke me up more, after I’d already been awoken by his sonorous snores. This was a recipe for a trip to nowhere good and quickly.

Every next snore that he snored once I was awake and trying to get him to stop snoring just pissed me off even more. This assault on my sleep, after years of babies and toddlers and anxiety over the babies and toddlers, was kind of a final straw. I didn’t want to be bothered by my husband. All those parenting hours that had chipped away at our alone time and our romance time were compounded in the middle of the night by his being the one to steal my rest from me. It was the opposite of romantic. It was burdensome and enraging.

Still, divorce did not enter my mind.

I began to fantasize about separate rooms. Sometimes, when it gets bad, Hosea shifts to a kid’s bed or the couch in the room off our bedroom. Sometimes, if a kid has already moved into our bed, he’ll simply take the kid’s bed. Mostly, though, he prefers our bed and his position beside me. Lucky me. I mean that, you know, except for the sleeplessness.  “Would separate rooms help?” he asked one morning after I hadn’t slept much at all. “If that’s what it takes, let’s do it. It’s not like we’re doing anything in our bed at night surrounded by all these children other than sleeping.

“Sleeping,” he added, “if we’re lucky.”

It was practically the most romantic offer ever made under the circumstances. I felt cared for and understood. Our romance remains alive, despite all those children. Our love is strong. Partners in exhaustion (and often in anxiety, too), we both covet ever-elusive sleep. Regardless of whether I’d like my own bedroom—and I know I’m not the only woman to want one—the truth is we don’t have an extra bedroom.

•••

After years of practice, Hosea responds pretty well to being jostled. I don’t have to shake so hard or poke so pokily or yell so loud. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles whenever I have to do so. He is, I know he is, as he slumbers on and I lie awake for a while. Unromantic as snoring is, insomnia is pretty much of a mood dampener as well. Some nights I lie awake, perplexed that I’m awake and that what bothers me are such silly things as snoring—or teenagers’ socks strewn across the floor or loads of other things I never thought I’d be bothered by, for that matter. I don’t know what I thought would preoccupy me. It just wasn’t stuff like this.

Rather than simply have me furious at him every single night, we began to seek solutions. Hosea wears anti-snoring nose strips when he sleeps. They resemble band-aids. Some nights, they really help; other nights, they seem decorative, like the Dora the Explorer band-aids my daughter insists on wearing. After years of my badgering, Hosea finally visited an allergist. The allergist identified allergies and prescribed new medication. The snoring has decreased in frequency and audibility.

The white noise machine I bought to help drown him out helps some, too, although not once I’m in awake and especially not once I’m kicked into worried mode. My mother’s white noise machine is the public radio station, which drones on all night long—and serves the secondary purpose of distraction if she wakes up anxious. Also, my son notes her hearing isn’t quite what it used to be. We got into her car recently—the radio blasting—and I’d have to agree with him. I guess I’m still hopeful that, like my mother has somehow done, I will eventually reach a state of accepting accommodation in regards to my husband’s snoring. She continues to insist it’s “not that bad.” Hosea hasn’t gotten me a horn, and I haven’t begun to lose my hearing, not even selectively.

•••

SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. Her work has appeared recently in the New York Times, Salon, and Brain, Child. Follow her on Twitter @standshadows.

First Thing

snowy couple
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By William Bradley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

Young Love

hearttree
By ljfullofgrace/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

My phone buzzes just as I drain hot pasta over the sink with Sam hanging on my leg and my husband talking about the mortgage or some electrical issues in our basement or something else house-related. I try to nudge Sam away from the boiling water and towards the dining room table—with a quick stop to wash his sticky little hands. I hear my phone again, impatiently beeping and buzzing, and I recognize that someone is trying to send me a message over Skype. It could be my mom or my brother, so I settle Sam, serve dinner, and quickly glance at the screen.

It’s not my mom. It’s not my brother. It’s Him. It’s a short message and it’s written in German and despite not having spoken one word of German in oh, about fifteen years, I know and understand every single word immediately. “I was at a charity event tonight and I don’t know why but I’ve been thinking about you all day.”

That’s it.

That’s it and I am nineteen again.

That’s it and I am back in his small, dark college dorm room, lightheaded from one too many fuzzy navels and giddy with excitement. I am sitting on the floor across from him, cross-legged, but all I can think about is how much I want to wrap my legs around him and pull him even closer. We are both wearing flannel, and Whitney Houston is playing in the background. A friend of ours stops by for a few minutes, but quickly realizes that he is interrupting whatever it is that’s about to happen. He laughs and rustles my hair as he gets up to leave, like he is happy for me.

I feel happy and confident when he finally kisses me—I’ve done this before, I know what comes next, but I am amazed that it is actually happening to me. I mean, he is so cool. So blond. So blue-eyed. So dreamy and smart and worldly and, oh my God, that accent. I am a chubby Jewish girl from Hungary—I don’t get swept off my feet by sparkly-eyed blonds. Ah, but I am now, and we quickly make our way to my room—my roommate is away for the weekend.

There is some confusion about whether I am a virgin or not, but after I reassure him that he is not about to deflower me, he is tender and hungry and talks to me in German the whole time. I wake up in the middle of the night, squished between him and the cold cement wall and spend the rest of the night in the lounge of my dorm building, watching bad TV and thinking that what I have just done was so cool and so grown-up and so sophisticated. And so very unlike me. I don’t see him leave in the morning, but he leaves a note on my bed. “You are a wonderful woman. See you soon.” And his initials: PD. I realize in a panic that I have no idea what the “D” stands for.

It’s March now, and he is graduating in two months. It quickly becomes clear that our night of passion does not guarantee me any privileges when it comes to seeing him, or talking to him, or eating together in the cafeteria. It does not gain me invitations to the cool parties he attends or to the spring dance. I think we go on one date maybe—a movie and an uncomfortable dinner.

It doesn’t matter. I am in love.

It’s easy to think back and say that I was young and stupid and confused sex with love. It was probably true. He was doing what handsome German students do during their study-abroad year. I was doing what bookish lonely girls do when said handsome German students pay attention to them. It is all so dull and obvious now, but it was so tragic back then and it would have stayed like that in my memory if our story had ended there.

But it didn’t. In fact, our story is still not over and that’s an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach every time his name shows up in my inbox.

After our (well, mostly my) tearful goodbye on a cool May morning before I headed back home to Budapest for the summer, I was convinced that I would never see him again. But for once, I was pleasantly surprised. He came to visit me that summer and the next, flew to the U.S. to see me at college several times. We talked on the phone and e-mailed all the time, and we met up at international airports for quick, furtive rendezvous in business lounges. Most memorably, he showed up at my office, unannounced, a month before my wedding.

Through all those years of not seeing each other much, we somehow became friends and moved on from our beginning as a tipsy one-night-stand. I think we both found it easier to open up when we were so far apart from each other, yet just a phone call away. The heart and the mind are so easy to reveal in a quick e-mail, a brief message, a silly card. There was always something easy between us, something natural and light-hearted. He was six years older than me, already weighed down by starting a career and figuring out what grown-up life is about, and I think for a long time—and maybe even now—I represented a carefree and happy time in his life. It was a comfort to both of us to recall our haphazard romance and to share a laugh about our youth and naïveté.

We never really talked about it, but obviously we both dated other people and I got married first. When he showed up at my office on a cold November morning, my heart stopped because again, this was not something that happened outside of movies—a scandal before my wedding? Did he come to take me away? To confess—finally!—that he is truly and madly in love with me? Did I even want that anymore?

He made no confessions. He came to say goodbye—I suspect that by then he was in a serious relationship with his future wife and had to put an end to whatever was going on between us. We held each other for a long time. He kissed me on the forehead and brushed his knuckles playfully across my chin before he left my apartment. I watched him walk down the long stairway leading to the street from my front door and for a moment I almost—almost—called him back. But I knew that would have been a mistake and that neither one of us were the kind of people who would do that before our weddings.

We stayed in touch for the next decade, exchanging a few phone calls, a few e-mails about birth, death, jobs—the big stuff of life. There was always so much tenderness and so much history in our exchanges, assuring us that we weren’t alone in navigating all of this uncharted grown-up territory. It felt like we were finally on equal footing—I didn’t feel like the chubby Jewish girl anymore, and he didn’t seem like that shiny, untouchable person I remembered him to be. We were just two people who knew each other from way back when, who built a friendship out of an ill-fated college romance.

So here we are now, almost thirteen years later. Here is this message on my phone, beeping and wanting attention. I want to give it attention, because it’s …well, because it’s Him. I am a practical person: I believe that love is a choice every single day; that marriage is a choice every single day. No matter how hot the passion is in the beginning, to sustain a life together the passion must cool and every morning must begin with a choice—to be present, to be kind, to be understanding, to iron shirts, to cook a favorite meal, to listen.

But whatever this other thing is, it is not my choice—and it never has been. Whatever pulled me to him on that March night when I was nineteen is still in me—irrational, unexplainable, unstoppable, and I assume never-ending. I have felt this stupid love-like-thing for this man for the past eighteen years of my life and I have no reason to think it will change.

The next morning he e-mails me to say that he is thinking about what the rest of his life holds for him, how to handle the responsibilities thrust upon him and still find happiness. “Right now, but also for the past few years I wish I had you by my side,” he writes. “For many reasons.”

I know that, years ago, a message like that would have had me in tears of joy. And I am in tears now too as I look at my iPad screen in the early morning darkness. But it’s not joy I feel. I want to scold him. I want to be angry. Has he not learned how easy it is to believe that life would be different—better, more exciting, sexier, easier—with someone else? Does he not know that if he did have me by his side, he would not write me lovelorn notes in the middle of the night? I would be the nagging wife who only has time for the kids and I would not be the young love that got away.

I turn off the iPad and try to go back to sleep. As I drift off, I think about how I don’t want our story to be a sad one. I don’t want it to be about regret, or the road not taken, or opportunity not seized. I don’t want it to be about making the wrong choice or picking the wrong person. I am not sure what our story is about, but I can’t let it be about those things. I want it to be about possibility, about love that endures in whatever shape it appears in life. I want it to be about making a choice and sticking with it.

I want it to be about that little corner of the heart where I tuck away what I treasure most: an old friend with sparkly blue eyes, the smile of my baby, the reassuring weight of my husband in bed next to me.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN was born in Budapest and lived there until she turned eighteen. She became a “full-grown-person” over the past nineteen years spent in the U.S. She lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and her four-year-old son. Her day job is in publishing, but she spends all of her free time between four and five a.m. every morning imagining that she is a writer.

Waking Bad: One Wife, One Husband, Two Beds

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By Cosmita/ Flickr

By Eric Williamson

This essay contains spoilers about Breaking Bad, so if that matters to you, bookmark this baby. —Ed.

I have something of dire importance to say to my wife, Sheryl, but she’s on the phone. So I grab a beer and mill about.

When she’s finally off, she tells me that she went to Zumba, how tired she is, how her cute dominatrix instructor from the Ukraine encouraged her to up her weight limit, what her dom wore to class, what she wore to class, what the other people wore. Sheryl knows I hate this kind of conversation, because it’s not really meant for me—unless, perhaps, as punishment.

When she’s done, I say, “There’s a new theory floating around about Breaking Bad.”

She doesn’t respond, just stares at me. This is significant because, for the past several years, the one thing we could agree on, without fail, was that show. Following the saga of Walter White—the cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who transforms into a drug kingpin—was inexplicably therapeutic for us. The rule was we had to watch every episode together, without cheating, or there would be serious hell to pay from the other. Afterwards, we would discuss.

We got married, in fact, because we liked talking to each other.

Here’s the gist for those uninitiated into the series: Walt needs to earn money for his family before he dies, so he enlists the help of one of his former students, Jesse, and together they secretly cook meth in an RV out in the desert. But Walt’s plan is complicated by the fact that he excels at his new cottage industry. His blue meth is the purest around, which puts him both in competition, and in league, with some of the most ruthless members of the criminal underworld. Ultimately, his megalomania endangers the lives of everyone he loves, including his wife Skyler, his teenage son Walt Jr. and his newborn Holly.

“The theory,” I continue, “is that what we saw wasn’t the real way the show ended, and that the last episode was all in Walt’s head.”

Sheryl looks around the room, at the color of the walls that she’s not satisfied with, at a stinkbug pioneering a stretch of molding.

“The idea goes that as the police close in on Walt in the snow-covered car he’s trying to hotwire, he changes up the game in his head. The cops pass him, he magically finds a set of spare keys behind the visor, and rejuvenated by his sudden good fortune, returns to New Mexico to settle his final scores.”

She stares at me again. At least it approximates eye contact. “But what does it matter?” she asks. “He dies anyway.”

Her comment feels like a kick in the nads, but I catch my breath and soldier on. “Well, it’s important because it determines whether he’s able to die on his own terms. It’s about being a man, you know? And then you’re left to ask: Well, is that just after all he’s done? Is that right?”

But she persists in her take—which is not to have a take, I guess.

“I’m just saying, what’s the point of even talking about it? The show’s over now.”

“You’re right,” I say, deflated. “What’s the point?”

•••

Sheryl and I met as undergrads at the University of Georgia, reunited on Facebook twenty years later, flirted by phone for several months, and then finally began our bi-coastal dating relationship.

Jet-setting between my home in Los Angeles—the entertainment capital of the world—and her home in Charlottesville, Virginia—where nothing much happens but the weather—was super-romantic. She was the one who wooed me. She sent me handwritten love notes and little gifts (including a cast iron skillet) that evoked pleasant thoughts of domesticity.

When we were together, we were always on vacation.

When we were apart, we talked on the phone almost every night, about the old times, the status of mutual friends, the unspooling of our lives. Unspoken was how she became more conservative with the birth of her son, how I became more liberal from my five years of living on the Left Coast.

What didn’t seem like a match two decades earlier gradually came to seem do-able.

The difference in time between Eastern and Pacific meant my stories were often bedtime stories for her, and I could tell by the long pauses between affirmations when she was nodding off. Neither of us minded so much that I didn’t always get to the ending, though.

Some stories—the ones we truly love—we don’t want to end.

•••

I never meditated too long on why the writers chose the name “Heisenberg” for Walt’s alter ego. I knew his namesake was a scientist and that it had something to do with the atomic bomb, but I figured they would either explain it more or I could look it up later. Well, I finally looked it up.

Warner Heisenberg was one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which not only led humanity down the road to atomic weaponry, but it also led us down the road of quantum theory in general, which includes quantum chemistry and quantum physics.

Just like with Walt, good intentions could be viewed as having gone astray (although in the real Heisenberg’s case, it was a more complicated matter). The real Heisenberg had terminal cancer, too.

Now I’m not a scientist, and I understand the show’s creators had very little scientific background as well. But there is a concept called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more certainty you have in measuring the position of a particle, the less certainty you’ll have in defining its momentum—and vice versa.

Subsequent theories in the quantum realm express similar dualities. Just like that old chestnut about the Deep South, it’s all relative, right? The truth and how well it can be defined are sometimes dependent on your perspective.

At least two realities exist in Breaking Bad. One is the TV ending we can live with. Walt finds a way to transfer his ill-gotten gains to his son, exacts his revenge on those who crossed him (who were conveniently more evil than he was), and rescues Jesse from the meth dungeon, where he had been forced to cook for the thugs that Walt had previously allied with.

I still need that ending. It may not be quite as logical, as “real,” but I cannot live in a world in which Jesse at least doesn’t get away. He doesn’t deserve that fate.

But I’ve also come to accept the implicit ending, that what Walt thinks he experiences is actually a fantasy he concocts in his own rotting brain. He’s still aware, of course, of the logic of how people will react to him, based on how they’ve reacted to him in the past, and this knowledge keeps him from spoiling his own illusion that he has continued forward, even though he has really gone nowhere.

With a generous nod to postmodern film criticism, which counts viewer interpretation as being as valid as the filmmaker’s conscious or stated intent, it simply feels more like real life.

In reality, bad things happen to good people, and some mistakes can’t be taken back.

•••

One of the reasons Sheryl and I fight is sleep. If one of us sleeps well, the other can’t seem to get a wink. Sleep is the aspect of a loving relationship you can’t really work on. It’s a zero-sum game, and we are both greedy in bed in that respect.

When she sleeps, she sprawls diagonally, points her long legs all the way down to her big toes, and kicks like the professional dancer she aspires to be in her next life. I’ve often suspected, though, she doesn’t do her Rockettes performance in my absence, and that she’s passive aggressive even in REM state.

But I admit that I am more disruptive. I scream unexpectedly in the middle of the night, for example. It isn’t always a nightmare. Sometimes I simply fall asleep on my arm, and my arm follows, and the alarm in my subconscious goes off, bleating its warning from the murky depths that a part of me is dying.

This all led to Sheryl’s decision to finish the basement. It would give us more space, she explained, and we could move her son down there, freeing up a bedroom for when we both really needed our sleep.

My stepson T. is fifteen and already six-foot-two. His haircuts alternate from Ziggy Stardust, to hippy-dippy, to high-and-tight. He’s currently trying to grow a mustache, and so far, he’s already doing better than I’m able. He’s a good human being. Better than me on that front as well. He’s also quite possibly a genius—just ask his mother.

So she drew up plans—she once dreamed of becoming an architect—and oversaw the contractor. She did all of the finishing touches herself. Throughout the process, I was supposed to praise every new wall erected, every sign of progress, but to me it felt like we were going backwards.

The pending change in our sleeping arrangements felt like the demise of our romance.

•••

Suspense, of course, is essential to telling a good story, and one aspect of Breaking Bad that fascinated us both is that it jerked you around in time. An unexpected flashback or flash forward would create a tantalizing mystery that begged to be solved. Like the pink teddy bear with one eye that ended up in Walt’s pool.

The puzzle pieces didn’t always make sense right away, but you knew by end they would all fit together.

The bear, we learn, was a result of the fictional Wayfarer 515 air collision, in which a bereaved air traffic controller accidentally sends a commercial airliner into the path of a chartered plane, killing 167 people. One act of un-kindness—in this case, Walt letting Jesse’s girlfriend die—kicks the next domino, which is her father, the air traffic controller, whose distraction leads to the mid-air collision.

With so many lives affected by the tragedy, your imagination is left to extrapolate how bad energy will just keep multiplying.

•••

The flight from Los Angeles to Virginia is about seven hours. If you fly non-stop. Plus, you have to take into consideration the three hours you lose. My flight was further complicated by a stop-over and a bump, which meant staying in the Philadelphia airport an entire sleepless night.

Walter White did many unforgivable things over the course of the show. He even poisoned a child. All I did was try to get some sleep.

For my first official day home, Sheryl planned a party for all of her friends to welcome me. But as the time crept closer for her to trot me out, I was still in bed, which was still “our bed” then. She rudely shook me awake.

“Would you stop?” I begged. “A man needs his sleep!”

“A man needs his sleep?” she repeated, outraged—as if my exhaustion was an affront not just to her and her own need for sleep, but to all women’s need for sleep.

“A human being!” I said and covered my eyes with a pillow. “Now go away!”

She left in a huff, telling me I had five more minutes and then I’d better get up. When she returned, she brought her son in to double-team me. He was much littler then, but together they were a force of nature.

“Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” they yelled as they jumped on me and bounced the bed.

I bolted upward and threw out my hands in self-defense. Once I remembered where I was again, I was not amused.

“You’re lucky I didn’t hit you!” I snarled and rolled over.

Despite the obviousness of the context, I knew that didn’t come out quite right. Sheryl confirmed as much when she responded, “If you ever hit me or my son…”

Unfortunately, that fight stretched out for several days. The welcome-home party took on a turd-in-the-punch-bowl vibe when I hardly spoke to anyone, inviting retaliation from my wife afterward. The drama culminated with me on my cell phone in tears on the Downtown Mall, still trying to explain myself, but needing to be anywhere else but in the same house with her.

As teenagers rubber-necked, that’s when I said it. That thing you can never take back.

•••

After the never-ending home construction project was over, I finally had that sleep study done, the idea for which had originated months earlier at Sheryl’s request.

It was awkward. The tests are conducted in a hotel, which seems to me more tawdry than medical. The technicians put electrodes all over your body, they let you watch a little television until you’re sleepy—I caught a repeat of Breaking Bad—then they observe you while you sleep. You really can’t move around much. You’re tethered.

I didn’t feel like I slept much during the testing. I kept going under and then resurfacing. They call these “arousals.” I was relieved to learn that they didn’t mean the other kind, because they said I had a lot of them during the night.

In the morning, they fed me a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel lobby. I ate second helpings, with the assumption that I had no obligation to tip.

I felt good about that decision because the bill from the test was a killer. Another source of animosity between us. At first she said she would pay a portion of the damage, but then she reneged. Choosing to have the test done was ultimately my decision, she said.

At my follow-up appointment, the doctor said there wasn’t anything dangerous about my sleep. I didn’t need to strap on one of those S&M space masks—an assortment of which he had on Styrofoam heads all around his office—but I could still get one if I wanted. He would just have to make up an excuse for insurance purposes.

I returned home triumphantly from the doctor with test results that proved I fell “within a range of normal.” To which she only sneered.

But I had done what she wanted, and I asked, “Can I come back to our bedroom and sleep?”

“Now that we’re in separate rooms, I feel like the problem has been solved in my mind,” she said. “I’m getting the best sleep of my life. But maybe you can visit once a week?”

I think a part of her wanted me to beg, as penance for some past sin. But I was too proud.

As our standoff unfolded, she actually faulted me for not being more loving, for not catering more to her needs. She grew increasingly confrontational, and she justified her actions with the non sequitur that she could behave that way because she was the girl in the relationship.

Silently, though, I agreed with Sheryl. I believe that all girls should be told they hang the moon. They should be told that they are pretty and smart and that they are loved, without condition. But that’s not what happens in every girl’s childhood.

And that’s not how I responded. What came out of my mouth instead was, “I can be just as much of a girl as you can.”

•••

So here we are. Breaking Bad is over, and the only show that even comes close to replacing it for us is The Walking Dead—a metaphor I’d prefer not to contemplate.

What happens now that we can’t offload our marital tensions vicariously through Walt and Skyler anymore? What happens now that we know the whole story—that Walt Jr. won’t become a meth addict, as we once feared, and that poor Jesse indeed makes it out alive, if not unscathed?

What happens now that we’ve reached an end?

We have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for months now, with fans to knock out any impromptu noises in the night. During this particular night, which is actually early morning, I’m so mired in the old lumpy futon mattress I sleep on that my arms get pinned to my sides and one of them falls asleep. By instinct, I cry out and wake myself. It’s loud, but maybe she didn’t hear?

A few seconds later, the hall light shines in through the door cracks. It’s 3:30-ish a.m.

I fall back to sleep and get up at my normal time. When I peek into Sheryl’s bedroom, she’s already downstairs. Her bed is made. And I verify the situation with our wedding pictures is status quo; she’d taken them down, despite the therapy we both agreed was helping.

I have to hand it to her. This is her passive aggressive masterpiece.

You take for granted the images you see all of the time, until they’re gone. I’m trying my best to picture the cluster of three 11 x 14 photos, but it’s a challenge. All three portraits are of the two of us at the ocean in our wedding clothes—a destination wedding in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

In the picture that comes most readily to mind, Sheryl stands on the black rocks in her red cotton Victoria’s Secret dress, looking statuesque. I sit in diminutive silhouette, staring up at her like a child might.

The second-easiest to recall is the one of us prone in the volcanic sand, and you can see us both clearly in this one. I wear a white shirt and have my tan britches from Old Navy rolled up mid-calf as I nest in her arms. We both look stupidly happy as we stare off towards the ocean, like a scene from our remake of From Here to Eternity, the last blush of sunset still clinging to the bottoms of the clouds.

But the third picture is the hardest to remember. It doesn’t come to me right away, but it will later. It’s a close-up of us in silhouette. Our arms are entwined yet free-flowing, like some statue from a Hindu temple. A beast or a deity with a shared torso and two distinct heads. Even in shadow, both of us are clearly recognizable as our individual selves.

That’s the one I’ve always liked best.

I had waited a while before calling her out on taking the photos down. She claimed it was because I referred to her clustering of art as “junky,” which isn’t quite right, because she also removed the stand-alones of us propped up around the house.

Who was wrong first? I don’t know. Sheryl’s always had her fears, and she’s always made them a reality. I’ve always reacted in knee-jerk fashion, turned tail and ran, but being married isn’t about that. It’s about sticking.

Yes, technically, I was the first to cry uncle on the bricks of the Downtown Mall. To say in a fit of anger that I wanted a divorce. I’m ashamed to say I’ve said it more than once, but I’ve always taken it back. And she’s taken me back.

Finally, she said it, too. And while she also took her words back, the photos are still down.

But we are not over yet. In part, because I don’t want us to be. I’m still hopeful she feels the same.

As I get ready to take my morning shower, I overhear a conversation between mother and son. He apologizes for having been grumpy the night before—he lost his favorite calculator.

“It’s all right,” she tells him. “We’re all working on becoming better persons.”

Soon after, T. leaves for school. Sheryl sips coffee on the couch and writes in her journal. I eat a quick breakfast and throw together my lunch, all in purposeful silence. My episode of night terror still hangs over us like blimp.

But before I leave the house, like she does for me each weekday morning, she rises from the couch to give me a goodbye kiss. Sometimes it’s not a real kiss. Sometimes she only receives, on her cheek or on her forehead. But it’s something, and probably more than I deserve.

This morning, just like always, she meets me half way at the barrier that separates “shoes on” from “shoes off.”

Suddenly, with her right hand, she balls up her fist and rears back like she’s about to hit me.

But with her left hand, Sheryl pulls me forward and kisses me on the lips. Which tells me that an ending isn’t always an ending, and that we might just be okay.

•••

ERIC WILLIAMSON is a journalist and communications professional who has recently begun exploring personal essay.

Somewhere Under the Florentine Moon

catchthesun096 copy
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Pamela Wright

I wasn’t overly concerned when I heard the shouting start in the apartment next door. I’d neglected to learn more than a few pleasantries in Italian before leaving Atlanta for Florence, so I was unable to decipher so much as the rudiments of the argument. I stopped unpacking my overstuffed suitcase and listened for a moment.

There were two combatants, one male and one female. His voice was gravelly and unsteady, hers crackled and shuddered. I smiled and imagined two adorable Florentine pensioners engaged in a harmless spat over the evening meal or whose turn it was to take out the trash, the sort of benign bickering that occurs occasionally but inevitably after many decades of an otherwise happy marriage.

As I continued sorting through piles of clothing and cosmetics, the voices became louder and more urgent. I could not understand the sum and substance of the argument, but the increasingly heated tone was universal: Aged or not, these people were pissed.

“Basta!” shouted the woman.

The old man responded with a lengthy barrage of unintelligible Italian, punctuated by something that sounded like puttana. That particular word sounded vaguely familiar, with a rather unsavory connotation. I thought it might have meant whore, or perhaps even the c-word, an epithet so vile that not even a hell-bent heathen like myself could be sufficiently enraged to utter it. I tried to imagine anyone daring to speak to my tiny but total-Southern-belle-badass grandmother in such a fashion and a shudder ran down my spine.

A loud crash erupted behind the bed. One of them had hurled what sounded like a very large piece of crockery against their side of the shared brick wall with sufficient force to launch flurries of red and umber dust into the late afternoon sunlight streaming in from the balcony. While I might have been unfamiliar with Italian culture and customs, in the rural South of my childhood, when folks got this het up, odds were pretty good that someone was going for a gun. Even my grandmother, always a practical woman, kept a pistol in her patent-leather pocketbook for quick and easy access. When compelled to brandish the weapon, she looked like the love child of Queen Elizabeth and Clint Eastwood.

Another stream of what I could only assume were expletives followed, and I stood dead still over my suitcase, a curling iron in one hand and a bottle of hairspray in the other. Neither would provide much defense unless the dispute next door was the result of an ill-considered home permanent. I heard the scraping of wood against wood, but before I could deduce its source, a  crash stilled my breath and jolted the bed a good three inches away from its original position against the wall.

Jesus Christ, I thought. This isn’t an argument, it’s a mob hit!

My parents’ twenty-year marriage had ended badly, but even amidst the escalating anger and recrimination of its wretched, waning months I never heard anything remotely like this.

I dropped to the floor and scrambled beneath the bed for cover, my heart pounding in my throat. This was not at all what I had envisioned a few weeks before when I first hatched my somewhat impulsive plan for a solo vacation to Europe.

•••

Unlike all of my female friends and relatives, I was both single and childless. Both were entirely my choice, and I was generally content with the life I had built for myself. A solitary creature by nature, the prospect of marriage loomed like a self-imposed prison sentence, and I had never been very comfortable with children. Little kids don’t drink wine and rarely follow politics, so after establishing what they hope Santa Claus will bring them for Christmas, I’m pretty much at loss for conversation.

By my early thirties, I was not merely resigned to la vita da single, I had come to revel in my self-imposed spinsterhood. I enjoyed the solitude and the independence to pursue my own interests, and I’d even developed an impressive set of landscaping and home improvement skills along the way.

Still, I did experience an occasional twinge of domestic existential angst. I sometimes watched young couples in a restaurant near my home as they fussed over cooing babies and leaned their heads close together in intimate conversation. I never wished I had that life, but every now and again I found myself wishing I wanted that life. As much as I relished my autonomy, there were moments when I wondered if the companionship and support of a life partner would be a worthy tradeoff for my independence. Granted, these moments were fleeting and almost always occasioned by such crises as the discovery of a roof leak in the wee hours of a stormy night or a dead possum in the basement, but it did cross my mind.

Men had drifted in and out of my life over the years, good men for the most part, some of whom had offered a lifetime of security in exchange for my last name. Marriage to any one of these men would have been a safe bet, and my refusals to accept boggled the minds of my married and desperate-to-be-married girlfriends. But I could not bring myself to gamble decades of my life and a kind man’s happiness against the off chance that the marital/maternal instincts would just kick in once I strapped on a wedding gown and said, “I do.” Worst case scenario, at least I have a spacious home. Eleven rooms will hold a lot of cats.

As the Big Four-Oh-My-God approached, I felt restless; I was happy but a bit unsettled. I suppose it was, at least in some small part, the realization that the life choices I had made so cavalierly during my twenties and thirties were becoming more limited. In ten years time, when the last of whatever good looks I was born with had faded and the Good Ship Fertility had sailed, what if I realized I had made a mistake?

It struck me that a change of scenery might soothe the soul, and I became intrigued with taking my first solo vacation abroad as a fortieth birthday present to myself. I spent weeks poring over a stack of guidebooks, practically drooling over the picturesque scenes of rolling Tuscan hills and quaint medieval villages. I envisioned myself, confident and self-assured, frolicking through the achingly beautiful Italian countryside on a bicycle. A long, gossamer scarf would stream behind me from my swanlike throat, a la Grace Kelly opposite Cary Grant in one of those old movies I spent entirely too much time watching.

It would be altogether perfect.

I bought a plane ticket to Florence and rented an apartment right off the Ponte Vecchio, all paid in full and non-refundable in case I tried to chicken out. It was meant to be an adventure, the trip of a lifetime, a paean to my independence. I wanted to become the sort of woman who went to Italy alone.

And there I was. In Italy. Stuck under a bed.

Perhaps I had made a mistake. I could barely ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in front of my house, let alone through the Tuscan hillside. With my luck, coupled with an inherent clumsiness, I would undoubtedly get my Grace Kelly scarf caught in the spokes and throttle myself by the short, squatty neck. Suddenly the prospect of spending every Saturday night in a greasy barbeque joint with a squalling, red-faced baby and a NASCAR-obsessed, potbellied husband who would probably sleep through the storm and pretend he didn’t see the dead possum seemed more appealing.

As the battle continued unabated next door, I cautiously snaked one hand out from under the bed and felt blindly along the edge of the coverlet until I located my guidebook. More crockery shattered beyond the brick wall. The old man unleashed yet another litany of invectives at his companion. The old woman responded in kind.

Basta! BASTAAA!!!” she spat.

I burrowed deeper beneath the bed and paged through the guidebook to the “Helpful Words and Phrases” section until I found the B’s.

Basta {interjection}: enough; “that’ll do!”

Enough? From my perspective under the bed it sounded more like “May God have mercy on your soul, you rat bastard!!!”

By the time the last dapples of sunlight had slipped into shadows, my neighbors had mercifully retreated to their respective corners. Rich, spicy aromas wafted in through the open balcony window and I was overcome with hunger. Encouraged by the fact that the armistice next door had lasted a full and unabated five minutes, I pulled myself from under the bed and headed out the door in search of dinner. Hunger always bested fear in the end.

•••

When I mentioned to people I was going to spend a week in Florence, Italy, alone, the invariable reaction (particularly from single women) was something along the lines of “Oooohh, maybe you’ll meet somebody! It’ll be just like that movie Under the Tuscan Sun!

I seriously doubted that this would be the case. I saw that movie. I liked that movie. But let me say, without a drop of false modesty, Diane Lane I most assuredly am not. Still, I could not deny the smallest, most fleeting of romantic musings in the weeks before I left Atlanta for Italy.

I had imagined spending the first night of my vacation in some lovely, out-of-the-way Florentine café, where I would while away the evening breathing in the same intoxicating air that had inspired Michelangelo and Botticelli, whilst a mustachioed waiter with impeccable old-world manners poured my wine and called me signorina with a twinkle in his eye. The music of Pavarotti would play softly in the background as a warm breeze lifted perfect waves of auburn hair from my creamy porcelain shoulders.

Somehow in this fantasy, my hair had grown about twelve inches into long, perfect waves.  I had also become ten years younger, twenty pounds thinner, and grown creamy porcelain shoulders worthy of display, as if I would somehow morph into a red-headed version of Veronica Lake as I passed through customs.

In reality, I had stumbled (quite literally, thanks to sleep deprivation and a misplaced cobblestone) into a café a few blocks from my apartment on the far side of the ancient Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The unsmiling waiter, mustachioed but with eyes more bloodshot than twinkly, barely spoke as he took my order and quickly disappeared into the kitchen. It was a lovely, late September evening, but there was not another soul to be found on the restaurant patio. For a moment I wondered what the crowds of people spilling out of the trattoria next door knew that I didn’t, and if I had just wandered into the Florentine equivalent of Denny’s.

As I dined on mediocre bruschetta and overcooked ravioli in cream sauce washed down with copious amounts of Prosecco, a nice breeze began to blow. Alas, it did not lift long auburn waves from my (modestly covered) shoulders because I was in the process of growing out a horrifically bad haircut that had left me bearing a disturbing resemblance to my fourth grade school picture. If Pavarotti were playing softly in the background, I could not hear him over the tubercular-sounding cough emanating from somewhere deep inside the empty restaurant. I elected to take it on faith that the unfortunate consumptive had not prepared my food, but I nevertheless abandoned the remnants of pasta left on my plate. I didn’t want to carpe diem myself into a bad case of food poisoning on the very first night.

I felt a bit unsteady on my feet as I stood and made my way to the street. Perhaps I had exercised poor judgment in knocking back three glasses of wine in rapid succession after being awake for thirty-six hours straight. I took my time walking back to the apartment, peeking through shuttered windows into shops I might visit the next day and stopping to admire the moonlight as it danced across the surface of the Arno River.

One of my favorite aspects of travel is discovering the distinct smell that every city or country possesses. Every place I have ever visited lives in my memory according to its unique fragrance: the clean damp of Ireland, with notes of peat and wood smoke; the way the seventh arrondissement of Paris smells like butter and gruyere cheese melting into fresh, crusty bread; the metallic, energizing scent of New York City in December. Florence had a warm, ancient bouquet and a pleasant dustiness that was like breathing in the Renaissance itself.

As I stood by the river sucking up the essence of Italy, I detected a hint of musky cologne. I turned and found a man standing a few feet behind me, speaking Italian in my general direction. I looked over my shoulder. I assumed he was addressing someone else, but I was the only one there.

“Pardon?” I asked.

“You are American, yes?” he asked.

I thought it remarkable that he could place my accent based upon the utterance of only one word, but I quickly realized that as a nearly six-foot redhead I couldn’t exactly pass as a native.

“Yes, I am,” I offered hesitantly. I recalled a passage in my guidebook that warned of pickpockets and thieving bands of gypsy children who preyed upon American tourists. This guy certainly didn’t look menacing, in his well-tailored linen trousers and argyle sweater, but I was alone in a foreign country on a dark and largely deserted street.

The man quickly fell into step beside me as I began walking in the direction that my Prosecco-addled brain estimated would lead me to the safety of my fourth floor apartment. He said his name was Marco (of course it was!). I stole a glance at him as we passed beneath a street lamp. He was about my height and appeared to be somewhere in his thirties. And he was handsome … really handsome, with thick brown hair that fell in layers over a high forehead and an aquiline nose that could have been carved by an Italian master.

He attempted to make small talk as we walked, asking where I was from, how long I was staying in Florence, if I’d visited any of the surrounding towns. It took a few attempts for him to understand my name, but otherwise his English was very good, much better than my virtually nonexistent Italian. It all seemed innocent enough, but Marco was just far too good looking for this to be a pick-up. In Atlanta, a guy like this would be up to his spectacularly firm ass in co-eds and pageant girls, not scamming for a one-off with a bedraggled American tourist staring down the barrel of middle age. The only way I could conceivably draw his attention back home would be to spontaneously combust in the middle of the street.

As Marco continued to describe the wonders of Tuscany, I worked my tongue against my front teeth in a fruitless attempt to dislodge the errant fennel seed that had wedged itself there during dinner. I was suddenly painfully aware of the death grip my Spanx had around my waist, and I could practically feel the gravity pulling on my face. I certainly didn’t feel glamorous like Grace Kelly, or sultry like Veronica Lake. I felt sturdy and matronly, like Eleanor Roosevelt. The mugging scenario was starting to seem like the more likely objective.

“Well, I’ve enjoyed talking with you, but it’s been a long day and I should get back…” I said and quickened my step.

“But wait, please!” Marco grabbed my hand and pulled me to a stop beneath a streetlamp.

I didn’t know if I should be flattered or kick him in the balls and run like hell.

“You are so beautiful, you cannot leave yet. Please, come and have a beer with me. I will take you to the most beautiful place in Florence.”

Please, dear God, don’t let it be the trunk of his car!

I offered further protestations of exhaustion and jet lag, but Marco continued in his attempts to persuade me to accept his hospitality. I’ll admit, they were beginning to wear me down. I had no husband to account to; I was a free agent on the loose in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. There were no children waiting at home, only cats, and they pass no judgments. Cats are good that way.

Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated; hell, I probably would have tried to pick him up. Recapturing a moment of the reckless glory of my misspent youth was tempting, indeed. At the very least, it would make for a saucy story to share with all of the other old maids in the state-run nursing home where I would undoubtedly spend my twilight years.

Or it could end with my god-awful passport photo flashed across CNN as Anderson Cooper, grave of voice and furrowed of brow, warned against the dangers of American women traveling alone and succumbing to the devious and dangerous charms of foreign men.

Or maybe he was a perfectly nice, well-intentioned guy who had a thing for slightly older women in need of restrictive shapewear. I had heard that European men appreciated maturity in a woman as in a good wine or delicately nuanced artisanal cheese. I had always assumed it was bullshit, but who knew, maybe there was some truth to it. I scanned Marco’s face again, trying to work out exactly how far into his thirties he might be, and wondered how well the term “cougar” translated from English to Italian.

“Well, maybe just one beer, but only if it’s not far…” I began. Maybe it was the wine, but a second wind of energy began to course through my veins. Then I turned my gaze downward where it settled on my feet.

There exists, I am certain, an unwritten but inviolable international law mandating that all women over the age of twenty-five attempting entry to any European country must be in possession of the sturdy, low-heeled, oh-so-sensible but altogether-butt-ugly walking shoe. Said footwear must be worn at all times, as evidenced by the untold thousands of pairs that carry female travelers bunion-and-blister free from the banks of the Seine to the back alleys of Barcelona every year. And there I stood, fully compliant in my size nine-narrow, round-toed, hand-stitched Clark’s.

They were about as sexy as a colostomy bag.

I found it categorically impossible to entertain even the notion of playing the femme fatale, even the Eleanor Roosevelt version, while shod in what my mother had previously described as clodhoppers that she herself would not deign to wear to a rat killing. I nearly laughed out loud as I attempted to envision myself seated on a barstool beside Marco, legs crossed, hair tossed, as I loosened one shoe and let it dangle seductively from my perfectly manicured toes. Whereupon, its full and considerable weight would most assuredly fall to the floor with a crash so loud and resounding that all conversations would cease in its echo.

“Why are you smiling? Will you come with me or not?” Marco asked and tugged at my hand again … just a little too hard.

My smile faded as I again imagined my formidable black shoe dangling from the end of my foot. But this time it was dangling out of the open trunk of a late-model sports car as Anderson Cooper sighed and shook his lovely silver head. My burgeoning second wind blew itself out somewhere over the Arno River.

The giddy effects of the wine had abandoned me with a headache, and I was suddenly so exhausted I nearly swooned. I wasn’t a reckless kid anymore. I was a grown-up woman in sensible shoes.

Basta.

I took back my hand, then I took my leave.

The sky was blanketed with stars as I walked slowly toward my apartment, admiring the architecture and reflecting on the events of my first day in Italy. I wondered what my friends were doing back at home as I tried to compute the time difference. It would be daylight soon in Atlanta, time for the early morning rush of which-child-would-eat-what for breakfast and frantic searches for car keys and briefcases.

I began to consider that perhaps I had made a mistake in declining Marco’s offer of a drink and whatever else the invitation may or may not have implied. I was guilty of over-analyzing things on occasion. Would this prove to be another experience I might someday come to regret having not embraced? Sometimes a drink was just a drink, and after all, I had become the sort of woman who went to Italy alone … carpe diem.

I stopped and looked back over my shoulder to see if Marco was still standing beneath the streetlamp, but he had disappeared, somewhere under the Florentine moon.

•••

PAMELA WRIGHT is a freelance writer from Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently working on a collection of essays titled High Hair and Low Expectations.

 

Soul Mate 101: Don’t Marry Him

balloons
by Gina Kelly www.etsy.com/shop/ginalkelly

By Susan Kushner Resnick

My soul mate’s hand was warm, so I felt safe letting go for a few minutes.  I had calls to make, people to summon to his bedside. While I sat next to him and spoke to his only living relative, a nurse walked into the room.

“He’s gone,” she said almost in a whisper.

I put down the phone and lifted his big hand again.

Cold.

I kissed his forehead then immediately called my husband.

David had been supporting me for the entirety of the relationship that I’d just lost. He wasn’t threatened by Aron, a ninety-one-year-old Holocaust survivor, although he became appropriately alert when I’d announced our first rendezvous fourteen years earlier.

Aron had approached me in the lobby of a community center as I put my baby in a car seat.

“Vhat’s his name?” he had asked.

I summed him up as harmless. I figured he was approaching strange women and babies because he missed his own grandchildren. But a few more questions revealed how wrong that assumption had been. Aron didn’t have children or grandchildren. All but one of his family members had been killed by Hitler.

“I was in the camps,” he said. “All the camps.”

Auschwitz, Birkenau, Dachau. Places of infamy where he learned to sort the blouses of the dead and to witness a hanging without flinching. Yet his eyes sparkled during that first conversation and he delivered lines like a Borscht-belt comedian. The contrast—so seemingly jolly for a Holocaust survivor—hooked me. I asked him out for a coffee date.

“You buying?” he asked.

And so, for $1.25, a beautiful friendship began.

In the early days of our relationship, we flirted. He’d drive by my house to see if my car was in the driveway. I’d make sure my make-up was right before ringing his doorbell. He would regularly tease David about the potential for romance between us.

“If I was thirty years younger, you’d be in trouble,” he said over and over.

I even imagined romantic scenes starring Aron and me, circa 1946. In these fantasies, I played the strong American lass loving the young Polish survivor back to life. I would soothe him after he woke screaming from the nightmares that plagued him from the end of the war to the end of his real life: dreams of vicious dogs and men shooting at his father. He would be so grateful for my patience and tenderness that he would take me as his bride. And for the rest of our lives, he would never construct slag heaps of laundry in the corners of the bedroom or forget every logistical detail I ever told him, as my actual husband does.

I conjured those fantasies because like most humans, I was conditioned to associate strong attraction with romantic love. I was drawn to Aron, therefore I must have a crush on him, right? And though I always knew that wasn’t the course our relationship would take—he was forty-four years my senior and the picture of elderliness when we met—I had a hard time labeling our bond. I played with all kinds of combinations: grandfather and granddaughter; sister and brother; best friends. None of them fit.

•••

The soul mate, we’ve been taught in our rom-com culture, is the brass ring of romantic love. Find your other half and you can start searching for wedding caterers. A soul mate knows you and “gets” you and will never let you down. Therefore, you should marry him.

Don’t.

At least not if you believe in soul mate as mirror image. There’s an old myth that says humans started as four-limbed double creatures, but the gods worried that we’d take over, so they decided to split us in half. Ever since, we’ve been searching for our other halves so we can feel complete.

How marriage became part of the equation I’ve never understood. It seems as though marrying your twin would be exactly the wrong thing to do.

For four years, I dated my psychological echo. At first it was wonderful: so familiar, so comfortable. He got me. Then it turned disastrous. This nice guy and I, with our tendencies toward depression and inertia, were bringing each other down. Because we were so similar, we made the same mistakes. There was no counterbalance—no one to pull either of us back by the belt loops when we got too close to the edge.

In a pairing of opposites, there’s always someone to see how crazy you’re getting and metaphorically slap you straight. The boyfriend and I didn’t have this. Thankfully, we didn’t marry.

My husband, by contrast, can pull me back from the brink and I can do the same for him. We are not soul mates. We are complete individuals, not two halves of each other. He is science and I am art. He is awake and I am dreaming. He saves and I spend. I’m better at parallel parking, but only he can remember where we left the car. Of course, our differences can sometimes be infuriating, but our pairing has worked for twenty-one years. I like to think that’s because David is my intended: the best husband the universe could have picked for me. A unified soul has nothing to do with it.

Aron also ended up with a romantic opposite. His girlfriend, Nerry, was a highly educated Russian professor of foreign languages who never complained about her serious medical issues and who read poetry recreationally. Aron, by contrast, graduated from fifth grade, complained about every twinge, and watched pro-wrestling for escape. At their cores, he was sand and she was steel.

Both of our relationships worked fine when we met, though I was yearning for something I couldn’t name. David and I balanced each other, made each other laugh, and agreed on the big things. But he didn’t get me unless I explained myself because he didn’t see the world through the same lens. I missed that. Then I found Aron.

•••

He identified our similarities first. He had tumbled into an anxiety-depression hole that led to a hospitalization that brought me to the first of many uncomfortable chairs by many institutional beds. He’d been admitted for chest pains, but the doctors and I knew that cardiac weakness wasn’t causing his distress. PTSD from four years in the Nazi system was making him sick, but he refused to see that or to speak to the staff psychiatrist about treatment. It was my job to convince him to surrender to help. As the sunset turned the industrial rooftops outside his window into art, I told him my story. I’d been anxious for years until a case of postpartum depression forced me to face and treat my brain’s chemical inadequacies. I’d felt fine ever since. Accepting help didn’t have to be shameful.

“Nothing bothers Nerry,” he said.

“Same with David,” I said.

“Good thing we have them because we’re both nervous,” he said.

He looked at me and grinned. We were both nervous. We laughed at the same things. We interpreted the world in the same cynical way, spoke in the same blunt manner, even liked the same foods prepared the same quirky ways. Because he’d been raised in the days of privacy and dignity, our conversations didn’t involve dribbling our vulnerabilities all over each other. But we still knew what the other would say or how the other was feeling most of the time. We didn’t have to work at trust and love, or worry that either would fade. Neither of us could be described as easy-going, but even after he hung up on me during an argument or I scolded him for being so exceedingly stubborn, we didn’t have to apologize or explain ourselves. It was easy. It was not marriage.

We were, I believe, the purest of soul mates. There was no romance or sex. Just the deep comfort of being seen and known and accepted completely.  For a brief period in both of our lives, we got to feel whole.

•••

Then his hand went cold.

What’s it like to lose a soul mate? The saddest part is suspecting that such a relationship will never come again. I plan on having my husband around for many more years, and I will surely develop new life-changing friendships. But I don’t think we get more than one soul mate per life cycle. Who else on this earth will ever know me so well? It hurts to realize that particular luxury is probably over for me.

I used to panic, as Aron got older, about how I’d live in the world without him. But it’s turned out to be surprisingly painless. I take comfort in remembering how lucky I am to have found my other half. But I also don’t feel like he’s completely absent.

I talk to a lot of dead people in my head—my mother, dear friends who died young—but almost never to Aron. This makes sense to me. Where else would the rest of me go after death? Following my soul mate theory, he is I. To reach him, I only need to talk to myself.

•••

SUSAN KUSHNER RESNICKS’s latest book, You Saved Me, Too: What A Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting and Swearing in Yiddish, was published in October 2012. She teaches creative nonfiction writing at Brown University.