Beyond the Lonely Bench

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

by Jena Schwartz

The writing in my head syncs with the rhythm of my gait as I walk through the familiar grounds—not familiar in that I’ve ever been inside of this ubiquitous, quasi-suburban condo complex, but in that I could get perfectly lost here. This evening, rather than going north towards the farm, I decided to go west, down the hill, then took a right and wandered into a backdrop unexpectedly perfect for feeling my way into something I didn’t know was waiting when I left the house: a memory, maybe, of who I used to be. A mirror of who I’ve become.

I’m walking, and I’m overcome with the need to find the way out. There must be a hidden path from the neat contours of this neighborhood into the semi-wilds of an in-town farm. I just know it—and I’m determined to discover it. I follow the winding sidewalks and cut through the cookie-cutter parking lots. I’m moving deeper and deeper into something, the way one might walk through a house in a dream. The further from the street I get, the grey-blue condos like a hall of mirrors, the more I move into the feeling of how I related, as a woman in my twenties, to women in their forties and maybe to other women, period.

When I was in my twenties, women in their forties seemed not old exactly, but… how can I put this? Like women.

There was something so foreign to me about the divorced ones. And also about the married ones, the ones with careers and husband and kids—all of these, really, lumped together in some category of grown-ups, of having figured something out that I had not and wasn’t sure I wanted to. A category of… Other. Other than what? Other as in mothers? Other as in adults, whatever that meant but was most definitely not me?

At twenty-five, I was newly married, completing the graduate degree that would mean little more than that I’d marked a few years’ time, written more poems, felt unseen by female professors, and wondered if my advisor and I were flirting or being literary at the Irish pub, his Guinness to my Diet Coke with lemon. (Was I afraid to drink, to let loose, of him or of myself?) And then there was the cigarette I’d scrub from my skin—hands, mouth—before turning to walk home to the tiny one-bedroom I shared on Summer Street with my new husband.

We moved to Vermont and I donned an official title as director of a small nonprofit, where I inherited a board of alumni and faculty that included some women in their forties. I was once again the girl among them, young, smart, small, and mighty—and regularly mistaken for an undergrad. Their lives seemed to me an unattainable blend of alien and enviable, far from mine for reasons I couldn’t name except to say that there was always some nagging—I’d feel it especially after running or sex—that I was longing for something. I began to name the longing “myself,” and this would go on for many years.

Walking tonight among these ubiquitous middle-class condos with their flowerboxes, a single lonely bench, automatic garage doors closing out the outside world, and decks turned inward rather than towards each other, the sensation comes rushing back and now I’m writing in my head in earnest. I’m forty-one and suddenly I realize that now I’m the woman in her forties.

She felt like a girl—I felt like a girl—because to really become a woman, to actually grow up, would require something of me big, scary, destructive and off-limits—something like cheating, like an affair and with another woman no less, like breaking all the goddamn rules, like making my own prayer books and play books and plans. And none of this would accommodate the sweet house with the French doors, the earth mama I also knew myself to be, the role as wife by way of the only models I knew, and the babies I knew were waiting for me. I could not reconcile the leaking breasts that would nourish then shrink back to perky young with the running with wolves and reading other people’s poems, never my own. And so I didn’t. I looked at other women and I looked at myself and one of us had, always, to be Other.

I’m flooded with the memory of running with him, my husband, through a golf course—a conventional landscape not all that different than these condos. There’s a full moon. We don’t have kids yet; I’ve never been pregnant. We are a year or so married and why am I so angry, so agitated, so full of rage that I have to stop right in the middle of that manicured green to scream a rare scream while he looked on, at once supportive and—I can only wonder now—befuddled?

Do I still feel like a woman in her twenties filled with longing? No. I am the woman in my forties now. And yes, toobecause I carry this girl-woman who really truly didn’t know how to become, to break open by breaking with what I’d been told, taught, and shown.

The parallel rhythms of writing and walking are now in full swing, having felt my way towards and indeed found my way to the path, the one I knew would free me from the condos into the wild of the farm’s back gardens, where lie row after row of stunning beauty, well-kept secrets finally revealed.

I’ve gained a few pounds since this latest round—I hope my last—of quitting smoking. And these few pounds on my small frame mark the difference between a more angular and an ever-so-slightly softer and fuller body. I am no longer a girl and no longer a child. I am no longer longing, at least not in that way that had me looking at all the women around me thinking, they are The Real Women.

How did I get here? By leaving the apartment I share with my wife of one year for a sunset walk alone. By going down the hill instead of up and taking a right instead of going straight. And finally, by walking towards the sun instead of turning my back for another minute on the light.

These are the ways I find my way to the path, the existence of which I only imagined and intuited. And there it is—beyond the lonely bench, and all those years of not belonging.

•••

JENA SCHWARTZ is a poet, writer, and facilitator, known for leading rich, safe, creative, and deeply nourishing online groups and real-life retreats. She is also co-founder of The Inky Path, an online writing school and community. Jena lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her kids, Aviva and Pearl, and her beloved wife, writer and artist Mani Schwartz.

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I Will Put Your Poem on the Wall

textfist
By Andrew Mason/ Flickr

By Jenny Poore

I have a meeting with a senator in two days. A real senator, too, not a state one. They say that he’s very handsome in real life. Like, when they make lists of things like that, of handsome senators, he’s usually on that list so it’s been suggested and verified by multiple other people, not just me. As I write this, two days before I meet the handsome senator, I am aware of a giant red bump protruding from my face, sitting above my upper lip and below my nose.

I have been torn all week between messing with the zit and just leaving it alone. I want it to be invisible immediately, but to make it be invisible immediately you have to mess with it, touch it and, poke at it with concealers that thwart the fairly effective spot treatment gel that I sometimes must use. The alternative (leaving it alone) means that the medicine is free to do its work. But to do this, to make it go away faster, means to leave it unconcealed where I must confront it whenever I pass my reflection (in mirrors, shiny appliances, freshly washed windows.) My four year old reminds me of it. Mommy, there’s something red above your nose, she says although she means below my nose.

I got an email last night from the senator’s people; they would like me to introduce the senator to the group of women I am hosting. Can I prepare remarks? Of course I can, of course. I can certainly do that. Instead of thinking of my remarks, though, I wonder how many more coatings of medicine I can get on my face in two days to make the zit be gone.

•••

For several years, an evangelist lived across the street from us. He was a grade-A moron but he loved the lord, and in the city where I live, you don’t have to be smart to make people give you money and tell you you’re awesome—you just have to love the lord and encourage others to do the same. I’d walk past my window and see him across the street behind his screen door wearing nothing but a pair of tiny shorts, talking on the phone, and patting his soft belly. He’d yell into the phone loudly, quoting scripture I assumed, then he’d laugh and pat his belly some more, technically inside his house but he might as well have been outside you could see him so easily. He wore cheap suits and let his dog shit in all the neighbors’ yards. He was friendly and loud and stupid, and I couldn’t stand him. He was a man that takes up space and makes noise like there will never be a shortage of either.

•••

I’m meeting the senator because I run an organization that teaches young people how to love writing. He is a good senator, in addition to being handsome, and he is meeting with area businesswomen. My organization was founded by women and is run mostly by women, so it sort of makes sense.

Yesterday during a workshop, I was helping a girl who always comes to our workshops even though I don’t think she really likes them. Every time she’s there I end up trying to get her to finish whatever she started working on because she just tunes out. She acts like it’s school even though most kids act like it’s the opposite of school—like it’s fun and they’re there because they want to be there. The kids had been led through a series of exercises that left them with a handful of ingredients that they could readily bake into poems. She already had all her ingredients right there on the paper. The poem just had to be assembled, and all she had to do was write it down.

“Nah, I’m not doing it anymore. I hate doing this. I’m not writing.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked her. “You have everything right there—why won’t you write your poem? “

She’d been scribbling with her pencil, generally looking as disinterested as an eleven- year-old can look, crumpling up her paper and moving her chair around. She stopped suddenly and looked right up at me.

“You’re not going to hang it on the wall anyway even if I do.” She said this like it was a challenge.

Sometimes I hang the kids’ stuff on the wall. Not all the kids’ stuff, but some of it if they’re particularly proud of it or it’s especially funny or good or if I need to cover a crack in the plaster. I never thought that she’d noticed or cared but the mother in me realized I’d been played. Of course she cared. She just figured I didn’t.

“I will hang your poem on the wall. As soon as you are done writing it I will hang it on the wall. I promise.”

“Seriously?” Her eyes blazed.

“Seriously.” She sat down and wrote her poem.

•••

The stupid evangelist had a really sweet wife. She was young and fresh and seemed mostly resigned to the fact of her doom with this man. I was walking the neighborhood with my mother one night close to Christmas when we saw him in his front yard. Knowing that his sweet wife had gone into labor that morning, we asked after her and their new baby.

“Well, it’s a girl.” He said and paused. “But that’s okay. There’s always next time.” He waved half-heartedly and was gone before me and my stunned mother realized what he’d said and how much we hated him for it.

•••

When her poem was finished, I hung it on the wall. On her way out the door, she nodded her head as if she was thinking, “It’s about goddamn time.” I put it in a place where the senator will see it when he comes in two days. He’ll notice it either before or after we shake hands and either before or after he notices or doesn’t notice the zit that sits above my lip and below my nose. I have not written my introductory comments yet. I have another thirty-six hours of medication applications before I need to have those done.

I spend my time knowing that I have created something fairly good and interesting and that’s why a senator is coming. I’m wondering why I am thinking more about my face than that fairly good and interesting thing. The stupid evangelist would not be thinking of his face. He was told that he was awesome for so long that he easily believed it even though it was not true. That’s all it takes, maybe. You are awesome, you are awesome, you are awesome, and then you think you are. The stupid evangelist with his cheap suits and his easy maleness and the convenient religion that allowed him to be more than his sweet wife and their sweet new baby girl never flinched. He took up all that space and made all that noise, but that was all okay. He was awesome. People told him so.

Listen, because I need you to hear this: I will tell you that you are awesome. Unlike the evangelist, I will say it because it is true, because I mean it. You are awesome. You are the opposite of taking up space and making noise. You are the poet and the poem. You are the clean piece of paper, smooth, unmarked, waiting for the ingredients to be assembled. I will put you on the wall where the senator can see you, where the world can see you, where we can read you and celebrate you always. I will put your poem on the wall, I will always put your poem on the wall, and I will use the stickiest tape, and I will hang it in exactly the right place, I will do all this for you, I promise.

•••

JENNY POORE is a local education advocate and the director of the children’s writing non-profit WordWorks! She lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, with three kids, a husband, and a yellow dog named June Carter Cash. Two of her favorite things are coffee and Sherlock Holmes. You can read more of her stories and essays at www.sometimestherearestorieshere.com.

Bachelorette

bachelorette
By CosmoPolitician/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you drunk? You’re drunk.”

“I miss you! I’ll see you tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What exactly happened last night?” he asks.

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

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

•••

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