My mom is standing by the kitchen sink, squeezing pimples on a chicken. This is the 1990s in Hungary, when chicken still come with remnants of what makes them poultry: feathers, dry skin around the heel, nails that once scratched dirt on a farm.
Behind her on the kitchen table are carrots and parsley and celery root. She is making soup—maybe it’s a Sunday, or maybe it’s a regular Thursday and I just got home from school. It all looks complicated to me and, frankly, disgusting—the gizzards of the chicken in a plastic bowl at the edge of the sink.
“I can’t imagine ever, ever learning how to do this,” I tell her.
She rinses her hands under the running water. “Oh, you will,” she says. “When you love someone and they are sick and all they want is some chicken soup, you will learn.”
I think about this conversation when my son is sick and I am rinsing slimy, plump chicken livers in a colander. He loves chicken livers in his soup, so I buy them in a small tub at the grocery store and freeze them in batches. I feel certain that I would not do this for anyone else, even for myself.
I plop the livers into the water next to the chicken breast and the carrots and the parsnips and the celery. My mom was right: I did learn how to make soup.
My grandmother writes letters to me in college on thin, see-through sheets of paper. Airmail from Hungary to the U.S. is expensive. I get one sheet in each letter, maybe two, filled with her fancy, cursive writing, usually in blue ink. I like getting the letters, I am sure, but I don’t remember them eliciting any sort of emotional response. I might even be disappointed: “Oh, it’s just another letter from grandma.” I keep them anyway.
When I look at them some twenty years after they were written and two years after my grandmother died—still neatly folded in their envelopes—I am knocked off my feet. They make me feel loved—cherished, even—like I never felt back then, not like this, not this explicitly and deeply. I suddenly see everything it took to write them—the process of purchasing the thin wax paper and the airmail envelope and the stamps at the post office, the writing of the letter with her arthritic wrists and fingers—in her armchair next to the radiator, right under her bright window filled with plants —the walk to the post office to mail them.
I can only read one before the tears start—written on my twenty-third birthday, seventeen years ago. She was proud of me. I had a car. And a job. And an apartment.
My grandmother taught me to iron and I used to think of her every night when I ironed my husband’s shirt for the next day. Now it’s all non-iron, synthetic, fake fabrics. And where’s the love in that?
There are people who are clumsy at love. Who say the right words but have trouble putting them into action. Who don’t call. Or write. Or remember. Who don’t think the way I do, that for love you do things—real things: see that action movie, eat at that restaurant, sit with the in-laws at Christmas, listen to quiet fears in the middle of night, scratch the itchy spot in the middle of the back. Iron. Make soup.
That’s the hardest thing, loving someone like that. Someone who lets themselves be loved but cannot return it for whatever reason. They give you little glimpses of what it is like to be loved by them—and it is fucking brilliant and just enough to keep you coming back for more.
I don’t love my baby right away. I know that this is not unusual, but it surprises me. I am happy that he’s here, and that he’s healthy, but beyond that, I feel very little. I don’t let him starve or cry too long or stay in a dirty diaper. I linger with him in the rocking chair and marvel at the fact that he has no eyebrows and the skin on his nose still looks unfinished somehow, almost translucent. I notice his features as if looking at a doll—a strange, antique doll with a porcelain face—that I can just set back on the shelf once I am done.
It’s funny that I don’t remember falling in love with him. It’s not like romance, where you get that initial tingle around the heart. It’s not a lightning bolt or a big spectacle. It happens at two a.m. when you are cleaning up poop. It happens at the playground. In the rear-view mirror of the car when he’s finally fallen asleep. In the middle of a temper-tantrum when both of you are crying and there’s snot on your hands.
Things I love:
Brushing my teeth.
The way the birds go crazy around four a.m. in the spring.
Landing in Europe after a trans-Atlantic flight.
The smell of tomato vines.
Rainy October days.
Skypeing with my brother and not noticing that an hour went by.
The jingle of bracelets on my wrist.
My mom’s soup.
My husband’s first heart attack happens in August, we think. We are in London and he wakes in the middle of the night to horrific back spasms. He has a bad back, but nothing like this has ever happened. He’s sweating and can’t catch his breath from the pain. I call an ambulance. They take him away and I sit by the window of our hotel room, staring at the street below until the morning, until our son wakes.
We take a cab to the hospital in the rain and sit with him as the doctors check his blood and re-check it again and again. In the end they rule out a heart attack. We fly home a few days later. He gets a muscle relaxer from his doctor for future back issues.
After he collapses in November and the surgeon threads a catheter through his arteries, he is fairly certain that what he had in London was not a back spasm.
I guess you can walk around with your heart broken on the inside.
I once ask my mom about how you know that you have found “the one,” that you are really in love. Maybe that wasn’t my exact question, but something along those lines. Maybe I am asking her about marriage, about long-term commitment, what that is like. She says that if even after all the years you’ve spent together it still feels good to cuddle up close together at the end of the day, then you are in business.
I remember this on those evenings when we are both exhausted, when I feel just a tiny bit resentful that he is in bed, listening to music, while I finish up bath time and story time and get a glass of water and give another back rub. I stumble into bed and I don’t really want to talk or be touched or be seen. I want to be angry and stomp around like a child—and sometimes do.
I pretend to read and he reaches over to rub my shoulder. I melt into his touch, his warm palms. I put down my book so that I can be in full contact with his body, smell his chest and the spot behind his ears, to rub my nose in his beard.
I am so mad at him, damn it.
When my son wants to tell me that he loves me, he switches over to Hungarian. That’s our language, our secret love code. The words are sweeter, more melodious, melancholy. “I love you” is such a throwaway phrase. “Mama, te vagy a szerelmem,” he tells me and I know it’s true. That we are each other’s loves. We are walking to my car and I hold his hand and feel him holding on, his palm almost as big as mine.
I like that our love is so uncomplicated.
Isn’t it crazy that you can never really know that another person loves you? That you can keep something like this a secret? Maybe there is someone you see every day—at work or at the playground or at school dropoff—and have no idea that they have a crush on you. That they think about you during their day, when they are sad or bored. That they plan ways to run into you, to talk to you. That they imagine this whole other life with you, with you at the center—as their center. You could have this wild affair, this crazy romance, if only that person would speak up, make a move.
But we never do. Nobody ever does. We shuffle back to our desks, hide in our phones, pull forward in the dropoff line.
We kiss past the crust of the morning. The wet spot on the pillow, the gunk in the eyes, the sour breath. We wipe away sweat and dreams from brows. We dip hands into hidden folds and curves, underneath, where it’s dark and heavy and damp. We lick and swallow and we spread and moan. We pinch and scrape and knead. We release—our hands smelling faintly of love all day.
Things I want to learn to love:
An achy heart.
Being awake at two a.m.
My husband does not like soup. When he’s sick, he wants to be left alone: no juice, no tea, no lemonade or honey. No soup. This is confusing—how can you not want chicken soup? My chicken soup. And if you don’t want chicken soup, what can I do for you? Is doing nothing a sign of love?
I stop making soup for a while. Then just make it for myself. Then for our son. You can’t just make a little soup. I offer it up on cold winter days and on sick days for years. “Nothing against your soup,” he says. But no thank you.
I resign myself: he is a no-soup person.
Fifteen years and four kitchens later, on an average Tuesday he suggests that I make soup for dinner. “But you don’t like soup,” I say.
“I could live on your soup,” he responds and I say nothing to hide my shock. Later there is crusty bread on the table and wine and the cooked carrots and parsnips in a separate bowl from the shredded chicken meat. He adds hot sauce and hot pepper flakes and dips his bread.
He makes my soup his own.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine—again!—where her soup-making skills will come in handy this winter. You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin
The scorpion’s name is Cupcake and Cupcake looks pissed.
“Oh, come on,” a zoo official with a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist says. “How scary can it be with a name like that?”
He’s talking to a girl. The girl is on Cupcake’s side of the safety rope. The zoo official is on the other. It’s the girl’s job to pop Cupcake’s carrying case open. Then she’s supposed to reach in and scoop out Cupcake like a gerbil.
From the way the girl is shaking, I’m sure it’s her first time.
I should say, “Honey, are you crazy? Don’t do that.”
I should say, “Sweetheart, how much are they paying you?”
To the zoo official, who is about my age and still wears his baseball cap backwards, I should say, “Why don’t you put your hand in there, dickhead?”
Instead I bring my ten-year-old son over to watch.
How I became this person, I don’t know.
Earlier, I wanted to hang out at the shark tanks. Then on the rickety bridge over Otis the Alligator.
Zoos trigger something primal in me. I don’t pay attention to the cute animals. I’m interested only in animals that, if things were fair and cage-free, would kill me. A zoo visit is about defying mortality, maybe. Most things are. It’s something not to talk about, though, especially with my sensitive ten-year-old son, who worries the snow leopard is depressed, wonders if the komodo dragon is lonely, and likes the penguin house most of all.
We were on our way to check out venomous snakes when I saw the Live Animal Demonstration sign.
How I justify watching:
I read somewhere that most scorpion stings are the same as bee stings.
I convince myself Cupcake is some sort of eunuch, a domesticated nub where a stinger used to be.
I think if someone’s going through the trouble of picking up a scorpion the size of a Pop-Tart, the rest of us should pay attention.
“You’ve got to see this,” I tell my son, who is a more decent person and who would rather not see this at all.
Cupcake’s whole body is a claw. She’s backed into the corner of her carrying case. Inside the reptile house, under ultraviolet light, Cupcake glows like a club kid at a rave. But out here, in the sunshine, she’s so black she’s almost purple, one oil-slick bruise. Her carrying case is pink, plastic, the kind usually reserved for hermit crabs, starter pets. It’s the kind of case kids store Barbie shoes in.
“Look, sweetie,” I say to my son. “She’s going to pick up that scorpion.” I point, like I’ve just said something wise, a life lesson.
I’ve become the muscle-guy from earlier, back at the aquarium. He flexed, pointed to a tank, and said, in a low and serious voice, “What we have right here are fish.” His pretty girlfriend clung to his bicep and cooed.
My son doesn’t coo. He backs up, because he’s not an adult, because the world hasn’t worn his heart to a nub, an overused eraser, because he still feels things.
“Why would she do that?” he wants to know.
The girl is ponytailed, in a powder-blue polo shirt with the zoo logo stitched on the chest. She looks like summer help, an intern, maybe. Maybe she’s getting minimum wage. Maybe this is unpaid life experience and she’s chalking up college credits she’ll have to take out loans to cover.
“Because she’s in training?” I say, and of course it comes out as a question.
“In training for what?” my son wants to know.
I’ve had a lot of awful jobs, terrible internships. “Life training,” people called some of them. None involved handling a scorpion, but still.
Once when I was a flight attendant, a pilot made me hold a door shut during take-off and landing.
There was a mechanical problem—the door wouldn’t lock completely and the handle would start to open on ascent and descent. It was something that would normally ground the plane, but the pilot had a date in D.C. that night—one hot blonde, one strip-club steakhouse, jumbo margaritas served up in glasses shaped like boobs.
The pilot didn’t want a delay.
He said, “Did you bring a parachute?”
He said, “You’ll love the way you’ll fly.”
He said, “Come on, I’m joking.”
He said, “Just don’t let go,” and winked.
I was young. I needed that job. I did what I was told. I pushed my whole weight against the handle and the handle pushed back. I don’t know how dangerous it was really, but I could feel the cold air whistle around the door seal. The steel handle frosted and shook and any minute it seemed the door would burst and I’d jettison out, cartoon baggage, still strapped in my jumpseat and smiling. I’d been taught to smile on the job no matter what. I did that. The door handle inched open and I kept calm and the passengers kept calm. They looked at me like I knew what I was doing and I pretended to know what I was doing.
We went on like that until one guy started hitting his call button. He kept at it through the short flight. He was doing sign language to show he needed a drink, that he might choke and die if he did not get a drink, like this lack of drink was cutting off what little oxygen he had left.
I smiled. He did not smile back. I shrugged and pointed my chin toward the seatbelt sign overhead, which demanded I stay seated, too—sorry, sorry—and that we’d both just have to hold on.
I held on. He kept pressing his call light like a game show buzzer. The door stayed shut. By the time we were on the ground, I was shaking. A red imprint marked my palm from the handle, and the man who wanted a drink was so angry he wrote down my name. He threatened to write a complaint even though I got him snacks and a diet Coke to go.
The pilot heard all of this but pretended not to.
“I think I can, I think I can,” the pilot said. He pulled his pilot-cap low, gangster-style. “Nice work, little engine,” he said, and patted my hip on his way out of the cockpit, off to his margarita-boobs and his blonde and the thick steak he liked juicy and medium-rare.
It’s been a dozen years since I had a job like that, which is maybe one reason I can keep watching the girl and the scorpion now. Empathy is an easy thing to lose, like car keys, like the name of that one actor who played in that movie about scorpions, you know the one.
“You can do it,” the zoo official says as the girl loosens the clasp on Cupcake’s case.
“You forgot what work is,” my father used to say, meaning me and what I do for a living, the way I push words around a page. He meant, watch it. He meant, first you’re on one side of the glass, then the other. He meant, be kind.
He meant, it’s not work if it can’t kill you.
He meant what work does to a body, but work kills people in many ways, I think.
At the entrance to the machine shop where my father worked for thirty years, a sign counted down the days since the last accident. The numbers were flip charts. The numbers didn’t go above two digits much. It was someone’s job to turn those numbers forward and back. Imagine that job.
My father had so many metal shavings in his skin he’d joke that he’d set off metal detectors at airports. He never wore a wedding ring because rings could catch in the machines and take a finger or worse.
“I want to keep all my fingers,” he’d say, “so I can show the foreman where to stick it.”
“I mean, seriously,” the zoo official is saying, “Cupcake?”
It’s a punchline he’s sharing again and again.
When our son was first born, he cried all the time and no one in our house slept much. At first we thought it was colic, but it went on and on and the pediatrician shrugged and said some children are born sensitive like that.
“He’ll get used to it,” the pediatrician said about my son and the world.
My husband worked a terrible corporate job back then. His boss liked to stretch an eight-hour day into a fifteen-hour day too often to count.
Once, after a stretch of six long days in a row, my husband came home and went into the kitchen. He took a serrated bread knife to his forehead. He carved. Blood ran into his eyebrows and down his cheeks. He came out and showed me. He looked proud. I felt sick. But then he called his boss and said he’d been in a car accident and wouldn’t be in to work the next day and maybe the next. I cleaned his forehead with peroxide and we celebrated with drinks and take-out from an Italian restaurant nearby. Everything felt, for a moment, manageable. We remembered we were happy. We remembered we loved each other. Our son slept some. We did, too.
“Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau said.
A knife going across a forehead wouldn’t make much of a sound.
“In training for what?” my son wanted to know about the girl.
The girl shakes even more now, like she’s about to stick a fork in a toaster. Cupcake’s case is open. Inside, Cupcake flexes her tail, her very operational stinger. I look down at my son, who’s squinted his eyes shut.
The girl tries to breathe. She cups her hand and lowers it into the case.
“Okay,” she says to the zoo official, who’s beaming. “Now what?”
“It’s not what you look at,” Thoreau said. “It’s what you see.”
“Things do not change,” Thoreau said. “We change.”
The girl nudges her hand under Cupcake.
She brings the creature out to show us, a heavy dark heart in her palm.
LORI JAKIELA is the author of three memoirs—most recently Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (Atticus Books 2015)—as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point 2012), and several chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more. She teaches in the writing programs at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and Chatham University, and co-directs the summer writers’ festival at the historic Chautauqua Institution. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their children. For more, visit http://lorijakiela.net.
It was May 22 when Alan died last year. Everyone around me was amazed by how well I managed, but that’s because they didn’t know the whole truth. By June, a little man had set up shop inside my chest. To be clear, the little man doesn’t live in my chest—he doesn’t have groceries in the refrigerator or put his feet up on the coffee table at the end of the day. To say he works there would be more accurate. The most surprising part of it all is when I look in the mirror: My husband is gone, my body harbors an invader, and I hardly look any different for it. I can see why people might think I’m fine.
I have never heard the little man say anything, not even a sigh, but I feel him. He’s the busiest when I miss Alan the most. I don’t know what his full job description states, but I have a good idea. His job is to ensure I feel everything I can’t show: the homesickness for a place I can never return, the crushing weight underlying the finality of it all. To get his point across, he launches intermittent campaigns throughout the day—“grief attacks,” I call them. Sometimes the attacks are big and violent, forcing me to crumple onto my couch, blinded by tears. Sometimes they are small, squeezing all the air out of my lungs. At first, living with the little man frightened me, but over the past nine months, we’ve learned how to co-exist. When he wages his attacks, I can only let him.
I alluded to the little man in the very beginning, back when people were still dropping off casserole dinners. They nodded with their mouths turned upside down and tried to imagine what it must be like. But after a while, everyone went back to their normal lives. I couldn’t blame them. I tried to, too, but nothing felt normal anymore. People stopped asking about the little man wreaking havoc in my chest. They wanted to know about my vacation plans, work, my new haircut. I brought him up less and less until I eventually stopped talking about him.
This morning, the little man is very busy, making it hard to get out of bed. My body feels twice as heavy as normal, as if long, lead bars now occupy space in each of my limbs. The bars don’t take up all the space in my arms and legs, but they don’t rattle around either. They’re heavy, after all. The little man shields his eyes with his hand, looks up, and frowns. Dark clouds are in the forecast, threatening rain. They’ve been brewing in my head over the last couple of days. I roll over onto my side, summoning the energy to get ready for work, and feel the lead weights follow a second later.
I work at a mid-size tech company in Mountain View, California, where I do B2B marketing. Mostly that means putting together PowerPoint presentations that the sales team use to pitch solutions to clients. It sounds straightforward enough, but somehow my days are full of back-and-forth email exchanges, meetings, and rough drafts. Everything takes longer and involves more people to complete than you’d imagine. For instance, this morning I am in a meeting with eight people to discuss logo designs and venue possibilities for an upcoming event. Two people present in the meeting, one person makes the decisions, and the rest of us are just along for the ride. The meeting eats up an entire hour of everyone’s day. Normally, I would get antsy thinking about the other things I could be doing in that hour, but it’s hard to care with the little man going on as he is.
It’s strange being at work in the middle of one of his violent attacks. All my Alan memories, the sad ones reserved for when I’m alone at night, bubble up dangerously close to the surface. I look around the room in a slight panic, but no one is paying any attention to me. All eyes are focused on the screen at the front of the room. I sit back in my chair and try to focus on the presenter’s explanation of this particular logo’s type treatment.
After the meeting, I go back to my desk, and, in an attempt to keep the grief attack at bay, I scroll through the endless emails that have poured in over the weekend. I delete the ones that are spam, ignore ones that require nothing of me, and flag the rest to respond to later. Some emails are marked with an exclamation mark to denote the urgency of their contents, but after reviewing them again, I decide they can wait and begin making my list. Every day I make a to-do list. First, I write down each task that I need to complete. Then I go back through the list, writing a number next to each item according to its deemed priority. Priority assignment is based on the project requester, the deadline, and the number of people depending on it. These are just loose guidelines, though. Sometimes I’ll assign a task a higher priority just because I feel like working on it at the time. It’s funny because they’re just numbered items on a piece of paper, but as soon as I finish making it, I can focus. Without it, the fear that I’m overlooking something else more important that I should be working on creeps in and paralyzes me.
I have only prioritized about half of my tasks when I can feel my resolve crumbling at the edges. I catch myself slipping and hope the little man doesn’t notice. The little man, however, doesn’t miss a beat and seizes the opportunity to make inroads on his attack. He pulls me in, and I am helpless to stop it.
I am back in our living room on that last day. Alan is lying in his hospital bed, next to the fireplace. He’s moving his arms and muttering words under his breath, as he has been for the past week. This morning his lips are the slightest shade of blue, his breathing has changed, and his knees are purple. Everyone else had missed it when they’d left for my sister’s college graduation that morning. But I saw it. I knew everything was about to be different.
I call hospice and talk to the nurse manager, explaining the changes in his condition. When I mention his purple knees, she pauses. Purple knees, I learn, are a sign that your time together is almost up. I ask the million-dollar question we’ve been asking ever since he was first diagnosed: How long? The nurse manager tells me she’ll send someone who’ll be able to assess the situation and give me a better timeframe. I hang up the phone. I don’t know what to do, so for the moment, I do absolutely nothing. I have never known Alan’s knees to be so telling.
After I gather myself, I break apart again, crying in the chair next to Alan’s bed. I’d been preparing for this moment, but I’m not ready. I don’t even know if now is the right moment. If he has hours left, I should say goodbye now, but if he has days left, shouldn’t I wait? The silence settles over us like a heavy layer of dust. I decide to say goodbye now, just in case, but everything that comes out sounds stupid. My voice isn’t my own.
Finally, I lean into his ear and whisper. It sounds better when I don’t have to hear that voice that isn’t mine. I tell him how much I love him, that I’ll be okay, that he can go if he needs to. I read in one of the booklets hospice gave me that it’s important to “grant permission” for your loved one to let go. I don’t believe myself when I tell him I’ll be okay, but I hope they might be the magic words to bring him comfort. I sit back down and stare into his face, convinced I’ll see something register. But if it does, I can’t tell. His expression is unchanged, his arms still moving—
A steady stream of people walk by my desk. I look at the clock in the corner of my computer screen. Lunch is fifteen minutes late. It’s normally served at eleven-thirty, and if it’s not served within ten minutes of that, people go crazy. That’s a slight exaggeration but not by much. Fearful that we might never eat again, people begin lining up in the cafeteria as if somehow that might help. I check the lunch calendar I keep pinned to my wall. Today we are having lunch from a restaurant named Pizza?. There is an actual question mark in the name.
The food finally arrives, and I can hear the soft roar in the cafeteria from my desk. After enough people walk past me with salad and pizza slices piled high on their plates, I walk to the kitchen to see what’s left. I place two slices of veggie pizza on a paper plate, fill a cup with water, and head to the lunch table where I usually eat with the rest of my team. At the last second, I think better of it and make a beeline for my desk. I don’t have the energy to make conversation today.
It makes people uncomfortable when you just sit and listen. Most people need to fill the empty space with some kind of noise. In my experience, it’s only a matter of time before people run out of things to talk about. They start asking questions they already know the answer to or bringing up inconsequential topics. I find myself repeating things I already said or feigning interest. Short of wearing a tee-shirt that says “I don’t feel like talking, but I like sitting with you,” the only thing I can do is watch more movies. Whole worlds unfold in front of me, and I don’t have to say a word. And sometimes, though not always, movies can make me forget the little man’s even there.
My favorite movie genre is science fiction, especially those of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic variety. People think it’s somewhat strange, but when your husband dies at thirty-one, the idea of everyone else dying en masse, holds a romantic allure. Almost every night, I watch a movie—sometimes even two or three. A part of me wonders if I’m abusing them, like an illicit substance. I’m sure a psychologist would ask if my movie-watching negatively affects my everyday life. I suppose it doesn’t really, except it irritates me to participate in conversations when I would much rather have them play out in front of me like on a movie screen. That might be one negative impact. But you never hear about movies ruining someone’s life, do you?
If I could only watch a movie right now, it might help me deal with the little man. But, being alone at my desk with only my veggie pizza to occupy me, I know he won’t let me off easy. As I chew, he taps around my right lung like he’s testing the quality of a cantaloupe. When he hears a sound that pleases him, he uses one hand to mark the spot and, with his other hand, removes a tiny straw from his back pocket. He raises it high above his head, then swiftly brings it down, puncturing a hole in my lung. I let out a small gasp. It’s a small straw, but I can feel the air escaping through it.
I wonder if this is how it feels to have a collapsed lung. I know two people whose lungs collapsed: my friend Sue and a co-worker’s boyfriend. Neither of them even knew it had happened. Sue found out during a check-up the day after getting a lung mass the size of a golf ball biopsied. She says she didn’t feel a thing. The co-worker’s boyfriend was in college at the time, partying at a hotel in Mexico. He fell off the third-floor balcony and, if you can believe it, was picked up and carried back to his hotel room where his friends tucked him into bed for the rest of the night. It was only the next morning, after he’d been taken to an American hospital by medevac, that his collapsed lung was discovered and a steel rod was placed through his body. Still, I think the average individual would feel something if his lung collapsed. Shortness of breath to say the least. So maybe it’s like this: You feel a collapsed lung, unless you have bigger things to worry about. Like the possibility of lung cancer or a broken back.
Speaking of bigger things, the little man has finished with the straw, content with its placement, and is walking around with an Allen wrench. I’m impressed by how much he’s able to store in those tiny pockets of his. I watch him scramble around, kneeling down to tighten screws in three separate places, knitting my ribs closer and closer together. When he is satisfied, he slips the wrench into his back pocket where it disappears with the rest of his toolbox contents. He wipes the sweat off his brow and admires his handiwork. The tightness in my chest is even more pronounced now. I swallow my last bite of pizza and it settles like a lump in the back of my throat. The combination of the straw in my lung and the bolts in my chest makes it incredibly hard to sit up. I want to writhe around, to shake the little man loose. Or at the very least, I’d like to lie down.
Maybe I will just keel over and die. You hear about that, don’t you? It happens all the time with older couples: After years of marriage together, one dies and the other, perfectly healthy, save for the usual creaks and aches that old age brings, follows shortly after. I used to think maybe I could be so lucky. I’m sure my friends and family worried for a while that I might do something stupid to harm myself, but I’m afraid of pain and suffering. I’ve seen enough of that. However, if I could somehow relay the message to my heart to just stop beating one day, that wouldn’t be such a bad deal. Nice and neat. To pull off such a feat must require a tremendous amount of trust and coordination between organs, the kind that only comes after spending a lifetime together. That’s the only way I can explain why only older people die of a broken heart. Young people just aren’t there yet with their anatomy. Even if they tell their hearts to stop beating, there’s no way for their hearts to know how serious they are.
Sitting at my desk, I can’t move around too much or lie down, but I need to do something or else I might implode. I could cry. I’ve cried at my desk before, the kind of tears that are hot and silent. But I don’t trust the character of these tears today. I feel them swell inside me, a water balloon the little man has filled too full. It threatens to burst at any minute. I throw the rest of my lunch in the trash and try to get it together.
“Sobrina?” My boss Lisa calls me from two desks away.
“Yeah?” I look up. The little man pauses.
“Can you come take a look at this?” Lisa asks.
I get up and walk towards her. Because I don’t know what else to do with it, I bring the water balloon with me, gingerly carrying it in my hands.
She whips around and smiles at me. I nearly drop it.
“I thought that meeting went well today. Do you?” Lisa asks.
“Yeah, I thought it went well, too,” I say.
The water balloon is shaking. I look down and realize my hands are trembling. I want to tell her everything—that I can hardly breathe today, that the water balloon might pop at any minute. I open my mouth, but before I can get a word out, she turns back around to face her computer screen.
“I’m just recapping the discussion in an email to the group. Am I missing any next steps here?” Lisa asks.
I swallow hard. The water balloon in my hands creates a space between us so I lean in closer to read her screen.
“I think you got it all,” I say.
“Thanks.” She smiles warmly and goes back to finishing her email.
I have one more meeting before the day is over. This one is with my marketing communications team, a sub-group within the larger marketing department. We meet once a week, usually on a Monday, to provide status updates on our projects. Sometimes we’ll show each other what we’re working on. We go in a circle, one by one. I try to focus on what my teammates are saying, but it’s hopeless. I sit quietly, taking shallow breaths in an attempt to keep everything inside.
“And how about you, Sobrina? What are you working on?” Lisa asks, pulling my attention back into the room.
A lump rises in the back of my throat.
“This week…” I trail off. I look down at the to-do list I’ve been working on all day. Just read off the list, I tell myself. “I’m working on the positioning for the new media product.”
Lisa nods and jots it down in purple ink on her clipboard.
I shift in my seat.
“And I’m working with the design team to finalize the retail brochure,” I say.
The water balloon has stopped quivering quite as much. I place it on the table next to my notebook so I can read through my list faster. I’m surprised that it stays put and doesn’t roll off the edge.
“I was hoping to share our editorial ideas with the PR team this week. Did you get a chance to review those?” I ask Lisa.
“I’ll make sure I look at those,” Lisa says, circling a note to herself.
“And that’s it,” I lie. I need to get out of the room. I can feel the little man boring holes in my chest, and I’m certain everyone can see my discomfort. When I look up from my list, though, everyone is buried deep in their laptops. Lisa retracts her pen and places it back down on the table, concluding the meeting.
Nobody can see the little man like they would a scar on my forehead. But he’s there in my chest all the time. So it’s just me and him. Me and him and the lonely thought that Alan would know but will never know. He would understand in the same way that he understood when we watched the movie about the retired couple visiting Paris. They go away together in the hopes of sparking romance in their tired marriage. It’s just a movie, of course, but watching them wandering through the cobblestone streets, arm in arm, made me feel a terrible pinch inside. I wanted to be in the middle of all those lights, walking on those streets, feeling Alan’s arm wrapped around me. I wanted all of those things I thought we would have. I hated the old couple.
I looked at Alan asleep next to me, his face and body a shadow of what it used to be. He looked so peaceful, even though I knew seething pain waited for him just around the corner. The tumors in his pelvis ate away at his sacral bones, and physical activity as simple as shifting his weight had become a burden. It hit me that we would never adventure to a new city again, at least not in this life. Bitter tears rolled down my cheeks in disciplined silence. I was Alan’s cheerleader, his eternal optimist—that was my job. He could never know about my fears and doubts.
As I cried, hating that old couple—hating all old couples—Alan’s hand reached out for mine. I turned, surprised he’d woken up, to see his blue eyes fixed on me. I tried to stop crying, but I couldn’t. He held onto my hand, patiently waiting.
After a minute, I told him, “I just always wanted to go with you.”
“I know,” he said softly.
SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.
I hoped to say goodbye to it in 2015. But the year ended and I was still here.
So many factors revolve around being homeless. I can look at the factors all day long, and we as a society can engage and look at the factors all day long. But the truth of the matter is I can only look at myself.
I was always uneasy with looking at myself in the mirror, even as a child. But I find it even harder to do now. I may glance at myself for a minute to make sure my cornrows are neat and well kept, but when I look in the mirror—I mean really look in the mirror—I see the embarrassment of the adult I’ve become. I see an embarrassment to the little girl I was, who grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, New York. I haven’t been fair to the little girl who loved to create, create something, and create anything that would lead her away from the harsh reality of the projects. Her imagination was her key to unlock her way out, her creativity the strength to push open the door. To a world of possibilities, or so she thought.
I’m watching myself in the mirror, standing over a sink and trying to squeeze enough water out of my washcloth to quickly wash before someone in the church (where I will stay tonight out of the cold) needs to come in. I monitor the door and try to finish up, and I think about how I got to this point in my life. Especially with two college degrees. I didn’t think an A.S. in Theater and a B.A. in English were so great, but down here where I am located, it’s like a prize just to finish high school.
Someone bangs on the door and curses that they need to use the bathroom. Sighing, I turn off the water, dry off, and put fresh clothes on (especially underwear, since they’re scarce around here for women). Opening the door, I walk past a young guy who is looking at me all angry. I ignore him as I walk over to my mat, squinting my eyes in the semi-darkness. On several other mats, some people are whispering in conversation, others cough, and some have settled down for the night.
I finally spot my mat that has a small red blanket on it, and my heart soars with relief, thankful to be indoors from the cold. Except for the hardness of the mat, it’s okay. It’s much better than sitting in an airport, hospital, or stairway building all night. Removing my dirty sneakers that already have holes formed in them, I step onto the mat and lie on it, but not before trying to find a comfortable spot. When I do, I adjust my now-dirty cross bag like a pillow and lay my head on it.
Immediately my mind starts to wander back to a time—eight years ago, in another state—when I sat at a bar in a strip club. I don’t want to go there; I often pray I don’t. I fight hard to move on from that chapter of my life as well as other chapters, but the human brain is fascinating at recapturing things you don’t want to remember.
This was not my first time being met with homelessness. You’d think after years of knocking on doors for jobs, jobs in my field, any kind of jobs, I would be settled by now. But, it hasn’t worked that way. I’ve run around town, dressed in my best interview clothes, and talked in my proper professional etiquette, and I’ve had years of experience working in corporate office setting. How many closed doors in one’s face can one take? No criminal background, no drugs, no illegal history of any kind. That would hinder me to getting that “dream” job that I dreamed since I was a child. Timing? Maybe. Years of inquiring, and still knocking, honing skills needed the best as I could.
I was weary. I fell into a deep dark depression, and I couldn’t see my way out of it. Usually I could, but this time, it was like a black hole that sucked me in deeper each day. Destructive habits were starting to resurface, ones I had long tried to suppress, work on, or pray about. But they found a way back, a door open, and a trigger. Growing up in a family full of destructive habits, it was easy to fall into the same pattern.
Not able to meet a motel room I stayed in briefly, I headed down to the local city shelter. It was place that was surrounded by all kinds of people that were destructive on many levels. Strangely enough, I felt at home. I felt a kind of high being there. This was my first time in one. Feeling alone and abandoned by family, church, and friends, I didn’t care. Old thoughts of sexual abuse as well as other abuse I faced as a child kept popping up in my mind. Years of trying to “let it go” had not worked for me. Suddenly it was like a gulf overtaking me, the years of rejection gnawed at me.
I guess it made sense—I was just rejected by a guy I was semi-getting to know a few weeks ago. I felt the need to prove myself and show him I was what he wanted.
All around me I heard bits and pieces of conversation about local strip clubs in the area. The idea to feel beautiful and sexy at the same time and become every man’s fantasy was alluring. Not to mention, I heard if you were “good” at what you did, the money rolled in rather quickly. Naive to this, I didn’t understand all of what “good” meant.
A woman who was a former stripper said to me, “You’re not ready,” when I asked her about it. She briefly schooled me on the basics of the “business,” and the more she talked the more excited I became. It sounded like a glamorous lifestyle. I was feeling desperation and a need for attention from this guy, so I took what I wanted from our talk and ignored the rest. After all, it was only one night. What would it hurt? I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t get any lower than where I was.
I had heard about amateur night at this local club everyone knew about, where all you wear is a bikini and dance for money. Sitting at the bar, I watched a nude woman with stilettos on stage dance, surrounded by colored lights. I was mesmerized by how this woman boldly worked the pole, dancing in sync to the hip hop and R&B music, moving in time with the music. Men threw money gracelessly at her feet. Excitement building in my chest, I wanted to be like this woman, who was not only attractive but had men falling at her feet. I felt self-conscious about my apparel: no bikini, but jeans and sneakers. Not to mention my puffed-out relaxer and slight odor from not being able to use the showers at the shelter that day.
I turned towards the bar and ordered a Hennessey and Coke. I took a sip, enjoying the way it tasted on my tongue. I wasn’t a drinker, but this was what I needed. As I sipped my drink, I causally chatted with a guy who sat next to me. I held onto my drink and watched him carefully. He encouraged me to get up on stage and said I could do it.
Insecurity settled on me like a familiar blanket, and I again scanned the room to see women in bikinis and thongs handing out drinks to guys at the tables. Their hair and makeup fixed in sexy styles, neatly done, they skillfully walked in stilettos. I kept wondering what was I doing there. These women were gorgeous. They had an art to dancing and working the pole that I would never master, I thought.
I ordered another Hennessey and Coke. I felt like I was inside a dream, a hazy dream. The pulse of the music sounded out sexual and raunchy things to be done. Time was going by quickly. I wanted desperately for the guy to call me back and say, “Shorty, I am on my way.” (He always called me shorty). But in the whole hour, his phone just kept ringing and going to voicemail. Left messages. No answer. Glancing at the door now and then, I still expected him to walk through the door. I was frustrated and hurt. I stopped calling. I imagined he must be laughing at me with his chick. Taking another sip, it went down my throat easily again.
A couple of drinks later, I felt myself loosen up as I relaxed and waited for them to call us new girls to the stage. All the while I felt myself falling into a deeper depression. If this was it for me, I at least wanted to enjoy the night. Death was on my mind. I felt it all around me. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to live anymore. Consumed with my thoughts as I listened to the music, a loud voice snapped me out of it.
“IT’S AMATEUR NIGHT LADIES! TO THE STAGE!” I looked up at a short guy with a booming voice. The guy in the seat next to me waved me on and winked. I grinned slightly at him. The music was lowered a bit. My favorite song by rapper TI—”You Could Do Whatever You Like”—was playing.
I asked the female bartender, “Is it time?”
My head felt woozy as my heart beat against my chest. I steadied myself on the bar stool.
“Yeah,” she said eyeing me briefly, before she gave the guy next to me a quick glance. I quickly jumped off the seat and followed behind a group of girls to a back room. I noticed everyone else had their bikinis on, and I didn’t have anything.
“Here.” A girl threw a bikini set to me. It landed easily in my hands. “Keep it.” Nodding, I rushed to the bathroom and tried to wash myself.
Doing the best I could with a small piece of soap and paper towels, afterwards I changed into the bikini, so small the thong part showed my butt cheeks. I guess this was supposed to be the desired effect. Adrenaline pumped through my veins—just the excitement of it was like drug.
Before I hit the stage, I tried to straighten out my semi-afro with my fingers and some water. I really wished I had found someone at the shelter to cornrow my hair for me. For free. Glancing at myself one last time, I looked down at my shoes. Church shoes, it looked like, with a heel. Not cool. But this was all I had. Everyone said it was okay. It was just “amateur” night. This was to see if they really wanted to keep you.
“Okay, ladies, let’s go!” a woman said outside the bathroom.
I took a deep breath, walked out, and headed to the stage with the other girls. At first, I danced with the other girls as a group, my nerves and fears getting the best of me.
It was different from what I had imagined. When it was my turn, I danced solo. My name was “Candy, and as I danced, I felt some money hit my leg and foot. Pleased, I kept moving until my turn was up.
Backstage, the lady who worked at the club grabbed my arm and said, “You gotta fix yourself up more, then you’ll have a chance.” I nodded and went to change. I knew I shouldn’t, but the wheels in my mind kept spinning as to who I could find to do my hair and coach me some more.
It was an early October morning and dark outside. I prepared to stay in the club until daylight when a big, built guy with glasses appeared in front of me and asked if I needed a ride. “Sure, thanks,” I said, uncomfortable.
“Come on.” He waved me outside. I followed as I tried to push away the advice the lady at the shelter gave me a few days ago.
I hopped in the black Jeep and slammed the door. He made small talk along the way. His car swerved the car a bit as we rode down the dark road. “I liked your dancing,” he said, taking turns eyeing me and the road.
I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in him at all. I laughed, smiled, and flirted a bit to try to buy time.
“You live around here?”
“No.” I shrugged my shoulders coolly. “With a friend downtown.” I held tight to the twenty-five dollars he threw at me on stage.
“I really liked what I saw. You’re sexy,” he said, staring at me in the dark car as we sat waiting for the light to change. We were almost downtown. My heart was doing flip-flops. I was for this ride to be over.
“Let me give you my number,” he said.
“Yeah, let me get it,” I said calmly, with a giggle in my voice.
We were finally downtown, and he quickly wrote down his number. “Call me.”
“Let me get a hug, shorty.” Expectation still lingered in his eyes.
I moved over and hugged him, and he squeezed as he hugged me. Smiling, I told him, “I’ll call you.”
We moved away from each other and I quickly grabbed the handle and got out of the Jeep. With one finally smile and a wave, I walked away quickly around the comer. Leaning against a wall, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I waited for my breathing to return to normal. Then I opened my eyes and walked the few steps towards Landmark Diner, my favorite diner. I went inside and ordered my favorite meal.
As I ate, I thought about the events that took place. I was happy I had tried this new thing. A surge of excitement passed through me as I quickly pulled out my phone and redialed the guy again.
He picked up. “I see you’re answering your phone now,” I told him. I was nervous about what he would say next.
“What happened?” he asked a little too calmly. I went over the details with him. We stayed on the phone briefly because most of the time I was jotting down information he was giving me. He seemed impressed by my “attempt” at stripping so far and gave me a club to go to the next day and he said he would meet there. Although I was doubtful he would, my hopes still soared. This one would at least be closer to the shelter downtown.
I left the diner and headed back to the shelter. Things were busy as usual there, people trying to get help with getting placed, men standing outside looking for a hustle. People on in wheelchairs, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes, women with children, women with baby daddies by their side. Impatient, sometimes grumpy, social workers.
I walked into the nearest bathroom ready to take a shower after getting a paper pass to do so. All that ran through my mind was getting ready for tonight. I’d find someone to do my hair to make it look halfway descent and find a sexier bikini this time and find someone to do my make-up. The excitement was building, the attention, the need to make more money, the glamor of it all.
I was about to step into the shower when, all of the sudden, I fell. My right ankle slammed against the floor hard. Not noticing the pool of water in front of me, I started to get up when the ankle or leg couldn’t hold me and I fell to the ground again. I cursed aloud, and I saw my right ankle begin to swell.
A lady who came in the bathroom, said, “Don’t move, honey. Someone gonna call the ambulance.”
She rushed out the bathroom. I sat there silently in shock, upset. My plans to self-destruct weren’t exactly working out as I had hoped. All I thought about was the guy I wanted to impress and how I wanted to be in his arms again. Really be in his arms, not some quick trip seeing me at a hotel room and that was it. I wanted to be his ride-or-die chick. I wanted to have his baby—I told him many times.
But I guess that wasn’t going to be. These thoughts went all around me, and that was more devastating than that my dreams of becoming a dancer were over.
I didn’t hear from the guy anymore. And when I did call, it was brief and or voicemail or a female who answered.
I wanted to die. I wondered why God had let me live. I hated my life. Not only was I homeless, but I was in a boot, walking around in crutches. I was reduced to nothing; the women in the shelter called me “Crutch.” What‘s up, Crutch?, You doin okay, Crutch? or Go, Crutch, as I struggled down the hall.
As time went on, I stayed at different shelters for my ankle to heal—in the snow, rain and sleet at times—going out, to get clothes, documents needed, as well as information. That all basically led to nowhere. I was worn out, tired, hurt and confused.
People didn’t understand—that I would expect them to—that I wasn’t just homeless to be homeless. It was a reason behind it. I was struggling in life to get my life together. I was thankful I wasn’t in a corner of a shelter, rocking back and forth in a seat talking to myself, or receiving disability, or waiting for it to come, or waiting on child support. Or drug addicted. These were real problems to the shelter system people.
Not some woman who was clearly educated and so they thought she was trying to take advantage of the system. What was I to do when I pushed myself for years to get a better job more stability?
I still was with family until now. I don’t know, but maybe it wasn’t important. Maybe it wasn’t a big thing that my grandmother lived in a senior building, and for years the manager has been harassing me and her because the only people are supposed to be there are seniors. It doesn’t matter if I help her or go shopping for her, and still look for work and a place to stay for myself. It doesn’t matter that each day, I am on my grind. Doing what I have to do. Doesn’t matter that they threaten her if I continue to stay overnight with her. Where I have to try to sneak in and out just to have a place to stay. And after a while I am told I have to leave.
I guess it doesn’t matter or mean anything that I can’t stay with my mom in the projects I grew up in because the front door always locks to keep drug dealers and users out. And the only people who have the key are the people on the lease. Maybe it doesn’t matter that my mom has kicked me out of her apartment (if did get inside) and cursed me out and yelled at me and has physically put her hands on me.
Maybe that doesn’t matter to people because I am a grown woman and should be on my own. Not their problem. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the rest of my family doesn’t care. Again not their problem. I don’t know.
Maybe it doesn’t matter that I’ve traveled to another place to make a better life for myself and people seem kind at first, but then there is no money rolling in from you, and they tell you to leave. Or you return to their place at after looking for work all day and you can’t get in the house, or the key they gave you doesn’t work.
But in order get “help” from one of the shelter programs, you have to be literally homeless. If that was the case, then why couldn’t I get help when I was sitting in a chair in the airport, or sitting in the city hospital all night, or sitting in a stairwell of a building hoping no one would catch me just so I could be off the streets for the night? Then to go back to the local woman’s shelter to shower and eat lunch, but at three p.m., I have to leave, only to do this all over again until the shelter program for the week at a church opens up. Where I can lay on a floor on a mat. It wouldn’t bug me so much if I wasn’t still dealing with this right now in my life.
Yes, I am still dealing with this.
I am grinding every day to find work, more than temp that I’ve done many years now so I can at least secure a steady place to stay of my very own. I have to catch myself many times.
That child that once dreamed in the projects of Brooklyn still resurfaces a lot especially times like this. I have to tell that child, you’re an adult now—stop fantasizing about winning that Oscar and having your favorite actor by your side as you receive it. I try not to think about how I want to complete this novel I’ve tried to work on for years so I can make my grandmother proud. That how she took care of me most of the time was not in vain. I try to tell that little girl on a day like today when depression sets in, and I know she’s crying inside of me thinking about the abuse she suffered and the physical violence she witnessed and experienced. I tend to her for a minute—just for a minute—because if not she’ll want to live in the past and this is not the time or day to be stuck in the past.
This is not for people to feel sorry for me. I don’t like that. It’s to know and try to understand that not all homeless people are the same. But as I’ve sat, eaten, and slept with the homeless, I see that I have things in common with the women. The need to be loved and cared for, broken pain now and in the past, needing to get our lives together.
The only difference is I can say I am here because of God. No other reason. Why, I don’t know. But all I can do is stay on my grind one day at a time and hopefully make something wonderful happen out of all this pain and suffering. Maybe.
CHAREEN IBRAHEEM is a writer living in Portsmouth, Virginia.
There is a visiting writer scheduled to visit the military hospital where I lead writing sessions with recovering Service Members. I’ve been planning his visit for months. The patients have read some of his stories and are looking forward to this opportunity. Some have even bought their own copies of his book. I was informed, as I was leaving the end-of-the-year elementary school parent social, that the class play was scheduled for the same day as his visit. A few of the mothers were leaning over the granite-topped island in the gleaming kitchen, becoming wine-affectionate with one another. I came in to say goodbye. Thank you so much. I’ll see you next week. Is the play at 5:30 or 6? There is an exchanged glance (I may have imagined this).
The play is at 2:30, Alisha Stoneman tells me, eyebrows raised. That was definitely not imagined.
There had been about thirty minutes of conversation over white wine about how best to simulate a boulder on stage, about whether fake blood would traumatize the children. The husband and wife parent team that sews the costumes for nearly every school play—they are an adorable couple—has been discussing their plans. They both work. They both have important, high-profile jobs. I’m the asshole who didn’t know when the class play was.
Which means I will have to make a choice: class play or veterans. This is how my choices always unfold: birthday party or veterans. Sick day or veterans. Rollerblading, swimming pool, elaborate home-cooked dinner or veterans. I make a plan to have it all: I will leave early, see him through the workshop with the patients who are in the partial hospitalization program, the session I have to be there for, and have a colleague cover the other writing workshop which is open to the entire hospital, including staff.
He’s generous and honest with the group of twelve or so service members in the workshop I attend. Each of them writes about their military experience, even those who are openly angry whenever they are assigned to my writing group. Each wants to share their work. The group is supposed to end at 1:50. I planned to run to my car at 1:55 and make it to the play, which starts at 2:30. It is 2:00 and they are still reading and waiting for the writer’s comments, which he offers slowly and thoughtfully. I can’t leave before I’ve asked them to applaud and thank him, before I remind them to take their work, if it stirred something that will not settle, to their respective mental health providers. I jiggle my leg impatiently, clench my hands and then relax them, remind myself that my job is to maintain calm in the room. When finally we close, it is 2:05. I thank the writer, shake his hand with both of mine and run to my car. It is summer, an afternoon storm has begun, and my drive is delayed by a downpour that limits visibility. I enter the church basement just as the final applause has broken out.
I stand in the back, soaking wet, a halo of frizz forming around my head, and join the clapping. Other parents turn to look at me sideways, sympathetic and judgmental. Glad they are not me. My plastic hospital badge is still clipped to the collar of my dress.
In the third row, my older son Sam is sitting with his father and a woman I recognize (from light social media research with my cousins) as Karim’s girlfriend, who lives with my children half the time, in the house I raised them in and left behind two years ago. Who I have not yet met. Her hair is straight and brushed and dry. She is carrying a Burberry bag and looks more like the other private school mothers than I do.
One of the teachers—who just last week began reading my blog and sent me an email saying she is proud to know me, that Zaki brags about me—leads me to the makeshift backstage, puts her hands on my shoulders, and tells me that Zaki only had three lines, the play was short, that she is so sorry.
You’re better than this, Seema, she tells me while I cry. I wipe my tears, thank her, and face the room of parents milling about.
Zaki is showing Karim and the girlfriend his schoolwork, which is laid out on a table for parents to peruse. Karim is dressed in a blue button down shirt tucked into salmon colored trousers. He is wearing yellow alligator loafers. He glances at me briefly when I approach. He has new glasses that do not suit him. This is a small gift.
Hi, I’m Seema, I say, reaching forward to shake her hand. We haven’t met. I’m Sam and Zaki’s mother. This comes out harsher and more pointed than I meant it to; the emphasis on mother sounds jealous and territorial.
Her smile is nervous. Yes, I’ve heard so much about you. Nice to meet you.
I turn away to make small talk with some of the other mothers. Alisha Stoneman is serving punch. What I need in this room are established allies. What I really want to do is hang out with kids. When I’ve made some loose promises to definitely get the kids together sometime over the summer, I go play with the kids, who are high from the combination of unsupervised cupcake eating and post-performance exhilaration. We are having a dance party on the part of the blue-tiled floor that had been used as the stage. After a few minutes, a teacher comes over to tell the kids to calm down. I don’t know why you think this is a way to behave indoors, She tells them sternly without looking directly at me. You should know better than this. I want to flick her off as she stomps away. I shrug at the kids, who roll their eyes and giggle.
It’s Tuesday, so the boys will be going home with Karim. He and Sam come to where I’m standing and the crowd of children disperses. The girlfriend is sitting in a chair looking at Zaki’s new yearbook, which I purchased, and so should be going home with. The order form came to both of us. If Karim wanted a copy for his house he should have ordered one. This is petty of me, and I know it. I turn to Sam and ask him to just make sure the yearbook makes it back to our house, which, while still petty, seems less so.
This infuriates Karim. Just because you’re standing on a stage doesn’t mean you have to be so dramatic. He walks over and snatches the yearbook out of the girlfriend’s hands and pushes it at me. He turns on his alligator heel and walks toward the door. The boys give me quick hugs and the girlfriend offers her hand. It was nice to meet you, she says before quickly following after him.
She has such nice manners. Where is her mother? Shouldn’t someone warn her?
That night in a lover’s bed, the heat of his body wrapped around mine disrupts my sleep and her face rises again and again.
SEEMA REZA is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, DC, where she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care and socialization among a military population struggling with emotional and physical injuries. An Alumnus of Goddard College and VONA, her work has appeared or will appear on-line and in print in The Beltway Quarterly, Duende, Bellevue Literary Review and Hermeneutic Chaos among others. When the World Breaks Open, a collection of essays and poetry will be released by Red Hen Press in March. Pre-order the book here.
Only after you’ve had two glasses of wine, and only in a joking way, can you maybe admit to having graduated from fashion school. But, after all this time, you still wonder why on earth you did it.
Maybe because all your friends and your boyfriend had somehow been accepted to college, but you had never even applied, because you were a confused and mediocre high school student, and nobody in your family had gone to college. And you had to do something, for God’s sake.
So, when you were moping over the photos of Lane hope chests in Seventeen, maybe you also saw an ad that said something about “a career in a year” and promised graduates entrée to a number of jobs, including buyer for a department store. You liked your after-school job at a small clothing and gift shop, so you cut out that ad and begged your parents to pay the tuition, if you promised to use your savings to cover your living expenses. They finally agreed, so you signed up for fashion school. And on September 13, 1970, fresh from the suburbs of Cleveland, the trunk of your dad’s palomino beige sedan crammed with your personal possessions, you arrived in downtown Toledo, Ohio.
Fashion school was seventeen courses, thirty hours each, for a total of 510 hours in the classroom. Plus homework. Principles of Buying, Fashion Sketching, Fashion Writing, Business Economics, Color and Design, classes like that. And while you could certainly argue that it was not the Harvard of the Midwest, maybe you liked those courses, worked hard, and got excellent grades, because it was so much smaller than your high school, just fourteen other girls and you, and your teachers were mostly women who wore lots of make-up, and hats and weirdly dressy clothes for a weekday, but were real-live career women.
Of course, there was that mandatory finishing school component of the curriculum that you overlooked in the fine print. Afternoons, during the first semester, you had to take classes like Visual Poise, Wardrobe Styling, Make-up, and Personality. That part may not have gone as well as the morning classes, because you might have been 5’3” on your tallest day, and less than lithe and, even with your contact lenses, your mother’s nickname for you was “Plain Jane.” Also, you liked to think you already had a personality, even if it was not the correct one. However, you did learn such valuable life skills as how to enter a car like a lady: butt-first.
In the afternoon, there was also a Voice and Drama class, and your teacher assigned a speech from Macbeth, the one that starts with “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day,”and ends with, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” You were all supposed to memorize it and be ready to recite it in class, but you refused to do it, claiming it was a waste of your time, but really you were terrified that you wouldn’t be able to do it, and there you’d be, standing in front of everyone, with no words coming out of your mouth. Normally, this was not a problem. You were shy, but you had also learned to make fun of yourself before anyone else did it for you. Somehow, you still passed that course and all the others, too, making you, presumably “finished,” not as in “ruined,” but as in “completed.”
And you stayed, even though you were miserable and scared much of the time. Like that Saturday when you and your roommate were the only ones on the floor of the residential hotel that was being converted to offices and that did not, contrary to the school’s ad, provide onsite adult supervision other than the elderly guard who sat at the front desk in the lobby and may or may not have been there 24/7.
You stayed even after you brought your laundry up that day and were folding it and a strange man appeared in your doorway and you froze, but your rural roommate threw the empty clothesbasket and ran at him screaming, “Get out!” and “Go away!” and finally he did.
Maybe one of the students was twenty-one, or knew someone who was, and so, some evenings, you were able to consume as many whiskey and Seven-Ups at one time as you liked. And you learned that those drinks made you calmer, happier; you felt as though you fit in better and were more like other people, until you had one too many and found yourself kneeling on the tiny white hexagon tiles of the bathroom, releasing the contents of your stomach, then sobbing hysterically about how much you missed your boyfriend and how much you hated fashion school.
But, one sunny day in the spring of that school year, you walked into your friend Karen’s room and heard a voice as plain as your own, but on-key, singing, “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue.” You picked up the album cover and studied it: Carole King’s face was as plain as your own, with dishwater brown hair like yours but crazy curly. She wore a loose sweater and jeans, and no shoes. It was the opposite of the dress code you’d been obeying for the past seven months. You weren’t entirely sure about this tapestry business, but it seemed like something worth pursuing, and you suspected it had more to do with the books you were reading on the side than anything you were learning at fashion school. Books like The Art of Loving, The Feminine Mystique, The Chosen, Atlas Shrugged (so much longer and duller than The Fountainhead, but necessary somehow, at least then)and, over and over again, anything by Salinger.
Maybe you graduated with honors, which sounds like a joke, but is true, and you gave a speech about character, both of which you had forgotten about until you were going through your mom’s things a year ago and found the program and, neatly folded inside, a typed copy of your speech, with the key phrases underlined twice, in pencil, so you’d remember to emphasize them.
Maybe you stayed in Toledo and got an apartment with your fashion school roommate. You worked at a newly opened clothing store for Juniors in a newly opened mall, where one of your former teachers was the manager. You did not drive or own a car, and the mall was five and a half miles from your apartment, the bus situation was iffy, and you worked some evenings, so you sometimes got a ride home from work on the back of the assistant manager’s boyfriend’s motorcycle.
In your free time you read, smoked pot, drank, took muscle relaxers and, once, over the counter diet pills. The latter made you really peppy and not at all hungry, until you got stomach pains so bad you doubled over, and after those stopped, you walked across the mall to the bakery, where you ate too many cinnamon rolls and gulped white milk from a small, waxed carton.
You grew tired of spending your work shifts standing in the front of the maroon-carpeted, rough-wood-paneled Juniors’ store, wearing hot pants, and folding and refolding tops, while trying to strike up awkward conversations with people who walked by, so maybe you could lure them inside to buy something.
Once, after the district manager said you weren’t trying hard enough, you marched up to a woman who was browsing the sale rack, guided her to the new rabbit fur jackets, and convinced her she deserved to buy one for herself. You felt your lunch churning in your stomach as you stood behind the counter and watched her slowly pull wrinkled singles from her purse and then the pockets of her jeans, as she tried to qualify for layaway. When she finished, you fought the urge to push the money back to her, pat her hand, and tell her to go buy something practical. Maybe that was when you decided to fashion a life some other way.
Now, you are finally able to bear the thought of going back. The school has closed, but you stand outside the now-historic hotel where you lived forty-three years ago. As you look up at the fourth floor windows, you remember a night when you’d had just enough to drink so you were relaxed but not sick or weepy. You ended up, fully clothed, in a waterless bathtub with several of your classmates. You were all singing, though you’ve forgotten the song. Without a doubt, the cover of The Mamas and the Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, an album you had listened to over and over again during high school, inspired you.
You look down the street at the newly built Mud Hens’ stadium, and you remember Mondays, after your classes were over, when you and your roommate walked in that direction to the meat cutting school that has since been torn down, where you carefully chose a pork chop or some thin sheets of veal for your dinner that night. And after you cleaned up a corner of the filthy, shared kitchen with its limp heads of iceberg lettuce, shriveled apples, and cartons of curdled milk, you cooked that meat along with frozen vegetables and Rice-a-Roni, the latter to make you feel as though you were living somewhere more exotic than Toledo, Ohio.
As you turn the corner to check out the front entrance of the hotel, you think of a guy you dated during your “I’ll go out with pretty much anyone who asks me because my boyfriend is 204 miles away and increasingly absent” phase. This date drove a red Corvette he loved too much to leave downtown unattended, so you waited for him on the corner of Superior and Jefferson. You stood alone on a city street, after dark, no phone booth nearby, one of the many chances you took because you did not yet understand the word “mortal.”
And, finally, you remember that you eventually substituted your Glamour subscription for one for the new Ms. magazine, and you proudly wore flannel shirts and faded, patched jeans to your college classes. You got married, earned two degrees, had a baby, and ended up working with children and, later, teaching college students.
Maybe now you can finally give your eighteen-year-old self a break. Accept that, while it might have been a good fit for someone else, fashion school mostly helped you learn what you did not want, but maybe that’s a big deal, especially when you’re young.
MELISSA BALLARD studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before attending college. She has since worked as a speech-language pathologist and a college instructor. Melissa has written essays for Brevity, Gravel, JMWW, and other publications.
The sight of demure violets and shaggy dandelions against the deep green of recently mowed grass has always delighted you. Normally you don’t like the combination of yellow and purple or yellow and green, because you hate team sports and those eye-searing pairings are often team colors, spotted on high school basketball jerseys or the itchy polyester cling of cheerleading uniforms. But in the context of spring, you love it, those three colors coming together for a few short weeks, radiant under the still-shocking intensity of midday sunlight. It calls to mind a suburban idyll, those violets and dandelions asserting themselves against an herbicide-drenched carpet of lawn.
But it is night now and you are looking at your phone, even though you’ve vowed to spend less time looking at your phone, and one of the feeds of text on it alerts you that a cookbook writer you admire just made violet syrup. It excites you, the very sound of it. Violet syrup. You imagine the violet syrup in a dainty pressed-glass jar, illuminated like an isolated shard of sacred stained glass in the path of an afternoon sunbeam, high on the shelf of a shabby-chic hutch. It calls to mind tea parties and Anne of Green Gables, harkening back to an age before phones that offer tiny visual enticements of violet syrup in the first place.
In your house there are all sorts of things to do, things that get pushed aside because of your job, which is to arrange little black symbols in lines against glowing white screen. It is called editing. The things you edit are lists about food, and you correct the mistakes in these lists because you’ve had enough jobs cooking food to spot misinformation quickly. You know what food does, even though your editing job consumes enough of your time that you now resort to serving boxes of bunny-shaped macaroni and cheese for dinner more often than you are comfortable with.
You do this editing from home, because that’s where the screen is, and your daughter often sees you scowling intently at it, and the magnetic power it holds over you infuriates her. You try very hard to limit her own exposure to glowing screens, both large and small, and yet there you are all day, tapping away at buttons as she implores you to draw with her or listen to her rambling preschooler stories. You want to give yourself fully to those stories, but the lingering demands of unresolved symbol-arranging pulls you away. Her job is to go to daycare, where she can play with other kids her age and build up her social skills so you can be at peace with your screen and your keys.
Sometimes you need a break from editing, so you switch to a different screen for a bit and click on little boxes and stars under photos of babies and dogs. You didn’t click on the star under the violet syrup on your phone. Is this worth a star? What does one do with violet syrup?
You try to shove the violet syrup to the back of your brain, but the violets do not give up on you. They appear all over, suddenly, in low-lying mobs: in the green strip of medians, along the path in the woods where you walk the dog. They grow in clusters, making pinpricks of color at the base of stop signs and between the cracks in the sidewalk. They soothe and disrupt you, because they are just another thing that you won’t get to. If you don’t pick the violets and make them into syrup, you’ll forget about how the purple and the green of violets make you feel.
You go with your daughter to a park without your phone so you can be somewhere and not really think about stars and boxes, and she runs off and then returns, bearing a fistful of white violets collected indelicately in her small hands. “For you, Mama,” she says. White violets?Was that one of Elizabeth Taylor’s perfumes?
The white violets do it. After a whole week confronting their quiet menace, you surrender. It’s Friday and you have deadlines. You are alone at home, busy editing inside and it’s glorious outside and you evict yourself from your dining room-cum-office. You close up the screen and grab a mixing bowl and go to your front yard, which, despite its minimal lawn, is infested with violets. You squat down, and you pick.
And you pick. One violet, two violets, three violets. You need a murder of violets build up in the bowl. You think of saffron, collected from the stamens of tiny crocuses, and consider how ill-suited you would be for the life of a saffron harvester, since after five minutes you are ready to quit this violet-picking business. You cannot give up. You do not give up.
The violet syrup recipe on your phone says to gather three handfuls of violets. You succeed, and you take a close-up picture of the bowl of violets with your phone, and you think about sharing this picture so other people—friends, kind-of friends, vaporous friends—can click on a box or star to agree with you about how great your life is, this life of carefree front-yard foraging. But you look at the real violets and then the violets on your phone, and you notice that they look nothing alike. Your phone violets are blue-ish and stiff and cool, and your real violets are a vibrant violet-purple, and the shiny metal bowl is warm from sitting on your lap. You delete the photo.
You retreat inside, to the kitchen, to separate the tender petals from their green bases that hold them together (a part of their anatomy called, adorably, the pip). So many small flowers, so many pips to maneuver around. Hundreds. Steeping the pips with the petals would make the resulting syrup bitter and to skip it would be to negate the already frivolous work you’ve invested so far. This is exactly the sort of thing you’d love to recruit your daughter for, but pulling petals away from pips requires more finesse than her unruly five-year-old fingers can muster. And so you do it by yourself, outsourcing the supervision of your daughter so you can blow off work and pluck itty-bitty flowers apart for making an essentially useless condiment.
It occurs to you that you should probably taste a violet before you go through with this. For all of the wildflower’s loveliness, its fragrance and flavor is that of the most bland lettuce ever, and you don’t imagine exposure to heat doing it any favors, but by now you’ve decided that making violet syrup will fill some hole in your life that needs to be filled. Even if you are just filling it with lettuce-flavored simple syrup.
Building up a critical mass of violet petals feels Sisyphean, absurd, impossible. Many times in your life, you have repeated insignificant tasks. You pumped the handle of the hopper and squirted a blob of Bavarian cream inside the donut. You stripped away the stranger’s slept-on sheets and unfurled a fresh sheet for a new stranger to sleep on. You took the rectangle of plastic from the customer, slid it through the reader, and made small talk as they paid for their pig-shaped corncob holders or glittery pink silicone spatula.
Do you receive our catalog?
Would you like a bag for this?
Enjoy your day!
You took the rectangle of plastic from someone else and slid it through the reader, and then another rectangle from another person, and then another.
A good place to eat around here? What do you like?
That meat grinder’s aluminum, so I don’t recommend putting it in the dishwasher.
Caribbean is my favorite Le Creuset color, too.
Your favorite Le Creuset color is actually Flame. The violets are tedious, still. Twenty minutes in, you have a pint of pip-free petals, not nearly the quart you need for the syrup. Screw it. You instead opt to make violet sugar, which requires only one handful of petals and one cup of granulated sugar.
It’s the big dirty secret of foraging that, with enough refined sugar, all things are possible. Only a few centuries ago, it was an expensive luxury. Crews of African slaves labored around the clock on Caribbean plantations to placate white people’s hunger for the laser-like precision of white sugar sweetness. On those islands that inspired a Le Creuset marketing expert to name a soothing shade of turquoise blue after their waters, there was a constant need for boatloads of new slaves, because they died before they got around to having children. Some fell into the boiling vats of cane juice, and some bled to death after getting their limbs caught in the rollers that pressed the cane, but most were simply worked to the point where they collapsed and never got up again.
Sugar is commonplace now, unavoidable. It infiltrates the snacks your daughter eats at daycare, the Nutri-Grain Bars and Fruit Roll-Ups. Now, the ability to afford eschewing sugar is a sign of membership in the upper class. Your white sugar, though, will not be white. After this, it will be violet.
A few blitzes in the food processor and that’s it. It tastes like regular sugar and looks like wet purple sand. To give it a boost, you add a grating of Meyer lemon zest, but it’s still not punchy enough.
You look at the windowsill over your kitchen sink and spy a vanilla bean pod. Of course you always air-dry the hulls of scraped-out beans after the majority of their flavor has been sucked into custards and compotes. They cost about a hundred dollars a pound and are actually the cured seed pods of a specific orchid, one that’s pollinated by hand a hemisphere away. The producers of these seed pods sometimes use a needle to prick a unique brand on them, just as a cattle rancher would, so the beans can be traced back should a vanilla seed pod rustler come to plunder the crop. Sometimes, before eviscerating them with a paring knife, you examine vanilla beans and you spy the tattoos, looking like leathery runes from another age, and you imagine having to prick thousands of still-green seed pods on orchid vines.
You realize you now have a small stockpile of dried vanilla bean hulls, and you grind them to several tablespoons of fine brown dust in your spice grinder, and you add a fat pinch of this dust to your violet sugar, and it does the trick. They’re kindred spirits, these two esoteric floral essences.
You retrieve your child from daycare, and you both return home to a big bowl of intact violet blossoms, ones that were not massacred into sugar, and you give this bowl to your daughter and send her to the yard and say, “Do you want to play with these?” She sprinkles the violets on the sidewalk and scatters decapitated dandelions and mangled clumps of grass among them, announcing, “I made a store!” and you approve.
The violet sugar is in a jar on the counter. It is subdued in color and soothing to look at, nothing at all like the cartoonish hues of purchased decorating sugar that you sprinkle on cutout cookies, and you just leave it there, even though you have no immediate plans to bake anything. Maybe you will divide it among smaller jars and give it to a few of your friends, the ones who appreciate things like the glancing presence of violets. The violet sugar means you are not entirely a useless and shallow person. You think about it and think about it and then sit and tap on keys and sort those feelings out, and then there it is, Violets, Boxes, and Stars, a few teasing lines on the screen of a phone, and you tap on them, and see this.
SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She lives in Ohio.
Two years ago, my husband and I moved away from Portland, Oregon, on purpose. We left behind friends, career prospects, and a two-bedroom rental house that cost a mere $875 a month. And we loaded our dog and kid into our Outback and drove as fast as a ’99 Subaru can go all the way to Marietta, Ohio, the town where I grew up.
“We just need to be closer to family,” I told people in the perplexed silences that inevitably followed when they heard our plans to relocate. What illustrious family could possibly woo us away from an artsy Eden on the Willamette?
The family thing was true and untrue. We needed to be closer to them because we were perpetually broke, and the broke-ness had become such that it was time to deploy the emergency move-in-with-my-folks plan.
But there was also an ache that hadn’t gone away despite five years of gamely trying to adore that adorable city where we fit in so well, in so many ways. Portland loved me, and I could not love it back, and I felt like a shithead because of it.
We arrived in Portland in 2007, three mayors and at least two ultra-bougie New Seasons food markets ago. Before that, we lived in New York City, and in comparison Portland seemed preposterously quaint and manageable. Our first months in Oregon, my husband and I would admire the downtown skyline and the conifer-studded hills rising behind it and coo, “Oh, look—it thinks it’s a city!”
The intensity of city life was what we moved to escape, and our new no-name strip of neighborhood between I-205 and the used car lots of Southeast 82nd Avenue struck us as a quiet haven of playgrounds and modest houses, with a few hookers thrown in for color. Two greasy old-school Chinese joints bordered us, Hung Far Low to the south and Chinese Garden to the north. We had a spacious backyard, where I doggedly pruned an overgrown apple tree and hacked away at diseased lilac bushes. We got a dog from the Humane Society. My husband joined a few bands. On heady Portland summer days when the sun cascaded down like a shot of heroin, he haunted a skate spot under the Hawthorne Bridge. Though magazines and newspapers in New York barely gave me the time of day, in Portland I wrote freelance stories for the food section of Portland’s major news daily, eventually worked in their test kitchen, and also taught cooking classes on nights and weekends. My husband had a string of long-term temp assignments in administrative offices. It was almost enough to keep us afloat.
All the while, we looked for better jobs. And looked and looked and looked. There were two main problems we grappled with in Portland: rain and money. Too much of one, and never enough of the other.
Let me tell you about Marietta, Ohio. Founded in 1788, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, which means it’s in spitting distance of West Virginia. It’s an Appalachian Interzone, at once very Midwestern and not Midwestern at all; a generous pinch of twang runs through the local speech. The population is staggeringly white, though there might be about twenty black residents now, and if memory serves, back when I was in high school there were maybe five. So that’s improvement. As for other ethnicities, if you live here and you’re Asian, you’re probably a doctor. There’s one shop that serves decent coffee, but it’s a nutritional supplement store/smoothie bar that doesn’t open until nine in the morning. Vietnamese food? A taqueria? Fat chance.
Portland feels like another universe in comparison. I still struggle to define the charms and drawbacks of each place. Both are defined by the big, dirty rivers that run through them. Portland had innumerable food carts and strip clubs; Marietta has innumerable churches and fracking rigs. You’ll have to wait for hours to score a table at Portland’s Tasty n’ Sons for breakfast on a Sunday, but in Marietta, the Busy Bee Diner offers immediate seating and a waitress who wears her hair in, yes, a beehive. Sure, Portland has scads of idealistic youths engaged in civic activism—but you’d never guess how many grumpy retirees in Marietta volunteer their time for charitable causes. Instead of laptops, they might carry concealed weapons. John Deere pajama bottoms worn as all-purpose outerwear are a common fashion statement, true, but the population overwhelmingly accepts proven science and public health—that is, you don’t see citizens coming together against fluoridated water that way they do in Portland.
Living here is a bit like going back in time. After my high school experience as the resident misfit weirdo, I skipped town with a happy shrug, never suspecting that decades later I’d come to crave Marietta, with its scenic bridges and dozens of historical markers and goofy festivals and rickety, underfunded little museums. It’s an all-American community with a picturesque downtown of antique stores and brick streets. The thrift shops and flea markets are great, because the records and mid-century furniture aren’t all picked over. Baby boomers abound, as do minimum-wage positions in nursing homes. Among the ladies there’s an unfortunately popular haircut, this wedged-in-the-back/spiked-in-the-front chemical-drenched thing with streaky highlights that my husband and I call “crispy hair.”
And I have to be slightly more mindful of what I say in mixed company. In Portland, most people likely lean Democratic, or support reproductive rights. In Marietta, I have friends who vote for Tea Party candidates.
Free from the confines of that infamous Portland bubble, I like walking around and not running into endless clones of myself and my political views. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the rest of America is like, and a window into the goodness of people who don’t think like me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I’d get asked when we first moved back to Marietta. The old guard here clings to a deeply ingrained Midwestern/Appalachian skepticism of outsiders, and they are reluctant to embrace change, even small ones, like installing pedestrian crosswalks on the busiest street downtown.
“I grew up here, actually,” I delight in replying. Not fitting in is my comfort zone. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable in Marietta.
My California-bred husband still wakes up dazed upon realizing that he resides in the ass-end of Appalachia. He loves record stores, ethnic food, post-rock bands, and independent movie theaters. He’s trying to be a good sport.
But once we had our daughter, those things phased out of our Portland lives, anyway. By then I’d veered away from my culinary career, landed job with the county library, and was thoroughly enjoying the best employee benefits of my life.
Which was great, because we needed those funds to cover childcare. It became apparent that raising Frances in Portland would present increasingly complex logistical problems. For our one-car family, Frances’s daycare had to be reasonably close to my library. Both Joe and I worked until six many nights, and nearly all daycare centers closed before then. Through desperate combings of Craigslist we found a few options, but there was precious middle ground between total sketch-fests that reeked of sour milk and tiny palaces of early childhood education where the tuition was higher than my paycheck.
When my husband’s temp gig with a Portland city agency ended, even though he wanted to work, we realized we couldn’t afford it. We reluctantly pulled Frances out of the loving daycare we’d been lucky to find and had him stay home with her, collecting unemployment until he got a job offer high enough for us to clear her monthly fees.
That put us more in touch with the day-to-day struggles of the working class than we were comfortable admitting. We could have chosen housing that was even lower-cost than our moldy house of sadness, where I had to make wiping the backs of our bookcases down with bleach water a weekly task. I developed a ceaseless runny nose that eventually blossomed into massive sneezing attacks, ones that disappeared once I walked out our door, and I realized I was allergic to our own home. We knew we had food, a roof over our heads, and a bank account that was barely ever overdrawn.
The biggest ache was a battle we raged with our privileged identity. We’re educated, liberal, and artsy. People like us are supposed to gentrify neighborhoods, not get pushed out of them. For extra money, I picked up sub shifts at public library branches; eventually, I worked at least once at all eighteen branches in the county system, the grand slam. It was a great way to see the parts of city that the alluring travel features in magazines don’t show you. That was the Portland I ultimately fell in love with, the one that didn’t trump itself up. I saw a lot of meth teeth and smelled the stench of urine wafting from clothes that had not been washed in years, sure, but I also saw people who were more or less…normal. People who needed jobs and barely had any tech literacy, so I’d have to walk them through filling out a resume online as they raced to submit it before their allotted time for the day ran out on the library’s public computer. People who needed referrals for free legal services, or were trying to locate their parent’s birth records, or who just wanted recommendations for a good book.
To a casual observer, I looked like the Portland dream: The librarian-writer! With nerdy glasses! Who used to be a chef! But really, I was one of them, the other Portlanders. The ones who constantly did the utility bill/paycheck triage. The ones whose shady landlord, when asked to take down the 1970s wood paneling because it’s housing a robust colony of mildew, replies “But if I take down the paneling, it’ll expose the hole in the wall!” The ones who shopped at the discount grocer not because thrift is trendy, but because thrift is necessary. A few strokes of massive bad luck and I could have been the urine-reeking patron, or the patron who lived in her car, or the patron who lost visiting privileges with her kid.
We were tearing our hair out, working with a tiny margin of error from month to month, with no bright future in sight. We cobbled together our work schedules for Frances-watching duties, doing that frantic parent-to-parent handoff as one of us headed out the door; I worked every weekend, and we rarely had relaxed family time together. What’s the point of living in an amazing city when you can’t access its best attributes?
“You know that feeling you get when your plane descends to land in Portland, and you look at the city below and think, ‘I’m home’?” A friend posed this question, and I had to confess I’d never once felt that way. It was more like, “Huh. Here we are again.”
The love that Portlanders have for their city borders on romantic. I felt like a third wheel, immune to the giddiness. While tall bikes and food carts made out on the couch, I skulked in the corner of the rec room, alone. I became cantankerous about the stupidest things, hundreds of soggy twigs to fuel the brush fire of animosity shouldering inside me. I think of myself as a person with pluck, a problem-solver who deals with the situation at hand, but I’d somehow let my circumstances neuter that part of me. On I went, pruning the apple tree. Bleaching the furniture. Polishing a turd.
But really, I was angry for us at not getting it together enough to thrive in one of the most livable cities in the country. Portland was often good to us. We had lovely friends, and I adored my library job. Every morning I’d wake up and resolve to bloom where we’d planted ourselves, and then the sad numbness would settle in, and it became impossible to suss out which part of that sadness was Portland’s fault and which was mine.
There’s that TV show. You know the one I’m talking about—it pokes affectionate but absurdist, sketch-comedy fun at Portland and its charming yet maddening idiosyncrasies. It’s big there; it’s very Portland not to get enough of Portland. If you live, or once lived, in Portland, people will inevitably bring up That Show.
Please don’t bring it up with me. I can’t watch it. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s too close. Why watch a parody of something that felt like a parody the first time around, in real life? “Come sit with me,” my husband implored as he sat on the sofa a lifetime later, in Marietta, enjoying That Show. He says it reminds him of bygone times, times when it was unlikely that he would have a co-worker named Delmus who wore a t-shirt that read “Dicky-Doo Champion: My Tummy Stick Out More Than My Dicky Do!”
I recognized all of the spots on That Show that Portland people recognize, the cutesy storefronts and brunch places and busy intersections, and I felt both so glad to be rid of them and so idiotic for my inability to flourish there. That Show is a little like my past punching me in my gut.
We had a big garden in our Portland backyard, which I spent many pleasant hours tending, and we curated a collection of the jagged, dirt-crusted bits of metal and plastic and glass that perpetually worked themselves to the surface of the soil in an ornery dis to gravity. It was not a pretty garden, but it produced enough vegetables that it created a decent dent in our grocery bill during the summer months, and yanking at its prolific weeds was an excellent outlet for the bad juju I carried around. Besides, I love to be outside in the sun. With three dependable months of it, I had to soak up as many Pacific Northwest rays as I could.
One day, Frances, who was out playing with the broken Fischer-Price farm I found for free on someone’s curb, called out, “Mama, look at what Scooter did.” I looked up from my weedy reverie and saw a bloody rat between the parsley and Swiss chard. Our dog looked up at me, beaming over his fresh kill. The rat, I assume, had been nosing around in our compost heap. I dug a shallow hole at the base of our fruitless apple tree to bury the thing, and in the process unearthed two corroded AA batteries. Who knows how long they’d been lurking down there? It was nothing, really, but after that, I was done with Portland. The rat-battery incident was my final straw.
I was poised to score a coveted Library Assistant position at the library, one that would nearly double my pay. But I didn’t have it in me to hold out any longer. I couldn’t be content in a saggy dump of a poorly-insulated house, donning two sweaters indoors to stay warm and buying organic spinach and avocados on our credit card. We aged out of that, but couldn’t get it together to bring in the income for necessary creative-class trappings we saw our friends enjoy: Waldorf preschool, annual beach house rentals, February trips to Hawaii in order to remain sane until mid-June, a compact, tidy home in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of a bar full of synth music and unevenly executed vegan menu options. Portland is a shitty place to be broke, though I guess you could say that of any city.
Still, on most days, Marietta squeaks ahead as a less shitty place to be broke. We lived with my parents until we found a house that does not give me allergy attacks. Its rent matches what they raised the rent to in our old Portland dump after we moved out. To the new tenants of the putty-colored house on SE 89th Avenue with the collapsing back patio: I hope the apple tree’s fruiting now. The flower pot of rusty nails and glass shards you found in the shed are the spoils of my unintentional garden archeology digs. Let me know if you ever accidentally encounter that rat.
Sometimes in Marietta, I look at the lazy bends of the Ohio River’s familiar brown muck, and waves of profound contentment wash over me, a strange mixture of bliss and relief. We came back to Portland in July for a visit, our first since moving to Ohio. I rode busses all over town, savored frequent cups of expertly-brewed coffee, and enjoyed the absence of crispy hairdos. At the tail end, I started getting a twinge of the coolness fatigue I had when we lived there. Boutiques selling tiny terrariums, bars built to resemble libraries, movie theaters selling rosé by the glass. In Marietta, maybe a dozen things are cool, and half of those are cool because they are utterly not cool at all. It’s special to be cool.
When we got back to Ohio, our cherry tomatoes were ready to pick. The first sweet corn of the season hit the farm stands. Vinyl banners advertising dozens of vacation bible schools crinkled in the breeze. My daughter returned to her preschool, where she played with classmates named Kolton and Kaylee instead of Mabel and Forester.
The flight back was uneventful. The plane took off and I looked out the window at the familiar vista below, crisply outlined in the magical Portland summer sun, and I thought, “There it is. That was my city.” Keep on loving it for me, okay?
SARA BIR is the food editor of Paste Magazine and a regular contributor to Full Grown People. “Smelted”, her essay from this site, appeared in Best Food Writing 2014. She lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter.
I work for a Jesuit university, which surprised everyone in my life, especially me. Upon accepting the job, my devout old Catholic aunt, who has long been worried about my rejection of religion, sent me a rosary. Friends and former coworkers laughed and speculated on how long it would take me to get fired. Others told me I’d do well, as long as I didn’t talk.
I’m an opinionated atheist. No one thought I’d last at an institution whose buildings are decorated in religious art on a campus full of statuary and crosses. I told myself I could fake it—after all, I know Catholics. My family is Catholic. I went to a Catholic high school. All I had to do was blend in to the background, and everything would be fine.
For the first few months, I was profoundly uncomfortable. People were much more open about their faith than I’d anticipated. Employees are constantly reminded of Jesuit values, and open discussions often happen about how to live those values in our jobs and our everyday lives. I waxed pathetic one evening about how long it would take my coworkers to realize that I wasn’t like them, that I wasn’t suited for that sort of environment. Sooner or later, they’d find out that I don’t believe in God, and then what? How would they react to having an atheist in their midst? I felt like an intruder. I had stepped into a world that I had consciously rejected, and now it was going to reject me. I was convinced that it was only a matter of time.
Though my husband listened patiently, he showed no mercy. He simply looked at me and said, “This is the best job you’ve ever had. Don’t screw it up.”
The best job I’ve ever had began with a Master’s degree in Literature, which led me to market research and eventually into data analysis. People often find this odd, but the purpose of studying literature is to analyze narratives: to think critically, ask a lot of questions, and be able to understand and apply a variety of concepts. It’s not so odd that my skill set easily translated from analyzing Victorian novels to analyzing large quantities of raw data.
A narrative is a narrative, whether it’s constructed of words, or numbers, or ten crosses hanging on an office wall.
The owner of the crosses was one of the first people I met, in a computer lab that he announced had once been the shower room for the original group of Jesuits who inhabited the building more than one hundred years ago. It was a strange feeling, knowing the history of that room. And my coworker is full of those sorts of tidbits and trivia. His memory is itself a vast database, one that I was advised to access as often as possible, and that I still rely on two years later.
When I walked into his office for the first time, I immediately noticed a line of crosses hanging above his office door. Crosses are hardly out of place in a Catholic school, hardly something to be startled by, yet it somehow struck me as excessive. When I asked him about them, all he said was, “I plan on covering my entire wall.”
The first time I asked why, he didn’t answer.
On a campus that’s full of crosses, the only crosses I continue to find odd and distracting are my coworker’s. Every time I’m in his office, I end up staring at them, counting them repetitively in my head, studying their ornamentation. It seems so strange, looking at crosses that are decorated with colors and flourishes, crosses that are downright cheerful. I understand that they’re symbols of faith, of hope, of forgiveness and eternal life. But I can’t get out of my head that they were also an instrument of punishment and torture, peculiar Roman contraptions upon which many suffered and died.
Several times, I asked him why he had so many. The first time I asked, he told me that it was his intention to cover the wall with them, starting from the doorway, and wrapping all around his office. I asked him why again, and he told me how carefully he spaces them apart, so that they’re equidistant. It bothers him if they’re not aligned correctly. He told me about standing up on a ladder, about feeling uncertain about his balance, about being worried that he’ll fall.
I asked him why he hangs them then, if it’s such an inconvenience, and he told me again that he wanted to cover the wall in crosses.
Though I kept asking the same question every time I visited his office, he would always act like he hadn’t heard it. He would tell me instead who gave him this cross or that cross, or repeat his intention to cover his entire wall, or even talk to me about the other random items he’s collected over the years.
That sort of technique doesn’t work well on me. Even if someone won’t answer, I typically won’t stop asking. It is my most endearing and infuriating trait—and the Jesuits’ as well.
Asking questions is one of the core values that our university encourages. This may seem strange to some, as Christians are often characterized by the godless as mindless followers taking their marching orders from a two-thousand-year-old book. That’s an unfair stereotype, as Christianity is much more nuanced and complex than simply a set of rules handed down by a judgmental God-figure. The Jesuits in particular encourage people to think and question. They’re the rebels of the Catholic faith, the original bad boys, founded in 1540 to educate, to serve, and to work for the greatest common good. In their nearly five hundred years of existence, they’ve spread to every part of the globe, leaving behind a network of universities.
One of them is nestled on ninety-one acres in North Denver, a university which is made up of three separate colleges and enrolls nearly ten thousand students per year. Many of them are online—the Jesuits have always been open to change, and our university was one of the first to offer online-only degrees. Even though practically every school followed our lead, it’s still a point of pride to know that tradition can still be cutting edge. That faith can be supported by data and technology.
That’s what I do—I work with the university data.
Data, much like the Victorian novel, is not easy to understand. Learning the complexities of the university systems was at times frustrating and made me reliant on others for questions and guidance. In my first few months, I had the frustration of a high learning curve complicating my adjustment to a work environment that encourages open religiosity. The only thing that overcame my defeatist thoughts was pure stubbornness. I figured, as long as people are willing to answer my questions, I’d keep asking them.
I still periodically visit my coworker’s office, and stare up at the beige-colored walls, compulsively counting the crosses. In fact, it’s the first thing I do, every time I’m there. The moment his attention is on his computer, my eyes are drawn upwards. There were eleven, then twelve, then thirteen. I find them hypnotic. Though I value everything that he takes the time to explain to me, I often have to struggle to pay attention to what he’s saying. I have to remind myself to listen to him, to look at the screens in front of us, to take notes and ask the right questions—the ones I’m supposed to ask, not the ones I want to ask.
Seventeen crosses in, I was beginning to feel like I understood something. The day I counted the seventeenth cross, I began to visualize our database in a way I hadn’t before. I imagine it as a series of flat planes that glow a soft blue, with a lot of moving pieces and endless loops. I see it not as if it’s something I’m constructing, but as if it’s something I’m remembering.
That was when I started to think that maybe I wouldn’t screw it up.
Except for the whole Christian thing. That still scared me.
When I first professed to my family that I didn’t believe in God and didn’t consider myself a Christian, they took it as nothing more than a passing phase. My father used to sometimes say, “If you’re raised Catholic, you’ll always be Catholic, even if you don’t go to church.” As if Catholicism was a scar I couldn’t ever get rid of, a stain that would never wash out. For years, I was sent Christmas ornaments and asked why I hadn’t put up a tree. For years, I vacillated between politeness and annoyance. I don’t need ornaments because I don’t put up a tree. I don’t put up a tree because I don’t celebrate Christmas. Even though I asked people to stop sending me Christmas-themed gifts, they continued. I realized my family didn’t take me seriously, and I resented them for it.
This continued until well after I was married, when they finally began to grudgingly accept my adulthood and admitted to themselves that my lack of religion is not something I’ll grow out of.
Atheists are no different from anyone else. We’re not the smug, self-assured people that some think we are. We have questions and doubts. We wonder why we’re here, what our purpose is. We think about life, and we think about death. We just don’t think of those things through the filter of faith or a higher power.
Getting a job at a Jesuit university has instilled in my family a sense of hope that I might be coming around, that I might once again embrace the religion I was raised in. Two years later, I can say with confidence that I am not. If anything, working for a Catholic school has only solidified the fact that I don’t believe in God. I never anticipated anything changing that.
One of the major things I dislike about religion is that it seems like it has an answer for everything. To me, faith sometimes feels like a way to manage fear. I was in a seminar recently when the speaker admitted that he turns to faith when he doesn’t like the answers science gives him. Everyone else in the room nodded and murmured in agreement. I wanted to jump up and shout, No, that’s not good enough! It cheapens your faith! Admittedly faith is something I don’t understand, but to me, it seems that faith should be about more than simply finding the most satisfying answer.
That’s why it means a lot to me to see people who are heavily steeped in a very complex religious system encouraging others to ask questions, and not settling for the first answer they’re given. It means a lot to me that our university has branded itself on this notion, on the notion that we’re not going to give you all the answers—we’re going to teach you how to find them yourself.
Early on in my employment, someone told me that it wasn’t the purpose of our university to provide people with a blueprint for their lives. He said that it was our purpose to give them the tools to create their own blueprint. He said that answers are not as important as questions, and that sometimes the act of asking the question is more profound than any answer ever could be.
The story in Genesis, one of the first things I learned as a child in Sunday school, makes sense now—knowledge is a drug. A very powerful drug. I can’t get enough of it.
Perhaps that’s what attracts me to data-related jobs. There’s something satisfying about being able to take something raw and unformed and turn it into something meaningful. But I’ve had to evolve how I understand data. Like any narrative, it has plot holes and ambiguities. It can be read and interpreted in a multitude of different ways. It’s not always interesting, and it’s not always true. It can be used for, and it can be used against. It can only answer questions that you’re willing to ask.
I’m willing to ask all sorts of questions. Being both an analyst and a writer makes me curious to an extent that I sometimes come across as intrusive. I’m like Eve, and all the archetypes that step outside of boundaries and break the rules simply because there’s something on the other side that they need to know. And I accept the consequences of this terminal curiosity.
Sometimes the consequence is that I learn things that are disturbing. I make discoveries that bother me or that leave me with more questions. Sometimes it means that I have to learn to live with dissatisfaction and ambiguity, or try to be graceful as someone dodges my questions.
Such as my coworker, who for a long time acted as if he simply didn’t hear me when I asked him why he hung up crosses. Perhaps he feels that the answer is obvious—he’s Christian, and these crosses are a symbol of his faith. Perhaps he doesn’t know the answer, but doesn’t want to admit it. Perhaps he tunes me out the same way I sometimes tune him out. Perhaps he’s making himself listen to me the same way I have to make myself listen to him, even when his answers are the only thing I want to hear.
I was in his office again recently, and couldn’t resist indulging my new favorite habit of counting his crosses as he pulled up our database on his computer. I counted them as he mumbled at his keyboard.
“You’ve got twenty-four crosses now,” I noted.
He stopped typing. “Twenty-five,” he said proudly, and pulled another one from his drawer, telling me who gave it to him. Telling me again how he wants to cover his entire wall.
I’ve evolved a lot as a person since I started in my job. I’ve learned a lot about questions and answers, about faith and facts, about knowledge and ambiguity. I’ve discovered that while I’m okay with not knowing, I’m not okay with not asking.
So I did it again. I smiled, and I asked, “Why do you want to cover the wall?”
For once, he didn’t rush into another thought, or repeat himself, or dodge my question entirely. Instead, he glanced at me and then up at the wall.
“Because there’s too much beige,” he replied.
That was the worst thing I could have imagined him saying. I chose to believe he didn’t mean it.
An act of faith, perhaps?
Persistence is one of the hallmark of the Jesuits. They’ve been controversial for nearly their entire existence. They’ve dealt with oppression and suppression, accusation and intrigue. Their commitment to social justice and liberation theology has ensured that they’ve remained in the center of many debates.
Persistence is also one of the hallmarks of the particular institution I work for. Enrollments are falling at most higher education institutions, and we’ve got the additional challenge of being a private school, which means higher tuition rates that some of our local competitors. We don’t only have to work harder, we have to work more creatively. That’s why data is important—data tells the university’s story, and by doing so, allows our leaders to revise that story when the need arises. Data people are the watchdogs, the soldiers in the tower, guarding the castle, keeping an eye on what’s going on within the walls as well as outside of them. We provide the intelligence.
I can’t imagine doing anything else. Data, and the stories it tells, will always be an integral part of what I do.
As intelligent as my coworker is, he doesn’t seem to understand the narrative he’s constructed on the wall of his office.
“People see my crosses and always say they’re surprised I’m religious, and they’re even more surprised when I tell them I’m not,” he said to me the other day.
I kept myself from laughing, but barely, remembering my own shock the first time I was in his office. “Then why do you have twenty-five crosses hanging in your office?” I asked.
“Because I like crosses,” he replied.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I think they’re beautiful,” he said, giving me the shrug I’ve seen countless times before, signaling that he’s ready to move on to another topic of conversation.
This time, I didn’t let him. I was determined to understand why a symbol that so often reminded me only of the bloody end of a human life was so often construed as a thing of beauty. I take a deep breath, and I again I say, “Why?”
This time, he doesn’t ignore me. This time, his face is different. “Because,” he says, then pauses.
I watch his face change from its normal expression, one I can only describe as bored curiosity, to something astoundingly unfamiliar. And also astoundingly familiar. It’s just that I’d never seen that sort of expression on him. His face softened, the lines seeming to disappear, as his gaze shifted from me to some invisible thing behind me somewhere, something only he could see. He lingered for a moment on that word. Because.
There have only been a two times in my life that I can safely say I’ve witnessed the descriptive cliché, “and then his face lit up.” The first time was in Philadelphia, when a waiter set the most beautiful osso buco I’ve ever seen down in front of the dedicated foodie I was dining with, and I watched his entire face lift into an expression of happiness I’ve never seen before or since. The second was when I told a teammate that his arch-nemesis in an adjacent department had just given two weeks’ notice, laughing when he actually gasped in delight, like a child on Christmas morning who just discovered that he had been given the gift he’d always wanted.
The third time was that afternoon on our sleepy little campus, watching my coworker dig deep into the recesses of his faith and pull back what its greatest symbol meant to him. The because was still lingering between us, when he said, “They represent a perfection yet a cleansing, and I think that’s beautiful.”
I have no idea what that means. I’ve thought about it a lot since he said it, and I can’t even begin to fathom it. Perfection is something I don’t believe possible or desirable, and the concept of cleansing, in a religious context, makes me profoundly uncomfortable. While I can see how cleansing is a comforting thought to someone who believes in sin, it seems like an oppressive concept to someone who doesn’t.
Yet my disappointment in not understanding his response in the slightest was countered by my ability to connect with his expression. It looked something like how I’d felt the first time I read Whitman’s Song of Myself, or the day my best friend, who was almost as broke as I was, gave me the last fifty dollars in her bank account because she thought I needed it more than she did.
It was joyfully transcendental. It was lit up yet peaceful, both his eyes and his mouth smiling. The words were foreign, but I connected with his face. I know that feeling, inside and out, and I could go there with him. I could be in the moment, and I could understand what he felt without understanding why.
I can’t say that my coworker’s blissful moment of sublimity or that the Jesuit spirit I so admire moved me to re-embrace the religion of my family. I don’t want to go back to church, or celebrate Christmas. They haven’t persuaded me to believe in God, but they have done something that, for me, is even more beautiful—they’ve made me want to.
CASSANDRA MORRILLY is the pen name of a writer who was raised in rural Ohio before receiving a BA in English from Seton Hall University, followed by an MA in Literature from the University of Colorado. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her pack of ravenous terriers. You can read more of her writing at cassandramorrilly.wordpress.com.
The kitchen floor is sinking. It’s not a shock―it’s been failing for quite some time. I step to the sink and feel it give under me. Even worse, when I’m washing dishes and the hubby steps next to me to get something from the cabinet, I’ve suddenly lost an inch.
At first we decided we had to fix it. After all, it’s directly under the sink, meaning we have a leak.
“We have to take care of it, or we’re going to be breathing in black mold, which is unbelievably unhealthy for us and the dogs, who are stuck in here all day, and eventually the floor’s going to drop out,” my sky-is-falling husband initially barked. Back when we discovered the problem. Back when we gave a damn.
Since then, larger, more pressing problems have presented themselves, and like we did with the floor, we’ve pretty much just let them go too.
It’s not laziness; it’s survival.
Three and a half years after we moved into this ancient metal sheet-clad camper that was never, ever meant to be used for more than a few weekends a year, I’m still stepping gingerly atop the spot as I wash a pan from dinner. A chore unto itself.
The hot water heater, located at the back of the camper and yet another problem unto itself, began leaking months ago―the plastic piece that connects the water line gave way, and the new one is back ordered. So, I boil pots of water on the stove, adding a couple of electric kettles’ worth for good measure, to one side of the ceramic sink. I soak the dirty dishes in hot, soapy water, then rinse in cold. It never really gets anything fully clean.
I’ve done all the small stuff, and now I can clean the frying pan. I empty the soapy water, scrub it off, rinse it in cold and place it, gleaming, into the itty bitty drying rack, the words All Clad stamped into its sturdy handle.
The pan is one of a few holdouts from the previous iteration of my existence. Back when I could afford an entire set of All Clad. Back before the proverbial floor dropped out.
“The more you make the more you spend,” a friend admonished recently when I explained that I need a better paying job. I have to admit that was the old version of me: I lived that life, making more and, consequently, spending more. I’d spend entire Saturdays shopping, not content until I came home, arms bulging from my latest retail conquest.
My friend Nora and I used to have a game in high school―we’d try to see who could score the most cool stuff for the least amount of money. It’s a game I continued to play well into adulthood. But unlike in high school, when the cheapest, gaudiest earrings or most sole crushing pleather shoes could rate high on the awesome scale, I later refined my retail love to pretty much only the best, for less.
Which is how I wound up with an apartment full of designer duds, high-end small appliances, and damn near useless bakeware. Not to mention the bright red Volkswagen in the drive. I was expected to live the part of employed professional with a master’s degree. You showed your worth by what you owned.
The problem is, you have to continue to maintain that trajectory, constantly making more. Your belongings denote your status in the hierarchy of common culture, no matter what subset of the culture you belong to. I remember, as an undergraduate working full-time while taking a full load of classes, marveling on my way to work at the black-clad punks begging on Haight Street. Their leather jackets, tattoos, piercings, and Doc Martens cost more than my tuition. They were faux po’, playing the part. They’d scurry back to the ‘burbs during the week, probably troll the mall for more black duds with their weekend beggings. Whereas I was plain ol’ po’, heading to the graveyard shift at the local diner.
I grew up fairly poor, until my father started making a decent salary as an airline pilot when I was in high school. I went from hand-me-downs to a fancy hand-built German sports car in the blink of an eye. But I still paid for my own education, working though my twentiesto cover living expenses while earning my BFA. I was the proverbial starving artist, but in those days it was impossible to tell who truly was and who was the trustafarian.
Without a family fortune in my back pocket, I had no choice but to work. That included the usual twenty-something jobs ―barista, waitress, data-entry temp―along with bike messenger, tourist t-shirt designer, and phone warrior for the environment.
I never made much at any of these gigs, but they fulfilled two important aspects to my working life, in addition to paying the rent: a job where I could continue to be creative outside the daily grind and work where I wouldn’t lose my soul.
The problem came after grad school when I bought into the hype of my own superiority, my unassailable right as a member of the educated creative class to make more money than I actually needed to survive. I was told, and believed, that I deserved everything money could buy and more, by virtue of having attended school. Never mind the fact that I financed my degrees to the nines. Never mind the fact that all that learning made me no better than anyone else. I had a piece of paper, but I was still me. I just didn’t realize it at the time.
But that was then and this is now, and my current now is actually not so far from where I was back before my ego got the better of me.
The difference is that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t maintain the ruse. Probably part of the reason the soft kitchen floor doesn’t seem like the problem it really is: there are only so many fires that can be put out before you just don’t care if the motherfucker burns.
So, we just move forward, leaving all that was behind in physical and emotional form. Or at least try.
My husband needed work pants, so we headed to the Goodwill. Browsing others’ cast-offs, I froze in the housewares section. An empty picture frame sat on the shelf, innocuous, seemingly nothing, except for the fact that, in my mind, I could see the photo that belonged in it.
“Oh my god, this was mine,” I gasped.
“Are you sure? Look at the back—was it messed up like this?” he said, turning over the faux stained-glass frame with flowers pressed between glass. It was very poorly constructed, with the lead messily bulging out where some shoddy worker, likely ill paid or, worse, forced labor, hadn’t given a damn.
“I… I’m not sure,” I stammered. I honestly didn’t know. I’d owned the thing for years, but couldn’t remember the back. And why would I? When I put the photo in it, I’m certain I wasn’t paying attention, and I know I wasn’t the day I took it out, shortly before nearly everything I owned in our tiny one-bedroom was left sitting in its place, like Miss Havisham finally gave up and walked away. Or, like us, was forced out for lack of cash.
I think of all the things we left behind, all the things we bought when times were flush, and wonder why. Why the hell did I need all that crap when, eventually, it would all just wind up in a Goodwill somewhere for me to find and not only not need, but not be willing to purchase again?
Don’tget me wrong. It’s not like I’m against stuff. On the contrary. Sure, I lost just about everything in the financial meltdown and what I do have pretty much sucks. My car doesn’t have heat. Or a working radio. I live in a goddamned RV. I live in a hallway, really. But I have to admit that walking away from everything caused me to rethink, well, everything.
Would it have changed the situation if I hadn’t purchased any of it? In the long run, not at all, because we had a significant amount of money in savings as well, which we ran through in practically no time. I was out of work for two years―an amount of time that requirestrust fund money, not the piddly bit we’d squirreled away.
Yet my fiscal downfall hasn’t turned me into the miser of my grandparents’ ways. They survived the Great Depression and never really recovered, at least in their own minds. I remember their front door. I remember my grandfather stuffing newspaper in the cracks between it and the jamb each night, placing a bean-filled snake along its base, to keep the draft out.
After they died, my aunt went through the place. She found several thousand dollars in rolled-up small bills, stuffed in corners, under towels, a fifty folded neatly under the statue of a coal miner atopthe china cabinet. They could’ve bought that front door dozens of times over with the money tucked away inside that house. But they suffered in fear of losing everything yet again.
Trust me when I say I never, ever want to not be able to buy the little things. I will never willingly don a hair shirt and wander the earth a pauper. I love Sephora far too much. I’m not willing to give everything up. I’m not the Buddha. Being able to afford a cup of coffee when I want one is one of the few pleasures I will never take for granted. I remember taking the bus to work after the car quit right before the economic fall. I sat down, tried to take my bag off my shoulder, and dropped my coffee all over the floor. As I watched it roll around under peoples’ feet, spreading in opposite directions with each turn and jolt of the bus, I quietly cried, because I knew I didn’t have money to buy a new cup. And I had eight hours of non-caffeinated work ahead of me. That was hell.
I still don’t make enough to tuck even pennies away right now, but my determination is that as things get better, I will find balance. My car may be old, but it’s a sturdy Volkswagen. I won’t be trading it on something shiny, cheap and new. No matter what kinds of eye rolls I get when I pull out my old non-smart phone, I won’t give in to new gadget pressure. And I’ll be happy about the fact that the things I did purchase before the fall—the ones we managed to save that are tucked away in a tiny storage space in Philadelphia—were quality enough to last a good long time. The memory foam topped mattress we strapped to the top of the Golf because it was on sale, the Kitchen Aid mixer―the only actual item we got when we got hitched―that will probably outlast me, the espresso maker, my grandmother’s sewing machine.
I won’t live in this disgusting, falling-apart Tin Can forever, but I might get a bigger one. Or not. But no matter what, I’ll remember what matters―having a job, sure, that pays me what I’m worth. And doesn’t suck the life force out of me in return. I am not my job, and I am not my possessions. As much as I swoon over the Vitamix and the perfect smoothies it makes when I go to the grocery store, I can live without it. For now. Maybe one day I’ll find it at a great price and it will end up with the rest of the keepers.
ERICA S. BRATH is a journalist and writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, Certification Magazine, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a memoir about her experience living in a travel trailer full-time. Her website is esbrath.com.