The Motel Mansion

hawaii
By Waifer X/Flickr

By Sobrina Tung Pies

My mom is nearly bald. Her hair started falling out in her late twenties, getting thinner and thinner, until what remained fell away after the round of chemotherapy she got for breast cancer treatment. The hospital gave her a wig, a short straight bob. Around the time strangers started confusing her for my dad, I tried to get her to wear it. She didn’t though. She hardly ever wore it, putting it on only for the rare special occasion.

I asked her once why she’d snipped a jagged hole in the bangs of her wig at my cousin’s wedding. She’d said, “It’s too hot.” I didn’t want to admit it then, but, as the sweat pooled in the strapless bra I wore under my pale green bridesmaid’s dress, I understood what she meant. Sometimes it’s just too much trouble to look the part.

Living life with a well-ventilated scalp, my mom doesn’t look like anyone else’s mom. And it’s not the only thing different about her either.

“I’d like to visit my friends when we’re in Hawaii,” she told me over the phone in Khmer. Our family vacation to Oahu was coming up.

“Okay,” I said. Nothing peculiar about that. I had no idea she knew people in Hawaii, but she was always making new friends at her Buddhist temple. Her words bounced off the back of my skull and landed in a soft pile where they remained to be thought about later.

“My friends have a farm. They raise crops and sell the produce at the flea market,” my mom said, intrigued, a few weeks before our departure date. “They live in a little house on the land.”

My mom’s friends weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor either. After all, they were getting by with that warm blue ocean in their backyard. It reminded me of a Kinfolk article. I pictured my mom’s new friends wearing stylish overalls in a refurbished Airstream.

“How’d you meet them?” I asked.

“YouTube,” she said.

“YouTube?” I asked. “You met them on YouTube?”

“Yeah, they had a video of their farm,” she said matter-of-factly.

The video came up in her search for Cambodian Buddhist temples in Hawaii. It ended with a phone number on the screen that my mom promptly dialed. We were invited to come visit; everyone was invited. (It was the “everyone” bit that struck me as most creepy.)

The scene in my head changed from Kinfolk to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This sounded not unlike that time a man lured people to his ranch by advertising a cheap car for sale on Craig’s List, only to shoot them all execution-style once they got there. Neither of my parents shared my concerns. Cambodian people wouldn’t do that, my dad said. “I guess” was the only clever response I could think of.

When we got to Oahu, we spent half of our time exploring the island and the other half bobbing in the water at the beach in front of our hotel. My mom asked when we’d go see her friends. Soon, I said. I was the only one properly insured to drive the rental van, and the rule-follower in me insisted I drive.

Three days before the end of our vacation, after we’d seen Mermaid’s Cave and eaten our fill of shaved ice, I decided the trip wouldn’t be ruined if we were to all die then. It was time. As I drove the van to the farm, I thought about the two sea turtles I’d swum with and the five rainbows that arched in the sky that day. I’d be going out on a high note for sure.

To my surprise, I didn’t turn the van around, delivering us all back to the safety of our Waikiki high-rise hotel. I followed my mom’s lead: She had a way of knowing things. Like that time she knew she had a tumor growing inside her and insisted the doctor cut it out. Her mammogram results had come back negative just one month prior. Only after she kept insisting something was wrong did they send her back for more testing and confirm her suspicions of cancer. If something was up, she would be the first one to know.

As I followed Google Map’s directions, the cramped city streets of Honolulu gave way to neighborhoods with more breathing room. I wondered where the farms were. I took a few turns before the map showed we were fast approaching our destination. Did we have the address right? These homes had tennis courts. These homes were mansions.

My dad called the phone number from the YouTube video and spoke with a man. We were in the right place. As we climbed out of the van, my sister Sophie and I laughed nervously the way you do when you’re pretty certain you’ll be okay but a small part of you still wonders if you might get shot. We walked down a long driveway to the house at the bottom.

My mind struggled to make sense of what was happening. Three younger men moved about, preparing a charcoal barbecue next to an open garage, while an older man stood holding a cell phone. A young boy splashed in the swimming pool in the middle of the grassless front yard. There was no lawn, just concrete and a shabby L-shaped mansion serving as the backdrop. A tall white spiral staircase from the eighties connected the two sides of the “L.” Whoever designed it must have thought it lent the property a grand air, but the effect reminded me of the motels we stayed in on our family vacations as a kid.

The cell-phone-holding man, impressively tanned, walked toward us.

“Don’t forget to greet him,” my mom said under her breath, pressing her palms together in the customary Cambodian salute.

The rest of my family immediately followed suit. A group of praying mantis sharing a hive mind.

“Welcome,” Tan Man said. “Do you want something to eat or drink?”

“No, we’re fine,” my mom said, answering for all of us. “We just wanted to come see your life on the farm.”

“Oh, right,” Tan Man said. “Well, this is where we live now.” He gave an apologetic shrug. Turning to face the other men, he said, “These are my sons and that’s their friend.”

The sons pulled up chairs for us around the folding table where they sat.

After a few more minutes of small talk, my mom said, “You guys hang out.” I shot wide eyes at her, willing her to say she’d just be a few minutes. She didn’t notice and slipped away into the mansion with my dad and Tan Man. The hive mind was broken.

“I’m Rithy,” the shorter son said. “This is my brother Magnus and my friend Toshi.”

We introduced ourselves. Toshi, the friend, was the only one wearing a shirt. It was his son in the swimming pool.

“Where are you guys from?” Rithy asked.

“California,” Sophie said.

“Oh yeah? Which part?” Rithy asked.

“San Jose,” Sophie said. “How about you?”

“Born and raised on the island,” Rithy responded. “Magnus lives in Washington now. He’s just here visiting.”

“Must be nice growing up in a place like this,” my sister’s boyfriend Jordan chimed in.

“Don’t be fooled by those pretty pictures in the travel brochures,” Toshi said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s hard making it here,” Toshi said. “Finding work, paying the bills. A one-bedroom apartment goes for a thousand dollars a month. A month. Can you believe it?”

I thought about the one-bedroom I rented for under two thousand in San Jose and how everyone I knew thought that was a steal.

“That is crazy,” I said.

Wrapped in a towel, Toshi’s son joined us at the table. He opened a container of poke and split apart a pair of wooden chopsticks. By the way he ate, I doubted all that fish would put a dent in his appetite.

“What do the locals like to do?” I asked.

“Party,” Toshi said. “Party and make babies.” He looked over at his son.

Rithy nodded in agreement. No one said anything; I took the moment to listen for anything unusual. A muffled scream or a crash from inside. Only the sound of the wind filled my ears.

I changed the subject. “How’d you guys end up here?” I asked, referring to the motel mansion.

“Oh, that’s a story,” Magnus said. “There was this Swedish couple watching the news one day. All of a sudden they decided to adopt a baby. The woman at the church they called said, ‘Well, I don’t have a baby, but I do have an entire family.’ We were in Cambodia at the time when stuff was starting to get bad. My mom was pregnant with me and there was also my dad and two brothers. Whatever the couple was watching on TV that day must have been crazy because they decided to do it. They sponsored our family to come to the States. That’s why I have a Swedish name.”

I might have asked why they didn’t all live in Sweden, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the logistics of adopting an entire family. A light, unseasonable rain fell, covering everything in a soft mist. A tropical storm was passing through the islands.

“Is this their house?” Sophie asked.

“This?” Magnus asked, surprised. “No, this belongs to this Japanese couple. They had it built quickly, so the floor plan is all fucked up. No one wants to buy it at $4.7 million.”

Must be the Magnum, P.I. staircase, I thought.

Magnus got up to check on the grill. When he came back, he sat down and resumed drinking his beer. It was dark out now, and there was nothing to look at except each other and the empty garage we sat in. I fought the urge to look at my phone. I could tell Magnus had finished answering the question, but I’d never stepped foot on a $4.7 million property before and wanted to know how one comes to barbecue in such a place.

“Do you guys live here?” I asked.

“My parents do,” Magnus said.

“But not the Japanese people?”

“Right. They built this place and left it.”

“So how’d your family get connected?”

“My parents have a cleaning business and one of their clients is the owners’ daughter. She told her parents about my parents and they fell in love with my mom. Asked her to look after the place.”

I nodded. The guys drank their beer. A lull in conversation settled over us like a fishing net trapping random sea creatures together. We weren’t sure how any of us came to be there.

After a long while, Rithy asked Toshi and Magnus about an upcoming wedding. They talked about the friend who didn’t get an invite and laughed. I fiddled with my hands and half smiled like I understood the joke. They started talking about who was coming over with the meat skewers, who was bringing drinks. It clicked then that the reason for the barbecue was Magnus’s visit home. We were intruding on their party.

“Mohammed’s here,” Toshi announced as a car pulled into the driveway. Looking at me, he said, “This is the only Cambodian Muslim you’ll ever meet on the island. Converted. Even changed his name.”

“I’ve never met a Cambodian Muslim,” I said.

“There’s lots in prison,” Toshi said.

Somehow I knew better than to ask how he knew.

With Mohammed there, the conversation turned a corner, quickly moving past us to inside jokes and gossip about people we didn’t know. The guys tended to grilling the meat and disappeared around the corner to smoke pot. We sat with Toshi’s son who had moved on to an octopus poke. The longer we sat there, the more I felt how I did in high school when my best friend and I crashed parties we weren’t invited to. We weren’t privy to those conversations either.

When I couldn’t sit with my half-smile plastered on any longer, I went to the house to find the bathroom and did a double take as I stepped inside. There was no blood. No one on the ground having the life choked out of them. All four parents sat at the kitchen table, talking and laughing. Perhaps I would have been more patient had I stepped into a stickier situation, but I was annoyed that they were having the time of their lives. Meanwhile, sitting in the garage, the awkwardness pulled at my skin until I’d wanted to tear it all off. I caught my mom’s eye and silently tried to convey how much we wanted to leave. No luck. I used the bathroom (Magnus was right about this place: Even the bathroom in the apartment I rented back home was nicer than this) and then walked back to the kitchen.

“Can we go?” I whispered intently.

“Don’t you want to wait for the barbecue?” my mom asked.

No,” I emphasized. “We were going to get that sushi for dinner, remember?”

“Oh, okay then,” my mom said.

She apologized to her friends about her kids’ picky tastes, but surprisingly, she and my dad wrapped up their conversation, got up, and followed me outside. As we walked back to the driveway, my mom told me her friends had invited her and my dad to come back and stay in one of the empty rooms. I turned and studied her friends’ faces one last time. Just in case. We went in a circle doing the praying-mantis, said goodbye to the group of guys steadily forming in the garage, and got back into our rental van.

Before the van door had even swung shut, we unleashed on my mom. Sophie and I took turns, telling her how awkward it was, reprimanding her for leaving us like that. My mom didn’t say anything, letting us get it all out of our systems. She was in her own world anyway, one where people cleaned houses, lived in mansions, and went to the beach on their lunch break. Without getting the reaction out of her we wanted, we quickly lost steam. We moved on to swapping stories from inside and outside the house.

“So what’d you guys talk about?” I asked.

“Not much. Cambodian politics. The story of how they came here. We didn’t have a lot of time together,” my mom said.

I rolled my eyes at the last part.

“Japanese people own that house; my friends just look after it,” she informed us.

“Uh huh, the sons told us,” Sophie said.

We bumped along in silence until I thought of something they wouldn’t know.

“We met a Cambodian Muslim,” I said.

“Muslim? You sure?” my dad asked. Clearly they had never met one either.

“Yeah, there are lots in prison,” I said.

When no one questioned me, I relished in my newfound street cred.

As the lights of the Waikiki strip came into view, I asked, “So, was there a farm?”

“Oh, we didn’t get a chance to talk about any of that,” my mom said, looking out the window. “I’ll have to ask when I see them next time.”

Next time. I looked at her in the rearview, beaming in her seat and dreaming about all the possibilities. I shook my head and smiled. I didn’t doubt her for a second.

•••

SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley. In addition to contributing to Full Grown People, she sometimes writes on her blog at www.quietlikehorses.com.

Read more FGP essays by Sobrina Tung Pies.

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One She’ll Never Forget

By aphrodite-in-nyc/Flickr
By aphrodite-in-nyc/Flickr

By Desiree Cooper

When I was a teenager, my mother and I were like sisters. If my date arrived more than fifteen minutes late, she would hide me upstairs and tell them I’d already left with someone else. Then we’d eat popcorn and watch movies.

I got married to my law school sweetheart in 1984. I’ll never forget waving good-bye to my family in Virginia and heading for Detroit to start my new life. I was a grown twenty-four-year-old, but I couldn’t imagine life without my mom nearby. I cried for the entire twelve-hour trip.

Over the years, we learned how to stay close despite the miles between us. We yakked on the phone constantly, me updating my mom on my life and the kids, my mom filling me in on her garden and the latest episode of Oprah (which she watched every day at four p.m.). We got together on holidays and family reunions. And, in the days before digital images, I sent her stacks and stacks of actual pictures to thumb through when she felt lonely. Nothing could keep us apart.

Except Alzheimer’s.

When she got the diagnosis in 2006 at the age of seventy-three, I was devastated. Immediately, I felt like I was railing against time. While tomorrow is promised to no one, it’s different when you know the days you have to love someone—and be loved in return—are numbered. We were both powerless in the face of this disease, but I had to do something—anything—to mark the time we had left.

And then it came to me. We’d make a memory that would be so profound, it would be permanently stamped into her DNA! It would be a memory that would even triumph over Alzheimer’s!

I would take my mother to The Oprah Show!

One problem: I had no idea how to get on the show. I started emailing and calling the producers, telling them about my beloved mother, her disease, and her abiding love for Oprah. But I never heard anything back.

I thought about WWOD? (What Would Oprah Do?) and started manifesting my intention. Everywhere. I told everyone I knew that I was going to take my mom to see Oprah, somehow, some way. This went on for months, until one day, a woman in my circle of associates said, “I can make it happen.”

I was ecstatic, but I didn’t tell my mom right away; I wanted everything to be certain first. Then on a Friday in February 2008, I got a call from my friend. “Can you and your mom get to Chicago on Wednesday?”

“YES!” I screamed into the phone. “Absolutely!”

And then I hung up the phone and wondered how the hell I was going to get my mother to The Oprah Show in four days. At the time, I was commuting from Detroit to work in St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother was living in Virginia. The family rallied and we got concurrent (expensive) flights to Detroit, and then a flight together to Chicago. When we sprung the news on my mom, she was shocked. Then came the uncertainty, “I don’t want to fly alone,” she said. “It’s too expensive.” But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were going, and that’s all there was to it.

My plane landed in Detroit an hour before Mom’s. That’s when I finally started to let myself get excited. I posed at the end of the jet way with my camera ready to capture the first glimpse of my euphoric mother running into my arms.

But instead of dashing forward, weeping at the prospect of meeting her lifelong idol, Mom rushed up to me and said, “Des! I want you to meet Maria!” She put her arms around a Philippina who had evidently been her seatmate on the plane. “She’s going on vacation now, but when she comes back, she and I are going to play bingo. Can you take our picture?”

That’s the cruelty of Alzheimer’s. If it were just about memory loss, that would be one thing. But before the memory goes, there’s a slow substitution of one person for another. Instead of being excited about the trip to see Oprah (or even just the tiniest bit excited about being with me), she was oddly focused on the stranger who’d been kind to her on the plane. Maybe she’d been afraid during the flight and mistook the woman’s kindness for friendship. Mom’s focus on the bigger picture was all but lost.

I was crestfallen, but I tried to be patient. I understood that this wasn’t my normal mother. I awkwardly took their purses and bags and snapped photos of mom and her baffled new friend.

My ego significantly bruised, I took a deep breath and schlepped us to our gate. I was annoyed that Mom had dragged along a carry-on; it was enough work to just keep track of her, much less her bags. We arrived at the gate early and were munching on sandwiches when announcement came. Our flight had been cancelled. Fog.

We waited anxiously as flight after flight was canceled. Finally, after about three hours of waiting, we were booked for a flight the next morning. The schedule would be tight, but I was sure that we were going to make it, come hell or high water.

We used a voucher to stay at the airport hotel. By then, I was totally frazzled, consumed with the fear that my plan had been too ambitious. Now that we’d been derailed, my mother began to lose focus again. “Why don’t we just go to your house so that I can see the grandkids?” she kept asking. I ignored her. She could see the kids anytime. This was our once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Oprah.

For moral support, I called the friend who’d gotten us into the show. And just like the voice of Oprah herself, she said, “Oh, no. You will be on that morning flight. It’s already done. It’s in God’s hands. You just show up for it.”

My resolve was bolstered, but it was no match for my mom’s grating mantra: “Let’s just go see the kids.” I was losing it, so I curled on my bed and pretended to sleep. Resisting the urge to smother myself with the pillow, I listened to my mother fumble around the room, zipping and unzipping her carry-on.

All of a sudden, I felt something cover me. I looked up and Mom was holding a pair of Valentine pajamas.

“Here, baby, I brought these for you.”

She even had bought a pair for herself. We put them on, and I curled up in the bed beside her, my arm around her waist. After a long time of listening to her breathe, I fell asleep.

The next morning, the weather was all clear. We were booked for the nine a.m. flight, but my mom was completely off kilter, confused by waking up in a strange place. She needed constant reminding that we were on an adventure. She couldn’t seem to get organized. I helped her, careful not to seem impatient.

When we arrived at security, the line was shambling and tedious. I began to wonder if we were going to miss our plane while standing in the airport. Mom started to complain about everything—the line, the expense of the trip, the temperature. At one point she said, “September 11 screwed up this country. That’s why I don’t like to fly anymore.”

I’d had it. I turned to her and yelled, “You’ve got to stop it! If you keep complaining, I’m going to lose my mind. We’re going to see Oprah, and we’re going to have a good time. You have to be positive from here on out.”

People in the line gawked in horror as the crazy daughter berated her dear, frail mother. But at that point, I didn’t care. After that, my mother, sufficiently cowed, withdrew into silence and followed my every command.

Once we got on the plane, our moods lifted. This was it! We were on our way to The Oprah Show!

We landed in Chicago with just enough time to make it to the taping. As we hopped into a cab, we should have been giving each other high fives. Instead, I pouted while my mom engaged with the Jamaican cab driver in an annoyingly detailed conversation about how he got his cabbie license.

When we arrived at the studio, it was a bland warehouse in an unimpressive part of town—not the Emerald City that both of us had expected. We queued up with about a hundred other members of the studio audience, and the staff stripped us of all cameras, cell phones, even paper and pens. We were not allowed to document The Oprah Show in any way.

The staff sat us thigh-to-thigh in rows of chairs like patients in a crowded doctor’s office and handed out boxed lunches—a sandwich, pasta salad, a cookie, and a soft drink. Then we were herded into the studio where I couldn’t believe our luck. My mom and I were seated right behind Oprah’s chair!

As we waited for the taping to begin, we eyed the studio and the set in front of us. In that moment I realized that perhaps I had ruined the illusion by bringing my mom to the show. The studio was smaller than it appeared on TV. The stage props seemed to be slap dash and temporary, mainly because they were. The pitch black walls made it feel like we were in a coffin. As the audience coordinator came on stage and congratulated us on wearing the requisite “Skittles” colors, I worried that perhaps mom would never love Oprah the same way again.

Then, She came out! Oprah was wearing a flowing top and slimming pants, and, to spare her notoriously bad feet, bedroom slippers. As she made her way through the audience to toward the stage, she stopped only once and that was to turn to my mother in a moment of strange recognition. A genuine smile broke across Oprah’s face. For a second, I thought she was going to speak my mother’s name. Instead, she took my mother’s hand and gave her a warm, “Hello.”

I couldn’t believe it. Out of all the people in the audience, only my mother got to shake Oprah’s hand!

We were still agog as Oprah bent to plop down in her seat. And that’s when we were graced with a peek at the royal plumber’s crack. That was followed by an upfront view of Oprah’s bunions as her staff came to shoehorn her feet into gorgeous pumps.

The next two hours are a blur. As we watched the show from the inside out, it was hard to digest that this was really happening. The show was called “The Secret Behind The Secret,” about the power of positive thinking. How what you intend will manifest. How every day, you create the world you want to live in. If you see life as a battle, then prepare for war. I sank into a contemplative silence; it seemed that the message had been tailor made for me. Maybe I wasn’t at war with time, or with my mother’s disease. Maybe it was time for me to settle down and accept the gift of the time we had left.

After the show, we had no time to process what we’d just witnessed. As a cab zipped us back to the airport, we held hands in tender silence. Aside from platitudes like “It was beautiful,” and “I’m glad I went,” and “Thank you, baby,” I didn’t hear my mother speak about the trip again.

A year later, I was visiting my parents and some friends came over for dinner. We were chatting when my mom piped in: “Did I ever tell you about the time my daughter took me to The Oprah Show?”

The room went silent. I looked at mom expectantly, wondering what she would remember from our great adventure to Chicago. But she only smiled and said, “My daughter is so sweet. She’s my best friend.”

•••

A 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, DESIREE COOPER is the author of Know the Mother, a collection of flash fiction that dives into the intersection of racism and sexism to reveal what it means to be human. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010 and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio Fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers. She lives in metro Detroit.

On Usefulness

By Tim Parkinson/Flickr
By Tim Parkinson/Flickr

By Kristin Kovacic

On my sixth day in England, a Tuesday, I catch the first appearance of the sun. It’s a warmish day for January, about forty-five degrees (the temperature, I will learn over the course of a semester in Sheffield, of roughly every English day). House-bound in one of the million tiny duplexes clinging to the wet city’s hillsides like barnacles, I suit up for a ramble in mud boots, impermeable layers (the sun makes no promises here), and my wonderful new backpack, which I bought my college son for Christmas and he, horrified, rejected (as though I’d attempted to pick out his underwear).

The subtly stylish pack is one of the nicest things I’ve ever owned, a really useful object, as they used to say about obedient British trains on the “Thomas the Tank Engine” television show he adored as a child. My pack has pockets on the side where I can stash my smartphone (another really useful object) and gloves and tissues and umbrella, yet still reach them when I’ve got the bag fully on. It has a front pocket that snaps, with a carabiner inside for my new house key, which I am afraid of losing. It has another front pocket that snaps, for other fears. It has thick straps and is strategically padded on the backside, so that it feels cozy, like a hug, even when full, especially when full. It is cavernous inside, with an open top that rolls neatly down if you don’t need so much space, or blossoms up so that a bouquet or baguette can poke through. I can put a whole day’s shopping inside, including wine and bananas. It has a secret zippered panel for my laptop. It is waterproof, though the outside fabric is a soft, slate gray, like a business suit, and the inside fabric is seersucker. Its elegance was apparent to me when I ordered it from a catalogue, but its usefulness continues to dawn on me, as I find it is perfectly suited to every day’s needs—reading and writing, airplane and bus and train journeys, walking by myself in a new city.

With my backpack, I feel alone and armored, invisible and capable. With my phone’s GPS, I can locate exactly where I am—a glowing blue dot on the magical map, like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, alive with my movements. I don’t need the phone for long, as I soon find the route through the park I am seeking, Endcliffe (what could possibly go wrong?), and I am drawn down its paths, along a powerful stream punctuated with waterfalls and reservoirs and duck ponds, drawn by the force of water and desire, along with everyone else out and profiting from the mercurial sun: dogs of every size untethered (some charging into the water, harassing the ducks), children under school age in whimsical caps and ballooning coats, afoot with their grandparents, and babies bundled up in tank-like prams (the parents no doubt in thrall to their usefulness). The river takes me down to the Endcliffe Cafe, a simple timbered shack with tables inside and out, where one must clearly stop, for tea or ice cream, or hot soup, or beans and toast, or a chip butty, whatever that is (I am afraid to ask, still shy to broadcast English words, like “bespoke” and “butty,” from my drawling American mouth).

I’ve been walking for an hour, so I can have lunch, but I don’t want to get full and slow down; I have errands to run, a backpack’s worth of necessary things to buy. And so I order tea, and when I retrieve from my pack (snap pocket) a five-pound note to pay, the long-haired girl at the till takes it curiously, turns it over and over, and says she’s never seen one like it.

“It must be very old,” she says, and the other cashiers come around and marvel at it, like children who’ve found a toad on the path.

“I’ve just arrived in England,” I explain. “Will it work?”

They all look to a pimpled boy, presumably the manager. “I’m afraid not,” he says cheerfully. “You can try taking it to the bank.”

I go back into my pack for a crisp twenty-pound bill. “How about this one?”

And they all laugh and chime, “Brilliant!” For change, the girl gives me three more five-pound notes, which look a great deal like the old one, the inscrutable Queen not having aged a bit.

“The colors are different,” she says, but I can scarcely tell.

The old fiver must be left over from the last time we were in England, when my husband and I cycled around the British Isles in 1991, before we had kids. He didn’t tell me, when he was loading my wallet, where the pounds had come from. One of his useful habits is keeping things, like spare change, and knowing, years later, where to locate them. It occurs to me that I’ve just tried to pay for my tea with currency from before these cashiers were born, which is funny (funnier than if I’d asked about chip butties), but it also makes me feel like a time traveler, which, I suppose, I am.

I have traveled out of my normal work life in Pittsburgh and into a sabbatical year abroad. I often forget what day it is, what time (England has its own time zone, separate from the rest of Europe, and sets its clocks backwards in a daylight savings scheme called, unironically, British Summer Time, shortening winter days to roughly six hours of gloom). Useless, too, my calendars; I haven’t marked one in weeks.

I take my tea to a table outside and watch the parade of souls at leisure—granddads, toddlers, new mums, some students, me, every variety of shepherd. Off-leash, the dogs are hyper-alert, not barking, noses in deep divination. The toddlers squat purposefully over feathers, pebbles, twigs. Buggies corralled, the mothers gossip, and the students smoke languorously on the grass between fits of happy talk. The reluctant sun blesses us all. A massive green playing field stretches beyond the cafe, but no one is on it, save for a small terrier, comically chasing a ball into the void.

The field, and the brilliant sky above it, create a stunned hush, like the earth’s silence from space. I remember last night’s long restlessness, my jet-lagged body in a galactic battle with British Summer Time. I remember the scattered obligations I am avoiding (a book review, the proofreading for my sister, my writing, my writing, my writing), and my mind flits from thing to do, to thing to buy, to thing to write. Sipping my tea, warm and milk-gray, I notice how shockingly good I am at doing precisely none of it. Though I am clearly wasting my time, I feel it’s somehow useful to be here. I take off my pack and place it on its own plastic chair, where I admire, again, its handsomeness. I take my first deep inhale of open English air—dewy and sweet, laced with wafts of grease (everyone else is having the butty). Witnessing the day suddenly feels like my purest and most important obligation.

Of course, this feeling comes because I am alone. My husband’s at work, teaching at the nearby university. He would rush me along, his natural pace easily doubling mine. He’s good at accomplishing things, prefers to cycle than to stroll. Together, we would create a bland and audible reading of the landscape (look, a duck) and briskly carry on. But mostly, I am remembering my kids, their dazzling childhood beauty, and I can vividly picture each of them waddling along these paths, cheeks glowing under snug hats, those years of days I was alone with them.

I have often regretted that time, an era during which I accomplished ostensibly nothing. I was a mother at home for five years, a slice out of my timeline, a bright space on my resume. It was the last time in my life, in fact, that every day sprawled out before me like this, offering its circadian pleasures: walks, talks, snacks, songs, stories, sleep. Here, at the end of the cliff, I remind myself that we harvested each day of that bounty we could, profited, dropped everything for glorious weather, ran in open fields. That’s why I am so good at this. I could have been, should have been, doing other, more useful things, too, my grasping mind told me even then—furthering my career, renovating a house, mastering Pilates—but now I see my lazy mind was right. It was there, their beauty, those long days we played down. Winter mornings, when the sun occasionally streamed through the stained glass windows of our dim old house in Pittsburgh, the kids and I used to catch it in baskets, and then pretend to eat. Strawberry, blueberry, kiwi—we devoured the sun, tasted every flavor. That’s how you save daylight. And then they were gone, gone. Those radiant days with my children will never come back, but I had them. I had them good.

The tea is entirely satisfying, and I understand why here it is considered a meal in itself, accompanied by a biscuit or nothing at all. It, too, has done its job, which is to arrest time, halt my anxious American galloping. I strap on my marvelous backpack, still light, still full of its astonishing capacity. It will carry me the rest of the day.

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC has returned to Pittsburgh, where she teaches writing in the MFA program of Carlow University and at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She edited Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press), and her chapbook of poetry, House of Women, was recently released in the New Women’s Voices series of Finishing Line Press.

Read more FGP essays by Kristin Kovacic.

These Sweet Monotonous Winter Days

awesometimes
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jamie Passaro

My girls like rocking out in the car to “Uptown Funk,” “Shake It Off,” “Insane in the Membrane.” One knows all the bad words now, the other still mispronounces the same words she did as a toddler, her Rs coming out, adorably, like Ws. I worry, worry, worry about them as much as I try to enjoy them and remember how fleeting this all is. I want for them to experience some kind of unorchestrated magic in this life.

When she was alive, my Mom used to complain every year at Christmas that she wasn’t feeling it, wasn’t feeling the magic like she used to. It used to annoy me—why couldn’t she just feel it?—but now I get it. I’m rushing too much. I want it to be all home-made snowflakes and fresh-baked sugar cookies for the girls, for me. But my to-do list is long, my grocery bags so heavy, and I don’t have a plan for Christmas cards yet. It’s not magic, it just is.

I read about this scientist who studied serendipity, that crazy pleasant insight or experience that can happen when you wander off script. She classified people into three categories, from those who were most likely to find happy surprises—the meandering super-encounterers, to those who were least likely, the boring, to-do list-bound non-encounterers. And even though I sound pessimistic and unfun and may be exaggerating a tiny bit to make a point when I say this, it seems to me that many of the skills related to good parenting place me in the latter category.

When you get up each day and say this is how the day is going to go and then your day goes that way, you’re not going to find much magic. And yet, as parents of young children, that’s kind of what we have to do—to measure out our days in routines and activities and downtimes to achieve maximum happiness and flow as opposed to crankiness and someone chucking her bike helmet from the back of a moving bike. It sounds mechanical, but it’s absolutely prophetic.

For those of us who are hard-wired to move through our days with a semblance of organization, to wake up and say, Today I will soak the beans and finish the scarf and write the thank you’s, well, having kids sort of reinforces that tendency. Their nourishment and well-being depends on your ability to keep their dresser drawers in seasonal clothes and to get the burritos on the table at a relatively similar time each day. Which is funny, really, because most kids I know don’t move through their days like structured beings at all. They stop to read every word of the signage and inspect pebbles and stuff oak galls in their pockets and build homes for baby snails. They resist rush in the most wondrous and infuriating ways.

How we let our stories and theirs write themselves while also keeping everyone on some kind of schedule is maybe the best flow. As we hunker down in the grayest, rainiest of indoor months here in Oregon, I find that the most difficult. Wintertime, especially where we live in the Northwest, is when we settle most into our routines.

Sure, it’s easy to be spontaneous in summer or on a vacation. But in winter, I know what our days will be like. There will be card games and mancala and lentil soup. There will be a couple of trips up to the snow, where we will forget something, where we’ll be ill-equipped for the wet cold, and then a damp ride in the car back to Eugene, with our lukewarm cocoa and the girls falling asleep in the safe womb of our rattly minivan. In February, I will desperately Google discount flights to Mexico.

One of my favorite people is my friend Diane, a true super-encounterer. I lived with her during the summer of 1995 while I interned at a small newspaper on Whidbey Island. Diane was in her fifties then, splashed her face with a little rose water every morning, wore charcoal eyeliner, and cut-off shorts, Birkenstocks. She always had red wine on hand, toasted with every fresh glass, quoted Shakespeare, ate chips and salsa for dinner, let the chickens come in the house, which was comfortable, full of dusty children’s art, dog hair, sand everywhere.

I’d never known a free spirit before, but I was drawn, and whatever parts of me that leaned that way were magnified, justified, made sense. Diane’s a vegetarian—a very persuasive one—and so I became one. I wore a batik dress and every morning I gathered the chickens’ eggs in its folds. I took the two unruly dogs to the beach, bought wine and loaves of bread from the Star Store, kissed the reporter from the local alternative paper, listened attentively to Diane’s many, many stories involving serendipity and new friends. Diane and I walked the beach downtown one night to the Clyde Theater to see “Muriel’s Wedding,” which we thought was hilarious. On the way back, the tide had come in, so we had to wade, waist-deep, all the way home. We sang ABBA in the moonlight, and I don’t think I have ever been so happy.

Even meeting Diane was serendipitous. I had applied for an internship at her local paper because I’d been turned down for a more coveted internship in a city that I loved. After moping around in my college apartment for a few days, I applied to Whidbey on a whim, thinking it might be soothing to sleep on an island for a summer. After I got the job, a columnist for the paper told me about her neighbor Diane, who needed a roommate for the summer, and then I found her eating chips and salsa and drinking wine on her sun-soaked back deck with a friend.

I met my husband around then—also serendipitously—and I think he’s sometimes disappointed that I’m not that long-haired girl anymore. Sometimes, I am, too. When I’m on Facebook too much or rushing the girls through errands or spotting a conflict on our calendar that’s three weeks away.

I’ve been trying to remember one of the things found by that the scientist studying serendipity. You can cultivate the magic. You can actually train yourself—and hence your kids—to notice more: to read the appendix or investigate the birds hanging out in the branches of the tree in the parking strip. Or maybe you get small doses of unexpected joy in a mixed tape, a snow day, a Goodwill find. That tall Dad getting down to bhangra in the elementary school gym at the diversity conference—just totally letting go amid a sea of kids and moms. That time when I was passing through Portland and called an old friend to see if she could recommend a family- friendly brew pub in the neighborhood where I was lost and she said, “I’m at a family-friendly brew pub in that neighborhood right now.” A small serendipity, for sure, but if I hadn’t been lost, if I had Mapquested my way through my trip as I sometimes do, I wouldn’t have spent a fun afternoon with my friend.

My girls love a road trip just about as much as I do. They seem to recognize that it means anything is possible, like ice cream in the middle of the day or gum balls at the rest area or pooping in a field of wildflowers. They’re still talking about the time we hung out on a beach in Northern California and when we went to fly our kite and a crow stole some of our picnic bread. We’d also seen the Redwoods that day and had rolled up our pants and jumped in the waves, but that crow is what they talk about when they talk about that trip.

And so, waking up from our winter slumber two years ago, the girls and I got a three-week housesitting gig in San Francisco. We were to watch two dogs, three cats, and four chickens who resided at a bungalow in the Outer Mission. We took our friends Chloe and five-year-old Lucien with us, and we drove all night to get there. The house was smallish, dusty, full of children’s art and games, familiar.

The trip was tough sometimes, especially synchronizing our different parenting styles, and glorious other times: dim sum in a big ballroom, a butterfly exhibit in Golden Gate Park, listening to one of my favorite bands play a concert in an old mortuary, marching the kids up and down hills in search of another park or mural, another ice cream shop. Once I found myself caught in the rain with all three kids as we walked up Mission Street looking for a bus stop. I don’t know why, but they decided to pound on the plate glass window of a wig shop and they wouldn’t stop. The shopkeepers came out and scolded them but they continued to pound more and more riotously until I bribed them with pie, which was very good and gave us a place to rest and for them to poop—the triple public restroom poop being an excruciating specialty of theirs when we were out and about. Our days in San Francisco were like that; there was something wonderful every day and something difficult, or three dozen difficult things.

Not surprisingly, we went a little off the rails. One morning we took the bus to the Gay Pride parade, but it was so crowded that we couldn’t see much of anything—a few rainbow wigs, the back of Nancy Pelosi’s head. After an hour or so, the kids, who’d been promised thrown candy and trinkets, revolted. There was a little scene on the sidewalk where a glass bottle was thrown precariously close to someone’s head. Chloe and I couldn’t agree on a plan and so we split up for the rest of the day. We were all tired, I think, worn out from so many different days, so much wonderful.

At the house in the Outer Mission, we left behind a broken plant pot, a torn curtain, a clogged drain, and a garbage bag full of the siding the dogs have gnawed off of the house. It had been a challenging and surprisingly cold and damp few weeks; I’d gotten three parking tickets. But the next spring, I contacted the homeowner to see if she wanted us back.

•••

JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews, and essays have been published in The New York Times, theatlantic.com, The SunUtne Magazine, and Oregon Humanities Magazine, among other places. Her last essay for Full Grown People was “A Mild Suspension of Effort.”

Read more FGP essays by Jamie Passaro.

Preserved

By Xalion Malik/ Flickr
By Xalion Malik/ Flickr

By Kristin Kovacic

It’s the end of October, it’s my birthday, and my husband and I are on our way to grant me some wishes, one of which I’m already realizing—to be traveling in October (every teacher’s wish). I also want to see the Atlantic from the French side, I don’t remember why, and we are four hours from the coast when we stop to have some lunch and fulfill my third desire—to eat cassoulet, in its region, in its season. A chilly mist penetrates the Languedoc today, and the French people filling the restaurant around us—we’re the only foreigners, an attendant wish—are tucked into their somber winter scarves.

I’m experiencing all of this with my interior eye half-open, a psychological squint. I’m not accustomed to such indulgences, to even having words like birthday and wishes, refer to me alone. Semi-retired from parenting, with my two kids at college, it feels strange to be on the receiving end of some of the world’s booty. For more than twenty years, I’ve been tending to other people’s dreams and desires. Teacher, mother, Santa—that’s me. I’m not sure who this woman is, here, free from so many obligations, taking the heavy menu at Restaurant Le Tirou, her life served back to her. Que desirez-vous?

Suspicious of my luck, I talk to my husband about unpleasant things, like the fact that I forgot my debit card PIN code, took my husband’s card and somehow botched the transaction, and now we’re shut out of the ATMs here and are penniless, cashwise. We have to rely upon the mercurial power of our credit card, which has a computer chip, just like European chip-and-PIN cards, but no PIN number, for an unfathomably American reason, and so, well, there’s nothing to remember with the credit card, except how to sign our own names, except that some places here can’t accept the signature and our card simply doesn’t work.

I worry aloud if this could be of those places.

Did a new card come in the mail before we left? my husband asks reasonably, and I’m forced to face one of the spaces in my memory that have recently opened up, white and empty rooms, like the ones in heaven you see in movies where no trace your life as it was actually lived survives. By now, at age fifty-two (a new number I will need some willpower to remember) I have visited these rooms before, and I know with certainty that I could walk around in here forever, feeling the walls, asking his question—Did a new card come in the mail?—and never get out.

So I pick up the wine list, also heavy. Another wish my husband is granting is driving our car on this trip, so I can—unspeakable pleasure—enjoy wine the way French people do, savoring a modest glass or two over the large unhurried lunch they call midi, but which actually starts at 12:30. I scan my choices, pretending to evaluate vintages and terroir, when in fact I’m looking at the prices and wondering how little we need to spend, really, for my solitary uneducated palate, and noticing that there are words on the menu I’ve recently looked up, like Corbière, which may or may not mean crow, and whether the fact that my French is not sticking the way it used to, or that I’ve lost consciousness of something as essential as my bank card, is a sign of dementia, until I stumble across an odd word on the Rouge list: Fitou.

Fitou. Fitou. It sounds like something you say when you can’t say the worst, like Fitou! You forgot the PIN code! but then, I remember: my friend Lynne liked a wine called Fitou; I had it at her house in Miami the year we lived there. This factoid is all I have to go on, so I order the Fitou, une demi-bouteille, and am rewarded by the waiter, who compliments me on an excellent choice.

Of course, he also compliments our choosing cassoulet for lunch, which is simply what one orders in October at midi. We are in Castlenaudary, after all, one of the trinity of cassoulet cities—Castlenaudary, Carcassone, and Toulouse; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Everyone here will be having the Father.

Le Tirou (which means something I once looked up) is a cassoulet itself of haut and bas décor, lamps emerging out of teapots, houseplants from the necks of Victorian dolls, tables set with the overblown goblets Americans think of as wine glasses, but which in France indicate that you’re about to pay too much for your meal. I remind myself that today is my birthday (fifty-two, which sounds suspiciously like Fitou) and should not be wasting my desires, whatever they may be, on the check.

The wine arrives and I taste it. A French word I’ve recently relearned returns, souple—supple, gentle in the mouth. I take another easy swallow. Why have I retained the memory of this wine, not well known or expensive, which I drank just once in 1992, when I have forgotten so many more important things: how to formulate the subjunctive, the time it takes to hard-boil an egg, where the hell I think I’m going. It makes me wonder what this says about my priorities, now, our children’s futures banked at universities, our retirement years on the near horizon. Is this what will stick, the wine? Will my husband, in addition to driving, be designated to remember everything else? What is going on, here, in the newly foreign country of me?

A busboy comes by to brush our breadcrumbs with that . . . thingy, and I look away to see two donkeys pass by the dining room’s sliding-glass doors. Diners at the next table send their children out to visit. I am puzzled by the French passion for donkeys. They are installed everywhere around here, like living stuffed animals, eating and excreting and making a sound like agony finally expressed. Nobody seems to ride them, or, thankfully, eat them. Close up, they’re dirty, with flies in their eyes. There could be a reason for the donkeys I’m just not remembering, or perhaps it’s one of those things you can never understand about another culture, like our neighbors back home on Halloween, installing inflatable, light-up, fog-emitting graveyards on their lawns.

Which reminds me of when our kids were little (by which I mean Once upon a time, by which I admit the years have blurred together), when we used to bring them to France to create delightful, unDisneyfied memories together. Here in this region, in fact, we stayed in a renovated farmhouse (a gîte) and I mapped out places to visit—Roman aqueducts and forums, medieval fortresses and cathedrals—that could be both historical and fun. Which is how we once arrived at Carcassone, the Son, a few kilometers from here.

From a distance, Carcassone looked magical, its crenelated walls and turrets rising up to form a fairy tale kingdom on a hill. Inside, though, on the other side of the drawbridge, it was a roiling cauldron of tourists suffering that summer’s (I don’t remember which) record-breaking heat (the record has since been broken). Like the people expiring all over unairconditioned France, we were heatstruck in Carcassone, our feet swollen and appetites evaporated, yet we saw blazing plazas full of foreigners like us consuming souvenir bowls of steaming cassoulet. Just thinking of putting a hot spoon inside my mouth made me want to bray. We stumbled with our miserable kids along Carcossone’s authentically buckled cobblestone streets, lined with gift shops selling cassoulet keychains and cassoulet refrigerator magnets, and looked for shady places to duck into that weren’t restaurants serving cassoulet.

Which is how we came to be seated at an animatronic sideshow about the massacre of the Cathars, former religious inhabitants of Carcassone, who held, among many heretical beliefs, that Catholics could not possibly, in the thirteenth century, still be eating Christ’s body. Christ just wasn’t that big. And anyway, they asked the Pope, do you know where those wafers have been? First they were straw, that went through a donkey’s ass and fertilized a field of wheat. The Eucharist was donkey poop, according to the Cathars.

I’ll never forget watching rock’em-sock’em robot Crusaders knocking off the heads of the poor literalist Cathars, accompanied by a weird English voice-over narration that sounded like Bill Murray playing a drunk, screaming New Zealander (their jowls, their bloody jowls!). Like any real massacre, the story was complete chaos, impossible to follow, and the kids closed their sweaty eyelids against it, slumping heavily into our overheated laps.

Carcassone was one of the first reconstructed historical sites in the world, setting the path for preservation destinations like Historic Williamsburg and Historic Greenfield Village and all the candle-dipping, blacksmithing field trips my husband and I went on when we were kids. What we failed to remember, as we dragged our own kids through it, is that we ourselves never came to appreciate history, at least in the form of blacksmithing or the Revolutionary War, and even if all the power went out in France we still couldn’t summon light from a string. We’d also failed to notice, though we thought about our children constantly in those days, that they weren’t of the castle-knight-dragon-princess-obsessed variety. Look at the turrets! we screamed at them in Carcassone, in what we suddenly heard as our Bill Murray voices, The bloody turrets! They never had their eyes on the prize, it seemed, never truly saw the things we had paid extravagantly for them to see.

Like the donkey at the gîte we rented, advertised as a family-friendly, authentically renovated farm, though when we arrived at the property the stubborn âne wouldn’t come out of the barn. He doesn’t like children, our hosts explained merrily, and the feeling was mutual.

What they did like was a German police drama they caught in reruns on TV at the gîte, featuring mod, smoking detectives and a crime-solving shepherd dog named Rex. They became obsessed with “Rex,” though his barking was the only dialogue they could possibly comprehend. They wanted to stay all day in the gîte to watch “Rex,” please, torpedoing my memory-making itinerary. They liked all gîtes, in fact, all hotels, motels, B&Bs. Like birds or dogs, turning in concentrated circles, they liked scoping out a new nest: opening the drawers, sniffing the soaps, changing the channels. Like Goldilocks, they tried all the beds. With her one-button plastic kid’s camera, our daughter took a photograph of the toilet in every place we stayed, making a serious study of the variation of the species.

As is traditional, our waiter brings the cassoulet to table, in its signature earthenware pot (cassole), fired at a kiln nearby. He deftly dishes out a portion of every meat—duck confit, pork shoulder confit, house sausage, all shining dully with fat—then ladles some of the famous white (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) beans artfully over that. There’s a pause, during which I’m too shy to applaud. Instead, I take a deep inhale of the scent of my desire—a warm dish on a cold day, a hunger about to be satisfied. He leaves the cassole on the table, still bubbling and brimming.

The word confit derives from the French verb confire, which means to preserve. Le Tirou does their own confiting, in a stainlessly cozy meat atelier next door (which could be, now that I think of it, what le tirou actually means), where animals are slow-cooked in lard, then put up in jars and cans. Paradoxically, it’s the fat that creates a sterile environment, an impenetrable barrier to bacteria, allowing something as delicate and ephemeral as the thigh of a duck to be kept on a shelf a long time. With a pantry full of confit and a bag of beans, you could make cassoulet any day of the week, all year long. To hell with the seasons. You could feed four hungry people with just the bowl they’ve served us.

As I imagined once upon a time when I made my wish, watching a German shepherd dig a femur out of a flower bed, cassoulet is delicious in October. Wild, savory, rich, father son and holy ghost, all the separate ingredients melt together into one texture and flavor—something like a warm, salty, ice cream sundae. Then comes the Fitou, souple, gently washing all the fats away. Fitou is made around here, too, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it pairs perfectly with cassoulet, but it surprises me that it is my wonky memory, and not the sommelier, that has made this excellent choice. I think about the hundreds or thousands of hours (the math is beyond me now) we passed together with our children–at tables, theatres, zoos, in castles, cars, beds, on couches, bicycles, airplanes, trains, funiculars, carousels, boats. I wonder what is sticking with them now, as they drift into their own history, what will be preserved in the mind’s impenetrable fat. I wonder, not for the first time, if I’ve been a good mother. It’s my fitou birthday, which I’m trying to remember. My memory stinks, a fact I’m trying to forget. I wonder if what’s scrambling the signals right now is that what I truly desire and can never have again is my children’s uncomplicated presence beside me. I tuck into the cassoulet, so my husband doesn’t see me cry.

You can eat a cassoulet almost without chewing—everything’s that tender. Soon I am seriously full—Thanksgiving-full. I excuse myself for a stroll to the toilettes, passing by vitrines displaying jars of confit you can take home to make your own cassoulet, if you so desire. You can even pick up a monstrous silver can, of a cassoulet already assembled, happy pig skipping across the label, offered by a formally dressed Teddy bear. It makes me a little sick, actually, thinking about everything I’ve just swallowed and may never properly digest. It occurs to me it really doesn’t take that much faith to believe in a meal that lasts forever.

Before he left for college, our son filched some pictures from our albums to paste into a scrapbook to leave behind for his sister. Though touched by his sentiment, I was furious that he’d raided the family photos without asking. Then I saw the book he made, intended only for her, captioning seemingly random photographs (not the ones I would have missed) with inside jokes. The book is called LMAO (Laugh My Ass Off, I had to look it up), which is exactly what our daughter did when she read her little book.

She shared it around, but no one else, including me, could see what was so funny. Like “Rex,” their childhood was a story they’d been telling to themselves all along. In LMAO, my husband and I are pretty minor characters, smiling like cartoon pigs on the sidelines, and I had to consider that while we were earnestly plotting their futures, arranging the scenery (fortresses, spaceships, windmills, caves) to be as inspirational and educational and pleasant as possible, they were naturally oblivious, laughing their asses off, following their own desires.

In LMAO, there’s just one photo from our Carcassonne trip. Remember, my son wrote to his sister, under a picture of the two of them, adorably eight and nine, or seven and eight, standing on the reclaimed wooden fence next to the stone barn where the donkey was brooding, those amazing pillows?

The credit card works, and my husband excuses himself to walk off his cassoulet, or maybe the shock of the bill, while I finish, yes, the whole half-bottle of wine. With my sidelong eye I watch him lope away, slender back I still have a crush on. It really is just the two of us now, and that’s more than a girl could wish for on her birthday. I pick up his pen to write a note on my hand: Remember. To thank him for the lovely lunch. To apologize again for the card thingy. And to tell him about the chef in his toque, white and wide as a sail boat, navigating among the groaning diners towards me. He asks, with a shyly satisfied smile, if the cassoulet has pleased me. I take his hand, and my fingers disappear into the largest palm I’ve ever held, a deep bed of warm, meaty flesh, softer than the softest pillow. I am, oui, pleased. This I will remember.

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC is a teacher and writer currently on sabbatical in France, where she is watching, with sympathy and recognition, the traumatization of a culture. Winner of numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize, for her essays and poetry, she makes her home in Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Carlow University. A new chapbook of her poems, House of Women, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

Read more FGP essays by Kristin Kovacic.

Swimming Pools of the Rich and Famous

pool
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Laurence Dumortier

1. When I was a child, my family lived in the south of France, in the town of Aix-en-Provence. My father had been transferred there for his job. He worked for Shell Oil and had not yet learned to hate it. Later, when my brother and I were old enough to think seriously about what kinds of jobs we might have, he warned us away from working for anyone; he felt he had wasted much of his life in servitude to bland corporate life. He urged both of us to be our own bosses!, to not get stuck in what he considered the unimaginative hell of middle management.

The advice was mostly lost on me, but that came later anyway. This period in the south of France was before my father’s disillusionment. He was still a young exec in the early seventies and Aix was not an expensive city then. My parents found a second-floor apartment for rent that, while not large, was palatial in its high ceilings, tiled floors, elaborate moldings, and the most extravagant wallpaper in the living room. In photographs, though discolored with time, it is still stunning: a deep green background with bronze vines in vertical lines.

None of this was of much interest to me at the time, though. Instead, for my brother and me, the appeal of the place lay in the gigantic terrace. It still amazes me to think that this was where I learned to ride a bike. It was sized like a mini-mall parking lot. Except it was beautiful and sunny, with geraniums growing out of old planters and a wrought-iron barrier to keep us from tumbling into the street below.

Across from our building was a gated property. Though the house was not visible from the terrace, the garden was, and it had a pool. I heard it said that Alain Delon lived there. The name meant nothing to me then, except I realized it must belong to someone important or famous, because of the thrill I discerned half-suppressed in its saying. It was clear that to have a pool like this, you had to be important or famous or at least rich.

The pool was shaped like an old-fashioned mirror, straight on the sides, and curving in and out at each end. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone swimming in it. It was just there, turquoise and sparkling, inviting but inaccessible.

Amazingly, my father put up a huge blow-up pool on our terrace, big enough for my brother and me to swim in. Now that I’m an adult, I can’t imagine doing such a crazy thing. The terrace was not built to hold the weight of that many thousands of gallons and might have collapsed. Or, if the pool had burst suddenly, I can only imagine the awesome spectacle of all that water gushing out and flooding our apartment and the one below. But neither of these things happened, and my brother and I splashed and shrieked and swam all summer long. It was nothing like the beautiful and stately pool across the street but it was still heaven to us.

Plugging the building’s address into Google maps, I am a little stunned to have a satellite view of the terrace, and, across the street, Alain Delon’s former garden with its cypress trees and Mediterranean pines, and its pool gorgeously intact. It is surprising somehow to see my childhood memories so unambiguously confirmed. We moved away from Aix when I was five so there is much about our life there that I don’t remember clearly. The terrace and the pool and the wallpaper, among a handful of other things, remained vivid to me but it seemed the vividness of a dream.

The convergence of dream and reality in this one memory sends a chill down my spine. Time has passed and so many things have changed, but this thing has remained the same.

 

2. Fast forward fifteen years. After my French schooling, I went to college in the U.S. My college boyfriend, though majoring in history, was a musician, almost famous at a couple of east coast colleges, including Dartmouth where his band played a couple of times a year and where Michael Eisner’s son went to school. The young Eisner had ambitions to start a record label or a management company—I can’t exactly remember now—and he wanted my boyfriend to be his first client. The summer after we graduated, he arranged for my boyfriend to play a showcase gig at The Viper Room. The club was legendary to me, because only a few months earlier River Phoenix had OD’ed on the sidewalk outside, which broke my heart for his family and friends, and for all that wasted talent and beauty.

I was living in San Francisco right after college, though I felt utterly adrift, struggling to find a job and a place to live. My mother had arranged for me to stay for a few weeks with a friend from her own college days. Instead of being grateful for this generosity, I resented having another parental figure and labored to hide my sullenness. By the time my boyfriend called to tell me that he was being flown out to L.A. by Eisner’s son and did I want to spend a few days with him in a hotel there, I felt desperate to escape the claustrophobia of my own fumblings and failure to get a toehold on adulthood. Yes, I wanted to go! I was too broke to fly and didn’t know how to drive so I bought myself a bus ticket to L.A.

This was by far the longest bus ride I had ever taken. It left at five a.m. from San Francisco and took almost twelve hours, through the Central Valley. No one actually wanted to be on the bus, but it was a fifth the price of a plane ticket, and we all had places to go. We stopped in Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Visalia, Delano, Bakersfield—towns with names that were intriguing and mysterious to me. I was new to California, and the Central Valley presented such a strange contrast to the foggy, winsome beauty of San Francisco. I was gobsmacked by this demonstration of how gigantic California was. In France, a trip that long would mean you had crossed into another country, but here mile after mile after mile under the beating, hard sun and still there was more road between the bus and L.A. With each stop the bus filled more until every seat was taken. Many of the passengers were older, and some were infirm. One or two looked like they might have just been released from prison. One woman spoke loudly to herself the entire bus ride.

When we stopped at the Greyhound depot in downtown L.A., I was relieved and euphoric to see A. waiting for me with a borrowed car. My lust for him woke me up from the grogginess of the journey. We hadn’t seen each other since I’d decided to move to San Francisco, and he had decided to pursue his luck in New York. While not exactly broken up, the distance between us had seemed to contain a resounding finality. And now we were here. Together. In L.A.

It was late afternoon but still very warm. As we drove, I noted that I liked L.A.’s wide streets. I didn’t mind that the traffic moved slowly since I had no particular agenda. I was happy sitting next to A., and I was interested in everything moving past my window—billboards, palm trees, convertible cars with their tops down. I felt calmed by the gentle weight of A.’s hand on my leg. I didn’t know what was going to happen to us in the long run, but here we were together now.

In another half hour, A. and I were in Michael Eisner’s pool. I imagined the dust of the trip washed off by this pure and cool water and was pleased at this image. In the back of my mind I was a little horrified at how rag-tag I must have seemed to the Eisners, sweaty and rumpled and dazed from so many hours of sitting in one place. But this was only in the back of my mind because in the front of my mind was A. We stood in the shallow end of the pool, facing each other, skimming the surface with our fingertips. I didn’t trust myself to touch him, but I could feel the water conducting the electricity between us. How perfect it would have been to fuck in this perfect pool. But the whole Eisner family was inside, and in another half-hour we were going to sit down to dinner, and however bold I wanted to imagine myself, I wasn’t bold enough to do that.

I don’t remember much about the dinner, except it was lovely and generous of them to host me and A. Michael talked to his son, giving him advice about dealing with the music bigwigs who were coming that night. I had no idea how to interact with anyone in this particular situation so I was quiet. All I could think about was going back into the pool with A. and having the whole place to ourselves. It no longer seemed incongruous for us to be there. I didn’t consider us out of place. If anything, everyone else seemed out of place, superfluous. Such a beautiful pool only needed two people, in love with each other.

 

3. A few years later, I moved to L.A. Despite our best efforts, A. and I broke up, and I made new friends to distract myself. One of them, Jason, was a production assistant on Ted Danson’s short-lived TV show Ink. Jason had become friendly with Danson and his wife Mary Steenburgen, and they’d entrusted him with their house and pets while they went out of town for a few weeks. Jason found a way to insert “Ted and Mary” into his every other sentence, which I liked because I would have done the same thing.

One evening Jason invited me to swim at Ted and Mary’s with a couple of other people. When we got there Jason led us through the back gate to the pool area. He went inside the house to get towels, saying, “You guys stay here.” We hadn’t particularly been planning to go inside, but at his admonition, we teased him by coming up to the French doors. We found he’d locked them behind him. We were faintly outraged at his having done this and teased him—“Jason, we’re coming in!” we shrieked softly, rattling the doorknobs for effect.

I glanced at the interior, which looked cozy in an English-countryhouse-via-Beverly-Hills kind of way. This was a popular decorating style for a certain Hollywood crowd, I guessed, but when I thought of England I didn’t think swimming pool. It was thinking of the south of France, and of Aix, and the mirror of water across the street, that put me in the mind of pools.

Soon enough we were bored of pestering Jason and instead we jumped into the luminous water. At night, pools are mysterious and alluring. With the lights turned on they have an eerie, glowing beauty. The deep shadowy places where the light doesn’t reach makes them a little bit frightening too. Movement at the water’s surface is magnified. Light breaks apart and comes together again. Planar geometry makes its own strange kind of sense in the refraction of moving light. Bodies glow in a way they never otherwise do.

The setting was so beautiful, it seemed to call for some flirtation and it seemed wasteful to pass up this opportunity. I began to banter with a boy in our group.

A few years later, I would marry him, but I didn’t know it yet and just then such a thought would have seemed ludicrous. At that moment we were simply making jokes and observing each other from this new vantage point. We were buoyed by the water and by the sense of having stepped out of our ordinary lives. A few steps away there was a cozy interior but the doors were locked and we were out here in the eerie luminescence.

 

4. In Santa Monica, right off the Pacific Coast Highway is the pool that Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst built for their beach getaway. Now it exists as the Annenberg Beach House, and it’s open to the public in summer. On Sundays I often go with my guy and our kids around five o’clock. The air is still warm then and the pool is heated to a decadent eighty degrees. What a crazy luxury to swim in the late afternoon in clear water that is almost bathtub-warm, with the scent of the Pacific around us and the entire sky overhead. The pool is spectacularly beautiful, its perimeter tiled in a Greek key pattern and its bottom encircled with mosaics of ocean life. Speckled green and blue and yellow fish swim among the octopi and the billowing seaweed.

The main house, designed by Julia Morgan, was torn down in 1956 but I can imagine, floating in the dreamy water, that it is still there and that Hollywood intrigues are just out of earshot. I think of Marion Davies who is so often reduced in popular imagination to her caricature as Charles Foster Kane’s untalented, complaining mistress in Citizen Kane. Watching the real Davies act, in The Patsy for instance, she deploys her charm and her comedic chops with a dazzling ease. She gives side-eye like a boss, she pouts adorably, and she transforms herself in quick-witted imitations of her contemporaries.

It is easier, though, I suppose, to see Davies as the “mistress.” An untalented hack, in other words, for whom a smitten Hearst bankrolled pictures. It is easier somehow to reduce her to that narrow role, than to take in a whole person and her complex relationships to others. Hearst was older than she was. He was by far the richer of the two. We believe we understand what this means. “Oh, it’s like that. Of course it is.”

As I rise and break the surface of the water, I think of the trajectory of my own life, of my early childhood in the South of France, of the life I’ve made in Southern California, of how, if I were rich or famous of the object of any curiosity, it might be read in this way or that, to make more sense, or at least to make easier sense. My choices so far have been rather conventional, but even so each one was made for its own particular reasons, generated by circumstances and emotions that take root in the mix between the personal, the cultural, and the societal. My life is not scrutinized, but I loathe that famous women’s choices so often are, and then reduced to categories of convenience.

Plunging underwater again, the sound of my own blood throbbing in my ears, my mind wanders. I think of Alain Delon, who said recently about his love affair with the beloved Franco-German actress Romy Schneider, that while he still grieved her death at only forty-three, it had at least preserved her beauty: “It’s difficult to admit, but I wouldn’t have wanted to see her at 70. It’s better she went this way.” I turned forty-three this year, and while far from possessing Schneider’s beauty, the thought that in any universe it would be “better” to die at forty-three rather than to age—as we all must if we are to live, as Alain Delon himself has—strikes me as obnoxious in the extreme. Can there be a starker example of reducing a multi-faceted person to a mere surface? If Delon loved her, how could he not take in that she was more than just her physical beauty? That Schneider had depth beneath her surface loveliness, that she was more complicated, more flawed and more profound, should not be so very difficult to understand.

 

5. If I ever figure out how to have a pool of my own, it will be like a David Hockney painting. Sparkling and rippling in the sun, a nude figure emerging from its cool clearness.

When my children are teenagers and have their friends over, I will leave them to their youthful splashing. They will be surprised, and a little annoyed perhaps, at how much skinny-dipping there is when my friends are over, though. They will hardly be able to believe how comfortable we are in our middle-aged bodies. At least that is how I picture it all when I daydream my pool into existence.

I think of growing older with M. How impossible this was to envision when I was a young adult—a lifetime spent by another’s side. How easily I picture it now—now that we have almost two decades together under the bridge.

I think of our children growing up and the pools into which they will dip their own toes. The choices they will make, the paths their lives will take, and the nostalgias they will carry with them. I think of us swimming together in Marion Davies’s old pool. I think of the long summers of their childhood and try to picture where they will choose to make their lives. I imagine the possibility of some far-off day holding grandchildren as I wade with them into welcoming waters somewhere—perhaps even in my own backyard. I am wistful contemplating the adventures my children will undertake, and the unguessed ones still ahead for me, for M., for all of us.

•••

LAURENCE DUMORTIER writes essays and fiction. She is finishing her PhD in English, with an emphasis on gender and sexuality. You can find her online at twitter.com/ElleDeeTweets

Transportation

planes
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Wendy Wisner

We’re driving to my cousin’s wedding in Atlantic City. We’re on a tight schedule. We spin past the bare-branched sycamores. The ground is dotted with patches of snow. The wind lashes against our rickety Honda.

Ben says he’s too hot in his coat. Peter says he’s too cold. “Just wait. We’ll be there soon.” We’re getting closer. I begin to smell the waves of the bay.

Then Peter throws up.

We pull over, strip him down. He cries, his bare legs shaking in the cold. We toss his dirty clothes in a plastic grocery bag, find some clean clothes, mop up the vomit with baby wipes.

“Okay,” I say to my husband. “We’ll get there right when the ceremony starts. You’ll drop me off. I’ll change into my dress. I won’t miss it.

We keep driving. Now the ocean is clearer, on the edge of the parkway. I inhale it. I, who hate to travel, inhale the ocean and its expanse, its freedom.

Finally, we arrive at the hotel. Bright lights, gold fountains, Roman god pseudo-sculpture. I was naïve; I expected a simple hotel. It’s like we’ve entered an amusement park.

Dizzy circles through the parking garage. My stomach in my throat. My mother texts me: “It’s okay. She won’t notice if you miss the ceremony.”

A parking spot, finally. I toss all our “fancy” clothes in a garbage bag to change into along the way.

We enter Caesar’s Atlantic City. Immediately the smell of cigarette smoke and misery. The blinking lights of the slot machines. The room begins to spin.

I say to my husband, “Here, watch the children.” I take out my dress and tights, my good bra. I hand him the garbage bag with the children’s clothes, and run inside the ladies room.

I change inside a stall, my bare feet on the cold bathroom floor. I tie up my messy hair, smear on some lipstick.

My husband has changed Peter into his button-down shirt and necktie. He hands me the garbage bag and Peter, then wanders off with Ben to change.

This. This is when I begin to fall apart.

Peter wants nothing more than to climb on all the slot machines. Peter will not stay in my arms. He twists away with all his two-year-old might. I try to carry him, the garbage bag of clothes, and my winter coat. And I cannot. I cannot do it.

My cellphone is low on charge. I have no idea which direction my husband has gone. I am completely lost, alone, with a screaming toddler who is half-covered in vomit.

I can’t hold onto all of it anymore. I can’t stop the panic from boiling over, from my belly, to my throat, to my eyes.

And then I’m not in my life anymore. It is 1983, and I am alone with my mother in the airport. The stench of cigarette smoke in our hair. Is it from the airport, or from the cigarettes my father has been smoking?

My father is gone. He left just as the snow began to fall in life-size, enormous chunks. Just as the baby started to blossom in my mother. Winter and spring colliding.

We are utterly alone in that airport. We do not know where he is, only that we are following him. The airport tilts as the planes rise up into the sky.

•••

The airport was the room between the worlds. But not a room. A cavern. A chamber. An expanse of white that stretched beyond where I could see. There were no exits, no escapes, no way home.

The only way to out was to get on a plane.

We watched the planes through the window—a giant wall of glass. The planes were larger than life. They were dinosaurs: standing still, then suddenly running, lifting their clobbering tails up into the air.

The airport smelled of gasoline, cigarettes, and diaper cream.

It was 1984, and my sister was a newborn, snuggled against my mother. But her presence was slight, muted. She was young enough to sleep quietly in my mother’s arms. She closed her eyes and ignored it all.

My mother and I walked up and down the corridors. We were marbles being rolled up and down and around the tunnels, gates, entrances. We were being rolled by the great hand of my father. He reached for us across the continent. He didn’t want us with him, but he beckoned us nonetheless.

He made us want to find him. He made us look for him in each man’s face we saw streaming past.

Had he shaved his mustache yet? Was it just growing in?

I looked for my father, though I knew he wasn’t there.

I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to go with my mother. I wanted to run away.

I stood at the top of the escalator, and my mother stood below. “Take me home,” I said.

My mother had no words. And now I see my sister for sure, my mother holding her, running up the escalator as it’s moving. There is no way to stop it from moving. My sister, the suitcase, the tickets—everything in her arms but me. It is clear that she can’t carry me as well, that I must will myself up the escalator.

And I do. I follow her. I get on the plane. I begin the endless journey of looking for my father.

•••

I have been trying to piece it together, the origins of my anxiety—why my mind so easily jumps to the worst-case scenario.

I have had to untrain myself from assuming that any time my children get sick that they are going to die. I have to shut out the thought that any time I don’t hear from my husband for a few hours that he’s in grave danger. It is their lives—the ones whom I hold most dearly—that are at stake.

I have some theories. The loss of my father is one. But I didn’t completely lose him. He didn’t die. He just left. As a child, it was a loss that felt like death, but I still saw him often enough over the years. I could still find him, wrap him up in a bear hug.

I think the feeling of doom runs deeper, back to my ancestors, back through my DNA.

The dead babies, the boat, the planes, the entrances, the exits. Portals into the world, and out.

•••

My grandmother slid the box out from under her bed. It was a beautiful brown box, old, faded around the edges, but nicely preserved. Maybe she was going to show me one of her hats, or try to give me another of her soft patent-leather shoes. (We had the same tiny feet, size 5).

She opened it up to reveal a small dress. Light pink, with a lacy, embroidered neckline. It was flattened and neatly laid, like something you would see on display at a museum. Small enough to lie flat in the box—a dress for a very young girl. You could almost see her lying quietly there.

I thought it was perhaps one of my mother’s childhood dresses, or one of my grandmother’s from when she was a girl.

“This is the dress of the girl who died,” my grandmother said. She drew out the word “died.” She had this way of being completely serious, but with an airy, dramatic flair.

Then she told the story. I only heard it that one time and was too scared to ask about again.

Her parents and their daughter were immigrating to America from Kiev, Russia. The boat was dirty, disgusting, people piled on top of one another, nowhere to sleep, living in squalor. There was very little food. Everyone ate rice, she said.

The little girl never made it to America.

My grandmother didn’t know how she died. And I was too shocked to ask.

“They named me Nachama, which means comfort, because I was her replacement,” she said.

But no one ever called her that. Her name was Emma.

She was Emma, my grandmother. But now I knew she was born after trauma, after the deepest loss imaginable. It would haunt her, and me, for the rest of our lives.

•••

We moved thirteen times by the time I was thirteen years old. We were chasing my father up and down the west coast. But there was also a restlessness on my mother’s part that propelled us from house to house—a search for the key to happiness.

I never felt that I had a home. Home was intangible, something reserved for daydreams.

And real dreams, too. I have always dreamt about the houses. I dream that I can go back to a home of mine, one that we left, and is still there, preserved as it was.

I dream of the apartment with the walk-in closet that I turned into a room for myself. I’d make stacks of toy money and play bank, or I’d take in all the books in our house and play library. I remember playing with my charm necklace, hiding the parts behind the coats. I think I tried to sleep in there, curl up into a little ball behind my mother’s boots. But I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t rest.

I dream of the apartment where I did have my own room. The twin windows that faced the mint tree. I’d crack the window open and inhale. My room with the full size bed in the center, the faded pink blanket, boom box on the bureau. When the earthquake began, first the windows rattled, then the radio switched itself off, then the lights. I walked out of my room as my mom and sister were coming out of the kitchen. We watched the chandelier sway, slowly, calmly, as though nothing momentous and devastating was happening.

And last night, I dreamt about the apartment I lived in longest. I knew it would enter my dreams soon enough—the apartment we left last summer. Both of my children were born there. I became a mother in those narrow rooms. Last night, in the dream, I stood in the living room, its soft brown carpet under my bare feet. The carpet felt wet, like soil that had been newly watered. A breeze was coming in. Ben’s stamp collection was lying open on the floor. The couch was gone, but the piano was there—the keyboard open, the keys whiter and brighter than I remember them.

I couldn’t say goodbye to that apartment. The last time we went, to get an ice cream sandwich my older son had left in the freezer (I kid you not), I didn’t want to go in. Because I hate endings. I hate last times. Especially when it comes to houses.

If I never have to move again, I will be eternally grateful. But I know we will move again someday. We rent our new home, and I have a deep desire to own a house someday.

If I own a house, it’s like I will never have to leave. I can grow old there. I can die there. I can sink into it. Get comfortable. A small square of earth that is entirely my own.

•••

Then there was the story my grandmother never told me: the story of the other baby, her baby, the first one. I don’t think they ever named him.

In those days, you didn’t talk about stillbirth. The doctor told them to grieve briefly, then try right away for another baby.

That’s one of the few details I know. That, and the cord wrapped around his neck.

In my mind, the cord is blue, the room is blue, the baby blue. Gray and blue swirling together, enveloping the room in a dense fog.

I wonder if they ever saw him.

Did they hold him? Could they bear it?

Their second son, Raphael, the angel, was born a year later, as the doctor recommended.

But where did the grief go?

You never saw my grandmother in grief, only in fear. Her sister gone, this baby, too. Life so fragile, so temporary.

My grandmother used to read the obituaries every day. She’d sit in the rocking chair next to the aqua-blue telephone.

Did he die as he entered the world, as he journeyed out of her body? Or did he die inside her?

My son Ben was born that way, with the cord around his neck. The midwife told me to stop pushing for second; then she deftly hooked her finger under the cord, and slipped it off him. He came crashing out of me, alive and screaming.

I don’t know what happened with my grandmother’s baby, but sometimes I imagine that I could save him—unloop that cord, set him free, stamp out the panic that passed from my grandmother’s body, into my mother’s, into me.

•••

I started walking when I was eighteen. I was coming out of one of the toughest times of my life: the first time I’d experienced a period of panic attacks.

It started the summer I turned sixteen.

I used to spend the summer with my father in California. That summer was brutal. I missed my boyfriend (who would later become my husband), and I was starting to assert myself in new ways—typical of the teenage years. I began to criticize my father and my stepmom. Harshly. I wasn’t pulling any punches. It got nasty, fast. They couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t handle me. I couldn’t handle them. And I felt trapped.

After that summer, I developed an intense fear of flying (obvious connection there—flying meant visiting my father). And, devastated by my abandonment, my father cut off all communication with me for a year. In that year, my phobias increased. Things I’d never been afraid of before became tinged with the most incredible, raw terror I’d ever felt.

I was afraid of all modes of transportation, really. Cars, taxis, the school bus. There had been a shooting on the Long Island Railroad, and I was sure it would happen again, to me. I was deathly afraid of mass shootings. I’d get nervous in crowded places. The diner. The mall. Thank God school shootings weren’t rampant at the time—I’m sure I would have been too scared to go to school.

I gained a lot of weight. I’d always been a normal weight—curvy as I became pubescent, but always in a normal range. I gained at least twenty pounds then. I ate to cushion my frightened body. I ate to silence my racing heart.

Somehow—I’m not really sure how—I started to come out of the panic. I decided to see a therapist. She wasn’t great, but just the act of going was good for me. And I started walking, both to lose the weight, and also because I found it amazingly freeing. It seemed to wash the anxiety out of my body. And I liked being out of my house. I liked the fresh air. I liked the endorphins. I liked being able, at last, to think clearly. I liked slicing through the world at my own pace. I liked looking at the perfect houses, with the perfect families inside (or so I imagined).

All these years later, I still walk almost every day. Sometimes with a baby strapped to my chest, or a toddler in a stroller. And on weekends, entirely alone.

Since this past summer, I have added some running to my routine. I’m not sure why. I had been having dreams about running. It seemed absurd to me at first. But the dreams were like magic, like I was gliding through space.

•••

When we moved to the new house last summer, we noticed several white beings swooping across the trees out in the distance, over the pond.

Later, we realized: egrets.

And then the four of us—even the baby—would wait until night came (it came late then, in summer) and wait for them at the window. It was magic. Pure and simple. These great, graceful birds, with wings that were quiet, long breaths.

As the earth cooled, the egrets retreated. Where did they go? No one asked. We moved deeper into the everyday. School started. The days got shorter and darker.

But I have thought over the months, where did they go? You always hear that birds go south. But really—where? Or do some die? I guess that’s what I really want to know.

I am obsessed with beings—people—coming and going. The way they wander in and out of lives. And how they get there.

My grandmother would always ask: How did you get here? By foot? Car? Train? She was interested in modes of transportation—fixated on the travel routes of the ones she loved. She wanted to make sure you would arrive at your destination in one piece. “Call when you get there,” she’d say.

The formation of birds as they migrate—of course it takes our breath away. The unspoken communication, the way their bodies seem to magnetize to each other. Don’t we all just want to know where to go? And with whom to travel? What comfort there. What grace.

Ben wants to get a new camera with a zoom lens so that we can photograph the egrets this summer to preserve the magic. We know it’s temporary. We want to capture it.

Just a week ago, the pond was covered in snow, and under the snow—ice. Now it’s melted, and the ducks swim smoothly through it. On the way home from a walk today, Peter and I heard them quacking.

Yes, spring. Which leads to summer. And all the birds opening their wings, returning home.

•••

We missed the ceremony.

After we were all dressed, we rushed through the hotel, past restaurants and gift shops, up escalators, around corners—everything sharply glittering. We found signs for the reception (there were many) and took the final elevator up to the very top of the building.

The elevator opened onto the wedding. The reception was in full swing. I saw the bride first, my cousin, towering over me in heels, her burnt-red hair, endlessly flowing shimmer-white dress trailing behind her. She was rosy-cheeked, in a just-married daze, and thrilled that we made it.

No guilt. No worries. No fear. We made it.

An enormous picture window overlooked the ocean. It was twilight, and the grays and blues from outside drifted into the wedding hall, bathing everyone in a warm, ethereal light.

I began to breathe.

I scanned the room for my family. There they were, my mother and sister, sitting on a leather loveseat together, plates of hors d’oeurves balanced on their laps. My mother and sister—strange and beautiful to see them here, in this otherworldly place, a place none of us had ever been before, and would probably never return.

For a while I just watched them, and time seemed to melt away. Then I looked at my two sons, who had quickly situated themselves in front of the window, cheek to cheek, watching seagulls sweep across the sea.

My husband appeared beside me, put his arms around my shoulders, asked me if I was feeling better, and walked me down the aisle toward the ones I loved.

•••

WENDY WISNER is the author of two books of poems. Her essays and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Washington Post, Literary MamaThe Spoon River Review, Brain, Child magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and lives with her family in New York. For more, visit her website www.wendywisner.com. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

You Never Know Just How You Look in Other People’s Eyes

train passenger
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Nicole Walker

There are several ways to get to Siena, Italy. For Erik and me, to get out of Lecce, a town notched in the heel of the boot of Italy, and into Siena, where, if these boots had laces, you would tie the knot, we had to take a car, then a train, then a taxi, then a plane, and then another train and then walk straight up hill to the medieval city that is like Florence if Florence had not become heart-of-the-Renaissance-Florence. We took our first train from Lecce, through Brindisi, to Bari.

We are competent train takers. We take the subway when we’re in New York. We know you can sit forward or backward. We don’t get motion sickness. We can walk up and down the aisle. We know it is not like a car or a plane, but, admittedly, even though the Burlington Northern and Amtrak make us wait at the crossing in our Flagstaff hometown twice a day, we know trains as occasions, not everyday transportations.

The train from Lecce into Bari was late. We got into the cab to head to the airport. I told the driver, “We are late,” in whatever pretend Italian I knew then and have since forgotten. We were blond and carrying rolly suitcases. In Lecce, no one pretended to know English like I pretended to know Italian. But in Bari, the cab driver pretended to understand. Maybe I showed him the plane ticket. It was 11:40. Our flight left at 12:15. The train station is nowhere near the airport. I know he understood me because he spoke the international language of late-for-the-airport. He drove on the sidewalk. He took a left in a lane marked “right turns only.” His tires scraped curb. He stepped on the accelerator to speed around a bus to turn in front of it, bus honking, breaks squealing.

Now might have been a good time to tell the cab driver I was pregnant. Being pregnant shifts your perspective. Suddenly, your life, as protector of fetus, becomes much more precious, even if it’s a pregnancy you’re ambivalent about—it’s hard to be pregnant in wine country. Unlike normal times, making the plane on time seemed less important than surviving the cab-ride. But I did not know the word for pregnant and, although my perspective had shifted slightly, I didn’t want to bug the driver who was concentrating very hard to make a third lane for the taxi-cab where two lanes only existed.

•••

We thought we missed our flight. But then we read the arrivals and departures wrong. We had time to make it to the gate where we had prepaid for assigned seats. In Europe, people who fly Ryan Air rush like Barian cab drivers across the tarmac, suit coats flying, hand holding hat, to get their seats. Erik and I fly in America where our seats are assigned, and we board as soon as possible because sitting in a too-small seat ensures on on-time departure. In Bari, I walked to my seat like a pretend-calm person even though I did not understand why there were two staircases leading up to one airplane. The flight attendants had opened the back door of the plane to let us board. I did not know planes had back doors although I did know, thanks to my desperate attempt to keep the plane from crashing by listening attentively to the safety speech at the beginning of every flight that “the nearest exit may be behind you.” That an exit can also be an entrance is a very European idea.

After that, easy peasy, as Max, who was then only a two-month-old fetus, would say as a five-year-old now. He lived. We lived. The flight. The cab ride. I did not know how dangerous knowing only iPod Italian might be. When we arrived in Siena, our host spoke English. The knot that had been in my stomach, squishing fetus Max, unwound. I would give anything for a host for forever, someone to take me to a foreign country, find the airport on time, speak Italian to the taxi driver, explain why Americans don’t use two staircases to board the airplane from the front and the back.

•••

It’s impossible to know how high the seas will rise. Maybe they won’t rise much at all. Maybe whale poop will sequester the carbon. Maybe the mushrooms will. But some maps predict a bleaker future. In Grist Magazine, Greg Hansom describes pictures of sunken cities, newly named reliefs like Sea of San Diego and Archipelago of Bainbridge. San Joaquin Peninsula is all that’s left of Orange County. The coast we know now probably won’t disappear in our lifetime but in the next or the next or maybe sooner if the coal keeps burning and the cars keep driving.

I say “the cars” and “the coal” as if I am not sitting in a house, typing on a coal-burning laptop as the heater kicks on and pours naturally gassed heat upon me. As if the “the” means I won’t drive my Honda CRV to pick up my kids from school. Another article in the same magazine claimed that it’s liberals as much as Republicans who are the problem. We blame them for denying what we believe is there. But somebody else’s denial is necessary for us to believe that we liberals are doing the right thing, which is a whole lot of nothing. Nobody wants to be blamed for the Santa Monica pier falling into the ocean, but no one also wants to turn the heat down to fifty-five degrees in the winter or the air-conditioning to eighty in the summer. Heck, I have a dream to drive Route 66 all the way from Santa Monica to Chicago, Illinois. I wish I’d driven my car to Italy. Cars are a host country, like a planet. Every gum wrapper and seat print is our own. Our dreams are our cars. They take us out of here without it having to feel the pain of the unfamiliar. But, as the seas rise, perhaps we should get familiar with the boat.

•••

In Siena, the Palio happens twice a summer. Around the Piazza del Campo, horses race. Men, called Camparsa, in medieval outfits parade flags from their district through the streets toward the piazza. The streets, lined with nearly black cobblestones, are bordered by tall, connected houses from the 1300s, red flags, black stone, a Duomo, the Siena Cathedral.

The food in Siena was not the food of Puglia, which was dominated by broccoli rabe and orchiette, a whole-grain pasta. Siena had pizza. It had gelato. It had the food of the American Italian Vacation and it had wine I couldn’t drink. Like a proper tourist, I bought a scarf for ten euros. Like a tourist full of regrets, I should have bought a hundred. We stayed in a hotel that overlooked a garden. The piazza formed a circle where, during the parade, the horses rode around and the centuries swirled around and everything was stone which is how you make a city last—make it stone, make it circular to keep the art inside and the pillagers out. You keep the Renaissance at bay by keeping Florence down the street. You keep nature managed by turning it into a vineyard called Tuscany. Italy is a land of circles made by square painting frames and plots of grape and tomato vines. In Siena, you can’t see far because of the tall houses and the circling streets. It is easy to get lost although most of the time, the Duomo is in sight but the middle of the Duomo too is round and so if you end up on the wrong side of it, you might never know.

And I didn’t know, when we were on our way back to Lecce, to return to Zoe, the already-born kid, who was being watched by her attentive but window-opening grandparents who didn’t know about the Vape that you plug into the wall and emits some mosquito death vapor—and who could know of them? They, like we, are from the United States where we have DEET but no Vapes and so invited a thousand or so mosquitoes into their cottage to feast upon our already barely-alive daughter. She wasn’t really barely alive, but she had the Bad Lungs and the RSV and the inhaler broke the minute we plugged it into the wrong wall adapter. We adapt less well to the foreign world. We have made mistakes. We repeat them. Mosquitoes can sting more than once.

•••

The mosquitoes are getting worse. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that mosquito-borne diseases are already spreading more rapidly. In the regular times, like the eighties, at seven-thousand feet elevation, people are safe from mosquitoes carrying Dengue Fever. Dengue-fever-carrying mosquitoes once didn’t travel higher than 3,200 feet. But it’s getting warm up here. Mosquitoes don’t suffer from altitude sickness, just the cold. Which it is not. Not even in December. Scientific American, in a September 27, 2013 article notes that incidences of Chikungunya, a disease carried by the Tiger mosquito, which causes high fevers and rashes, is on the rise in Western Europe. Zanahoria, Italian for mosquito, was a word we all knew when we left Italy. Chikungunya is a word we do not know but maybe experienced that long night in Lecce when Zoe couldn’t sleep.

•••

Erik and I wouldn’t be late for the plane this time. We made it to the Siena train station early. I read the schedule. Or, I tried to read the schedule. Pisa CSE, Pisa Centrale. Trenitalia. One stop in Empoli. Isn’t there a nonstop?

Erik and I peered through the glass, the train schedule old and blurry. Our phones didn’t work then, in Italy. The computer, as the nebulizer adapter died when we plugged it in, died on the plane in from Rome. If it were 1960 and Erik and I were on the platform, perhaps then things would have made more sense. We would have studied the book harder, not being so lulled into submission by easy info access on our smartish phones. We would have taken trains more often, understanding that Centrale and One Stop were the same idea. Perhaps, in the 1960s, when the mosquitoes were happy at 3,200 feet and San Diego was confident of its shores, we would have been more versed in chivalry. Perhaps it would have been a time when Erik understood One Stop and Centrale to be the same destination, I would have trusted him. Perhaps if all our verses had been written in 1960s chivalry, he would have waited for me while I was in the bathroom instead of getting on the train without me. Perhaps I would have trusted him and his new British friends as they all waved to me to get on the damn train. Perhaps my 1960-self would have been more credulous. Of course Erik made new British friends and boarded a train without me. If only we could go back in time and then, again, in time, because it keeps coming, time, perhaps I would have jumped on that train, full of belief and trust in trains I did not know and toward the only Pisa that could have been waiting for me.

•••

We use the word “believe” when we talk about climate change. Fox News doesn’t believe it. Members of the National Resources Defense Council do believe it. Readers of Scientific American mostly believe it. Belief is the word you use when you cannot be sure about the future. And the scientists aren’t sure how high the mosquitoes will fly. They aren’t sure how high the oceans will rise. Belief, though, whether you do it or not, only worries about the future. When you believe in God, you pray to him to make good things happen. When you believe in climate change, you believe that maybe good things don’t. One of my mentors believes science will save us—big carbon scrubbers in the sky. How is hope different than belief?

•••

Instead, I did not get on the train. Erik did not get off the train. I stood on the platform as the train pulled away. Erik stared at me through the train window. Incredulity is another word for stubborn. I sat down on the concrete platform, underneath the schedule that predicted when Erik would come back. I’d figured out the train schedule by then but not my husband. I figured out that he might have been right about all trains leading to Pisa but that didn’t necessarily make me wrong. I waited as one train came back. Two trains. Three trains. He was not on any of them. I figured out that maybe sometimes it’s important to just go with the person you are with rather than let your butt get cold on the concrete platform of the Tranitalia Empoli station. Longing is another word for not knowing what to do next.

•••

If I had a house on the Olympic Peninsula, built fifty feet behind the neighbor’s property, which reaches out to the shore of the Puget Sound, how long would I have to wait until I could claim millionaire status for my now-ocean front property? When the water swallowed the neighbor’s strangely-suburban lawn? When the water lapped at my neighbor’s duck-dotted welcome mat? When the country duck hanging as a welcome sign is as wet as the doormat? When the roof of my neighbor’s house makes a nice fishing dock? You are silly to think oceanfront property will mean anything when you have to stay indoors to keep the mosquitoes from injecting their malarial parasite near the now-warm waters of the Puget Sound.

•••

Eventually, I got on a train to Pisa. Eventually, Erik came back. Our trains must have passed each other. When I got to Pisa, he wasn’t there. I went back to Empoli. He wasn’t there either.

•••

The seas have risen far enough to turn Queen Anne into an island at least once before, Jurassicly. They can do it again. Of course, the pretend house I built on the Sound will be under water by then, but, then, the sea doesn’t mind the taste of human constructs.

•••

Finally, our flight back to Bari, back to our mosquito-ridden daughter, back to our flight back to Rome that would get us out of Italy nearly departing, I rode the train back to Pisa. I had the plane tickets. He had to be there. And he was. He stood at the edge of the platform. If this had been a movie, I would have run to him. He would have run to me. Open arms.

•••

I am a good swimmer. If not a good reader of schedules or husbands. I am ready for you, warm waters of the Puget Sound. I know it would be too much to ask for you, dear ocean, to leave me any oysters.

•••

But this is not a movie. His arms are folded. Crossed. I’m so happy to see him. My heart thrills. I am home. But still. I cannot believe that he left me behind.

He says, “I cannot believe you.”

Which I take to mean, I cannot believe in you.

But I say, “You can’t believe me? I can’t believe you!”

I touch my arms. My hair. I am here.

“You’re the one that left me,” I say.

“You never trust me,” he says.

“I’m the one who speaks Italian,” I say.

“You cannot read a map,” he says.

“I came to you. Twice.” I say.

“I went back for you,” he says.

We each folded our arms because no one wants to believe they misunderstood a schedule, a wave, a bathroom break, a pregnancy, a train-trip to somewhere so beautiful so badly. If this were an O’Henry story, this would have been a love story. But this is not O’Henry. Erik was raised by a single-mom who did everything by herself—made peanut butter and jellies, went to work, paid the mortgage, bought a car, hiked in the desert, took the kids to the dentist, mopped the floors. He doesn’t believe that just because I had to pee, just because I was pregnant, just because I wanted to be convinced by the signage, that I shouldn’t have just gotten it together, got on the next train, and met him in Pisa. A feminist is the guy who figures his wife will figure it out. His mom could have done it herself. And, on my side, I don’t believe I should have just trusted him, just gotten on the train just because he said so, without even talking to me. I’m a feminist who doesn’t believe anybody should tell me what to do, even if that means I wait on the platform for two hours to be rescued by some chivalrous husband who does not believe in chivalry. Two stubborn faces staring through the window. There’s no way to know how to go back. I sing a version of the Charlie on the MTA song,

Did he ever return, no he never returned 
And his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Pisa
He’s the man who never returned. 

Erik doesn’t laugh. And then he does.

•••

You can know a few things. You can know this: No one is going to rescue us. We are going to miss our flight from Pisa to Bari. We are going to miss seeing our kid, with her mosquito bites, harboring a virus we cannot pronounce. We are going to spend the rest of our lives passing our traveling companions on the train from Pisa to Empoli, from Empoli to Pisa. But we won’t know what it feels like until we open the windows and actually touch the water. Until then, all we will see is our warped faces, reflected back at us. Duck decorations can’t swim. I should have believed Erik instead of staying put and hoping he’d come back to save me.

They say with time, you look back and laugh. For Erik, that’s not so long. For the island of San Diego, it’s too soon to know.

•••

NICOLE WALKER’s Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the Zone 3 Award for Creative Nonfiction and was released in June 2013. She is the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg  (Barrow Street 2010) and edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, (Bloomsbury, 2013) and with Rebecca Campbell—7 Artists, 7 Rings—an Artist’s Game of Telephone for the Huffington Post. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts, she’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University where she will host the 2015 NonfictioNOW Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.

Read more FGP essays by Nicole Walker.

Slightly Settled Nomads

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By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Breawna Power Eaton

My husband and I weren’t fighting, just winding down dinner, discussing life, our future. Then it happened—a mutual, unspoken realization, and all we could do was stare in silence across the table, weighing the words we’d just said:

“Constantly moving just isn’t the life I signed up for.” I’d shrugged, thinking he’d nod and say, “We’ll see” or maybe, “We’ll settle down one day.”

Instead, he said, “Well. I thought I married someone who loved to travel.”

His hazel eyes remained steady.

“I do love to travel.”

My blues eyes resisted a blink.

“I know, but you said you wanted to live overseas.”

“For a few months, Tom, not a life of constantly moving.” Exactly what his career as a Navy judge advocate now required of him. Of us.

That’s when the silence filled our beige-walled dining room with the sage curtains left over from the previous owner. The place felt like ours but not ours, even though we’d bought the gray bungalow two years prior when we moved to Newport, Rhode Island. Our first move of his career, away from our home in San Diego. Soon Tom would deploy to Afghanistan for seven months. Soon after his return, we’d move to Japan, where Tom would again deploy on the USS George Washington aircraft carrier. Two years in Japan, then … ?

“We’ll take it job by job,” Tom said, breaking our silence with his beloved mantra. A mantra I—bitter about leaving my teaching career, family, and friends behind in Southern California—had previously balked.

“Job by job,” I agreed that time instead of muttering my usual, “Easy for you to say.”

Together we’d nodded, though I still believed he’d never feel the sacrifice of our moves as deeply as I would: he’d always have a job and social network to jump right into, while I’d have to start from scratch each time. After finally settling into our new life in Newport, however, I’d begun to see our move less as dismantling and more as an opportunity to reconstruct my life. I’d re-awakened my love for writing, contributing a weekly Q&A feature to a local arts paper and later pursuing my MFA. I’d interned at a non-profit that was building an academy for orphaned children in rural Kenya. I’d started running half-marathons. I’d attended weekly wine-pairing classes. I’d pursued all of the interests I never had time to pursue while teaching high school English full-time. Being uprooted from the life I’d settled into in San Diego was painful, but the change of terroir had allowed me to grow in unpredicted ways, ways I never would have had we remained comfortably at home. I could no longer deny the perks of moving, but a lot of me longed to return home.

What I had failed to realize in our first few years of marriage was that we had not settled in San Diego—only I had. When we weren’t traveling, Tom was already planning our next adventure. A few years before we married, we backpacked around Europe on a “pre-marriage trial run” that cemented our desire to live life together. We honeymooned in Cinque Terre, Italy, two summers later in 2005. Thereafter we spent almost every break (for me from teaching, for him from law school) traveling somewhere—a summer studying law in London, a spring break scuba diving in Jamaica, a winter break touring Eastern Europe’s Christmas Festivals with his best friends. I’d never realized his love for travel meant more than trips during school vacations. He’d never realized my love for travel meant just that.

That night at the dinner table, our silence said what we did not want to voice aloud: we hadn’t married the person we thought we’d exchanged rings with at the altar. Though this is true to a degree in every marriage, it doesn’t lessen the sting of that moment, when you realize you’re on a different trajectory than the one you thought you’d bound yourself to for life.

“Job by job,” we agreed that night, because we were happy, more in love than we were when we had exchanged rings six years prior. Still I couldn’t shake the sting of that moment, nor the underlying fear that our agreement was merely a fake binding, a Band-Aid that we’d either slowly pull away over the years or painfully rip off, when one of us decided to finally stay and the other continued to go.

•••

Tom left for Afghanistan a few months after that night, a few days after Thanksgiving, 2011, and returned mid-July, 2012. The first sight of him at the Baltimore airport felt like I’d been thrust through a strange time warp: the ache of his absence instantly replaced by the peace of knowing he was safe and home. Just like that, seven months melted away. Him, here in my arms, now, was all that mattered. I had to keep convincing myself that I was awake and not just dreaming about this moment yet again, that, yes, his arms were actually around me, his lips truly pressed against mine.

Two weeks later, we left our home in Newport and flew to our new life in Japan. On the way, we spent a weeklong layover in Southern California, making up for lost time with friends and family, celebrating Tom’s safe return, while simultaneously saying goodbye. Again.

Our “Ta-ta for Now” party felt different than the one we’d thrown for ourselves in San Diego in 2009. Back then, I’d wondered how our friendships would change during our three-year stint on the East Coast, and I worried that we would miss out on too much our loved ones’ lives. We had. But what hadn’t changed was the connection, the way we always easily slide right back into wherever we left off, save for the little ones now vying for our friends’ attention. Vying and winning. Annihilating us, actually. Who can compete with those cheeky grins? A two-year-old learning to give high-fives will always top even the most surprising story about sailors’ salacious behavior or my younger sister’s most recent disastrous date. No doubt. Things had changed.

Seeing our friends all playful and giggly with their little ones made us realize that we surely did want to start a family, but we just as surely wanted a few more years of freedom, a few hundred more nights of good sleep. Moreover, I was terrified of having our first child in a foreign country, far from my support network, while Tom spent half of each year at sea. I wasn’t ready. But a comment by Tom’s friend’s wife stunned me into thinking otherwise. She caught me on the way back from the bathroom.

“I thought I’d be jealous of you two and your lives in Japan,” she’d said. “But I was looking at my family today, and I realized that was just stupid. I’m happy where I am. I know I’m where I need to be.”

Squeals and laughter filtered in from the party outside.

“That’s great,” I’d said. I’d realize later that her words were not for me, but for herself; she needed to give voice to her epiphany, to announce aloud that she had, in fact, made the right decision to start a family, to settle down. In the meantime, she made me question mine. According to our plan, we will be at least thirty-three when we have our first child, which doesn’t matter really, except that our friends’ kids will all be toddlers in pre-school. They’ll have no clue who we are, and our babies will grow up on their own, too young to be besties with our best friends’ kids, like we’d always planned.

Are we making the right decision? I’d wondered as I hesitantly returned her smile. Are we leaving where we need to be or heading there?

Two months later—two months into our next life—I found myself relaying this story to the British backpackers, J and F, I met in Malaysia, after meeting Tom at his second port call.

•••

A little context: As the “military life” predictably and thereby unpredictably goes, life in Japan turned out different than expected. Tom left with the ship less than two weeks after we arrived in Japan, just over a month after returning from Afghanistan. Desperate for time together, we decided I should forego finding a full-time job or getting our house completely settled so I could meet him at every port the ship pulled into during his first three months at sea.

What made the already complicated situation impossibly more complicated was that we could only communicate about port dates and locations in person, which was impossible as he couldn’t even tell me where he was presently floating when we were lucky enough to talk on the phone, let alone where he was heading and when. I found out I was going to the first port call in Guam when Tom emailed me my flight itinerary.

But I’d known about Malaysia for months; Tom emailed me my e-ticket from Afghanistan as an anniversary gift, a gesture to show he’d do whatever he could to keep me close while he again was away. A week before I was supposed to meet him in Malaysia, there were rumors, as always, that the ship was no longer heading to Kuala Lumpur. Playing the game of ports, I quickly learned that I’d never know if I’d actually see him until I actually did, and even then, the ship could leave earlier than planned.

•••

 “We don’t even mention children,” J said in response to my story, and my residual wondering about our wandering life, about pushing back Babyland yet again. “It makes F anxious,” J said, lifting her light eyebrows, then making a funny face across the table toward her boyfriend, who shrugged, gave a slight smile, and ate a forkful of fluffy white rice.

The couple brought me to their favorite spot for cheap eats near their hotel in China Town, where they’d been living for over a month. Tucked behind hawker stalls crowded by hungry Saturday night market-goers, the small food court felt spacious and quiet, although it too was filled with food stands. Choosing what to eat had been difficult, though you really can’t go wrong in Malaysia, especially if you enjoy spicy food. Dim sum, dumplings, tandoori, satays, curries, and fried noodles—only a sampling of Malaysia’s deliciously diverse cuisine, inspired by the mostly Malay, Indian, and Chinese population and the Thai influence from up north.

We chatted over our plates, piled high with rice and various saucy mysteries, satays, and grilled meats from the cze char (buffet style “pick and mix”) stall. I didn’t know what was what, save for the cabbage satay and eggplant curry, both disappearing from my plate all too quickly, as I took bite after bite, racing to keep ahead of the fire that would surely spread over my tongue if I paused.

Unlike me, J and F believed they were exactly where they needed to be, at least for the moment. The British couple had been traveling with nothing more than mini-suitcases throughout Asia for eleven months already, and they were feeling the itch to leave Kuala Lumpur. The weather’s been drab lately, they agreed. This idea, that she could move to better weather just because she wanted to, tickled J. Her smile widened with each new country she added to their seemingly endless list of possible destinations.

“Maybe we’ll head to Nepal or go back to Thailand,” she said. “We stayed mostly in the center last time, maybe we can go explore the North or South.” Her scheming sounded even more adventurous, flavored by her English accent.

While they’d loved living in central Thailand, India had been their favorite thus far, the place where their adventure began. After they’d sold most of their belongings and rented out their flat, they headed to India thinking they’d stay for maybe a month or two, but maxed out their visas instead, staying for the full six months. They couldn’t explain exactly why they’d felt compelled to stay. The country was just … fascinating.

When I asked if they thought they’d return to their lives and home in London, they shook their heads. They couldn’t imagine settling any time soon, though J’s family wished otherwise. She’d recently returned to England for a wedding (and a funeral) and felt pressured from all sides. Her family asked when she, already in her mid-thirties, was thinking about coming home, about settling down, about having babies, while her friends with babies urged her to stay away, to keep traveling, to live the adventure they no longer felt they could live. Do it for us, they’d said.

Again I thought of my friend’s comment at our party back home, of the seemingly forced dichotomy—you settle or you roam—and of my burgeoning desire to have a bit of both. As I listened to J and F throw around ideas—How about popping over to Cambodia? Or Laos? Or, ooh, what about Vietnam?—I grew envious of their ability to be grown up and yet so carefree.

Sure, their travels hadn’t always been easy: J had an infected tooth pulled a month or two earlier and was still recovering from a bout of foot and mouth disease. Still, after just one week of exploring Malaysia, I could already see why they never wanted to return to their “normal” lives. There’s something about travel that encourages our childlike curiosity to rebloom. Daily in Kuala Lumpur, I’d found myself paused in wonder, struck by the interesting juxtaposition between the sparkling metropolis and the surrounding rainforest. By the curious combinations of flavors and spices in each dish. By the soul-gripping wail that echoed throughout the city five times a day, calling the faithful to pray. By the interesting people I’d met, whose stories always seemed to showcase yet another way to a fulfilling life. Instead of realizing the obvious—there isn’t just one way—I only grew more torn.

Each day I woke up in Japan, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming, that this new, exciting life in a foreign land was truly mine. In Japan, even going to the grocery story felt like an adventure. The enormous shelled and tentacled creatures in the seafood aisles seemed more like zoo exhibits than options for dinner. Each time I paid with the correct change felt like a victory, replete with a rush of adrenaline, the craving for more.

But sometimes, I just wanted to go to the store and actually know for sure what I was buying. (Is this one brown liquid, amongst a hundred others labeled in Japanese, soy sauce?) Crazy as it sounded, even to me, I also craved my old routine, longed for the predictability of my former life as a teacher, knowing all the while my nostalgia was for a romanticized version of the school year, filled with days when things actually went as planned, when my students couldn’t wait to read Shakespeare, cried at the loss of Lennie, shared their own writings aloud and basked in the applause of snaps from their peers.

“Really? I don’t miss teaching at all,” J bluntly replied. Sure, she was looking into teaching online, but solely to fund their continued adventures. “I no longer spend my days working and my nights worrying, ‘Will my students be fed when they go home? Will they be safe?’”

Now she was overwhelmed instead by how much of the world they still wanted, no needed, to see.

“You do begin to settle, actually,” J realized later, after we’d finished eating and walked to the stop for a free city bus tour, another of their favorite finds. “When you stay more than a week in a place, you spread your stuff out, you make yourself feel at home,” she said with the same proud smile she probably wore the first time she rode her bike sans training wheels. Satisfied, she was, with her newfound life philosophy—home is where the mini-suitcase is.

Earlier that evening I was nervous about whether J’s bout of foot and mouth disease was contagious. As it turned out, it wasn’t her blisters I took home with me, but her sense of adventure, of “Why not?” Why look back when life is stirring around me, here, now, wherever I am?

•••

J and F weren’t the first people I’d met who lived the traveling life. I’d joined a group of young backpackers in Melaka, where I spent a night biding time, while the ship made its way to Kuala Lumpur.

The sun was setting by the time I cleaned up and headed out to explore the night market, yet the air remained thick and hot, slowly working its way down from the high eighties. Too nervous to wander in the dark alone, I figured I’d be back in an hour or two.

I was staring quizzically at what I was about to eat out of a tightly wrapped banana leaf when a man in thick, black framed glasses ensured me the fish cake was tasty, then asked where I was from.

“California? These guys are from California,” he said, introducing me to another young man in glasses from Brea (near where I grew up), a tall blonde from San Diego (where Tom and I will live again one day), and another donning a UCLA t-shirt. “Join us,” Black Frames said, before turning around and weaving his way through the gorging masses. He owned a hostel and gave his patrons a tour, pointing out the best stalls. When curious enough, a few of us would buy a treat, take a bite, then pass the morsel around the group, which fluctuated in size throughout the evening. It was hard to keep track of who was who, as our noses led us apart, toward the sweet, tangy, and savory smells wafting from wayward stalls.

As the hostel crew shrank and grew, we played conversation tag, getting in a few minutes at each stall with another member of the group. Throughout the night I played patchwork with their stories, quilting a travel tale more complex and adventurous than my own. The first three guys I met had just quit their jobs, sold everything they owned, and set off in search of something their lives after college failed to fulfill.

“It’s nothing,” one said in response to my gasp and widened eyes. “A South African couple at our hostel biked their way here from Korea, along with their little dog.”

I met this legendary couple a few hours later on their hostel rooftop, where we sat around on broken chairs and wooden benches, drinking warm beers in the dim glow of the city lights far below. Apparently, when nobody is home, Black Frames shuts the drink fridge off to save electricity. I don’t like beer even when it’s cold, so it made no difference to me. I wasn’t there for the beer. I was there for the company—for the night out on the town I fought Tom over during our pre-marriage European hostel tour. Tired after long days of walking to museums and ruins and monuments, Tom had always been ready for bed a few hours after dinner, while I wanted to be wherever music was pulsing, people were toasting, cheersing until the sun began to rise.

“Fine. Just stay in,” I’d say. “I’ll go out on my own.” And Tom would nod, knowing as well as I that my words were empty, that I was too scared to explore the night on my own.

Almost ten years later, I was not back in my hotel room as I thought I’d be by this time; in fact I had neither a clue nor a care what time it was. I was lost in conversation, drinking a warm can of beer on a dark Melakan rooftop, inspired by a group of twenty-somethings’ bold willingness to uproot themselves, to just leave everything behind. The idea of becoming a nomad never crossed my twenty-one-year-old mind. My post college adventure was our European tour. I’d returned from that trip sure of two things—I wanted to marry Tom and I wanted to see more of the world. But first, I needed to earn my teaching credential, and then start my career.

On that rooftop, I felt like I was fresh out of college again, but with my path unmapped. A path instead inspired by the young men starting over from scratch, but even more so by the lone traveling ladies, like the freelance event coordinator who decided to explore Singapore and Malaysia before heading to New Zealand for a few weeks, where she would work on a farm (or horse ranch or something) to earn her keep until she decided she liked it and stayed or didn’t like it and returned home to start her own event planning business. She was fed up wondering what life would be like if.

“So you don’t know where your husband is or when he’s coming to meet you,” she asked, transitioning from her travel tale to mine.

I shook my head.

Her eyes ballooned in the way mine had when I heard about all of their impressive quests. Though I knew I would (probably) see Tom in less than forty-eight hours, I wasn’t supposed to share the ship’s whereabouts. I felt a tinge of guilt for not telling her the truth. I felt like a fraud. Even so, I couldn’t help but sip my warm beer, smile back, and soak up her perception of me as I wanted to be seen—as adventurous as she. Or the young woman from Vietnam, also traveling alone. Or the young Malaysian nurse who was moving to Saudi Arabia the following month to save money for travels of her own.

The rooftop filled with chatter about who was going where next. Some were heading to the rainforests in the Malaysian highlands, then moving on to Thailand. Like J and F, many of the hostellers arrived on one-way tickets. Their days were no longer dictated by work schedules, but by their whims and fancies, by wherever weather was better. It was on that night, when my voice joined the backpackers’ chatter, that the idea first began to take root, that maybe Tom and I really didn’t have to decide whether to settle or roam yet, if ever. I no longer felt homeless, more like a slightly settled nomad, creating a new home away from home for us in Japan while traveling wherever and whenever I could possibly see Tom. And every new place, every new person I met, only proved that there was still so much to see, including uncharted territories of myself.

•••

The following morning, I took a bus from Melaka to Kuala Lumpur and checked into our hotel, where Tom would join me the following day. He’d emailed to say he hoped to meet me at our hotel around two, and there I was waiting, with the same nervous excitement of waiting for a first date, as eager as I was a few months earlier when I stood at the international terminal of the Baltimore airport, amidst a crowd of families and friends welcoming the troops returning home from war. Like a game show revealing a secret prize inside, the terminal sliding glass doors had opened each time a group of arrivals approached. When I first saw Tom’s face appear behind the oncoming crowd, I froze. Stared, starry-eyed. Thirty pounds lighter, he looked like the twenty-year-old I’d fallen for almost ten years before. More exhilarating than the free fall on a roller coaster was the feeling of his lips, so soft, against mine.

I paced about the hotel room in Malaysia as I waited for Tom to arrive, the excitement of my night of swapping travel tales with the nomads in Melaka, their sense of freedom and openness to the unknown still pulsing through my veins.

As I waited for Tom this time, there was no National Guard, no crowd, no sliding doors. Nothing more was necessary. Just him and me. Our arms soon wrapped around each other, willing to unbind only for a glimpse of the other’s bright smile, for the exhilaration of another first kiss. I realized I was trembling when we stared at the view of the city outside our window. Here we are, Kuala Lumpur. Never could Tom or I have anticipated this moment or, like everyone, any moments that would and will follow.

It’s inevitable, I realized, that the edge of that Band-Aid will begin to peel, followed by that sting. But who’s to say what lifting such temporary binding would reveal? We’d sense a gaping wound, wouldn’t we? The need to change bandages, clean out the gunk, bind ourselves in a new chance to heal. Or maybe we’d find everything intact. Maybe a faint scar, a reminder of where we’ve been.

“It’s beautiful,” we agreed before giving into silence. The city spread to the horizon before us, hardworking cranes dotting the skyline, verdant trees competing for sunlight among the many buildings, new and old, that would soon sparkle at night. We shared another smile. Another lingering kiss. And soon, I could feel my heart begin to settle, easing into a soft and steady beat.

•••

While BREAWNA POWER EATON’s time in Japan ended in August, 2014, her tales of getting lost and unlost in love, life, and travel can be found on her blog Lady Seeking Adventure, where a recent post reveals their next adventure—a little one due in late November. Bre received an MFA in Creative Writing through Antioch of Los Angeles and is currently seeking representation for a book-length essay surrounding Tom’s deployment in Afghanistan and her burning question: “How did we—as a nation and a couple—end up entangled in our country’s longest war?”

Million Dollar Questions in Cambodia

dollar
By Eli Christman/ Flickr

By Josalin Saffer

Cambodia feels like an open wound. Still raw from a scrape with death, still aching from its painful roots. Reminders of the genocide are everywhere: in the eerie absence of the elderly; in the mountains of garbage that clutter the roads and define the landscape; in the pleading tone of the desperate tuk tuk driver, hoping for a day of work; and in the perfectly rehearsed sales pitches of the children peddling baskets of discount Lonely Planet guidebooks on every street corner.

For the second time in five months, I am walking the half-mile stretch to cross the border at Poipet—the gateway into Cambodia and the portal to its poverty. It’s hotter this time. It’s now summer, and the tropical sun rules the land in a brutal tyranny. After eight months of traveling, I’ve grown accustomed to the musty stench of my soiled clothes and the taxing load of my backpack that contains everything I own, but never to the heat. As I walk under the stone archway inviting me into the Kingdom of Cambodia, the black dots of dehydration appear in my periphery like passing planets to a sun-bound astronaut who’s drifted off course. My head is forever trapped in a fogged-up fishbowl.

Poipet is not a coastal town, yet everywhere there is evidence of a shipwreck. Scraps of plastic, cardboard, styrofoam, metal, and human flotsam appear to have washed ashore. The people I see seem like the only survivors, still recovering from this thalassic catastrophe. Families huddle together under facades of crumbling concrete, the remnants of homes. Everyone walks slowly, staring at nothing, myself among them. I can feel crow’s feet forming in the corners of my eyes from all the squinting. One thought raps relentlessly on the front door of my frontal lobe: I need water.

I search in vain for someone who looks like they might be sitting on a cooler, a makeshift minimart that often flanks the streets. But for the first time in Southeast Asia, I can’t find anyone to sell me anything. People are preoccupied, squatting low, on their haunches, with their faces covered and averted from the sun, trying to avoid the heat.

I am jolted from my feverish quest by a tug on my pinky finger. Two deep, dark eyes stare up at me, their depths like the abyss of a cave. A girl who looks to be about three years old stands obstinately before me like an avant-garde performance art piece. The canvass of skin covering her bones appears painted in haste, with sloppy brushstrokes, muddy streaks. She clamps her entire hand around my littlest finger with a firm grip and without the slightest indication of letting go.

“Excuse me, lady, one dollar. I need a dollar, lady. Please, lady, give me a dollar,” she chants.

I have a dollar. In fact, I have 300 of them stuffed neatly at the bottom of my pack. I had stashed them away for this very trip to Cambodia. As my semester teaching in Thailand neared its end, I carefully regulated every saved penny from my salary to fund a final trip around Southeast Asia before returning home to Atlanta.

Never giving money to panhandling children; it perpetuates their livelihood as beggars, I repeat in my head, the way I used to prepare for lessons and study for tests.

I had spent weeks reading and researching everything from personal blogs to the BBC. And every source answered my question of whether to give money to child beggars with a firm and stern don’t do it. They each echoed the same warning: “By feeling pity, giving money and food, child labor—a growing business—is supported and the children are sustained on the streets.” On paper, it made sense. And my response seemed easy.

But standing face-to-face with a three-year-old in Cambodia, my heart sinks and I panic. As a teacher and a student, I have never been as unsure of my answers. I can’t stop myself from thinking: What if they are wrong?

Reluctant to pull my finger from hers, we walk pinky-in-hand for several more steps before I finally untangle myself from her taut grip. I look at her and she expects me to speak, but instead of answering her question or acknowledging her presence, I look away. Our locked eyes make me feel a thousand times heavier than the fifty pounds I am carrying. A weight that recurs continually here, always with the threat to bury me in a quicksand of indecision. Eventually I tell her “No, I’m sorry,” but she follows me, tries to walk in my path, demanding me to notice her. She repeats her haunting mantra as if in a trance, “Just a dollar, lady.”

•••

Ten months prior, I was in Atlanta, sitting on my bed, thumbing the glossy pages of a National Geographic, and fantasizing about the day I would soon be in Cambodia. It was a picture of Ta Prohm that had summoned me. The twelfth-century, tree-entwined Buddhist monastery was the stage for Lara Croft’s adventures in Tomb Raider and is one of hundreds of ancient temples that stand alongside Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. On two full pages, creeping strangler figs and slinking lichens devoured the once indestructible ruins. It was a perfect crystallization of nature’s dominance over mankind. A reminder that nature can undermine even the apotheosis of human creations. I ripped out the pages and kept them in my purse for weeks. I wanted to be here, to feel small, and to stay inside this photograph forever.

When the day came for me to shrink my life into a backpack, I was staying at a friend’s house. Scattered across her floor were the remainders of my purged possessions and the things I would take with me. There were stacks of clothes separated into two piles—one for teaching and one for adventuring. There were labeled Ziploc bags, a diary of Anaïs Nin, a Canon Rebel. An empty journal and a manila folder stuffed full of goodbye cards addressed “Dear Miss Josalin.”

There were fifty of them, actually. One from every kid at SoulShine, the liberal afterschool program I worked at as a teacher and counselor in Atlanta. I picked up a card signed “Love, Emilia,” depicting an underwater scene: blue, squiggly lines for waves, spider-like crabs, swaying palm trees, and a mermaid replica, exactly the way I would have drawn it. For months at Soulshine, there was a mermaid craze, and it all began with Emilia.

Everyday after school, she would rush inside, throw her backpack to the floor, scarf down a hasty snack, and climb onto my lap. I loved the way her crimson curls bounced, giving off warmth and complementing her fiery spirit. I would twirl them in my fingers and she would, without fail, ask “Miss Josalin, today can we draw mermaids?”

I am not an artist, and my drawings were, at best, mediocre. But to Emilia, they were masterpieces. She praised me for them, begging me to teach her every step of my drawing process, eventually surpassing my talent and producing them en masse. The kids at SoulShine started to take notice, and soon every girl and even some boys were bombarding me with requests for drawing lessons. For hours after school, I would show them how two pencil strokes could make a ponytail and how a mix of blues, greens, and gold glitter create an iridescent fin. How a “3” and a capital “E” formed the outlines of a seashell chemise and how long eyelashes make the mermaid feminine.

Flipping through my cards, I saw dozens of mermaids. I closed the manila folder and wedged it alongside the few other carefully chosen items in my pack.

•••

In Poipet, I surrender my quest for water and opt for a beer instead. It’s ten in the morning, but I feel like I’ve been in this city for centuries, and the cold, foamy taste in my mouth provides a refreshing relief. I try to focus, envisioning Ta Prohm, and examining the bus schedule to Siem Reap. Waiting for the bus, a young girl races me to the trashcan to salvage my beer can. She wears a ponytail and shuffles by with shaky, knobby knees, hunched over like an old woman. Her shiny, thick hair whips like the tail of a black stallion, with features both bold and refined, in utter defiance to her demeanor. She holds her t-shirt stretched out like a basket in which she carries her collection of tourists’ trash—her treasures.

I watch her attempt to add my can to the pile and fail. Her shirt collapses, revealing her scrawny frame, and bottles and cans topple in every direction toward the ground. She looks around, eyes racing with the trajectory of launched pinballs. Gathering the bottles, she drops them two more times before scurrying away. In a few seconds, she vanishes from my sight, but her presence lingers in my mind. Sitting and waiting, I wonder: Would these children be forced to sell and beg and scrounge and steal for their lives if their families hadn’t been butchered and uprooted in a ruthless genocide?

From 1975-1979, Cambodia’s government systematically massacred three million of its own people. Promoting a radical agenda of nationwide ethnic cleansing, Pol Pot and his obedient Khmer Rouge regime rivaled the Nazis in organized cruelty. With horrifying gusto, their motive was to purge and reform the population in place of a pure, agrarian Communist society. The entire country suffered, but the Khmer Rouge singled out certain people as the enemy. Among those targeted were intellectuals, city folks, minorities, teachers, writers, doctors, and people who wore glasses. When the Khmer Rouge took power, they captured Phnom Penh, the capital, and evacuated the entire city in three days. Once bustling, thriving cities became wastelands and torture camps. The displaced people met their fate in an orderly fashion: They were herded to labor camps, then torture prisons, and, ultimately, to their death in the killing fields.

My bus pulls out of the station and leaves the forgotten shipwreck survivors to fend for themselves. Poipet disappears behind me in a dusty dirt cloud like the phantasmagoria of strange dreams. I gaze out the window at vast, barren fields and conical tops of straw hats and wonder what the people beneath them had seen and felt and suffered when Pol Pot reigned supreme.

To save cash and prevent scams, I rent a bike from my hostel in Siem Reap at dawn the next morning. Ten kilometers of dirt roads and dodging tuk tuks, and I am finally amid the ancient ruins of the Angkor Empire. It is low season, so there are not many tourists, most of them choosing to avoid the oppressive heat. Normally this would be a good thing, but in Cambodia it means I am an easy target.

I arrive at Ta Prohm temple with high expectations, burning thighs, and half the vigor of Lara Croft. As at many of the popular Angkor temples, the atmosphere is frenzied. Tourists strike stupid poses, snap photos in rapid succession, and discover hidden crevices by way of their own routes. Local merchants cast their well-practiced lines into a sea of unsuspecting tourists and wait to see who falls for the bait. Their merchandise is often handmade: wood-carved finger flutes, jangly jewelry, charcoal sketches of Angkor Wat, and hand-painted clothing. All for one dollar.

Through the chaos and crowded amalgam of flashy new Apple products and sweaty bodies, I see my enchantress. The divine tree fatally intertwined with the ruins from the two-page photograph. Like a comfortable houseguest she sprawls out and makes herself at home in a sacred room of the ancient monastery. I situate myself in just the right place and take the very same photograph, though not as high-res and with an amateur’s eye. I take hundreds more as I explore Ta Prohm. It provides me with endless inspiration, and the ruins invoke my creative spirit. But what captivates me is a pair of young merchants. A brother and sister no older than nine with bright red baskets and stockbrokers’ enthusiasm. Squatting on a mound of rocks that have been squeezed out of place by thick, gnarled roots reclaiming the jungle, they scope out the torrent of tourists entering their domain. They wait like watchdogs, sniffing me out immediately.

“Lady, I have very nice jewelry for you. Come here, lady. I have many, many things for one dollar,” the girl says, arms draped with bracelets from her wrists to her armpits.

I’ve prepared something to say this time. Silence, I convince myself, reveals weakness. I try to appear honest and confident, hoping my answers will suffice them.

“I can’t today. I will be back though. I will come and buy some tomorrow.”

She glares hard at me. Her brother stands behind her with one hand on his hip, the other cradling his basket like a baby. I shrug my shoulders and reveal my empty hands.

“Not tomorrow!” she says, now indignant and miffed by me. “You buy now, lady. Tomorrow, I do not see you.” Wiping the palm of her hand down her face, “All farangs [foreigners] look the same.”

And indeed she does not see me. She sees what she wants to see: a rich, white tourist crippled by guilt who might dish out pity in the form of American dollars. And I try hard, but I do not see her either. I want to see a nine-year-old who runs through the ruins playing hide-and-seek with her brother, laughing and skipping, and free to just be. I want her to hold my hand and ask me about my funny clothes or my pale skin or if she can braid my hair. I want to see a child with the innocence that reminds me not to take life too seriously.

Just then, the wind kicks a slight breeze. A delicate dandelion flower floats by, hovering in the air briefly. The two siblings fall silent and still, their eyes fixed on this evanescent wisp of beauty until it drifts out of sight. And in this moment, they abandon their roles as pushy street merchants and again become children. I snap a photo of their sudden transformation and steal this moment for myself. When the dandelion vanishes, so too does their laughter and wonder. In Cambodia, this phenomenon of children behaving like children surfaces only in glimpses. I take a few more unimportant shots of big trees and crumbling rocks and exit the temple.

To my surprise, my bike—secured with a flimsy, shoestring-sized cable lock—is right where I left it. I try to drone out the cacophony of auctioneers offering me water and make a beeline for my two-wheeled getaway. But I am promptly intercepted and detained by a thin, young boy and eager guide. His hands are callused, and I feel tender when they touch me, grabbing my arm and dragging me along quickly. He seems like he has something to show me, but I soon realize it is me that he is showing.

He presents me to a group of kids of staggering heights and ages. They are his cohorts and his siblings, and it is clear who calls the shots. He points to the youngest, gives her the cue, and she yokes me with her eyes and begins rattling off her ABC’s.

“She can say her ABCs for one dollar,” my kidnapper says proudly.

I look around for an adult, but I see no one. And I remember reading that parents often get their children to do their begging for them. Smaller, cuter, and livelier, they have been proven more successful on the streets.

When he sees me turning to walk away, he runs after me, trailed closely behind by his well-trained posse. They crowd around me, hurling English phrases and fragments, convinced of their ability to sway me.

“Look, I can count to ten! One, two, three, four….How about ten bracelets for one dollar or a bottle of water? You are very thirsty, lady.”

I had seen this business savvy before. The same precocity, but with different motives.

•••

A master of the ocean realm, Emilia soon advanced to drawing castle-dwelling beauties. She was diligent and her hobby easily gained momentum within her circle of friends. She started a drawing club composed of six core members and a handful of transient contributors who came and went depending on the day. After snack, Emilia would dump out every box of crayons into a massive pile in the middle of them, and the others would elbow each other to get a spot at the big picnic table. First attempts at mermaids, princesses, dragons, and castles littered the floor daily. Somehow crayon nubs covered entire pages with fantastic scenes and not an inch of wasted paper.

They drew constantly. And in a seamless transition from schoolgirl to sales executive, Emilia started a business.

“Miss Josalin, look at the mermaid I drew, just like you!” Emilia boasted. “Will you buy a picture?”

“Oh yeah? How much?” I asked, amused.

“You can get one for fifty cents or four for one dollar!”

Of course I bought them. I bought them all, with whatever change I had lying at the bottom of my purse. It didn’t seem to make a difference if I gave a dollar to some children. But these were children who had three meals a day and shoes on their feet. Children who got back rubs for bad dreams, and Band-Aids for boo-boos, and kisses just because. They didn’t need my money. The quarters I gave them would gather dust at the bottom of their piggybanks.

In Cambodia, my dollar holds power. And I’m unsure of how to wield it. Sometimes, I think I came here expecting to watch a performance, like an audience member snug and relaxed in her seat. Instead, with the swift crossing of the border, I am dragged on stage and thrust into the scene. How am I supposed act? What am I supposed to say? The plot is complex, and no one gave me a script. Uncomfortable and blinded by the spotlight, I improvise. I hold my breath, believing that a botched line or a missed cue could sabotage the entire show.

I am constantly torn, thoughts bisected between not knowing how to help and how not to hurt. I struggle to reconcile my heart with my head, my guilt with my gut, constantly. I am suspended in a state of hopelessness and inner conflict, always. Here, I am forced to confront life’s injustices and contradictions. Here, I learn that there is not an answer for everything. The aftermath of genocide is not easily reversed, and the people will go on suffering, creating, destroying, enduring.

•••

JOSALIN SAFFER lays her roots in Atlanta, Georgia, where she received her B.A. in Journalism. She spent the last year living, writing, and working as an English teacher in Thailand and exploring Southeast Asia. This fall, she will continue her journey as a writer and teacher in the Czech Republic. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian Weekly, The Matador Network, and South East Asia Backpacker magazine. To read more of her published work, visit www.josalinsaffer.com.