He wasn’t a handsome man, but he had a handsome man’s chin. And a voice that made up for pretty much everything else. I could not get over his voice. It’s the only thing about me, he once said, that I can control. He was on his college debate team and I could only imagine the suckers that thought they could actually talk him out of anything. I spent years trying to find a voice that resembled his, just so I could hear it again, but I never could. He was also quite tall, which was nice in theory, though I really didn’t ever get to see him all that much.
When I was twenty-six, we had the briefest of brief love affairs that lasted really only a couple of weeks; well, really only about four nights. But then, after it was over, we swirled around in each other’s heads for years, each not really aware that the other had never forgotten those four nights. Was, in fact, still thinking about them.
We had met in the backyard of my first real boyfriend four years before our actual love affair. I heard that voice and saw him casually snap a cigarette out of my first real boyfriend’s hands and I thought, Oh. This is the kind of guy I should be with. And then when a bunch of us were hanging out a few years later, after he’d moved out west, and then returned briefly, I realized I still felt the same way. But he had to go back west, he told me, as we stood in the dark outside a bar, and he continued to explain why, even though it seemed like we could be dating, we couldn’t really be dating.
But we both thought about it for a long time. Long after he moved back west and after I got married and after he got married. We had been in and out of touch for all those years that followed. I would write to him out of the blue and he would write back and it was just basic how are you doing sort of emails, nothing much, really. But it thrilled me anyway.
And then one time I wrote to see how he was, and it turned out he just happened to be visiting relatives back east, not far from where I was now living with my husband and two children. And we thought that hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we got together? It was. He came with his wife and his young son and we all got along well. At one point, when the two of us were talking alone together in the kitchen, he leaned against the counter and knocked a bowl to the floor. It shattered. And he was incredibly flustered, but I told him it was no big deal at all, just a bowl, jeez, wanting so much to make him feel comfortable. I noticed again that he was really quite tall. Thirteen years had passed. I was almost forty.
One night, soon after this, when he was safely back across the country, I asked him, in an online chat, to tell me something he’d always wanted to tell me. There was something about how he had knocked that bowl onto the ground. There was something I thought I knew. And eventually, after asking me if I was sure I wanted to know, he wrote that he should have never gone back west way back when we should have dated but didn’t. We should have, in fact, dated. I mean, there was more, of course, but that was basically it. We had never stopped thinking about each other for all those years. So now what?
There are people that make an appearance in our lives at exactly the right time. Sometimes you recognize it immediately but, other times, you don’t quite see it until long after the fact, when a series of events that seemed random and scattered begin to line up in your memory with a surprisingly linear precision.
So for instance, not long after the online chat just described, I was with my husband at a friend’s birthday party when I started talking to a woman I had known just a little bit. We were both giddy and a bit drunk at this party, and she told me about a writing workshop that was offered through a local university. I suppose we were talking about writing, but I can’t really remember how we got there. She told me that the university got good writers to lead these workshops and all you had to do was apply. If you got in, it was free. “You should do it!” she said, hardly knowing me at the time.
And I did. And it was at this workshop, where I found myself sitting at a table with total strangers, not a mother or a wife but a writer, where I began to feel my real self emerging again, the one I had buried for years, buried so that I could not see what was right in front me: my terrible unhappiness, my difficult, exhausting marriage.
When I think of the beginning of the end of my marriage, I always return to that random conversation with a woman who had been an acquaintance, a conversation that very casually set off a long series of events that quite simply changed the entire direction of my life.
But what about the man with the handsome man’s chin? Did you think this was going to be a love story?
It was, in a way.
After our online confession, he wrote me gorgeous poems, the sort of poems you dream of receiving when you’re twelve years old, studying your face in the mirror, and imagining love. It was intoxicating, of course. There were secret phone calls in which we talked about our love for each other, with a plan to meet secretly, somehow, even though we still lived thousands of miles away. We were never going to run away together. But maybe we could meet just one time. We had never, in all those years, spent more than a few hours together.
This is the guy you’re supposed to wait for your whole life: the one who gets you, who thinks you are more beautiful, more special, more interesting, than any other woman in the world, who says exactly the things you want to be told, things that you assumed no one could possibly know you’d want to hear.
We had never, in all those years, spent more than a few hours together.
In the end, we stopped talking. He had to stop. He couldn’t see me. He thought he could come all those thousands of miles by himself, just for a time, but in the end, he could not. And in the end, it was too much, too sad, too painful for everything. And then his emails got less and less frequent; he would not answer his phone when I called. It was too hard for him to keep up with his normal life and to have this secret life. I got that. But I missed him. I kept trying to contact him, but he was gone. For a long time, I was angry, frustrated, sad. Years passed. My life took a turn for the worse, and then, after another series of events, a turn for the better. Which is where I am now.
When I think of him, this man whose love for me was like the love you are told to wait for your whole life, I can only think of him as someone who, more than once, simply showed up in my life at exactly the right time. He was never going to be the love of my life, not really, much as I thought so at the time, but the one who would make me think (more than once), Oh. This is the kind of guy I should be with. Not him, exactly. We were never quite real to each other. Our relationship, if it had really happened in our twenties, would have ended. Maybe after a few months. Or a few years. Instead, nearing the age of forty, it was one last gasp at our youth, a way to recapture those few weeks, or really, those four nights, that we barely spent together. Even at the time, I could see that we were setting ourselves up for a disappointment, but not quite the disappointment that it turned out to be.
But I like to think that we both showed each other a window in which a different swirling life existed, and then once the blinds were quickly drawn, we could keep that image in our heads. We could hear a faint voice on the other side, waiting for us to get over there, to see what was possible.
January 2012: Staring back at my husband’s pixilated face, I purse my lips and remain silent on my end of our Skype conversation. His sadness, shaved head, and obnoxious mustache (trimmed to fit perfectly along his upper lip, but no further than a quarter inch, according to Navy regulations) make my husband sound and look so different; they make him seem that much further away.
I don’t know, Tom finally says.
I’m a pretty good rambler, one who’ll blabber on about anything to avoid awkward silence, but it’s times like this when I too have nothing to say. So instead, I question.
We can’t just get up and leave. Can we?
Again he has no answer or at least not one I can write here. There’s a lot he cannot tell me, and then there’s what he can tell me but has asked me not to say. Instead of giving a concrete answer, he lays out the pros and cons, going back and forth, back and forth, just like the commentators on NPR. Everyone seems to be asking the same question: after over ten years of war, shouldn’t we, as Americans, know exactly why 89,000 American troops are still in Afghanistan?
Tom cradles his clean-shaven cheeks in his hands, then rubs his palms over closed eyes, pulling the lids sideways as they move across his temples and finally rest behind his ears.
Can we talk about something else?
The desperation in his voice surprises me, a flip from the excited reaction he had after the big phone call—the one when he pulled to the side of the road and Sir, yes, Sir’ed that he was ready to deploy, while my heartbeat matched the cadence of the cars I watched whizz by.
I think I’m going to head to bed, Tom says.
No, not yet! I say, but I struggle to find anything new to talk about, something interesting enough to keep him on the line.
He sighs, rubs his eyes again.
You look so tired, Love.
Barely a month into his deployment and already his sense of adventure is flickering. Deep lines I’ve never seen before have etched into his forehead. I resist asking if his skin is still painfully dry, if he’s using the face and hand moisturizers I sent. Neither do I ask about the dark circles under his eyes. I know. He’s been working sixteen-plus hour days. Every day. I don’t know how to respond when he wonders aloud whether all this work will have any lasting consequence.
I know what you should do, Love.
What? he asks flatly.
You should just come home right now! I say with a big, epiphanous smile, like a child egging him on to join her world of make believe. But my goofy grin goes unreturned, save for a slight rise in one corner of his lips. The same half-smile I’ll earn every time I try this line, like the half-answers I reap in response to my perpetual questions: Why are we still at war? What more can we accomplish? Change how a society has been functioning for thousands of years? … Can’t you just come home?
People keep asking me about the war as if my recent connection to it through Tom’s deployment makes me somehow privy to the untidy details—the how and why, when I’m still fuzzy about the other four Ws. I’m tired of answering, “I don’t know.” Tired of feeling stupid. Ignorant, really, which feels more worthy of blame.
Since the ten-year anniversary of the war passed in October 2011, I’ve been re-asking the same questions as everyone else, all umbrellaed under one question—how’d we get to where we are?
And since Tom deployed last November, I’ve only become more confused. Each time I listen to or read the news, there are too many answers, too many variables, too many voices for me to fully understand why we are still at war, much less why we ever went. I thought I knew—retaliation for the 9/11 attack, right?—but if I’m honest with myself, I have not religiously followed the news about the war in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq. I’ve kept up with the world outside my microcosm via NPR snippets on my drive to and from work. When the war took over most of the programming again in connection to the ten-year anniversary, I was taken aback. Had it really been that long?
As a high school English teacher, over the years I’d taught lessons linked to the Middle East and Afghanistan, and during those times, I dug a little deeper, but soon after we pressed on to the next unit, my brain tucked the specifics along with other dusty facts, like when to use semi-colons rather than commas in a serial list. I feel a bit guilty every time I have to consult Strunk & White. I majored in literature and took linguistics classes. Grammar rules are what I know. Or should know. And now that people are asking me about the war, this similar guilt rises. Our country is at war and has been for a third of my life. As an American citizen, especially one married to a Naval officer, especially one currently deployed in Afghanistan, shouldn’t I know why?
But like the guilt of having to source the nuances of semi-colon usage, the guilt of having basic, watered-down answers to this question has always been easily pushed aside by more pressing things, like grading papers, planning lessons, buying groceries, and avoiding laundry, until my Tom received that phone call. Now, I want answers.
But this new craving has only sparked another question—would I be hungry for this information if Tom had never gone to war?
I wish I could answer, “I don’t know” to this question too, but I do know, and it’s this guilt that motivates me to search. Late one night, alone in our bed, I start browsing headlines on newspaper archives online. Search September 12, 2001, and find our nation’s first reactions to the Twin Towers attack. See again our confusion, anger, sadness, and fear shout in capital letters on front pages across the nation and around the globe. Shudder at the sight of New York City’s skyline swallowed in a cloud of smoke, ash, and dust. WAR, TERROR, DARKEST DAY repeat headline after headline.
“America’s Bloodiest Day: ‘This is the Second Pearl Harbor’” (The Honolulu Advertiser)
“FREEDOM UNDER SIEGE: World Trade Center Collapses, Pentagon hit Bush vows retaliation for ‘cowardly actions’ Thousands feared dead beneath the rubble” (Times Union)
That catastrophic day, there was no way to know what else could possibly happen the next second—planes flying into buildings? on American soil?—much less how our next steps would lead to our next steps would lead to where we are, fighting a War on Terror without end.
How was I to know that the curious draw I felt toward this lip-pierced, spiky-haired guy I met two days after the attack would lead to love and marriage, and that this person I exchanged vows with would not pursue real estate investment or music production or working for a law firm, that he’d instead trade in his lip ring for a uniform that he’d wear in a warzone while I try to live my life as close to normal as possible?
There was some comfort, I realize now, in knowing that Tom had raised his hand, on multiple occasions, to deploy. As if his desire to go somehow made it more like an adventure, not a duty. But I’ve realized I was wrong, about a lot of things.
More research: Back in December 2009, when President Obama refocused the war effort in Afghanistan, he ordered a surge of 30,000 more troops, aiming to defeat the resurgence of al Qaeda (now scheming from safe-havens along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border), reverse the Taliban’s regrowth in Afghanistan, and train the Afghan military to defend its country on its own. During his controversial Afghanistan strategy speech at West Point, Obama promised that 33,000 troops (3,000 more than the surge he ordered) will return home by the end of 2012, and that troops would continue returning until all combat operations are completely pulled out in 2014.
For Tom these dwindling numbers had translated into dwindling opportunities. A history major with an interest in Middle Eastern studies, he saw serving in Afghanistan as not just a career enhancing opportunity, but a meaningful life experience that he’d like to have. It just seemed crazy to me. Even crazier was his hope to work with the SEALs or the Marine Corps. To be honest, I was glad when he was assigned detainee operations. He’d be behind the “wire,” protected on base, doing legal work with Taliban or al Qaeda or terrorist suspects that were captured and held in the detention center on Bagram Air Base.
But on base is exactly where Tom did not want to be. If sent to Afghanistan, he wanted to actually experience the country and be in the villages amongst the people, not in some high security office. In my mind, his work with the accused insurgents, providing some sense of due process, seemed less dangerous, more useful; less violent, more peace-driven. Less like war.
But I had it all wrong.
He isn’t working with Afghan judges and lawyers establishing a stable justice system. Neither representing the Afghan detainees nor the American government, Tom is what they call a neutral recorder. He compiles and presents evidence collected about each prisoner to a board of American senior military officers who then decide if the detainee actually meets the criteria for remaining detained—not as a prisoner of war, but as what the Bush administration called an “unlawful enemy combatant” and what President Obama’s administration now calls “unprivileged enemy belligerents.” In other words, people accused of participating in or aiding the Taliban or al Qaeda or other enemy forces.
When it’s been a while since we’ve talked, Tom visits me instead in my daydreams. I imagine him in the prison preparing for a board and watch as he walks into a plain room then stands in front of board members dressed in beige camo. I turn to look at the prisoner accused of being an enemy combatant and do a double take, then try to shake off the image of Osama bin Laden’s face and the faces of his cronies, their long beards, white robes. These TV images are all I know to imagine.
What do the prisoners look like? I ask Tom one day on the phone.
Not prisoners, detainees.
Okay. What do the detainees look like?
Well, how old are they?
Some are young, but they all look old. The conditions in Afghanistan are harsh. Their beards and weathered skin make them all look older than they are. But very few of them actually know their own age—they often don’t know what year they were born.
I imagine blowing out candles as a child, the white and rainbow confetti cake my mom baked for all of our birthdays, how despite having the same flavor cake as my three siblings and the same song, when I blew out those candles, I knew that moment was mine alone.
So why are they there? I ask, though I already know his response —
I can’t say.
During trials, do the detainees ever look at you?
Boards. Some stare me down.
Yeeesh. Are you ever afraid?
Maybe a little intimidated at first, I guess, but never afraid, he says.
He has no real interaction with the detainees: he never speaks with them directly, only through translators. As a writer and reader, I believe in the power of words—of true dialogue—to wage peace, but sometimes words take longer, especially when passed on through a multi-lingual game of Telephone.
January 9, 2012: We’re fortunate (I’ve been told repeatedly by spouses who didn’t hear from their partners for months, if at all, while they were deployed) that Tom and I are able to stay connected through emails, phone calls, even face-to-face on Skype, GChat, or FaceTime. Sometimes Tom’s voice is too distorted to understand; sometimes I see his face for over an hour. Don’t take this for granted, I remind myself whenever my phone or computer wakes me up or rings right when I finally start the work I’ve been avoiding all morning.
I’m finally getting into a groove when, with impeccably bad timing, Tom’s face — miniaturized in the Skype icon — appears on my computer screen, accompanied by a techno style ring, all upbeat and cheery.
Again? I groan. My shoulders drop. Then, realizing, my stomach follows suit: how could I be bummed he’s calling?
I click the green video icon, wait for my husband’s grainy smile to appear, and get excited when it does, despite his creepy facial hair.
Seriously, Tom. The mustache?
It’s fun! he says, eating up my mustache-hate.
Can’t you find another type of fun?
Unfortunately, there’s not much of that around here, he says. Winning.
Tom smiles again playfully and rests his head on the dinosaur pillowcase from his childhood that his mom gave me to send him. He’s wearing his headlamp, completing the image I prefer in my mind: a boy at play, on an expedition, a fossil hunt.
Thinking about my to-do list again, I hesitantly continue.
Love, you know I want to talk to you and see you whenever I can, but … is there any way you can try me right when you get off work?
I did just get off work.
Wince. Though mid-morning here, the sun set long ago there.
And you complained when I called early and woke you up.
I wasn’t complai…whatever. You just keep magically catching me right when my fingers hit the keyboard. It’s just really hard to start up again —
My voice fades, begins to shake.
His face blurs momentarily: a shaved head, hazel eyes, and mustache in pixilated lines.
What? he asks, not hearing what I said.
I shake my head. I can’t repeat what I already feel guilty about saying aloud. I’m getting so good at forgetting where he actually is, but sometimes I accidentally let myself remember, let it sink in. The shaved head. The dinosaurs. The goofy mustachioed grin. All I want is to touch his face, to feel the curve of his smile in my hand.
Bre, are you okay?
I shake my head again. Like a weather goddess, I command a drought, but my eyes don’t dry that easily, nor does the bulge in my throat unknot. I don’t want him to add worry about me to what he’s already going through.
The timing, I manage, while still shaking my head, trying to signal I’m changing the subject. Don’t worry about it, okay? Don’t turn it into a water chestnut thing.
But you don’t like water chestnuts, Tom says with a mischievous smile, and I can’t help but laugh, relieved by the comfort of an inside joke. He always stole those white, crunchy morsels from my plate our first few years of dating. No, not water chestnuts, I hate bamboo! I’d say and slap his fork away with my own. Each time he’d get embarrassed, only to forget and steal them again the next time. While Tom’s effort to take away anything I dislike is charming, sometimes he misconstrues things or takes chivalry too far. I knew I shouldn’t have said anything. Now I’m afraid he won’t call at all.
I know it’s hard, he says, his face shifting to serious.
All day I want to talk to you, but I can’t call you. I still have to live while you’re away. Just can’t wait by the phone. What am I saying? I think, then backpedal. I mean, I will, if that’s how it has to be… Forget everything I’ve said. I like your calls. I hate bamboo.
But you don’t like water chestnuts, he says, attempting a confused expression that breaks into a burst of laughter that I join in on. Soon our shoulder-shaking guffaws subside into a ripe silence, filled with only what our eyes say as we stare back at each other and share a smile.
Call me anytime, I say. Call me anytime, okay?
More research: President Obama’s proposed plan—to pull our troops out by 2014—seems implausible. A month after our invasion, a UN-led meeting of Afghan leaders created a five-year road map to rebuild the country, devastated and disorganized after decades of corruption and war. At first, according to a Gallup poll, “eight out of ten Americans support[ed the] ground war in Afghanistan.” Now, a decade later, according to CNN, just over a third of Americans still support the war effort, an all time low.
If polled I would struggle to bubble just one answer. Though I didn’t want Tom to join the military much less go to war, I still cling to the hope that his work will help build a secure justice system in Afghanistan. But the process of forming a democracy will take much more than another two years. That is, if all our troops actually pull out in 2014. The two-year plan could double like the initial five-year plan. Two years, then four years, then … Will we ever leave?
(President Obama announced the formal “end of the combat mission in Afghanistan” on December 28, 2014. Yet troops linger, training and supporting the Afghan security force and working on counter-terrorism efforts. Already the initial withdrawal plan has slowed. In late March, 2015, President Obama announced that 9,800 troops will remain until the end of the year. “We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help Afghan security forces succeed so we don’t have to go back,” the President explained. Considering the rise of ISIS in Iraq, I understand that military withdrawal is more complex than simply asking should we stay or should we go.)
But who will pay the price if we stay? An All Things Considered article reported, “Just one-half of one percent of the American population has served on active duty during the last decade.” I remember Tom mentioning a similar statistic before he deployed, one of the many conversations we had that summer and fall on our back patio after dinner, watching the flames dance in our fire pit as we danced around the pain of his imminent departure, failing to convince the other that his career was the right or wrong direction for our lives.
I hear Tom’s argument echoed in the words of the military ethics interviewee who said, “It becomes much more easy to deploy U.S. forces in tough environments for long periods of time because the vast majority of Americans don’t feel they have any skin in the game”: exactly why Tom decided to join the Navy. He’d never mentioned this sense of duty before that night.
When Tom first talked about applying to the JAG Corps, we were a few years into our marriage. I thought this Navy idea was just another phase he’d get through like his former blue hair and piercings, like his knack for doubling whatever dares his friends concocted, the last stunt ending in a broken ankle, his foot flipped sideways. Tom was never one to follow orders. I figured he would complete his Navy internship, graduate from law school, then work for a firm or maybe a nonprofit.
In hindsight, I guess he had revealed the military tradition of his family, but I never thought anything of it in connection to our own lives. Before applying, Tom touted the prestige of the Navy JAG Corps, how difficult it would be for him to even get in. We were fresh out of college when we married; underlying our vows was an unspoken agreement to encourage each other to pursue our dreams. He’d supported my summer spent doing a teacher exchange in Uganda, hadn’t he? And, with the odds stacked against him, I figured why not let him at least apply? Again. And again.
But then he got in. And thrilled he was for the life change I never thought we’d actually have to make. For four years I’d dedicated my life (and soul, he protested) to teaching. Four years, now, he’d serve.
Tom never mentioned this moral dilemma until after he’d joined. In resolving his own, he sparked mine. Love, grace, and peace are the values I aim to live by; non-violence naturally falls into my paradigm. Now, whenever I allow it to sink in that my life is funded by the military, I cringe: my very comfortable life is funded by the antithesis of who I say I am.
Yet Tom felt he had to join, asking if more of us were involved, would our country be as willing to go war? I’d never thought about it this way before. That night by the fire, my moral dilemma doubled. Simultaneously I felt guilty for being connected to the military and for not.
More research: I pause and then reread a New York Times editorial written by Abdul Matin Bek, an Afghan whose father Mutalib Bek—an Afghan Parliament member and former Mujahedeen fighter—was assassinated by a suicide bomber. Bek says he feels the need to speak up: “The line between a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan and absolute chaos is thin,” he warns. “The nature of its political climate will have ramifications for the whole world, as has been shown in the past, yet the multiplicity of Afghan voices has been lost in the fog of this war.”
January 28, 2012: “Obama’s Bagram Problem How Afghanistan’s Prisons Complicate U.S. Withdrawal” (Foreign Affairs).
I’m confused, I tell Tom on the phone after reading the article about the detainee review boards he’s doing. I thought the boards gave the detainees some sort of due process. I don’t get why the article critiques them. Aren’t they like trials?
They’re hearings, not trials.
But the article says a lot of information remains classified. Do the detainees really not know why they’re being held in prison?
It’s not something I can talk about.
Ugh. Okay. But I just don’t understand why they can’t see all of the evidence used against them. Is it like the identities of witnesses? You’re afraid the witnesses will be killed?
Bre, it’s not something I can talk about.
My stomach tightens. Forehead wrinkles. I imagine Winston’s hideaway. The secret police, secret cameras, everywhere. We’re Big Brother?
I want to trust my husband, our government, and the Enduring Freedom part of the Operation’s name. I want to trust that there is a reason why the information remains classified, that revealing this information would endanger our national security so heavily that we have no other choice, but the article makes a strong case: the board is a façade of due process if the accused can’t defend himself against evidence he knows nothing about. I imagine Lady Justice struggling to under the weight of imbalance.
It’s like people forget we’re at war, Tom finally says, passion fueling his voice for the first time in a while. In World War II, when German POWs were captured, we never stopped to hold trials to figure out if they were actually Nazis. What we’re doing has never been done before. We are fighting an enemy that wears no uniform, that simply shoots then blends into the civilian population.
A piece of American history, he is living. A piece too abstract and convoluted at present for us to fully understand. History others will make obvious sense of in future books. Complex issues summarized, spelled out in neat straight lines. I’ve tried to understand, yet I still can’t decide what is right. Though I’ve always thought of myself as one who would’ve run part of the Underground Railroad, paraded with the suffragists, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., I live as a beneficiary of others’ picketing signs. Besides these words I write, the only action that speak my beliefs is riding the fence. I remain absorbed in my work and creative writing studies, asking questions when deep down I know the only answer I truly want is for my husband to come home.
March 11, 2012: I’m driving to the commissary supermarket on base in Newport when I hear the BBC Newshour report on the radio. Before dawn, an American soldier snuck alone off base and murdered sixteen Afghan villagers as they slept. Nine of the victims were children.
No! I scream, then slap the steering wheel. No, no, no, I yell and slap and slap and slap in time with the march of my pleas.
My jaw remains dropped as the translator relays the victims’ neighbor’s trembling account: “It was 2 a.m. We heard the gunfire and dog barking—they shot the dog dead and entered the house and opened fire on the children and making martyrs of them. … After they killed them they set fire to the bodies. Is a two-year old baby a Taliban?”
Chills run up my spine.
“I swear to god we have not seen a Taliban in five months!”
My sight too overcast to clearly see, I have to park. How could we let this happen? As I sit and listen to the report, the woman’s desperate question echoes in my mind.
Fear she had for the Taliban she now has equally for us? I look around the base parking lot, longing to be anywhere but here, but I can’t drive away. I can’t do anything but sit and listen.
Since Tom left, whenever I hear news of our service members losing their lives, I feel more than ever before the need to pause, to honor their loss, to honor the family mourning the loss I pray I never have to feel. The same guilt and sadness swirls in my stomach as the report continues. An Afghan official says they’ve lost all trust in us.
The innocent have no one to trust? But with no way to know, especially at a glance, who’s an insurgent and who’s not, our service members likewise don’t know who to trust. And this changes hour-to-hour, day-to-day. Distrust breeds distrust, violence breeds violence. Again my mind is clouded with questions, a multiplicity of voices lost in the fog of war: Is the two-year-old a Taliban? Should we stay or should we go? And if we leave will we return? A war on terror without end? Can’t you please just come home?
Tom returned home safely in July 2012. This essay is an excerpt from a book project in which BREAWNA POWER EATON wrestles with the question: how did we—as a nation and a couple—wind up tangled in our country’s longest war? For more of her travel stories, features, and essays visit Breawna.com .
It is 2003, and my wife and I have moved to Florida. I’ve been taking testosterone for a few months. I’d been living as a man for over seven years at that point, but it had been getting harder to pass—I was twenty-four but still looked like a fifteen-year-old boy.
We moved to the Gulf Coast of the state, the conservative side, and I remember sitting in the very-empty living room of our brand-new rental home, calling endocrinologists, trying to find someone who would treat me. I’d dial a number and say to the receptionist: I’m a transgender person looking to continue my hormone therapy under a doctor’s care. Is that something Dr. So-and-so can assist me with?
That afternoon, I got every answer from the professionals but clear: That’s not his area of expertise. To the curt: No. To the shocked: Is this a joke? You’re sick. And others that were ruder. At last, a sympathetic receptionist told me: Try calling someone over in Miami. I ended up with a doctor in the Fort Lauderdale area.
I remember sitting there, on the beige carpet, leaning against the gleaming white wall, thinking that I would never come out in this place.
Our second year in Florida, we moved to an older neighborhood, a little more run-down, but in a good way. Our neighbor was a lesbian who flew a rainbow flag off her back deck, a short woman with spiky blond hair and the fierce energy of a former collegiate lacrosse player. After we’d known her for a few months, we had her over to dinner and, with the slight awkwardness that always accompanies coming out, told her that I was transgender and that my wife, Ilona, was bisexual.
I knew it! she crowed.
How did you know?
She pointed at Ilona. Gaydar. I just knew you weren’t straight. Then she pointed at me. And you—I knew because when that dog was attacking your wife, you chased it with a broom.
She was alluding to an incident that occurred not long after we moved in. Another neighbor had a pit bull that was both mean and always getting loose. One weekend afternoon, I was sweeping the house, and Ilona was outside gardening. I heard her scream and looked out the window to see the pit bull in our yard, growling at her. I ran out the door, brandishing the broom. At that moment, our lesbian neighbor happened to drive by and stopped her car. Taking in the scene, she first called animal control and then picked up a handful of rocks from the roadside and began to throw them at the dog. The pit bull, which had largely ignored my broom waving, responded to the rocks and ran off.
What man fights a dog with a broom? our neighbor insisted.
It is 1998; I am an undergraduate in college, and I need a physical on short notice for a summer job with the Audubon Society. The doctor I normally saw at Harvard’s clinic didn’t have any open appointments, so I was put with a provider I didn’t know, an older man.
In the little examination room, I handed him the paperwork. I was nineteen, in good health. I expected this to be a mere formality, a matter of checking the boxes off. And at first, it was. Reflexes, blood pressure, peering into my ears. Then the stethoscope, snaked up under my shirt to listen to my heart and lungs: Deep breath. Again. I thought that he might figure it out then, that he might feel my breasts as he placed the cold metal disc against my flesh, but, no, he didn’t. Check, check, check. Immunizations, up to date. In between the components of the exam, he asked small questions about my studies, about the job. Where was the bird sanctuary that I’d be working in? He flipped the page on the form. Okay. Now I’ll need to examine your testicles.
I’m sorry, I told him. I don’t have any. I’m transgender. I was born female, but now I live as a man.
It may have been the most awkward coming out that I’d managed yet.
The doctor just blinked at me. What’s that?
I’m transgender. I’m female. Biologically and genetically female. I was raised as a girl. Now I live as a man.
Oh. So no testicles?
I shook my head.
He looked at the sheets of paper, flipped one over, made a mark. I tried to imagine what he was writing—or what he was looking for. He proceeded with the rest of the exam and then flipped through the pages again before peering at me.
It was half-question, half-statement.
No testicles. I affirmed. I waited, wondering if there was some other test he needed to do in lieu of the testicular exam, wondering if he would need to ask what I had instead of testicles. But he said nothing, just looking at me and then looking at the pages in front of him.
And you’re what, again?
Transgender. I’m biologically and genetically female. I live as a man.
His eyes brightened as he gave a small sigh and smile. Ah! I understand. You’re a woman with short hair.
It is 1995. I have been out for less than a week. It is an evening in July, and I am at a mixer for GLBT youth. The music is thumping, and I am avoiding the dance floor. There seems to be no good place for me—the lesbians are not interested now that I’m living as a guy; the gay boys are bound to be disappointed once they find out. So I am leaning against the wall, watching the scene.
She comes over to me—round glasses, dangling earrings, and she says: I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m just trying to figure out if you’re a boy or girl.
Me, too, I tell her.
That night, we laugh and talk and even, I think, try to dance for a song or two, unaware that in seven years we will be married, that in all our years together we will never find a better understanding of gender, of who we are, than at that moment.
ALEX MYERS was born and raised in Paris, Maine. For most of his adult life, he has taught English to high school students. In January 2014, Simon & Schuster published his debut novel, Revolutionary. In addition to teaching, he works as an educator and advocate around transgender identity. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and two cats.
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.
On my first night living alone, I found myself in a room containing only a bed, a nightstand, and a single Tiffany-style lamp—the only thing I requested as inheritance from my aunt who passed away just over a year before.
It was Wednesday. Monday I had been in court petitioning an end to our marriage. Tuesday I had closed on a house. It was late at night and the next day my sister and parents would be coming up from Salt Lake and St. George to my little townhome in West Haven, Utah, to spend Thanksgiving with me. There would be no turkey cooking in my oven that year, but I was thankful they came all the way to spend it with me.
I’d received the keys to my house just hours before, and I stayed up late that night prepping the walls of my new bedroom with blue tape, getting ready for a fresh coat of paint. I chose a dark brown color named “Bay Colt” from the Martha Stewart line of colors. It was a comfortable color, grounded, and it would contrast perfectly with my new heavy, red bedspread that I had my eye on buying in the next couple of days. I painted accent walls that included the wall behind my bed. A healthy, rich soil color was perfect as a place to replant myself. Besides, the designer Vera Wang, three-hundred-dollar bedspread would be my way of being seductively mischievous (if only for myself!).
Just two days before, I sat in a courtroom with Jim, two bailiffs, the court stenographer, our lawyer, and the judge. All the gallery seats behind us were empty. Once the proceeding started, life’s reality began to settle in and the tears were uncontrollably escaping, enough that the bailiff brought me a box of tissues. I tasted the saline as the tears dripped past my lips. I had to swear the truth, the whole truth, and I had to convince the judge to grant an annulment to a marriage that could have/should have been annulled four years prior. Though Jim didn’t have to go under oath, he was there and nodded in agreement at the implications of an unconsummated marriage. The judgment was final. It was as if Jim and I were never married.
I never understood the phrase as if you were never married. That’s what our lawyer said an annulment legally meant. How can someone say that a marriage didn’t happen? I experienced it. I was there. It existed to me. Legally, however, it never happened.
Remarkably, I never felt like a failure. Even on that day in my empty bedroom, I was exhausted and relieved. It was finally over. I had done everything I could think of to save my marriage—twice. We’d consulted with therapists (good and bad), physicians, energy healers, and clergy, but none could give us an answer or a cure.
I never gave up until I knew we were done. It was over when the truth that he didn’t even want to want me finally resonated with me. If Jim did not want to want me, then there was no practitioner or prayer that could change his desire. So what was the purpose of discussing big purchases or planning future trips? What else could we get out of this relationship besides frustrated companionship? Those years felt like pedaling a bike on a treadmill, working so hard to go nowhere. There was no progression. If anything, I wished I had caught on sooner that this was a doomed marriage from the start.
We followed our belief to stay chaste before we were married. For a long time, I thought that if I hadn’t been so strict in practicing my religion, I would have known. When we dated, he often told me he was uncomfortable with my forwardness. I thought I was the one whose sexual perspective was skewed due to a handsy ex-boyfriend. After we were married, I felt justified to find a way to ease the frustration outside of the marriage. I could have cheated on him and felt I could defend my actions, but I’m thankful I never strayed. Ironically, there were times I hoped that he would cheat on me so I would be angry enough to call it quits and feel justified to call off a God-sanctioned marriage. Other times, I would entertain the thought of getting him drunk and taking advantage of his stupor. Damn our religion. No sex outside of marriage and no drinking.
After so many years of silence, never telling anyone outside a professional few, I finally opened up. No more secrets from society. My mom lost a lot of her hair trying to take in what I told her. When it grew back in, it wouldn’t hold the color as it did before. She had been caught up in our myth of perfection. Opening up also meant answering a lot of questions. Answering questions about that marriage has always been complicated. To those casual friends or acquaintances I would simply answer the question of “what happened?” with “It just didn’t work”—only sometimes divulging the secret pun on the word “it.” “It just didn’t work” and it didn’t. Others that got more detail would ask, “Is he gay?” or “Was it pornography?” Having been his wife, I could honestly answer “no” to each of those. I wished I had the answer as to why it didn’t work.
That day in my new bedroom was the beginning of my new life. I was McKel Nobody and I could be me and love me and want to be me. And, although I was surviving the trauma of an upturned life, I was going to be selfish for once.
After I moved in, I had a point of realization: this was my house, and I had complete, creative control. There was no compromising, no rationalizing, no male opinion, no collaboration of details. I was going for it. The color: Brazilian Blush. The room: my home office.
I then found a can of bright white, semi-gloss paint that I had used to paint floorboards in another house. I dabbed paint onto a small sponge and pat it onto a stencil of a butterfly. Instead of following straight lines as the stencil intended, I rotated each butterfly, one at a time. I worked myself around the room. I even hid a couple behind the door knowing I would be one of a select few who would get the secret.
By the end, I had a room full of butterflies gliding over my desk and around the black bookcases filled with books, over and around the window and above the closet. The idea of one butterfly being alone made me sad, so each butterfly was paired off with a companion or in families. “Well,” I thought, “only this one can fly alone.” So I let one independent butterfly have her space to prove that she could make it.
About a year into our marriage, Jim finally sat me down to explain what he saw was going on. We sat in our 1975 split-level home that we bought a month before we were married. It had fake hardwood floors that were installed incorrectly by the previous owners.
“I, uh,” he staggered to get the words. “I’ve been praying a lot about us.”
My breath slowed.
“I’ve known I’ve needed to tell you for a while, but…” He stopped again. I thought we had a relationship where we could share anything, but his delay of telling me something made me uncomfortably aware that this wasn’t going to be a fun conversation.
He then proceeded to tell me in the most logically constructed way that he could. “I am not physically attracted to you.”
This is where friends would say, “Well, why did he marry you?!” But it would be a few more years before I would ask that question and when I did, he replied, “I didn’t want to be shallow.” At this time, though, my mind processed everything slowly, methodically. I needed to obtain every bit of information I could to make a valid judgment.
“I am not physically attracted to you.” Maybe I needed it repeated because the first one didn’t take. “I see girls on campus that dress immodestly, and I instantly get excited,” he confessed. “I don’t get excited with you.”
I sat there, honestly not knowing what to make of the information he was telling me.
“I think it has something to do with chemistry. We don’t have any chemistry.”
Chemistry. Sex is sex. What does chemistry have to do with it? Besides, isn’t compatibility more important in a relationship than chemistry?
He sat there relieved, grateful that he was finally freed from the weight of his confession. I sat there heavy, burdened and wondering when the tears would start. They didn’t for another twelve hours.
“Well, what do we do now?”
Jim was the one that suggested going to a therapist. When we arrived, we met with a tall, thin man who seemed as if he rode his bike to work and wasn’t willing to make mid-morning appointments because it interrupted his morning ritual. I had no idea how to find a therapist that could help us, especially when we weren’t asking for referrals from friends. I found him on an internet search on a whim. His name wasn’t worth remembering.
“So, tell me what’s going on?” he asked us.
The two of us sat closely on the couch, our arms crossing as we held on to the other’s thigh. Jim explained our situation due to lack of chemistry, that thing that couples have that makes you bubble inside and want to jump on each other. “We don’t have chemistry,” he said. “I don’t want to have sex with my wife.” It never got easier to hear, although at the time I was thankful that I didn’t have to guess what he was thinking.
The therapist smiled as if Jim had made a joke. “You don’t need chemistry.” He then continued with a question to Jim, “What do you not find attractive about her?”
Jim squirmed, “Nothing. I think she’s beautiful.” If he thought I was beautiful, why did we have a problem?
“There is nothing you would change about her to make her attractive to you?” He asked again as if I wasn’t sitting right in front of him.
Ironically, I was hoping he would state something, anything—give this therapist some meat to work with! “No. Nothing,” he admitted again.
I sensed the therapist and I had the same idea; he needed more than just crumbs, “What do you find attractive in a woman?”
“Well, I like redheads,” he stammered.
At this point, the therapist turned to me and asked, “Have you tried dying your hair red?”
Apparently he thought that a year’s worth of sexual incompetency would be remedied by a ten-dollar bottle of L’Oreal. “No,” I said, though secretly wondering if it would work—if only for a second.
It was becoming painfully clear that all the therapist saw were two overweight virgins who got married and now couldn’t figure out how sex worked. “We’re asking for help, not to be your entertainment,” I wanted to say but didn’t. We scheduled two more appointments with that man.
After that, we had a handful of therapists before I settled on one for myself. Her name was Tam, and she was there during my transition from as-if-it-never-happened to single. As I was preparing for my new house, she was the only one that didn’t think I was silly for losing sleep over wall colors and furniture placement. “This is all part of your process for coping,” she said. “You are focusing on your future, and that’s good.” If she had visited me in my house and saw the boldness I expressed in that blushing pink room, she would have been proud.
Although that room was my home office, I referred to it as my Alice in Wonderland room. I spent the following weeks and months finding trinkets and sayings that would fit into the theme. I handcrafted phrases such as “Why, this clock is exactly two days slow!” and “Off with your head!” and placed them on my bookshelves. Displayed on the far wall first seen when you walk were three black frames each holding a word in the phase “Whoo are you” and a fourth frame holding the tailing question mark. There was a time that Alice didn’t know who she was either. Throughout the following months, I added a ceramic tea set, a large Mad-Hatter hat, ceramic mushrooms, a black, old-fashioned alarm clock and a caterpillar on a mushroom.
My fascination with Alice in Wonderland started one year before when Jim and I went to see the new Tim Burton movie in the theatre. Two months before the film’s opening, I found myself forty pounds overweight (trying to fill my emptiness) with back, hip, and neck problems that caused serious discomfort and lots of chiropractic bills. That night at the theatre I was two months into my progressive goals of losing weight and obtaining therapy for myself and not for him (or us). Perhaps that is why I was so open to receive the messages of the film and why the Mad Hatter’s line to Alice—“You have lost your muchness”—resonated with me. Alice couldn’t remember who she was.
Two weeks later, friends and family from both sides descended on our house to celebrate my thirtieth birthday. And since I was born in 1980, what better way to celebrate than by a 1980s theme? Guests arrived in leg warmers, side ponytails of crimped hair, blue eye shadow, brightly colored mixed-matched socks, jelly shoes, upturned shirt collars, and the macho style single earrings that would make George Michael proud. My brother wore his letterman’s jacket from high school that was a little tighter than he remembered. Jim wore a thick, black glamour rock wig and a Goonies t-shirt. People were smiling. I was smiling. The smell of freshly grilled hamburgers hung in the air as my family presented me with a cake with six-inch long candles jetting out of it.
Before the smoke from the extinguished candles reached my nose, I remember thinking, “This year will either be the best year of my life or the worst.” Things would either begin to work or they wouldn’t. I knew a change was coming. I had thought this during the weeks leading up to the dreaded thirtieth birthday, and I added it to my broken-record thought collection which already included the lyrics of the song “I Want You to Want Me” from the band Cheap Trick. That song had been on repeat for over a year already. No one knew about my thought collection. Surrounded by people that truly loved me, I knew that they couldn’t hear my thoughts just as I knew that they couldn’t see the gaping hole hidden behind my new “Everyone loves an ’80’s girl” tee-shirt. McKel had lost her muchness.
The pinkness of that butterfly-filled Alice in Wonderland room proved that I hadn’t quite lost everything. I had made a place for myself. I was still undecided if my thirtieth year was the best or the worst year of my life. It was certainly one of the hardest but deciding to leave that marriage was a relief. For the first time in years, I felt like I could finally progress, even on my own.
As the months followed, I finished painting my house—except one room. It was the third bedroom, between the Alice in Wonderland room and the second bathroom. My L-shaped couch was wall-to-wall without an inch to spare. I dubbed this room the “makeout room,” mainly as a joke. Having been married to a man who couldn’t perform and wouldn’t accept me (and a lousy kisser, at that), I figured, as the phrase goes, “If I build it, they will come.” Pun intended. It must have worked because once, while making out with a guy, the man suddenly jumped up, said, “I’ve got to go,” and ran out of my house. I never got an explanation.
That house served its purpose well through the seventeen months that I lived there. I healed in that house. I started grad school and did my homework while in that house. My husband, Daniel, and I found chemistry in that house while we were dating.
I met Daniel six months after moving in. He was from Brigham City, thirty minutes north of West Haven, and the thought that I almost bought a house closer to Salt Lake made me wince with what-ifs:
“What if I had bought a house farther away from you? We may not have met!”
“I would have found you,” he replied.
Nearly a year after Daniel and I started dating, we were married. And while preserving the sacredness of my marriage with him, I will confess that it is blissfully normal and that it works.
McKEL JENSEN is a newbie to the world of published personal essays. She has worked behind the scenes in the non-fiction book publishing industry and currently works as a technical writer/editor for a large manufacturing company in Utah. She has recently received her MA in English from Weber State University, where she was selected to be commencement speaker for her graduating class. She lives in northern Utah with her wonderful husband and ever-curious son.
Begin, years before, by trying to be traditional. Invite friends from your graduate program in English over for a big Thanksgiving meal. Your fiancée will make a turkey, and you can make the stuffing and mashed potatoes. Serve some green beans, too. Buy a pumpkin pie. This is, after all, your first Thanksgiving since you moved in together, just a month and a half before your wedding. You are Very Serious Grown Up People now, people who can be trusted to pay their bills on time and maybe even raise a kid. And this meal, you think, will somehow prove it.
Of course, neither of you really likes turkey—oh, sliced thin for a sandwich it can be fine, but huge chunks of dry meat? Even smothered in gravy, about the best you can say is that the gravy makes the meat less bland. You know that there are people who claim that their own turkeys are succulent and flavorful, but you suspect that they are fucking liars and that there is no way to turn turkey into an enjoyable meal. You can try to move stuff around on your plate so the turkey gets mixed up with the stuffing and the potatoes and the green beans, but doesn’t that just seem wasteful and silly? There’s always that flavorless chunk of bird flesh ruining every mouthful of delicious carbohydrates.
Your friends eat enough to be polite but are really more interested in drinking the wine and beer you bought for the occasion while they talk about Marcel Proust or Emily Dickinson or Jorge Luis Borges or Ron Jeremy. Drink your own Pinot Noir slowly as you try to clean up the kitchen—you don’t want to be the drunkest person at your own party. Not this early in the evening, anyway. But you despair and think about drinking even more as you realize you’ll be eating leftovers for the next several days.
In the ensuing years, try to find new ways to do Thanksgiving as you move across the country multiple times. Go out one year. Order a pizza another. When you’re both vegetarians, do up a vegetable stir fry or just eat sides at someone else’s house. All are better than the usual Thanksgiving dinner, but it doesn’t quite feel special. Well, except for the part where you drink beer in the afternoon while watching football. And then, when you both agree you’re not really into football, drink beer in the afternoon while watching movies.
And though beer in the afternoon is always enjoyable, something seems off. Thanksgiving should be more notable than your typical day on vacation. You long for the pleasures that tradition provides. Without some way to mark the day as unique, an annual holiday to be celebrated as opposed to just a day off from work, it feels like you and your wife are missing out on something.
Develop your own Thanksgiving tradition accidentally, after you both go back to eating fish and fowl when you learn that soy products have a negative interaction with a prescription drug that you have to take every day. Agree that neither of you wants to cook and eat a whole turkey, but decide that turkey burgers might be tasty. Acknowledge that stuffing and green beans, while good enough at a typical Thanksgiving dinner, don’t really appeal to either of you, and that while potatoes are delicious, they’re much better in “tot” form than mashed. Decide that you’re not really interested in being around other people—that you’d prefer to spend this day together alone. Also, conclude that the day’s movies will all be horror films, beginning with Friday the 13th, Part 3—the DVD of which actually came with 3D glasses that will allow you to enjoy the original theatrical 3D effects from the comfort of your own couch.
You or your wife should divide the ground turkey in half. Mix half the turkey with the Parmesan cheese, and half with the habañero cheddar—your wife is not as into spicy food as you are. Divide the chili powder, garlic, and salt and pepper between the two turkey and cheese mixtures. Form each mixture into two patties. Grill on a grill pan, turning frequently, until cooked through. This will take about fifteen to twenty minutes.
In the meantime, make the tater tots. Directions are on the bag.
Realize as you take your first bite that this is the best burger—turkey or otherwise—that you have ever eaten. It’s juicy and spicy and more flavorful than you ever imagined turkey could be. Dip your tater tots in the barbecue sauce—dip the entire burger in the sauce too, for that matter. Wipe your hands on a napkin before putting on your 3D glasses and pressing “Play” on the remote control.
Compliment your wife on this amazing recipe that is, mostly, her creation. Smile when she replies, “Thank you, baby.” Watch the film’s opening sequence, as Jason stalks and kills Harold and Edna. Watch your wife’s face as the teenagers load themselves into the van and the hippie guy—who looks like Tommy Chong and is clearly too old to be hanging out with these kids—hands them a joint that seems to leap from the screen into your living room. Laugh, both with and at her hysterical response.
As you finish your meal, lean back on the couch and put your arm around your wife. Let her snuggle into your chest, but be careful not to crush the arms of her 3D glasses.
“We’re so fucking cool,” she’ll sigh.
“We should have a kid,” you’ll say in agreement.
Repeat this process, once a year, every year—alternating movie choices and maybe someday no longer talking hypothetically about a kid—for the rest of your life.
WILLIAM BRADLEY’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Normal School, The Bellevue Literary Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Missouri Review, Brevity, and Utne Reader. He has recently completed a book manuscript—a collection of linked essays—that he is now sending out to publishers, agents and contests. This is the second essay he has published in Full Grown People that references horror movies. He has a wife and two cats, but kids remain hypothetical for the moment.
Late on Boxing Day, well after dark, I scanned the collection of tools I’d stowed in my backpack to see if I was prepared for my mission: garden spade, claw hammer, flat-head screwdriver, keyhole saw, chisel, anything I thought might help whittle away at the hard soil. If I’d owned an ice-pick, I’m sure I would have packed one. I went upstairs and changed my clothes, convinced my outfit should be head-to-toe black like in the movies. I couldn’t be sure if what I was about to do was illegal, immoral, or simply frowned upon. Still, I thought I should try to blend into the shadows, if only for discretion. I grabbed Sue’s canister from the dresser and carried it downstairs. I put on my black wool coat, threw the backpack full of tools over my shoulder, and quietly went out the back door. I tossed the backpack into the front seat of the car and then carefully strapped the canister into the baby seat in the back. Should I encounter a sudden jolt during the ride, I didn’t want ashes embedded forever in the loosely-woven Toyota upholstery.
Down at the Toronto Beaches, I parked the car on Lee Avenue halfway between our old apartment and the new tree, planted two months before. The tree stood as the closest thing to a gravestone Sue would ever have. I shut off the engine and sat in the dark stillness of the night. All I could hear were the sleepy Lake Ontario waves treading up to the shore and my breath in the icy December air. I unfastened Sue from the car seat, pulled out my backpack, and closed the car door. I walked with purpose toward the lake, cradling the container in my left arm, until I reached the young sugar maple, proud and lustrous under the nearby streetlamp.
Standing on the boardwalk in front of the tree, I momentarily considered changing my mind. The wall of frozen mist suspended over the shore bore down on me. I looked east into the wind and then west toward the lights of downtown to see if any people were out for a late walk. The coast was clear.
I knelt at the tree, placed the canister on the ground, and removed the small spade from my backpack. One last look around before I plunged the spade into the dirt about eight inches from the tree trunk. The ground was harder than I’d expected; the spade barely made a dent, just a tink, tink sound like metal on stone. I reached for the hammer instead and tried loosening the dense earth with the claw end. This proved to be more effective. I scooped out the free soil with my other hand. Clawing and scooping like this for two minutes—I went down maybe four inches—my heart pounded like I was panning for gold. Then I heard voices. I stood up and saw two people and a dog heading my way from the west. I quickly covered the partially dug hole with my backpack and took my cell phone out of my coat pocket. Pacing slowly in front of the tree, I pretended to be just another late-night stroller having a private conversation.
“Yes … Uh-huh … No, no, everything’s fine …,” I said as the people drew even with me, their dog obediently heeling. “I’ll be home soon … I just have one more thing to do.”
The interlopers passed by, and I was left to resume my campaign of digging. But I began to doubt my fortitude. The hole in the ground looked like more of a grave than I’d originally considered. Graves are final; irrevocable. Within them, I imagined, people disintegrate. They disappear forever.
I picked up the hammer again and switched to auto-pilot. Claw. Scoop. Claw. Scoop. I worked quickly, nervously. The ground still resisted like frozen rubber, but I persisted. I had nearly reached what I thought was an acceptable depth when I heard the voices of more people coming down the boardwalk. Backpack over the hole, I stood up and resumed my pantomime with the cell phone.
“Hi, it’s me,” I said. And suddenly Sue was listening on the other end of the phone. “I’m here now, sweetie. I’m at the tree right now … Can you help me?”
She was sitting comfortably in a quiet, warm, white, dare-I-say “heavenly” place, cordless phone in her hand, listening peacefully to my supplication. She wasn’t smiling as I typically pictured her, but rather she had that serious, stern look she’d get when she was fixed on something critical; something she wasn’t quite sure how to manage.
“I need you to steady my hands or whatever it is I need steadying.” I wasn’t sure what I meant by that. I’d never relied on Sue for physical guidance. “We can do this together. Can’t we? You and me forever … And after we do this, I might be able to move forward, little by little.” This was more of a question than a prediction. I had no idea how I’d get on from here.
The people passed by, completely ignoring me. I wiped my eyes and looked at the container of ashes sitting at the foot of the tree. Sue told me to keep talking.
“There’s so much I want to tell you,” I said. “But I’m not sure how. All of my memories are changing colour. When you died, so did the future I thought I’d been promised. Without you things are … blurry.”
I looked toward the lake, the frothy white waves fading to distant black. The cold night burrowed into me under my wool coat, but I’d stopped noticing. I thought of the road trip I’d taken with my ten-month-old son the summer before. We’d left Toronto three months after Sue died and criss-crossed North America for six weeks on our adventure of healing, an expedition meant to kick-start my new life as a widower and single father. Being alone with my son and my thoughts brought clarity after the claustrophobic home-grief and it secured a bond between father and son. It also brought to light some alarming revelations that I wished I’d been able to share with Sue. I wondered if I should confess.
“Everything I’ve discovered since you left is pulling me in a different direction,” I said. “I could have spent the rest of my life with you … and that would have been fantastic … but, you know, we might not have made it. We weren’t perfect. But I’ve accepted that … Because that was us.”
That was us: imperfectly in love.
“I know you loved me. But … we got it wrong a lot of the time.” I swallowed and took a cleansing breath. “If you hadn’t died … we may still have ended up apart.”
Until then I’d kept my epiphanies to myself, but telling her how I felt was proof that I was moving on; the thick, aching emptiness was starting to lift. If Sue had really been there, she may have protested as she usually did, but I was in control of this one. I looked up the road toward the building we lived in a lifetime ago; before we moved away so Sue could chase down her journalism career, before parenthood, before cancer. Eight months earlier as Sue lay in that hospital bed, I’d said goodbye to her and felt the relief of seeing her out of pain. But now my own pain was lifting without aid, without wondering what she’d think.
“The more I think about it,” I said, “the more I believe you would have found some reason to leave me … and I wouldn’t have had the strength to fight you.”
I still loved her but I hated the memories that had recently become clear. I’d awoken that morning knowing I’d been holding onto the past for fear of the future. And if this telephone conversation was any confirmation, Sue was giving me her consent to let go. But I didn’t want to hang up the phone.
“Whatever happens to me from now on, good or bad, it will be because of you. You got me here … and without you, I’ll go in some other direction; some other path than the one you and I would have travelled.”
Instead of dreading a future without Sue, I realized, I could choose to welcome the opportunities that came my way because of her absence. Some good things could still happen to me. I was thirty-five years old; I still had a lot of life left. Accepting the possibility of a good future wouldn’t mean I’d forgotten the life I’d had with Sue. The good wouldn’t negate the bad. They would simply be the two sides of one life.
“I have to do this now … It’s time.”
Maybe this is what Sue meant by life after death. I might have taken her too literally when she spoke of her beliefs. Because I knew she would always live within me. My life evolved with her. Before she came along I was an immature, lazy, idealist looking for a mate. Sue gave me perspective, energy, wisdom and love. She forced me to grow up. She gave me a son. She’d live in him and the person I would become.
I moved over to the hole completely oblivious to whether or not people were walking by. The cold beach had grown peaceful, composed. I could no longer hear the whispering waves.
‘This tree will be here forever and so will you.’
I knelt at the hole, the cell phone still at my ear with Sue breathing on the other end. “Okay, I’m going to hang up now … Here I go … “
The calm of night wrapped me in its dark cloak. I looked down at the shadowy hollow I’d mined, pausing in a moment of pseudo-prayer. I can do this. Everything’s going to be all right.
“I love you … Sweet dreams … Bye.”
I put the phone in my coat pocket, removed the lid from the container and lifted out the clear plastic bag holding the ashes. I’d never taken it out before. The volume seemed curiously low and it weighed less than I’d imagined. A bag of sand the same size would have weighed more. I wondered if all of Sue was in there. My cold hands shook as I fumbled with the knot in the plastic bag. For fear of lingering too long, I tore the bag open and tipped it toward the hole in one motion. The little bits of black, grey and white filled it up like water flowing into a bowl. In the heavy, frozen air no residual ash dust came off the empty bag. She was all out. Without pausing, I put the bag into the container that once held Sue and then ladled the cold dirt back over the ashes with my hands. I stood up and packed it down with my feet, firmly enough to level the soil but not so firm as to feel like I was stomping on her. I surveyed the area, making sure it didn’t look like someone had just buried his wife in the roots of the tree named after her.
But it wasn’t Sue I buried that night. What filled that icy hole was a piece of the past I no longer clung to. Not ignored, just set aside. A past, I’d figured out, that could stay in the past without fear of it extinguishing my future. Eight months of grieving, sadness, hard work, confusion, personal challenges, epiphanies, and loneliness were buried. The tree that sprouted from that struggle stood as a marker in time, resting between what was and what will be.
I packed up my tools and walked back to the car. The icy air filled my lungs and cleared my head. I breathed easier than I had been an hour earlier. Before I stepped onto the sidewalk, I passed a Department of Parks regulation garbage can. The generic canister that Sue had rested in for the past several months had no more symbolic meaning than the lamppost the garbage can was chained to. Sue had always been worth more than what housed her. What had true meaning had been left at the roots of the sugar maple next to the boardwalk. The cheap ceramic container landed at the bottom of the garbage can with a thud.
JON MAGIDSOHN is originally from Toronto, Canada. He has written about fatherhood for dadzclub.com, the Good Men Project,Today’s Parent, and Mummy and Me magazines. He’s also been featured in Mojave River Review,Chicago Literati, What’s Your Story?-Memoir Anthology (Lifetales) and currently publishes three blogs. He moved to London, UK, in 2005 where he received an MA in Creative Non-Fiction from City University. Jon, his wife, Deborah, and their son, Myles, are now in Bangalore, India, where Jon writes full time. www.jonmagidsohn.com
“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.
My Hodgkin’s Disease had returned—my doctor was fairly certain. It turns out he was wrong, that the strange glows on the scan were … well, something other than cancer. But Emily and I didn’t know that at the time.
This was in 2006, six years after my last radiation treatment. This time, it was in my thigh rather than in my neck and chest area, but nonetheless, the doctor seemed sure that it was back. I would need to have a biopsy performed, of course, but that felt like just a formality. A hunk of lymph nodes would be cut out, and then we’d begin treatments—likely radiation therapy, but a bone marrow transplant remained a possibility as well. Time was off the essence. I was likely going to die. My wife and I had serious thinking to do.
What we did know was that, when I’d had my bone marrow transplant in 1998, my doctor had said that I had a forty percent chance of living for more than five years. We also knew that I had radiation therapy to treat a recurrence two years after the transplant. Emily and I didn’t meet until after I had completed these treatments, but we had discussed my medical history, and what it meant for our relationship, once we were “seriously” dating—we met in grad school while working on our Ph.D.s in English, and had tried to keep things relatively casual so that we wouldn’t be tied down to another person. Neither of us wanted to compromise on our professional ambitions by becoming too attached to someone similarly ambitious, so we self-consciously tried to limit our relationship to one of hanging out and hooking up—a bit more intimate than friends-with-benefits, but nothing too emotionally consequential.
But at some point while hiking through the Missouri wilderness, or discussing the latest academic scandal reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education over coffee, or drinking cheap wine in her small basement apartment, we fell in love with each other, and we decided the best thing to do would be to get married. I couldn’t quite tell you when I realized that Emily mattered more to me than keeping all of my options open for the sake of my career, but I know that it happened.
Our life together was filled with reading, writing, sending out academic articles and creative work, supporting each other when the eventual rejections came, applying for academic jobs, worrying about money. We also played Scrabble, sought out strange landmarks like the world’s largest statue of a goose (“Maxie” in Sumner, Missouri), watched livestock shows at state fairs, and—in the words of the girl in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”—we would “look at new things and try new drinks.”
We had both been involved with other people before we met each other, of course. Both of us had been in college relationships that had continued for far too long, with protracted break-ups and broken hearts. After my bone marrow transplant, my college girlfriend and I were breaking up for the final time. I reflected on what I wanted in a romantic relationship. Someone adventurous, willing to travel and have new experiences. Someone who loved literature as much as I did, but who could also enjoy the same type of lowbrow culture I enjoyed—I wanted to be able to talk about books and art with someone who could also appreciate the sublime genius of Don Knotts’s performance in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Someone who had a sense of humor, who would laugh if I called her “scumbag” and would be willing to high-five me after sex. In short, I wanted to be in a relationship that was fun—I’d had enough of passive-aggression and adolescent angst.
As it happens, Emily had recently reached similar conclusions about her own love life. It wasn’t love at first sight, but we immediately knew that we made each other laugh and had fun together—she was not only down with the high-fiving but was willing to call me “dude.” Things grew from there.
As Emily and I contemplated what a malignancy would mean for our relationship, I realized I couldn’t really say that life was unfair. I had been fortunate to be disease-free for as long as I had been, I figured, and I had experienced a powerful love and friendship the likes of which I don’t think too many people get to experience. The only disappointment was that we couldn’t make it last forever, and it looked like our time together was coming to an end.
In the week between the tentative diagnosis and the biopsy that would ultimately be reassuring, we spent our days crying, our evenings drinking wine and trying to reassure each other that this would be okay, nothing we couldn’t handle. I’d done all this before, with only my parents for companionship and support, listening to depressing music like Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya or Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss alone in the den that my parents had hastily converted into a bedroom when I’d been diagnosed. With Emily beside me, it wouldn’t be nearly as lonely or depressing. She knew how bad things had been before, how dark those days had been.
“I’m going to take care of you,” she said, looking at me from across the table on our screened-in porch while we drank our Pinot Grigio. “It’s not going to be like last time.”
I nodded and tried to agree. We said such things to each other, but hanging between us—unspoken, but mutually understood—was the understanding that a recurrence at this point could very well mean I would die.
The morning of the biopsy, Emily drove me to the hospital. After the nurse called me from the waiting room to the pre-op area, I handed Emily my wedding ring, which she put on her thumb. I kissed her goodbye.
What followed seemed to take forever—the shaving, the pre-surgery talk with the doctor, then watching the anesthesia drip through my IV.
I shut my eyes, then opened them to find myself sitting up, in recovery. It happened that fast. Emily and a nurse were laughing. I had a Diet Coke and a glass of water in front of me—my usual beverage order, if I’m not drinking wine or beer.
“Where did this Diet Coke and water come from?” I asked.
Emily smiled. “You asked the nurse for them when you woke up after your surgery.”
“Oh,” I replied. “I must have thought I was at a restaurant.”
At this, both Emily and the nurse exploded in laughter again.
“That’s the fourth time you’ve asked that question,” Emily said, “and then followed with ‘I must have thought I was at a restaurant.’”
I laughed too—although I should tell you that, later, when we told the story to friends, they were horrified. “I would have been afraid that it was permanent,” one friend replied. That obviously hadn’t occurred to Emily—or else, she is so used to the way I am normally that she didn’t worry that any lasting brain damage would be noticeable or change her life in any fundamental way.
At one point—still foggy and a bit confused—I glanced down at my left hand. My wedding ring was back where it belonged.
“When did you give this back to me?” I asked, holding up my hand.
This time, Emily did not laugh as she ran her hand up and down on my arm, telling me that it was the first thing I’d asked for—before the beverages, even—when I saw her after coming out of surgery.
“You said that you missed it,” she told me.
Emily and I have been together for eleven years, and as happy as that time has been, I have to tell you that we argue as much as any couple. Maybe even more—we can both be strong-willed and opinionated, especially when it comes to matters of teaching and writing, which are important parts of our careers. Sometimes, we argue over a work of literature. Sometimes, it’s pop culture. We rarely argue about politics, but it happens, sometimes.
More rarely—but more seriously—we fight about the important things in our marriage. Whether one of us takes the other for granted. Occasions of self-centeredness. Concerns that one of us prioritizes work over our relationship with each other. These are the serious fights. The ones that result in tears for her, or me stomping out of the house to “go for a walk, to clear my head.” These are the times when we get overwhelmed with thought—fears, suspicions, and pressures that probably come from outside the marriage itself, but are nonetheless real when we contemplate them.
But what I like about the story of my recovery from surgery is that it testifies to the fact that loving her isn’t something I have to think about—that even when my mind is wrapped up in a confused fog, when I’m basically just a being incapable of reflection, operating on instinct, unconscious habit, and biological imperative, I still love her. More than I love my job, more than I love literature, more than I love anything in the world. And I love her first, even before I get my Diet Coke and glass of water.
WILLIAM BRADLEY has been married to the poet and Renaissance scholar Emily Isaacson for almost nine years now. She was the one who encouraged him to try to publish the creative nonfiction he wrote, and since then, he has had work appear in Fourth Genre, Brevity, The Normal School, Utne Reader, The Missouri Review, and other magazines. They spend most of their time in Canton, New York, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University.
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.