This is a story about drugs, but not only about drugs. It was the night before the Y2K glitch was supposed to happen. Do you remember it? It was three hundred fourteen big news stories ago, just a blip now but back then, end of 1999, it was the big one. The idea was that there was a decent chance we’d all wake up on January 1, 2000 to computers freaking out, banks failing, planes falling. We, the five of us, thought watching for the apocalypse would be a fun thing to do while on drugs, and so, after work, we drove from the city to the beach. We were twenty-two and thought ourselves very clever.
We loved ourselves, is the truth, loved each other, even if we couldn’t have articulated it like that at the time. It was merely where we lived, this fragile, warm world we’d built, as taken for granted as air. We’d all, by then, had a look around and we’d chosen each other, is what I’m saying.
I was the fifth wheel on this beach trip, which is better than being the third wheel, by a little. It was Dave, who was my best friend and roommate from college, and his girlfriend, Julie, the two of them newly in love, always touching. And there was Alis, a girl I also cared a lot about, and her boyfriend, Skeet, the two of them no longer, I think, so much in love, touching a bit less. What we did that night, in that fierce way, was listen very closely to Radiohead songs, afterward only smiling, sure everyone really got it. Though I’m not saying we were the only clever twenty-two-year-olds who’d ever had this kind of love, and though it comes and goes, comes and goes, we had it, and still do.
And we were doing drugs. We were doing ecstasy, which I don’t think is called that any longer, which tells you a little about how old we all are now. We had a hotel room, two beds, where the couples would sleep, and a couch, where I’d sleep. We drank a little, smoked a little, and then we took the pills we were there to take. We listened to more Radiohead, wrote some bad poetry, smiled some more, said oh my god a lot.
Peaking, bundled up, we went to the beach. There was no one else there, of course. I remember there was crusty snow on the part of the beach where the ocean didn’t reach. I was clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth so much that I had little white pockets of foamy spit at the corners of my mouth. I know because there’s a picture of me from that night, pupils huge. And in that photo with me, our arms around each other, to all the world brothers, is Alis’s boyfriend, Skeet.
Skeet and I were never great friends, and probably we were never more than two guys who cared about the same girl. But there we were, ecstatic, walking along that magical line where water meets sand, retreats, and then meets it again, forever. The others had found something else that delighted them and were well behind us.
And maybe it was that repeat-repeat-repeat of the waves, but I remember, just before we saw what we saw, Skeet was talking about the universe, how he was sure the Big Bang was just one of an infinite number of Big Bangs, how eventually the universe would stop growing, race in upon itself and collapse to a point until it again exploded in yet another Big Bang. We were merely, Skeet was saying to me—just me, on that beach—living in a moment between Big Bangs. Soon, everything would collapse, and explode. Collapse and explode. And I thought: Holy fucking shit, he might be right. There’s a reason people take drugs, is what I’m saying. Drugs have their moments.
I saw it first. Skeet was still talking, but my eyes were fixed on a cluster of bright, very bright lights, maybe a mile up the shore, softly expanding, collapsing, expanding, coming from what looked like yet another beach house, three stories, decks, the whole thing so bright against that black night. Then he stopped talking. He’d seen it, too. The light, yellow, orange, shimmered, moved, rose. We had the same thought at the same time.
“Is that building on fire?” I asked him.
“Fuck yes, it is,” he said.
Do you remember sprinting? When was the last time you sprinted? Have you ever sprinted toward what you think is a building fully engulfed in flames, the thought, unspoken but as alive as your blood, that once you got there, you just might be able to do something about it? If you have, you’ll know that there are four stages.
At first, you are a catapult, released. You just fire, and go, and after the initial awkwardness in your thighs, the stiffness in your hips, you are convinced you can go, screaming through the cold, dark night, forever. After that, not yet tired but muscles now accustomed, you settle into a groove. This is by far the most pleasurable part. You merely run, free, fluid. Third comes the onset, gradual at first, of the burning of the lungs. You slow, not because you want to, but because your body makes you. Fourth, finally, chest heaving, legs on fire, stomach ready to rebel, you stop, because you cannot go on without some essential part of you failing. And that’s what happened to us. We stopped running, exactly at the moment that we got close enough, heads no longer bobbing, to see the truth.
“I think,” Skeet said, “that those are Christmas lights.”
“I think,” I said, “that you are right.”
In that blackness, our friends catching up to us, also breathless, Skeet and I found the other’s eyes, laughed and then coughed, the black Atlantic Ocean behind us, swelling and retreating, over and over again, both of us knowing, I think, that all of it, the ocean, one day would die. And we would die. But not this, somehow, not this.
SETH SAWYERS’ writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Millions, Salon, Sports Illustrated, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Morning News, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He has been awarded scholarships and residencies to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Writers@Work, and VCCA. He is working on a novel about two ten-foot-tall people who find each other in the time just before the internet. He is online at https://sethsawyers.wordpress.com/.
Through our mid-twenties, this friend of mine, Tom, hosted an annual party at his family’s cabin in rural Wisconsin, and that year—the last year he invited us all there, incidentally—we were the last two to crash. The dawn was coming up quick, and we were watching the blackness outside morph into gray, into a fog that would settle on his family’s forty acres and on the half-mile gravel drive leading up to the house. I called it a cabin, but it was definitely a house. This friend of mine, his parents had bought this land and built the place as a retirement escape. Then his father had died, suddenly—I think he was fifty-nine, just like that, an aneurysm—and his mother had settled instead into a condo in the city.
Tom and I were in a sunroom off the kitchen, sort of a three-season porch thing, with screened walls and wicker furniture. The air was muggy and cool, and the sweet smell of wet grass had settled on everything. He was slouched in a chair. I was sprawled across the love seat, busy pining for a girl asleep upstairs. Pining, because I was dating someone else, though I was already in love with that girl up in the loft, and I didn’t know what to do. Should I leave my girlfriend and pursue—
No, he said. Probably wouldn’t work out anyway. Why risk it?
Even then I recognized this was terrible advice, but he was himself newly single, frustrated, and lonely, with no patience for these woes. And in that moment, he didn’t want me to go. He asked if I would stay with him, if I’d sleep there with him. Sure, of course I would. We’d been friends for a decade. I’d slept next to him many times. And then he asked—with a pause, mid-beat—would I hold him? Would I hold him, just the once, and just that, out of compassion if not desire?
I knew Tommy was in a rough spot then. I’d never seen him so vulnerable, and isn’t that what we all want, what we all need, someone to just be with us, like that, through the worst parts? Still, I said No. May as well have said, Will never happen.
I did sleep there, but on the floor. I was always out of reach but never more than just then. He was looking for a little compassion, a little tenderness. And I said no. As close as we are, everything we’ve been through together, this is as close as we’ll ever be. An arm’s length away. That space between us, he couldn’t close it, and I wouldn’t. And why not?
Why didn’t I hold him, just for a minute, like he’d asked? Maybe because I was still telling myself we were just friends like any other, and because even then, especially then, I knew this wasn’t exactly true.
By the time I was eighteen, I’d invested a lot of thought into my sexuality. Not so much because Tom, my closest friend at the time, was gay, but because he had spent the previous year—since coming out to me, and to me alone—trying to convince me I was gay, too. Because he wanted to get it on? Because he wanted company? Probably a bit of both, and either way I was familiar with these impulses. I could relate. That said, understanding that my masculine self is a construction of sorts, that gender is a learned performance, and that sexuality can be a fluid, evolving thing, my own hetero-ness has always seemed inherent to me.
I am of slightly below-average height. I have flat feet and a weird space between my first and second toe. I inherited—from my mother—a genetic blood-clotting disorder called Factor V Leiden thrombophilia, for which I take an aspirin a day. My eyes are hazel. And at eighteen, the image of Brad Pitt in his Fight Club prime opening a door wearing nothing but rubber gloves only ever inspired in me a competing mix of admiration and envy, while a mere glimpse of the thigh of the girl who sat next to me in Economics roused erections like flagpoles.
So my sexuality was never really a question, not for me, but when we were teenagers—sixteen, seventeen—Tommy did what he could to convince me otherwise, mostly by telling me I was gay, over and over, all the time, mistaking my denials for Denial. Eventually the rest of our friends picked this up too and started telling me I was gay, groping my chest and asking if I was turned on and responding to my firm nos with Hey man, it’s okay if you like dick—the predictable and condescending high school taunts I never knew how to answer. Really, it was only a couple of our friends that did this. Knowing them now, I wonder if they would have been so callous if they’d actually thought I was gay. Or if they’d known he was?
It was half my lifetime ago, so his actual coming out to me is a hippocampal blur, but I think it went something like this: We were juniors and had been spending most afternoons in our high school’s weight room (and adjacent locker room, notably, surrounded by all kinds of hard-bodied adolescent boys in various states of undress: tall, short, bronze, black, white, footballers, wrestlers, runners, the gamut), and eventually we started going on long warm-up runs around town. We were friends before, but those runs were really what made us. Away from the weight room fugue, we could actually talk, and we talked about all kinds of things. Like what? I have no idea. I can’t remember any of it, except that one day Tom turned to me and told me he’d just spent ninth period in the janitorial closet by the theater with Mike Miller (a cherubic sophomore boy, and a rising talent in the drama department) getting a blowjob.
Once the initial shock—that my friend was now, apparently, getting some—wore off, I didn’t think much about that coming-out moment. I didn’t really return to it until a decade later when a group of us old friends spent a post-wedding night drunk and reminiscing, and he reminded me what I’d said to him: “You got a blowjob!” And he thanked me for how I’d immediately accepted him, gay or whatever, getting head in whatever closet. He said that back when we were teenagers he hadn’t realized how lucky he was. When he said this we were both in our late twenties—I was married by then, and lived on the other side of the country, so we only saw each other every few years, usually at a bar the day after Christmas—and I was grateful that he still thought about our lapsed friendship at all, as I did, as I do. Of course, I told him. You were my best friend.
Back in the day I suppose he was confused about my sexuality in a way I wasn’t. After he came out to me, I didn’t stop working out with him. I didn’t stop changing next to him in the locker room. Was I supposed to? Well, I didn’t. He would point out some pumped up cornerback, with a chest like a longshoreman, and I would say, Yeah, impressive. Out running together we would see the lean cross-country boys in the distance, and I would agree, Yeah, they’re something. I remember he once asked if I’d noticed Tony Steino’s junk, and I replied, How could I not?! and he said, I know! My being straight and my taking an active role in these conversations—and my lathering up next to him at the end of the day—never seemed like a contradiction. And maybe he thought my continuing to act as if nothing had changed meant I had to be gay too, but really, what had changed? For him, I suppose, a lot. For me, not much. At least not much I recognized then.
This dissonance, I think now, was the beginning of that space, that rift that would eventually grow not so much between us as between our worlds, though I wouldn’t understand this until long, long after the fact.
Eventually, after a year or so of trying to convince me I was gay, he let it go. Why? Because, get this, he realized there was no way I would have been able to resist his advances for so long unless I actually was straight. He told me this. So, so arrogant. And probably true, which you’ll understand if you were ever a horny, hard-up teenaged boy, as I definitely was.
We graduated on to different colleges, but both worked summer jobs cutting grass for our hometowns. After work, we would go fishing. We called it fishing, but really we just canoed around local lakes and rivers, occasionally casting for bass, occasionally swimming. There are more than forty lakes in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, the land where suburbs meet country, and we made it to many of them. Sometimes other friends tagged along, and when it got too cold to swim, or too dark to paddle, we’d end up smoking and drinking coffee and eating fries at the local Denny’s, eventually dragging ourselves home only to be back on our lawnmowers a few hours later. This was our routine, for a while. We didn’t spend all our time together—I had one girlfriend, and then another, and he had one boyfriend, and then another—but a lot of it we did.
At that point—our early twenties—Tom was a constant in my life, a point of reference. As I imagine I was in his.
Just the other night I drove home with my arm out the window, the evening a cool seventy-five after an eighty-five-degree, humid day. I was on gritty 35th Street in the city, but that didn’t matter. I was singing along to the radio, like we did back then, and there was the same heavy wet smell in the air, and even though if I was thinking about anything, I was thinking about the pomodoro on the stove, or the class I was coming from, or if I’d catch my two-year-old before he hit the crib for the night, that smell suddenly knocked me back fifteen years and there I was, driving home from the lake, him shotgun, the bow of our canoe dripping algae funk on the windshield, Neil Diamond coming at us with Sweet Caroline. You know, Good times never seemed so good. I’ve been inclined to believe they never would. But now I…
Summer nights are the best nights. I was so young then, and had no idea. Those were some of my best nights.
I never understood why we drifted apart. Rather, why he let me go. For a long time I thought he resented my absence when his dad died. I was living in Japan at the time, and it happened quickly, and I wasn’t there for him—not that I know what being there would have meant exactly. As it was, I sent a card. A heartfelt card, but how lame was that? It didn’t even occur to me to call—I barely called my parents back then. Later, we lived in the same city for a couple of years, but only hung out a few times. We would make plans and he would break them, and eventually we both just sort of amiably stopped trying. The only way I could understand this was believing he was still upset that I hadn’t been there when he needed me, or something like that. I was reaching for an explanation, and not having another, I accepted this as truth.
We build these truths like walls around us, and it can take a long time for them to crack. Ten years on, and one otherwise ordinary day, epiphany: that night in the sunroom, the two of us still up at dawn, my eventually going to sleep on the floor. I realized that tick on our timeline might as well read End of Era. It hadn’t seemed significant before, probably because although I’d thought about that moment many times, I’d only thought of it in terms of where I’d been, and where I was going just then. It hadn’t occurred to me that mine wasn’t the only story being written in that sunroom. But then it did occur to me, suddenly, the way a crack finally splits one thing into two.
Why didn’t I hold Tom that night, just for a minute, like he’d asked? I hadn’t said No to him like that since high school, back when he was so sure all it would take was a little convincing to get me to join him in that janitorial closet by the theater. Maybe I was afraid that if I crossed one boundary he would ask me to cross another, and we’d be seventeen again. Maybe this had been a fear of mine for a long time, even though we had both grown so much, and things were obviously different then. Maybe I was afraid things weren’t so different after all.
Anyway, he asked and I said No. A resounding No. A final No.
That girl up in the loft—we’re married now and have two kids. What if, in a way, in that moment, I chose this over that, her over him? In a way, that’s exactly what I did, though like I’ve been saying, it was never really a question.
In any case, things were never the same after that.
Losing old friends is nothing new, but I feel this loss the most. And would I feel differently, about this, about him, if he were just another straight guy I used to hang out with? If he wasn’t gay, would we ever have grown so close in the first place? Can there ever be a friendship like this without an attraction of sorts, one-way or otherwise?
In my early twenties I was close to a number of women, really close, on an intimate emotional level, and I was convinced I could maintain these intense friendships indefinitely, but the truth is you can’t, or at least I couldn’t. There simply isn’t enough space in life, because friendships as intimate as those, well, you’re never really just friends—that familiar old story. Intimacies like those either wax or wane and eventually slip away. Such has been my experience with women. Why not with him?
Tom and I were friends, just friends, but I suppose it was never so simple. I loved him, my friend, but not like he needed. Philia in abundance. Agape even. But a dearth of eros. And you’d be right to respond: As if you know what he needed. So, so arrogant. But it would explain things.
He recently moved to within a hundred miles of where I live and called a month ago, but we haven’t connected. Still playing phone tag. I know he’s getting married one of these days, to a doctor, a guy I haven’t met yet. We’re still friends, I would say, but certainly not like we were. The old Pop! Fizzle… Déjà vu. I’ve been here before, many times, but not here exactly. Such a familiar story—but suddenly it feels new to me.
I suppose this is just a blown-up case of nostalgia, what with summer sprung on us once again, and Neil on the radio, with the lakes warming up, the landscape gone green, the days growing longer, and then already, a little shorter. And these sore muscles this morning, and these joints stiff like they’ve never been before, are a reminder too that like all those summers past, my youth, such as it was, is finally and totally over, lost, and with it the closeness we once shared, irretrievably gone.
—Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
CRAIG REINBOLD’s work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Brevity, Ruminate, Zone 3, Mud Season Review, and a number of other more or less literary places. He is also a regular contributor to Essay Daily, the blog-cum-conversation about all things essay, and is co-editor, with Ander Monson, of How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader (CoffeeHouse Press, 2017). He works in the emergency department of a Milwaukee-area hospital. When he’s not there, he spends his days alternately hanging out with his two boys and studying to become a nurse.
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.
I remembered that voice. Cool, soft, diffuse: the kind of voice that you’d have to strain to hear over the noise in a loud restaurant. A voice that rocked you along in its low, gentle waves. I’d always loved the way he seemed to listen more than he spoke. We’d never gone to a restaurant together, anyway.
“I want to know what you remember about me.” I held the phone close to my mouth and watched the curve of my lips in the rear view mirror as I spoke. With the pad of my index finger, I traced the dark circles under my eyes.
“Well, you were a gifted writer.” I flinched at his use of the past tense. I wrote rarely now, if ever. Caring for two children left little time for intellectual endeavors. At times, the contrast between my life now and the way it used to be was overwhelming.
“I have an image of you then.” He paused. “Do you want to hear this?”
I did, absolutely. This was why I’d called him.
“Sometimes, when you would wait outside my office, I’d find you sitting on the floor in the hallway, reading a book. It was very endearing. Most students would just stand there, waiting.”
Sunlight reflected off the windows of the building across the parking lot. I pulled down the sun visor to shield my eyes. This was what I wanted to hear, that I was noticed, remembered for an unstudied pose. Did anyone still see me that way? I closed my eyes, remembering that moment. How was it possible that he remembered it, too?
“Why do you want to know this?” he asked.
I paused, thinking. I was a thirty-four-year-old woman reaching back for my twenty-two-year-old self, speaking to someone who remembered the world in which she existed.
“Because you knew me when I still had choices to make about the kind of life I would have,” I said. “I don’t feel like that person anymore and maybe I want you to tell me that I still am, which is crazy, since you don’t even know me anymore.”
“I still know you,” he said. “You were then what you are now: eloquent, serious, thoughtful. I sense no diminishment in you even though we haven’t spoken in ten years. What made you so compelling then is what makes you that way now—you ask hard questions of life, and you expect hard answers. Most people are not that way.”
I leaned my head against the steering wheel and allowed his words to wash over me. I was twenty-two again, self-conscious and bold, fearful and fearless. I saw my future unspooling before me, full of hope and danger.
Twelve years earlier, he had singled me out. I was getting ready to graduate from college, slim and sarcastic and completely terrified. He was filling in for a professor on leave, and so we found each other stumbling around our distinguished college, both of us feeling more than a bit like frauds. I noticed right away how his eyes would linger on me a beat too long after I had finished speaking. I could feel him watching me as I stood up from the seminar table and wrapped a long woolen scarf around my neck. I was young, but not naive; something about me had attracted his attention, and I liked it.
I was taking his class—an intro writing seminar—on a whim. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer and during the semester, I discovered the power that writing had to reveal my inner self. When I wrote, I imagined the professor reading my words as I typed them. He responded to my writing as well as to my presence in the sun-filled classroom. Our connection was palpable and strong.
A few weeks into the semester, we arranged to meet in his office so he could help me with my post-graduation job hunt. While other students pursued corporate recruiting or worked alumni connections in the career center, I scaled the stairs, two at a time, to his office, my long and billowing wool coat, a 1970s hand-me-down from my mother, trailing behind me. When I arrived, he was still meeting with another student, so I sat down on the worn carpet outside his office, my back pressed against the wall, my knees tucked under my chin. A few minutes later, he came out and looked down at me. There was something about his gaze, steady and intense, that emboldened me. I stood up, teetering a bit in my high-heeled boots.
Inside his office, the radiators clanked and hissed. The sun, low in the winter sky, shone through the tall windows, casting everything in pale grey. I could feel his eyes on me as I pulled back the fur-lined hood and undid the toggle buttons of my coat. I slid a yellow folder toward him, and he gently removed the papers that were inside.
I watched him as he read, his dark head bent down toward his desk. He was young, as professors went, although like most college students, I couldn’t have said how old he was, only somewhere between thirty and dead. He had curly hair and a mustache and wore a rumpled writer’s wardrobe: wool sweaters, soft jackets. On his left hand was a gleaming wedding band that I couldn’t help but notice, although it didn’t mean much to me. What attracted me more than his physical appearance was his voice, which was quiet and soothing, and the power of his gaze. When he looked at me, he seemed to see something I only suspected was there.
“These are good,” he said. “You write well, with humor and clarity.”
“Thanks,” I said, looking down. The whites of my knees shone through the smooth material of my tights.
I looked around his office, taking in the high ceilings and sparse furnishings. On the shelf behind him was a photo of two children dressed in colorful bathing suits, the bright blue ocean glistening in the background. I twisted my long hair into a knot, aware suddenly of the curve of my neck.
“So, city girl,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “how did you end up here?” He gestured at the snow-covered quad outside the window.
“Well, not many people from my high school wanted to come here, so I thought I might have an edge.”
He laughed. “Aren’t there other kids from New York here?”
“Yes,” I said, “but not from my high school.” I began to describe my high school, full of brilliant, quirky kids, the kind of school with a Japanese Animation Appreciation Society but no football team. Few of my classmates had chosen the kind of college I had—a politically conservative campus in a one traffic light-town—and now, as the end of college approached, I often wondered what I had been thinking. He listened, his chin resting in his hands, his eyes soft and heavy lidded.
After that day, I looked for more reasons to visit him, to envelop myself in the still quiet of his office and the heat of his gaze. After discussing my job search, I told him about frat parties, late night swims in the river, my hunt for a graduation dress that wouldn’t be seen beneath my robe and a pair of funky shoes that I hoped would be. I told him how my friends roused me from bed at night shouting, “You sleep when you die!” and I would dress myself quickly in layers of flannel and denim and head out to another party. When I spoke, I could feel the way that my youth and energy intoxicated him. I was a femme fatale in duck boots.
I was the one who had rekindled our connection, Googling him one afternoon while my kids napped. He had appeared, suddenly, in a dream several nights earlier in which whatever barrier that had once stood between us was inexplicably gone. The connection between us was magnetic and erotic, and I woke up with the memory of him clinging to me like a wet bathing suit.
I quickly found his email address beneath a recent photo. He looked much the same, grayer perhaps, but his eyes had the same intensity. Was it melancholy? I wondered now. I typed what I thought was a casual note and quickly clicked send. A few hours later, he wrote back: I won’t lie and say your email brought back fond memories of our time together. The truth is, I haven’t stopped thinking about you since.
I was stunned by the intensity of his words. Was he serious? Did he really still think about me? The thought thrilled me, a dollop of intrigue mixed into my domestic routine. We emailed each other a few more times and then set a time to speak on the phone. I didn’t want to call him from my house so I left my kids at home with a babysitter and parked my car in the parking lot of a nearby nursery school.
What was I doing? I asked myself as I dialed his number. This was dangerous territory. I was married now, the mother of young children. I had no intention of leaving my family, and yet I couldn’t stop myself. The young girl I had once been—the one he had known—beckoned me, and her pull felt like gravity. Besides, wasn’t this what he had always done, spoken to me in privacy, out of earshot of his wife and children? I had always assumed that I was a secret he kept from his family, although I had never asked. So maybe it was okay, I reasoned. I wiped my damp hands on my jeans.
He answered after the first ring.
“I think I know why I started thinking about you,” I told him, the words rushing forth. “I’m in the same place now that you were in then—married with two kids. And it’s so hard, harder than anyone ever tells you. So I think I get it now, what you might have been looking for in me. Do you know what I mean?”
“I do,” he said. “You brought conversation back into my life, the kind that disappears when you’re married and raising small children. I didn’t know how much I missed it until I found it with you.”
I thought about the kinds of conversations I had now with my husband and friends: whose turn was it to take out the trash, please could I drop off the dry cleaning, what was I going to do about summer camp?
“Why didn’t you run away with me?” I asked him, shocking myself with the boldness of the question. “It would have been easier then than it is now.”
“Well, there was a bit of a stigma, don’t you think? The professor running off with his much younger student? Our age difference was a bit more to overcome back then.” He paused. “You also told me you didn’t want that.”
“I did? When?”
“One day in my office. I remember I moved too close to you and you pointed your finger at me and told me to step back. You said, ‘There are lines for a reason.’”
I dug around in my memory like an overstuffed purse. I couldn’t remember this at all.
“Well, you could have fought for me.”
“I suppose so,” he said. “But you’re the one who didn’t meet me in Boston that day, remember?”
I watched a squirrel dart across the parking lot, jerking his head back and forth as he ran. Mothers were walking kids back to their cars, buckling them into brightly patterned car seats, doling out snacks and reprimands and kisses. I wondered what my kids were doing at home. Waking up from their naps, probably, their hair fuzzy, their skin pink.
“Well, we could have tried,” I told him, watching the women ease their cars slowly out of the parking lot, returning to their appropriate lives of duty and routine.
After I graduated from college, our conversations continued. And perhaps because we were no longer face-to-face, they became more intimate. Freed from the boundaries of our teacher-student relationship, we called each other almost daily. I talked about my new life in the city of my youth: entry-level jobs, late nights in smoky bars, the men who came and went. He shared few details about his life with me, and I never asked. I didn’t know the names or ages of his children or what he did after he hung up the phone. I knew he spoke to me from an office with a phone that only he answered, but I didn’t know where it was or what he did there. In my mind, it was tucked in the corner of a clapboard house with a large wooden desk by a window overlooking a leafy backyard. It was always quiet and remote and bathed in a soft green light.
I came to crave these long conversations, the way they removed me from the life around me, a life I wasn’t sure how to become a part of. When we spoke, I heard only his voice soothing me, building me up. My power over him continued to thrill me and could, I discovered, be as erotic as touch. I was as lonely and lost as ever, but on the phone, my life was full of possibility and ever-changing. I wasn’t writing anymore but, in a way, I was, telling him the stories I wasn’t writing down. And he was my most avid reader.
I never stopped to question the propriety of a married man and father speaking on the phone with a woman almost half his age. That it made me feel good was all I cared about, and so I used him and his affirmation of me as material to fill the gaping maw that was my burgeoning self.
After about a year, something happened that pushed us beyond the safe borders that we had established for our relationship, if that’s what it could be called. One day on the phone, I mentioned that my friend Molly and I were planning a trip to Boston to visit our mutual friend Janine.
“Funny,” he said. “I’m going to be in Boston that same weekend. Maybe we can meet up.”
He sounded casual, and I tried to meet his tone. A face-to-face meeting would signify a shift in our relationship from the emotional and intellectual affair we’d been having to something very different. The thought both excited and terrified me. After some discussion, we made arrangements to meet on Saturday afternoon. From my desk in a towering New York office building, Saturday seemed very far away.
When Molly and I arrived at Janine’s apartment, he had already called looking for me there.
“Who is this man calling you?” Janine asked me as soon as I walked in the door. I had never told anyone about the professor, but now it all came out: the phone calls, the wife and kids, our proposed meeting. They remembered him vaguely from school and were appropriately scandalized.
“Holy shit!” Janine said. “I can’t believe you never told us!” Molly raised a pierced eyebrow at me. I laughed and tried to siphon off some of their exuberance for myself. After settling in, I called him from Janine’s phone and we firmed up our plans for the next day. I would meet him in a park on the far side of town. What would happen next, I did not know.
Molly, Janine, and I drank cheap wine from plastic cups and prepped for a night on the town. I wore a short floral dress and chunky Doc Martens, a poor man’s Winona Ryder. “Where’s my Ethan Hawke?” I shouted at my reflection as Molly and I primped in Janine’s tiny bathroom. I put on my best smoky eye and red lipstick while Molly slicked back her cropped hair. Janine slithered into a pair of tight black pants, teased her brown hair high and painted her delicate eyelashes with mascara. She was ready to leave Boston, she told us. “I’m too much woman for this one-horse town.”
At the nightclub, I tried to lose myself in the heat and sound. As I danced, I imagined the professor watching me. I swung my hair around, my neck loose and long. I imagined his hands on me, sliding around my waist and pulling me toward him, the space between us narrowing as we swayed in time to the music, the throbbing bass notes coursing up through the floor and our bodies. I slept fitfully on Janine’s futon that night, Molly’s lanky frame stretched out beside me.
The next day, Molly and I sat together in the front seat of her car sipping coffee out of paper cups and puzzling over a map of the city. She had agreed to drive me to the park where I was meeting the professor and, I suppose, pick me up a few hours later. The details were vague.
“What are you thinking, Daisy?” she asked after a few moments. I kept my head down, unable to meet her gaze.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking down at the map. The brightly colored roads blended together into an unnavigable tangle. “Do you think I should go?”
“Well, what do you think is going to happen if you meet him? What do you want to happen?”
I tried to conjure up a physical image of the professor, but he was hazy. All I remembered was his voice and the way he made me feel. I was chasing a ghost.
“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s forget it.”
We tossed the crumpled map into the backseat and Molly cranked up the radio. Liz Phair’s voice blasted through the speakers of the Honda Accord, foul-mouthed anthems of female empowerment pulsing through the car. We sang along until we were hoarse.
As the hour of our meeting came and went, I tried not to think about the professor waiting for me. A few hours later, the phone rang at Janine’s apartment. She handed it to me.
“Where were you?” he said when I answered the phone. His voice was louder than I’d ever heard it before. “I was really worried about you.”
“I decided not to come,” I said.
“Why not?” he said. “You could have let me know. This is a big city. Anything could have happened to you.”
“Oh, so you were worried about me? That’s why you’re calling, to make sure I’m okay?”
I pulled the phone down the hallway, the curly cord stretching behind me.
“Don’t you think this is a little weird? I mean, what are you doing?” I stretched the words out. “Did you really have plans to come to Boston this weekend?”
He said nothing. I felt the outline of everything we had left unsaid pushing against me until I could barely breathe. I wondered where he was calling me from.
“Do you have feelings for me?” I asked quietly. “Do you love me?”
“I think you know I do.”
I exhaled slowly, my heart pounding in my ears.
“Well, that’s why I didn’t come,” I said. And then, after several beats, “I think I have to go.”
“If that’s what you think is best,” he said.
“I do,” I said and hung up.
I stumbled back into the living room where Molly and Janine were sprawled out listening to the Indigo Girls.
“What happened?” Janine asked, sitting up. Molly watched me expectantly.
“He was kind of pissed but, whatever,” I said. And with that, I was swept back into their world, leaving the intensity of the phone call, and whatever it had meant, behind.
And that was how it ended, on the phone, our relationship remaining emotionally charged but physically chaste. I went back to my life in New York and rarely thought about the professor after that day. He remained firmly in my memory, as a part of my past encased in amber. I’d met and married my husband and started my own family without ever thinking of the impact I might have had on his. And yet here I was now, back on the phone with him, listening to the same, soft voice speaking to me in a very different life.
We had never had a physical affair, but did that make what we had done all right? Our relationship existed in a kind of gray area, and I wondered if what we had done was outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a marriage. If he had felt bored, stifled by routine, burden and obligation, was it okay for him to seek a kind of comfort elsewhere? Was it okay for me to do the same?
“Were you happy?” I asked him, gazing out at the parking lot. The sun shone through the trees, sprinkling drops of light on the pavement. “I mean, back when we knew each other, were you happy?”
“I suppose I was,” he said. “Meeting you made me happy.”
“No, I mean with your wife and kids. Did they make you happy? You never spoke about them, and I think I understand why, but looking back, it seems significant to me now.”
I could hear him breathing on the other end of the line. “Marriage is complicated, Daisy,” he said. “We do love our spouses and children no matter how disinclined we may be to discuss them.” He was drifting into his cool, detached professor-ese. It pissed me off.
“Give me a break,” I said. “I’m a grown-up now, just like you. You don’t need to protect me. You don’t need to be my mentor. Here I am, asking you the hard questions and I want the hard answers.”
“Okay, Daisy, you want the truth?” he said. His voice turned to glass. “Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. In a happy marriage, today would be a moment to celebrate but, in mine, the day has gone by unnoticed, unacknowledged. Not even a verbal exchange of ‘Happy Anniversary.’ My twentieth was the same, as were many before that. I believe I’ve just given you a ‘hard answer.’ I’d be happy to give you more. I’d be happy to not be mentor-ly toward you, but I’d need to know what you want. And I’d need to know I can trust you.”
The sun beat down on the windshield of the car. Tiny pinpricks of sweat rose along the flat of my lip and quickly turned cold. The parking lot was empty, marked only by the regular grid of white lines. See, they seemed to be saying, there are rules we follow, unquestioning.
“Can I call you again?” he asked.
There it was, the invitation to a life of danger, the one I’d declined many years before in Boston but had asked for again. Did I want it now?
“No,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Whatever you want. But if you ever change your mind, you know where to find me.”
I hung up the phone and drove slowly down the street toward home, to my children fresh from sleep, to the trash that needed to be taken out, to the dishwasher that needed to be emptied. It was not a life my twenty-two-year-old self would have recognized, but it was certainly one she would have envied. My world came into focus again, its colors bright and vibrant, technicolor. I felt clean, like crisp white linen drying in the sun. As I moved through the streets of my quiet suburban town, past the familiar houses and trees, I knew that I would not call him again. I’d learned all that I needed to know from the professor.
DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is the staff editor at Brain, Child. A native New Yorker, she lives in Connecticut with her family.
Though the forecast semi-promised rain, the afternoon of our upstairs housemates’ clothing swap was ushered in to the best Memorial Day weekend in New England weather. It was hot, yet fresh in the sunshine, comfortable in the shade, bright, clear blue sky with puffy white clouds above and thick, healthy green grass below.
Em and Nell—the two sisters from upstairs—and a few friends began to lay down sheets and unpack clothing from bags and boxes. Other friends walked down the grassy hill with more, which were placed by category onto the ground. They brought shirts and pants, skirts, dresses, and shoes. Home baked goods—a plate of brownies, another of cookies dusted on top with powdery confectioner’s sugar, and chocolate chip cookies—appeared, as well as bags of salty snacks and plates and containers with watermelon and grapes. Beer and a big bottle of wine arrived, too. There were no cups. People shared, swigged.
Nate and Ben, the two sisters’ boyfriends, looked on. The ponytailed boyfriend was a housemate, the shorthaired boyfriend a visiting beau. Ben walked from his woodshop in the barn and back to the grass several times. For a year, every Saturday morning he drove off early to attend a boat building class. His canoe was lodged on a rack in the open middle barn. An onlookers’ corner formed in the shade, more males than females. There wasn’t much for them to do but sit and chat and drink a beer and look moderately bored. This was a big step up from waiting at a ladies’ clothing store while your girlfriend tries stuff on, but that vibe endured, just a bit, the price of boyfriend-dom or of being part of any group that wasn’t engaged in your dream activity. It wasn’t quite a Memorial Day Party.
In the thicket of swappers, though, hugs and squeals and vamping ensued with gleeful abandon as clothes came on and off of bodies and bodies moved between states of dress and undress. A pause in the action occurred about an hour in for everyone in that swapping circle to make introductions: name, gender, preferred pronoun—the icebreaker trifecta for twentysomethings in the twenty-teens.
One of the most beloved in the group had recently announced her transition. She’d changed her name, completed a course of testosterone blockers, and begun estrogen. Short dark hair growing out, Marta graced a new-to-her blue dress quite stunningly—to everyone’s accolades. The male clothing she’d had—work clothes, play clothes, and so much workout gear—couldn’t come along. Her former drag items no longer worked, either. Whatever those had been, playful or experimental, no longer applied. What to wear and who to become melded now and, amongst the heaps of clothing, she found nothing else she really wanted. Meantime, a rainbow-striped baseball cap made the rounds of heads. Eventually, it was left on the roof of our black sedan, and I brought it inside to our mudroom. Perhaps some child or tween might take a shine to it.
The big yellow house we live in has an apartment on the top, which, for over a dozen years, we’ve bartered for hours, mostly for childcare and the light housekeeping duties that keep a family functional: laundry assists and kitchen cleanup and some cooking.
The barter tends to be with young adults in the twenties, a changeable time. Newly graduated from college, newly cohabiting, newly married, newly out (but not to the family), newly employed or trying to become employed, or applying to graduate school, no one who’s moved here planned to set roots from a top floor flat. Transition, even when there’s a person who stays for a couple of years, is implicit, because the apartment’s appeal is the bargain—no cash money, just time and utilities and Wifi and laundry and a place to park off-street in the winter—and the feel of your own place but in such proximity to a family. It has a separate kitchen and bathroom and entrance, yet it shares heat and laundry and Wifi and off-street parking in the winter. In over a decade-plus, the two-bedroom has housed somewhere near twenty people—it’s hard to keep count. Perhaps it’ll click for someone for longer, but somehow I don’t expect it, at least not in this incarnation.
The spring and fall swaps started two years ago with these sisters. My closet and drawers emptied in increments over time, to my relief. Clothing and shoes of my twenties and beyond that had lingered in my possession unworn were released—and I was freed of whatever the threads held over me. The sisters pluck favored items from my contributions to the swaps before they begin. A running top went to Nell; that morning, Em and her best friend appeared in linen sundresses, sleeveless with collars and big buttons down the front I’d released from my closet, sundresses I used to wear. My best friend, Penny, wore those dresses, too. I had three. I kept just one for the dog days. I know Penny still has at least one left, because she wore it when visiting last summer. Once, a grey and white striped cotton tank dress was handed to me. I put it in my closet, never felt comfortable in it, and placed it in a bag six months later. The way I want the swaps to work for me is as license to push the extraneous away and let my closets and drawers speak to the life I lead right now—or as close to that goal as I can get.
A swap cycle ago, my daughter received the metallic lacy tank shirt—a shirt for Em, a dress for my daughter—that she’d coveted; it’s become a dress-up staple. There is an element of dressing up to the swap culture—and to the twenties. “The clothes have gotten nicer, more professional,” Em observed earlier this year. “More of us have real jobs, ones you need to dress for.”
One of our dearest of babysitters—a friend and former housemate, too—moved to New York just over a year ago, and she’d come up for the weekend’s swapfest. In belted jeans that fit perfectly and a tee, Lila looked fantastically herself, but a sleeker version, as New York can bring out. Her reddish hair was longer but seemed to have been cut recently. She seemed neat, put together. She loved her job and the chance to go to art openings and film screenings and her housemates in Brooklyn. She awaited another position at the auction house, and grad school loomed more as possibility than pressure. “It couldn’t be better,” she said. She’d pieced together work, first in a store and then increasingly “in her field” here for a couple of years before the right New York opportunity arose.
Nell spent more time with her visiting beau in the onlookers’ corner than in the swap heap of clothes and people. She held up clothing that came from her not-quite-two-years-older sister and shrugged. “I almost always end up with Em’s clothes in the swap.” The older sister lost a lot of weight over the past year and the beloved green sweatshirt dress already went to her taller, broader-shouldered (former swimmer), barely younger sister. Both are high achievers, highly engaged, competent, capable and lovely. Their sisterhood is obvious, especially their arresting oblong eyes, and yet they come across with completely different energies—one more muscled in her upbeat-ness and drive, the other lower-keyed, yet more serious and at the same time, funnier.
Another former babysitter friend and housemate for a summer flashed her gentle smile. “I’m in Montague, now,” she’d explained—a thirty-minute drive from our house, “an herbal garden, my herbal practice and then work with a program for youth. It’s coming together.” I’d listened to the ups and downs of managing the piecemeal work and the herbal training. And on this bright day, it was all smiles and a sense that they all were nowhere near finish line but rounding the track and feeling fine.
What of the other moments? I remembered them so clearly—tears in the kitchen, eyes pooling puppy-dog wide. “I didn’t get the job,” choked the recent college graduate. It was a halftime position at a local parents’ center and while it was closer to her desired field—public health and sex education—it really wasn’t that at all. A parent from the center had gotten the job, assisting other parents and kids at the drop-in center.
“You’d have been great,” I cheered her on, “and yet you’d have been frustrated, too, because it’s not exactly what you want to do. Already you have a job doing what you want and you’re not six months out of college. The right thing will come along. It will. You’re doing so wonderfully already.” More tears, big hug—and onward, that’s the twenties. That’s life, really. She’s getting her PhD now, full ride, and the last position she applied for—sex educator at a local college—she got.
Jobs missed and gotten is only part of it. Long ago, our babysitter’s eyes blazed with adoration and she smiled like the cat that ate the canary. She and I stood with the laundry basket of clean clothing in between us. We both folded. “We’re… dating,” Hallie offered. The other half of “we” was another babysitter. Although Nic did not live in the house, she did, which meant that while the romance burned brightly, we often had moon-eyed twofers of babysitters, because they could hang out with the two kids, cross-legged amongst the blocks and books and trucks. Distracted by love, there was so much laughter that the romance was, for the kids, infectious. They loved both the very fair and self-declared sensitive young woman and the beanpole young man with slack eyes and a zest for Buddhism, so the pairing was kind of magical. Please don’t break up in my living room if it comes to that, I remember thinking. I hope I didn’t say it out loud, but I might have. I wasn’t so very far from breakups myself, and I still had enough single friends searching for love that the potential for disaster felt fresh enough—coupled with the fact that my kids were small and I felt dependent upon the babysitters for my emotional survival.
Hallie is married now—not to Nic—and has an eighteen-month-old boy with carrot hair and blue eyes that will bore holes into her heart.
What sticks? What do you let go? What returns? Like the clothes on the piles, there’s not really one answer. Answers form a shape shift, the questions blend in, the colors are your favorite and then you’ve worn them so much they’ve worn out their welcome. There will become, in your mind, a bright green era or a vegan period or a time when the relationship was all about starry-eyes and then… not.
Meantime, the afternoon’s happy, hugging crew strewn across the lawn like so many to-be-swapped clothes included a reluctant eleven-year-old boy and a toddling one-year-old boy. The clothes and people continued to arrive. The neighbors’ grandchildren looked on at first and then disappeared, having seen some bras and tattooed bellies. People in states of undress reveal things about themselves that you did not know in inked bellies and backs with flowers and words and leaves. My daughter, who is six, went from the swing to Lila’s lap. Our two-year-old neighbor pal stuck to the climber and swings, mostly swinging on her belly. Yoni, her babysitter, found clothes. I snapped photos; I chatted with former and current babysitters and their friends, my friends through them and hoped my clothing found happy homes. Besides the linen dresses, this time I’d unearthed some things from deep in a closet—a brown jacket and pleated skirt that would be retro now, and likely in style again, a flowered corduroy dress that I’d loved, brown, grey, reddish hues and drop-waist with buttons in front (I guess I liked buttons), leggings and comfy black pants that straddled the line between clothing and pajamas.
I love to watch these young adults grow, to see the ways they reach toward dreams, and especially perhaps the way they revel in friendships. They sew a world together between them like homemade fabric flags waving. I envy their time—the potlucks and parties and nights out dancing, the brunches and weekends and hikes—not because I want for friends, or because I never see mine. I do, in fact. But I miss the way these young adults’ time unfolds opportunities to hang out abound so amply. Friendships take up a particular kind of space, edged out by romantic partners and children and extended family. Things become more encumbered, more weighted, less blowy. My friendships were like that once: juicy, time consuming, and filled with rituals and catch phrases and photos of one another that we passed around, hand to hand.
I’d let go of the electric blue suede short boots with the pointy toes and chunky heels a while before, but they were emblematic of my twentysomething self. They were as hip as I got, a little sassy, cute, and hopeful. They were confident boots and in them, I felt confident. That’s a sensation that I experienced fleetingly—and remains, frankly, fleeting. When Em nabbed low cowboy boots a couple of swaps earlier, she’d declared, “I think I know what you were like when you were my age now,” and in a way, I think she did.
Some of the clothing I’ve offloaded over time is very big and baggy, other things are small and clingy. My body, my style, my stage of life changed over those decades. I worked. I went to graduate school. I moved away as a newlywed for an eighteen-month adventure in London. The wedding was a huge affair, with so many friends spilling in from afar and from near. We feasted on the friendships, the old ones and new ones and middle-length ones. For years and even decades when someone became important to us, we wished that somehow through magic or time travel, we could have shared that friend-fest with that person, too. We returned from London barely three months before our first baby arrived. I became a mom, and despite conflicted feelings, a Mom, too. I became a writer. I volunteered.
I’d joked for years that our house served as excellent birth control, filled with one, then two, then three, then four kids—but the fourth brought infant lust to the towheaded artist on the top floor. Sloan wanted a baby so badly and adored our tiny gal so much that it saddened him to leave for graduate school. Being gay served as excellent birth control just then, too. I cried when Sloan left (in our old car, sold to him for cheap) because I so adored him. But with all these people, something reminds me of them and I can reach out and they reach back, because we did happen into one another’s lives during rich times, ones that we hold tenderly.
The whole time, with all those practice twentysomethings I thought that by the time I began to launch—or prepare to launch—my own kids, I’d be able to do it better because of all I’d learned. And maybe that’s true: I saw that encouragement is what older adults can offer and the willingness to brainstorm and write endless references for as many years out as requested. I saw that you could love new things via younger people: music and Zumba, a better way to make jam or put the toys away. You could remember how poignant and how free and how confusing freedom felt and how much it cost to have your car towed.
But now I have to let go. I have to not worry about the fact that things will go awry and the place will be a mess—and then maybe clean, maybe not, depending. I have to trust that trial and error is, it turns out, inevitable. Nothing is smooth, not really. All that effort to smooth the way for my children, not so much to do their laundry (although there’s that) but to manage things for them—the many check-ins with teachers and the many lessons and classes and teams and enriching books and rules or letting go of the rules, the endless, endless bedtimes—wasn’t a recipe for these next steps. How much is rent? How much is insurance? What do I do when I can’t do the math assignment? Do I ask her out? I couldn’t have pre-answered those questions and so many others. I tried; I whispered to my eldest son as an infant all the important stuff, like “don’t drink and drive,” or “use condoms” or “respect women.” I like to believe he heard me, and when he needs that critical good advice, it’ll rise up like the long buried memory it is, soggy and warm and still intact.
The swaps are the young adult version of offloading the kids’ hand-me-downs. You keep letting go, and eventually, you realize you’ve grown. Each one of you has grown, not just the kids. The thing that remains isn’t a shirt; it’s not a moment or a skill; it’s love. You’ve done right because you’ve loved. You’ve loved and you’ve done right. That’s how it comes out in the wash. That’s how every one of you gets to the thirties.
SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a contributor to Full Grown People. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and the 2014 anthology The Good Mother Myth, amongst other places.
I moved when the birds flew away, when the squirrels had planted their meals in the dirt, and the trees shook off their skins. It was the beginning of my twenty-third winter. I packed unwashed clothes into a suitcase while my parents were at work. Suddenly I lived in Delaware, with my girlfriend Jen and her dog, Tubby.
Tubby did not belong to me at first. He was only my girlfriend’s dog. He was just a shedding thing who interrupted our kisses. I watched her play with him, jumping up and down, both smiling, as the floor squeaked and his mouth gummed her arms and his orange fur fell into the air and her long curls flew around her shoulders. I loved her.
One morning, Jen tried to put drops in Tubby’s ears. She coaxed him sweetly, petting him. His ears went back and his eyes closed in happiness. She grabbed the drops and stepped towards him, still speaking carefully. He saw the bottle and hid behind me. Tubby looked at me, and his eyes, a deep, sad, amber-brown, asked me to protect him. I stood still, not allowing Jen near his quivering body; his trust came so suddenly.
I started to walk him in the morning after she went to work, the ground freezing with winter. We walked across dark asphalt and around traffic, far from the apartment, to find a spot with grass and gnarled plants. Waddling from arthritis, he spent most of his time sniffing the ground, making no noises, except the occasional sneeze. I began to talk to him. Mostly about nothing. Then I spoke about my morning, my worries. I asked him if Jen would be safe and come home to us. I told him that I was scared I would not find a job, or even worse, that I would.
The weather darkened the mornings, and my fingers became red and numb in the chill. I searched out two pairs of gloves and wore both sets at the same time. He watched me as I layered my clothes before we ventured out. If we managed to leave at an early enough hour, I would sing to Tubby, knowing no one else would cross our paths. I couldn’t tell if he noticed my song.
Inside the apartment, I sat on the couch with my computer, my legs folded beneath me. He watched me. I didn’t have food, yet he came near me to be touched. He fell asleep with his head on my slipper. If I got up to wash dishes or to make lunch, his amber eyes watched me go, and his ears stood alert for my return.
One night, the sun was setting early and it was dark at seven. I stared at the ground, as I always did when we walked. The grass crunched under my boots. Suddenly I stopped. There was a form before me—a squirrel, dead in the brown grass. The night made its fur glint black and its eyes glow. Everything turned still. I shivered and pulled Tubby out of its path. He was uninterested. Streets and fences and the grass darkened, the world black except for the eyes of the corpse. I wanted someone to run to. I didn’t want to tell Jen. I wanted to seem strong. I was alone in my fear.
Snow started to fall too often, covering Tubby’s grass. His paws gathered ice when we walked. I wore layers that made me round and genderless. With every footfall, I wondered what would happen if my booted foot stepped on the squirrel, buried under six to eight inches of hardened snow. On the way back, I followed my old frozen footprints because they were safe. Tubby sniffed the fences and made new prints.
One week, the snow stopped falling and everything began to drip. I saw the squirrel, dead and asleep, gnawed and frozen. I made a note of its place in my path—past the first tree but before the bend in the fence. I walked every day with Tubby, avoiding the squirrel, sucking in my breath as we came near it, breathing out hot air when we passed. Tubby walked back to the apartment slowly—he pretended he was old and sick. I knew better. I had seen him run, towards the hidden grass, beyond the buried squirrel, towards the fresh air. He did not notice death. He was never afraid.
Jen left our bed every day at seven a.m. to go to work. It was hard to let her go. I woke up wrapped in our pink sheets, her smell lingering next to me. It escaped as soon as I tried to breathe it in. I fell back into dreams, listening to the sound of hot rain pelting the white tub. She kissed me awake. I felt her breasts against my skin as she bent over, pale and soft and warm and dewed. Her hair flew around her shoulders, and I could smell the sweet shampoo. I pulled her close. One more kiss and she had to leave, to dress herself and drive through the cold to a tall building full of things to do. Some days I cried. I needed her and was left in an empty apartment. I was left to look for jobs online. Left to write. Left to take care of the dog. Some days I begged her to stay home. I knew we needed money, but some days, I did not care.
In my first grown-up winter, I did not think I would get used to solitude. The sounds of the apartment scared me, the banging of the heat adjusting, the ticking slats of the blinds nudging each other, the refrigerator making ice cubes. I tried to fill the place with television sounds, familiar voices booming from another place. I got lost staring at the white popcorn ceiling. I saw lopsided faces and dancing ghosts.
Nine months ago, my life was filled with tons of faces, buzzing, caring, laughing, and yelling. There was always noise. I could hear my college roommates baking bread and stacking dishes. There was always music playing in the apartments next door. I spent my parents’ money on beer and mac and cheese. There were always assignments, parties, meetings—always things to be done and I was happy never to have time to be alone. Time in my own company was spent in the shower or behind my eyelids in a dream.
When classes finished, we waited for the day when we would put on cheap robes and end our college days in front of hundreds of satisfied eyes. I stared out of my bedroom window, watching summer burn the grass, and ran outside in a bathing suit to sit on towels with my friends.
Soon, I would be standing in the snow alone, helping my dog find the grass. When I found my way back to the apartment I shared with Jen, I took off my coat, my hat, my two layers of gloves, my socks, and my boots. I looked at my matted hair and red cheeks in the hall mirror. Tubby sloppily licked the ice off of his paws. I wanted to show Jen my snow-covered boots and my red cheeks. I wanted to hear her praise. She did not come back from work until the sun set.
It kept snowing. The sky was always grey and the ground was always white. I thought the snow looked like freshly grated parmesan cheese. I wondered if I should give a more flattering name to this celestial gift. I eyed the frozen cars and slippery roads from under my blue hood. I felt my skin flush in the nineteen-degree air, through which thirteen-mile-an-hour winds jerked at me and the dog at 8:30 in the morning. I walked home on cheese-covered roads.
Most nights, I sat nuzzling in my girlfriend’s lap, my head resting on her chest. Those types of evenings kept me standing. I longed for days where we sat around in oversized sweatpants and forgot about our empty bank accounts and frozen grass and the car with the broken headlight, and we simply lounged in one another’s warmth, sleeping in our smiles. One Wednesday, she was home from work because of snow. The weekend winked at us. Jen’s phone buzzed, jumping on the wooden end table. She picked it up, and her soft face tightened. Her uncle Brian was in the ICU. He had fallen and hit his head. He was unconscious and not breathing on his own.
Jen comes from a giant family with many uncles. I couldn’t keep their names or stories straight. I thought about my own uncles. I hardly ever saw them. My love for them was through blood. Jen was different; she loved her family, but more importantly, she knew them. She carried great empathy for anyone, a cloak of understanding that she could wrap strangers in, strangers on television or in line at the grocery store or standing near the highway in the cold. She was upset, but in a redundant way, as if these feelings were so familiar they were stale. She was used to pain. “He…” she said, “he has never been the healthiest person.”
I held her hand and kissed her and talked softly as she lied and said she was fine. She swallowed her fear and let it stick to her ribs. The day continued. I was happy to sink back into our relaxation. She liked to take her pants off at the end of the day and walk around in a baggy sweatshirt that barely covered her. She teased me as she walked. Her legs were long and pale and it was hard not to stare. I wanted to drink her and hold her at the same time.
As I walked our dog in the light that bounced off the sleeping snow, I worried about Jen. She silently let the hours pass after the phone call, without mentioning her own fears. I wanted to talk to her more after the walk. When I returned, my cheeks were red, and I smelled of frozen sweat.
As I took off my coat, my phone vibrated and blared my ringtone, a song by Young the Giant. Life’s too short to even care at all… It was my godmother, who only called when there was bad news. Two years prior, the morning that my grandfather died, it was her booming, tearless voice that told me. She spoke purposefully. She spoke as if from a podium. Now she told me my father was taken from work in an ambulance. He was throwing up uncontrollably. He couldn’t walk. He was sweating through his clothes. I felt very far away as I heard her explain: a CAT scan, an EKG, waiting on an MRI. They were admitting him. She would call me when they knew more.
She asked me if I was okay, if Jen was with me. I looked at the yellow walls of the kitchen that were marked and stained. Muddy snow melted from my boots onto the mosaic linoleum. My dad was sick. Tears flung themselves down my face. They felt unusually warm. Jen’s strong hand was on my back.
She pulled me to the sofa in the living room and held me. I did not say anything. I tried not to cry. I hardened. A selfish thought was bobbing among my fears. If Daddy dies, I’ll have to move back home. I hated myself. It was my dad, my dad. He was not supposed to get sick. He was not supposed to die. I looked at Jen, her galaxy eyes bright with sympathy. I told her I was sorry about her uncle.
I sat lying against her while Mame flashed on the television. I watched Mame over and over when I was a child. I knew Jen was only watching it with me because of my dad, but I took advantage. I watched Lucille Ball dance around and sing, and I breathed easier, and I waited. Mame was broke and trying to play “the moon-lady,” missing her cue and freezing on stage in a frilly white costume, when my phone rang. Life’s too short to even care at all…I’m losing my mind, losing my mind, losing control…
It was my mother this time. Her voice was soft and tired but filled with sympathy. The MRI was clean. My dad had stopped throwing up. They were still keeping him overnight, but they thought he was going to be fine. I breathed and crawled back to Jen. There was no reason for me to cry anymore. A smog of images started to dissipate…of my dead father, frozen like the squirrel, pale and cold beneath his grey mustache, my small arms trying to reach around my mother bent over in despair, searching for a black dress. I looked down at the dingy tan carpet…at the blue recliner with the broken handle…at my bare feet. “You can still be upset,” Jen said, softly, stroking my neck.
The following morning, I stepped out of the lonely bed and walked Tubby before my eyes were completely open. I stumbled along the half-snowed sidewalk, holding the leash with gloved hands and a scowl. I passed children waiting for the sight of their orange bus. Their mothers had bundled them tightly, and they kicked twisted stop signs and teased each other. I passed a woman warming up her car. I passed a man hunched over carrying a yellow plastic grocery bag.
I wondered what people thought when they looked at me. I wondered if they glanced or if they stared. Did they think I was a boy? My coat was zipped up beyond my mouth and my black hat covered my hair and forehead and the tops of my eyebrows. I wandered, formless. Only eyes peeked out of my clothes. I wondered if people were scared. Did they see the fat mess of a crumbling dog who could barely smell the weeds sticking into his nose? Or did they only see a Chow Chow, with its aggressive reputation and fierce disposition?
I moved branches out of my way instead of ducking underneath them. The dog walked me. I stood and stepped with his ignorant permission. I followed his footfalls…one/two…three…four. Slow, arthritic, half mad. I had to keep my voice positive, “Come on, BUD! Good BOY…” I had to stop him from running into the street where cars would run him down without looking back. I watched his back leg shake. And I drowned in guilt. No, we couldn’t go that way. No. Even though you stood old and tired and did not have enough grass I could not let you go where you needed.
I tried to balance this dog on the edge of my finger like a glass figurine. My parents used to hold me up like this. They tried to keep me from looking at the ground where eventually we all crumble into fragments. I could see the ground now. Tubby teetered in my hands and I tried to be sturdy for him.
Some mornings, life was perfect. I was in her arms and we were laughing at nonsense, and we forgot about our empty bank accounts and our brittle loved-ones.
My life was blissful and it also wasn’t, and that was exactly like walking the dog. It was my choice to walk him, though I had no choice at all. I could feel the guilt and anger, or I could breathe in the sweet air of the trees.
When I moved in with Jen, my mother asked to see me at least once a month. She made Jen and me promise to visit on my godmother’s birthday. This was the day before the Super Bowl, only a few days after my father was hospitalized with a fleeting storm of sickness, and my grandmother was just recovering from open-heart surgery. My godmother, Bobby, turned fifty-nine. I watched them all teeter in the air with my new, grown-up, eyes.
We turned into my parents’ twisted driveway. We sat in the car, sweating in our coats, filling out birthday cards and tearing price tags off of a chocolate mousse cupcake. I looked at my parents’ house. I felt older as I said those words. “Parents’ house.” Not my house. No longer my driveway, no longer my broken double door with painted gold handles, no longer my wooden spiral staircase. My parents had slowly stopped asking me to come “home,” but instead to “visit.” Whatever words she used, my mother still cried.
We walked inside and our boots squeaked on the marble floor. We gave presents and smiles and hugs. There was a new clock on the mantel of the living room. It was made of light stained wood. It was too simple—no numbers. Only a pattern of light and dark wooden dots told the time.
We sat on one of the giant corduroy couches, and our first official visit began. I sat next to Jen. Her coat covered her lap, and I leaned against her as we all talked. Bobby leaned back on the blue couch, her short white hair brushed high, her strong legs sheathed in jeans, her feet covered in thick woolen socks. Her eyes were quick behind her round glasses, and I saw as she tried to smile and laugh, even though she dreaded her birthday. We did not talk about it. My mother sat on the other end of the couch, her legs turned underneath her, wearing one of her unremarkable solid colored cotton shirts. My dad twitched in his chair; the springs had sunken in from his presence. He pulled at his grey mustache.
They talked, about the week, about the snow, stories that were mostly forgotten, movies mostly remembered. I listened as if I did not belong there and I did not know them. I drifted out and saw the wrinkles in their faces and their words. They seemed different. Or maybe I was different. My mother paused halfway through her sentences while we waited in patient politeness. She cocked her head and asked me to repeat my words. Bobby talked deliberately, but became confused with names and stories. My father talked about his health. Bobby teased him, yelling at him from three feet away, “You are getting into the territory of old people! All you are talking about is your health!” My brother was still asleep in his bed, and it was almost two in the afternoon. My father stuttered in his defense.
I was twenty-three. I was living with my girlfriend. I had a credit card in my wallet with my name embossed in silver and could use phrases like “our apartment” and “our car” and “our bills” and “what should I make for dinner?” It happened all at once. I stood up straight, because all sixty-three inches of my bones were suddenly walking around alone. My parents were now made of porcelain and reading numberless clocks, and I belonged to a new family.
Somehow this was true. But it was also true that a few weeks before, I visited an urgent care center to be treated for bronchitis. I filled out the paperwork and signed my name and was just another coughing person. Unremarkable, just as I wished. A faceless voice called me behind tall double doors and I found myself in an expediting room. A man and a woman bounced around. The woman took my blood pressure and my heart pumped while the man asked how many drinks I had a week and if I smoked and what medications I was on.
The woman looked at me, braless under my sweatshirt, my hair short, sitting pale and patient, and asked me to verify my birth date. She apologized, saying she thought I was under eighteen. I was small again. I slumped down into my shoulders. Every day I took care of my family: my dog, my girlfriend. I walked through snow and tried to keep everything from crashing to the ground. But that nurse could not see that.
My mother crossed the living room to hug me. She began to cry. I asked her what was wrong.
“I just am having trouble understanding,” she said behind the giant teardrops.
“Is it Grandma? Daddy?”
She shook her head and poked her small finger into my stomach. I realized she still missed me. She missed me like a mother who sends her child off to summer camp for the first time. She wanted me home. And I knew she wouldn’t stop crying when I left.
She nodded and cried harder. I held her close and patted her back. I was twenty-three, I was living away from home, but I was also an underweight baby, ignorant, sad, and waiting for the world. I tried to be like the wooden clock on the mantel. I tried to be without numbers.
Two days later, I started early. I ate a breakfast of Special K Fruit and Yogurt cereal. I ate right out of the box, dropping some on my lap, my hand blindly searching for the sweet white bites of sugar. I made a mess, and no one could tell me not to.
I walked the dog before eight and we met no one on the road. Back home, the kitchen was still clean from the night before. I could not stop singing. The walls were thin and the apartment next to us was attached, but I felt alone. I sang “Danny Boy” and Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” I liked to sing songs where I could not quite hit the high notes. I sang in the bathroom to hear the echoes applauding me. I stood on the stairs. I walked slowly, feeling each carpeted step beneath my feet and breathing in my privacy. I peered over the banister, only to see Tubby staring up at me, brown eyes bright, wagging his tail as I sang “Danny Boy.” He could not hear well. He could not walk up the stairs any longer. But he heard my singing and he looked up at me and I swear he smiled. But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying, if I am dead, as dead I well may be, ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying, and kneel and say an “Ave” there for me… I sang as if it was a happy song. I sang as if I was both alone and in company. In each kind of singing, there were sweet notes of contentment.
As the weeks went by, whispers of warm air floated through Delaware. Vultures started to sunbathe in the mornings. The vultures were tall, black, bony women, wrapped in night-colored cloth, peering at me with apathy. I walked by them with Tubby, and they became familiar and comforting. One morning, Tubby and I passed two vultures that were sitting on the edge of a giant blue dumpster. I walked closer and closer, wondering if they would fly away, or if they felt safe in their flock. I soon found myself only three feet from being able to reach out and touch a black wing. I stared. They were beautiful. Their only movement was a slight turn of their heads. They looked near me, never at me. I stood in the world with my dog’s head buried in grass and smiled at the undertakers. Their eyes were deep, their heads only shriveled grey skin, but sleek and strong. “Hello,” I said. I kept walking, turning to look back at them. In that moment, I was nothing to them. I was too alive.
I grew up in my twenty-third winter. I stood alone and sang alone and remembered the true color of grass. Spring came as always. I watched the blades twitch in friendly warm winds. It was both a numberless spring and something new. Shadows melted away as the sun climbed.
ELIZABETH KAVITSKY is a twenty-three-year-old student pursuing her master’s degree in creative writing from Carlow University.
“You don’t have cancer,” my sister, Katie, says slowly, with certainty.
“Are you sure? A few weeks ago you thought you had a stroke because the side of your face felt numb,” I say. (The “stroke,” as it turned out, was a pinched nerve from spending too much time in front of her computer.)
“Yes, I’m sure. You’re the healthiest person I know.”
“No, I’m not. But thanks, I needed to hear that. I’ll talk to you later. Love you.” I hang up the phone. About twenty minutes later, I receive a text: “Stop worrying. You don’t have cancer.”
About once a month, my sister and I have a conversation just like this. Sometimes I think I have a brain tumor. Other times she’s hysterical and convinced that her “number’s up.” This anxiety about death is a constant undercurrent in our lives, and it’s grown stronger as we’ve both entered into our thirties. It lies in wait until one of us notices some minor change in her body or reads a news story about the latest health concern. Then it swiftly attacks, aided by an army of medical websites and online symptom-checkers, and the panic sets in. Whichever of us thinks she might have a fatal disease calls the other, and we take turns calming each other down. We are our own little support group, reassuring each other that we still have plenty of life left to live.
On an ordinary Monday in March, I step out at lunchtime to mail a couple of birthday cards. I pull my car into the post office parking lot and sigh when I see the sign that says it’s closed. As I drive through the suburban streets toward a nearby Starbucks, my thoughts begin to work their way from the cards on the passenger seat next to me to the upcoming anniversary of my own birth. I will soon turn thirty-three. It may not be one of the traditionally important birthdays like eighteen, when you’re officially an adult, or even thirty, when you realize you’re actually supposed to be an adult, but to me, thirty-three has its own significance. To me, it means I might only have one year left.
This fear originated in the summer of 1987. I was nine years old, and it had been a year of changes. We had moved from Minneapolis to Fargo, to a new house where I had my very own room and no longer had to share my personal space with my little sister. I was a junior bridesmaid in my aunt’s wedding, and I wore a grown-up pink satin and lace dress just like the one my mom, the matron of honor, wore. I was looking forward to a new school and new friends. I was about to be a fourth-grader, and life was good.
But on the morning of August 18, I woke up to chaos. My mom found my dad collapsed in our basement laundry room, and by the time I realized what was going on, an ambulance had already taken him to the hospital. It was too late; he died. Just two weeks earlier, we had celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday.
His death was sudden. One night he was there, and the next morning he was gone. At the time, the circumstances of his passing were mysterious to me, and I didn’t find out the official cause of his death—heart failure—until many years later. Because he didn’t have a history of heart trouble, my mom suspected radiation poisoning from treatments he’d received for Hodgkin’s Disease in the early 1970s. I was never given a clear explanation of his death, and I still don’t quite understand how it could have come about so quickly.
My memories of that day are fragmented, like I’m looking through a kaleidoscope in dim light with all the pieces jumbled around. I know my grandparents were there, and I clearly remember sitting on the edge of the tub in our guest bathroom with my grandma and sister while my mom was still at the hospital. My grandma, a farm wife whose need to control life led her to the point that she ironed washcloths so wrinkles could not infiltrate her linen closet, sat on the edge of the tub and told us we should be prepared in case he didn’t make it.
Then the scene swirls in my head to Katie and me sitting on the couch in our basement family room, crying as my mom explained to us that he wasn’t coming back. A pastor who lived in our neighborhood was standing next to her. We’d never seen him before, but apparently someone thought a strange pastor was better than no pastor at all. Then the scene shifts again as my dad’s parents arrived, my grandpa climbing the stairs in our house carrying his brown leather portable liquor cabinet. And my dad’s sister, who was six months pregnant with my cousin, arrived on our doorstep without her husband. Everything else about that day is a blur.
Since we had moved so recently, and many of my dad’s family and friends lived in the Twin Cities, we had two funerals. We drove the four hours to Minneapolis for one, which was held at the large Lutheran church where I had been baptized, attended preschool, and carried a palm frond to the alter with the children’s choir each year on Palm Sunday. The church was usually such a comfortable, friendly place, but this time, as I walked to the front of the sanctuary with my mom and sister, wearing my new white and navy funeral dress, I could feel the pitying stares of the people sitting in the rows of wooden pews. We made our way to the open casket in the front where my dad lay so still, as if he were sleeping. I reached my small hand up and touched his lips. Their coldness confirmed the reality of his death—although the figure in the casket looked like him, he was not actually there.
After the funeral, we drove north and did the whole thing all over again, this time at the church where my father and mother were married, in the small town of Rustad, Minnesota, where my grandparents lived. I think the universe has shown me a great kindness, acknowledging that two funerals for a parent might be just a bit too much for someone so young; I scarcely remember the event in Rustad at all.
When I think about scenes from his life, the memories develop like Polaroids in my mind. “Puff the Magic Dragon” will always be one of my favorite songs, because it reminds me of the times he would play the guitar and make up funny words to familiar songs. He would help my sister and me produce concerts on the stage of our fireplace hearth, providing the tape-recorded background music and audience applause as we sang doo-wop along with the Manhattan Transfer into our hairbrush microphones. Even though he had a job as a salesman, I picture him working with his hands. He had built that fireplace, as well as the deck on our house and a new roof on our lake cabin. He took pride in his work and in his workshop in our garage, but he didn’t say a word when he discovered I put Hello Kitty stickers all over his big red toolbox and wrote, “I love you Daddy” in black marker on his workbench.
But he wasn’t perfect. My dad abused alcohol in an attempt, I suppose, to deal with the remnants of a childhood with his own alcoholic father and enabling mother who dreamed of having a doctor in the family but instead wound up with a son in medical sales. He had a favorite bar near our house, Sandee’s, and our family would often have dinner there. I was allowed to feel like a grown-up with my own kiddie cocktail, and we would spread cheese on rye crisp crackers from a basket on the table while we waited for our food. The place was full of people, bright and cheerful on those nights, but I also remember visiting in the afternoon, when I knew we shouldn’t be there. On those days, it was cold, dark, and empty except for my dad and the bartender, and me sitting in a booth with my sister, impatiently waiting for him to finish up so we could go home.
Even from my limited childhood view, he and my mother didn’t seem to have a happy marriage, and many nights I’d wake up to him yelling and her crying. I alternated between hiding under the covers with my stuffed animals and venturing down the hall with the hope that if they saw me, they would stop. As much as I would like to only remember the happy times, I was too aware of the dynamics within our house to simply file away the more unpleasant memories in the archives of my brain.
But the most vivid memories of my childhood, and of my dad, are of trips to our two-room, yellow log cabin on Little Toad Lake in northern Minnesota, about an hour’s drive east of Fargo.
It’s at the lake where I spent the most time with my dad, and where I most felt his presence after he died. It’s where he taught me how to fish. I loved the quiet hours in our battered red and silver Lund boat, drifting among the lily pads as he showed me how to bait the hook and cast my line, and the thrill of riding in the bow with the wind in my hair as we sped back to the dock with our freshly caught dinner. It’s where he taught me how to build a campfire, stacking logs in a teepee formation with just the right amount of birch bark and newspaper underneath for kindling. And it’s where he showed me how to toast the perfect marshmallow for s’mores, helping me rotate them over the smoldering coals until they turned golden brown. To this day, I feel most at home—and most alive—outdoors, listening to the soft lapping of water against a shore, breathing in the earthy scent of pine, or getting lost in the dancing flames of a crackling fire.
About once every three years, I travel back to the Fargo area for a family reunion, and I take a trip out to the country cemetery where he’s buried. All of the grave markers are flat, which makes it easier for mowing and other maintenance, I’m sure, but more difficult for visitors to find individual plots. I always wander through the rows for a while, silently acknowledging the graves of other family members who have passed on, most of whom were in their eighties or nineties when they died, before finding my dad’s resting place. His stone is a small rectangle engraved with my birth flower, lilies of the valley.
The last time I visited the cemetery was for my grandmother’s funeral in 2009. My mom’s cousin Curt, who had been one of my dad’s best friends, told me a story I had never heard before about one of their many hunting trips.
“I wonder what he would think of me now,” I said, and then I laughed. “I’m a vegetarian.”
I realized how different my life is from the one he lived. While he would skin deer in the garage and freeze the meat for our winter meals or teach me how to gut a fish for dinner at the cabin, I can no longer bear the thought of killing animals for food. Although he could be great fun to be around, he also kept his feelings bottled up and, when he was drinking, would explode in fits of raging frustration. I love to relax with a glass of red wine or a few beers with friends, but I consciously limit myself. And I write to work out my emotions and practice yoga and meditation to ease stress. He was unhappy in his medical sales career, and, as far as I know, didn’t have the chance to explore something that truly interested him. I am lucky to be able to further my passion for writing through graduate school. As I worry about my own health and my own decisions, I can look back at his and learn from them.
On this sunny afternoon in March, I sift through these memories as I drive from the post office to the coffee shop, and I think about entering the last full year before my own thirty-fourth birthday. I wonder what my father might have done differently in that year if he had known it would be his last. Tears stream down my face as I finally understand just how young thirty-four really was—is—and just how much life he should have continued to live.
Did my dad understand on some level how much time he had left? Seeing him every day, it was difficult to notice the signs of his declining health, so physically apparent in photos from the summer of 1987. It’s clear to me now that he quickly went from tan and muscular to a gray, gaunt shadow of himself. What did he want to do with the rest of the life he never had? Was he happy with the choices he made along the way? I’ll never have the chance to ask.
In 2002, when I got married, I tied my dad’s wedding ring into the white satin ribbon of my bouquet so a little piece of him could walk down the aisle with me. My sister did the same at her wedding. Nearly twenty-five years after his passing, I continue to carry the memories of my dad with me. For good and bad, his choices have influenced mine, and his death has shaped my life.
I may always have those phone calls with Katie, needing her to help calm my fears. We don’t know if we’ll live to be thirty-four or one-hundred-and-four, but every birthday marks the gift of another year lived. It’s a struggle to stop all the worrying and just enjoy living. But I think of my dad, and I try.
LISA LANCE is a writer and communications manager living in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of the M.A. in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University, her articles and essays have appeared in publications including Baltimore Magazine, National Parks Traveler, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Seltzer, neutrons protons, Bmoreart, and Sauce Magazine. Learn more at www.lisalance.com.
My phone buzzes just as I drain hot pasta over the sink with Sam hanging on my leg and my husband talking about the mortgage or some electrical issues in our basement or something else house-related. I try to nudge Sam away from the boiling water and towards the dining room table—with a quick stop to wash his sticky little hands. I hear my phone again, impatiently beeping and buzzing, and I recognize that someone is trying to send me a message over Skype. It could be my mom or my brother, so I settle Sam, serve dinner, and quickly glance at the screen.
It’s not my mom. It’s not my brother. It’s Him. It’s a short message and it’s written in German and despite not having spoken one word of German in oh, about fifteen years, I know and understand every single word immediately. “I was at a charity event tonight and I don’t know why but I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
That’s it and I am nineteen again.
That’s it and I am back in his small, dark college dorm room, lightheaded from one too many fuzzy navels and giddy with excitement. I am sitting on the floor across from him, cross-legged, but all I can think about is how much I want to wrap my legs around him and pull him even closer. We are both wearing flannel, and Whitney Houston is playing in the background. A friend of ours stops by for a few minutes, but quickly realizes that he is interrupting whatever it is that’s about to happen. He laughs and rustles my hair as he gets up to leave, like he is happy for me.
I feel happy and confident when he finally kisses me—I’ve done this before, I know what comes next, but I am amazed that it is actually happening to me. I mean, he is so cool. So blond. So blue-eyed. So dreamy and smart and worldly and, oh my God, that accent. I am a chubby Jewish girl from Hungary—I don’t get swept off my feet by sparkly-eyed blonds. Ah, but I am now, and we quickly make our way to my room—my roommate is away for the weekend.
There is some confusion about whether I am a virgin or not, but after I reassure him that he is not about to deflower me, he is tender and hungry and talks to me in German the whole time. I wake up in the middle of the night, squished between him and the cold cement wall and spend the rest of the night in the lounge of my dorm building, watching bad TV and thinking that what I have just done was so cool and so grown-up and so sophisticated. And so very unlike me. I don’t see him leave in the morning, but he leaves a note on my bed. “You are a wonderful woman. See you soon.” And his initials: PD. I realize in a panic that I have no idea what the “D” stands for.
It’s March now, and he is graduating in two months. It quickly becomes clear that our night of passion does not guarantee me any privileges when it comes to seeing him, or talking to him, or eating together in the cafeteria. It does not gain me invitations to the cool parties he attends or to the spring dance. I think we go on one date maybe—a movie and an uncomfortable dinner.
It doesn’t matter. I am in love.
It’s easy to think back and say that I was young and stupid and confused sex with love. It was probably true. He was doing what handsome German students do during their study-abroad year. I was doing what bookish lonely girls do when said handsome German students pay attention to them. It is all so dull and obvious now, but it was so tragic back then and it would have stayed like that in my memory if our story had ended there.
But it didn’t. In fact, our story is still not over and that’s an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach every time his name shows up in my inbox.
After our (well, mostly my) tearful goodbye on a cool May morning before I headed back home to Budapest for the summer, I was convinced that I would never see him again. But for once, I was pleasantly surprised. He came to visit me that summer and the next, flew to the U.S. to see me at college several times. We talked on the phone and e-mailed all the time, and we met up at international airports for quick, furtive rendezvous in business lounges. Most memorably, he showed up at my office, unannounced, a month before my wedding.
Through all those years of not seeing each other much, we somehow became friends and moved on from our beginning as a tipsy one-night-stand. I think we both found it easier to open up when we were so far apart from each other, yet just a phone call away. The heart and the mind are so easy to reveal in a quick e-mail, a brief message, a silly card. There was always something easy between us, something natural and light-hearted. He was six years older than me, already weighed down by starting a career and figuring out what grown-up life is about, and I think for a long time—and maybe even now—I represented a carefree and happy time in his life. It was a comfort to both of us to recall our haphazard romance and to share a laugh about our youth and naïveté.
We never really talked about it, but obviously we both dated other people and I got married first. When he showed up at my office on a cold November morning, my heart stopped because again, this was not something that happened outside of movies—a scandal before my wedding? Did he come to take me away? To confess—finally!—that he is truly and madly in love with me? Did I even want that anymore?
He made no confessions. He came to say goodbye—I suspect that by then he was in a serious relationship with his future wife and had to put an end to whatever was going on between us. We held each other for a long time. He kissed me on the forehead and brushed his knuckles playfully across my chin before he left my apartment. I watched him walk down the long stairway leading to the street from my front door and for a moment I almost—almost—called him back. But I knew that would have been a mistake and that neither one of us were the kind of people who would do that before our weddings.
We stayed in touch for the next decade, exchanging a few phone calls, a few e-mails about birth, death, jobs—the big stuff of life. There was always so much tenderness and so much history in our exchanges, assuring us that we weren’t alone in navigating all of this uncharted grown-up territory. It felt like we were finally on equal footing—I didn’t feel like the chubby Jewish girl anymore, and he didn’t seem like that shiny, untouchable person I remembered him to be. We were just two people who knew each other from way back when, who built a friendship out of an ill-fated college romance.
So here we are now, almost thirteen years later. Here is this message on my phone, beeping and wanting attention. I want to give it attention, because it’s …well, because it’s Him. I am a practical person: I believe that love is a choice every single day; that marriage is a choice every single day. No matter how hot the passion is in the beginning, to sustain a life together the passion must cool and every morning must begin with a choice—to be present, to be kind, to be understanding, to iron shirts, to cook a favorite meal, to listen.
But whatever this other thing is, it is not my choice—and it never has been. Whatever pulled me to him on that March night when I was nineteen is still in me—irrational, unexplainable, unstoppable, and I assume never-ending. I have felt this stupid love-like-thing for this man for the past eighteen years of my life and I have no reason to think it will change.
The next morning he e-mails me to say that he is thinking about what the rest of his life holds for him, how to handle the responsibilities thrust upon him and still find happiness. “Right now, but also for the past few years I wish I had you by my side,” he writes. “For many reasons.”
I know that, years ago, a message like that would have had me in tears of joy. And I am in tears now too as I look at my iPad screen in the early morning darkness. But it’s not joy I feel. I want to scold him. I want to be angry. Has he not learned how easy it is to believe that life would be different—better, more exciting, sexier, easier—with someone else? Does he not know that if he did have me by his side, he would not write me lovelorn notes in the middle of the night? I would be the nagging wife who only has time for the kids and I would not be the young love that got away.
I turn off the iPad and try to go back to sleep. As I drift off, I think about how I don’t want our story to be a sad one. I don’t want it to be about regret, or the road not taken, or opportunity not seized. I don’t want it to be about making the wrong choice or picking the wrong person. I am not sure what our story is about, but I can’t let it be about those things. I want it to be about possibility, about love that endures in whatever shape it appears in life. I want it to be about making a choice and sticking with it.
I want it to be about that little corner of the heart where I tuck away what I treasure most: an old friend with sparkly blue eyes, the smile of my baby, the reassuring weight of my husband in bed next to me.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN was born in Budapest and lived there until she turned eighteen. She became a “full-grown-person” over the past nineteen years spent in the U.S. She lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and her four-year-old son. Her day job is in publishing, but she spends all of her free time between four and five a.m. every morning imagining that she is a writer.