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Friendship, Guest Posts

Confidentially

May 2, 2024
Jill

At the checkout counter of the produce store near campus, Jill slipped a copy of The Star into her basket along with the apples, oranges and blueberries she’d picked out.  I was right behind her with three containers of flavored yogurt in hand.  A professor who taught logic, ethics and women’s studies, Jill relaxed by reading celebrity gossip, horoscopes and outlandish tales of alien visitations.  She took a moment to tuck The Star’s screaming headlines underneath the fruit in her brown paper bag, out of sight so no other colleague might glimpse her clandestine vice.

*  *  *

I was fantastically lucky to be paired with Jill for team teaching my first year as a college instructor.  She demonstrated how to lecture in a competent, unflappable tone while leaving space for students to express doubts, incomprehension or challenges.  Whenever I asked her how to resolve a problem with a student, she offered sympathy and common sense.  Despite the age gap, our rapport quickly ripened into a friendship closer than sisters.

Slightly taller than me, with fluffy white-blond hair and a trim figure, she dropped the professional air outside of the classroom.  Over lunch at the Faculty Club or out to dinner downtown, she would primp her hair while her eyes roved around the room, trying to pick out men who might represent prospects.  Jill was divorcing her husband, whom I never met because he ran a particle physics lab halfway across the country.  “It wasn’t the commuting that doomed the marriage,” she confided.  “He didn’t want kids but wouldn’t say so, and now I’m almost over the hill to have a baby.”

*  *  *

Jill often started conversations with me with “Don’t you dare ever tell anyone, but…”  Yet she loved to dish about colleagues – both those she’d known for years and those who started at the college when I did.  “What do you think Mona’s secret is?” she asked me, for instance. “I’m studying her.”  Mona, a new sociology instructor, had two princely professors plus an old boyfriend vying for her affections.  Intensely friendly, Mona had green eyes, springy yellow hair, a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and an eight-year-old daughter from a failed marriage.

“It’s not a matter of technique, Jill,” I told her.  “And remember, if you’re looking for someone willing to be a father…”  She nodded before I finished the sentence, but she kept preening and interviewing with her eyes any single or divorced man in the vicinity.

*  *  *

That Thanksgiving and Christmas, I celebrated with Jill’s family.  My own parents had just moved abroad.  Her father, who taught at a nearby university, said grace at a festive table with Jill’s fairy-tale-sweet mother and her three brothers and their wives – all highbrow professionals whose crosstalk, kidding and in-jokes never stopped.

The following Thanksgiving, when I went into her parents’ room to add my coat to a pile on their bed, a framed photo on their dresser caught my eye.  Lined up from Brian, the youngest brother, at about eight, to Jill, the oldest at seventeen or so, were Matt, Michael and a girl I didn’t recognize.  Matt walked in then with jackets in his arms, and I pointed at the photo.  “Who’s the other girl?” He set the jackets down, replied simply “Oh, that’s Sandra” and left.

*  *  *

Jill didn’t find attractive any of the barely employed, artsy men I dated.  So we could natter like teen pals of different sexual orientations about our romances, flops and crushes.  I confessed that I’d had fantasies about a professor I met with weekly for an independent study course back when I was a sophomore.  This mustached guy with dirty blond hair that often seemed literally dirty had been in her graduate student cohort.  “Dan?” she hooted.  “Did you ever notice his crooked teeth?”

“Listen, if I tell you something about Rob’s sexuality,” she said one day – Rob being her physicist ex-husband, “do you promise never to put it in any of your books?”  Jill knew my writing ambitions backwards and forwards and brought them up this way a lot.  I wouldn’t promise, and though she seemed bursting to spill this revelation, she held it back.

*  *  *

On a snowy night when Jill and I were relaxing at my apartment, I finally broached the mystery of the photo in her parents’ bedroom.  “Who’s Sandra?”  I asked.  Jill paused for many moments before answering.  “My sister,” she said, as quiet as a prayer.  “She killed herself when I was in graduate school.”  In the moment, I didn’t know what to say, realizing that the boisterous family that had warmly taken me in actually held an aching gap.  I never learned much more than that, though I got the impression that Sandra was why Jill had been in therapy for years.

Another winter, Jill called to let me know she was on her way home early from a conference because her mother was desperately ill with pneumonia.  Looking for her mom in the hospital, I bumped into a classmate from college who’d become a lung specialist.  When I told him who I was there to see, he looked down at the floor.  Despite the savvy signified by his white coat and stethoscope, he couldn’t save her.  Another secret surfaced when I asked Jill where the funeral would take place.  “The Mormon church near the university,” she told me.  I blinked.  She’d never mentioned that she, her brothers and sister had grown up Mormon.

*  *  *

Apart from academics, we peered into the window of Eastern spirituality together.  Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki gave us catch phrases that we sprinkled into our gabfests.  “Keep don’t-know mind,” I would intone when Jill bemoaned again not having a baby.  “Don’t serve your thoughts tea,” she would quote me when I was wrestling with a housemate problem.  When Korean Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi visited the college, his riffs of snappy, ironic paradoxes left me awestruck.  Jill gravitated more to a hushed Tibetan tulku, the scholarly sweetie of a friend of hers.

I introduced Jill to Est, an Americanized version of Zen that engineered a two-weekend enlightenment in a packed hotel ballroom.  Though we went through the Est training separately, we jointly attended follow-up seminars.  We furiously scribbled in stapled lined notebooks lists of issues we’d never resolved and goals for the next one, five, ten and twenty years.  For me the golden orb was my novel published to critical acclaim, while for Jill a “little bitty baby” was the fervent dream.

*  *  *

Through an improbable series of events, my new husband’s sister, a doctor, delivered a baby that the mother left in the hospital and that Jill adopted and adored.  Jasmine grew from a picture-cute baby and toddler to a reticent schoolgirl to a defiant teen while Jill juggled single motherhood and teaching.  Over the years, junk piles multiplied in their apartment, consisting of stockpiled cans and toilet paper, knick-knacks purchased on a whim, every draft of papers Jill struggled to finish writing and every book Jill ever bought.

My husband and I now lived 100 miles apart from Jill and Jasmine, but we got together often.  Since their place had too much clutter to host guests, we met at a nearby home-style Chinese restaurant, with high-spirited chatter and fun distributing shrimp, broccoli and scallion pancakes to everyone’s plates with chopsticks.  At our house in the country, Jill would duck out to a meditation center for the afternoon while Jasmine complained about mosquitoes persecuting her when I took her out for a hike.

*  *  *

By the time lung cancer made Jill weak and almost housebound, her hoarding left just skinny paths in their hallway.  Only Jasmine, when she flew home from college, Jill’s brother Matt and I were allowed in the apartment.  My husband wanted to visit Jill with me, but she refused.  “He’s too critical,” she explained, meaning critical of the mess she’d never managed to tame.  I gave her a skeptical look.  “He never said so,” Jill returned fiercely, “but I could see it clearly in his eyes.”  I’d kept to myself my worry that her home was a fire trap, as well as a burden for Jasmine.

Jill and I had once talked about the physiology of dying.  My father died while my mother, my siblings and me were cocooning his bed, and afterwards I gave Jill an hour-by-hour description.  “There really is a death rattle, and I swear I saw his soul leave his body,” I told her as she listened, intent, to each detail.  “One moment he looked like my dad, and whoosh, the next moment whatever made him him was gone.”  Though I never learned whether her wishes were followed, Jill left instructions for passages from the Tibetan Book of the Dead she wanted read aloud just after she died to help her detach from this world and enter the next.

*  *  *

Early in her career, Jill wrote about a logical puzzle posed by Bertrand Russell.  Is the present King of France bald?  Since 1789, of course, there has been no King of France.  According to the sacrosanct Law of the Excluded Middle, for every statement, either it or its negation had to be true.  Yet neither “The present King of France is bald” nor “The present King of France is not bald” seemed correct.  Jill critiqued the complicated theory of descriptions that Russell invented to smooth away this intellectual crinkle.

Now that Jill has been gone for almost fifteen years, I wrestle with a similarly knotty dilemma.  Considering her secrecy and her touchiness about criticism, I wonder: Do I hurt her by writing about her?  She’s a character not just here but also in a memoir I’m laboring over.  Alive, she would detest having her confidences and secrets disclosed, despite my having changed names.  The whole time I knew her I wasn’t even sure of her age – a fact she staunchly kept locked up.

As with the present King of France, though, there’s no “her” now that I can hurt.  I don’t believe Jill exists now in a spiritual realm or is waiting someplace to be reborn.  In my mind, I’m clear of betrayal.  But as Jill’s idiosyncrasies showed, not everything in life is rational.  It comes down to this: I loved her and I knew her quirks.  And I miss my friend.

The author of 17 nonfiction books as well as essays in the New York Times Magazine, Ms., Next Avenue and NPR, Marcia Yudkin advocates for introverts through her newsletter, Introvert UpThink (https://www.introvertupthink.com/). She lives in Goshen, Massachusetts (population 960).

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Guest Posts, parenting

Twenty-Three Loads of Laundry

January 13, 2024
room

A mid-afternoon text message from my son flashes on my screen.

“Are you free to talk for a second?”

He’s a sophomore at a small liberal arts college half an hour away from the Connecticut suburb where he was raised, and where his dad and I live separately but on the same street, as we have done since our divorce five years ago.

At the sight of the brief text my heart skips a beat. I have come to learn that usually, when my son reaches out it’s because he needs me, emotionally. He’s a super sensitive soul and an empath, so I worry easily he’s sad in some way, although generally I take it in stride since it seems the waxing and waning of existential blues experienced by a young adult is par for the course.

“Hey mamma, what do you do whenever you’re feeling depressed?”

There’s a slow rush to my head, hopeful by his seemingly upbeat “hey” but jarred by the word “depressed.” I know depressed. I remember suffering as a young adult walking around in a kind of grey daze from poor nights’ sleep, alternating between rapid heartbeats accompanied by cold sweats and waves of grating anxieties, obsessing about, well, most tings. But it usually passed after a week or two, and these occasional bouts diminished in my mid-twenties, after I got dogs (first), then children (later).

I swipe the screen on my phone and my fingers start their familiar tap dance across the miniscule keyboard.

“That depends how depressed,” I begin. “Let me call you this evening and we’ll talk about it, ok?”

Then I continue in rapid succession,

“Hang in there.”

“It will pass.”

“In the meantime, be good to yourself and trust that it will get better.”

But I know deep down that only if he’s lucky will it get better by itself, and that if not, it may be a much longer journey. I had watched my closest friend’s husband spiral down the path of mental illness, and it taught me not think lightly of calls for help.

“<3333,” my son answers.

I switch to the emoji keyboard and send him back three read hearts.

Before the back and forth ends, his string of short texts forms the narrative of a young man asking for help:

“Between you and me I’m in a bit of a rut right now.”

“Can you talk?”

“Can I call you around 4pm before I start my work shift?”

We touch base later that day and the conversation is just vaguely about his state of mind and more about daily stuff. We agree to meet for lunch the next day, a proposition my son rarely turns down since it means a free, non-cafeteria meal at one of the many delicious restaurants in his college town, with a side of helpful mamma-conversation.

Luckily, he is open and likes to share, if I can just pin him down. We both enjoy these moments of mother-son tête-à-têtes; one of the perks of having your child go to college close to home.

Zooming down the highway a sunny fall afternoon the next day, I call to let him know that I’m there in five minutes.

“Should I pick you up from work?” I offer, knowing he’s just ending his lunch shift at a campus restaurant.

“Nah, that’s ok,” he answers, and I hear him breathing heavy and figure he is walking.

“I’m already almost back at my place.”

I wonder if he is hurrying home to pick up any telling paraphernalia in his room (cigarette packs, bong, condoms…).

“I’m just gonna take a quick shower,” he adds.

“You can wait outside in the car, and I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

I resign myself to a longish wait; I know his sense of time isn’t mine. Parked in front of his house, I wait for a while, but then get antsy and decide to go in. The door is unlocked, and I first take a seat in the kitchen he and his roommates share, noticing the door leading to his room is slightly ajar. He’s in the shower upstairs, most likely taking his time to get rid of the cigarette smell he knows I don’t like.

Against my better judgment, I get up and slowly push open the door to his room. From the scene that reveals itself it’s clear that something’s off. This isn’t a regular college kid’s messy room. There’s garbage scattered on the floor, cigarette butts in paper cups, dirty cereal bowls piled under his low coffee table, many with soured, crusty and milky cereal remnants; partially empty cans, cups, and bottles lined up along the edge of the bottom of the couch, and dirty laundry dropped on the floor and furniture, pell-mell. The hangers that used to hold his clothes are tossed to the side haphazardly, his closet ravaged, and the dust on his coffee table has accumulated over so long it now looks more like a grey furry carpet littered with coins, lighters, strands of tobacco and empty soda cans. I take a deep breath and notice myself mutter “Oh sweetie…”

When I hear him come down the stairs, I quickly slip back to the kitchen and pretend that I haven’t seen a thing, because I don’t know how to start the conversation right then and there. I need to think about how to tread lightly, not to put him on the defensive.

“Hi mamma! How are ya?”

A bath towel draped around his waist, he tries to sound cheerful and gives me a peck on the cheek before disappearing into his room. His hair is overgrown, and he has let his scraggly facial hair sprout in all directions.

“Just gimme a sec!” he calls out from behind the door.

I hear him scramble, probably to find something, anything, that is clean enough to wear.

On the way to the restaurant, we catch up on this and that, but no mention of his state of mind or what I had witnessed in his room.

Once seated across from each other in a cozy booth with green leather seats, we order our drinks and food, and the midday sun shines through the window warming our spot like a caring and encouraging embrace. We fall silent for a minute, and when I look up, I notice his eyes tearing up.

“Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling, honey?”

He doesn’t answer and I can tell he is fighting back tears. He lets out a big breath, more like a resigned, quivery sigh, and leans forward reaching his arm across the table, his hand looking for mine. My boy is not in a good place.

I grab the big, warm, strong hand of my former heavyweight-wrestling-champion-and- football-team-son, the English-and-sociology-major-uber-empath-sensitive-musician-son, the son who prefers to get lost in books and music, much more than huddling in testosteroney powwows with fellow athletes.

His size made him a coveted athlete and joining in sports made the transitions easier from a small Jewish elementary and middle school to public high school and then college. It also gave him an immediate sense of belonging – which reduced his social unease.

Now, he had quit football and wrestling in what I saw as a brave act of being true to himself, but he had not yet started new extracurricular activities, like the music or writing he wanted to develop, things that would help build a new network of peers, of poetry, of inspiration.

To make things worse, his fraternity, where he had been the house manager and where he had lived and worked over the summer, was unexpectedly closed by campus administration after a troubled year for campus fraternities. This meant that just as the fall semester was staring, he and about twenty-five other students were scrambling for places to live, and he was placed in a senior house with four Asian foreign students who were all business majors. Great kids, but not necessarily a good fit, socially.

Add to this the fact his first significant romantic relationship had ended in a dramatic way the prior semester. While he and his girlfriend were in NYC for a weekend, his girlfriend had a panic attack and was evacuated by her dad, leaving my son alone and confused in the AirBnB apartment they had rented.

Difficult experiences had accumulated during the year, and the emotional fallout was significant.

In the restaurant, he finally begins to speak through his tears. But when he tells me that everything feels hopeless, I realize it isn’t just a mild case of the blues. Holding on tight but tenderly to his hand with both of mine, I look at him and tell him how I too, had struggled with those kids of emotions when I was his age. I recall the feeling of not being myself, watching helplessly from the outside while the shell of me would suffer quietly, a feeling he could identify with. I tell him I am happy he is asking for help, how much I love that he is open and shares with me, and that we’ll find a way through this together.

When I add that I kind of knew the lay of the land because I had peeked into his room, he quietly groans.

“Let’s face it honey,” I add, trying my best to sound positive, “I’ve seen it all!” I smile.

“Now let’s take some small steps to pick up the pieces and make you whole and happy again.”

He tries to smile and thanks me for being me and for being there with him; words that make a mamma’s heart swell with tenderness. I try not to show how helpless I feel. How in that moment, I wish I could lift his sadness and hopelessness from him and carry that heavy burden for him, stuff it into my body, at any cost.

“I know this may seem superficial,” I begin, “but taking care of a few obvious external things can be one small step toward dealing with the situation. Let’s stop in at the barber next door and just clean this mess up,” I say, motioning to his head and face. We both chuckle at the obvious double meaning of “this mess.”

He groans again and mutters “fine,” knowing that he is in my hands now. Soon he is draped in a black smock at the young, hip, Latino barber’s shop next door, and the two of them are discussing music while the buzzer runs its course. I take the opportunity to step outside and search the student health website of the college for resources. My fingers are jittery from the heightened emotions, but I feel unstoppable now; a hyper-alert lioness pushed into assertive protective mode for her wounded cub.

Before he emerges clean-shaven and already looking less weighed down, I’ve booked him an appointment with the school nurse who can refer him to the school psychologist. I have also written an email to the dean in charge of mentoring his class, sharing with her that right now is a time my son could use an on-campus supporter, asking her to reach out and follow up with him.

In the car on the way back to campus I say I want to come back to his room to help him clear the disaster zone. He doesn’t try to stop me since at this point, he has realized I will not relent, and he has no energy to resist.

In his room, I discover that he has been stuffing dirty laundry into huge garbage bags and shoved them under his bed for what must have been months. We pull so much stuff out from there that even he is amazed at what we find, and laughs. It warms my heart to see him smile. In the cleanup process, we hug and chitchat while I try my best to sound upbeat and positive.

But on the inside, I feel scared for my son, and humbled by how easy it has been to lose sight of how he really was doing, when our only way of staying in touch had been reduced to texting or Facebook messaging, since he had never been that good about returning actual phone calls, and especially not lately.

Leaving campus, my car is stuffed to the gills with humongous black, plastic trash bags filled with dirty laundry, in addition to his towering plastic hamper, bedding, and other miscellaneous items that clearly need to be washed.

We agree that I will come back the next day with his clean laundry, and with the cleaning equipment we will need to tackle the grime in his room. We talk a little about how once he’ll feel better, he’ll have to get used to his dirty laundry not being miraculously airlifted for mommy-service; that a regular, weekly run to the laundromat will be an added value for keeping up a stable sense of well-being.

Schlepping the masses of dirty laundry up to my apartment from the garage is an experience in itself. The bulky bags are so heavy that in my physical exertion – and probably because I’m finally alone and can let my emotions do their thing – I burst into tears. I feel sad, upset, and even guilty, that my boy has been hurting without me knowing. As I empty the bags on the floor in my living room, a colorful mountain forms and soon spills over and becomes more of a mountainous range. Picking through the laundry I almost gag from the emanating fetid smell of sour, old stains, spills, and dirty socks. I remind myself how lucky I am that after all my son is alive, although depressed, remembering the people I know who have lost children to mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse. He is alive and he will get better. He had still gone to class and kept his work schedule. These are good signs, I tell myself.

Twenty-three loads of laundry later, stacks of neatly folded clothes, sheets, and towels form colorful towers around my apartment. T-shirts, pants, and sweaters, underwear, socks, and athletic wear all sorted on the family couch, on his old bed, on the dining room table and kitchen bar.

Aside from his clothes, I have also pulled out from the dryer a little black dress probably left behind by a female friend or perhaps his ex-girlfriend, several cheap plastic lighters, the kind they give out for free at the convenience store (he has told me), and a few condom wrappers. I don’t flinch but am just relieved to find the traces of a normal college experience.

The next day we carry all the clean laundry from my car back to his room, but not until after we give his room a top to bottom cleaning, using the arsenal of cleaning equipment and spray bottles I have brought from home. When his room is finally transformed to an uncluttered space where we can find a clear spot to sit and even see the coffee table surface, sans fur, a mild fresh scent of cleaning products lingers in the air, and it feels as though the darkest part of a cloud has lifted.

We light a scented candle and sit down next to each other on the black leather hand-me-down loveseat, and as I lean back and sigh, my back aching from all the hard work, he wraps his arm around my shoulder, kisses the side of my head. A string of red chili pepper lights shimmers from the window with a warm glow, and a few family photos on the ledge of his bookshelf show familiar faces, smiling down at us. He repeats how nice it looks and seems genuinely relieved to at least get out from under the material weight of the signs from his difficult period.

Finally, we pop the lids off the small round clear plastic containers of chocolate chip cookie dough we picked up from a café on campus. Our plan was to have them as rewards once our herculean efforts were completed, and now we enjoy our well-deserved sweet sticky treats, licking our fingers clean, and gaze around a cozy room.

*

In the days and weeks that follow, we stay in touch more frequently than usual, and I sometimes have to nudge him to remember his appointments and ask him about how they have been. I try to suggest that taking walks, joining a yoga group, or making efforts to eat a healthier diet might be things that would help him feel better and stay better, but in the end, I think he’ll do things the way it works for him. I doubt eating more veggies and chanting “OM” are among them.

Slowly but surely, he begins to talk about “normal” things again, like volunteering for inner-city kids as a music teacher or social events that he looks forward to.

Eventually it becomes clear that he has emerged from the tunnel and that he is on a brighter path and in better spirits. He begins to enjoy his classes, his professors, and his work. He is back to his old self; I can hear it in the energy of his voice, and I am immensely relieved.

He’s a junior now, and it’s almost a year and many conversations later when another text from him lights up the home screen on my phone. It’s been maybe a week, or perhaps two, of little to no contact:

“Hey, can I call you a little later today?”

“Sure. U ok?”

“Yeah I’m good, just had something I wanted to consult with you about.”

I feel a fleeting rush of relief as my heart swells the kind of unconditional and primordial love mothers have for their kids, and I text back:

“Sure honey. Let’s talk tonight, ok? Miss you and love you! <3”

Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway who lives in Maine. She holds an MFA from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program (2020) and a PhD in French from UCONN (2007). Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Lilith, Full Grown People, Tablet Magazine, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, and Brevity, among other places, as well as in two anthologies, INK by Hippocampus Books (Spring 2022) and STAINED: an anthology of writing about menstruation, (Querencia Press, 2023).

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Guest Posts, language

Bad Bitch

January 7, 2024
bitch graffiti art

On Friday afternoons I work at Bluestocking, a used bookstore in Hillcrest, a popular San Diego neighborhood and the center of the LGBT community. Next door is Breakfast Bitch, a relatively new and trendy brunch/lunch destination, people always massed around the entrance waiting for tables. Their schtick, which people seem to love, is that waitstaff call guests bitches, as in “Can I get you bitches something to drink?” Every birthday celebration, and there are many every day, is broadcast with a raucous rendering of the hip hop song “Birthday Bitch.” I hear it, again and again, blasting out their door and into ours—“One time for the birthday bitch, Two times for the birthday bitch, Three times for the birthday bitch…”—and two things happen. One, I start wondering about the reappropriation of the word “bitch.” Two, I bristle. I wince. I should be inured to it by now, but the reverse is true; it makes me increasingly uncomfortable.

From the Old English bicce, female dog, “bitch” is a term of contempt applied to women since the 15th century. Originally to suggest rampant sexuality, dogs in heat, it morphed into women behaving badly—according to men and more recently to other women as well. Synonyms include floozy, harlot, hussy, slut, tart, tramp, vamp, wench, whore, and more, including witch, hellion, and shrew. A bitch was aggressive and belligerent, controlling and out of control. Threatening. Off the leash.

When the second wave of the women’s movement came hurtling into the sixties, feminists began to reclaim the word, to make the designation a point of pride: a bitch was strong, independent, confident, assertive. Finally speaking up, sticking up for herself. Attorney and activist Jo Freeman published the Bitch Manifesto in 1968, saying that “A Bitch takes shit from no one. You may not like her, but you cannot ignore her.” Bitch magazine launched in 1996, calling itself a “feminist response to pop culture.” A Ms. magazine contributor in 2011 called on women to celebrate their bitchiness, and Gloria Steinem suggested in 2015 that “when somebody calls you a bitch, say thank you.” In a 2008 Saturday Night Live skit, Tina Fey observed that people were calling Hillary Clinton a bitch. “She is,” she said. “And so am I. Bitches get stuff done!”

I bought into the concept that women could be mean and merciless; we could be ruthless leaders like Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher; we could stand our ground in any situation—we could be bitches. This was equality too. One of the few movie lines I ever memorized is from the adaptation of Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to” was uttered three times, by three different characters, all fending off the patriarchy, grasping at empowerment.

Over the course of the 20th century, the word’s usage has expanded, flipped sideways and upside down. It’s no surprise that a slur against women would be adopted by men—prisoners, gay men, macho hipsters—as an attack against weak or dependent men, sissies and softies. But in this context, the term ricochets. Rather than unmanageable women, bitches are women (and men) who do others’ bidding. In an episode of House of Cards, Remy, a Black lobbyist, and Jackie, a Congresswoman, are on opposing sides, but he reminds her that they’re both beholden to higher-ups, both someone’s bitch.

Atlantic magazine examined the trend in a 2015 article, “Meet the New Bitch: The curious evolution of a slur.” It noted that Ernest Hemingway applied the word to women, notably Gertrude Stein, who held her own against him, but also to bad editors and Spanish dictators, instances in which a badly behaving man has traditionally been called a son of a bitch. In the TV series Breaking Bad, the character Jesse Pinkman says “bitch” 54 times, sometimes as an insult or in anger, sometimes in camaraderie or as an expression of triumph. Sometimes he pronounces it in two syllables (“bi-atch”), and sometimes it serves as a meaningless filler, the way people use and abuse the word “like.” In hip-hop culture and music it’s been used to denigrate women who step out of line, while Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and others have rebounded with “bad bitch” songs and memes to champion strong, independent woman, echoes of the 1968 Bitch Manifesto.

And yet. We’re told on many fronts that “bitch” is cool. That women can take pride in owning their inner bitch. But the meaning hasn’t really changed. The word is still used primarily to attack women who threaten the status quo, women in positions of power, as when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was called a “fucking bitch” by a white male colleague on the floor of the House of Representatives. It reeks of sexism, its hatred and misogyny undisguised. Women use it among themselves as an expression of support and sisterhood, but they still use it against each other too. Remember when Barbara Bush referred to Geraldine Ferraro as something that “rhymes with rich,” later insisting that she meant “witch.” I’ve been guilty of it myself. My daughter and I refer to a woman who wronged us, deeply and intentionally, as “the bitch.” Nothing else seems to adequately express our bitterness, but I cringe when I hear myself say it. I’d love to believe we can reappropriate language and wash it clean of its taint, but the rotten-egg stench clings to it.

I count the word “bitch” 35 times in this essay. An early-draft reader suggested substituting “the B word” or “the 5-letter noun,” but sometimes repetitiveness is necessary to hammer home a point. It was the frequent and irritating reprise of the birthday song at the restaurant next to the bookstore and my gut-level response to it that finally exposed my ambivalence, cemented my antipathy.

A former boyfriend once, decades ago, called me a bitch during an argument. It was the first time anyone had ever done that, and there was nothing ambiguous about his meaning. I was outraged. “How dare you?” I said, or “Don’t you ever call me that.” Or I may have called him a bastard, equally inappropriate and, when taken literally, also an insult to women, like “son of a bitch.” But wait—I was finally standing up to him, which was why we were arguing in the first place. There was a long period when I rehashed the incident and our subsequent breakup, wished I’d countered with a smartass response: “You say that like it’s a bad thing!” But I was offended then, and I’d be just as offended today.

Alice Lowe writes about life, language, food and family. Her essays have been widely published, including this past year in Big City Lit, Borrowed Solace, FEED, Drunk Monkeys, Midway, Eat Darling Eat, Eclectica, Fauxmoir, Idle Ink, Superpresent, and Dorothy Parker’s Ashes. Her work has been cited twice in Best American Essays and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice has authored essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work and is a regular contributor at Blogging Woolf. She lives in San Diego, California, and posts at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.

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Guest Posts, Relationships

The Blue Sponge

October 30, 2023
blue sponge

I inherited a blue sink-side sponge and the chore of washing up at the age of 15, when my mother left my father to live in an apartment on the other side of town.

It wasn’t an especially laborious job—we had a dishwasher. But some pans needed extra help. Caked-on macaroni and cheese. Chicken and dumplings. High-calorie Southern comfort foods prepared by a woman my father hired. The kind of food my mother never allowed. We were all watching her weight, and mine.

Besides being ineffectual for scrubbing, the blue sponge squicked me out. Bits of food clung to it, penetrating its pores. I tried to get it clean, but fragments remained. There it sat, by the side of the sink, mocking my incompetence.

This wasn’t my only incompetence. I sensed early on my mother always had one foot out the door, stunned by the reality of marriage and two toddlers at the age of 20. An overindulged child-woman ill-prepared to care for anyone but herself, and barely even that.

I did everything I could to make her stay. I made no demands. I super-sensed her needs and moods. Allowed her the spotlight—her need to be special. But she left anyway, and an uneasy silence prevailed as my father, brother and I rebuilt lives to fill her absence.

Really, when I looked forward to my future, my kitchen incompetence wasn’t that big a deal. I never planned to be a typical suburban homemaker. If I imagined any future at all, it was that of the caricature of the reclusive spinster living with seven dogs.

I never wanted children. The level of certainty was 99.9%.  I couldn’t bear the idea of continuing the cycle of damage to a child the way I was damaged—not maliciously, but through ignorance and the self-centeredness that comes from a parent’s stunted emotional development.

One day I was in Baby Gap buying a shower gift. I was 38. I glided from display table to hanging rack, enchanted by the tiny garments. One-piece things I later learned were called onesies. Little pants with ingenious snaps down the inside of the legs. Tiny matching skullcaps with tufted knots on top, all in the softest cotton knits. I selected the most adorable outfit, presented it at the checkout, and began to cry.

I wouldn’t say I set a conscious intention to find a husband and make a child, but I believe I unconsciously shifted in that direction. I had devoted years of therapy with the goal of becoming more functional, more whole. Maybe some part of me was beginning to think it was possible.

I met my future husband, Michael, walking our dogs at St. Mary’s-by-the-Sea along Black Rock Harbor in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had seen him before, walking with a woman and pushing a two-year-old in a stroller. I found out later they were his sister-in-law and nephew.

After we dated for a while, I confessed my lack of desire to have children, but he didn’t seem to care—or maybe he thought I’d change my mind.

When I was 39, Michael and I returned home from a whirlwind trip to Arkansas—for Thanksgiving dinner and an introduction to my family—and then a three-hour drive south to visit an old childhood friend and her husband.

My friend and I discussed my childbearing ambivalence.

“He’s wonderful!” she gushed, basing her statement on his interactions with her own children. “He’ll help you.”

She spoke from the view of the already-initiated parent, who knows that rearing children often means you just step up and put one foot in front of the other. That there’s no magic involved—only duty…and love. My desire finally overpowered my fears. I decided to believe her.

On our flight back to Connecticut, Michael and I discussed getting busy ASAP because at our age, we realized it might take a while. We conceived the night we got back.

Around Christmas, after taking three pregnancy tests, all positive, I called my father with the happy news.

“Call me back when you’re married.” He slammed down the phone.

Stung by my father’s reaction, I felt compelled to contact my mother even though we had long been estranged and spoke only infrequently.  When she heard the news, I was surprised to see that her excitement paralleled my own. This was the encouragement I needed to resume contact. We started phoning regularly. She was the first witness to my first trimester morning sickness when she called one evening and Michael reported that I was throwing up dinner and couldn’t take the call.

When Ian was a newborn, she came to visit during the torrential rains from Tropical Storm Floyd. She cooked and washed dishes and did laundry and let me nap while I recuperated from my c-section and tried to pump milk out of breasts scarred from breast reduction surgery. I knew in advance I would likely have trouble, because of the surgery, but I wanted to try anyway.

When Ian was nearly two, he and I took a road trip to visit her in Virginia Beach. One night I knelt in front of the bathtub, laughing with Ian as I watched him splash with his toys. I turned, feeling her presence in the doorway, watching us.

“You’re a good mother,” she said.

I immediately understood this was her way of saying she knew she hadn’t been. Of apologizing. Making amends. I grabbed onto it. I knew it was a gift not many get.

A year later, I was again in her Virginia Beach apartment, this time without Ian. I had come to say goodbye, a job that needed all my attention. I was in the small kitchen with my sister-in-law, Sam. Sam had nursed her sister through cancer and her eventual death. She knew what to do.

Another blue sponge sat by the sink.

“Lord, look at this raggedy old thing”. She picked it up and laughed at its bedraggled appearance.

I said, “It’s probably the same one we had when she lived at home with us.”

We dissolved into a giddy laughter that skirted the edge of hysteria, fueled by our lack of sleep from 3 a.m. alarms, set to rouse us to administer pain medication.

I felt a twinge of guilt, laughing at the expense of my mother, who was dying in the next room.

I had never seen anyone dying of cancer. Witnessed its brutality. But what surprised me was seeing her courage in coping with it all. On the way to chemo, stopping the car so she could get out and vomit by the side of the road. And then promptly after chemo, nausea somehow abated, indulged her yen for chocolate milkshakes, which she never permitted herself before she became sick. The once vain woman I’d known refused a wig for her bare head, but instead haunted the hat aisle in Target. She tried on silly hats, inspected her reflection in the mirror, and laughed.

After she died, I went through her possessions. The ones not in the will. The everyday objects that reveal the essence of a person.

In a brown crocodile handbag, I found a series of green butterfly-shaped cards with notes on each. I realized she must have used these cards to tell her story—her Al-Anon story.

Long-timers in 12-Step groups share their stories aloud in agonizing detail. It is a way of admitting and accepting responsibility for one’s own shortcomings and failures, describing one’s road to recovery, and sharing a sense of hope as an act of service to others in all stages of recovery.

Some of her notes were cryptic—”clues Craziness of alcoholism checkbook” –but some I could extrapolate the meaning. She had left my father for another man, Mike, who became her second husband. An alcoholic grifter who initially gave her the attention she craved and never got from my father, a workaholic driven to build financial security designed to protect him and his family from the privations he experienced as a child in the Depression.

Another butterfly card read “unable to keep a job”. Once Mike blew through her inheritance, he left her. She had reached her proverbial “bottom” and found redemption through Al-Anon. Just as I used psychotherapy to make myself whole, she used the 12-Step framework. No matter how it’s done, I know it takes courage. And I admired her for that.

I had always told others that my mother and I were nothing alike, but in truth, we were more so than I ever realized.

Except in our regard for the blue sponge.

Benay Yaffe grew up in Arkansas and got her B.A. in psychology from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, and her M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Fairfield University in Connecticut. Benay was a freelance reporter and photographer for Newtown Patch in 2010 but she believes the other jobs she’s had over the years (children’s tennis instructor, metal sorter, psychiatric technician and HMO customer service rep) were equally valuable in her path to becoming a writer. She lives in Newtown, Connecticut, with her husband, two dogs and two cats. She is a new empty nester, and her son appreciates that she limits herself to one phone call and two texts a week.

*****

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Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!

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Guest Posts, Siblings

Christmas, 2019

October 1, 2023

That Christmas, I fantasized that I could discover a gift that would stop the destruction of ALS. Or that I could give Lance a beautifully wrapped present that would remove his pain. Historically, I could find, make, or schedule an experience to surprise and delight my husband. That holiday would be like none other.

How can one truly enjoy the holidays when each day is an emotional and physical challenge? I felt like a cracked pane of glass—with just a tiny bit of pressure, I’d shatter. But it was Christmas, and we traditionally put up a tree and outside lights, decorated the house, cooking elaborate meals, and enjoyed spending time with family and friends. So, I pretended that nothing had changed; this was just another Christmas, but it wasn’t.

I was determined to make that season as festive as previous years. In the past, we’d searched to find the perfect fir tree and took pains to decorate it and the house. Setting the tree in the stand was always an adventure—Lance splayed out on the floor to adjust the knobs in the tree stand while I held the tree.

“Is it straight?” he said.

I can barely see his legs sticking out from under the tree. My face is smashed against a large branch. My arm isn’t long enough to hold the tree and see much of anything.

“I can’t tell from here. All I can see is your legs. I need to be further away. I’m going to take a few steps back.”

“Don’t let go of the tree!”

“Well, goofball, tighten the screws so I can step back.”

My fingers are sticky from tree sap, and the grand fir’s pungent scent has overwhelmed my nose.

“Who are you calling a goofball?”

“You! Dorkman,” I laughed.

When we finally got the tree straight and secured, Lance hauled out the boxes and containers of outdoor and indoor lights, tree and house decorations, the Santa collection, holiday towels, dishes, and more. Each year the number of bins grew as I found new treasures at Christmas bazaars and after Xmas sales.

“Don’t you think we have enough ornaments?” he asked every year.

“You can never have too many ornaments or decorations,” I say while opening a box of red and silver mercury glass garlands.

“Besides, something always breaks. So I’m just trying to replace what’ll get destroyed by the critters or you.”

Sipping champagne while decorating, we’d make up stories about the ornaments—the more ridiculous, the better. Lance could get me laughing so hard I would snort, which was his goal.

“Do you know where this ornament was made?” he asked. He holds up a glass orb encasing a silver bell and a snowflake. It looks ethereal, and I hear a slight tinkle.

“No”

“Well, I remember that we bought it at that village market in Vic.”

“That ornament didn’t come from Spain,” I said.

“Oh yes, it did. I clearly remember a tiny man with a large nose and a scraggly beard in a booth with a green cover. He only spoke Catalan and told me that his ornaments were made by fairies that lived in the forest. He explained the story of each one and described the fairy that created it; according to the man, the fairy that made this one had long black hair and blue eyes the color of the sea.”

Lance smiles at me, and I can see the small boy he once was. His eyes sparkle like tinsel.

“Really,” I said

“Absolutely. He even told me the fairy’s name. It’s Oswena.”

“You are such a clown!”

We would never be able to do that again. Nor would we have a fir tree again; it was too much work for one person. Now our conversations were limited. I’d ask Lance questions, and he’d either nod or tap out a sentence on his iPad.

“Good morning, honey. Were you able to go back to sleep?”

I’d gotten out of bed four times to rearrange his pillows and administer more pain medication the night before. Each time I heard him through the baby monitor, I shot out of bed and down the stairs.

He nodded and smiled. I smothered his face in kisses, feeling the sandpaper scratch of his whiskers. The blinds were still closed, and the room was full of shadows. I turned on the overhead light to get him ready for the day.

“Do you need the mouth spray?” I asked

Lance’s mouth dried out, especially overnight, because he wasn’t producing enough saliva. I never realized before how important saliva is to comfort.

He nodded. I rolled over the turquoise cart on wheels. It contained all the things we needed—waterless body shampoo, adult diapers (in case the condom catheter slid off in the night), extra gauze pads and tape, scissors, numbing cream for his feet, Balmex for diaper rash, tissues, and his pain meds. All were easily accessible and in one place.

“Do you want a bed bath today?”

He shook his head.

“What about a shave?”

Again, he shook his head.

Holding up clothing options, I asked: “Do you want to wear sweats or pajama pants? We aren’t going anywhere today, so you can hang out in pajamas if you want.”

Lance pointed to the pajamas.

“Red or black? If you want black, I’ll go get a different t-shirt, so you’ll still be stylin.”

I emptied the urine bag and made sure I didn’t dislodge the condom catheter while dressing Lance. Then, while I got him organized and transferred from the hospital bed to his wheelchair, our son Blair assembled the artificial tree, unbeknownst to me.

I walked into the kitchen to prepare Lance’s morning formula and meds, my slippers softly thwacking on the oak floor. Lance guided his motorized wheelchair behind me. I glanced into the family room and saw a six-foot forest green tree aglow with tiny white lights next to the stone fireplace.

Gasping in surprise at the tree’s beauty, tears erupted from my eyes. Blair, dressed in jeans and a University of Oregon sweatshirt, turned around when he heard us enter and grinned at me.

“Oh, Blair Bozo! It’s beautiful. Thank you.”

“Yeah, I thought I’d put it up while you got Dad dressed. Are these sad tears or happy tears?”

“A little of both,” I said

Throwing my arms around him, I buried my face in his shoulder, my tears and runny nose leaving a wet spot on his sweatshirt. He squeezed me in reply.

“Hey, could you feed your Dad so that I can take a shower? The formula’s on the counter, and there’s a new syringe next to it. You’ll need to crush his pills; they’re already in the mortar.”

“Sure. Where’s the gauze and tape?” He asked

“In the top right drawer of the sideboard. You good?”

“Yep.”

Traveling anywhere was stressful for both Lance and me. It took extra planning to get him ready and safely loaded into our converted van, his wheelchair locked in place. The van was a massive vehicle. It took a long time to accelerate and even more time to come to a stop. It was like steering a container ship.

Each time the side door opened, the ramp gliding out with a metallic scraping sound, the van slowly lowering itself, I remembered that Lance was helpless once he was strapped in place. I was anxious every time I drove it.

What if you can’t stop it in time? There aren’t any airbags that will protect Lance in his wheelchair. What if you miscalculate its size and sideswipe another car or the guard rail? What if one or two clamps fail and Lance’s wheelchair starts to shift? What if we get in an accident?

So often during those thirteen months (and one day) between Lance’s diagnosis and his death, I tried to prove to the world (and myself) that I could handle everything, manage everything, maintain my good humor, and create a safe and happy environment for Lance. Attending concerts, cooking elaborate meals, hosting guests, buying, wrapping, and delivering Christmas gifts were my attempts to pretend that my world wasn’t unraveling before me.

Christmas afternoon, I loaded Lance into the van while Steve and Belinda (Lance’s brother and sister-in-law) climbed onto the rear bench. Belinda’s feet dangled above the floor like a child in an overstuffed chair.

We were off to celebrate with the kids and grandkids. Blair and Jackie were hosting an open house. Members from both families gathered to share hearty soups and fresh loaves of bread. The wine and cocktails were abundant; the Christmas tree was colorfully lit; the house was full of lively conversations.

I don’t remember much of that evening other than I stuck close to Lance the entire time. I worried that he would need something, and it would go unnoticed. I just sat holding Lance’s hand and observing the activity around us.

Ever watchful, I noticed after two hours that Lance was tired. There was a gray shadow under his eyes. I said, “let’s go home.”

When he was safely in bed, his pillows arranged to reduce pressure on his hips and legs; I wrapped my arms around him, burying my face in his shoulder, inhaling his scent. He smelled a combination of the lavender body lotion I rubbed on him every morning and sweat.

“I love you, buddy. Merry Christmas. Will you be okay so I can take Steve and Belinda to their hotel? I should be gone about twenty minutes.”

He nodded his head and smiled. He looked drained; the bones of his face more prominent every day. I knew the celebration had been exhausting for him, but I think he knew it would be his last. I turned off the lights, closed the door, and herded Steve and Belinda into the car. Dropping them off at their hotel, I wished them a Merry Christmas and thanked them for coming to celebrate with us.

When I got home, I remembered that Zoey, our tiny seventeen-year-old black and white Papillion had diarrhea that morning, and her behind was a little stinky. So I decided to bathe her before I went up to bed. She was curled up in her basket in the kitchen, head buried in her tail. I put her in the utility tub and began to wet down her backside. ONE EYE HUNG OUT OF ITS SOCKET when I turned her head toward me. Suppressing a scream, I wrapped her in a couple of towels and called the emergency vet clinic.

“Hello, I just found my Papillion with one eye hanging out of its socket. Can I bring her in right away?”

“Of course, because it is after six, the doors are locked. Ring the bell when you get here, and we’ll let you in.”

What do I do about Lance? I can’t leave him here alone for an extended time, and I don’t know when I’ll get back. Why didn’t I check Zoey earlier? My God, when and how did this happen? How long has she been in pain? Call Blair and Jackie, see who can come over immediately.

Blair didn’t answer his cell, so I called Jackie.

“Jackie, I have to take Zoey to the emergency vet. Lance is in bed. Can you come over right away?”

“Of course. I’ll grab my coat and be right over.”

“Okay, I won’t wait for you. I don’t know when I’ll be back,” I said

“Don’t worry. I’ll spend the night. Go!”

I wrapped another towel around Zoey and placed her in my lap, plugging the address to the Emergency Clinic into my GPS.

Jesus Carol, how could you have not seen that? What happened? Oh, my God, Zoey, I’m so sorry! Please hang on. Oh God, Zoey. My poor little girl.

It was ten-thirty on Christmas night, and the streets were devoid of traffic. I drove as fast as I dared with Zoey in my lap. Ringing the bell, I paced, waiting for the staff to answer the door. I could barely speak; I was so distraught. I held Zoey in my arms while filling out the paperwork and approving treatment. Within minutes, a vet tech led me to an exam room and gently took Zoey out of my arms.

“I’m going to take her to Dr. Jackson for an exam. Then the doctor will come and talk with you about treatment,” said the Vet Tech.

I nodded and watched her turn and walk down the hall, her tennis shoes squeaking on the tile floor. The door to the exam room slowly closed behind her. There were a couple of chairs along the wall. A sink and brown cabinets lined the other wall. I don’t know how long I sat there. My brain was on fire with anxiety, guilt, and recriminations.

What could have happened? Maybe she bumped into Monte, and he snapped at her. But I didn’t see any blood, just her eyeball hanging out. Oh, God! I don’t know how much more I can take!

The Vet walked in after a discrete knock on the door. She was about my height with strawberry blonde hair in a ponytail and wearing green scrubs. She looked about 30 years old. She smiled one of those smiles that expressed sadness.

“Hello. I’m Doctor Jackson.”

She reached out and shook my hand.

“I’ve given Zoey some pain medication. Typically, we can do surgery in cases like this and place the eye back in the socket. However, I’m not sure that is a good idea given Zoey’s age. She’s very frail.”

“Are you suggesting that I put her down?”

My eyes began to fill with tears again, and I began to sob loudly.

Dr. Jackson reached out and put her hand on my knee while grabbing a few tissues. When finally able to speak, I choked out:

“I’m sorry, it’s just that my husband was diagnosed with ALS earlier this year, and the disease is moving much more quickly than we were led to believe. I’m his primary caregiver. We’ve been married thirty-three years, half of my lifetime. Over the years, every time we’ve had to put down an animal, we’ve done it together and supported each other. Now I have to do this alone. This is just the beginning of having to do everything alone.”

“I’m so sorry about your husband. I can’t imagine what you are experiencing. Do you need some time to decide about Zoey?”

I shake my head.

The door closed with a soft click; I began to sob again. I felt as if I was being abandoned by everyone I loved. I don’t know how long it was before the doctor returned with Zoey, an iv needle in her right front leg. Her leg was so thin I could see the light through her skin.

“Be careful of her leg. You don’t want to pull out the needle. I’ll leave you alone,” said Dr. Jackson.

I held that tiny body and gently stroked her head, remembering how we both went gray simultaneously.

Zoey, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t check on you right away. I don’t know how long you were in pain. I’m so, so sorry. I love you so much. You have given me so much love all these years. I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.

I don’t know how long I sat holding her. Eventually, I poked my head out the door.

“I’m ready,” I called out into the empty hall.

Dr. Jackson returned with two syringes on a tray.

“I’m going to give her something that will cause her to go to sleep, and then the final injection will allow her to pass away peacefully.”

I held that tiny body, tears running down my cheeks while I watched Dr. Jackson inject the medications. I continued petting Zoey’s head and silently telling her how much I loved her. Finally, the doctor pulled out her stethoscope and listened to her chest.

“She’s gone. You can take her home, or we can arrange to have her cremated and her ashes returned to you.”

“I’d like her to be cremated, please.”

She took Zoey from my arms.

Shortly thereafter, I was in the reception area, signing all the forms, and giving the receptionist my Visa card. I didn’t even try to read the documents; I just signed them.

The receptionist escorted me to the door, unlocked it, and held it open for me. I stumbled to my car and drove home. It was challenging to see the road through my tears.

The house was dark and silent when I got home. I walked into the kitchen, poured myself a couple of fingers of vodka, and sat at the old oak kitchen table staring into space.

I can’t believe what is happening to me, to us! What’s next? I know what’s next. I can’t think about that now.

Finally, I went to bed at about two o’clock.

I got up at my usual time, dressed, and went down to see if Lance was awake. I peeked in the glass door and saw his eyes were open, and he was staring at the ceiling. I opened the door quietly. It took me a couple of attempts before I could speak. My throat felt as swollen as my eyes. Finally, I reached out and held his hand, still warm from being under the covers.

“Hi, Honey. I’ve got some bad news. Last night after you were asleep, I found Zoey with an eye hanging out of the socket. I don’t know what happened. I rushed her to the emergency vet; the doctor said she wouldn’t survive the surgery given her age. I had to put her down.”

His face crumpled like a sinkhole, his mouth opened, and a primitive inhuman howl erupted from him. Tears streamed out the corners of his eyes. I began to cry again and leaned down to embrace him.

An Executive coach, Carol Putnam believes that coaching can help to launch people forward toward their goals while they gain new perspectives, and deeper self-awareness. She is straightforward and direct in her approach while incorporating creativity, spirit, and humor as she engages with clients. A believer in the power of expressive writing to heal old wounds, uncover possibilities, and facilitate creativity, Carol has completed extensive training in expressive writing and is certified to teach over twenty journaling techniques. She publishes a weekly email blog, called Thriving Thursday.

***

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This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

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Guest Posts, Siblings

Harold and His Purple Crayon

September 23, 2023
Harold and His Purple Crayon

Note: The below is adapted from Amy Turner’s acclaimed memoir, On the Ledge, published by She Writes Press.

Arriving within 30 months of each other, my brothers, Harold and Jimmy, and I had been a force from the beginning. We’d vanquished babysitter after babysitter. Live-in housekeepers escaped in the night, presumably ashamed to admit they were no matches for three toddlers. That we were preverbal had been absolutely no obstacle to our planning and execution. We were invincible. Back then, the three of us were one indestructible piece; even we couldn’t tell where one of us ended and the others began.

On our way to visit our son at college in 2010, Ed and I stopped for lunch. I needed frequent breaks. Just the sight of vehicles speeding by disoriented me. Two months earlier a pickup truck had plowed into me as I was crossing the street. Miraculously, I’d sustained no broken bones, but still suffering from a serious concussion, I probably shouldn’t have been traveling. However, regardless of my dizziness and throbbing head, I was determined to return to normal life.

Ed and I were talking about which of the parents’ activities we’d want to attend when my cell phone rang. Not wanting to talk on my cell in a public place, I sent Jimmy’s call to voicemail and retrieved the message from there.

“Ame, call me as soon as you can. Umm, it’s important.”

I looked at Ed and sighed. After 30 years of marriage, he knew my family as well as any of us knew each other. “Harold?”

“I’m sure. Oh, God, not now.”

When Jimmy described the policeman coming to his door and asking, “Are you the brother of Harold Turner? I’m sorry to inform you . . . ” I could feel the threads that I thought had frayed to nothing long ago tighten around me in a final, fleeting hug, then snap—one by one.

As a child, I thought that, of the three of us, Harold might be the most special. In one of my parents’ few joint expressions of playfulness, we were each “given” a tune that featured our first names. Although Harold’s song—”Hark the Herald Angels Sing”—was a bit of a stretch, he also had what our family prized above all—a book, actually a series of books, with his name in the title: Harold and the Purple Crayon. Published in 1955, a year after Harold’s birth, the book had been ready for him just as he was ready to be read to. About four-years-old and appearing simply as a black outline on a white background, fictional Harold realized his dreams and evaded perils, by drawing one unbroken line with his large purple crayon. He drew himself to the moon, and escaped a dragon and a drowning. However far away his adventures took him, in the end, he always remembered how to draw himself back to where he most wanted to be: at home, sleeping in his bed, the blanket drawn up to his chin, and his face at peace under a moon perfectly framed in his window.

If I’d heard this news about Harold at any other time in the previous 20 years, I would’ve been sad, but not surprised. What little I knew of Harold’s life during those decades had included his identifying the body of his second wife, who was murdered after she left a bar; moving from apartments to motels; and then alternating between the streets and couches of bar acquaintances slightly less down-and-out than he. Arrested several times for public consumption of alcohol and vagrancy, for years, Harold called only to ask for money—initially polite requests that always ended in angry demands. I still remember my head pounding in rhythm with the percussive and frightening hard C’s—”may not recover normal cognitive function, brain damage due to continuous grand mal seizures electroshock therapy”—as a psychiatrist described Harold’s condition eight years earlier, in 2002. Harold would recover well enough to resume drinking.

As children, Harold, Jimmy, and I were platinum blondes, but Harold’s hair darkened earlier and to a greater degree than ours. In the summer, his light brown freckles gained territory and could almost masquerade as a tan. Invariably, his face also showed red patches where the freckles stopped and the zinc oxide had been hastily applied, if at all. I still picture Harold on the tennis court—straw-blond hair and slightly sunburned face, fighting back tears after losing to his best friend, whose only advantage was a killer instinct.

I remember sitting on my twin bed, as a 15-year-old, facing 14-year-old Harold and 13-year-old Jimmy on the guest bed opposite me, the three of us crouched so far forward that our knees touched. My brothers were whispering in an anxious duet—”Wait, What? Dad was going to jump? That’s why he was gone when we were little?”—when our mother, arriving home from an AA meeting earlier than expected, walked in.

After a moment of stunned silence, she erupted. “Amy, what did you tell them?”

Buoyed by the self-righteousness of a heroine saving her brothers from a lifetime of ignorance and misery (and by the confidence that my psychologist would defend me should my mother punish me), I did the unthinkable in our family: I yelled back.

“I told them about Dad’s suicide attempt and the mental hospital. Dr. Ferdinand just told me. They have the right to know.”

Her yell had been scary enough, but the glare that followed my outburst was chilling. When she barked, “Harold and Jimmy, go to your rooms right now,” they were already scurrying to the door. She stared at me once more then shut the door with enough force to make clear the topic was now closed.

In high school, Harold’s drinking and drug use already had a desperate, determined quality, different from the usual teenage experimentation. He would try anything and was brazen in doing so—sometimes in his room at the top of the back stairs, out of earshot of my parents’ bedroom. While pot was becoming popular in our high school and some kids were using psychedelics, Harold was one of the very few who snorted heroin. How he did this and maintained good enough grades to get into Harvard was hard to fathom.

A week before Harold’s memorial service in Fairfield, Iowa, I began an archaeological dig in our basement to locate his letters to me during the year I spent in Switzerland. Desperately wanting once more to be an 18-year-old girl with a 17-year-old brother, I sat on the basement floor and, as the tears streaked the dust on my face, read them all: “It’s no big deal, Ame. I’m just having fun.”

Had I taken the letters upstairs to read, the dig would have ended there. I would never have noticed an unfamiliar trunk—the kind we had taken to summer camp—its once shiny black surface peeling and gray, its reinforced corners dented, and its metal lock now rusted and disintegrating. When I opened it, I could’ve been peering into Harold’s coffin. There he was—documented in glowing report cards, newspaper clippings of undefeated basketball seasons, tennis trophies, academic awards, childhood drawings, college essays, and postcards from camp.

I examined each artifact, hoping that this autopsy of sorts might pinpoint the source of his suffering. There was the expected anatomy of any academically and athletically gifted student. There were cards for Christmas and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, the products of obligatory elementary school activities, but then there were others that I am sure no schoolteacher had a hand in: Harold’s thank-you notes to our parents that I would never have written as a child, or as a parent could ever have expected to receive, including—notes for Christmas presents, for a trip to a football game, or for just being “great parents.”

Also in the trunk, in a stack held together by a deteriorating rubber band, were my letters to him. When I saw my rounded, girlish print, I was embarrassed for my 18-year-old self who had thought her naïve threats could solve Harold’s problem—”Mom’s going to kill you if you don’t stop doing drugs.” Yet I realized she had not yet been jaded by the decades of worry and unheeded pleas that would follow.

Most of my memories of Harold’s vulnerability and sweetness had been obliterated by his anger and arrogance, the byproducts of decades of drinking. But as I read a note he’d written at age ten to my parents, “Thank you very much for making Sat. the 25th such a wonderful day, someday I’ll do it for you . . .” and one he’d written eight years later to my father regarding their victory in a crucial doubles match, “Perhaps the time that has passed since our glorious match has wrapped our experience in gold. Whatever the case may be, gold or fool’s gold, I will treasure it the same,” all echoes of his drunken rants were gone. In the silence, I could almost hear the soft beating of his heart.

As Harold told it, during his freshman year at Harvard, he noticed a group of students who—unlike his circle of friends—always looked rested, clear-eyed, and happy. When he asked them why, they said they’d started Transcendental Meditation (TM). Wanting that clarity and peace (and, though he didn’t say it at that time, sobriety), he started right away. With my parents’ blessing, he took time off from college in 1974 to become a TM teacher. After returning from teacher training, his social life mainly involved leading residence courses or watching tapes of Maharishi with other meditators.

But Harold was a “periodic,” like my mother had been, which meant that periods of sobriety were eventually followed by ever-longer stretches of binge drinking.

In 1987, Harold moved to Fairfield, Iowa, the TM organization’s centerpiece in the U.S., with his girlfriend-soon-to-be-wife, hoping, I believe, the influence of meditators might keep him sober. But it wasn’t enough. Whenever my mother, a fixture in AA by then, urged Harold to go to a meeting, he would taunt her, “You were drinking at my age. I’ll stop drinking when you did, when I’m thirty-five. Leave me alone.”

If Harold stopped drinking in 1990 when he turned 35, it wasn’t for long. His marriage broke up two years later, and by 1996 he was married to Trudy, whom he met in a bar. She also had multiple arrests for public intoxication. “She’s really nice, Ame, you would like her,” he’d occasionally slur on my answering machine. I hoped to God his situation wouldn’t get any worse, but one afternoon in early December 1997, I came home to hear him leaving a message—howling himself hoarse—”TRUDY WAS MURDERED!  DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO IDENTIFY A DEAD BODY?  OH GOD, HER FACE.” When I picked up the phone, my shuddering triggered a wave of nausea, as if Harold’s words landed in my gut, not my brain. I tried to ask questions, said I was so sorry, but he just kept yelling. “I was at home. We had an argument. This guy gave her a ride home from the bar… in a DITCH, they found her nude…IN A DITCH! During the next few months, Harold called about once a week to leave the same message, as if for the first time. Eventually I couldn’t force myself to pick up. (Later I would learn that a thirty-seven-year old man, pleaded guilty to Trudy’s murder and was sentenced to fifty years in prison.)

But at the time of Harold’s death fourteen years later, at 56, he had made incredible progress. During his eleven-month term in an Iowa jail for public intoxication (imposed because of his repeat offenses), he had been off anti-seizure medication, cigarettes, and alcohol. Upon Harold’s release, his close friend Jean (whose unwavering dedication to him was much appreciated but often baffling) moved in with him and ensured his abstinence continued. Still compromised physically by his stroke and suffering memory lapses, Harold didn’t have the wherewithal to rebel. Occasionally, though, I’d receive a voice mail from him: “Hey, Ame, I’m with this girl Jean. She’s attractive and all but such a pain. She won’t let me drink, or even smoke.” And so, with the help of the Iowa correctional system and Jean, Harold had accomplished what he hadn’t been able to since he’d been in his twenties: just over a thousand consecutive days of being clean.

I last saw Harold in 2008, in Fairfield, two years before his death and a few months after his jail release. As he told stories from his college days at lunch with Jimmy and me, his joy cast a soft focus on him so that I could no longer make out his receding hairline or the canyons that years of drinking had carved into his face. For a moment, I saw him at 18—by then, six foot two and slim, his once gangly arms and legs had found proportion, making him a natural for dancing, tennis, and basketball—any activity requiring a glide. The images of him in effortless motion are what stay with me: on the dance floor at my wedding, moving with an innate rhythm that belied our physically uptight upbringing; on a tennis court, arcing fluidly through a forehand; and on a basketball court, launching the ball toward the basket with one graceful flick of his palms and fingertips, his body erect, his feet suspended two feet in the air.

In one of my favorite photographs of Harold and me, we’re standing next to each other, smiling, our two-year-old children—his daughter Katherine and my son Matt, born a month apart—playing at our feet. I still marvel that they look more alike than most fraternal twins I know.

As Ed drove the two of us from the Cedar Rapids airport to Fairfield, I closed my eyes to silently practice the remarks I planned to give at Harold’s memorial the following day. But as I began, I suddenly pictured the windshield of the oncoming pickup truck, felt the same vulnerability that had buzzed through me moments before it struck me. I was shivering. It was as if Harold’s passing had ripped off protective layers so deeply buried I hadn’t known they existed until they were gone. I squelched a sob. My primal connection to him, I realized, had less to do with our being 13 months apart than with our seeking a sense of security from each other that our alcoholic mother and suicidal father couldn’t provide in those early years. I let myself cry, and Ed reached over to rub my shoulder. I hoped Harold and I had been forgiven, and that whatever pain we’d caused each other—his drinking, my inability and, at times, unwillingness to help him—could no longer obscure what we’d felt since his birth: a bond that, had we known the word for it back then, would have been love.

Soon after we arrived in Fairfield, Jean recounted the story of Harold’s death. The night before, Harold had eaten little and told her that he’d just had two great telephone conversations: one with his daughter, Katherine, and the other with Jimmy, who had told him to “hold fast.” Jean was happy that Harold had had a chance to speak to them but his cell phone indicated that no calls had been made or received.

The following morning, Jean had left early, after first making sure Harold was warmly covered in bed. When she returned three hours later, she’d found Harold on the floor. As she described how the duvet had been draped over his body, I envisioned him in a cocoon of white comforter—its edges almost carefully, and perhaps lovingly, tucked under his chin to reveal only his face.

Half-smiling, I shook my head slowly and brushed away the tears sliding over my cheekbones. I was relieved for Harold, and us even more so, that he’d died peacefully of “natural causes.” Had he died at so many other times in his life, there would surely have been painful details eliminating the possibility of consoling ourselves with a story of his redemption.

At the memorial service, the speeches, like the photographs surrounding us, recalled Harold at his handsomest, happiest, and fullest potential. When Katherine, by then 24, began her remarks by saying she’d read a children’s book that meant a great deal to both of them, I knew its title before she mentioned it. However, I was surprised and moved to learn that Harold had often asked her to read it to him over the phone, even as recently as last month. Listening to his daughter read Harold and the Purple Crayon in the full yet silent church, I realized that, although Harold had never stopped creating his own perils, he must have hoped that one day, like the fictional Harold, he would be able to draw his means of escape and find himself at home, at peace, and safe from himself. He had finally done just that.Amy Turner

Amy Turner was born in Bronxville, New York, and is a graduate of Boston University, with a degree in political science, and of New York Law School, with a Juris Doctor degree. After practicing law (rather unhappily) for twenty-two years, she finally found the courage to change careers at forty-eight and become a (very happy) seventh grade social studies teacher. A long-time meditator and avid reader who loves to swim and bike, Amy lives in East Hampton, New York, with her husband, Ed. They have two sons. Amy’s first book, On the Ledge, A Memoir, was published by She Writes Press in 2022.

***
Wondering what to read next? 

A personal look at how trauma harms both the body and soul.

Fifty-five years after Amy Turner’s father climbed out on a hotel ledge and threatened to jump—a story that received national news coverage—Amy is convinced she’s dealt with all the psychological reverberations of her childhood.

Then she steps into a crosswalk and is mowed down by a pickup truck—an accident that nearly kills her.

Poignant, intimate, and at times surprisingly humorous, On the Ledge offers proof that no matter how far along you are in life, it’s never too late to find yourself.

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Guest Posts, Regret

Duty To Cooperate

May 27, 2022
phone

“How can I help you today?”, she asked, her hands on her hips, as she looked at the guy in front of the counter. He was still looking at the menu, trying to decide what to get.

A minute later, she scratched her chin a couple of times. “It’s probably best if you let the person behind you come up, while you figure out what you want.”

He looked at her, his brows furrowed. “I’d like the grilled tilapia with mashed potatoes and buttered corn.”

“For here or to-go?”

“For here,” he said, putting the menu down.

“Fourteen dollars and seventy-three cents.”

It was a routine: Towards the end of her shift, almost every day, she hated her job, passionately. There was always some reason; yesterday, it was her manager Roy, who had refused her request for a pay raise. “I’ve been serving waffles and French toasts and mozzarella sticks to drunk customers for two years now. Don’t you think I deserve a bit of a raise?”

“Not yet,” he had replied.

Today, it was Rita, who had bumped her elbow into her stomach, as they were frying poblano peppers and didn’t apologize loud enough for everyone to hear it. “I want you to say it out loud, ok? I want everyone to know how clumsy you are,” she had shouted at Rita.

“Alright, I’m sorry,” Rita said, as she walked away from the kitchen.

“I don’t know how idiots like that get hired. This place needs a new manager, you know?”, she said to the rest of the cooks, who weren’t paying much attention anyway. Speaking of managers, she thought, who the hell are they to tell me not to put my hands on my hips when I’m at the counter? What’s next? They’ll want me to cut my hair shorter?

~

It was around five pm when she walked out of Ihop Express. Her car was parked a couple of blocks away. She was carrying her box of free dinner in one hand while texting her boyfriend Tony, with the other. He was supposed to buy her a 14k gold bracelet for her birthday, which was coming up in three days. “I’m so freaking excited about it! Is it beaded? Will you be coming to my place? Do you…”. Her texting was interrupted by a guy peeking out of a tent on the sidewalk.

“Got a couple of bucks?” he asked, his graying old beard covering almost the entirety of his face.

She put her phone in her pocket and just stood there, shocked that she had never seen this tent before.

“I don’t have any cash on me, but I got some roasted turkey with rice and potatoes. Would you like that?”

“I’ll take anything. Thanks.”

She handed him the box and moved on, phone in her hand again. “Do you know what time you’ll be there?”

She got in her car and started driving home. The seat belt alarm was beeping, but she didn’t care. She had Beyonce and Jay Z singing ‘Crazy in Love’ on her Pandora station and was tapping her right hand on the dashboard to the music. Her phone beeped. It was a text from Tony. “I don’t think I can buy you a gift. Just got laid off today.”

She picked up the phone with her right hand, the other hand trying to keep the wheel straight as she drove on cruise control on the highway. “WTF? You got laid off from your sixteen-dollar-an-hour FedEx job? That’s got nothing to do with my gift! You promised you’d buy me that bracelet a month ago.” A car next to her honked. Apparently, she had been swerving into their lane. She honked back at them, while continuing to type. “You had better show up at my home with my gift. Or else…”

She put the phone down. The speed limit was sixty-five; she was going around eighty. She pressed hard on the gas pedal and sped up. “That son of a bitch. How dare he think he could just take back his promise? I’d never do that to him!” She turned the music up. “Crazy in hate!”

The car in front seemed to be going too slow for her. She honked at them before cutting through two lanes and winding her way ahead. It was her phone beeping again. “So, you don’t care at all that I got laid off? All you care about is your fricking bracelet, Lena?”

She threw the phone away and floored the gas pedal. She almost hit the car in front, so she veered to the right. Later, when she’d think about it, she couldn’t remember the exact sequence of events. But she knew she was going ninety when she hit the car to her right, trying to pass the car in front of her. Her chest jolted forward and hit the wheel. She looked at her right-side mirror: it was gone. She looked in the rearview mirror: the car she had hit was pulled over, its driver’s side door and the front bumper bearing deep dents. Her breathing was rushed and sweat was pouring down her face. She slowed down, trying to find her phone so she could call Tony.

The phone was on the floor, on the passenger side. She pulled over and took a sip of water, laying her head back, her chest heaving wildly. She looked in the rearview mirror and the car she had hit was catching up to her.

The water bottle hit the floor as she sped up, cutting through lanes. She could see the other car following her. She was hoping to get far enough away from it so they couldn’t get her license plate number.

~

By the time she got home, it was dark and the whole thing seemed like a blur.

She was taking her shoes off near the door, when her mom rushed up to her and started talking about Sue, Lena’s aunt. “You won’t believe what Sue told me today about her boyfriend. He’s been cheating on her for years. And the crazy thing is…”

“Mom, leave me alone, would you? Where’s Danny?”

“He’s in his room, doing what he always does – playing that stupid video game. But listen, aunt Sue’s really in a tough spot right now.”

She went into Danny’s room and locked the door shut, as her mom stood outside, still talking about Sue.

“Hey sweetie, how was your day?”, she said, as she sat next to him on the bed.

He looked up briefly, before continuing with the Minecraft game on his phone.

“Talk to me, honey.” She picked him up and sat him down in her lap, running her fingers through his hair, her chin resting on his head. “Do you love mommy? She almost died today. And she almost killed…never mind.”

“Mom, I’m so close to winning this game. Just let me play.”

“Alright, just move over, so I can lie down next to you.”

He grunted and moved his eight-year-old-self to the other side of the bed, still riveted by his phone.

She tried replaying the accident in her mind, but it seemed unreal. Surely, it didn’t happen; it was just a nightmare. Of course, her car was fine. Well, maybe it did happen? But what was certain was that there was no way the other driver got her license plate.

She turned around, snuggled up to Danny and pulled a blanket over them. After he had been begging for months, she had finally relented and bought him a new phone almost a year ago, so he could enjoy his games more. She was still making monthly payments on it. Screw that fricking Roy, she silently cursed. Can’t even give me a two-dollar-an-hour-raise? Who the hell does he think he is…Ihop CEO?

She didn’t know what time it was when she got up in the middle of the night and texted Tony: “Sorry that you got laid off.”

~

She was at work a couple of days later, at the counter taking an order, when her phone vibrated in her pocket. Unlike other employees, she had always refused to silence it. “I’m putting it on vibrate; that’s good enough”, she’d told Roy.

Later, while taking a break in her car, she checked her voicemail. It was what she was dreading: a call from an insurance company asking to speak to her about the accident. Damn…how the hell did that dude get my license plate, was the first thought that came to her mind.

She ran into the kitchen. Rita was making buttermilk pancakes.

“Hey Rita, ever been in a car accident?”

“Nope”, she answered, without looking up from her skillet.

“You know anything about insurance claims?”

“Nope.”

“Well, that’s mighty nice of you,” Lena said, as she walked out to her car.

She lit up a cigarette and started googling ‘at-fault-driver in car accident’. Every article she read made her more anxious: ‘at-fault-driver liable for injuries and payments’; ‘accident will go on driver’s record’; ‘other driver may file a lawsuit if you don’t cooperate with their insurance company’.

She threw the phone down and turned up the music. It was Beyonce again. She rolled down the windows and spat in the direction of the Ihop.

~

The calls came in every couple of days, the same woman, saying the same thing: “We need you to contact us. Based on the claim filed by our insured client, you’re legally required to share information about the accident and have a duty to cooperate.”

She was having lunch with her mom and Danny one Saturday, when her phone rang. She could tell from the number that it was the insurance folks.

“Why’s your phone been ringing so much these days?” her mom asked.

“Damned spam callers.”

“I hate those people. I wish the same for them that I do for Sue’s husband’s killer: they ought to rot in hell.”

“Mom, I’ve heard that story a billion times. Please, just stop.”

“Hey Danny, you want to hear a crazy story?”

Danny was busy with his phone, as usual. He looked up at grandma. “No nannie, I’m busy.”

“Ok, one night, a long long time ago, your grandma’s sister’s husband was driving home from work, when a drunk driver hit his car and killed him. Not only that, he drove away from the scene and the cops never found out who it was. If you ask my sister what bothers her more today – losing her husband or not finding and jailing the guy who killed her husband – she’ll say it’s the latter. I tell you, there are some real crazy psychopaths in this world. Don’t you think so, Lena?”

Lena got up and went to the kitchen sink with her plate. “I don’t need to listen to this crap anymore.”

~

She was driving to work on the highway, when she looked out the window. She was around the same spot where she had hit the other car. Her hands started trembling and for some reason, the memory of her aunt Sue screaming in her bedroom, yelling “I’m going to find you, you bastard! I’m going to find you and you’re going straight to hell!” and pounding her fists on the walls of her room, came back again in her mind. Even as a fourteen-year-old, it was something she knew she wouldn’t forget – watching her aunt cry and yell at the same time – but it had been a while since she’d thought about it.

As she was walking up to the restaurant, her phone rang. It was the insurance company. She put it back in her pocket, before taking it out and answering it. “Hello.”

“Can I speak with Lena Carter?”

She hung up, squeezing the phone with her fist and put it on silent mode for the rest of her workday.

~

It was one of those mid-autumn days that were gradually becoming rare: it was warm, sunny and dry. They were sitting in her car, next to a park, watching the maple leaves drift down onto the ground.

“What happened to your door and mirror?”, Tony asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she replied, smoking her cigarette. She passed it to him.

“No thanks,” he said, looking out the window, his hand resting on the dented door. The passenger-side mirror was gone. Over the past decade, sitting in the passenger seat, he was used to seeing his face in the mirror and it felt strange now to not see himself.

“You ever worry about how you’re going to pay your rent?”, she asked. “Got enough savings from your former job to get you through a few months?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Fair enough, you funny guy.”

She took a last puff before tossing the cigarette out the window. “Tell you what: I’ll share what happened to my car and then you’ve got to answer my question, ok?”

He nodded, smiling.

“I was drunk and drove into a tree by the side of the road. Simple as that.”

“Really?! When did this happen and why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“Well…there was that tiny little thing about you not keeping up your promises and pissing me off…remember that?”

“And there was that tiny little unexpected thing about me losing my job and not having any income…remember that?”

“It doesn’t fricking matter, Tony! You made a promise. A promise is something you stand by, regardless of what life throws at you.”

He clenched his fist and punched it into the car door. “Oh really? Well, what about the promise you made to let me move in with you…when was that…when Danny was like three?”

“Screw it. This isn’t going anywhere.”

She got out and shut the door hard enough to make Tony jump up in his seat.

“You can’t just walk away from this, you know!”, he shouted.

“Oh yes, I can. I can do whatever the hell I want. I can choose to pick up the phone or not,” she yelled as she pointed her phone at him. “I can choose to not have an alcoholic boyfriend move in with his son and raise him to be a jobless drunk like his dad. Those are all choices I can make. You get that?”

He started walking away from her, punching his fists in the warm autumn breeze. He was gone too far to hear her screaming “Stop, come back! I need you!”

~

She kissed Danny goodnight and turned off the lights. She closed the door and walked out, before returning and blowing a kiss in his direction.

Her mom was at the dining table reading the newspaper. Lena filled up a glass of water and sat down next to her.

“What’s up in the news, Mom?”

“Same old stuff I’ve been reading for decades. Nasty people doing mean things to nice folks like us. Over and over again. It never changes.”

“Mom, how does aunt Sue really feel about uncle Bill’s accident?”

Her mom put the paper down and took off her glasses. “I thought you didn’t want to talk about that?”

“Just answer my question mom, for once…would you?”

“It’s what I told your kiddo. She’s never going to let go of that sense of injustice. I’ve told her that it’s harmful to keep all that anger and resentment inside her, but she just can’t get it out of her mind. Poor thing.”

“Do you think she’d feel better if the other person owned up to their fault?”

“Hell yeah. She’s been wanting that for decades. Both she and I know that the other person’s going to pay a price for their actions, at some point in their life. You don’t just get away with that kind of stuff.”

Lena ran her fingers around the glass, moving them up and down and in circles. It was late – eleven pm – and she had an early morning shift the next day. Her mom had put on her glasses and resumed reading the paper.

Lena got up and headed to her bedroom.

“Goodnight, dear,” her mom said, as she closed the door shut.

Danny was sound asleep. She put an extra blanket over him and closed the blinds, before lying down next to him. It had been a tiring day and it didn’t take long for her to fall asleep.

It started sometime in the night: the pounding on the walls and the yelling: ‘You bastard, I’m going to find you!’. She sat up and ran to the wall, putting her ears next to it. ‘You’re going to hell!’. She fled from the wall and reached for her phone. She dialed the insurance company and got to their automated message. ‘Press 1 to leave a voicemail for your claims representative’. She hung up, clutching the phone tightly in her quivering hands.

No, she couldn’t do it. There was no way she could handle her premiums going up and have an at-fault accident on her driving record.

Plus, it wasn’t really my fault, she reminded herself. If only Tony had kept up his promise, none of this would’ve happened.

‘You have a duty to cooperate and are legally required to share information about the accident’. ‘The other person’s going to pay a price for their actions’. ‘Nice folks like us.’

Her arms and legs were shaking as sweat dribbled down her face. She had a sip of water before turning around to face Danny. “I love you, Danny. You’re the best,” she whispered silently, as she rubbed her hands over his blanket.

The pounding and yelling continued through the night.

~

Her eyes were droopy from not sleeping well the night before, and the loud rock music they were playing was only making her fuzzier. She hated her eight-am Tuesday shifts.

“What do you want?”, she asked the guy in front of her.

“Umm…I’d like a turkey sandwich, but on gluten-free bread. Also, can you make it with mozzarella cheese instead of cheddar? And oh, no fries, extra salad. That’s it,” he said, as he put the menu down.

She started typing the order into the computer. Somewhere in the middle, she stopped. Aunt Sue was screaming and pounding her fists on the wall. Tony was not keeping up his promise. Her car’s mirror was shattered as she rammed into the car next to her. Her body was full of anxiety about her insurance premiums going up and a lawsuit being filed by the other driver. There weren’t enough nasty folks like her in this world…oops…she meant, there weren’t enough nice folks like her in this world…her heart was pounding as her mind reeled through it all.

“What the hell are you asking for? Can’t you just keep it simple? No fries, extra salad? Who the hell do you think you are?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I know exactly what I mean,” she said, pounding her fists on the table. “You’re being a royal prick!”

The guy moved closer to her, his hands pushing on hers. “Say that again?”

Roy, the manager, came running in. “Hold on, this has got to stop. Lena, I think you need a break.” He took her by her hands and walked her to the kitchen.

~

The rain wouldn’t let up. It was hard to see beyond the wet windshield. They were parked at the same spot, next to the same park they were at a month ago.

Faith Hill was playing ‘This Kiss’ on Pandora, as they passed along a can of Michelob’s back and forth.

“I fricking love this song…don’t you? It reminds me of that night we went dancing at that Olympian pub…remember how drunk you were? You mistook this other woman for me – just because she was also a brunette – and started dancing with her, holding her hands. I had to come pull you away! Oh my god…”

“Oh yeah, baby…I remember that. Those were the days. I even had a job then!”

“Hey, did I tell you that we both have a lot more in common now?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, as he took another sip of the beer.

“I also got laid off. Well, I got fired. But I like to think of it as a layoff. You know what I mean?”

“You did?! When?”

“Doesn’t matter. Screw jobs…who needs them? Losers who don’t know what to do with their lives. Screw insurance, screw lawsuits, screw…everything!”

“I don’t know about the last three, but amen! Here’s to screwing,” he laughed, as he opened another can of beer.

She was tapping her feet and swinging her body back and forth. ‘This Kiss, this kiss…it’s the way you love me! It’s a…’

Her phone rang. It was the insurance company.

She stopped abruptly and sank into the seat, closing her eyes and bringing her legs up to her chest. It kept ringing. She picked it up and stared at the screen, her finger hovering near the green ‘accept’ button.

Kunal Mehra is a multimedia artist who likes photography, filmmaking, writing and hiking. He grew up in India and has been living in Portland, OR, since 2002. His writing has been published by the Press Pause Press, The Mindful Word and ‘Academy of heart and mind’ magazines, amongst others.

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“Exquisite storytelling. . . . Written in the spirit of Elizabeth Gilbert or Anne Lamott, Neshama’s stories (and a few miracles) are uplifting, witty, and wise.”—Publishers Weekly

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Guest Posts, Fiction Fridays

The Attorney – Fiction

March 4, 2022
boat

Some Fourth of July, huh? I’m glad you called when you did. My timeshare is only a few houses down…get a towel, man. You’re still dripping.

So, to confirm, you have no recollection of what happened after you took the boat out with your niece?

I know, I know, slow down. Let me think. I need to work this out in my head so we—everyone—has their story straight. You told me over the phone that your wife doesn’t know anything. Not the whole thing, at least. That’s good. We don’t need anything else from her, so long as she doesn’t slip outside your alibi—if you need one, of course. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Did you say you often lend your boat out to family? Like your brother-in-law? Was he in town last night? Ah—I forgot—he’s in Bristol for the holiday. What about the others, do they sail too?

Hey, it’s not like we’re implicating anyone. That’s not what I do. I work with plausible deniability. We’re just seeding reasonable doubt, that’s all. It’s my job. Do you want to come out on the other end of this? If you do, you’ll listen to me.

Right now, if they suspected anything of you, all the evidence would be circumstantial. Anyone in your family could’ve taken that boat out last night. Son, cousin, sister. Your niece might have gone out there all by herself, came back, and took a bus to wherever she came from. She used to be so into sailing back in high school if I remember correctly. How many sets of keys do you have…four? Well, I only see three. Someone must’ve taken them, understand? You see where I’m going now?

When they ask about the boat, don’t even relinquish to the possibility of you going out on the lake. I mean, you were so drunk how could you know?

What was that? Fingerprints aren’t an issue, so put that out of your mind. Our real challenge is keeping it straight and keeping it quiet. We have no reason to be worried about anything yet. No body, no evidence of a struggle, no motive anyone’s aware of. Well, besides you and me. So, when the police arrive, don’t give them an inkling about what might have happened between you and her.

You don’t remember telling me, huh? You told me what went on between you two. That your niece seemed to forget all about it when she showed up for dinner out of the blue. That, before last night, you hadn’t seen her since she left for college. You seriously don’t remember telling me this? You need to watch your drinking from here on out. You told me enough about it anyway. Not like I wanted to hear it.

The sun is about to come up, and everyone will start wondering where she is, which even you don’t know. They’ll look around while you’re sleeping. When you finally come downstairs, be calm. Don’t be too sobby or too worried, alright? Call the police after you make your rounds. Check the shed, the guest house, pool house. Does she have any friends still in the area? Call your neighbors, even the bus depot. No one knows where she is. That’s the truth. That’s our truth. Last night could’ve been a dream, for all you know.

Back to the subject of the police—hey. Hey! I need you to focus. Look in the mirror. Look at yourself. You got this glassed-over look. It means you’re thinking about something and any two-bit cop, even around here, is going to figure out that you’re hiding something. I can tell you’re thinking about her right now. You’re replaying the situation—wait—is that her right there? The one with the little fish on the line. Huh, pretty. Hopefully, the press won’t catch wind, but if they do make sure they get this photo.

Okay, let me recap what you said over the phone. After dinner, you believe you two stayed up after everyone went to bed. She’d just turned 21, so there’s nothing wrong with having a nightcap with your niece. You all get to talking about everything. About what happened a few summers ago, how it wasn’t so bad. You two get to reminiscing, but then, all of a sudden, it was just like before: both of you, up later than everyone else, moon on the water, summer breeze. It wasn’t that bad, right? She was just a little younger, huh? I don’t care what you do behind closed doors, man, but you certainly had to think this would come back. I’m sure when she walked in, now in her twenties—a woman—it must’ve really sent you back. Having dinner, laughing, that rushing excitement of a shared secret with everyone around the table clueless to the truth. And then you two took the boat out—at least you think you did. Then it’s just…what? Black? Fuzzy? Well, that’s good. You don’t even know if you two had an argument. She was just gone. She just wasn’t on the boat anymore. But all you need to say is that you don’t definitively remember anything after your…let’s say second drink at the house.

Have you told your wife that those business trips were lies? That you’d come around here instead? Might be best if you did. I’m sure she’s wise to it anyway. I can imagine what she thought when she saw your face as your niece walked in to surprise you all. Like a shadow crawled into you. After your wife talks with the police, she should stay in her room, you know, bad lobster from last night. Keep her alone to keep her story together. The same goes for you too. Drill it into each other.

The sun’s coming up and I should go. Knowing your family, one of them is bound to be up for an early morning jog, and they shouldn’t see me yet. Get yourself together. Take a shower and snap yourself into the present. Got me?

When the police arrive, I’ll pop in like a concerned neighbor wondering about all the commotion. Stay calm. I’ll see you soon.

Matt Gillick is from Northern Virginia. He went to Providence College. He received his MFA from Emerson College in 2021. Find his other work in New Square, Sincerely Magazine, BOMBfire, and Newfound. He’s working on a novel about homelessness, domesticity, and September 11th.

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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Letting Go of the Why

January 2, 2022
infusion ketamine

by Tammy Richards

As I leaned back into the soft, adjustable recliner I realized that this was it. The potential of the next 45 minutes would either lead to triumph or defeat and if the result was defeat, I was certain I would die. The last 25 years were a compilation of all my successes and failures, and the results of a lifetime of self-doubt and struggle masked by a wicked sense of humor and relentless drive to be the best. But today the stakes were higher — I was exhausted, hopeless, and the pain was unbearable. I had to decide whether I was ready to give up the control I had so desperately clung to and embrace the willingness to let go of the why. I had to decide I wanted to live more than I wanted to be in control.

“This is just the initial dose, and then we’ll increase it from here throughout the first six infusions. Let us know if you are experiencing any nausea, and we can give you something for that. We can’t predict what you will see or experience, but if it becomes distressing, please let us know, and we can help with that as well. Are you ready to start?” the anesthesiologist looked at my masked face hesitantly, and I wondered to myself what the bottom half of his face looked like.

“Yes,” I replied nervously, “I never thought I’d be getting a “Special K” infusion at the age of 48 to try to manage my chronic, soul-sucking depression, but at this point, I’m willing to try anything because I’ve tried everything else. Let’s do it.” The doctor nodded and pushed the initial injection of ketamine into my arm and then started the IV drip.

“Do you feel anything?” he said.

“My hands and feet and lips feel weird,” I think I said, and then everything changed. My body felt warm, but disconnected and as I closed my eyes, the acoustic guitar music in the room became a touchpoint for my consciousness as what I started to see around me took on different shapes and colors, and my perception of time and space began to shift into a place I had never visited in my mind before. Maybe this was the answer I had been searching for — maybe things could change? Dare I hold out hope one more time?

Major depressive disorder has been an uninvited guest in my life since my late teens. While I wasn’t officially diagnosed until my late 20s, the eventual diagnosis explained so many things about the way I have always perceived the world. An entertainer at heart, my greatest hope was that people would like me. In my mind that meant I had to be exceptional, special, better.

In my childhood mind I remember every failure as a stain upon me until I was covered in darkness, disappointment and sadness. Throughout my quest to measure up, I had always fallen short, was never enough, but was somehow too much.

How I envied my younger sisters. They were prettier than I was, and they didn’t seem to care what other people thought of them. I watched them grow up and become confident, beautiful women with amazing children. They seemed so happy with who they were, and lived their lives authentically, while the shadows of impostor and fraud chased me like so many specters.

My first stay in the hospital was after my psychiatrist found out I had stockpiled enough medication to kill myself.

“You have two choices,” my psychiatrist said as I stared at the worn carpet in her office. Do psychiatrists ever change the decor in their offices, I wondered? I wished the plush pillows behind me would somehow suck me into the couch and port me to a place where I didn’t want to die every day, but I remained in the office.

“You can go into the hospital voluntarily, or I will commit you for your own safety,” she looked at me expecting an answer. I didn’t know what to say. All I could think of was the cost. The financial cost, the emotional cost, and the humiliation.

“I guess I will go voluntarily,” I said grudgingly, knowing that the worst was yet to come. Later that day, my husband of eight years dropped me off at the front entrance to the hospital ER

“See you later. I hope you feel better. I love you. I will visit later,” he signed to me before driving away and leaving me to either flee or go into the hospital on my own. My husband was Deaf, and he knew as well as I did that the hospital wouldn’t make communication with him accessible, and I was in no state to interpret for him, despite interpreting being my chosen profession. Just another kick in the teeth watching him struggle to understand what the actual fuck was going on with his wife.

After entering the ER, I was screened, searched for implements I might use to kill myself, and taken to the fifth floor psychiatric ward — a locked ward with patients whose diagnoses ranged from schizophrenia to mild depression and everything in between.

All around me patients in hospital robes and pajamas wandered talking to themselves, to people the rest of us couldn’t see, or sat looking vacantly at something they wished they could reach. I wondered what alternate realities they inhabited and if any of them were better than actual reality. I entered my room and climbed up on the windowsill looking out the window at the parking lot below. If only I could break the window, forever escape would be mine. Like a deep, pounding heartbeat I began to bang my head against the window, willing it to break and for me to plunge downward to freedom.

The next thing I remember is waking up rather groggy and feeling hungry. What had they given me? Images of nurses pulling me from the windowsill and a sharp prick of pain flashed through my mind as I pieced together that they must have tranquilized me like some kind of psychotic racehorse when I wouldn’t/couldn’t stop banging my head against the window.

What now?

It has been 22 years since that hospitalization. Since that time, I have divorced, re-married and now have two teen sons. Through all the medication changes, additional hospitalizations and ever so many treatments of electroshock therapy the depression has been lurking, ready to pounce at the sign of the tiniest crack or the most minor divot in my mental armor.

In 2017, that crack began to appear. Something visceral shifted and I could feel the descent into despair. How could this be happening to me again? What had I done wrong that had sent me back into the place where every day I woke up wishing I hadn’t?

By January 2020 I was back in the hospital. A week there and I felt that all I had done was reaffirmed that I couldn’t live this way anymore. I couldn’t stop thinking about my poor children. The day I checked myself into the hospital my 13-year-old-son was crying and hugging me,

“Honey, it’s ok. I will come back soon. I just need some help right now,” I tried to reassure him and hold back my own tears.

“Mom, I’m not crying about you leaving, I just don’t want to end up like you,” he replied, sobbing.

My heart cracked and broke into sharp shards of glass, too small to piece back together.

“You won’t, honey. You will be fine,” I replied, the guilt and shame overpowering now.

By June 2020, after months of the pandemic and barely being able to crawl out of bed each day, I knew it was only a matter of time before depression would kill me and reduce my family by one.

“I have done everything I can, Ryan. I don’t know what else to do at this point. I’ve been on too many medications to count, shocked my ever-aging brain dozens of times, and done so much therapy I’m surprised you haven’t sent me packing yet!” I complained to my long-time therapist and staunch supporter.

“Tammy, there is one thing that is somewhat new, but you could consider trying. It will take an extraordinary amount of willingness and bravery to try it, but I think you should consider it. There have been a number of very successful trials and studies, and they have shown this treatment can be effective in up to 70% of patients struggling with depression,” Ryan explained.

“What is this magical unicorn treatment that I haven’t yet tried?” I said, sarcastically.

“It’s called ketamine infusion therapy,” he explained.

“Wait, you want me to take Special K — like the party drug??” I was skeptical. Was my therapist seriously telling me I should consider taking a psychedelic drug to alleviate my depression? I was absolutely terrified by this prospect. I have serious control issues. I cannot stand to feel like I am out of control. The idea of taking a party drug, via IV infusion no less, sounded instinctively like a bad idea to me. Here I was at 48 years old, and I had never even been drunk or smoked a joint before! I hadn’t even partaken in THC-laced edibles, though all these things had been legal for years in Oregon.

What if I became so altered that I started doing or saying things I couldn’t remember? Visions of crazy, naked, trippin’ hippies running down the street came to mind. And dare I even have the slightest bit of hope that this treatment would help when so many others had failed in the past?

“What do you think?” Ryan asked as he stared at me through the video monitor as we continued our online session. It seemed like it had been an eternity since I had seen him in person. I secretly wondered if he still existed or if I was just talking to a therapist avatar of some sort that happened to look like Ryan.

“I am terrified. I don’t know if I can take the disappointment and feelings of failure if it doesn’t work for me. My capacity for hope is gone. I just can’t be disappointed again,” I explained.

“You don’t have to hope for anything,” Ryan reassured me, “I’ll hold that hope for you, but I need you to be on your own team, ok?”

Somehow having Ryan be my “hope proxy” was comforting. If this didn’t work, I wouldn’t have to have my own hope crushed, he could just hold it for me. I had to make a critical decision at this point: would my need for control outweigh my desire to live? Would I be able to choose willingness?

I decided that I would try the ketamine therapy. I had nothing left to lose by trying it, and everything to lose if I didn’t.

Ketamine infusion therapy is done in a six-infusion series over the course of two to three weeks. The dose is titrated up over the course of that time until the patient starts to experience clear dissociation which is the effect that the doctor is trying to achieve. All treatments are overseen by a nurse monitoring vital signs and a board-certified anesthesiologist who administers the infusion.

By the second infusion, I could feel a small shift in mood. I felt the boulder on my chest had decreased in size just a bit, and while I could still hear her, that horrible internal voice that railed against me, telling me that I was worthless, stupid, and vile, was more of a whisper instead of a shriek. And then, during the fourth infusion, things broke wide open.

A tiny crack appeared. It was slight but real, and with each failure, it grew until I poured out of it leaving myself empty and hollow.

I knew this feeling well. The innumerable fissures that I had carefully patched and spackled so as not to reveal the damage and breakage to anyone because I couldn’t let them see the imperfections and so much damage.

Sometimes the voices were so loud they overtook me in waves as rough and surly as any hurricane; screaming to me of my worthlessness and failure until all I heard was death and wished so hard it would take me. I cried as I believed the mind that tricked me, telling me lies so convincing that I couldn’t hear anything else because I KNEW it was right.

For years, I awoke, bitterly disappointed that I woke up at all. Wanting so desperately to end the screaming and hate and loathing that consumed me. But even when I tried to help it along, death wouldn’t come and teased me by saying I couldn’t even get that right.

But one day, I was so deep in the ocean that I couldn’t hear the screaming anymore and I floated upward seeing the light at the surface. I didn’t dare hope because hope was for suckers, and I had been fooled so many times before, but I pushed toward the surface as hard as I could until I broke through and was engulfed by the sun. I smiled, with genuine joy because the voices stayed quiet, and my mind didn’t tell me how stupid and worthless I was, and I could finally breathe, at least for now because something inside had popped.

The fissures and cracks had been made watertight again, and I felt myself inside myself again, not leaking out onto the floor and into the despair I usually occupied. There was finally space again.

It was after this fourth infusion that I began to allow in hope, and I made the choice to be willing to accept that I may never know why I experience such profound depression. I just do, and that explanation must be enough.

As Ryan has said to me many times, everyone struggles sometimes, it is learning how to struggle without suffering that is what we all need.

Tammy Richards lives in Portland, Oregon (a proud, life-long Oregonian) with her husband of 18 years and her two sons. She has served as a certified American Sign Language Interpreter for the past 31 years. When she is not writing or interpreting, she enjoys volunteering for access-related social justice causes (such as interpreting for inaccessible YouTube or Livestream content) and participating in endurance cycling events with her AIDS/LifeCycle team: Team Portland. She is an avid reader and is also a thriving child-taxi, driving her kids around to their various sporting activities (when we are not in lockdown). She has three mini-pigs: Zena, Zorro, and Zoey, who she adores. Tammy has trained Zena as a therapy pig, so she makes appearances in special needs classrooms and nursing homes where she visits, does tricks, teaches people about pet pigs, and gets lots of treats and belly rubs. Tammy’s memoir, “Toward Not Away: A Journey Through Depression to a Values-Driven Life” is currently in the works. You can follow her on Instagram @towardnotaway and on Facebook at @towardnotaway. 

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Guest Posts, Self Image

Of Delicate Girls and Frozen Yogurt

December 29, 2021
yogurt

by Eve Mankoff

A weekly massive frozen yogurt pie, topped with whipped cream, might have been excessive. But my twenty-year-old son, home from college, and my other two teenagers bearing their own disappointments, demanded comfort at the start of the shut down in March 2020. My kids grew up making late night runs to The Bigg Chill yogurt shop, and the nostalgia imbued in those flavors was a welcome distraction in uncertain times.

I dug right in with them until there was nothing but buttery crumbs in a pie tin.

Once upon a time, I had a more complicated relationship with food. I could scarcely enjoy it, laden as indulgence was with judgement.

As I have watched them emerge, unapologetically themselves, I have tried to believe that I have created a home where my children, especially my daughter, eschewed that critical voice, the one that had told me to be smaller.

***

Ten years ago, when my daughter Caroline was eight, we went to a Jonas Brothers concert with friends. The afternoon of the show, Jeannine and I let the kids splash in the Hyatt pool and eat chicken fingers from the grill before dripping through the lobby as they raced to get ready. Caroline and Cole had been friends since preschool but got together less often now because boys play with boys and girls with girls, or so they thought. However, when we, their moms, eager to hang out, enticed them with a live show featuring their favorite Camp Rock stars, they fell back into the easy friendship they’d enjoyed as toddlers.

Back then, Caroline had struggled to relinquish the long, jingly Talking Stick, enamored with the bells inside and with holding court. Cole, more shy, had taken his time to warm up before he shared a few well thought-out words before passing the implement to another child with relief.

The amphitheatre seats rose up the hill and sectioned out like rays against mountain silhouettes. In the front row, Jeannine and I hung back, eager to talk about jobs and frustrating exes. But we found ourselves endlessly distracted, our eyes drawn to the two small bodies bobbing next to us like untethered ocean buoys.

The music rumbled to a start. The lights lifted. The air filled with a hum and the vibration of bodies readying to let loose. When eighteen year-old Demi Lovato’s husky contralto pierced the din, the audience froze, spellbound, by the delicate girl with the giant voice.

But a heaviness gathered in my chest as I took in the child star, her thick hair swirling about, her tiny body writhing, electrified by the adoring crowd, as her voice strained to reach impossible heights. I saw something in her face, in her bearing, that I recognized. Jeannine whispered, “What a powerhouse!” My mind went elsewhere.

New York circa 1987, I was  barely twenty, a junior in college. I was  on-stage playing a secretary on roller skates in The Memorandum by Vaclav Havel. Let me clarify that I was  playing a piece of furniture – I was  wheeled off between my scenes. I got the role because I was  angular.  I was “perfectly cast,” said one review. The play is about conformity. On the stark set, my paper-thin body and white blouse blended in.

Having had an eating disorder since at least age thirteen when I had no place to share an abundance of sad feelings, I learned to contain myself. I was perfect for blending in. But in earlier years, I needed food to distract me, and I just couldn’t stop eating which put me in an impossible bind.

As a teenager Frozen yogurt was on my “yes” list despite its sugar content and calorie count. The limited number of fat-free varieties, before there was every kind of option, saved it from the other list, the off-limits one, whose foods would make me fat. Pizza, nachos, movie theater popcorn, and everything else that my friends consumed without a second thought were on the “no” list.

My caloric intake was always running in my head. The numbers seemed to rise as I calculated what I could afford behind the counter at TCBY (The Country’s Best Yogurt), working out my eating for the day and how I might stay within bounds to avoid the purge. The TCBY store on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica lay across from Fong Wong, a sliver of a Chinese takeout restaurant whose spicy fumes of Sweet and Sour Chicken wafted in and reminded me of a time before I measured my value in how small I could become.

But the truth is, bulimics knew that cold creamy desserts came back up easily. They had no sharp edges or bulk to induce gagging, and caused fewer headaches and less frequent bloodshot eyes. To this day, I eye tiny women ingesting gigantic containers of the cold, milky treat with suspicion, and  concern. 

When I went to college, I found the East Coast version of my Los Angeles favorite. Tasty D-Lite was sold in narrow shops, every twenty blocks or so in Manhattan, wedged between the stately buildings that characterize the architecture whose beauty and grandeur had lured me to a new life when I visited in high school, desperate to start over, determined to move past obsession. But instead I got worse and I latched onto this food full of nothing.

Tasty D-Lite flavors had names like “Angel Food Cake” and “Banana ‘n Peanut Butter.” They sounded interesting but all tasted the same. However, I didn’t care because they  had so few calories. As I trudged from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village, trying to burn fat, I sucked down quart after quart of the insubstantial stuff, tricking my mind into liking it, tricking my body into thinking it was fuel.

I had traded the binging and purging of my teenage years for a version of starvation. And when I lost my period and my brain started to black out, I thought I had triumphed. Because I was thin.

At family holidays like Thanksgiving, I bounced up to fill my plate wearing my Laura Ashley dress, my hair in two thick braids. But as I walked back to my chair, I felt the weight of eyes on my food, on my little body that was fleshy in spots, and heard words that were repeated year after year: “ Are you going to eat all of that?” Or if I took seconds: “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

These admonishments came from Aunt Loraine, with her bleached bouffant hair and tar stained fingers, who never had a nice word for anyone, and whom no one told to shut up because feelings were not what mattered.

Then others chimed in, all of them worried about what my body would become. Worried that if I was fat I would never get a man. Because that was what mattered. So as I grew up I learned to hollow myself out, to become devoid of feelings and empty of food.

That night at the concert Caroline’s small soft body gyrated in an open expression of joy. Un-self-conscious, she drank in a near perfect moment. Up late under a blanket of stars, she was so close to Demi, she must have almost felt the warmth of her breath. But next to my daughter, I only felt an uncomfortable tug as I watched the older, celebrated girl, the one on stage who seemed to be trying so hard, who produced that haunting tone, so beautiful but tense that it sounded like it would shatter. Her tiny frame seemed overwrought from the effort to be seen while also threatening to disappear.

In my own life I had a turning point.

It happened in my mid-twenties at a  “Hollywood” party, in New York, after the worst of my eating disorder, but before it was resolved. I was with a “Hollywood Guy” who felt safe in that world. His gender protected him from predation, from immolation. He was a success. This man and I grew up together in LA and had a love affair the June when we were sixteen. At that time, we each had other relationships in disrepair so our affair  was secret by design. We spent late nights talking on the phone, kissing on his little boy bed, and driving the hills above the Pacific Ocean in my blue car.

In our twenties, we came together in New York, hoping to rekindle what started  that illicit summer.

“Hollywood Guy” left the key with the doorman. I let myself in and saw his success, his spacious apartment, the expensive decor. Feeling awkward, I stood next to the coffee table and reached for a decorative book, wondering who this man was. I retracted as his key jiggered in the lock, as though I had been caught. And in walked a person I did not recognize. Not the boy with the open face, but someone more contrived, in his khaki pants and his moussed up hair. However, his hug was so warm… I tried to settle in.

“Um, we have to go to this party. Is that okay? It’s a work thing. I’m sorry.” But he seemed giddy, not sorry, and determined to show me his world, hoping I would fit right in. He so wanted this to work, he had told me this on the phone while I lay on my bed in Providence, where I was in medical school.

Cornered, in his space, I said “Sure. Why not?” Yet somehow I knew better.

Dressed in slimming black under my thick winter coat, I slid into the taxi and off we went to a party. The heavy elevator doors parted. I braced myself to enter the room with the mannequin-thin ladies draped like scarves across the men and on the various couches.

Everything in me rejected this scene, this cast of emaciated ladies surrounding the long table with food none of the women would touch, women who seemed hired for effect, for decoration, and for men who would eat their fill. It became harder and harder to breathe as I took on the dark wood floors with weakening legs. In that instant I  flashed back to my own shame about eating, about my mushy little body, around my own family’s table, and the gazes that warned me that I would always be alone if I didn’t  control my eating. I gripped my guy’s arm for support as I whispered in his ear that I was done there.  “But I have to stay,” he replied. “Just a little bit longer” he pleaded

I remembered him at sixteen, on his bed, so sure of himself. As we listened to his music, I stretched out  beside him to escape my chaos and rest in his natural male confidence. We ate cookies just out of the oven as I pretended to be normal, especially about food.

In 2006, when I was 39, with three young children, Caroline just four, I left medicine to open a boutique in L.A. By then I was in the practice of celebrating women’s bodies, including my own, by offering clothes from zero to plus-sized. One block south was The Bigg Chill store. The owner, Diane, would come in to make conversation or try on a blouse. And I would stop at The Bigg Chill for the treat of the day. She watched my kids grow, their sticky faces wearing her flavors. I watched as her daughter started serving customers from behind the counter. Diane was proud of what she had built, and the customers kept coming. I watched girls and women frequent the shop, some obviously struggling inside their skeletal bodies, and I wondered if Diane thought about frozen yogurt and eating disorders. But I never got comfortable enough to ask her.

***

Recently Demi Lovato dispensed with comfort and took to Twitter, another stage where so many of us, older now, perhaps addictively gather. There she accused The Bigg Chill of complicity with the diet culture that pervades Los Angeles. Over photos of low-carb snacks highlighted by a cherry-red sign, “Eat me, Guilt free,” she declared that she was triggered. But she also offered more:

“I still to this day have a hard time walking into a froyo shop, ordering yogurt and being content with it and keeping it down.”

For so many years I had lived with the feelings Demi Lovato expressed so simply, so accurately, that even all these years later, I nearly gasped when I read them on Twitter. Right there for everyone to see, she exposed herself, in ways I never could. And she paid a price. Demi Lovato was accused of causing “unnecessary drama” and of being “narcissistic.”

***

In “Shameful: Women who write about their pain suffer a double shaming: once for getting injured, twice for their act of self-exposure,” Katherine Angel describes a re-wounding that women endure when they bare themselves.

“There is a circulation of shame; triggering pangs of identificatory shame in the reader could lead to convulsions of repulsion and spasms of contempt for the woman who’s committing her shame to paper.(1)”

Share “too much” and the narrative may be rejected “like a baton that no-one wants.”

That was my experience growing up.

At the same age as Caroline was when she danced solo on stage, her body vibrating as she lost herself in music, her feelings pouring out through every gesture, exposing everything, I was told to stop eating, to rein myself in.

As the delicate girl on stage retreated, the Jonas Brothers plunged into harmonies and gazed at the crowd with puppy dog eyes, their faces now massive on giant screens, wholly comfortable with their awesome projection. My daughter’s soft arm beside me was still taut with excitement.

And I was comforted, in that moment, that she hadn’t yet noticed how sometimes girls just disappear.

  1. Aeon.co. April 23, 2021

Eve Louise Makoff is an internal medicine and palliative care physician. She has had personal and narrative medicine pieces published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, PULSE, the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, CMAJ, and soon the Annals of Emergency Medicine. She is studying narrative medicine at Columbia University.

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