Loz in an Elevator

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

It starts with a song. Maybe it’s on the radio, maybe on TV. It could even be the artwork on the cover of an album. Or it could be an interview.

Initially I’d not even liked the band, and the first time I saw them play, I left the all-ages music hall early—it was a sparsely attended weeknight lobby show—and fled with a friend to a scuzzy bar a few blocks away. I’d moved to Sonoma County because I wanted to be a wine writer, but that all went out the door when I discovered the area’s extensive indie band scene, complete with its own tabloid-sized free magazine published cheaply on newsprint with ink that left telltale smudges all over readers’ hands. Something about it all resonated with me, this hidden but vital world of scrappy bands thriving among the vineyards and bucolic golden hills.

Later, I shoehorned myself into working as the magazine’s managing editor for free. The editor gave me a copy of the band’s demo and after listening to it once out of duty, I was surprised to find I couldn’t stop. I played it every morning, usually twice in a row. The songs were soundscapes, heavy with blissed-out distortion, and I liked how they set the tone of the day I wanted to have. At one of the magazine’s weekly editorial meetings at a mediocre coffeehouse that also served beer and sandwiches, we decided to run a short profile of the band in the next issue, and they dispatched me to interview them.

The house where the band rehearsed was on a poorly lit rural road, easy to miss. Like many dumpy rental houses that play host to various band members over the years, it had a name: The 116 House. Inside, it was dim and there were about five old couches in the living room. They guys welcomed me in and we all sat on the couches and did the interview. I recall little else about it, though I still have the microcassette recording.

It was the night I met my husband. Joe was the band’s drummer, and he’d said just a few words that evening. He still has a drummer’s predilection for staying in the background.

•••

We liked a lot of the same bands, as it turned out. Joe and each I had Ride CDs separately before we coupled, and our devotion to Ride is still such that we can’t bear to part with the duplicates. I shelve our CDs alphabetically by artist, and the Rs—I also love The Ramones—are disproportionately gnarly. In its purest sense music does not take a tactile from, but in a practical sense I adore the plastic and vinyl flotsam of albums and their colorful sleeves and inserts. Even if the music isn’t on the stereo, I like knowing it’s there twice.

Some of the guys in Ride were still teenagers when (to deploy a trite phrase of music journalism) their band exploded onto the British music scene. It’s almost criminal how fully realized their sound was at such a young age. Listen to Nowhere, their first album proper, and it’s still fresh and epic. Their music was noisy and angelic and gorgeous but always had a solid pop sensibility at its core. Unimportant to Joe but very notable to me, they were also really fit. That, my friend, is arty chick bait. I was an easy mark.

Even so, there was little evidence of Ride’s physical deliciousness on Nowhere, the cover of which is a blurry image of a cresting ice-blue wave, so the songs themselves had to be the heartthrobs. I got into Nowhere my freshman year of college, hijacking my roommate’s copy and eventually listening to it every single morning twice in a row, blissfully existing inside of it the same way I would with Joe’s band’s demo years later. On an opposite coast, a world away, Joe was nowhere, too.

•••

Music was everything to me in my teens and early adulthood. School, jobs, responsibility: these things made no sense. Music did, and by first channeling a real-life situation through the glorious prism of a band, it came out as something I got.

I saw a lot of rock bands back then. They spiritually realigned me, helping me function the rest of the week. Everything else was planned around their shows. At a release show for a compilation CD Joe’s band was on, I got drunk and gave Joe my business card. A few days later he actually called me, instantly distinguishing himself from all of the other guys I kept tabs on at shows. We had our first date. And then we kept on dating.

I liked Joe because he was sincere, and I liked his friends and the other guys in the band because they were fun and not mopey, self-obsessed weirdos. Joe and I liked a lot of the same bands, too. We saw bands together, plus I tagged along to almost every one of his shows. For a four-piece, they had an insane amount of gear: a Farfisa, a Moog, two drum kits, assorted amps and amp heads, a few suitcases full of pedals and cables, and a film projector (I know, I know). It took a long time for them to load in, but it took forever for them to load out. Joe may be sincere, but he had no hustle. I grew adept at lugging bursting-at-the-seams drum hardware bags up and down narrow club steps and onto filthy San Francisco curbs. All those dingy clubs, all those pints of Lagunitas IPA, the residue of the stamp on the back of my hand giving away the cause of my next-day grogginess at work. I lived for it.

•••

One of the most disappointing things about being married to a drummer is that, no matter how mind-blowing their playing might be, it gets to a point where the person practicing on the kit in the garage is just making an unbearably loud racket. At least I appreciate Joe’s drum kit. It’s a set of vintage Ludwigs in a coppery sparkle wrap called Champagne. I see them glimmer every time I bring in the groceries. Those drums have traveled quite a bit, in the backs of vans and then in moving trucks. They’ve spent years in their drum bags, and then in the basements of friends, and then, finally, in our basement. Now that we have space for them, Joe does not have anyone nearby who jives on the kind of music he’d most like to play, and at best he sometimes does shuffle beats at casual jam sessions with friends. But he never gets to really wail.

We have a Ride poster that’s the cover of their 1991 EP, Today Forever. The poster was Joe’s initially, and for some reason he got it laminated when he bought it, and that’s probably why it’s still around now. I love that EP; the cover is a photo of a shark baring its teeth and RIDE is superimposed in capital letters and it’s cryptic and badass. I tried to put the poster up in the basement to remind me that we used to be cool, but no matter what kind of tape I used, the combination of cinder block walls and humidity conspired to make the poster fall down. It bummed me out. I think I was hoping it would spur Joe to play his drums more often.

I’m still plotting ways to hang that poster. Loving a band is like having a crush. Simply saying their name out loud feels gratifying, almost illicit. This is perhaps why music journalism has decayed into an endless stream of lists: assembling and deconstructing them allows you to handle the names, the bands, to build them up into a gigantic consolidated tower, an epic hypothetical luxury condo of rock and roll exclusivity that’s just to your liking. Even just typing certain band names now gives me a rush: The Charlatans. Sonic Youth. Dinosaur Jr. The people from these bands are officially old dudes now but not to me. Rock music is commonly thought of the music of youth, perhaps because only in youth do we have such an abundance of potent feelings in need of a vessel.

You’d think music would take energy from you, but that’s not how it works at all. It only gives. What a privilege to have that in your life, a special thing that’s all yours to obsess over.

•••

When my appetite for new bands took a nose dive about a decade ago, it disarmed me. Who was I if I didn’t care about current music? I wound up getting into really square stuff like Henri Mancini and Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis—the kind of music I used to make fun of. The albums were plentiful and affordable; I could get a whole box of crappy vinyl at the Goodwill for a dollar, pick out the good stuff, and turn right back to re-donate the rejects.

I missed leaving a club feeling both spent and entirely filled up. Live shows stopped doing it for me. I was tired of standing in a crowd on dirty floors in my impractical rocker-girl black vinyl boots, tired of sitting at a cocktail table in a sparsely populated club, tired of scoping out a spot to pee in an alley off San Pablo Avenue because the toilet got clogged at the artists’ loft party. The toilets at loft shows always got clogged.

Going musically frigid changed me, or I changed and then I went frigid. To care so much seems petty, but the emotional significance of a single song can run so deep, like a fissure in the ocean floor. Some people find God. Others find bands, and their music fills a void. Listening to a song is at once completely universal and profoundly individual, and the people who made that song you come to carry in your heart because they created something that lifts up your life and articulates this roiling feeling you either have or yearn to have.

•••

“Ride’s getting back together!” Joe said right when he came home from work. “They’re touring and will be in Cleveland.”

This was huge. “When?” I asked. “Did you get tickets? This will sell out. We need tickets.”

“But what if your mom can’t watch Frances?”

“THIS IS RIDE. Get the tickets.”

He got the tickets. I arranged for Mom to watch Frances, and we booked a hotel not far from the venue, because Cleveland is a bit of a trip for us, and I’d done enough drowsy post-show drives in my life to know how stupid it is to get in a car with your ears ringing and a body full of adrenaline and blood tinged with alcohol, only to later doze off going 75 on the interstate with still over an hour left to go, thinking, “Crap, am I going to make it home alive?”

Neither of had ever seen Ride, who broke up in the mid-1990s. They hadn’t played together formally in over twenty years. Joe and I left for Cleveland in the afternoon, and when we got downtown, the traffic was outrageous and Joe nearly had a panic attack. It turns out there was an Indians game that night, and our hotel was blocks from the stadium, so by the time we checked into our room, we’d weathered a nightmarish hour of gridlocked rerouting and impossible parking.

Key cards in hand, we got in the elevator. Joe was surly, swearing under his breath, and I had to give him the kind of wifely “get your shit together, man” look reserved for public situations.

But something quickly drew my attention away from my irate husband. Right before the elevator doors closed, a man rushed in and stared intently at his black rolly suitcase. In the understated dark clothing of a traveler, he didn’t look like any of the garishly dressed Indians fans we’d just seen by the bucketload, and he was giving off a powerful vibe I recognized but couldn’t quite place. The doors slid closed, and the typical awkwardness of a crowded elevator ensued. I thought about asking the intense guy which floor he needed—he was cute, a good excuse to be polite—but opted not to because he was actually closer to the buttons than I was.

I spent the following impossibly long elevator seconds mulling this over, and then bing! the doors opened to our floor. The intense dude quickly scooted out before us to the opposite wing. Once we got down our end hallway, Joe turned to me. “I think that was Loz.”

“What?” I said. Loz is Ride’s drummer. It’s short for Lawrence. I think there’s a rule that all British rock band percussionists need to have nicknames with a Z. Joe’s always admired Loz musically. He’s not the kind to idolize people, but he’s told me a few times how the song “Leave Them All Behind,” which is crazy-full of drum fills, had been one of the things that motivated him to start playing drums in the first place.

“Yeah—in the elevator. His suitcase had a luggage tag that said OXF.” Ride is from Oxford.

I was dubious, because Ride was a distant thing from a mythical realm, one that did not include blasé, overpriced rooms at the Radisson. “Let’s just figure out where we’re having dinner and relax a bit,” I said. But I was not relaxed. I’d suddenly slipped back into the old Sara, a person who was impulsive and excitable. We headed out and kept our eyes peeled.

Dinner was awful. Ride was fantastic. The reunion was not at all a pandering or opportunistic. I always wonder about this, the motivation bands have to reunite. Every person has events that define their lives, but for a band who achieves renown in their youth, that becomes—to the public, at least—the defining thing in their lives. Joe had certainly not spent the ten years of our marriage being nothing but the former drummer for his band, though they never exploded onto any music scene.

We go through the years, and ideally become more sorted-out and mature. There are jobs that don’t involve musical instruments or amp heads or tour vans that stink of farts and t-shirts in bad need of laundering. There are relationships and families and prosaic things of incredible, meaningful depth: homework on the refrigerator, walks with the dog, lopsided birthday cakes spattered with droplets of pink and blue wax. But there are also the lingering fumes of four guys who were on a stage together and did this incredible, transformative thing, and while other life events can eclipse that in significance, nothing can duplicate it.

•••

Pop culture holds such a mighty sway over our society that we tend to define ourselves by what we like, not what we do. Those filters—favorite bands, favorite books, favorite movies—are handy, but they’re not airtight. I might meet a person who agrees with me that Ejector Seat Reservation is Swervedriver’s best album start to finish, because duh, it is. But you can love Swervedriver and be an asshole. Joe and I can relate to each other over somewhat obscure music, but that’s not what makes a relationship endure. I’m not sure what does, actually. Maybe not knowing is the key.

After the concert, Joe and I agreed it was for sure Loz in our elevator that night. While the show itself had been the main attraction, this one fleeting non-encounter gave the whole weekend a symbolic significance. The Pope had just concluded his North American junket, but screw that. Loz stayed on the same floor of our hotel.

That following week I spent electrified, floating in a heady altered state. Joe and I dug up a documentary about Creation, Ride’s record label, and it included this offhand home move footage of Ride from back in the day—they couldn’t have been any older than twenty-one—and they were just these totally hot little shoegaze babies peering out from a lost window of time that held so much promise. What was I doing when that was filmed? What was Joe? I couldn’t even fathom it. I wanted to go back and re-watch that snippet about fifty times, which is exactly what I would have done in 1991.

My body surged with my own teenage fervor, churning with pheromones long unused. The intimacy and immediacy of all the music I’d ever loved came rushing back, and my ears were receptive in a way they hadn’t been in years. I daydreamed a lot and was not terribly productive with work, instead going on runs more frequently, the pace brisker and the route longer. Joe sat at his drum kit in the basement and played it hard, like he used to before we learned to automatically default to common respect for our neighbors.

The world nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos and algos—“pain” and “return home,” respectively. The pain isn’t from the past itself, but the impossibility of fully experiencing that home again. I was afraid I’d feel pained from what I’d see up there onstage, that the reality of a middle-aged Ride today would maybe squelch a vision of the past I cherished, a time of dewy skin and dreamy faces. But I didn’t. (It certainly helped that the band’s members have aged well—hiya, Loz!)

I could listen to the interview I recorded at the 116 House in 2001, but do I even need to? Part of the 116 House lives here. Home is dynamic. At its kernel is the eternal awe of youth, embers that you can’t let die. We move artlessly though time, as dumb today as the day we were born, and the day we skipped class to go flip through the bargain bin at the record store, and the day we drunkenly handed a drummer a business card after that show at Bottom of the Hill, and they day we put our kid to bed for the thousandth time. Every morning we wake up again, and it is today forever.

•••

SARA BIR is a chef and writer living in Ohio. Her book Foraged, Forgotten, Found: Rediscovering America’s Abundant Wild and Unusual Fruits is forthcoming from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

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Violets, Boxes, and Stars

violets
By Jessy Rone/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

The sight of demure violets and shaggy dandelions against the deep green of recently mowed grass has always delighted you. Normally you don’t like the combination of yellow and purple or yellow and green, because you hate team sports and those eye-searing pairings are often team colors, spotted on high school basketball jerseys or the itchy polyester cling of cheerleading uniforms. But in the context of spring, you love it, those three colors coming together for a few short weeks, radiant under the still-shocking intensity of midday sunlight. It calls to mind a suburban idyll, those violets and dandelions asserting themselves against an herbicide-drenched carpet of lawn.

But it is night now and you are looking at your phone, even though you’ve vowed to spend less time looking at your phone, and one of the feeds of text on it alerts you that a cookbook writer you admire just made violet syrup. It excites you, the very sound of it. Violet syrup. You imagine the violet syrup in a dainty pressed-glass jar, illuminated like an isolated shard of sacred stained glass in the path of an afternoon sunbeam, high on the shelf of a shabby-chic hutch. It calls to mind tea parties and Anne of Green Gables, harkening back to an age before phones that offer tiny visual enticements of violet syrup in the first place.

In your house there are all sorts of things to do, things that get pushed aside because of your job, which is to arrange little black symbols in lines against glowing white screen. It is called editing. The things you edit are lists about food, and you correct the mistakes in these lists because you’ve had enough jobs cooking food to spot misinformation quickly. You know what food does, even though your editing job consumes enough of your time that you now resort to serving boxes of bunny-shaped macaroni and cheese for dinner more often than you are comfortable with.

You do this editing from home, because that’s where the screen is, and your daughter often sees you scowling intently at it, and the magnetic power it holds over you infuriates her. You try very hard to limit her own exposure to glowing screens, both large and small, and yet there you are all day, tapping away at buttons as she implores you to draw with her or listen to her rambling preschooler stories. You want to give yourself fully to those stories, but the lingering demands of unresolved symbol-arranging pulls you away. Her job is to go to daycare, where she can play with other kids her age and build up her social skills so you can be at peace with your screen and your keys.

Sometimes you need a break from editing, so you switch to a different screen for a bit and click on little boxes and stars under photos of babies and dogs. You didn’t click on the star under the violet syrup on your phone. Is this worth a star? What does one do with violet syrup?

You try to shove the violet syrup to the back of your brain, but the violets do not give up on you. They appear all over, suddenly, in low-lying mobs: in the green strip of medians, along the path in the woods where you walk the dog. They grow in clusters, making pinpricks of color at the base of stop signs and between the cracks in the sidewalk. They soothe and disrupt you, because they are just another thing that you won’t get to. If you don’t pick the violets and make them into syrup, you’ll forget about how the purple and the green of violets make you feel.

You go with your daughter to a park without your phone so you can be somewhere and not really think about stars and boxes, and she runs off and then returns, bearing a fistful of white violets collected indelicately in her small hands. “For you, Mama,” she says. White violets? Was that one of Elizabeth Taylor’s perfumes?

The white violets do it. After a whole week confronting their quiet menace, you surrender. It’s Friday and you have deadlines. You are alone at home, busy editing inside and it’s glorious outside and you evict yourself from your dining room-cum-office. You close up the screen and grab a mixing bowl and go to your front yard, which, despite its minimal lawn, is infested with violets. You squat down, and you pick.

And you pick. One violet, two violets, three violets. You need a murder of violets build up in the bowl. You think of saffron, collected from the stamens of tiny crocuses, and consider how ill-suited you would be for the life of a saffron harvester, since after five minutes you are ready to quit this violet-picking business. You cannot give up. You do not give up.

The violet syrup recipe on your phone says to gather three handfuls of violets. You succeed, and you take a close-up picture of the bowl of violets with your phone, and you think about sharing this picture so other people—friends, kind-of friends, vaporous friends—can click on a box or star to agree with you about how great your life is, this life of carefree front-yard foraging. But you look at the real violets and then the violets on your phone, and you notice that they look nothing alike. Your phone violets are blue-ish and stiff and cool, and your real violets are a vibrant violet-purple, and the shiny metal bowl is warm from sitting on your lap. You delete the photo.

You retreat inside, to the kitchen, to separate the tender petals from their green bases that hold them together (a part of their anatomy called, adorably, the pip). So many small flowers, so many pips to maneuver around. Hundreds. Steeping the pips with the petals would make the resulting syrup bitter and to skip it would be to negate the already frivolous work you’ve invested so far. This is exactly the sort of thing you’d love to recruit your daughter for, but pulling petals away from pips requires more finesse than her unruly five-year-old fingers can muster. And so you do it by yourself, outsourcing the supervision of your daughter so you can blow off work and pluck itty-bitty flowers apart for making an essentially useless condiment.

It occurs to you that you should probably taste a violet before you go through with this. For all of the wildflower’s loveliness, its fragrance and flavor is that of the most bland lettuce ever, and you don’t imagine exposure to heat doing it any favors, but by now you’ve decided that making violet syrup will fill some hole in your life that needs to be filled. Even if you are just filling it with lettuce-flavored simple syrup.

Building up a critical mass of violet petals feels Sisyphean, absurd, impossible. Many times in your life, you have repeated insignificant tasks. You pumped the handle of the hopper and squirted a blob of Bavarian cream inside the donut. You stripped away the stranger’s slept-on sheets and unfurled a fresh sheet for a new stranger to sleep on. You took the rectangle of plastic from the customer, slid it through the reader, and made small talk as they paid for their pig-shaped corncob holders or glittery pink silicone spatula.

Do you receive our catalog?

Would you like a bag for this?

Enjoy your day!

You took the rectangle of plastic from someone else and slid it through the reader, and then another rectangle from another person, and then another.

A good place to eat around here? What do you like?

That meat grinder’s aluminum, so I don’t recommend putting it in the dishwasher.

Caribbean is my favorite Le Creuset color, too.

Your favorite Le Creuset color is actually Flame. The violets are tedious, still. Twenty minutes in, you have a pint of pip-free petals, not nearly the quart you need for the syrup. Screw it. You instead opt to make violet sugar, which requires only one handful of petals and one cup of granulated sugar.

It’s the big dirty secret of foraging that, with enough refined sugar, all things are possible. Only a few centuries ago, it was an expensive luxury. Crews of African slaves labored around the clock on Caribbean plantations to placate white people’s hunger for the laser-like precision of white sugar sweetness. On those islands that inspired a Le Creuset marketing expert to name a soothing shade of turquoise blue after their waters, there was a constant need for boatloads of new slaves, because they died before they got around to having children. Some fell into the boiling vats of cane juice, and some bled to death after getting their limbs caught in the rollers that pressed the cane, but most were simply worked to the point where they collapsed and never got up again.

Sugar is commonplace now, unavoidable. It infiltrates the snacks your daughter eats at daycare, the Nutri-Grain Bars and Fruit Roll-Ups. Now, the ability to afford eschewing sugar is a sign of membership in the upper class. Your white sugar, though, will not be white. After this, it will be violet.

A few blitzes in the food processor and that’s it. It tastes like regular sugar and looks like wet purple sand. To give it a boost, you add a grating of Meyer lemon zest, but it’s still not punchy enough.

You look at the windowsill over your kitchen sink and spy a vanilla bean pod. Of course you always air-dry the hulls of scraped-out beans after the majority of their flavor has been sucked into custards and compotes. They cost about a hundred dollars a pound and are actually the cured seed pods of a specific orchid, one that’s pollinated by hand a hemisphere away. The producers of these seed pods sometimes use a needle to prick a unique brand on them, just as a cattle rancher would, so the beans can be traced back should a vanilla seed pod rustler come to plunder the crop. Sometimes, before eviscerating them with a paring knife, you examine vanilla beans and you spy the tattoos, looking like leathery runes from another age, and you imagine having to prick thousands of still-green seed pods on orchid vines.

You realize you now have a small stockpile of dried vanilla bean hulls, and you grind them to several tablespoons of fine brown dust in your spice grinder, and you add a fat pinch of this dust to your violet sugar, and it does the trick. They’re kindred spirits, these two esoteric floral essences.

You retrieve your child from daycare, and you both return home to a big bowl of intact violet blossoms, ones that were not massacred into sugar, and you give this bowl to your daughter and send her to the yard and say, “Do you want to play with these?” She sprinkles the violets on the sidewalk and scatters decapitated dandelions and mangled clumps of grass among them, announcing, “I made a store!” and you approve.

The violet sugar is in a jar on the counter. It is subdued in color and soothing to look at, nothing at all like the cartoonish hues of purchased decorating sugar that you sprinkle on cutout cookies, and you just leave it there, even though you have no immediate plans to bake anything. Maybe you will divide it among smaller jars and give it to a few of your friends, the ones who appreciate things like the glancing presence of violets. The violet sugar means you are not entirely a useless and shallow person. You think about it and think about it and then sit and tap on keys and sort those feelings out, and then there it is, Violets, Boxes, and Stars, a few teasing lines on the screen of a phone, and you tap on them, and see this.

•••

SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She lives in Ohio.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

Why We Left

boxes
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

Two years ago, my husband and I moved away from Portland, Oregon, on purpose. We left behind friends, career prospects, and a two-bedroom rental house that cost a mere $875 a month. And we loaded our dog and kid into our Outback and drove as fast as a ’99 Subaru can go all the way to Marietta, Ohio, the town where I grew up.

“We just need to be closer to family,” I told people in the perplexed silences that inevitably followed when they heard our plans to relocate. What illustrious family could possibly woo us away from an artsy Eden on the Willamette?

The family thing was true and untrue. We needed to be closer to them because we were perpetually broke, and the broke-ness had become such that it was time to deploy the emergency move-in-with-my-folks plan.

But there was also an ache that hadn’t gone away despite five years of gamely trying to adore that adorable city where we fit in so well, in so many ways. Portland loved me, and I could not love it back, and I felt like a shithead because of it.

We arrived in Portland in 2007, three mayors and at least two ultra-bougie New Seasons food markets ago. Before that, we lived in New York City, and in comparison Portland seemed preposterously quaint and manageable. Our first months in Oregon, my husband and I would admire the downtown skyline and the conifer-studded hills rising behind it and coo, “Oh, look—it thinks it’s a city!”

The intensity of city life was what we moved to escape, and our new no-name strip of neighborhood between I-205 and the used car lots of Southeast 82nd Avenue struck us as a quiet haven of playgrounds and modest houses, with a few hookers thrown in for color. Two greasy old-school Chinese joints bordered us, Hung Far Low to the south and Chinese Garden to the north. We had a spacious backyard, where I doggedly pruned an overgrown apple tree and hacked away at diseased lilac bushes. We got a dog from the Humane Society. My husband joined a few bands. On heady Portland summer days when the sun cascaded down like a shot of heroin, he haunted a skate spot under the Hawthorne Bridge. Though magazines and newspapers in New York barely gave me the time of day, in Portland I wrote freelance stories for the food section of Portland’s major news daily, eventually worked in their test kitchen, and also taught cooking classes on nights and weekends. My husband had a string of long-term temp assignments in administrative offices. It was almost enough to keep us afloat.

All the while, we looked for better jobs. And looked and looked and looked. There were two main problems we grappled with in Portland: rain and money. Too much of one, and never enough of the other.

•••

Let me tell you about Marietta, Ohio. Founded in 1788, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, which means it’s in spitting distance of West Virginia. It’s an Appalachian Interzone, at once very Midwestern and not Midwestern at all; a generous pinch of twang runs through the local speech. The population is staggeringly white, though there might be about twenty black residents now, and if memory serves, back when I was in high school there were maybe five. So that’s improvement. As for other ethnicities, if you live here and you’re Asian, you’re probably a doctor. There’s one shop that serves decent coffee, but it’s a nutritional supplement store/smoothie bar that doesn’t open until nine in the morning. Vietnamese food? A taqueria? Fat chance.

Portland feels like another universe in comparison. I still struggle to define the charms and drawbacks of each place. Both are defined by the big, dirty rivers that run through them. Portland had innumerable food carts and strip clubs; Marietta has innumerable churches and fracking rigs. You’ll have to wait for hours to score a table at Portland’s Tasty n’ Sons for breakfast on a Sunday, but in Marietta, the Busy Bee Diner offers immediate seating and a waitress who wears her hair in, yes, a beehive. Sure, Portland has scads of idealistic youths engaged in civic activism—but you’d never guess how many grumpy retirees in Marietta volunteer their time for charitable causes. Instead of laptops, they might carry concealed weapons. John Deere pajama bottoms worn as all-purpose outerwear are a common fashion statement, true, but the population overwhelmingly accepts proven science and public health—that is, you don’t see citizens coming together against fluoridated water that way they do in Portland.

Living here is a bit like going back in time. After my high school experience as the resident misfit weirdo, I skipped town with a happy shrug, never suspecting that decades later I’d come to crave Marietta, with its scenic bridges and dozens of historical markers and goofy festivals and rickety, underfunded little museums. It’s an all-American community with a picturesque downtown of antique stores and brick streets. The thrift shops and flea markets are great, because the records and mid-century furniture aren’t all picked over. Baby boomers abound, as do minimum-wage positions in nursing homes. Among the ladies there’s an unfortunately popular haircut, this wedged-in-the-back/spiked-in-the-front chemical-drenched thing with streaky highlights that my husband and I call “crispy hair.”

And I have to be slightly more mindful of what I say in mixed company. In Portland, most people likely lean Democratic, or support reproductive rights. In Marietta, I have friends who vote for Tea Party candidates.

Free from the confines of that infamous Portland bubble, I like walking around and not running into endless clones of myself and my political views. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the rest of America is like, and a window into the goodness of people who don’t think like me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I’d get asked when we first moved back to Marietta. The old guard here clings to a deeply ingrained Midwestern/Appalachian skepticism of outsiders, and they are reluctant to embrace change, even small ones, like installing pedestrian crosswalks on the busiest street downtown.

“I grew up here, actually,” I delight in replying. Not fitting in is my comfort zone. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable in Marietta.

•••

My California-bred husband still wakes up dazed upon realizing that he resides in the ass-end of Appalachia. He loves record stores, ethnic food, post-rock bands, and independent movie theaters. He’s trying to be a good sport.

But once we had our daughter, those things phased out of our Portland lives, anyway. By then I’d veered away from my culinary career, landed job with the county library, and was thoroughly enjoying the best employee benefits of my life.

Which was great, because we needed those funds to cover childcare. It became apparent that raising Frances in Portland would present increasingly complex logistical problems. For our one-car family, Frances’s daycare had to be reasonably close to my library. Both Joe and I worked until six many nights, and nearly all daycare centers closed before then. Through desperate combings of Craigslist we found a few options, but there was precious middle ground between total sketch-fests that reeked of sour milk and tiny palaces of early childhood education where the tuition was higher than my paycheck.

When my husband’s temp gig with a Portland city agency ended, even though he wanted to work, we realized we couldn’t afford it. We reluctantly pulled Frances out of the loving daycare we’d been lucky to find and had him stay home with her, collecting unemployment until he got a job offer high enough for us to clear her monthly fees.

That put us more in touch with the day-to-day struggles of the working class than we were comfortable admitting. We could have chosen housing that was even lower-cost than our moldy house of sadness, where I had to make wiping the backs of our bookcases down with bleach water a weekly task. I developed a ceaseless runny nose that eventually blossomed into massive sneezing attacks, ones that disappeared once I walked out our door, and I realized I was allergic to our own home. We knew we had food, a roof over our heads, and a bank account that was barely ever overdrawn.

The biggest ache was a battle we raged with our privileged identity. We’re educated, liberal, and artsy. People like us are supposed to gentrify neighborhoods, not get pushed out of them. For extra money, I picked up sub shifts at public library branches; eventually, I worked at least once at all eighteen branches in the county system, the grand slam. It was a great way to see the parts of city that the alluring travel features in magazines don’t show you. That was the Portland I ultimately fell in love with, the one that didn’t trump itself up. I saw a lot of meth teeth and smelled the stench of urine wafting from clothes that had not been washed in years, sure, but I also saw people who were more or less…normal. People who needed jobs and barely had any tech literacy, so I’d have to walk them through filling out a resume online as they raced to submit it before their allotted time for the day ran out on the library’s public computer. People who needed referrals for free legal services, or were trying to locate their parent’s birth records, or who just wanted recommendations for a good book.

To a casual observer, I looked like the Portland dream: The librarian-writer! With nerdy glasses! Who used to be a chef! But really, I was one of them, the other Portlanders. The ones who constantly did the utility bill/paycheck triage. The ones whose shady landlord, when asked to take down the 1970s wood paneling because it’s housing a robust colony of mildew, replies “But if I take down the paneling, it’ll expose the hole in the wall!” The ones who shopped at the discount grocer not because thrift is trendy, but because thrift is necessary. A few strokes of massive bad luck and I could have been the urine-reeking patron, or the patron who lived in her car, or the patron who lost visiting privileges with her kid.

We were tearing our hair out, working with a tiny margin of error from month to month, with no bright future in sight. We cobbled together our work schedules for Frances-watching duties, doing that frantic parent-to-parent handoff as one of us headed out the door; I worked every weekend, and we rarely had relaxed family time together. What’s the point of living in an amazing city when you can’t access its best attributes?

“You know that feeling you get when your plane descends to land in Portland, and you look at the city below and think, ‘I’m home’?” A friend posed this question, and I had to confess I’d never once felt that way. It was more like, “Huh. Here we are again.”

The love that Portlanders have for their city borders on romantic. I felt like a third wheel, immune to the giddiness. While tall bikes and food carts made out on the couch, I skulked in the corner of the rec room, alone. I became cantankerous about the stupidest things, hundreds of soggy twigs to fuel the brush fire of animosity shouldering inside me. I think of myself as a person with pluck, a problem-solver who deals with the situation at hand, but I’d somehow let my circumstances neuter that part of me. On I went, pruning the apple tree. Bleaching the furniture. Polishing a turd.

But really, I was angry for us at not getting it together enough to thrive in one of the most livable cities in the country. Portland was often good to us. We had lovely friends, and I adored my library job. Every morning I’d wake up and resolve to bloom where we’d planted ourselves, and then the sad numbness would settle in, and it became impossible to suss out which part of that sadness was Portland’s fault and which was mine.

There’s that TV show. You know the one I’m talking about—it pokes affectionate but absurdist, sketch-comedy fun at Portland and its charming yet maddening idiosyncrasies. It’s big there; it’s very Portland not to get enough of Portland. If you live, or once lived, in Portland, people will inevitably bring up That Show.

Please don’t bring it up with me. I can’t watch it. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s too close. Why watch a parody of something that felt like a parody the first time around, in real life? “Come sit with me,” my husband implored as he sat on the sofa a lifetime later, in Marietta, enjoying That Show. He says it reminds him of bygone times, times when it was unlikely that he would have a co-worker named Delmus who wore a t-shirt that read “Dicky-Doo Champion: My Tummy Stick Out More Than My Dicky Do!”

I recognized all of the spots on That Show that Portland people recognize, the cutesy storefronts and brunch places and busy intersections, and I felt both so glad to be rid of them and so idiotic for my inability to flourish there. That Show is a little like my past punching me in my gut.

We had a big garden in our Portland backyard, which I spent many pleasant hours tending, and we curated a collection of the jagged, dirt-crusted bits of metal and plastic and glass that perpetually worked themselves to the surface of the soil in an ornery dis to gravity. It was not a pretty garden, but it produced enough vegetables that it created a decent dent in our grocery bill during the summer months, and yanking at its prolific weeds was an excellent outlet for the bad juju I carried around. Besides, I love to be outside in the sun. With three dependable months of it, I had to soak up as many Pacific Northwest rays as I could.

One day, Frances, who was out playing with the broken Fischer-Price farm I found for free on someone’s curb, called out, “Mama, look at what Scooter did.” I looked up from my weedy reverie and saw a bloody rat between the parsley and Swiss chard. Our dog looked up at me, beaming over his fresh kill. The rat, I assume, had been nosing around in our compost heap. I dug a shallow hole at the base of our fruitless apple tree to bury the thing, and in the process unearthed two corroded AA batteries. Who knows how long they’d been lurking down there? It was nothing, really, but after that, I was done with Portland. The rat-battery incident was my final straw.

I was poised to score a coveted Library Assistant position at the library, one that would nearly double my pay. But I didn’t have it in me to hold out any longer. I couldn’t be content in a saggy dump of a poorly-insulated house, donning two sweaters indoors to stay warm and buying organic spinach and avocados on our credit card. We aged out of that, but couldn’t get it together to bring in the income for necessary creative-class trappings we saw our friends enjoy: Waldorf preschool, annual beach house rentals, February trips to Hawaii in order to remain sane until mid-June, a compact, tidy home in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of a bar full of synth music and unevenly executed vegan menu options. Portland is a shitty place to be broke, though I guess you could say that of any city.

Still, on most days, Marietta squeaks ahead as a less shitty place to be broke. We lived with my parents until we found a house that does not give me allergy attacks. Its rent matches what they raised the rent to in our old Portland dump after we moved out. To the new tenants of the putty-colored house on SE 89th Avenue with the collapsing back patio: I hope the apple tree’s fruiting now. The flower pot of rusty nails and glass shards you found in the shed are the spoils of my unintentional garden archeology digs. Let me know if you ever accidentally encounter that rat.

Sometimes in Marietta, I look at the lazy bends of the Ohio River’s familiar brown muck, and waves of profound contentment wash over me, a strange mixture of bliss and relief. We came back to Portland in July for a visit, our first since moving to Ohio. I rode busses all over town, savored frequent cups of expertly-brewed coffee, and enjoyed the absence of crispy hairdos. At the tail end, I started getting a twinge of the coolness fatigue I had when we lived there. Boutiques selling tiny terrariums, bars built to resemble libraries, movie theaters selling rosé by the glass. In Marietta, maybe a dozen things are cool, and half of those are cool because they are utterly not cool at all. It’s special to be cool.

When we got back to Ohio, our cherry tomatoes were ready to pick. The first sweet corn of the season hit the farm stands. Vinyl banners advertising dozens of vacation bible schools crinkled in the breeze. My daughter returned to her preschool, where she played with classmates named Kolton and Kaylee instead of Mabel and Forester.

The flight back was uneventful. The plane took off and I looked out the window at the familiar vista below, crisply outlined in the magical Portland summer sun, and I thought, “There it is. That was my city.” Keep on loving it for me, okay?

•••

SARA BIR is the food editor of Paste Magazine and a regular contributor to Full Grown People. “Smelted”, her essay from this site, appeared in Best Food Writing 2014. She lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

My Grandmother’s Abortion

shards
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

There’s still a residue of dried cottage cheese curds on the wall. Our dining room is beige, and the white curds don’t show up much. But I know they are there. I’m the one who threw the bowl of cottage cheese.

Frances watched me do it. The bowl was Japanese, one of those cute little ones, a white good luck kitty against a pink background. It hit the wall and cleaved cleanly in half with a satisfying crack. Cottage cheese flew everywhere: the wall, the floor, the blinds, the bookshelf, the books on the bookshelf. The goddamn ceiling. Frances wailed.

I threw it because of her. We were not having a good day together, my daughter and me. Our heads butted over insignificant things, and as they piled up—whining, backtalk, tedium—they became an Ugly Significant Thing. Frances demanded cottage cheese for lunch, then rejected it, lower lip protruding, and that small assertion broke me.

Frances is three, and she is wont to act like a three-year-old. But she is also always extra everything: extra sweet, extra clever, extra loud, extra hitty. We have occasional periods of intense discord that neither one of us are equipped to navigate levelheadedly.

Frances escaped the flying curds but not their implication. The dog quickly began lapping at the cottage cheese spattered on floor, and for impossibly long seconds I watched his purposeful pink tongue erase a small corner of the mess I’d created.

Immobilized, I wondered if this sort of thing goes on in other, less-extra households. Then the urgency of Frances’s crying broke the spell, and I scooped her up and held her against me. I stroked her hair, and she sobbed. I put my hand between her tiny shoulder blades and felt her warm, smooth skin as our breathing slowed to a normal pace.

“Mama, why did you throw my lunch against the wall?” she asked.

“Because I was upset,” I tell her. “Sometimes Mama gets upset and can’t help herself.”

•••

Frances shares her first name with her maternal great-grandmother, my Grandma K. Grandma died when I was four, and I have few memories of her. I treasure a silly 1970s Christmas snapshot of her. She’s laughing, holding a recently opened joke gift from my mom: a giant bottle of Excedrin. Though it wasn’t really a joke, because Mom knew Grandma would use all those pills. She took Excedrin at a pretty decent clip. Shortly before Grandma’s fatal heart attack—there’d been previous ones—she’d posted a package to me containing a summery outfit: blue shorts and a Blueberry Muffin t-shirt that said “I love you BERRY much!” It arrived just days after her death. Thrilled with its contents, I didn’t even notice my mother weeping after we opened it.

Mom drove up to make arrangements for Grandma’s funeral. Mom and her siblings discovered a homemade cherry pie at the house, nearly as fresh as Grandma’s death. Grandma loved to bake, pies in particular, and her adult children all sat at the tiny table in the tiny kitchen of the tiny house that they grew up in and ate that cherry pie. My mother does not bake pies.

Outside of baking, there were not many things Grandma liked to do. An occasional canasta date with her cousin and his wife, short stories in ladies’ magazines, watered-down polka music on the radio to drain out the sound of the young voices filling the house. She was too busy not going insane from raising her four kids for luxuries such as liking things.

•••

The name Frances came into our awareness because of my commute. Heading downtown every morning, my bus passed a posh clothing store, the kind of spot where a pair of knee-high socks costs fifty dollars. It was called Frances May. I hadn’t once set foot in the store, but seeing its name repeatedly from my jouncy seat must have triggered a response. When I was pregnant, I told Mom that we were set on Frances for a girl name.

“You know that was my mom’s name, don’t you?” Mom asked.

I didn’t, and I instantly felt like an ass. As a kid, I always thought of Grandma and Grandpa K as my boring grandparents. “Oh, then all the better,” I told Mom to break the long silence that followed. “It will be nice to have a family name.”

But initially Mom was not enthused about the idea. “I’m sorry. It’s just not a very happy name to me,” she said. I didn’t quite understand why she felt that way, but in the awkwardness of the moment, I didn’t press her for reasons. Mom decided that she’d call her baby granddaughter Francie. Grandma usually went as Fran.

Mom knows little about her own mother’s youth. Grandma’s father died young, and Grandma’s mother married a man who Grandma and her siblings called “the old geezer”. Grandma left school in eighth grade to work—for money but possibly to just get away from home. At first she cleaned houses, and later on, she worked at bars. Since she was neither flirty nor fond of drinking, this seems an odd employment choice, but it probably wasn’t a choice. She needed a job; bars needed a workforce, and bars didn’t require a high school education.

My mom, who never knew her maternal grandparents, has some joyful memories of her own childhood, but not many. She’s the oldest of four, born while Grandpa K was deployed in the Pacific during Word War II. Grandma and Grandpa K met at a dance hall called the Paris Inn, where Grandma worked at the time. To me, it means that there was a time when they did fun things, like dancing.

A son and two more daughters followed Mom. They lived in a modest house on a rural road. The girls all shared one room. They had few toys, few books. Grandpa was an ironworker, and his pay went far enough for them to have a solid middle-class life. Sometimes he went to the bar after work to decompress with his cronies and didn’t come back home for hours.

They had one car and no sidewalks. When Grandpa was at work, Grandma, who was not an outside person, was stranded at the house. For discipline, Grandma brought out what all the kids called the hittin’ stick. My uncle got his dose of the hittin’ stick more than his sisters, until he was big enough to yank it out of Grandma’s hand and chase her around the yard with it.

Grandma K was an anxious person, either by nature or by circumstance. Beginning in her late thirties, like many middle-class women of the time, she took diet pills (stimulants, basically), which could not have been helpful in achieving the state of calm that always eluded her. Her stress management choices—if that’s all it was, stress and not something more clinical, more constant—were cigarettes and tea. She drank tea, not coffee.

After Mom graduated from high school and moved away to work as a secretary, Grandma wrote her letters every week. They could have easily just spoken on the phone, especially given the content of the letters, which were unexciting recaps of what Mom’s siblings were up to or afternoon visits with nearby relatives. Looking at one of those letters, with their precise grammar and neat, old-fashioned script, you’d never guess they came from the pen of a woman who didn’t finish eighth grade.

All of these things I know because Mom told me. She makes a point of telling me family things, because her mother didn’t. So I know I’m thin, like her. I wear glasses, like her. I bake pies, like her. I’m starting to get arthritis, which plagued Grandma’s hands, though she barely mentioned it to anyone.

Grandma didn’t have an explosive personality like me, although she did yell at her kids, and often, run-of-the-mill nagging-mom stuff: “Keep out of there!” “Quiet down!” “Your hands are filthy!” She was kind but not down-and-dirty nurturing. (A housekeeping fanatic, Grandma wasn’t dirty anything). Mom learned how to sew, not from Grandma, but Grandma’s sister-in-law, Mom’s Aunt P, who had a special fondness for my mom. Aunt P had married well and lived several hours away, in a big city that must have seemed cosmopolitan compared to the dull Rust Belt town where Grandma’s family had settled.

Aunt P lived a long, full life. Mom made an effort to see her about once a season, especially once Aunt P was in her nineties. During one of those last visits, Aunt P told Mom that Grandma had had an abortion.

When Mom said this to me, I was full of questions: When did this happen? Did Grandpa know? Did Aunt P accompany her? How did they pay for it? How did Grandma manage, in her little world and little town, to find a place that would provide this service?

The one question I didn’t ask was why. I already knew the answer to that.

•••

My husband and I were the first in our group of friends to conceive. Which is amazing, as we have yet to catch up to them with them in other aspects of being grown up. Like: developing solid careers, buying a house, building up savings. But I felt that yearning bodily urge for something to grow inside of me, and we figured why wait? Months later, I was pregnant. Simple.

What’s not simple is how, since having Frances, my highs have been higher and my lows have been lower. It’s like something chemical kicked in, a sinister hormone from a rogue gland secreted on scattered, dread-filled days. And then it’s my turn to be extra: extra unresponsive, extra reactive. Add a newborn to the mix and the default façade of sanity would crumble.

•••

Aunt P accompanied Grandma to the abortion. It would have been Grandma’s fifth child; she was about forty at the time. There was no money for another baby, but maybe there was a lack of something else, too. Mom remembers a phase in her teens, late in the 1950s, when Grandma would break down crying for no apparent reason at all. It had been a bad year; Grandpa had spent many months unemployed, no ironworking jobs available.

“I think, looking back on it, she was crying because she was pregnant again and didn’t know what to do,” Mom said in light of Aunt P’s revelation. “She may even have been hurting herself, trying to lose the baby. There weren’t a lot of options.” So Grandma’s option was an illegal abortion, which must have terrified her. How did she know if the doctor was trustworthy? Who would watch the kids while she left town and then returned, scraped raw inside, needing to recover? Did it wrench her apart, knowing that to preserve her family she’d have to end a pregnancy that began just as the ones resulting in the four children she loved? Mom’s family went on only one vacation, to Niagara Falls, when the kids were still at home. Outside of that, the abortion would have been Grandma’s biggest getaway. This one trip that she did for herself wasn’t anything she really wanted to do.

It’s not the details, but the lack of them, that are telling to me about Grandma’s branch of our ancestry. She must have been loved and cared for to some degree in her youth. What if my daughter had been born back then, to Grandma’s family, raised with the ominous, menacing presence of an unwelcome stepfather? Would she be the spirited, confident girl I recognize? Or would her sharpness be dulled, her light hid under a bushel until it extinguished, deprived of the oxygen that it needed to keep shining? How much Fran is in my Frances? How much Fran is in me?

•••

I have options. Unlike Grandma, I have reliable birth control. After Frances was born, I got an I.U.D. On my insurance plan at the time, it cost me a twenty-dollar co-pay, but that minute contraption—mere slivers of plastic and a few whiskery wires, like a T-shaped fishing lure—retails for about four-hundred dollars. It’s over 99% effective. Sometimes, after we have sex, Joe will ask, “Is that thing still inside you? Does it still work?” Yes and yes, and why he doesn’t ask before? Neither of us likes to think about the splinter of error there, the baby we could accidentally create, the good and the bad parts of us that would load the dice.

If my I.U.D. didn’t work and I got pregnant again, I wouldn’t rule it out, the thing that Grandma did. I’m thankful not to have to make that choice. I can access reproductive health care, even without insurance. I have a husband who, when I say, “Not tonight, honey,” will roll over, sighing, and respect my wishes. I have girlfriends and medical professionals I can talk about sex with frankly. Joe and I together planned when we wanted to become parents.

I wonder what kind of woman Grandma would have been if she’d been able to finish high school, or if she’d grown up in the kind of family that encouraged girls to explore their world. I wonder how many children the newly married her would have preferred to have, if that number was three or two or one. I look at the cottage cheese on my wall, ghostly freckles like snow, my reminder that fits are not worth having. More fits will come, but the aim is to keep them to a minimum, to have them out of everyone’s sight. With more than one kid, god knows what kinds of dishes would be flying around, and at whose head.

But that’s not a problem I have to deal with. Not now, hopefully not ever. I kiss Frances, my daughter, Fran’s great-granddaughter, and turn away from the mottled wall.

•••

SARA BIR lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Her essay “Smelted,” from this site, is included in Best Food Writing 2014. Her website is www.sausagetarian.com.

 

Like this essay? There’s more of Sara’s writing—plus 29 other great essays in Full Grown People: The Greatest Hits, Volume 1!

When I Was Madonna

madonna
By João Carlos Maganin/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

Come on, girls. (I know you know this.) Do you believe in love? (I know you do.) I have something to say about it. (Of course).

It goes like…this.

The video for “Express Yourself” came out when I was in eighth grade. I watched it a million times, splayed out in the recliner with a Diet Coke in one hand and a remote glued to the other. Madonna was on a video gold streak with her “Like a Prayer” album. I watched, captive to MTV, as she pranced in front of burning crosses, frolicked on the beach with mermen, and sat atop a high-rise art deco building, her cropped blonde hair stirring in the breeze.

I didn’t buy her albums or read glossy magazines to follow her antics. There was no need. To a young person then, the Madonna juggernaut mingled with the particulate matter in the air we all breathed.

So it was unremarkable when I, at fifteen, channeled Madonna just by sitting on a stoop on a gray January afternoon during crew practice. Being on the crew team was the one thing that got me off the recliner and away from the TV. At school I half-assed it; there was no half-assing in crew. Ponch, our coach, made sure of that.

Our team had its winter conditioning at a dilapidated former Catholic school. The room that housed our medieval weight machines had a pressed tin ceiling, and when we did bench presses, I’d stare up at random patterns that water stains had made on the peeling white paint. Ponch—who did, in fact, have a paunch—had instructed the girls in my boat to run sprints up the fiercely pitched sidewalk outside while he oversaw the varsity girls’ weight training.

We all felt sluggish that day. After a few halfhearted sprints, I flopped across one of the large stone posts flanking the school’s entrance. And then the Spirit of Madonna entered me, as abrupt and ecstatic as the fiery tip of a spear. Unlike St. Teresa, I did not swoon. I rallied. “Come on girls!” Pause. “Do you believe in love?”

My teammates laughed. I kept going with a catlike crawl on the sidewalk, mimicking what Madonna does later in the “Express Yourself” video. The video has a plot, I think: Madonna, a pampered concubine sequestered in a factory, liberates herself by seducing a strapping, cosmetically dirt-smudged factory worker/male model.

Energized with my impromptu performance, we all attacked our sprinting with newfound vigor. When Ponch sent us out to do sprints again the following day, I sensed my teammates looking at me expectantly. That’s how the Madonna act became a regular feature of crew practice.

At our public high school in rural Southeast Ohio, crew was a sport not for preppies, but for savvy misfits. All of the athletic hippies and punkers and unclassifiables—my tribe!—rowed. Crew girls trained hard and goofed off harder. Practice was one of the few places where I could be myself, and apparently this meant imitating Madonna daily. Once spring came and we took our shells on the water, I modified the act for the narrow confines of our eight-woman shell and did Madonna bits when Ponch’s launch was well downriver. A shell sits only inches above the water, and its slenderness limited dance possibilities, so I’d mainly flail my arms and caress my sports bra before grabbing my crotch as a grand finale. “He’s coming!” our coxswain, Cecelia, would warn me. “Three, put your shirt back on!”

I rowed in the women’s varsity lightweight eight. We were ferociously devoted to each other in the sweet but maddeningly intense way of teenage girls. We spent hours together every week, training our bodies and minds to meld into a collective organism. In the confines of our rickety wooden shell, emotions ran high, and we bonded as snow or sun pummeled us, and we channeled our rampaging energy to tear our boat through the polluted froth of the Ohio River. Often delirious with hunger from the starvation jags we went on in order to get our weights under the dreadful 120-pound limit to compete in the Lightweight division, we elevated incidental bits of nothing—the plastic head of a bunny figurine, the yellow shorts our bow’s crush always wore, most of the words that came from Ponch’s mouth—into elaborate inside jokes. Blisters mottled our palms; black smears of slide grease stained our claves and the backs of our cutoff sweatpants. We practiced six days a week. The only single place I spent more time than the boat was in bed, sleeping.

Madonna quickly joined our complex network of good luck charms, superstitions, and pre-race rituals: the wearing of lucky underwear, the application of temporary tattoos, the stringing of matching beaded necklaces. It worked; we won, and won. Being Madonna was my duty to my team.

“You rowed good today, girls,” Ponch, sporting smudged aviator sunglasses and ever-present black stubble, would tell our boat as we came into the dock after a race with a triumphant outcome. He didn’t dole out compliments often, but we loved it when he did, bad grammar and all.

•••

Secretly, I cooked up a Madonna performance for the hotel where we’d stay during Midwest Championships. The genesis was a very elaborate black lace bra I’d recently persuaded my mom to buy me at Victoria’s Secret—my first actual article of sexy lingerie, something I’d never have considered pre-Madonna. “Justify My Love” had recently come out. The video took place in a hotel. It was too perfect.

The week before, I’d rehearsed in my bedroom instead of studying, because a successful debut of my Madonna routine was undoubtedly top priority. For the costume, I wore the Victoria’s Secret bra and a flowing black silk chador my dad had brought back from his deployment in the United Arab Emirates. My awareness of world affairs was such that I did not recognize the absurdity of adapting Islamic dress for a Madonna impersonation.

I quietly spread word to my boat to come to room 112 after our charter buses brought us back from dinner at the mall. Jittery with nerves, I couldn’t eat a bite, though that was probably in my favor, as I was always tipping the scales at weigh-ins. My boatmates all heaped on the hotel room’s beds as I readied myself in the bathroom. Then I signaled Cecelia to cue “Justify My Love” on the boom box. That tense, confessional beat came on—a countdown—and the stupidity of the situation that I’d constructed hit me. But my boat was out there on the other side of the flimsy bathroom door, waiting. This was my duty to them.

I opened the door, terrified, and it happened again, just like it did in front of the Catholic school: the fiery point of the spear, a force outside of me triggering the intense urges inside of me. Worlds away, the Material Girl herself looked down upon me and smiled. I gyrated. My boat howled.

But my moment was cut short. After the first third of “Justify My Love,” several guys from the men’s junior varsity eight and then a grumbling chaperone crashed the party; panicking, I bolted to the closet, and the crowd scattered. The whole thing lasted all of a few minutes, but writhing in front of the crew team in my new black bra, I had found my bliss. (Where were your coaches? you ask. Where was Ponch? Why, in the hotel courtyard, doubtlessly wearing his threadbare “U.S. BEER TEAM” t-shirt, with a lawn chair and a cooler full of Miller Lite, gladly oblivious to our shrieking shenanigans.) As Sara Bir, I was brash and awkward and clumsy. Boys fled from me; I wallowed in angst and longing. But as Madonna, I was brash and desirable and powerful. It took a long time to fall asleep that night.

Madonna only grew in scope. My audience was receptive, and god knows I was willing. I straddled the sawhorses we rested out shells on; I strutted on ramp pretending to grind my oar; I vogued in the boat as the seven other girls leaned into their oars to keep it set.

For our hotel stay at Nationals the following season, I came up with something more polished and provocative, showcasing a black mini-dress with a built-in stretch satin corset I found at a trashy fashion outlet. I made breast cones out of foil-covered birthday hats and attached rhinestone-crusted spheres to dangle from the tips. It was a bondage-meets-glam masterpiece.

And that second year, when boys turned up our room along with the girls, I didn’t mind. If it took dressing like a sci-fi hooker for them to pay attention to me, fine. They were there, on my terms, and for the ten minutes that followed, I owned that hormone-packed hotel room. With the lights dimmed, I slinked out of the bathroom to a few lines of “Justify My Love” before throwing off the chador to reveal the corset. Cecelia flipped the light switch on, cued up “Like a Virgin,” and everyone sang along as I busted out my amateur choreography. My best friend videotaped the whole thing. It was a hit.

Afterwards, I was all riled up, and so a few of my boatmates and I slipped out to walk around the hotel grounds and see what happened when Madonna mingled with the public. What happened was a fleeting, micro-Mardi Gras. Two boys from another team had their pictures taken with me as they grasped my cone-breasts. It was the first time boys touched me there, and I was thrilled, even if they were groping hollow cardboard and not my actual body.

Tall, slouchy and slight, I didn’t resemble Madonna at all. Fortunately, her attributes were so iconic that it took only a pronounced dot of eyebrow pencil above the lip and a brassy attitude to evoke her. The breast cones didn’t hurt, either. I was a drag queen trapped in the body of a teenage girl. In my mind, I wasn’t imitating her. She and I acted in tandem; we were peers, fellow entertainers. Even back then, in my self-absorbed fog, I was onto her ruse: using this persona is cathartic, a tool.

•••

Perhaps because she feared my Madonna habit was compromising my academic well-being, Mom eventually hid the costume from me. I easily found it crammed in the back of her dresser, upgraded the cones with red velvet, and wore it to school on Rock-n-Roll Day for Spirit Week. I donned the costume at the crew team camping trip, then my freshman college dorm, and then at the run-down lodge in Colorado where I cleaned rooms one dreary summer. (My mother, whose position had softened a bit, kindly sent it at my request).

In my twenties, I kept the costume, which became my backup for Halloween parties, but it elicited disappointingly mild responses, even from the man who is now my husband. Maybe I wasn’t feeling it anymore. Maybe I needed my boat, the best audience ever. So I kept it in my closet, where once a guy who was over for our first date caught a glimmer of cone and corset in the corner of his eye. He got the impression I was into scenes I was not into; it was also our last date.

The Madonna costume itself held up impressively after many moves from apartments and rental houses. The cones would get smooshed a little each time, but with a little cajoling, they’d pop right back into their pointy glory with a resilience worthy of Madge herself. More amazingly, I could still fit into the thing, even after having a kid. But its potency had faded somehow; I had no inclination to wear it. Even for kicks or kinks. In a fit of closet-crap purging, I took it to the Goodwill last year for some lucky vixen wannabe to snatch up. I assumed it couldn’t serve me any longer.

•••

My husband and I have been married for almost ten years. Theoretically, that means I have access to unlimited sex. It means I could make out with the same person every single night. How incredible those prospects would have been to me at sixteen! And how incredible the prospect of making out seems to me now, or to anyone who’s been married for longer than three seconds. Who the hell has time for frivolities like that?

Now I get it. I need that Madonna costume because I have invoices to send, recipes to revise, emails to cull through. There’s a ring of crud around the toilet bowl, a car tire with a slow leak, and a menacing, colorful heap of mismatched little girl socks. There’s a credit card balance that makes mismatched little girl socks positively alluring by comparison. Sometimes I wake up and put together stylish outfits with giant baubles of jewelry and pearly lipstick shades, and it helps, but I consider those piles of neglected tasks and I might as well be shuffling around in fraying pajama bottoms. The prettied-up version of me is still me.

Even Madonna has her own Madonna version of these problems. Even Madonna needs a Madonna costume! Because Madonna Time is not what you do for other people, even if you are dancing right in front of them. It’s not about a spouse or partner, or even your boat. Madonna Time is for you. I want my Madonna Time back. There are no toilet bowl rings in Madonna Time. There are no tire leaks or accounting departments who “never received that invoice.” In Madonna Time, things happen because you make them happen. You are sexy. You are powerful. You have a physical need to be outrageous in public, and you have no issue with that whatsoever.

After I did my youthful Madonna routines, friends would tell me how brave I was. “I could never do that!” they’d confess. But I could never not do that. I grew up and found out that, as adults, our most daring performances are not about what we reveal, but what we successfully cover up.

My best friend still has that videotaped hotel room performance squirreled away somewhere, and thank god I know she’s trustworthy enough not to post it on You Tube, or I’d see a loudmouth teenager with bad makeup and a beaky nose wriggling around half-naked in a desperate plea for attention from her peers. And I’d be massively embarrassed, and also a little proud, because when I was insecure and vulnerable, I was not repressed. I was irrepressible.

They sell birthday hats at the dollar store. I probably have some red velvet fabric somewhere, some tacky glue. Maybe I should ask my best friend to send me that videocassette. It’s time to feel shiny and new again. It can’t be that hard to find a black corset.

•••

SARA BIR, a writer and chef, lives in southeast Ohio. You can read more of her writing at www.sausagetarian.com. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

The Hard Alphabet

alphabet beads
By poobesh a.k.a ECTOTHERMS lakshman/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

Of course I know better, but after sitting in the car for five minutes, I hit the horn. We’re ready. The pies I got up at six that morning to bake are ready. Frances’s change of clothing for the night is ready. Even the dog is ready, sitting expectantly in his crate in the back of our station wagon.

“Where’s Daddy?” Frances asks from her car seat.

“Daddy’s coming,” I say, which is true, he is. Eventually. Getting myself anywhere on time is challenging enough; getting our whole family anywhere on time is a triumph, and I almost pulled it off, at the cost of great anxiety and strategizing.

And now he’s ruining it. He’s in there brushing lint off his sweater or giving the sink one last wipe with the sponge or re-checking to see if we turned the heat off.

So I honk the horn, and it’s not a cute little hey there, the light is green! tap. It’s a get a move on already, asshole blare. Joe finally emerges from the house thirty seconds later, shaking his head, his mood as foul as mine. We will, once again, be late.

•••

I have ADD. My husband has OCD, and our daughter has ADHD. The difference between what she has and what I have is the H. It stands for “hyperactivity.” I’m excitable, but I’m not hyperactive. Some goes for our dog, who’s half border collie and half Jack Russell terrier. If you know about dog breeds, you understand that Scooter is a furry summary of our family dynamics. The collective metabolism of our household is off the charts.

Of course we didn’t get a dopey, mellow lab. Of course our dog is a mix of the two most intense, high-strung breeds. Of course Scooter sheds his silky-soft white coat prodigiously, and my husband descends upon those million stray hairs with a sense of purpose only matched by Scooter’s determination to attack the vacuum cleaner. Joe vacuums a lot, sometimes when the carpet marks from my previous vacuuming are still fresh. Many Scooter bites scar the vacuum’s plastic exterior.

An OCD-ADD union is the bleach and ammonia of marriages. We were in our twenties—what can I say? Existing was easy back then, and the pleasurable things that pushed our ugly acronyms into the margins of our consciousnesses were readily accessible. The list of what makes us compatible is long, delicious. And, on the other side of the column, there are those harsh capital letters, scrawled in black permanent marker. The delicate balance between the columns teeters, at best. We aim for teetering.

•••

For years, when I talked about my ADD, I described it as “the girl kind, where you’re dreamy and spacey.” But I stopped talking about it, because saying, “I have ADD” is like saying, “I have lungs” or “I often eat a few more potato chips than I originally set out to eat.” These things are fairly universal. Who doesn’t have ADD? So I concluded that its frequency neutered its power. All of the goals that I failed to achieve had nothing to do with that pesky nuisance. Obviously, I failed because I sucked.

Even the things I liked in school—English, art—I had to do my own way, or they didn’t get done. Filling out my math workbook in first grade, I always drew a Smurf next to each problem. The Smurfs would be polishing the subtraction figures or writing the answer in under the horizontal equals bar. Every Smurf had to be distinct. This, to me, was clearly the most important aspect of our math assignment.

Another boy in my class had ADD, but the kind with the H. His name was Ben. When seated, he created facsimiles of Transformers by sloppily cutting and folding pulpy blue- and red-lined writing tablet paper. Many of the things we covered in class are now a blur, but I clearly remember our teachers’ frustrations with Ben, the minutes dedicated during lessons asking him to stay in his seat, telling him to raise his hand before speaking. Every morning Ben’s mother sealed one of his pills in a white envelope, decorated the outside with a Snoopy sticker, and tucked it in his lunch box. One day, when our class organized our desks, about a dozen unopened envelopes tumbled from the chaos of crumpled worksheets and paper Transformers in Ben’s desk.

I didn’t have white envelopes with Snoopy stickers. My teachers expressed their concern to my mother during parent-teacher conferences, and sometimes in painfully earnest heart-to-heart talks with me. These talks invariably included the phrases “not meeting potential” and “so very smart.” This was back in the 1980s, before the rise of individualized education programs for kids with tricky learning needs. The adults in my life tried their best to reach out to me with the one tool they had: their hearts. It was not enough.

It wasn’t until high school, when it became impossible for me to coast by academically, that my mother got me diagnosed. We drove to a specialist about an hour away. He asked me to write out the alphabet in cursive and in printing, and then repeat a series of numbers after him. “Do you ever reach out and grab something without thinking about it?” he asked, and I gave him a frigid teenage fuck you look. What did he think I was, a toddler?

After the appointment, my mother took me to the bead store, a safe zone. I often stayed up late into the night making my own intricate clay beads in those days. It’s too bad the SAT didn’t have a bead-making section.

We did no follow-up. I didn’t want to take drugs; I was afraid they’d irrevocably change something fundamental about me, like a lobotomy.

There was no talk from anyone—my teachers, my parents, that worthless excuse of a specialist—about modifying my study habits, or about creating study habits, period. I dropped out of college, twice. I quit my first desk job—staff writer at an alt-weekly, a coveted gig for a twenty-something with no college degree—after a year and a half. ADD people do not handle deadlines well. They take on disproportionately epic importance until the scope of the deadline eclipses the project itself.

Another thing I did was work at libraries. Four of them, over the years. This I excelled at. I spent the majority of my time shelving books. There was no question about where things went. The alphabet is always the alphabet; the Dewey Decimal System is always the Dewey Decimal System. Pick up a book, look it its spine label, slide it between two other books in its appropriate place on the shelf.

At home, piles upon piles of sadly abandoned projects littered my office. The unfinished novel, the stalled book proposal, the unsent query letter. I had no idea where to begin making sense of it all. There it was, the demon phrase: “Not meeting her potential.”

Pick up a book, look at its spine, slide it on the shelf. Numbers and letters. The alphabet. P-Q-R. J-K-L. I can say it backwards in a heartbeat. It was my religion, the rosary I fingered for strength.

Five years ago, I got a prescription for generic Ritalin, hoping it to usher in a sunny new era of productivity. It’s helpful to some, but, alas, not to me. I still have the very same bottle, with maybe a dozen pills left. One day I decided to give them another chance, and I took two instead of one. The resulting freak-out was like a tweaker’s version of a bad acid trip. I drew a skull and crossbones on the bottle and hid it in the very back of the medicine cabinet. Back to the drawing board.

•••

Frances is not diagnosed, not officially. But when I see her do things, I see me. Her brain works faster than her body does. She hits, she grabs, she utters hurtful phrases. Her latest is “poopy mama.” This is when I tell her she can’t do something or have something. She wants everything all of the time, and she does everything all of the time.

This is very ADD. It’s one of the things I like about it, and it’s why Attention Deficit Disorder is poorly named. Actually, we have a surfeit of attention. The world is so full of awesome ideas! They surge through your brain like electric joyrods! Every morning, you wake up and taste the magical possibilities of the day! A hundred of them! And which one to pick? And how can all of those magical possibilities be realized in twenty-four measly hours, because they absolutely cannot wait? And oh shit, the day is already half over, because managing those electric joyrods takes an incredible amount of energy, and it turns out you will bring none of those possibilities to fruition before the sun sets. Depression sets in. Time to go home. The day is a wash. (Difficulty prioritizing. Having totally unrealistic expectations. Not handling failure well.)

Frances isn’t there yet. Her days are filled with free play and a fairly flexible structure. She usually enjoys preschool and has only had one biting incident. The school follows what is called “The Creative Curriculum.” It’s child-led, a good fit for her. My inimitable girl is a square peg. You can count on an ADD person to run black or white. We love things or hate them; we are enthusiastic or despondent; we bellow or sit silently. The world at large requires a lot of functionality in the sloggy grey middle. When we try to hit those notes, we’re out of tune. I fear that once she heads off to the round-hole obligations of standardized tests and lots of sitting still, we may be screwed.

Until then, I spy on her when I arrive to pick her up. I file away her loud voice and her bossiness and her quickness to respond to a classmate with anger. I file away her laser-like focus when she sits on a cushion by herself in the reading area, surrounded by willy-nilly stacks of books. I file away the ten minutes of cajoling and reminding it can take to get her to do something simple, like hang up her jacket or put away blocks. In the morning, when she gets dressed, she will have one leg in one underwear hole, see a My Little Pony on the floor, and then grab it and play for fifteen minutes, half-naked, half-underweared. The agenda she follows is hers and hers only. Just like her poopy mama.

•••

I have the advantage of insight with Frances. Joe does not. And we, mother and daughter, are so immersed in the rapid flow of thoughts coursing through our own brains that we can’t be bothered to consider the military dictatorship occupying his. But our domesticity has idyllic periods. We take walks together, we read picture books, we giggle at family jokes. We sit down to a home-cooked meal every night.

And that’s usually where it falls apart. Frances is the wildest eater in the four-year-old kingdom. She can render a peanut butter sandwich into a three-foot radius of crumbs and greasy fingerprints in about thirty seconds. And she never just sits at the table; she squirms, flops, slides out of her chair, a dynamic smear of motion. Joe’s watchful eyes zoom in as if a massacre were in progress. “Frances!” he’ll chide. “Don’t do that!” Then, to me: “Can’t you see the mess she’s making? Why aren’t you stopping her?”

I don’t stop her because I’m totally engrossed in the cookbook that I brought out to occupy myself while waiting for Joe to come to his perfectly executed meal. “Risotto waits for no one,” the Italians say. I have no idea what on earth Joe does in those lost minutes it takes him to get his ass to the dining room, where his plate of pasta or curry or—god forbid—risotto sits impatiently, its freshness plummeting. I know what Frances does, though. She digs in without him. For a while I made her wait, but no longer. Why should she? She got to the table on time, and Frances showing up anywhere when she’s asked to is a giant deal.

After dinner, we clean up. I try to do most of it, because if Joe takes on the clean-up, he’s sucked into a black hole of feverish wiping and sweeping and wiping. The kitchen sink is his trigger area. He’ll walk by and grab the sponge and dab at a non-existent drop of water, and then do it again, and then again.

“I already got that,” I’ll say.

“There’s still stuff here, I can see it,” he’ll say.

“Just put down the sponge and do something else,” I say. “I told you, I already got it.” This is an affront to me, to the miracle of me being tidy and conscientious instead of sloppy and careless. It is an affront to me swimming with all my might against the mighty current of my own nature.

And he goes on, wipe wipe. Dab dab. Oh, the sex we have not had because of a fucking sponge.

I do not shelve the cookbook.

•••

Joe has pretty awesome ways of coping. He makes colorful art using exactingly spaced rays of narrow drafting tape. Patterns. Repeating. He plays the drums. Patterns. Repeating. Like me, he eschews drugs. He says the ones he’s taken, Paxil and something else, made him feel at a creepy removal from everything going on around him. Joe’s OCD isn’t just with physical actions. It’s about thoughts, repeating. It’s dark in ways that I can’t penetrate. He grabs his skateboard and grinds his favorite manual curb over and over again. That’s on the weekend. On weekdays, there’s always the sponge and the counter.

At home, our alphabet is in ribbons. There’s no A-B-C-D, like my divine library days. It’s got extra letters in some spots, and it’s missing other ones entirely, and it’s not even in the right order. It goes ADD-OCD-ADHD.

You might have your own alphabet, too. It could go OMG-MS or PTSD-FUBAR. Your hard alphabet is its own unique code, like DNA, even if its letters happen to match my hard alphabet exactly.

You can go looking for people to cut you slack, and maybe they will, a little, but the alphabet will still be there. You can tell yourself that you’ll triumph over it, but you’ll be wrong. A hard alphabet has no eraser. The only thing you can do is cope. All the people telling me to not eat gluten, or that Ritalin will fix me, or that my disorder is totally imagined? Go answer that knock at your door. I sent you a present. It’s an otherwise sane man with a vacuum and his cute little dog. They’ll be spending the night. Have fun.

Sometimes I meet people and spot the ADD in them. It’s like Gaydar or Jewdar. Hmm, I think. Does she? I find myself wanting to embrace that person, tell her I get it, that I’m part of her tribe. But my non-ADD self prevails; I buckle down that thought and keep it from wiggling out of my mouth. Just knowing it’s real is enough to keep me going. I grab the hand of the invisible, impulsive companion in my brain and look it in the face. We have to walk through life together, grapple for some kind of sync. We will cut the OCD and the ADD some slack. We will not honk the horn. We will have an awesome Thanksgiving, Scooter and pies and everything, even if we are half an hour late. And we will own our hard alphabet, backwards and forwards.

•••

SARA BIR meets professional deadlines and is occasionally late for personal appointments. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The Oregoninan, The North Bay Bohemian, and on The Huffington Post; she’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Sara writes about food and develops recipes in her southeast Ohio home. Her website is www.sausagetarian.com.

Bachelorette

bachelorette
By CosmoPolitician/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

The party, by definition, is not co-ed. That’s because it’s a bachelorette party, my first. I am skeptical. I’m a girl, but I don’t understand girl things. Like Anybodys, my favorite character from West Side Story, I prefer to hang out with guys. Of course, Anybodys didn’t fit in with the guys, either. Not because she was a girl, but because she was annoying. Even I know that.

The girls I ran with in high school dipped Cherry Skoal and climbed trees and swung from ropes into polluted rivers. This is not the agenda of the bachelorette party I will attend. The invitation says it’s an ’80s prom dress theme. We are to show up in obnoxious ruffled tulle gowns and tease our hair out as far as possible. The hostess assures me that there will be no male strippers.

The boys, for the bachelor party, will spend the following weekend camping. I envy them.

In middle school I peered, perplexed, over the shoulders of cheerleader classmates who thumbed through dog-eared issues of Your Prom and Seventeen. They scrutinized Jessica McClintock ads with billowing, candy-colored gowns on young models wearing white lace gloves. Sometimes if Mom took me back-to-school shopping, I’d wander from the Junior casual wear to the formals and eye the sequins and crinolines with suspicious longing. When the time came, I did go to prom, but my “date” was my friend Carrie, whose college boyfriend preferred to stay home. Carrie and I had a blast. I wore a feather boa and even shaved my armpits. Knowing I was in no danger of losing my virginity later that evening in a shared room at the Best Western helped.

The dress I wore that night still fits, but it’s not of the right era. Finding a suitable dress for the bachelorette party is problematic. After combing every thrift store in town, I realize the puff and sizzle of ’80s prom dresses faded from favor so long ago that only mid-’90s fashion populates the Goodwill and Salvation Army. I half-heartedly buy an unexceptional purple velvet halter dress, a pair of royal blue snakeskin spikes, and a large can of off-brand aerosol hair spray.

The other dozen bachelorettes arrive at the hostess’s San Francisco loft on party night. Many of them I know well already; the girlfriends of my boyfriend’s friends, they are kind and funny women who accepted me instantly when Joe and I began dating. But I’m used to our gang’s weekend meet-ups at music clubs or bars, and at this all-girl affair I can’t seem to settle in. Anxious, I have a few glasses of red wine with our spaghetti and meatballs dinner, and thus decide to stick with wine for the rest of the night. I have learned multiple times if an evening begins with red wine and moves to other, harder drinks, it never finishes well. But when the hostess brings out penis-shaped mini-cakes for dessert, I am too buzzed to remember my pledge, and I enthusiastically drink the icy, fruity-sweet pink concoction another bachelorette offers me.

The penis cakes are made from German chocolate cake mix, and they have toasted coconut icing between the cake scrotum and the cake penis for pubic hair. “I just love to put a big German chocolate cock in my mouth!” I say because the fruity pink drinks have made me especially witty, and the girls and I all laugh.

We change into our dresses and apply our makeup. I fumble with a curling iron and try to attempt the giant, fluffy bangs I was never able to nail during the real 1980s. After ten minutes I quit, stuck with a tangled coiffure that would better suit Ian McCulloch or maybe a homeless junkie. The bride wears an awful, white satin, floor-length dress with white sequins studding its halter top. It’s perfect. “Who knows,” she says, “maybe someone actually got married in this.”

The hostess collects money for the limo—twenty dollars a girl. I pay and resolve to be a good sport. Limos are for losers who want to feel important. We teeter down the stairs in our secondhand pumps and cram into the limo like glittery sardines. Right away the bride opens the sunroof and pops up, going Whoo! Some of us have to sit on each other’s laps. The driver looks at the jumble of girls before he closes the door, possibly thrilled, possibly terrified.

I am wrong about the limo. The limo is awesome. There’s a full bar and a bottle of Champagne and a kickin’ sound system and a built-in fish tank and an elaborate network of pulsing black lights that electrify the white elements of our costumes, rendering the bride trippily resplendent. We drink the Champagne and look out the tinted windows and see the twinkling city speeding by, then look at each other and grin and cackle. Some of us are mothers, some of us have masters degrees. I’ve never been with so many girls in such a small space. We do shots straight from the whiskey decanter and, with a rush, I sense our fundamental sisterhood, the universal manic sisterhood that makes girls flash their breasts and scream gleefully. Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Yellen and Margaret Thatcher could all be riding in the limo with us and they’d succumb to the collective, feminine Whoo in the face of alcohol and estrogen. I am no longer Anybodys skulking in an unexceptional purple velvet helter dress, but part of a fabulous multi-organism system of sparkles and curves, intoxicated with giddiness.

The driver lets us out right in front of the club. This is our red carpet. People take pictures of us with their phones. We strut to the will-call booth, past long lines of boring regular guys in pleated chinos who have nothing better to do than wait for half an hour to see a mediocre cover band. We came to make fun and have fun. We are the party.

We go straight to the bar. The bride wears a pink plastic shot glass on a string around her neck. On the shot glass are the words BUY ME A SHOT, I’M GETTING MARRIED, so two guys at the bar oblige. I want someone to buy me drinks. I want my awakening girl power to earn me free alcohol.

We hear music from the auditorium and, in a pack, run right in front of the stage. The band is called Tainted Love and has about seven members, all dressed in outfits way more ridiculous than ours—gimmicky costume-store stuff like fake fur ties and vinyl tank tops with designs of the Union Jack. They play “Come On, Eileen” and “Maneater” and we all dance and I dance, even if it’s to stupid Tainted Love and their try-hard wardrobe.

My bra bothers me. It’s strapless, with black lace and everything, and I never wear it. I bought it before I figured out that if you are an A cup and you don’t want someone to see your bra straps, just don’t wear a bra. Now the elastic cuts into my sides and chafes my skin, so I undo the clasp and launch it slingshot-style at Tainted Love. One of the keyboardists makes a beeline and whisks it away as if I’d thrown a Molotov cocktail or a dead possum. “Bite me!” I yell.

Then they play “I Wanna Be Sedated” (not an ’80s song) and because I love the Ramones I stop being mad at Tainted Love long enough to shout along and jump up and down until I wet myself a little. Incontinent already! I resolve to do Kegel excercises, and then start—hell, why not—right there on the dance floor.

But jumping up and down makes me hot and I forget about Kegels and tug at my black satin opera glove, accidentally pulling apart the sparkly bracelet I’m wearing over it. Rhinestones fly everywhere. I wish one would hit Tainted Love, but no such luck.

The bride is discontent. She’s crying and throwing ice from her drink at Tainted Love, who are playing “Unbelievable” (also not from the ’80s). “I hate this song!” she screams. It is our cue. We retreat to the bar. The bride sits on the hostess’s lap and then she’s straddling the hostess, and the two guys who bought her the shots look over with interest until the bride slides to the floor with a bump.

I notice plush phone booths in the lobby and dash into one, because suddenly it is incredibly urgent that I talk to my boyfriend right away.

“Joe!” I say. “It’s me, I’m here seeing Tainted Love. They suck!”

He’s confused, startled. “It’s after midnight,” he says. “Is everything okay?”

“I love you!” I say. “It’s so weird here, I just had to call you now and tell you how weird it is. What are you doing?”

“Are you drunk? You’re drunk.”

“I miss you! I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Be careful,” he says. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I love you! Don’t worry, we have a limo. Bye!”

I spy a bachelorette swaying/standing. “I think I’m going to throw up,” she says.

I grab her arm. We rush to the bathroom. There’s a line going out the door, but we cut to the front.

The bathroom attendant—they still have bathroom attendants?—shakes her head. “Nuh-uh,” she says. “You gotta go to the back of the line.” My bachelorette cannot wait; she vomits into a sink.

“You can’t do that in there!” says the attendant. “I ain’t cleaning that shit up.” She’s wearing a polyester smock, like a cleaning lady wears. She has seen girls like us come and go every weekend; our tawdry splendor is less than nothing to her. On our way out, my friend stuffs a handful of dollar bills into the attendant’s tip cup, hiccupping wetly.

The other bachelorettes rest in the lobby, wilting on sofas. We rally and summon our limo. I cling to my charge and escort her outside. I realize my shoes are inside the club, somewhere on the dance floor.

The hard-core party girls pop out of the limo’s sunroof again, but my once-supple reserve of Whoo is dry. I push girls out of the way to get a seat next to the door as my woozy friend lets out a gurgling belch. I roll the power window down and ease her head toward the fetid city air. The limo breaks hard and girls tumble atop each other, a tangle of stiletto heels and faux pearls and ratted-out hair. I do not tumble with them; I have made myself small and distant.

My friend leans out the window, retching. Her sickness is my salvation; the more I focus on her, the less aware I am of my closeness to the very same state. I hold her hair back to make it okay. I see the chaotic spatter on the glossy black door when we stumble out of the limo in front of our hostess’s place. We give the driver what I assume is a very generous tip.

Back in the loft, the intrepid hostess puts on even more ’80s music, and it bores into my eardrums like a dentist’s drill. The bride moans in an armchair, the empty pink shot glass still around her neck. My friend passes out on a futon, all vomited out, her dress torn. I brought pajamas, but I crawl under the coffee table in my purple dress and wish I hadn’t started out the night with red wine.

At dawn, I creep to the toilet to throw up. A few hours later, I wake up to a line of girls suffering for turns in the bathroom. “I think everyone here has puked,” the rumpled bride says from her armchair.

It takes me an hour just to get off the floor. Even my hair hurts, which, after a night under the coffee table, now resembles Robert Smith more than any member of Echo and the Bunnymen. I throw up one more time for good measure before I drive home. Joe is there, looking bright and healthy.

“What exactly happened last night?” he asks.

“I’m going to die,” I tell him. “Bed.”

I sleep until five that afternoon and eat boxed macaroni and cheese for dinner. Three years later Joe and I get married, and I do not have a bachelorette party.

•••

SARA BIR is a chef, culinary educator, and former music critic/sausage cart worker/sportsbra salesperson/library assistant/chocolate factory tour guide. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The North Bay Bohemian, The Oregoninan, MIX, and Section M. You can read her blog, The Sausagetarian, at sarabir.com.

Return of the Dropout

chem
By Todd Huffman/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

In three hours, I have a chemistry exam I might fail. I say “might” because I could cram desperately in the three hours between this moment and the time of my probable failing, and I’d rather spend those three hours doing something useful. Cramming is a deceptive word for panicking.

This feeling of looming academic doom is familiar, and I’m skilled at managing it calmly. Somehow I passed chemistry when I took it in high school, over twenty years ago. (“Somehow” was actually Betsy, my saintly lab partner, who happened to be the daughter of a chemistry teacher.) I recall very little about our curriculum—octets and ions and moles—but I remember sitting close to the window, because through it I observed the antics of a brazen woodchuck that lived in the woods bordering the school grounds. I also remember looking at the graffiti on my desk, which read, “Paige and Erin are DIKES.” They were not, as I knew firsthand, because Paige and Erin were two of my best friends. I also knew how to spell dykes properly, with a Y instead of an I, but it took me a few weeks of staring at the doubly incorrect slur on the desk before I realized I could simply erase it. If high school chemistry had tested me on groundhogs and stupid rumors and the ability to sketch various martyred saints in my notebook while listening to the Doors, I would have received an A.

And now, this exam nears. All these years later, I thought I had learned my lesson about chemistry class. Unlike the first time, I have applied myself as much as possible, because the topic is genuinely interesting to me—or at least the parts that have to do with cooking, because I am a chef. I’m teaching a charcuterie class next week, and deadlines loom: finish typing up the recipe packet, order duck legs and duck fat, drive all over town to purchase ingredients. Chemistry and charcuterie both require my full attention. My heart is with the pig.

Charcuterie is the art of preserving meat, most often through curing, smoking, or drying. Different chemical reactions make it all possible, sodium and nitrogen compounds mingling and swapping electrons in atomic versions of French kisses and extravagant, multi-player sexual positions. NaCl. NaNO2. KNO3.

Of course, I can’t write balanced chemical equations for what happens when you rub kosher salt, brown sugar, and sodium nitrite on a slab of fresh pork belly and let it sit for a week or so (some juniper berries, peppercorns, sage, and bay leaves are helpful, too). I just know that it happens. You put the dry cure on, flip the belly over every day to make sure it cures evenly, and, five to eight days later, it’s bacon. (You can omit the sodium nitrite, and the myoglobins in the meat won’t turn that hammy pink color, but the end result will still be delicious.) Then you rinse off the dry cure, at which point you can smoke it or cook it off in the oven. It’s not rocket science, but it is chemistry. What you wind up with is different from what you started out with.

•••

Always chemistry awaits. Chemistry awaits because I don’t have a Bachelor’s Degree. I never wanted one, ever. I didn’t even understand the difference between an Associate’s Degree and a Bachelor’s Degree when I went off to college, because I thought college was for browsing for used cassette tapes at record stores and drinking gallons of coffee at noisy cafes while reading a stack of the local alternative weekly newspapers. I dropped out of college before I failed, which is like quitting a job right before they can fire you. This didn’t comfort my parents, whose money I had been wasting with great indifference. As it turned out, the money-wasting was merely an annoyance to them; their main concern, understandably, was my future.

My first paid writing job was for an alternative weekly newspaper, where I wrote music criticism. And so my parallel, independent course of study paid off somewhat, and for many years I was smug about it: I don’t have a traditional college degree and I never needed it, nah nah nah nha boo-boo! College was for amateurs, people who like to sit and talk. Working? That’s for pros. I’m a worker. I suck at sitting. That’s why I went to cooking school.

Writers sit a lot, however. Despite my deep love for alternative weeklies, I left that job and undertook a string of high-energy, low-wage positions that managed to more or less pay the bills. Chocolate factory. Cookwares store. Library. Introducing a daughter into this equation was financially irresponsible, but we did it anyway, on purpose.

Then I realized how flawed my logic was, and how pathetic and passive my budget-driven melancholy was. My husband, a likewise melancholic fellow with a meandering career background, was not going to bring home slabs of bacon, ever. I felt our lives slipping away from us as friends moved ahead into promised lands of financial security; we languished behind, tossing scraps at the incredibly persistent credit card balance we couldn’t knock out, no matter how many extra hours I picked up at whatever job I was working at the time. In order for our family to make it, I needed to become a different person, one who could gracefully eat shit. A person who could bite the bullet and follow directions she didn’t really want to follow.

•••

We don’t discuss charcuterie in chemistry. It’s an online class, which I chose because my work schedule is unpredictable. There’s a massive, poorly organized textbook, and we’re supposed to read the textbook, log in to the web portal, and take half a dozen quizzes every week. That’s it. When I emailed my instructor and asked her to recommend some resources outside of the book, she suggested I come to her lecture. “But I’m taking the class online,” I said. “The lecture is supposed to come to me.”

We do take our tests in person, and that’s when I see our instructor, who is perhaps my age, with a petite build, an awkward manner, and a head of fabulously curly blonde hair. She seems to have a genuine concern for the academic performance of her students and a genuine difficulty connecting to them conversationally. I think she’s as confident leading the class as I am taking it.

So there it is: I will probably fail the test, because instead of attending chemistry lectures after work, I’d rather rake leaves with my daughter and watch her jump in and out of the leaf piles with unmitigated three-year-old glee. I’d rather walk the dog before dinner with my husband, and we will push our daughter in the stroller with us even though she’s way too old for the stroller and has to be coaxed into it with tiny handfuls of raisins or almonds, because if my husband and I don’t move around and talk about our days in the neutral air of the outdoors, bad things will happen. I’d rather set a real table with cloth napkins and cook a real dinner, which we will sit down together to enjoy, because that’s what we do in our family. I’d rather get my proper eight hours of sleep most nights, because if I don’t, bad things happen.

Most of the kids in my chemistry lab could realistically be my kid. All these years later and I still can’t make myself care enough to pass. Or maybe I care too much. Every week that infernal textbook throws more and more concepts at us, just when the one we were covering started to get really good. If it were up to me, I’d overhaul first-year chemistry and rename it Periodic Table Studies. I love the periodic table. It’s like a beautiful map; with each examination, it reveals more intricacies, more patterns. There’s a mysticism to it, a leap of faith, because I don’t care how many experiments chemists have done over the past dozen centuries, we can’t see and touch the atoms of those elements the way we can, say, a handful of cumin seeds or a stick of butter. Or a slab of pork belly.

I spent hours making flash cards for each element, because our instructor said we’d need to memorize most of the table. My inner child leapt for joy—craft time! I wrote the Latin or Greek roots of the names, or the interesting places they were discovered, plus short descriptions of what each element looked or smelled like, so it could be more tangible. Each element had its own story. I like narratives, and so far chemistry had not given me any good ones. On the day of our second exam, I was dismayed to find we were in fact not tested on our knowledge of the periodic table, but had to fill out a long list of electron configuration problems. And yes, those do have to do with the periodic table, but not in the way I like. By the time we hurtled to those, I was still swooning over radium and rubidium.

•••

I went back to school with the ultimate goal of becoming a registered dietician. I have a culinary degree; I care about good nutrition; I love teaching cooking classes. I threw those things into a hat with my desired salary, spent a few weekends clicking away hopefully on the Occupational Outlook Handbook database, and—poof!—created my future, reasonably profitable career. The logic went like this: by the time I have my credentials, the job market for R.D.s will be extra-sweet because of the awful diets Americans have, my years of studying late into the night would pay off, and I’d be able take our family on nice vacations and finally fulfill my dream of pledging to multiple public radio stations.

I’ll be nearing fifty by then. Is it worth it? Foremost I am a chef and a writer; I intentionally cook with bacon grease and chicken fat, I use salt liberally but strategically, and I’d rather discuss how to get a good sear on a pan of mushrooms than how to best preserve their nutrient content. That many R.D.s don’t actually work with the public but create crummy, bland menus for giant institutions was something I chose to overlook.

Maybe failing chemistry is necessary. I’m stubborn, and I don’t like to accept that I can only accomplish so much in a given time frame. Those cloth napkins are one reason we have so much laundry to fold. I have quite an array. Some I purchased for a song on clearance. Some I sewed myself in the days when I did a lot of freelance writing. I thought sewing napkins was procrastinating, but it turns out it’s one of my preferred methods of prewriting. Ages have passed since I’ve made napkins, but I really enjoy using them. They make me feel especially civilized.

Using paper napkins would save me maybe a few hours of laundry chores every year, and I could use those hours to study chemistry. Instead, my pro-napkin actions have clearly voted against chemistry and all it stands for. Sometimes you can’t just dip your toe in. You have to wade up to your ankles and hang out for a while before you realize that body of water is not where you are supposed to be.

This morning, I saw my advisor so I could discuss my strategy for next semester: lighter class load, no sciences. “I am coming up on a place in my life where I won’t have the time available to excel in a demanding class the way I’d like,” I lied, because I’ve been in that place since way before I even contemplated going back to school.

My advisor suggested I take Cultural Geography to fill a requirement.

“It won’t bore me, will it?” I asked him. “Because some of my classes here have, and if I’m not engaged, I get surly and I sort of give up.”

“By showing up and doing your work during the lecture, you will get an A,” he said, which was his disguised way of confirming yes, it will bore me.

But I’m still looking forward to next semester, and the one after that. If the sad implosion of my performance in chemistry has taught me this much, what more thorny truths about myself could I discover? Class by class, I’ll wrestle with demons more terrifying and impossible than those run-of-the-mill academic ones.

I thought that understanding the reason for your past failures made you impervious to future failures of the same sort, but here I am, wrong yet again. I’ve dreamed of going back in time, armed with the knowledge of my terminally ill bank account to come, so I could excel in high school and college instead of drifting through. But now I know that I’d make the same mistakes, only with more flair. Your problems don’t go away, even when you acknowledge and accept them. They’re still there to deal with, no matter how grown-up or deserving of success you feel you may be.

You can’t just desire the result—in my case, the employment opportunities afforded by a fancy piece of paper with computer-generated calligraphy on it. You have to desire the process. There’s no point in making bacon at home if you aren’t enthralled with handling the meat, scrutinizing its progress as its flesh firms up in the dry cure, daydreaming of the savory lardons you will cut from it and fry up to top a salad of bitter greens. Making the bacon is the point; eating it is just the reward. I like learning about chemistry, but I love my family, and I can’t click pause on this part of our lives together. Chemistry wants more of me than I can give it, now or maybe ever.

I doubt I’ll go into nutrition. I’m much better at teaching people how to make pâté than I am telling them not to eat it. Wearing the costume of a future R.D. boosted my confidence a bit, but the outfit was ill-fitting. The only way I’ll ever get any kind of degree will be slowly, leisurely, the way I prefer us to eat dinner. To earn an A in my chemistry class, I’d have to rely on frozen pizzas and skip the bedtime stories I look forward to reading to my daughter. My brain and my time and my kid are too valuable to squander on half-assing anything. Maybe I’ll take chemistry twice. Not because I have to, but because I want to.

•••

SARA BIR got 68% on her latest chemistry exam and had a blast teaching her charcuterie class. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The North Bay Bohemian, The Oregonian, and Section M. She’s currently drying a roll of pancetta in her basement and working on a vegan baking cookbook. Read more of her work at www.sarabir.com.

Smelted

tomatosfin
By Beth Hannon Fuller www.etsy.com/shop/ebethfuller

By Sara Bir

It was going to be a treat. I’d bought the fish at the discount grocer’s seafood counter, which usually offers semi-thawed Thai shrimp or filets of tilapia brightly flecked with some snazzy marinade that steadily works on its flesh until, when you get home, the fish cooks up pasty and mealy. But the smelt was wild-caught and, at $2.49 a pound, a steal. They looked so recognizably marine and vital in their plastic pan of chipped ice, the largest of them no more then eight inches from silvery snout to tail. As a part-time vegetarian plotting a quick relapse, I wanted the satisfaction of eating an identifiable animal.

The plan was to pan-fry the smelt and serve them with mashed potatoes and spinach salad, what one of my chef friends calls a three-point landing: protein, starch, and vegetable in their assumed sections on the plate, the protein filling three o’clock to nine o’clock (protein always gets plated closest to the diner) and the starch and veg claiming the remaining two quadrants.

Ever since I stopped eating and cooking meat, the three-point landing had all but vanished from our dinner table. I missed making pan sauces with the fond clinging to the bottom of my favorite skillet after properly sautéing a cutlet. I missed the hiss of chicken stock and vermouth hitting a searing metal pan. I missed artfully arranging components on a plate just so, letting the rusty bones of my expensive culinary school training perform some deeply ingrained but long dormant acrobatics. I liked knowing that I could still pull off classy restaurant-caliber food at home. We never go out to eat, often because I’m disappointed with the food at the upper-mid-range places in town everyone fawns over; we carefully select the locations of the once-a-year splurges and then I realize my $23 trout is served with only three spindly spears of asparagus and a blood orange buerre blanc that’s underseasoned. Better to stick to take-out veggie burritos or cheese pizzas once a month; we know what we’re getting, and no sitter required.

The smelt was an opportunity to please Joe with both my talent and my thrift. How fun it would be to sit with a bottle of $5 rose and lift the spiny string of intact bones from our fish, to crunch through a tiny browned tip of a fin! We couldn’t go to the earthy, broadly smiling locals of some anachronistic European village and bask in their hospitality, eating lusty, rustic foods; we couldn’t go to cozy places in Portland that hoped to offer a simulacra of the same sunny Mediterranean thing right here under our own oppressively grey dome or our damp skies. But we could pull off the coup of having that meal in our own dump of a rental house as our toddler sighed the sighs of early evening sleep in her crib just two rooms away. No sitter, no corkage fee, no showy tattoos of pigs or chef’s knives on the tensed forearms of our posturing servers.

•••

I’d never cooked smelt before. They’d appealed to me at the store in part because of their immediacy, the hint that we could have caught them ourselves on some rejuvenating fishing outing. Joe doesn’t fish. Daniel, my boyfriend many years ago, once took me to his family’s cabin deep in a West Virginia holler where we fished for trout in a clear, frigid stream using canned yellow corn for bait. Our catch was modest but enough to reasonably feed two. We fried them up using the Country Crock margarine from the cabin’s dormitory-sized refrigerator, and Daniel deftly lifted the rear fin of the fish to release the filet on one side, then the other, the perfect chain of bared bones resembling the cartoon skeleton a cartoon cat would dig up from a trash can.

That trip, it must have been Daniel who cleaned the fish. The few times I’d bought farmed trout, their bodies came eviscerated, their guts missing. But, newly examining the smelt I’d so breezily brought home, I find they are not gutted. It’s a decent pile of little fish, a baker’s dozen. After clumsily slitting open a few with my chef’s knife, I open up their cavities and scoop out the slimy brown organs and mushroomy red gills with my finger, just as the Joy of Cooking I’d looked at earlier during Frances’s nap advised me to. It’s tiny, stinky work.

The smelt give off the perfume of algae and barnacles clinging to the filthy blue foam float under a bobbing wooden dock, a smell of simultaneous life and decay. Yes, the disembodied segments of salmon filets I rarely allow into the house have fishy aromas, too, but they entail no liquid eyes or gritty digestive tracts to deal with.  The smelt are wet and cold, and my fingers act up, turning numb and yellow-white.

Mid-gutting, a naked and baby-fresh damp Frances pads to the kitchen, her hands clasped expectantly behind her back. These post-bath visits to the raging inferno of dinner prep are one of the few times she behaves demurely. “Mama, mama!” she calls, reaching out. With my fishy, frigid hands immobilized, I still can’t help but scoop her up using the crooks of my elbows. I kiss her and point her back to her father, who reads books to her in a marathon bedtime session peppered with explosions of shrieks and gigging.

I read to calm her; Joe reads to delight her. I like to time the cooking so that dinner hits the table just as Joe creeps out of her bedroom, but usually I get to the end of my prep and sense that he won’t emerge anytime soon. I’ll tap on the door and say, “Ten minutes and we’re eating.” Sometimes he won’t come out for another twenty; he lingers in there searching for some kind of elusive peace, hoping Frances will fall asleep in his arms and open a portal to her carefree non-adult world and invite him along to stay forever.

Even with the window cracked to the chilly March air and the feeble but noisy vent fan on, the cooked smelt assert their presence throughout the house. Joe makes his way from Frances’s room just as I remove the second batch of fish from the pan, and he scowls. “Whoa! It stinks in here.”

Yes, I agree, it does. It’s the exact duplicate of the cooked fish stench that haunted the stairwell of the sublet apartment where we stayed in Queens the summer of our doomed and ultimately aborted move to New York City. A Greek family lived on the second floor of the three-floor building, and the residue of the seafood they fried hung heavily in the humid city air. Joe constantly complained of that family, of the way the dubiously employed adult kids who still lived there constantly slammed the door. “So those are it? The smelt?” he says, looking skeptically at the tangle of heads and fins I just heaped on his plate. He says “smelt” the way you’d say “chum” or “chub.” He shirks, repulsed. “How are we going to eat those?”

“Like I’d told you, the meat falls right off the bone. You just lift the spine out like a chain. I can do it for you, if you like.”

“Uhhh…I don’t think I can eat this. It’s just…you know.”

The day before, when I’d bought the fish, I’d told him my plan, how we’d be eating these little fish like they do in trendy restaurants. He’d seemed into it then, unless he hadn’t been listening, or hadn’t understood. I guess I talk about cooking food a lot, using terms that don’t have any meaning for a person who doesn’t cook food. I guess it’s easy to tune me out. It’s certainly no effort for me to tune him out.

“These have faces. They look like fish.” He’s trying to excuse himself, to extricate his feelings from my hostility, but it’s only digging him in deeper. People who gladly eat dead animals but don’t like to be reminded that they are eating dead animals are not people I have much patience for.

“Okay, so don’t have the fish. You can have mashed potatoes and salad for dinner.” Mashed potatoes and salad is what a kid who’s not into what Mom made for dinner eats. I feel like I’m Joe’s mom a lot of the time.

“Mashed potatoes and salad?” he says. “That’s not very exciting.”

“So make yourself something else.” He does not. Joe eats a modest serving of unexciting salad and mashed potatoes, and by that point I’d be happier if he’d slapped together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead, because at least he’d be proactive about getting what he wants.

I find I no longer want my smelt, either, but I gamely eat a few ounces. The flesh does fall right off the bone. The caper sauce is excellent. I drink most of the rosé. Before we opened it, I had been thinking maybe we’d have sex later that night, but right then I wasn’t even interested in being in the same house with Joe.

•••

A few days later, I made smelt salad with a dab of the caper sauce and the leftover flakes of smelt—rich and fishy and still with some stray bits of crispy skin, fin, and needle-thin bone. I ate this at work atop long pieces of toasted rye and cornmeal bread I’d made myself, interspliced with nibbles of a kosher pickle I’d pickled myself. It was a splendid lunch, serendipitously Scandinavian. All it needed was some pickled beets. And while it’s no feat to make no-knead bread, or to make kosher pickles (that it’s all a matter of letting cucumbers and garlic cloves sit forgotten in salt water for a few days seems like an April Fool’s joke), I thought to myself, “I am awesome.” I wanted Joe to be saying this, and for the same reasons I was thinking it: that I made things that tasted good, that I figured out how to on my own, that I so shrewdly navigated our little family’s constantly ailing finances through cruel storms into civilized ports of comfort and even occasional refinement.

Daniel—Daniel of the trout and the remote Appalachian cabin—loved my food. It enthralled him, as did nearly everything about me. Only once was he less than thrilled, at a dry and chewy noodle kugel I’d baked using thick Amish egg noodles instead of the lighter supermarket kind, and even then he tactfully said he didn’t think this misguided Amish-Jewish fusion ranked among my culinary triumphs. I broke up with Daniel because I eventually found that I was not capable of being adored so much by one person. He spoke French and rebuilt motorcycles engines and split wood with an ax and won awards for his journalism. He thought everything I did was wonderful, and I left him.

Which I don’t regret. On paper the relationship was ideal, but in practice the responsibility of being idolized smothered me. Now I try to please the man I did marry by being who I am, and it backfires. Even when I set out with lovely intentions, I have to cook on my terms. To love me is to love my food. For him, I do not slice onions but dice them; the limp, stringiness of cooked onions reminds him of worms, the sight of which makes him retch. For him, I eschew spaghetti and fettuccini and linguini for the same reasons. For him, I buy Tofurkey sausages. There are far greater concessions.

When I was a teenager, you could have knocked me over with a feather if you told me I’d someday marry a skateboarder who plays drums and makes art, so elated would I have been. Skateboarding is the thing Joe slips away from the house for on Sundays, leaving me alone with Frances to cope with a pile of smelt and a cold, muddy playground calling her name. Then he goes to band practice. Then, after dinner, he washes the dishes and complains about how difficult it is to clean a sheet pan in our shallow sink, and about the amount of dishes there are to wash, even though I never reach for a utensil or pot without first thinking, “Do I need this? How can I go about this prep in such a way as to minimize cleanup?” because that is what working in professional kitchens and graduating from one of the top cooking schools in the country will pound into you. Then, after the kitchen is acceptably immaculate, Joe gets out his colored tape and works away at his art. The sight is so familiar by now that I don’t even notice him. He shows me a new piece and I can’t come up with convincing enthusiasm if I do like it; if I don’t like it, I just say “hmm” or “ahh,” then retire to the bedroom with a book.

Would that have happened with Daniel or someone else, that after more than ten years together he’d wander in from the garage, black grease under his short-clipped nails and an industrious evening of manly repairing and improving under his belt, and I’d grunt in indifference? Would the oily cling of cooking smelt put him in a grumpy mood once he set foot in a kitchen thrumming with the energy of a meal in unstoppable progress?

A week later, we still have some of the caper sauce. I cook two decent-sized artichokes in the pressure cooker to serve with it. It’s taken me years, but I finally figured out that artichokes taste best when you cook the hell out of them. I put them on a plate, one for me and one for him, and set an empty wooden salad bowl next to it for us to put the leaves in.

The artichokes are rich and meaty, more so as we work towards their gray-green hearts. Cleaning an artichoke is involved, about as much work as gutting a fish, though it’s not nearly as slimy or fishy. Eating an artichoke is work, though tasty and relaxing work. We obliterate our artichokes, dipping them in caper sauce and leaving behind only a thorny pile of spiny scraped-up leaves, and Joe gladly works his way toward his favorite part, the rich and tender area toward the center of the base and stem, and I realize you can’t count on everyone to be satisfied with making a meal of artichokes, or to think of such a thing as a special occasion, and I decide to let the smelt thing slide.

•••

SARA BIR is a writer, chef, and librarian who recently relocated from Portland, Oregon, to southeast Ohio. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a recipient of the Greenbrier Scholarship to the Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Food Writers. You can read more of her writing at www.sarabir.com