I was twelve when my grandfather told me not to date any Puerto Rican boys. We were sitting across from one another in the Brooklawn Diner in South Jersey, in a big green leather booth in the non-smoking section, which he loudly and distinctly requested each time we walked in.
This was in contrast to the smoking section, where he sat the other six days of the week, when I wasn’t with him. The owner would give him a pronounced nod, and say, “Right this way, sir,” but the waitresses would sometimes blow his cover and ask, “What are you doing over on this side, hun?” He hid his smoking from his family, which was something we had in common for a brief period later on. Fifteen years later, when I was twenty-seven and he was very close to the end of his life, I can remember sneaking out the back door of his house after giving him his medication and getting him to sleep. I sat crying and smoking on his patio, the moon reflecting off of the overgrown ivy leaves in glints like a disco ball. I thought about waking him to come outside with me, but I didn’t.
We almost certainly ordered pancakes and eggs that morning, with a coffee for him and a very large chocolate milk for me, dark and thick from too much syrup. Although it’s possible we were talking about the boy band Menudo, my best guess at how we got onto the subject is that I mentioned Marco, a boy at school who wore very cool black-and-white checkered shorts. Either way, it was 1990, and I was talking to my then-sixty-five-year-old grandfather about Puerto Ricans.
And out of nowhere, he said: “If you dated a Puerto Rican guy, I wouldn’t really come around anymore.”
I don’t recall how I responded outwardly, but I felt like I had been pushed, hard, in the back. My grandfather was, at that time, my best friend. And I wasn’t dating Marco (even in the adorable way that twelve-year-olds could hold hands or pass notes and call it dating), but I did occasionally crank call him with my friend Karla on Friday night sleepovers. Because I liked him.
I’m four months out from my wedding. My fiancé, who has been my partner for more than five years, is not Puerto Rican, but his Indian skin is, in fact, similarly dark and gorgeous and Marco-like. Our Hindu-American mash-up wedding has been the source of much family unrest. My partner and I find ourselves walking around in a state of near-constant upset, working all angles of negotiation, throwing emotional and logical appeals at our otherwise delightful parents weekly in an effort to show them what we see as the beauty of two families, two cultures, blending, evolving.
My grandfather’s wife, my grandmother, had passed away when I was nine, three years before we found ourselves sitting at that diner. When she was alive, I didn’t have a whole lot of access to my grandfather. I saw him often, but my grandparents were of the generation where the men rode up front and the ladies in the back on a double-date, and spending time with their grandchildren wasn’t too different. My brother, older than me by six years, spent time with Pop at the arcade, while my grandmother and I would go off on our own to the Ben Franklin to look for doll clothes. We’d reconvene for dinner somewhere in the mall food court, but ultimately, our time was mostly split along gender lines.
And so I didn’t know my grandfather very well until he was a widower in his mid-sixties, which was also around the time that he retired and sold his printing shop, and that my brother, at fifteen, aged out of spending Friday nights riding shotgun in my grandfather’s Baltic Blue Cadillac. At nine years old, though, there was nothing I’d have rather done at the end of a long week of fourth grade than to hit up the Olive Garden and then spend two hours at Waldenbooks in the Deptford Mall, and that happened to be my grandfather’s idea of a good time, too.
He said to my mother, “I never thought I’d find another lady to spend time with, but I have.” He was talking about me.
He evolved after my grandmother died, and in odd, delightful ways. He took up baking, and, to sustain the habit, we sometimes went blueberry picking over in Ocean County. He made fudge and went on trips. He dated. Before my grandmother died, I had what would have perhaps been the chapter headings of his biography—Childhood During the Depression and World War II Soldier and Sunday School Teacher and Active Lions’ Club Member—but after her death, when we began spending time alone together, I learned the more nuanced—and infinitely more interesting—stories.
During Prohibition, while his father made extra money running moonshine, my grandfather had sat on top of the blanket-covered barrels in the back of the car. I heard about his time in Okinawa and Oahu during the war, never stories about combat or death, but about the time he had his head shaved on the beach and his discomfort with the way the women in Japan had walked a few paces behind him. Although my grandparents didn’t have a great relationship, I learned that they had gone dancing every Saturday night of their married lives, even when they hadn’t said a word to each other in days.
I thought about what my grandfather had said in the diner all that afternoon while we walked up and back along the Ocean City boardwalk, stopping for ice cream and to stare at the circling sea gulls. I thought about it all night in my purple bedroom, and the next day at school. When I got home that afternoon, I called him.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said yesterday, that if I ever dated—“
“I was thinking about that, too,” he interrupted, “and I don’t know why I said that. That’s not true.”
“It wouldn’t matter?” I was stunned and pleased.
“Nothing would keep me from coming to see you. I’m sorry. Can we forget I said that?”
Relieved, I said we could. But, of course, I didn’t. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that even if we forgive, we seldom actually forget. Words, especially those that are strikingly out of character, stay with us long after reparations are made. The apology-command, “Forget I said that,” is fruitless. It’s something more like a metaphor. At best, “Forget I said that” means, “Let’s please act, please pretend, as if I never said that.”
I’m surprised by how often I wonder what he would make of this wedding. He would attend—our phone conversation twenty-four years ago assures me of that. But I can’t quite imagine his facial expression as I enter the hall wearing my ornate saree, heavy bangles lining my arms, a gold piece hanging from the part of my hair onto my forehead. I try to picture him dancing amid a sea of darker faces, my future husband’s family, in his stiff late-seventies suit. Would he try the samosas? What would he make of the Ganesh statue, or the fire we’ll circle during the ceremony?
He’d love my future husband; I am sure of that. They are both spiritual but notably private about it. A perfect night in both of their minds is a book and a fire and a Manhattan. They both laugh a lot and tell really good stories, in which they are never the hero, despite often being one in life. They both, I think, see or saw themselves as a character open to change.
The version of my grandfather who was a little boy swimming in South Jersey creeks and riding on the moonshine barrels had to evolve into a uncompromising soldier, eating eggs on the beach in Japan. And that man turned into a husband, and then the father of a little boy, and then the father of a man, and then a father-in-law. He became a grandfather who built elaborate dollhouses for his granddaughter and attempted to skateboard with her on the back patio. When she gave them to him, he read books like Breakfast of Champions and Love in the Time of Cholera.
From 1925 to 2007, he was many different people, and so it is with mostly honesty that I imagine him joyful at my wedding, open to the unfamiliar, thrilled by the love between my partner and I, and dancing in celebration of everything that can happen, everything that can change.
JESSICA MCCAUGHEY’s writing has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Best American Travel Essays, Gulf Coast, and a variety of other literary magazines. Jessica teaches academic and professional writing at George Washington University, and she lives in Virginia with her husband.
We are clearing out his apartment, sorting papers and photographs, and bottles upon bottles of medication when my sister, Rebecca, asks for one more favor. The mortuary has called and said her ex-husband’s ashes are ready for pick-up. Can we please go with her? She isn’t up for a solo trip.
It’s two days after her wedding, which was one week after her first husband’s memorial service. The entire family is still reeling from the juxtaposition—it was all we’d talked about before, during, and after the actual wedding celebration. In conversation we’d put air quotes around “celebration.” We used anger and sarcasm to mask our sorrow and confusion.
Rebecca hadn’t known her ex-husband was going to die the week before her wedding when she’d planned it, of course. She’d gotten engaged almost immediately after the divorce had been finalized, while Charles was undergoing chemotherapy; but she was living with her boyfriend already. We all knew a wedding would happen sooner or later. “But why couldn’t it have been later?” our mother had asked me, crying, the day before the wedding. “Much, much later?”
I had no good answer to give her.
Now, two days after living through the wedding, we go out to lunch first before visiting the mortuary to pick up Charles’s ashes. While we eat Rebecca wants to talk about her wedding. What did Mom think? Did it go okay? I take a big bite of fish and chew, ruthlessly leaving my mother to answer.
“That was the most beautiful wedding dress I’ve ever seen,” our mom says tactfully. She always starts with a positive statement unless we’ve really pissed her off. I shove in a bite of mixed vegetables because the critical portion of Mom’s sentence is about to arrive and I want a physical excuse (my mouth is full!) not to intervene.
Focusing on my food helps me not think about Charles. Two weeks after his death I’m still accustoming myself to not thinking about him. While he was sick, then sicker, then dying, he took up so much space in my thoughts. My life was planned around chemo trips, emergency visits to the doctor or the ER or just the grocery store and pharmacy runs. For the last few months, whenever the phone rang, my heart filled with hot liquid and my fingertips would go numb.
It wasn’t just worry for him, dread for the end; I was so damn tired—it was dread that it would never end that seized me. Sometimes I’d worry that I’d never stop feeling guilt for my relief at it ending and anger for my guilt—it was much easier to be angry at my sister. It is much easier to keep eating instead of acknowledging how I feel at all.
They have stopped discussing the wedding dress. It was a beautiful dress, like something a classy lounge singer would wear in the 1940s. If Rebecca and I had figures even remotely similar—she got the butt, I the boobs—I’d steal that dress, dye it black or scarlet and wear it to her next wedding. But the conversation has moved on from the dress. My mother is expressing her displeasure with the ceremony. “It was all Cheshire, all the time.”
Our family wasn’t included in any aspect. The groom’s niece and nephew sang. The groom’s sister (not our eldest sister) was Matron of Honor. The groom’s family composed two-thirds of the guests and as for those speeches… Well, “inappropriate” is too mild a word. Did Rebecca know that the two of her kids who’d come to the wedding (her oldest daughter flat-out refused) wept through the Best Man’s speech when he’d revealed that my sister’s affair with her new husband had been going on for two years longer than anyone had known?
“I didn’t know the kids cried!” my sister says. Here’s the weird thing, though—she isn’t upset that Mom is displeased with her. Normally Rebecca does not take criticism well. Off-hand comments that our other sister or I would shrug off have been known to send her, this new bride, into her closet to indulge in angry weeping. A chance directive from our mother, something about keeping cats as indoor pets, led to my sister not speaking to Mom for two years. Two years of silence for saying, “Keep your cat away from Rachel, she’s allergic.” But bashing the wedding as inappropriate, liquor-soaked, and hurtful? My sister is fine with it. No, it is weirder than that. My sister seems pleased.
Don’t get me wrong—she’s not happy. She defends the liquor consumption. She defends the inappropriate speech by blaming the liquor consumption, and she defends the lack of her family’s inclusion by offering, “Well, everyone is so sad because Charles died—I didn’t think they’d want to be included.”
Choking laughter overtakes me. I cover my mouth with a napkin. My mother slides my water glass closer, and my sister pats my back. I laugh harder. Tears are running from my eyes. They start to laugh, too. Other restaurant patrons are staring.
None of us wanted to be included, I don’t tell Rebecca. None of us wanted to fucking be there at all. Her daughter was the only honest one. We’re all wiping our eyes now and we don’t have to say anything.
We don’t have to say that we are angry that my sister remarried a week after her ex-husband’s funeral because she knows. I don’t have to say that I’m laughing because her reasoning is always so self-centeredly skewed because they both know. She doesn’t say that she’s pleased that Mom is unhappy with her and critical of her wedding and her general behavior these last few years because we know. Rebecca knows that we forgive her and she knows that we forgive her because we know that she is never going to forgive herself.
After a lunch like that, it’s understandable when we get in the car and Rebecca starts it, she has a brief freak-out. “Oh my god! I don’t know where we’re going! I mean, I know where the mortuary is, but not how to get there!” There is a shrill lining of panic around her words, and the air in the car tastes like chewing on aluminum foil.
Our mom pats her shoulder, not knowing what to say, what directions to offer, but recognizing panic. I back-seat-drive to the location. From spending time with Mom when she lived here, as well as Charles, I am more familiar with Hemet than my sister.
It’s an ugly city. The cracked, ill-kempt streets are laid out in a tidy grid, but it seems that if one drives too far in any direction, one hits the same boggy agricultural field. The air is brown and fetid from smog and pesticides trapped in this weird little valley populated mostly by the elderly. Traffic is both slow and erratically dangerous. Sometimes in my dreams, I drive the city’s streets, a sick animal in the backseat that I can’t clearly see or reach to comfort, its whimpers of pain forcing me to wake myself up to avoid crying myself.
When we reach the mortuary, there is an atrium filled with birds. A faux-desert scene houses little pheasants, and tiny roadrunners wander forlornly, glassed in on all four sides. They can never not be on display, but Rebecca is happy to see them. She likes birds. Watching them calms her. We wait in a musty room. I poke around, examining the literature, how the place is decorated, and what is stored in the credenza against the wall (mostly off-brand tissue boxes and religious bookmark looking things I don’t understand). I am writing a novel that is set in a mortuary; I can use this.
A man comes and shows us to a room where a wooden box sits on a table, shrine-like. We all back up. We put our hands behind our backs. No one wants to take it. We engage the man in conversation, admiring the box without actually looking at it. We all three flirt with the man; we are expert flirters. My mother and sister share a flirting style, I see for the first time. They cajole and flatter; there is a tone in their voices not normally heard, like jollying a petulant child out of his mood.
Finally, Mom tries to take the box. She is the brave one. It is too heavy for her. I help the man set it into a red velvet bag and he puts in into my sister’s arms. She does not look comfortable with this. We walk out to the car and I get my mother settled in the front passenger seat, and my sister sets the bag containing the box on my mother’s lap. My mother rhythmically pats it, as if comforting a fussy baby.
Mom agrees to take the box home with her and put it in her closet next to our stepfather. They can hang out. No one mentions that they never really got along while they were alive. At Charles’s sadly empty apartment, where Rebecca drops us off and Mom and I climb into my car, I belt the box into my back seat and start home.
Mom is unusually silent. This is understandable, I think, and a bit of a relief after the tense day. Up in the mountains she says, “You’ve come full circle. You were his ride when he found out he was sick. Now you’re his ride home.”
We are in the highest part of the mountains. We have been climbing the twisting, looping, steep, two-lane road, and then the top opened up to a stunning view—any way we look is stark California mountain. Here, on this flat opening amongst them, we seem higher yet still protected by ranges surrounding us.
I pull over because I can’t see out of my tear-filled eyes and am having trouble getting air. I’m parked on the side of the road, gasping, feeling like I’m about to vomit. My mother is apologizing and I look out the window and realize where I am. This is where I stopped to talk to Rebecca on the phone that horrible day. This is where I talked to Charles after her, reassuring him it wasn’t all a nightmare, the cancer wasn’t a mistake that my sister had the power to make him “take back.” Years before that, this is where I used to stop and vomit when my body was flush with hormones, natural and injected during my decade of infertility treatments. I am beginning to hate this beautiful spot.
“I am ready to go home,” I say. “I am ready to be done.”
My sister puts her head through the open passenger side window and says, “My husband was always a pain in the ass. Why should he be any different now that he is dead?” And she gestures to the backseat where the wooden casket containing his ashes has been sitting all this long, hot afternoon, carefully belted in.
This is the fourth stop we’ve made in our search for a decent spot to illegally scatter his ashes. Charles chose this road in a remote part of Riverside County, telling everyone who’d listen he wanted to be “thrown to the wind” here. But he never went into specifics. He never said exactly where, he never said why, and we’re wondering if maybe chemo brain was responsible for his decision because this is a damn-awful place to drift into the wind.
August is the worst of the summer months in Southern California. June and July have sucked any moisture gone, so August is lip-cracking dry and the intense heat casts a yellow glare over the afternoon. It feels like the sun is personally angry at us, driving all over these dusty roads, and has persuaded the wind to join him in tormenting us as it swirls and eddies in mini-dirt devils, flinging gravel at our toes exposed by inappropriate sandals when we dare to leave our vehicles.
The first stop we made was above a house surrounded by dead cars and some very mean looking dogs. The second stop was next to a gun range where armed rednecks were actively shooting. The third stop, we realized was outside of Charles’s specified location and his three grown children got into an argument over whether proximity mattered.
This fourth stop is a dirt fire road clinging precariously to the side of a slippery, dusty mountain, ruts and boulders line the edges. We are caravanning and my sedan doesn’t fit on the road. I am perched half in the two-lane, busy highway. My elderly mother is in the passenger seat. Even with the a/c turned all the way up, she is red and sweaty.
“Are you getting out?” Rebecca asks. I think our mother is about to cry.
“Take the ashes,” I tell my sister, leaning into the backseat to pop the seat belt loose. “I’m taking Mom home.”
“You’re not staying?”
“We’re not?” Mom asks, and she smiles at me in relief. Her back is to my sister, who doesn’t see the smile.
“I can’t drive up that road, Mom can’t walk it, and look at her”—Rebecca does and my mother flips open the visor mirror to see herself. “I think she has heatstroke. She’s seventy-four. She’s too old for this shit.”
My sister laughs while my mother nods seriously. “I am too old for this shit.” She starts to cry and my sister hugs her through the open window and kisses her goodbye.
My sister won’t take the ashes. She calls for her middle child, who calls for her boyfriend to carry the pretty little casket. I loan them my pocket knife. They look confused.
“There is a plastic zip tie on the baggy inside,” I explain. “You’ll have to cut it loose.”
I discovered this at the first stop when everyone except my oldest niece’s husband ran to look over the edge of a cliff rather than deal with the ashes. My nephew-in-law, a sweet boy from Kansas, only shrugged when I snarled, “Why the hell are we the ones dealing with this?”
I was shocked out of my irritation by the contents of the baggy. What had once been Charles was now strangely dry, chalky dust with surprisingly large shards of bone in it. I shifted the sealed bag in my hands, listening to the rustling, slushing noise, examining the end sum of my friend. When I was growing up, Charles was so handsome, he was the standard by which I judged all male beauty. Now that beauty, whittled away by his cancer, is reduced to the contents of this gallon-sized plastic bag.
There was one shard of bone, not quite arrowhead shaped, a littler smaller than my littlest finger. I planned on slipping it into my pocket when no one was looking. I wanted to keep it. I wanted to carry it in my mouth.
But Charles’s children decided to move on—they didn’t like the junk-yard look of this stop and I had to force the ash-baggy back into its covering box, shaking it roughly like a colander of pasta to make it fit. Several family members watched, but no one offered to help.
By the fourth stop, by the side of the road, I am ready to hand over the ashes. I am ready to go home. We call good-byes and love-yous out the window and drive away. “I’m sorry to make you miss it,” our mom says.
“I’m not,” I reply. “I’ve done what I could. I did what I could for him while he was alive. My duty is to the living. You look like hell.”
“Gee, thanks,” she says and points the last air vent at her face. All the air vents now hitting her, she rummages in my purse.
I place the back of my hand on the hot window at my side. “I’ve done what I could,” I say, but to myself.
My mother pulls a red lipstick out of my bag. “How ‘bout I put on some lipstick and you take me out to dinner?”
“All right,” I agree. A cool, dark restaurant would be soothing. My hand is still on the burning glass.
We are sitting around Rebecca’s new kitchen table, eating lunch, reading aloud from a book about healthy cholesterol levels, when she expresses how angry she is at her husband. My mother looks up. “Which one?”
I laugh. My sister does not. Her face is tight, but then crumples as I watch.
“Charles never did anything to help himself and then he got sick and his family never did anything to help and never brought his father to see him before he died. And his bitch sister had the audacity to hint to my little girl, at her daddy’s funeral, that we should reimburse Grandpa for the money he paid to the private nurse.” Rebecca is crying so her speech is almost unintelligible, and her “little girl” is twenty-five, but I take her point.
Our mother cries in sympathy. I bring them tissues and make cups of tea and pat them on the back occasionally. I don’t cry. I am tired. I think about the shards of bone in the bag of chalky dust that used to be Charles. I think about my stepfather’s ashes in the pirate chest in my mother’s closet. I remember that my mother has filled in paperwork naming me responsible for her ashes when the time comes. I wonder who will deal with my chalky dust when I am dead.
On the drive home my mother asks if my sister does that often, cries out of anger with her dead husband. I think Rebecca must clean up her emotions when talking to our mother alone.
“She didn’t deal with her anger at the time,” I say, feeling enlightened. “She took off. So she’s gonna have to deal with that for the rest of her life.”
“You’re right,” my mother nods her head, begins to cry once more. “You’re right.”
At that moment I see a Starbucks up ahead. I’m about to offer to pull in, buy a vente pumpkin spice latte (damn whatever the seasonal cut-off date might be) to cheer her up, but then I remember that it’s my mom in the car next to me. My mom hates Starbucks and doesn’t drink much coffee at all. It isn’t her panacea. Now who is confused? Now who is angry? Now who is unenlightened?
Months later, my throat feels choked when I see a Starbucks. I want to go in and order a pumpkin spice latte, but I want my brother-in-law back with me. I want him healthy or at least not actively dying. I want the coffee klatch to be for fun, not a treatment for the chemo shakes and sickness. I want too much, I know.
I have a terrible suspicion that I will never be able to drink coffee again. I am angry about that. I am angry about a lot of things. I am okay with this anger.
SARA MARCHANT received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside/ Palm Desert. Her work has appeared on The Manifest-Station and Every Writer’s Resource. She lives in the high desert of California with her husband and varying amounts of poultry.
My best friend Justine, in a sleeveless white dress that flared out in ruffles above the knees, descended the steps of a waterfront house in Maryland. The fifty hushed guests gasped on cue. They were here to celebrate the couple’s forever-love; I was paying my final respects to our friendship.
That morning I hadn’t helped blend makeup to match Justine’s honey complexion or calmed her down in a moment of panic, even though we’d been friends for twenty-one years. Instead, I wandered around a nearby mall where I once waited while she went on a first date with a man she met online. This was in the early 2000s when Internet courting was synonymous with Craig’s List Killer. Then, I was her wing woman, but today I wasn’t by her side.
But at least I’d be in attendance, unlike her first wedding seven years ago. Amidst the stress of planning a wedding both families disapproved of, she decided on a four-thousand-dollar per person destination affair, even though I, the maid of honor, was living paycheck to paycheck. We’d already been quarreling about details when she took a new stance.
“Honestly, I don’t care if anybody’s there. I don’t care if my family’s there. It doesn’t matter if you’re there or not,” she’d said in a huff. Hurt, devalued, and financially relieved, I’d bailed on the wedding and the planning of her stateside bridal parties. But seven months later, I’d felt guilty.
“It’s fine,” Justine had said when I’d broken our silence with an apology. “I’m over it.”
But I wasn’t. I’d vowed to prove myself reliable. So a few years later when she—newly divorced—prepared to relocate to New Jersey, I scouted apartments on her behalf and emailed self-made videos. With my help, she picked a Jersey City high-rise with a hypnotizing view of Southern Manhattan, not unlike the one behind her now.
As the bride stepped slowly into frame, I held up my iPhone and counted: one … two … Two was the number of times that I’d spoken to Justine on the phone in the last two years and I didn’t know why. My thumb hovered over the shutter button as I let her walk out the shot and to the trestle where her groom and maid of honor—her college roommate who had replaced me before—waited.
Inclusion on Justine’s wedding guest list but exclusion from her life was the culmination of bewildering behavior that began when she left New Jersey in April 2012. For two months, I left unrequited texts and voicemails. At first I was worried that something happened to her until I saw a Facebook post. She was living; she was just doing it without me.
My phone remained silent until September. “Hey. I’m in the City,” she texted. “I’m gonna be at Penn Station around seven tonight if you want to meet up. If not, that’s fine.”
“Sure,” I said, trying to match her nonchalant-ness. That evening I braved the rush-hour drive over the George Washington Bridge to meet her in Midtown.
We hugged. Then we laughed.
“What the heck happened to you?” I said.
“I guess I did your thirty days of silence and solitude,” she said referencing my sporadic practice to abstain from phone calls to find my true and drama-free self.
“Yours was like three hundred days. And at least I tell people,” I said. “You just disappeared.”
Justine shrugged. “I did think about you. I’m glad to see you’re doing okay.”
Until she boarded her train, we made familiar easy jokes and traded expressive glances that had become like a secret language since our first day in a Connecticut Catholic high school. Drawn to each other by the energy that makes atoms collide, we compensated for our inability to take unsupervised outings (edicts set by mothers we believed were overprotective) by creating our own social world that lived on the landline.
We talked every day for hours. Even after college, we chatted in the mornings until she pulled into the parking garage and her signal dropped. Fifteen minutes later, we reconvened at her desk, yapping about work before getting off to actually do it. One year she called me at seven in the morning. A New York City radio morning show was searching for a female co-host. “You should apply,” Justine yelled excitedly from somewhere on I-95. She knew my dreams of working in entertainment. I auditioned for the job and got it. If it weren’t for her, I never would have heard the ad.
I hoped our train station reunion was the rebirth of us, but my only communications from her the rest of the year were two pictures: one of her in a cat costume on Halloween and another of some balloons on New Year’s Eve. The next summer she texted that she was moving in with a new boyfriend. We joked about telling her mom, and I refrained from asking why she moved on from me.
I suspected fundamental differences in our personalities had finally convinced her we were incompatible. While I had been taking creative risks that led to years of low-paying jobs and episodic unemployment, she was making good on a self-imposed deadline to be a six-figure salary executive at a Fortune 500 company by age thirty. If we were TV shows, she was The Jeffersons, and I was Sanford & Son. I knew she wanted positive change for me, but maybe like a haggard spouse grown tired of waiting, she packed her bags and left.
At the end of the year, I found out that she’d gotten engaged. Another friend saw it on Facebook and phoned me before I received my BFF’s texted pic of the groom on one knee: “He proposed.”
I was truly happy for her. I just pretended to be surprised.
The next month, I actually was astonished when Justine texted a surprise dinner invite at the end of a business trip that had brought her back to town. I agreed.
I picked her up in my SUV, but we may as well have been in Doc’s DeLorean. As we waited for a table, I marveled over the chocolate diamond engagement ring and chuckled at stories of her fiancé. After the food arrived, I asked why she disappeared.
“I didn’t realize that happened … it wasn’t intentional,” she said. “It was a crazy time. It’s funny because he knows exactly who you are. I talk about you all the time.”
Even though unintentional wasn’t in her DNA, I nodded. Two months before the wedding, my phone rang.
“Would you write and read something for the wedding? You know me the best and the longest,” she said. “I was going to wait until you returned your invite, but I figured I’d ask you now.”
The invitation had been sitting on my kitchen table. It wasn’t just the loss of friendship that made me debate my attendance; the costly trek from western North Carolina to the coast of Maryland would obliterate the tiny bit of money I had to live on for the summer.
“I’m surprised you asked,” I said. “I didn’t think that I was in your inner circle anymore.”
“I guess we’re not on the same page,” Justine said. “To me, our friendship is the same even though we don’t talk. I thought about what you said at the restaurant. Maybe I pulled away because I didn’t want to keep asking you to hang out when you couldn’t afford it. I dunno. But if someone asked me, I’d still say you are my best friend.”
“Well, I’m honored that you asked,” I said, blinking quickly to ward off a familiar sting in the corners of my eyes. “Of course, I’ll do it.”
During the ceremony, as the couple made jokes with the officiant and guests, I waited for my cue. When she called my name, I rose from my seat and angled my body toward the couple, reading the poem I’d written.
“Love is patient, ever-present /Love is kind, joy divine/ Never envies, never boasts/ Humbles hearts, comforts souls / Pushes towards the finish line /in the midst of mud and grime.” I paused at the reference to the couple’s participation in a mud-filled obstacle competition and glanced at my old friend. Justine had tears in her eyes.
At the end of the reception, she walked over to me. “Thanks for doing the reading. It was perfect. I hope you weren’t put out of your way with all the traveling …”
I was exhausted but not from the physical distance—from the emotional one.
“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it,” I said, glancing only for a minute in eyes that used to say so much before averting my gaze to the blue-black water behind her, almost indistinguishable from the night sky.
“What time does your flight leave? We are having people over for crabs tomorrow at eleven if you want to come.”
“I leave at one.” I gave her a loose hug. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” She gestured towards remaining wedding business. “I got to go.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”
[“Justine” isn’t her real name. —ed.]
KEYSHA WHITAKER has a MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her work has appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward, The Frisky, and the New York Press. She hosts Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers, from a closet in Pennsylvania.
“What song do you want to dance to, Dad?” I asked, scrolling through lists of popular father-daughter dance songs.
Nothing seemed right. No Michael Buble or Paul Simon or Stevie Wonder would cut it; this, after all, was my father—my flannel-shirt-and-faded-blue-jeans, muddy-work-boots, calloused-hands, five-o’clock-shadow, “fetch-me-a-Miller” father. What qualified as “our song?” Maybe “Feed Jake.” Maybe “Friends in Low Places.” Maybe “Act Naturally.” Maybe “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” Hank and Garth and Buck and the Pirates of the Mississippi sang about misery, friends, beer, and mama; they didn’t sing anything about their daughters.
By the day of our wedding, Mom and Dad had settled on a song. “It’s a surprise,” they said.
Four months earlier, I had come home from college graduation with my boyfriend who they liked well enough but were still warming to, and an engagement ring. Brandon had asked my dad’s permission first, of course, out of my hearing the day before, and Dad had said yes—he hugged me extra-long before I left, cap and gown still on.
In the early planning days, Mom and Dad offered to write us a check instead: big party vs. down payment on a house. We waffled for a day or two, but in my head were visions of a white dress and a man in a tux waiting for me, dreams of dancing and spinning under a spotlight, all of our friends and family clapping and celebrating.
It was my day to plan, along with my mom, who navigated the wedding planning with me like she was my maid-of-honor. Mom and I picked the flowers—sunflowers and blue delphinium—the same that decorated the cake display we chose. We taste-tested the catering, got weepy-eyed over my bridal gown and veil, and designed the party favors together. The reception venue was our decision, too, even as my soon-to-be mother-in-law raised her eyebrows and said, “Really, a barn?”
After the father-daughter dance to whatever song Mom and Dad had picked, Rhonda and Brandon would get the party started. Rhonda’s choice for the mother-son dance was easy: Louie Armstrong would sing “What a Wonderful World” for thirty seconds, then the record would screech to a stop. Brandon and his mom would look confused for a second until Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” would begin to play. It fit them perfectly.
I wrote the order of music and communion and rings; I designed the program and inscribed a poem; I recruited our friends as musicians. Brandon and I selected most of the songs and all of the Bible verses for the ceremony. We picked the pastor and the bridal party and the style of music to be played at the reception. We determined the flavor of this wedding, and this wedding would taste just like us.
The guest list: that was their decision—the parents—and it grew, and grew, and grew, until we all silently stared at it sitting on the kitchen counter. Who could we possibly cut? No one. Maybe there were a lot of other commitments that weekend, and the guest list would just… trim itself. Maybe in true Father of the Bride fashion, we could declare, “Well, cross them off, then!”
Also their decision: the alcohol. We toyed with the idea of a dry wedding for about a twelve-hour timespan because Brandon had just gotten a job at a new school, and we weren’t sure yet exactly how conservative they were. A few of his new employers made Round One of the guest list. It hadn’t been decided if they’d make the Round Two cuts.
“You want a what?!” Dad asked, his voice rising steadily. “We are not going to invite all of our friends to a wedding and not have alcohol. What kind of a party is that?”
“But, Da-ad,” I said. “We just thought, you know, the school… and maybe…” but it was no use. My excuses were weak, anyway; it wasn’t like Brandon and his family and our friends and our relatives never kicked back and drank a glass of wine or a can/ six-pack /case of beer, so why pretend otherwise and ruin a good time? Besides, it was Dad’s call. Dad’s decision. Dad’s lead.
So, okay, beer and wine, Dad. And yes, invite all of those people, even those people I won’t know when they come through the receiving line, and I’ll look at Brandon and he’ll look at me, and we’ll both smile and shake their hands and give them hugs and thank them for coming. And, okay, yes, pick our father-daughter dance.
Down the aisle we went, Dad in his black tuxedo looking sharp, no John Deere hat to cover his balding head or shadow his features. His hand was tight in mine, tense against a few hundred sets of eyes that watched us while we two-stepped—left-together, right-together—our paces matched, the Fugman stride slow and easy like a mosey.
I saw only my future husband at the end of the aisle where Brandon waited for me. When we reached the pastor and he asked, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” Dad answered gruffly, “Her mother and I.” I turned my gaze back to him for just that second and wrapped my arms around his neck, and he held on, squeezed and squeezed, then released me to my groom, taking his seat in the sanctuary while I remained standing.
Later, after the bridal dance ended and I parted with a kiss from my new husband, our spunky blue-haired emcee called Dad onto the floor. Dad had donned his Father-of-the-Bride ball cap as soon as the wedding ended and wore it now as he met me for our dance. The bubbles from the bride and groom dance settled and popped on the dance floor. A slow piano, slide guitar, and light percussion played.
The cut-time of Mickey Gilley singing “True Love Ways” carried us along the hardwood, Dad’s calloused palm in my manicured hand. I smiled, even though the tune was unfamiliar to me. I guess it went to number one on the country charts in 1980, the year my parents started dating. Dad would sing it to her in the car as it played on the radio. So romantic, Mom says later. But this was our dance, our slow turn under the spotlight. It didn’t seem like the right fit—know true love’s ways—but what would have been?
Earlier in the afternoon, Dad gave me over, his daughter, his only daughter, his dazzled blue-eyed daughter grinning with confidence over the man she had chosen. I came into the sanctuary my father’s daughter. I walked out of the sanctuary my husband’s wife.
How long had I dreamed of becoming Mrs. Anyone? A boyfriend, a boyfriend, a boyfriend: I wanted one, as long as he would stay around. And then another one, and then I wanted that boyfriend to become a fiancé and that fiancé to become my husband, so I could become Mrs. Anyone. In college, that was the title that mattered: I wanted a partner. I wanted someone I could pour my heart into. That’s what I thought you did after high school and certainly after college. My mom and dad had grown up across the street from each other; she was nineteen when they married and twenty when she delivered her first baby: me. Today it’s ill-advised to marry young, trouble from the start, they don’t know what they’re getting into, a whole life ahead, plenty of time for that, but from where I stood, I felt behind already.
Yes, I also earned a bachelor’s degree. I sought out opportunities to lead and to stretch and to achieve, to do more, earn praise, perform. Dad always said Fugmans aren’t afraid of work, Fugmans are hard workers. He instilled this drive. He was the man who had been my guide. But Brandon was the man I had chosen to walk with me out of the sanctuary, the man who would walk beside me from the altar forward. He brought me a different sort of pride. We had weighed and measured our potential, considered our compatibility, discussed the ways we would raise children, established our priorities. In him, I had found a worthy Scrabble opponent, someone I could adventure with, a man who could say “I’m sorry,” a man who would forgive me, too. For all of that and more, I had chosen him.
Now, Dad held the hand and waist of Mrs. Brandon Wells as we danced. Far in the past, a little girl crawled across his chest and stole his John Deere cap, blue eyes grinning into the face of the camera. She asked for Hooper Humperdink at bedtime again, and now we can all recite it from memory—Pete and Pat and Pasternack, I bet they come by camel back! Back there, too, she watched her mom and dad spin slowly in the living room to “If We Make It Through December,” not knowing then the depth in that melody, not knowing then the weight behind eyes connecting and smiles, what it means to make it through December, together. He taught that little girl the cast of a rod, the slow click and reel after the bobber plunked onto the surface of the water, how to bait a hook with a squirming night crawler. He coached the in-and-out of orange construction cones for hours until she mastered how to parallel park before her final driving test. Whether intentionally or accidentally, he had been preparing me.
Now, we turned slow around the dance floor, each sway a step closer to the last note in the song. Gone was the night we stared up at the cloudless sky on the hill by the old maple and waited for the meteor shower. Evenings swaying in front of a fire pit, turning front ways then back to warm our bodies as we talked about God and faith and family and regret, until the coals flashed red and black, flames dying, then walking slowly into the house to bed. There would be no more creasing wrapping paper in the dry heat of the excavator’s shop on Christmas Eve with him, no more Dad topping off and lifting my bushel basket of corn from the end of a row and spilling it with ease into the bed of the red pickup truck, Dad gunning the accelerator of the snowmobile through the fields with me clinging to his coat toasty in my snowsuit and helmet, Dad showing me the slow slide of a cue stick between thumb and index finger and then the thrust that sent the cue ball breaking against the racked triangle of billiard balls.
All of life before that day squeezed between his dusty calloused hands and mine, a slow turning, slow turning until the end notes began to play. My fingers are my father’s; long and lean, rough along the palms from a summer shoveling mulch, tough where a pen had rubbed and formed a writer’s bump. They were made for work; they were made for pouring your sweat into the thing you loved.
Even over the black tuxedo, fresh trim, and aftershave, I could breathe him in when we embraced, the scent of sweat and sun and earth and oil, “I love you, Sare,” he said.
“I love you, too, Dad.”
“It is a beautiful song,” Mom tells me later, “and we chose it for a beautiful girl.” Sometimes we’ll sigh, sometimes we’ll cry, and we’ll know why, just you and I… Maybe it was perfect. As Mickey Gilley lulled a final “…know true love ways,” Dad spun me out, then pulled me back in, my white dress billowing, the bill of his father-of-the-bride cap shadowing his smile.
SARAH M. WELLS is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce. Poems and essays by Wells have appeared recently in Ascent, Brevity, The Common, The Good Men Project, New Ohio Review, Poetry East, Puerto del Sol, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Sarah’s poetry and essays have been honored with three Pushcart Prize nominations. Two essays were listed as notable essays in the Best American Essays 2013 and 2012. Her memoir-in-progress on dads, husbands, and the girl between is tentatively titled American Honey. She is the Administrative Director of the Ashland University MFA Program and Managing Editor of the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth. http://sarahmwells.blogspot.com.
The party, by definition, is not co-ed. That’s because it’s a bachelorette party, my first. I am skeptical. I’m a girl, but I don’t understand girl things. Like Anybodys, my favorite character from West Side Story, I prefer to hang out with guys. Of course, Anybodys didn’t fit in with the guys, either. Not because she was a girl, but because she was annoying. Even I know that.
The girls I ran with in high school dipped Cherry Skoal and climbed trees and swung from ropes into polluted rivers. This is not the agenda of the bachelorette party I will attend. The invitation says it’s an ’80s prom dress theme. We are to show up in obnoxious ruffled tulle gowns and tease our hair out as far as possible. The hostess assures me that there will be no male strippers.
The boys, for the bachelor party, will spend the following weekend camping. I envy them.
In middle school I peered, perplexed, over the shoulders of cheerleader classmates who thumbed through dog-eared issues of Your Prom and Seventeen. They scrutinized Jessica McClintock ads with billowing, candy-colored gowns on young models wearing white lace gloves. Sometimes if Mom took me back-to-school shopping, I’d wander from the Junior casual wear to the formals and eye the sequins and crinolines with suspicious longing. When the time came, I did go to prom, but my “date” was my friend Carrie, whose college boyfriend preferred to stay home. Carrie and I had a blast. I wore a feather boa and even shaved my armpits. Knowing I was in no danger of losing my virginity later that evening in a shared room at the Best Western helped.
The dress I wore that night still fits, but it’s not of the right era. Finding a suitable dress for the bachelorette party is problematic. After combing every thrift store in town, I realize the puff and sizzle of ’80s prom dresses faded from favor so long ago that only mid-’90s fashion populates the Goodwill and Salvation Army. I half-heartedly buy an unexceptional purple velvet halter dress, a pair of royal blue snakeskin spikes, and a large can of off-brand aerosol hair spray.
The other dozen bachelorettes arrive at the hostess’s San Francisco loft on party night. Many of them I know well already; the girlfriends of my boyfriend’s friends, they are kind and funny women who accepted me instantly when Joe and I began dating. But I’m used to our gang’s weekend meet-ups at music clubs or bars, and at this all-girl affair I can’t seem to settle in. Anxious, I have a few glasses of red wine with our spaghetti and meatballs dinner, and thus decide to stick with wine for the rest of the night. I have learned multiple times if an evening begins with red wine and moves to other, harder drinks, it never finishes well. But when the hostess brings out penis-shaped mini-cakes for dessert, I am too buzzed to remember my pledge, and I enthusiastically drink the icy, fruity-sweet pink concoction another bachelorette offers me.
The penis cakes are made from German chocolate cake mix, and they have toasted coconut icing between the cake scrotum and the cake penis for pubic hair. “I just love to put a big German chocolate cock in my mouth!” I say because the fruity pink drinks have made me especially witty, and the girls and I all laugh.
We change into our dresses and apply our makeup. I fumble with a curling iron and try to attempt the giant, fluffy bangs I was never able to nail during the real 1980s. After ten minutes I quit, stuck with a tangled coiffure that would better suit Ian McCulloch or maybe a homeless junkie. The bride wears an awful, white satin, floor-length dress with white sequins studding its halter top. It’s perfect. “Who knows,” she says, “maybe someone actually got married in this.”
The hostess collects money for the limo—twenty dollars a girl. I pay and resolve to be a good sport. Limos are for losers who want to feel important. We teeter down the stairs in our secondhand pumps and cram into the limo like glittery sardines. Right away the bride opens the sunroof and pops up, going Whoo! Some of us have to sit on each other’s laps. The driver looks at the jumble of girls before he closes the door, possibly thrilled, possibly terrified.
I am wrong about the limo. The limo is awesome. There’s a full bar and a bottle of Champagne and a kickin’ sound system and a built-in fish tank and an elaborate network of pulsing black lights that electrify the white elements of our costumes, rendering the bride trippily resplendent. We drink the Champagne and look out the tinted windows and see the twinkling city speeding by, then look at each other and grin and cackle. Some of us are mothers, some of us have masters degrees. I’ve never been with so many girls in such a small space. We do shots straight from the whiskey decanter and, with a rush, I sense our fundamental sisterhood, the universal manic sisterhood that makes girls flash their breasts and scream gleefully. Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Yellen and Margaret Thatcher could all be riding in the limo with us and they’d succumb to the collective, feminine Whoo in the face of alcohol and estrogen. I am no longer Anybodys skulking in an unexceptional purple velvet helter dress, but part of a fabulous multi-organism system of sparkles and curves, intoxicated with giddiness.
The driver lets us out right in front of the club. This is our red carpet. People take pictures of us with their phones. We strut to the will-call booth, past long lines of boring regular guys in pleated chinos who have nothing better to do than wait for half an hour to see a mediocre cover band. We came to make fun and have fun. We are the party.
We go straight to the bar. The bride wears a pink plastic shot glass on a string around her neck. On the shot glass are the words BUY ME A SHOT, I’M GETTING MARRIED, so two guys at the bar oblige. I want someone to buy me drinks. I want my awakening girl power to earn me free alcohol.
We hear music from the auditorium and, in a pack, run right in front of the stage. The band is called Tainted Love and has about seven members, all dressed in outfits way more ridiculous than ours—gimmicky costume-store stuff like fake fur ties and vinyl tank tops with designs of the Union Jack. They play “Come On, Eileen” and “Maneater” and we all dance and I dance, even if it’s to stupid Tainted Love and their try-hard wardrobe.
My bra bothers me. It’s strapless, with black lace and everything, and I never wear it. I bought it before I figured out that if you are an A cup and you don’t want someone to see your bra straps, just don’t wear a bra. Now the elastic cuts into my sides and chafes my skin, so I undo the clasp and launch it slingshot-style at Tainted Love. One of the keyboardists makes a beeline and whisks it away as if I’d thrown a Molotov cocktail or a dead possum. “Bite me!” I yell.
Then they play “I Wanna Be Sedated” (not an ’80s song) and because I love the Ramones I stop being mad at Tainted Love long enough to shout along and jump up and down until I wet myself a little. Incontinent already! I resolve to do Kegel excercises, and then start—hell, why not—right there on the dance floor.
But jumping up and down makes me hot and I forget about Kegels and tug at my black satin opera glove, accidentally pulling apart the sparkly bracelet I’m wearing over it. Rhinestones fly everywhere. I wish one would hit Tainted Love, but no such luck.
The bride is discontent. She’s crying and throwing ice from her drink at Tainted Love, who are playing “Unbelievable” (also not from the ’80s). “I hate this song!” she screams. It is our cue. We retreat to the bar. The bride sits on the hostess’s lap and then she’s straddling the hostess, and the two guys who bought her the shots look over with interest until the bride slides to the floor with a bump.
I notice plush phone booths in the lobby and dash into one, because suddenly it is incredibly urgent that I talk to my boyfriend right away.
“Joe!” I say. “It’s me, I’m here seeing Tainted Love. They suck!”
He’s confused, startled. “It’s after midnight,” he says. “Is everything okay?”
“I love you!” I say. “It’s so weird here, I just had to call you now and tell you how weird it is. What are you doing?”
“Are you drunk? You’re drunk.”
“I miss you! I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Be careful,” he says. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I love you! Don’t worry, we have a limo. Bye!”
I spy a bachelorette swaying/standing. “I think I’m going to throw up,” she says.
I grab her arm. We rush to the bathroom. There’s a line going out the door, but we cut to the front.
The bathroom attendant—they still have bathroom attendants?—shakes her head. “Nuh-uh,” she says. “You gotta go to the back of the line.” My bachelorette cannot wait; she vomits into a sink.
“You can’t do that in there!” says the attendant. “I ain’t cleaning that shit up.” She’s wearing a polyester smock, like a cleaning lady wears. She has seen girls like us come and go every weekend; our tawdry splendor is less than nothing to her. On our way out, my friend stuffs a handful of dollar bills into the attendant’s tip cup, hiccupping wetly.
The other bachelorettes rest in the lobby, wilting on sofas. We rally and summon our limo. I cling to my charge and escort her outside. I realize my shoes are inside the club, somewhere on the dance floor.
The hard-core party girls pop out of the limo’s sunroof again, but my once-supple reserve of Whoo is dry. I push girls out of the way to get a seat next to the door as my woozy friend lets out a gurgling belch. I roll the power window down and ease her head toward the fetid city air. The limo breaks hard and girls tumble atop each other, a tangle of stiletto heels and faux pearls and ratted-out hair. I do not tumble with them; I have made myself small and distant.
My friend leans out the window, retching. Her sickness is my salvation; the more I focus on her, the less aware I am of my closeness to the very same state. I hold her hair back to make it okay. I see the chaotic spatter on the glossy black door when we stumble out of the limo in front of our hostess’s place. We give the driver what I assume is a very generous tip.
Back in the loft, the intrepid hostess puts on even more ’80s music, and it bores into my eardrums like a dentist’s drill. The bride moans in an armchair, the empty pink shot glass still around her neck. My friend passes out on a futon, all vomited out, her dress torn. I brought pajamas, but I crawl under the coffee table in my purple dress and wish I hadn’t started out the night with red wine.
At dawn, I creep to the toilet to throw up. A few hours later, I wake up to a line of girls suffering for turns in the bathroom. “I think everyone here has puked,” the rumpled bride says from her armchair.
It takes me an hour just to get off the floor. Even my hair hurts, which, after a night under the coffee table, now resembles Robert Smith more than any member of Echo and the Bunnymen. I throw up one more time for good measure before I drive home. Joe is there, looking bright and healthy.
“What exactly happened last night?” he asks.
“I’m going to die,” I tell him. “Bed.”
I sleep until five that afternoon and eat boxed macaroni and cheese for dinner. Three years later Joe and I get married, and I do not have a bachelorette party.
SARA BIR is a chef, culinary educator, and former music critic/sausage cart worker/sportsbra salesperson/library assistant/chocolate factory tour guide. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The North Bay Bohemian, The Oregoninan, MIX, and Section M. You can read her blog, The Sausagetarian, at sarabir.com.
This essay contains spoilers about Breaking Bad, so if that matters to you, bookmark this baby. —Ed.
I have something of dire importance to say to my wife, Sheryl, but she’s on the phone. So I grab a beer and mill about.
When she’s finally off, she tells me that she went to Zumba, how tired she is, how her cute dominatrix instructor from the Ukraine encouraged her to up her weight limit, what her dom wore to class, what she wore to class, what the other people wore. Sheryl knows I hate this kind of conversation, because it’s not really meant for me—unless, perhaps, as punishment.
When she’s done, I say, “There’s a new theory floating around about Breaking Bad.”
She doesn’t respond, just stares at me. This is significant because, for the past several years, the one thing we could agree on, without fail, was that show. Following the saga of Walter White—the cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who transforms into a drug kingpin—was inexplicably therapeutic for us. The rule was we had to watch every episode together, without cheating, or there would be serious hell to pay from the other. Afterwards, we would discuss.
We got married, in fact, because we liked talking to each other.
Here’s the gist for those uninitiated into the series: Walt needs to earn money for his family before he dies, so he enlists the help of one of his former students, Jesse, and together they secretly cook meth in an RV out in the desert. But Walt’s plan is complicated by the fact that he excels at his new cottage industry. His blue meth is the purest around, which puts him both in competition, and in league, with some of the most ruthless members of the criminal underworld. Ultimately, his megalomania endangers the lives of everyone he loves, including his wife Skyler, his teenage son Walt Jr. and his newborn Holly.
“The theory,” I continue, “is that what we saw wasn’t the real way the show ended, and that the last episode was all in Walt’s head.”
Sheryl looks around the room, at the color of the walls that she’s not satisfied with, at a stinkbug pioneering a stretch of molding.
“The idea goes that as the police close in on Walt in the snow-covered car he’s trying to hotwire, he changes up the game in his head. The cops pass him, he magically finds a set of spare keys behind the visor, and rejuvenated by his sudden good fortune, returns to New Mexico to settle his final scores.”
She stares at me again. At least it approximates eye contact. “But what does it matter?” she asks. “He dies anyway.”
Her comment feels like a kick in the nads, but I catch my breath and soldier on. “Well, it’s important because it determines whether he’s able to die on his own terms. It’s about being a man, you know? And then you’re left to ask: Well, is that just after all he’s done? Is that right?”
But she persists in her take—which is not to have a take, I guess.
“I’m just saying, what’s the point of even talking about it? The show’s over now.”
“You’re right,” I say, deflated. “What’s the point?”
Sheryl and I met as undergrads at the University of Georgia, reunited on Facebook twenty years later, flirted by phone for several months, and then finally began our bi-coastal dating relationship.
Jet-setting between my home in Los Angeles—the entertainment capital of the world—and her home in Charlottesville, Virginia—where nothing much happens but the weather—was super-romantic. She was the one who wooed me. She sent me handwritten love notes and little gifts (including a cast iron skillet) that evoked pleasant thoughts of domesticity.
When we were together, we were always on vacation.
When we were apart, we talked on the phone almost every night, about the old times, the status of mutual friends, the unspooling of our lives. Unspoken was how she became more conservative with the birth of her son, how I became more liberal from my five years of living on the Left Coast.
What didn’t seem like a match two decades earlier gradually came to seem do-able.
The difference in time between Eastern and Pacific meant my stories were often bedtime stories for her, and I could tell by the long pauses between affirmations when she was nodding off. Neither of us minded so much that I didn’t always get to the ending, though.
Some stories—the ones we truly love—we don’t want to end.
I never meditated too long on why the writers chose the name “Heisenberg” for Walt’s alter ego. I knew his namesake was a scientist and that it had something to do with the atomic bomb, but I figured they would either explain it more or I could look it up later. Well, I finally looked it up.
Warner Heisenberg was one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which not only led humanity down the road to atomic weaponry, but it also led us down the road of quantum theory in general, which includes quantum chemistry and quantum physics.
Just like with Walt, good intentions could be viewed as having gone astray (although in the real Heisenberg’s case, it was a more complicated matter). The real Heisenberg had terminal cancer, too.
Subsequent theories in the quantum realm express similar dualities. Just like that old chestnut about the Deep South, it’s all relative, right? The truth and how well it can be defined are sometimes dependent on your perspective.
At least two realities exist in Breaking Bad. One is the TV ending we can live with. Walt finds a way to transfer his ill-gotten gains to his son, exacts his revenge on those who crossed him (who were conveniently more evil than he was), and rescues Jesse from the meth dungeon, where he had been forced to cook for the thugs that Walt had previously allied with.
I still need that ending. It may not be quite as logical, as “real,” but I cannot live in a world in which Jesse at least doesn’t get away. He doesn’t deserve that fate.
But I’ve also come to accept the implicit ending, that what Walt thinks he experiences is actually a fantasy he concocts in his own rotting brain. He’s still aware, of course, of the logic of how people will react to him, based on how they’ve reacted to him in the past, and this knowledge keeps him from spoiling his own illusion that he has continued forward, even though he has really gone nowhere.
With a generous nod to postmodern film criticism, which counts viewer interpretation as being as valid as the filmmaker’s conscious or stated intent, it simply feels more like real life.
In reality, bad things happen to good people, and some mistakes can’t be taken back.
One of the reasons Sheryl and I fight is sleep. If one of us sleeps well, the other can’t seem to get a wink. Sleep is the aspect of a loving relationship you can’t really work on. It’s a zero-sum game, and we are both greedy in bed in that respect.
When she sleeps, she sprawls diagonally, points her long legs all the way down to her big toes, and kicks like the professional dancer she aspires to be in her next life. I’ve often suspected, though, she doesn’t do her Rockettes performance in my absence, and that she’s passive aggressive even in REM state.
But I admit that I am more disruptive. I scream unexpectedly in the middle of the night, for example. It isn’t always a nightmare. Sometimes I simply fall asleep on my arm, and my arm follows, and the alarm in my subconscious goes off, bleating its warning from the murky depths that a part of me is dying.
This all led to Sheryl’s decision to finish the basement. It would give us more space, she explained, and we could move her son down there, freeing up a bedroom for when we both really needed our sleep.
My stepson T. is fifteen and already six-foot-two. His haircuts alternate from Ziggy Stardust, to hippy-dippy, to high-and-tight. He’s currently trying to grow a mustache, and so far, he’s already doing better than I’m able. He’s a good human being. Better than me on that front as well. He’s also quite possibly a genius—just ask his mother.
So she drew up plans—she once dreamed of becoming an architect—and oversaw the contractor. She did all of the finishing touches herself. Throughout the process, I was supposed to praise every new wall erected, every sign of progress, but to me it felt like we were going backwards.
The pending change in our sleeping arrangements felt like the demise of our romance.
Suspense, of course, is essential to telling a good story, and one aspect of Breaking Bad that fascinated us both is that it jerked you around in time. An unexpected flashback or flash forward would create a tantalizing mystery that begged to be solved. Like the pink teddy bear with one eye that ended up in Walt’s pool.
The puzzle pieces didn’t always make sense right away, but you knew by end they would all fit together.
The bear, we learn, was a result of the fictional Wayfarer 515 air collision, in which a bereaved air traffic controller accidentally sends a commercial airliner into the path of a chartered plane, killing 167 people. One act of un-kindness—in this case, Walt letting Jesse’s girlfriend die—kicks the next domino, which is her father, the air traffic controller, whose distraction leads to the mid-air collision.
With so many lives affected by the tragedy, your imagination is left to extrapolate how bad energy will just keep multiplying.
The flight from Los Angeles to Virginia is about seven hours. If you fly non-stop. Plus, you have to take into consideration the three hours you lose. My flight was further complicated by a stop-over and a bump, which meant staying in the Philadelphia airport an entire sleepless night.
Walter White did many unforgivable things over the course of the show. He even poisoned a child. All I did was try to get some sleep.
For my first official day home, Sheryl planned a party for all of her friends to welcome me. But as the time crept closer for her to trot me out, I was still in bed, which was still “our bed” then. She rudely shook me awake.
“Would you stop?” I begged. “A man needs his sleep!”
“A man needs his sleep?” she repeated, outraged—as if my exhaustion was an affront not just to her and her own need for sleep, but to all women’s need for sleep.
“A human being!” I said and covered my eyes with a pillow. “Now go away!”
She left in a huff, telling me I had five more minutes and then I’d better get up. When she returned, she brought her son in to double-team me. He was much littler then, but together they were a force of nature.
“Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” they yelled as they jumped on me and bounced the bed.
I bolted upward and threw out my hands in self-defense. Once I remembered where I was again, I was not amused.
“You’re lucky I didn’t hit you!” I snarled and rolled over.
Despite the obviousness of the context, I knew that didn’t come out quite right. Sheryl confirmed as much when she responded, “If you ever hit me or my son…”
Unfortunately, that fight stretched out for several days. The welcome-home party took on a turd-in-the-punch-bowl vibe when I hardly spoke to anyone, inviting retaliation from my wife afterward. The drama culminated with me on my cell phone in tears on the Downtown Mall, still trying to explain myself, but needing to be anywhere else but in the same house with her.
As teenagers rubber-necked, that’s when I said it. That thing you can never take back.
After the never-ending home construction project was over, I finally had that sleep study done, the idea for which had originated months earlier at Sheryl’s request.
It was awkward. The tests are conducted in a hotel, which seems to me more tawdry than medical. The technicians put electrodes all over your body, they let you watch a little television until you’re sleepy—I caught a repeat of Breaking Bad—then they observe you while you sleep. You really can’t move around much. You’re tethered.
I didn’t feel like I slept much during the testing. I kept going under and then resurfacing. They call these “arousals.” I was relieved to learn that they didn’t mean the other kind, because they said I had a lot of them during the night.
In the morning, they fed me a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel lobby. I ate second helpings, with the assumption that I had no obligation to tip.
I felt good about that decision because the bill from the test was a killer. Another source of animosity between us. At first she said she would pay a portion of the damage, but then she reneged. Choosing to have the test done was ultimately my decision, she said.
At my follow-up appointment, the doctor said there wasn’t anything dangerous about my sleep. I didn’t need to strap on one of those S&M space masks—an assortment of which he had on Styrofoam heads all around his office—but I could still get one if I wanted. He would just have to make up an excuse for insurance purposes.
I returned home triumphantly from the doctor with test results that proved I fell “within a range of normal.” To which she only sneered.
But I had done what she wanted, and I asked, “Can I come back to our bedroom and sleep?”
“Now that we’re in separate rooms, I feel like the problem has been solved in my mind,” she said. “I’m getting the best sleep of my life. But maybe you can visit once a week?”
I think a part of her wanted me to beg, as penance for some past sin. But I was too proud.
As our standoff unfolded, she actually faulted me for not being more loving, for not catering more to her needs. She grew increasingly confrontational, and she justified her actions with the non sequitur that she could behave that way because she was the girl in the relationship.
Silently, though, I agreed with Sheryl. I believe that all girls should be told they hang the moon. They should be told that they are pretty and smart and that they are loved, without condition. But that’s not what happens in every girl’s childhood.
And that’s not how I responded. What came out of my mouth instead was, “I can be just as much of a girl as you can.”
So here we are. Breaking Bad is over, and the only show that even comes close to replacing it for us is The Walking Dead—a metaphor I’d prefer not to contemplate.
What happens now that we can’t offload our marital tensions vicariously through Walt and Skyler anymore? What happens now that we know the whole story—that Walt Jr. won’t become a meth addict, as we once feared, and that poor Jesse indeed makes it out alive, if not unscathed?
What happens now that we’ve reached an end?
We have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for months now, with fans to knock out any impromptu noises in the night. During this particular night, which is actually early morning, I’m so mired in the old lumpy futon mattress I sleep on that my arms get pinned to my sides and one of them falls asleep. By instinct, I cry out and wake myself. It’s loud, but maybe she didn’t hear?
A few seconds later, the hall light shines in through the door cracks. It’s 3:30-ish a.m.
I fall back to sleep and get up at my normal time. When I peek into Sheryl’s bedroom, she’s already downstairs. Her bed is made. And I verify the situation with our wedding pictures is status quo; she’d taken them down, despite the therapy we both agreed was helping.
I have to hand it to her. This is her passive aggressive masterpiece.
You take for granted the images you see all of the time, until they’re gone. I’m trying my best to picture the cluster of three 11 x 14 photos, but it’s a challenge. All three portraits are of the two of us at the ocean in our wedding clothes—a destination wedding in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
In the picture that comes most readily to mind, Sheryl stands on the black rocks in her red cotton Victoria’s Secret dress, looking statuesque. I sit in diminutive silhouette, staring up at her like a child might.
The second-easiest to recall is the one of us prone in the volcanic sand, and you can see us both clearly in this one. I wear a white shirt and have my tan britches from Old Navy rolled up mid-calf as I nest in her arms. We both look stupidly happy as we stare off towards the ocean, like a scene from our remake of From Here to Eternity, the last blush of sunset still clinging to the bottoms of the clouds.
But the third picture is the hardest to remember. It doesn’t come to me right away, but it will later. It’s a close-up of us in silhouette. Our arms are entwined yet free-flowing, like some statue from a Hindu temple. A beast or a deity with a shared torso and two distinct heads. Even in shadow, both of us are clearly recognizable as our individual selves.
That’s the one I’ve always liked best.
I had waited a while before calling her out on taking the photos down. She claimed it was because I referred to her clustering of art as “junky,” which isn’t quite right, because she also removed the stand-alones of us propped up around the house.
Who was wrong first? I don’t know. Sheryl’s always had her fears, and she’s always made them a reality. I’ve always reacted in knee-jerk fashion, turned tail and ran, but being married isn’t about that. It’s about sticking.
Yes, technically, I was the first to cry uncle on the bricks of the Downtown Mall. To say in a fit of anger that I wanted a divorce. I’m ashamed to say I’ve said it more than once, but I’ve always taken it back. And she’s taken me back.
Finally, she said it, too. And while she also took her words back, the photos are still down.
But we are not over yet. In part, because I don’t want us to be. I’m still hopeful she feels the same.
As I get ready to take my morning shower, I overhear a conversation between mother and son. He apologizes for having been grumpy the night before—he lost his favorite calculator.
“It’s all right,” she tells him. “We’re all working on becoming better persons.”
Soon after, T. leaves for school. Sheryl sips coffee on the couch and writes in her journal. I eat a quick breakfast and throw together my lunch, all in purposeful silence. My episode of night terror still hangs over us like blimp.
But before I leave the house, like she does for me each weekday morning, she rises from the couch to give me a goodbye kiss. Sometimes it’s not a real kiss. Sometimes she only receives, on her cheek or on her forehead. But it’s something, and probably more than I deserve.
This morning, just like always, she meets me half way at the barrier that separates “shoes on” from “shoes off.”
Suddenly, with her right hand, she balls up her fist and rears back like she’s about to hit me.
But with her left hand, Sheryl pulls me forward and kisses me on the lips. Which tells me that an ending isn’t always an ending, and that we might just be okay.
ERIC WILLIAMSON is a journalist and communications professional who has recently begun exploring personal essay.