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On Lists and Women Named Lucy

December 5, 2023
lists

The attic was long overdue for rigorous sorting if not deep cleaning. An oversized walk-up with easy access that was rarely assessed, the attic space had become a default location for anything (and everything) without a designated place. Earlier this summer, I spent an unseasonably cool afternoon sorting through boxes of clothing, mostly outgrown, with few fabrics worthy of much contemplation, and stacks of papers from a time before our world was fully digitalized.

As I sorted, I stumbled across school reading lists that I don’t remember saving. I’ve always been a fan of books, lists, and writing; truth be told they’re my love language, but that’s too close to home and overly sentimental. While saving the list may have been intentional, the act was more likely nothing more than an effort to move never-ending clutter. I never gave much thought to how simple it was to add more stuff to the attic’s heart (and warmth). The attic’s availability and familiarity opened up an opportunity for both delayed and default reactions.

I’d regularly store undersized coats, oversized toys, and unused stacks of most anything (Peanuts figurines and crib mobiles, for example), always saying I’d sort and recycle when I had the time. The attic made it easy to defer all decisions, even those in list form, of worth, relevance, and currency. But now, with sorting on my weekly to-do list, an old reading list caught me by surprise, as book lists often do, and I paused my, until then, semi-automated routine. Books, including in list form, had always been that for me – a reminder to be and to believe in possibility.

When my children were young, we’d review summer reading book lists religiously. We’d check all titles and reconcile those for which we had copies and those which we’d need to borrow or renew. Like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we were in perpetual states of readiness to consume — words as delivered, school assignments as listed, and comic strips as written. Charlie Brown and Lucy Van Pelt, along with my children, were regular sidekicks. We’d read the Sunday morning cartoons, delivered to our doorstep early mornings, religiously.

As my children are, now, nearly grown, I’m much less likely to know what they read. I don’t know when the bookshelves turned to dust-collectors, but unless my kids order something from our shared Amazon account or happen to mention a book club pick or a surprise find in a free library (a Peanuts collection a recent swap), we’ve stopped, somehow, regularly sharing the words and writings that inhabit our coat pockets. I hadn’t realized until the book lists knocked.

That afternoon, I cleaned in an empty home. I flipped through the newly rediscovered book lists and became less eager to refresh the space and more nostalgic for passed days. As my eyes scanned the titles, I was struck by just how similar the contents were to each other and, also, how male-dominated. Somehow, the distance and the change in circumstance prompted me to re-see what I had regularly consumed as ordinary. Suddenly, I felt a bit like Lucy Van Pelt.

Lists had always been something I’d receive and then treat as sacrosanct – at doctors’ visits, school check-ins, and other socially constructed things. When my children were young, I don’t know if it was that I was too busy to question or still too unsure of my own place in the world. I didn’t believe anyone would pay five cents for my opinion. I also did not think of school-sponsored lists as something which I could, or should, co-create. Now, I’m not any less busy, but I am much less trusting of authority.

Suddenly, the same lists I had previously treated as a guide to stay on track began to look different to me. I thought, too, of how different each of my four children’s interests were (and remain). Yet over a span of over eighteen years, they were largely assigned the same summer readings. The lists maintained remarkable consistency. Works like Several Short Sentences About Writing were a regular a bookend to classics like All the Kings Men, The Outsiders, and Call of the Wild. Each appeared yearly on lists with male voices, perspectives, protagonists, and plot directors, at the center.

At one time, in the hustle and hustle of a household on steroids, I might have shuffled the pages and continued. Now, something, something had changed. As I reviewed recycled lists (World History, Psychology, and English Lit), I saw patterns I hadn’t before recognized. Why weren’t more women authors short listed and why had I not before realized?

Alongside the lists, there were doodles formed of my daughter’s careful loops – squiggles of butterflies in beds, smiling pigs playing baseball, and talking dandelions. What I had before seen as idle sketches I now saw as a voice. Some of the sheets had tallies with my children’s initials at the top. Reading was as much a shared camaraderie as a condition. At the time, the school required all minutes to be tracked. There were also signs of distractions, a few rounds of Tic-Tac-Toe and Hangman.

A small game of Hangman, Charlie Brown’s Lucy Van Pelt sketched and penned in a right margin, prompted more unexpected reflections. How come we rarely read about Lucy’s in real-world form? I thought, for example, of Lucille Ball, the first woman to head a TV production company and activists like Lucy Burns and Lucy Stone. Instead, All the King’s Men, presents a single type of Lucy – Lucy Stark, wife to Willie, who repeatedly sees her opinions ignored.

The lists’ hand-drawn doodles made me think of Nina E. Allender, an artist, cartoonist, and women’s rights activist. Allender popularized new ways of seeing women and reimagined what it means to be a girl. Allender was a leader of the National Women’s Party, alongside others like Lucy Burns and Lucy Gunner Branham.

I studied the cartoons penned by my children. Where I’d once seen a butterfly, I now saw interlocked questions and cocoons in the past tense. I wanted to know why Nina Allender and a whole host of Lucy’s and women like them were not on the roster.

I’ve since run some fresh searches. In the cooler air of my kitchen, I’ve learned that little has changed. The site domains are updated yet the book rosters are largely the same. Much like the attic had become my default, the lists themselves had become static. Even now the assigned readings posted on my local district’s website are surprisingly uniform. Our district is not alone. Quick research reveals striking similarity and sustainability across years, lists, and titles. The Wayback Machine confirms. The book list persists as an easily scalable and sustainable device and tool to perpetuate the same.

How had I not recognized the consistency in and across lists over time? Default reactions denied, I had been on autopilot, focused on getting through each day. I readily consumed and complied, all while doing my best to meet all trains, planes, and automobile deadlines – Oh my. The lists, and their patterns, were as much in need of sorting and deep cleaning as the attic, yet, as expectations associated with required readings were school-authorized, I had relied on their expertise. Why?

It’s taken me years, but I’ve finally begun to understand the meaning of voice, including my own, the power of writing to make meaning, and the importance of making sure all lists are marked by more than consumption. As my kids grew, I drafted (and regularly checked) lists for everything – meal prep, carpool, who needed new socks. But the school’s recommended reading list, I left untouched. I accepted the canon rather than questioned it. Not until my children were all nearly grown, and I was cleaning out an attic did I begin to appreciate the dangers of as-is conditions.

As my children have grown, I became increasingly curious about pedagogy and curriculum. I went back to school and now teach full-time. I’ve also found more space to pursue my own interests and writing, and, with time to reconsider default reactions, I’ve found many of my choices and reactions surprising. I wish I had questioned sooner and questioned more. How had I not known?

Thankfully, I never lost my love for reading. Reading led me to teaching and teaching led me back to writing. Mothering has been an integral part of it all. Like the Lucy’s I came to know through their written words, I joined a movement to more deeply engage in the question and meaning of education and change. Over the past year, I’ve been reading and writing about lesser-known women’s suffragists. Suffragists about whom I knew very little. Suffragists like Lucy Burns, Lucy Stone, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, and Nina Allender. Lucy Burns endured more jail time than any other suffragist. Lucy Stone was a prominent orator, abolitionist, and suffragist. Amelia Jenks Bloomer was the first female editor of a newspaper. Nina Allender created more cartoons than any other. Their names and their stories, along with so many more, were neither on the recommended book list nor in the school-issued textbooks.

In my own reading and writing, I am less interested in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution than the lives of women subject to it. This past Spring, I joined an online writing group. I submitted a draft in progress, a novel following the life story of Lucy Burns, the most-jailed suffragist, and my writing teacher expressed surprise at the character’s strength – “I never knew,” she said, then added, “That’s what writing is for.”

For years the only writing I did was signing quarterly report cards. Now, I write daily across genres – poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and more. Writing has been a way for me to engage, to learn, and to inform. It’s a form of social activism, in forms I understand. That’s one of many reasons why I’m drawn to novels in verse (a quiet act of rebellion against form, pomp, and circumstance) and Nina Allender’s work. As a cartoonist, Allender used images to say what others couldn’t (or wouldn’t).

Motherhood changes lots of things. I don’t believe I’d have ever become a teacher if not for motherhood. I also don’t believe I’d have understood the depths and breadth of the challenges of being a teacher without the experience of raising my own children. Now, I believe that part of my role as a mother and teacher is to help write new stories and ensure less-known stories are told.

Most of all, motherhood has been the most powerful reminder of the continued importance of engaging with lesser-known stories and lists yet-to-be-written, I thank suffragists, Lucys, and others like them. As I continue to sort through boxes, prior lists, and telling markings, I hope my students and my children find their Lucy. I also hope they write new lists and write bravely.

Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania.

***

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Guest Posts, Fiction

Meanwhile…

November 29, 2023
briefcase

Amir pulled his taxi into the circular driveway and idled the engine. He liked to pick up fares at the King David hotel on Saturday evenings, when the American tourists, anxious to get to the airport to catch overnight flights to New York, had no interest in making pointless conversation with the taxi driver. The King David was still the classiest hotel in Jerusalem, in Amir’s opinion, and the guests were the most generous tippers.

But he was picky. Amir avoided the religious families. The heavy suitcases bursting and tied up with cord, the men holding round hat boxes on their laps, the women exhausted and cranky, the children–four, five, six of them–dressed in matching outfits, fingers sticky with candy, eyes heavy with sleep. He had nothing against religion or children. Amir had grown up with a heavy dose of traditional Judaism that stuck to his bones, and he adored his pious father. He and his wife Tamar had married off three daughters, only the youngest boy, Yonatan, still at home eating his mother’s food and challenging his grandfather’s old-fashioned ideas. What Amir couldn’t handle was the crying and the bickering in the enclosed space of his car. Give him a business traveler in pressed khakis and a button down shirt, briefcase in one hand and garment bag in the other. No hassles.

Still, it was illegal, or bad form at the least, to choose which passengers to pick up. For that, Amir relied on Udi, a cop and old army buddy, who worked security at the hotel when off-duty. Udi was a bouncer with a gun, throwing his substantial heft around without the benefit of superior intelligence or strategic purpose. Early in their service, Amir had saved Udi’s ass during a combat training exercise, and he never forgot. Udi couldn’t repay him, but on the nights he worked at the hotel he steered the uncomplicated travelers to Amir.
Amir drove toward the front entrance where a casually dressed man and a woman stood close together, heads bowed and typing on their cell phones. One piece of soft-sided luggage each at their feet. Amir wouldn’t need Udi tonight. If he was lucky, they’d be on their emails all the way to Ben Gurion.

As Amir pulled closer, he saw a woman standing off to one side under the lights. She might have been fifty as easily as thirty; tall with remarkable posture, her flimsy yellow dress loose on her willowy frame. She had her arms wrapped around herself as though she were cold, although the approaching sunset hadn’t put a dent in the heat of the sweltering August day. Her hair hung down long and straight over her shoulders and the color reminded Amir of wet sand on the beach in Netanya where he’d grown up. As he drove past her, Amir felt the woman’s gaze fixed on him. In the headlights he imagined that her eyes were the color of sea-glass.
Hitting the brakes, he reversed slowly. A taxi driver behind him leaned on his horn, and Amir opened his window and gestured for the car to go around him. The driver picked up the cell phone couple. Amir put the car in park and got out.

Up close, the woman looked less fragile. “Where are you headed?”

“To the airport.”

Amir popped the trunk and picked up the woman’s suitcase. Her arms weren’t wrapped around herself as Amir had initially thought. She was holding a briefcase tightly against her chest. When he reached for it, she took a step back.

“I will hold on to this one.”

Amir shrugged. “Up to you.” Her English was more fluid than his own, but he couldn’t place the accent.

“Where are you from?” he asked, when she was settled in the back seat.

“Antwerp.”

“I’ve never been.” He didn’t say so, but the truth was, Amir had never been anywhere that his taxi couldn’t take him. Or his tank, in years gone by.

They rode in silence for a few minutes, Amir looking at his passenger in the rear view mirror as much as safe driving would allow. She’d strapped the briefcase in with the seatbelt beside her, although she’d left herself unbuckled.

“Have you been in Israel long?” He wondered at his own curiosity. What did it matter? In a moment she’d be gone.

“Two weeks.”

“What did you think?” Amir slammed on the brakes and hit the horn as a red Mazda shot out in front of him, cutting him off.

“I think Israeli drivers are crazy.”

Amir chuckled. “Driving here is like being back in combat.”

She nodded, momentarily locking eyes with him in the mirror. “Which was your war?”

Amir slowed the cab. The question startled him. The phrasing and the tone mimicked the way Israelis asked each other about the horrors seen by innocent eyes, the nation’s young soldiers always on the front lines of a conflict or war. It was an offhand question that got to the guts of the collective experience of the country, the bravado a scant cover for the trauma that lay just beneath the surface. It wasn’t a question asked by outsiders fom Antwerp.

Still, he answered her. “Yom Kippur.”

Her voice was smooth and musical, beguiling. “Sometimes it’s easier to speak about such things with a stranger.” How did she know that he didn’t talk about those experiences, not even with his own children when he saw them off to their own wars?

Amir strained to keep his eyes trained on the road, grateful that there wasn’t much traffic. When the woman spoke again, she took a different tack.

“Where are you from?”

“Here. Where else?”

“Somewhere before.”

“Why do you think so? I told you, I was a soldier in 1973. I was eighteen then. I was born in Jerusalem, in 1955.”

It had started to rain. The woman turned her face to look out the window as Amir flipped on the windshield wipers. The swishing sound filled the silent space between them, obscuring the pointless lie he had told. He could feel the woman would bide her time until he answered her question truthfully, holding her peace until they reached the airport if necessary. Amir felt a pressure in his throat, a choking sensation, the words he tried to suppress bubbling up into his mouth.

“My father was born in Iran in 1930 into one of the wealthiest families in the country. They were in textiles, with factories, warehouses, a fleet of trucks for distribution. In January, 1955, my father was a young man, ready to learn the business and enjoy the family’s wealth. My mother was pregnant with me, but they didn’t know it yet.”

“How fortunate for your parents.” She leaned forward a bit in the back seat, flirtatious, no longer a middle-aged woman, but a teenage girl. Amir glimpsed her collarbone at the neckline of her yellow dress, could imagine her breasts. He focused on the road as he spoke.

“Not so fortunate. Soon after I was born, my father became very sick with excruciating headaches that no painkiller made better. Because they had money, my grandparents were able to send him abroad to Europe to receive treatment. He had to leave my pregnant mother behind. He was gone for nearly a year, missed my entry into the world. By the time he had regained his health and was ready to go back to Iran, the government had taken pretty much everything his parents had.”

Amir tried to catch her eyes in the rearview mirror, to see if his earlier lie about where he was born had registered, but she was looking out her window. The rain had picked up into a downpour.

“It doesn’t rain here in this season,” Amir said. “It doesn’t rain until after the festival of Sukkot.”

“Apparently it does.” The rain was so loud on the rooftop that Amir could hardly hear her. The strangeness of the weather frightened him. He wanted to drive faster, to drop her off, to go home to Tamar. But the highway was slick and it was getting dark. And the woman had a plane to catch.

Amir gripped the steering wheel and tried to keep his hands from shaking. When the woman implored him to continue his story, he felt powerless to resist.

“Through their connections, my father was able to arrange for my mother and me to come to Israel; he met us soon after. We had nothing. My father dreamed of starting a new textile business and regaining his wealth. Meanwhile, he learned a trade. He became a locksmith.”

Amir felt a surge of anger run through him at his father’s humiliation, the way he’d run at the beck and call of a housewife who’d left a pot on the stove in the kitchen and her keys inside when she stepped out, the door locking behind her. But as quickly as the anger came, it passed. His father hadn’t been humiliated. He’d been humble and grateful. “My father worked hard. He took care of his family. He maintained his traditions.”

“And what did you dream for your life?”

“I wanted to go to University to study literature.” Amir smiled. It seemed so far away and so absurd now. He gestured toward his taxi. “This is my meanwhile.”

The rain had petered out, and they were quiet as they approached the airport. Amir pulled up behind the line of taxis and opened the door for the woman before taking her suitcase out of the trunk. He had the sensation that he needed to tell her something more, to offer her something she could take with her back to Antwerp that would mark their unlikely connection. But he had nothing in the car except the second half of the egg salad sandwich Tamar had made him for his dinner.

“Well,” Amir said, “I wish you a safe trip home. Maybe you will visit our little country again sometime.”

She took a step toward him. She kissed her fingertips and then pressed them softly onto Amir’s chest, over his heart. Then she turned and walked away. By the time he realized she hadn’t paid the fare, she’d already disappeared into the terminal.

Amir sat down in the driver’s seat and waited for his head to clear. He turned to take a look in the backseat, wondering if he could conjure the woman for just a few more moments. Instead, he saw the briefcase, buckled in safely.

“Damn it!”

Amir parked the car in the lot and ran over to the terminal, the briefcase knocking against his leg as we went. The line to check in snaked back and forth, hundreds of passengers waiting. It had been less than ten minutes, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. He sat down on a bench near the entrance to examine the briefcase. It was locked, and there was no identification on the outside. He shook it gently and heard only a muted shuffling.

Trudging back to his car, Amir alternated between cursing the woman and touching the spot she had kissed with her fingers. He placed the briefcase carefully in the front passenger seat and buckled it in as she had. Then he drove home, giving up on the rest of his shift.

When he arrived at the apartment hours ahead of schedule, Tamar fretted.

“Your son is growing like a weed. He needs new clothes all the time, and eats more than all three of the girls combined. How can you come home at 8 p.m.?”

“Relax, Tamar. It’s just a few hours of lost fares. Have we ever gone without?” Then he told her about the woman, leaving out the kiss to his heart and the feeling of longing he’d had in her presence. Amir showed Tamar the briefcase.

“Well, open it. Maybe her name is written on something inside. What are you waiting for?”

“It’s locked.”

“And your father is a locksmith. You know how to open a cheap lock on a cheap briefcase.” Tamar went to the silverware drawer. ‘What do you need? A knife?”

Amir hesitated, but Tamar was insistent. “A paper clip and maybe a screwdriver.” His hands were shaking again like they had in the car.

In a few minutes he had the briefcase open.

They both stood back from the table, mesmerized by the neat bundles of bills tied with rubber bands. When he could tear his eyes away, Amir slammed down the cover of the briefcase.

Tamar drifted over to a kitchen chair and sat down heavily. “How much do you think is in there?”

“I don’t know. A lot. But it isn’t ours. And keep your voice down please. You’ll wake my father.”

“Then whose is it? You found it! We’re barely getting by. God gave you this reward for your hard work.”
Amir picked up his car keys. “I don’t know that God was involved here, Tamari.”

She got to her feet and stood between her husband and the door leading from the kitchen to the front hallway. “Where are you going?”

Amir sidestepped her and left the apartment, Tamar’s voice still ringing in his ears.

***

When he reached the police station, Udi was manning the intake desk.

“Brother! What’s happening?” He came around the desk and slapped Amir on the back. “You missed me at the hotel so much you came here to visit?”

Amir put the briefcase on the counter between them. “I wish you had been at the hotel. You could have saved me a whole mess of trouble.”

“What are you talking about? What is this?” Udi ran his fingers over the leather briefcase. “This is classy stuff. Whose is it?”

“A woman I took to the airport left it in my car. Buckled into the back seat. Open it. Don’t worry, it won’t explode.”

Udi opened the briefcase. His eyes grew wide and he whistled through his teeth. “Wow, wow, wow,” he said, under his breath. Then he looked around the room and closed the briefcase. “Get out, Amir. Take this and go.”

“What are you, crazy? You’re supposed to be the law, Udi.”

“First, I’m your friend. This is enough money to change your life forever. You can buy the children houses, get Tamar fancy jewelry, go and study your precious literature. And we’ll be even. You don’t know who this woman is, and she’s never going to be able to find you.” He closed his eyes as if deep in thought. “Maybe she meant it as a tip for your wonderful driving.”

“Listen, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I don’t want anything to do with this woman or her money.” If Udi noticed him blush, he didn’t say anything.

Udi picked up the briefcase and took several steps toward the back of the station house. “Ok, ok. I know when you get your head set on something, you don’t change your mind. Go home to your wife and family.”

***

When Amir walked through the door, Tamar was waiting, her eyes teary. “Your father has taken a turn,” she whispered.

Yonatan was sitting by his grandfather’s bedside, holding his hand.

“Abba!” Yonatan yelled to Amir.

“Abba!” Amir yelled to his father.

It was too late.

***

On the last day of the shiva, Tamar approached Amir where he sat with his childhood friends in the living room, reminiscing.

“Do you remember the time your old man helped me break into the school after hours because I left my textbook inside and I had a big test the next day?” Shlomo laughed, patting Amir’s knee. “He was a wizard at locks. A genius.”

“You’re full of it. He was as honest as the day is long.” But Amir knew the story was true. His father could always be counted on to help.

“Amir,” Tamar interrupted. “Udi is here,” she said.

Amir shrugged. “Nu? He’s come to give his condolences. Just under the wire. Tell him to come in.”

“I don’t know. Please, come to the kitchen. He’s waiting for you.”

Amir got up slowly from his low chair, his legs stiff and aching. From the hallway he could see Udi’s broad shoulders as they filled the doorway. He thought to retreat to the living room where his friends continued to share memories about his father. But when he turned, Tamar was behind him. “Go.”

Udi wasted no time handing Amir the briefcase. “It’s been a week. No one has come to inquire or to claim this. I won’t hold it for you any longer.”

“Don’t you have a word of consolation for me?” Amir pleaded.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Amiri.” Udi put his hand on Amir’s shoulder. “Now go fulfill your dreams and your father’s too.”

***

Amir sank down into the cushions of the chair in the hotel lounge. What had Tamar called such a chair recently? A chair and a half. She’d ordered two for the salon in her and Yonatan’s new apartment that looked out on the Old City, just a stone’s throw away from where he sat now at the bar in the King David hotel. Tamar seemed determined to spend the money on everything and nothing.

He threw back a scotch, his third. He signaled to the waiter.

“Come, have a drink with me,” Amir called out. His voice was louder than he realized, and a couple at the next table looked up from their lunch.

The waiter looked down at him. “I’m working, sir. Anyway, it’s early.”

“If you won’t join me, I’ll have a double for both of us.” The waiter walked back to the bar to fill the order.

Amir hung his head. “This morning I said the Kaddish prayer for my father for the last time,” he said, to no one in particular. “Eleven months of mourning. And in that time, I’ve managed not only to lose him, but everything that was important to us both.”

The waiter had returned with Udi by his side.

“You called security on me?” Amir asked, his voice filled with shame.

“You’re drunk, my friend.” Amir could hear the disgust in Udi’s voice and he reveled in it.

The flash of a yellow dress in his peripheral vision and Amir rose on unsteady legs, lurching toward the kitchen.

“That’s her! That’s the woman!”

“What woman?” Udi said, following close on Amir’s heels.

“The one who left the briefcase. The one who destroyed my life.”

“That’s Karla. She works in the kitchen. She didn’t leave you a fortune to throw away.”

But when Amir caught up to her, he grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him. His skin tingled where it met hers and her sea glass eyes flashed in anger.

“Why?” Amir cried, as Udi stepped between them to separate them. “Why did you do it?”

The woman swayed and shimmered. Amir lunged for the woman as she faded, cracking his head on the swinging door that led into the hotel’s kitchen. Udi caught him as he fell to the ground and laid his body down, feet toward the door.

Reyna Marder Gentin is a recovering criminal defense attorney and novelist. She lives with her husband in New York. You can find out more at reynamardergentin.com

***

Our friends at Circe have launched an anti-advice column and it is fire!

Circe

Find details on how to ask Gina and Emily for advice and let us know what you think!

***

Looking to jumpstart your writing? Need to reignite your creativity? 

Paulina Pinsky has reopened enrollment for her year-long The Artist’s Way course.

Designed to transform your creativity from stuck and frustrated to unblocked and an endless source of inspiration, for any creative journey you can dream of.

Click below for more information and let Paulina know we sent you!

 

Guest Posts, Fiction

Mirror

November 26, 2023
kelly

The afternoon I returned home from taking Paul to college, I stepped out of the car and stretched my creaking limbs with a groan. After seven hours of travelling, I felt at least a hundred and six years old, and even though Paul had done the driving up to school, we had been crammed into the front seat with the entirety of his belongings filling up the rest of the car, leaving not a molecule of daylight. I took stock of the dry grass, and hesitated before climbing the three stairs to the front door. There was a stranger in the house – Paul’s absence – and I was not yet ready to confront it. To my left, I saw what appeared to be a pile of mud on the ground in front of the kitchen window. Late August heat seared my bare shoulders as I walked across the strip of lawn to investigate. Sunscreen had been the last thing on my mind at 6 am that morning, as I packed my son, with his bedding, photographs, and a garbage bag full of sneakers, into my car to move him away from home forever.

Year after year, robins built their nest in the juniper tree which stood dead center in front of the house, and which was growing so tall it seemed to bisect the structure into two distinct halves. When I went downstairs each morning to start my coffee, and the kitchen window had been left open overnight, I startled the birds and they in turn startled me with a flapping noise that was always unsettling for a moment, so close was it to my ears.

I did not remember the night before as distinctly windy, though I had lain awake, trying not to focus on the enormity of the day ahead. My boy was leaving for college. He’s ready, and so am I. In two more years, it would be Kelly’s turn. I needed to wake up in six hours, now four, now two. But at some point, something had unmoored the nest from its perch, and there it was, flipped onto the strip of lawn, slightly flattened due to its tumble to earth. Shards of eggshell were scattered in a small radius on the undergrowth but one unscathed egg sat close by in sky-blue perfection, balanced on a myrtle leaf. I turned over the nest, whose center basket retained its curve, and patted down the grass and mud on the underside. I put the egg inside, and rested the whole apparatus on the top step by the door, in the corner.

I regarded this archaeological finding as more than a little absurd, and laughed out loud. It could be that the fallen nest had been there for weeks but in the last month, I had barely looked up, so focused was I on getting Paul ready, on my new responsibilities at the hospital, and on Kelly’s breakup with the wealthy boy from Ames. There was no way of knowing; some signs can only be read by the willing.

During the year that my husband Dan thought about leaving me, and then finally did, the disturbance honed my senses and I became superstitious. Not about ladders or black cats, although I did avoid the panther cage when I accompanied Paul’s sixth grade class to the zoo.  Rather, I assigned power to whatever was littered in my path, as if my surroundings offered a puzzle of encoded messages, and none of the pieces could be ignored.

I believed that a dried leaf that floated around my feet nudged me with a message (decay is also beautiful?), or that my grandmother’s topaz that sat in my jewelry case suddenly caught the light and my eye, with ancestral wisdom I had to decipher.  I began to collect charms which I wore on a chain around my neck. A seahorse, which only swims forward; a sun, which glows behind rainclouds, the cross from my baptism, to remind me of the child I had once been. But despite my attempts at sorcery, soon Dan moved in with Laura, a grad student in town, whom he loved as much as he had loved me when I, too, was twenty six. The talismans that dangled around my neck seemed like pathetic attempts at optimism. So, I removed them, and everything became what they had been before: A dead leaf, a rock in a box, a bunch of gold charms.

My son had been gone for exactly eight hours but my house was already changed. The emptiness consumed the quiet rooms, which seemed to honor Paul’s departure by manifesting a respectful stillness. Baxter, our mutt, did not spring up to me in his usual way, but rather took his time, loped towards me, not wanting to seem too cheerful in case I was in a state of full-on despair.  I slipped the sandals off my feet and joined him on the kitchen floor.

“Bax, Bax, Bax,” I said. “You okay, boy? ‘Cos I am.”

I ran my fingers along his neck and curved around, scratching vigorously around his ears. I had dreaded getting this dog, a blatant attempt to buy my children’s happiness after the divorce. But like any adopted baby, I fell hard for him, and could not imagine life without his good cheer and even keel. It was Baxter who pitched our family into balance, and sometimes I believed he was a better, more capable, and certainly more patient parent than I.

I rested my forearm, and then my head, on his side. “You know, it was time.” I stood up, still stroking his fur.  “You’re getting gray around the edges, my friend,” I said. “Welcome to the club.”

There was a note on the counter from Kelly. Mom, I’m doing the 7-3 today. Tom wants to see me (!!!). Call me! Love, K.

 It pained me to think that after her summer of heartbreak, she would run back to Tom as soon as he beckoned. He was a junior who lived a half an hour away, and he had succumbed, cruelly, to the charms of another girl in June. It had been tortuous for me, as I felt somewhat responsible for their romance in the first place. Tom’s father was an orthopedic surgeon in the hospital where I taught nursing. I had taken Kelly to the university Christmas party last year in lieu of Keith, the man who had been squiring me around but was not much up for the office holiday bash.

She had worn a black camisole dress with rhinestone spaghetti straps, and silver heels she bought online. I marveled at the ease with which my daughter glided across the room, not to mention the salt-covered, ice-slicked parking lot. Tom noticed her, of course, and they got together a few weeks later on New Year’s Eve. I did not care for his father, who still swaggered like the star quarterback, and was known to have skillful hands and an eye for my students, but not much of a healing demeanor. It should not have colored my feelings for the son.

I picked up the phone and dialed Kelly at Bank Street Grill, where she was a waitress. She would be nearing the end of her shift, dead on her feet, wavy hair beginning to unravel from her clip, still smiling at customers.

“Hi sweetie,” I said. “Long day?”

“Totally. We’ve been really busy. Did you get Paul settled?”

“Yes. Alex was there, his roommate. He seems great. They have a kitchen.”

“Are you sad, Mom?”

“Don’t worry about me, Kel. He’s ready and that’s what counts.”

“We’ll see him in a few weeks, right?”

“Very soon. Honey…Tom?”

“I know, I know. But I’m excited.”

“You’ve been great lately.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. Gotta go. I’ll see you in an hour. Love you!”

Don’t worry? I held her like a baby for hours this summer, felt her hair soak my fingertips from the heat and exertion of her sobs.  For days, she had not left the house, despite platoons of ponytailed friends and soccer teammates who came by on bikes and in cars to get her back into the sunshine. Despite my promising her a hundred times that her heart was still whole.  That no boy, or man, or person, could rob her of her soul and that it, too, was intact.

I poured coffee from the pitcher in the refrigerator, splashed in a drop of milk, and grabbed ice cubes from the freezer. Water condensed quickly around the glass and I gripped it as if it could steady me from what might be imminent in Paul’s room. The familiar faces on the wall greeted me. Usain Bolt, the 1998 Bulls. Inside the closet, I gazed at the empty space. I sat on the bed and remembered assembling it from printed instructions, learning the finer points of an Allen key screwdriver, shocking even myself with my ability to do things without Dan.

My brain scanned my body for sadness and regret, but it came back blank. For months, people began to treat Paul’s leaving as if it were his and my simultaneous demise. But I felt great satisfaction at raising a good man. I also felt one step closer to my own release.  My friends and I – parents I’ve known since Paul started kindergarten, from the auction committee and the Little League candy bar drive – all found ourselves in the place that every mother and father does eventually, with kids moving away and for the most part, trying to prove they no longer needed us. It was sad, yes; tragic, no. We had worked hard and prepared them well.  We, too, would be released.

I hesitated and looked blankly around the room. The ceramic mug he made when he was three or four still sat on the desk which was otherwise cleared of his entire schoolboy history.  He had not packed it, and although it did not much surprise me that a college freshman would not be sentimental about a pre-school clay project, I was nevertheless surprised to see it left behind. I had thrown it away once, long ago, after the handle cracked off. Paul had dug it out of the trash, and brandished it before me, shedding angry tears, crying, “This is my CUP!”

I rose to pick it up, felt its smooth painted yellow sides, rough at the broken points, and looked inside. There was a pen cap, some paper clips, a blue cloth patch of some sort and a small bright orange shell. I removed it and wiped off the dust with the pad of my thumb. It was about the size of a nickel, unscarred and whole. A living thing had inhabited this shell in some far-flung sea. Then it floated to shore and was plucked off the sand by a boy. We were landlocked by over a thousand miles, had been to a half dozen beaches over the years, but I had no idea where it came from. I stuck it in my pocket.

I walked out and towards the bedroom, and gazed at the pile of books that sat, ever waiting for me, punishing but welcoming just the same. Now, I might have time for them. I looked up at the shelves stacked high with novels that held not only their own stories but the ancillary ones: where I was in my life on this earth when I read them. There were books from my honeymoon, and ones I had plowed through when I was on bed rest while pregnant with Kelly. Books that I read, or tried to, when I worked overnights as a young nurse, my eyes lacquered with fatigue. Others I had carried through airports, on vacation with the kids.

I picked one up and shuffled quickly through the pages, as if the smell of coffee and black tobacco would float towards me again, as it had while I read it in a cafe in Paris. I took myself there the first summer after our divorce when I had to give up my children to their father for two weeks. I recalled the agony, the bewilderment, the pointlessness of my attempt at escape. The stub of my boarding pass floated to the floor and I retrieved it: Carolyn Schepis, seat 46B. I stuck it back between the pages and as I reshelved the book, I heard the squeak of the front door.

It was Keith, whom I referred to at times as my boyfriend. He had begun to make noises about moving in together but as much as I liked sharing a bed with him when I was in the mood, the idea of committing to his laundry and general caretaking gave me the sensation of a hand gripping my throat. He too was divorced, and we had been together, or something like it, for a year.

“Carolyn?” he called. Always a question.

“Up here Keith,” I replied as I headed for the stairs, still barefoot. Keith stood in the foyer, holding forth a bag that looked like lunch, and when he saw me, he shut the door behind him. As he did, a mass of sticky heat from outdoors lumbered into the house, dissipating quickly in the air conditioning. He was in his coaching clothes, shorts, a gray T-shirt, fresh from pre-season practice with his high school soccer team. His smile betrayed more than a drop of sympathy which I tried to ignore by beaming back to him, widening my eyes gratefully at the appearance of both him, and food.

“I’m just seeing if you’re okay,” he said, wrapping a moist arm around me, and kissing me fully on the lips.

“You’re so sweet.” I continued, “Everyone keeps asking me that. I think I’m not supposed to be.” I looked in the bag. Chips. Good. “But I’m okay.”

“Where’d you find the nest?” Keith asked.

“Out front,” I said.

“Can I at least take you to dinner tonight?” Keith asked. “To celebrate? Or not…”

“Can I let you know?” I replied, grimacing. “I’m pretty tired. Kelly’s getting back together with Tom.”

“She’ll have to learn somehow,” said Keith. “Let me pick you up at 6.”

“Come by at 7. Now, I need a nap. And a shower.”

“Do you need company?” he asked, “’Cos I could use some.”

“Nice try,” I answered. Ridiculous to think I would be in the mood, and he knew it.

“I’m kidding,” Keith said, sheepishly.

“You are not,” I said. “See you later. Thanks for the lunch. I don’t deserve you.”

“No,” he said, “You don’t. But I keep hoping you will.”

I closed the door behind Keith and in the kitchen, opened the bag of potato chips. It was cool inside the house, and in my tank top, I almost needed a sweater.  I chewed on half of the ham sandwich, with mustard only, just how I liked it, and left the second half uneaten. I went upstairs and while getting undressed, I noticed gold tips on the leaves of the sugar maples that lined the back fence. Late August always seemed incongruous, how the trees just knew their time for turning, as if on cue.

After my shower, I heard Kelly come inside.

“Mom!” she cried. “That nest! You know it’s good luck to find a robin’s nest with whole eggs?”

She walked into my room as I was buttoning up my jeans.

“You should bring it inside,” she said excitedly.

“I’ll leave it out on the porch for now,” I said. “I’ll call Flanders, maybe they can pick it up or tell me what to do.” The nature center was a mile away, and could probably offer some quick advice.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” She plunked down on my bed and curled up like a tired, satisfied kitten. “Do you have any laundry?” she asked. “I need to wash my restaurant shirt for tomorrow.”

“Sure, honey,” I answered, gathering my dirty clothes from the morning, and stopping to kiss her on the cheek as if she were a napping baby. “I’m doing a load now. Bring it downstairs.”

After she dressed for her reunion with Tom, I met her in the kitchen. She was fresh, her cheeks were lightly shimmered. She had done battle with her thick curls for years, had attacked them with all manner of flattening iron, conditioning salve and straightening paste. My hair is thin and barely holds a wave, and so I genuinely envied her mane, even though saying so had me branded as patronizing and, as her mother, I had no credibility anyway. Lately, though she seemed to have embraced her wild hairstyle, which was distinct in our flaxen-blonde town.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” I said.

“Mom,” she groaned. “He said he was sorry.”

“But he cheated on you, Kelly. You can’t get in the habit of thinking that’s okay,” I insisted.

“He made a mistake. We all do.” Kelly took a can of seltzer from the refrigerator and plunked it on the counter in front of me, popping it open with the aplomb of a veteran bartender.

I wanted to add, “And his father is such a creep,” but I held my tongue, knowing that it would be unfair to pass such judgment onto his son. It was, in fact, awkward to see Tom’s father in the hospital corridors, and I assumed he was doing perpetual reconnaissance on the fledgling nurses, especially the petite, busty ones. I felt sorry for his wife.

“Mom, you just hate men,” Kelly said, matter-of-fact.

“Kelly! I don’t either,” I said, recoiling somewhat from the sharp sting of her words. “What a horrible thing to say!” We fought rarely, and when we did, it wore me out for days. I scrambled for a reply. “You don’t deserve a cheater.”

“I’m sixteen, Mom,” Kelly exclaimed, hands extended before her, palms upturned.  She looked at me and gulped from the soda can. “Not forty-four. Which should be considered young, but which you have redefined as “Time to give up.”

“Kelly,” I said limply.

“Look at how you treat Keith,” said Kelly. “Why do you even bother?”

“That’s really none of your business.” The unspoken words soured in my mouth. I cursed the rulebook that I wanted to tear up again and again, the one where it says a spurned spouse is not allowed to disparage the ex—ever, under any circumstances—to the children.

“Mom, so my heart broke. And we’re getting back together. It’s good and I’m happy.” I stared at her and she continued, “He screwed up. Who doesn’t?”

“It doesn’t mean you have to be waiting at the bus stop as soon as he wants to see you…” I began to feel something close to embarrassment, so I stopped.

“I’ll be home by 12. Promise. I have to be at work at 6 in the morning.” Kelly leaned over and pecked me on the forehead, and I stood to walk her to the door. Confidence lightened her bearing, it was impossible not to see that. “Don’t forget to put my uniform in the dryer! Thanks, Mom!”

My daughter disappeared into the early evening sun, which pooled on the walkway between the hedges. Above it, a wall of heat and light formed, thick and blinding.         

Keith picked me up for dinner in town, and afterwards, I promised my favors for some other time. As we said goodnight, I asked him about Kelly’s accusation – there was no other word for it. I was not angry, but rather mystified.

“You don’t think I hate men, do you?” I asked.  Moths congregated with loud flapping all around the porch light. One sat large and still on the door, a deep celadon green.

“Why do you ask that?” he said, tucking a lock of hair behind my ear, twirling it for a second around his finger.

“Kelly said that,” I answered.

Keith took a deep breath. “She’s a preternaturally wise young lady.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.

“You don’t hate men,” Keith said. “You just don’t like that most of them love women and have no idea how to do that right.”

“That’s absurd,” I protested.

“That’s the truth,” he said, kissing me again. “Now hurry up inside.”

I undressed in the dark, listening for a noise, any noise. I went to Paul’s room, and lay across his bed in my summer night gown, grasping the still-strong scent of a teenage boy. I stared at the ceiling while tears flowed straight down my cheeks, pooled around my ears, soaked my neck and eventually the pillowcase under my head.

Around midnight, I heard Baxter welcome Kelly home with the gentle bark that informs me of my children’s arrival, and not the one he employs to warn me of something menacing or unfamiliar. The door creaked open, and I could hear the faint whisper of the kids on the front porch. There was a sudden quiet, during which I assumed they kissed each other goodnight.

Kelly’s shoes plunked on the floor. She tiptoed into my room. “Mom?” she said, “Mom?” Her voice raised in alarm.

“In here, sweetie,” I said, swinging my legs around to the floor where Paul had planted his size 13 feet every morning. Kelly walked in and sat down beside me.

“I think a raccoon or something got to the nest,” she said, and tears gathered in the corner of her eyes.

“It’s okay, honey,” I said. “What’s wrong? Did tonight go okay?” I took her head in both hands and tilted it up to face me.

“It was great, Mom. Really.” She was crying. Briefly, her expression showed relief.  “Now it’s gone. It was going to bring you good luck.” She looked around, wiping her cheeks and then waved her hands towards the darkness

“The robin’s nest?” I asked. Kelly nodded. “It already did, honey. Now go to sleep. You have an early morning.” I stood and walked her to the bathroom, and myself to my own bed.

When she left for work at 5:45, the sky was just pale enough for me to see her bicycle whir to the stoplight and veer towards town.

Kelly had gathered the eggshells and put them back into the nest. There were a few scattered bits on the porch, but whatever had eaten it had swallowed the inside whole. The trough held the pile of fragments. They were so blue. Aegean, celestial, oceanic blue. I could not bear to think of the devastated mother robin. I wedged the nest into the dark interior of the juniper tree.

In the kitchen, I started my coffee and made my foray to the laundry room. Every morning my feet carried me there, unwittingly, to my children’s clothes. I folded them and put them in piles, which, with an ache of tenderness, I patted and pressed with my palm. With Paul gone, there would much less housework to do, at least until Thanksgiving. In six days, I would be back at the college, with a new school year of my own.

I opened the dryer, gripped the lint catcher, and peeled off the soft gray sheet. It was satisfying, as it always was. Something fell on the floor, bounced once, and landed square and whole. It was the orange shell from my jeans pocket, from the deepest ocean, from a beach somewhere, from a small boy’s hand. I went to Paul’s room and returned it to the cracked clay cup.

Marcia DeSanctis is the author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, a New York Times travel bestseller. She is a contributing writer at Travel + Leisure and Air Mail, and also wrote/has written for Vogue, BBC Travel, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Tin House, Coachella Review, The Common, and many other publications. She has won five Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers, including one for Travel Journalist of the Year.

 

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Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

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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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Self Image

Body In Motion

November 19, 2023
body in motion

I don’t know when it started, but it may have been on a bus.

Growing up two easy hours north of New York City, it was common for a community group of some kind to organize a day trip to Manhattan on a Greyhound coach. My mother, eager to show me the world outside my small hometown, would frequently shell out the thirty or forty dollars to reserve two seats, usually coordinating with parents of my classmates. We’d meet before dawn in a grocery store parking lot—a space big enough to idle the bus—Dunkin Donuts coffee in hand for the adults, plastic bottles of juice for the kids, Munchkins to go around. My friends and I would jostle for spots in the back to warnings of “behave or we will separate you.” Rowdy on sugar and novelty, we got a stern glance now and then during the first half hour of the ride, as the driver took us across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and onto the thruway headed south to the city. After a while, though, the too-early wake up (on a Saturday!) and consistent humming of the motor would lull nearly everyone asleep, save perhaps the almost-elderly, whom I now suspect were used to rising at that hour and enjoyed the eventual peace and quiet.

The days might be spent in combinations of parents and kids, sightseeing the obvious landmarks, eating street-cart soft pretzels, and trying not to get lost so we wouldn’t have to embarrass ourselves to chic New Yorkers by asking for directions. Sometimes, the trip involved seeing the matinee of a Broadway show, and our large group, having splintered off at the 8 am arrival into Port Authority, would reconvene in the balcony to enjoy Phantom or Cats or whatever musical was just enough past its prime for a bunch of out-of-towners to score a group discount. Mostly, though, my mom and the other parents would try to get us kids to learn something at Ellis Island while we begged to go to FAO Schwartz. The Museum of Natural History tended to be a decent compromise, because at least we got to see the dinosaurs.

We would eat dinner at tourist-trap restaurants in Times Square—Planet Hollywood or Hard Rock, choosing overpriced chicken fingers and whining to buy overpriced merch. Afterwards, we’d begin the walk back to meet the bus and our driver, possibly stopping on the way to buy a magnet or postcard or other memento from exactly the kind of shop you imagine. Hopped up on caffeine from free Coke refills at dinner, we’d clamor aboard to return to our original seats, so marked with personal belongings leftover from the morning whose purpose was solely to occupy empty space and ensure the rightful reseating of its owner. The parents, exhausted from a day of shuttling us around, fell asleep almost immediately, and if nothing else, we were smart enough to keep the volume down as we chatted with each other about the gravely significant moments of junior high. We’d successfully fight to stay awake on the return bus ride, only to fall asleep immediately in the car during the fifteen minutes it took to get from the parking lot back to our quiet small town homes.

Most of these trips blend together. Once, I remember wearing garbage bags as rain gear because my mom refused to shell out twenty bucks for two blue plastic ponchos when an unplanned downpour met us upon arrival.

And another time Glenn told me how fat my thighs were.

Despite being two years my senior, this one trip home we ended up sitting together. He was the older brother of a male classmate. I was in the window seat and had on shorts. Not short-shorts—my rather prudish mother would never allow me to dress “like that”—but shorts of a reasonable length for a tween. I remember now, though I didn’t always, that he poked his finger into my inner thigh as the bus maneuvered the bumpy potholes of Yonkers. “Look how it jiggles!” he laughed.

***

I moved the food around on my dinner plate just enough to look like more was gone than had made its way into my mouth. I became a vegetarian—yes, certainly because of the inspiration from my Birkenstock-wearing, Phish-listening camp counselors over the summer, but also secretly because I would be able to consume less while standing on a soapbox. After school, I would take the bus home, let myself in, and run the carpeted stairs in my small townhome for an hour until my mom came home from work, then go for a jog. I used her antique marble bookends as weights to do biceps and triceps. Though planks weren’t en vogue then as they are now, I did all manners of ab exercises on the scratchy living room rug.

One evening after rehearsal for the school musical, my then best-friend’s mom took us to Burger King. When asked my order, I chimed from the backseat that I wanted a veggie Whopper—basically the bun with the fixins’—and a Diet Coke. Mrs. F looked at me from the driver’s seat and commented on my sallow skin, sunken eyes, and lifeless hair. “I think I know what you’re doing,” she said, “and I will tell your mother.”

***

It is an unnaturally warm October afternoon; an Indian Summer, I might have called it once. My car is so hot from the sun beating through the windows all day that I decide to risk my physical safety to remove my shirt while I drive down the equally unnaturally empty Schuykill Parkway toward downtown Philadelphia for an appointment. When I am eventually forced to sit in traffic, I rationalize that the passenger in the car next to me can’t see more than if I were on a beach in a bikini, not that I would wear one.

I walk into an office building and wait to be called in. I am there to be evaluated as part of an experimental treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder being run through Temple University. Entirely self-diagnosed, I signed up to participate in this study mostly out of curiosity, understanding full well I could easily be part of the placebo group. Eventually, the researcher appears in the room to bring me back. She introduces herself, explains the purpose of the study, and has me sign the requisite consent forms before giving me a questionnaire to assess my overall mental state. After several minutes of quiet save the scratch of my pen, I hand it back. She quickly takes inventory of my answers and looks at me as she places the clipboard on her desk.

“Well, I think you’d be a good candidate for this study, to start,” she says. I smile, glad my trip to the city on a work night wasn’t wasted. “Let’s talk about your body issues.”

“I…um, ok?” I stammer. I’m sweating again.

“How long have you thought these things?” she asks, gesturing at my answers. “It’s obvious there’s something there.”

“Well…kind of always? Definitely since middle school, but, I’ve never, like, told anyone.” Mrs. F’s warning flashes in my mind.

“Tell me more about your eating and workout habits,” she coaxes.

She listens as I tell the superficial truths about my lifestyle, making sure to point out that I do eat, even if I also workout with extreme regularity.

“Have you heard of Body Dysmorphic Disorder?”

“I haven’t.”

“Without doing a full evaluation with you as my patient, I can’t say for certain, legally. But…” She trails off; I understand her meaning. She steers the conversation back to my original purpose for being there, and I leave that evening with one of those light-boxes and a sheet to track my usage. For being in the study, I got to keep it.

***

My friend BP and I scurry into class a wee late, Starbucks guiltily in hand. It’s a small doctoral seminar, so we can’t hide, and our professor chides us good-naturedly before continuing her lecture. As usual, she’s holding court from the front of a conference table, unconsciously waving an invisible cigarette as she waxes on. Two hours later, we are dismissed, and she grabs me before I leave to hand me her extra set of keys; I’m house-sitting for her this weekend like I often do when she travels. “Have the girls over for wine and enjoy the deck!”

I do just that, since I never host at my tiny apartment. We settle into her cushioned patio furniture with drinks and a cheese plate. After the requisite complaints about various papers and professors, the conversation turns to our absent host and how much we adore her and her wacky-chic aesthetic: a severe dyed-garnet bob; a uniform of all black denim, even in the humid Ohio summer; cherry-red manicures.

“I don’t know how she lifts her little arms with all that silver jewelry!” I joke. “She’s so tiny!”

“You’re the exact same size!” BP admonishes from across the table.

“On what planet are we the same size!?”

“This one,” chimes in Kate between sips of her Pinot Noir.

“No way. Absolutely not. She is minute. I have chunky workout legs and she is a stick!” I put down my wine glass to gesticulate for emphasis.

“Easy way to solve it. Go try on her clothes,” Erin shrugs. I protest that this seems like a housesitting violation. But they won’t leave it alone, so we go upstairs to the main bedroom.

I rifle through her walk-in before selecting a pair of her oft-worn black jeans with rhinestone swirls on the back pockets. I tug down my yoga pants, muttering that this is dumb and stupid and that my friends will be really embarrassed when I can’t even get them over my ass.

Not only do they slide on easily, they’re almost too big in the waist.

I emerge, sheepish and making excuses, to several pairs of eyes staring I told you so.

***

I wish trying on those jeans had resulted in an epiphany that catapulted my life forward with a newfound body awareness and resolve to fix the fucked-up cycles of my brain. It didn’t, of course. BDD isn’t your garden-variety westernized hatred of the female body. Like most women I know, can list off in rapid succession aspects of my appearance I wish were different: too-fine hair, too-pug nose, too-pale skin, too-small breasts, too-thick ankles, even a too-long toe. Like my mother, I have one droopy eyelid, veiny hands, and very pointy elbows. BDD is more than this. It’s like living in the house of mirrors at a carnival: rationally, I know that how my brain interprets my reflection is distorted and keeps me confused and trapped, but I can’t escape. I walk around pretending to ignore the feeling that underneath my skin is a skeleton covered in a suit of sludge.

Not common parlance when I sort of stopped eating in the early 90s, “disordered eating” is part of my struggle, and why other people with BDD often get misdiagnosed with anorexia. Memes about “not having to earn your food” or “there’s no such thing as bad food” are de rigueur on body liberation social media accounts, now. The raging feminist in me celebrates these sentiments, as well as those about BMI, obesity, and fat being dangerous myths perpetuated by the billion-dollar diet industry, because I honestly love food. Yet I am constantly calculating what I put in my body and how I’ll compensate for it before or after. I pre-check menus if I’m headed to a new restaurant to adjust my lunch in preparation for my dinner. I choose hotels with fitness facilities when I travel, so I can enjoy those out of town restaurants more easily. When I go home to visit my mom for winter break, I pay the daily rate at her local big box gym to compensate for the champagne and holiday snacking we’ll enjoy for a week.

Ironically, people often comment on “how much I can eat.” One Thanksgiving, Kate’s grandfather clapped me on the shoulder for helping myself to thirds, boisterously questioning where I was putting all those potatoes. What he didn’t know is that I went to the gym earlier that day and extra the next. You can find me hovering around the appetizer table at most parties. I stress-eat after a breakup or other emotional setback. A child of a Boomer whose parents lived through the Great Depression, I’m a lifelong member of the Clean Plate Club at meals.

Until recently, I have shared my struggle with very few people for fear it translates into mere vanity, or worse, an acquiescence of the patriarchal beauty standards in a culture that commodifies the body. But the distorted eating and gym obsession is more than the desire to maintain a “healthy lifestyle” or whatever palatable phrasing we’re using now. I literally can’t help it.

Eating makes me anxious. Not exercising makes me more anxious. Thinking about either makes me anxious. I do not feel right or think right or act right if I am out of equilibrium, a delicate homeostasis that requires calculated measures to achieve in the first place. Sometimes, my desperation is so real I fantasize about a Faustian solution. To be rid of this anguish is one of the three wishes I’d ask of a genie—but only if it came with the “good day” feeling, too. The downward spiral of knowing how much more I could be and do and want and allow myself, if only, is a feedback loop of fear and frustration with no finale.

This loop is further fueled by: how dare I.

I am white and cis and able-bodied. I am squarely middle class with access to several grocery stores and the transportation and literacy to access and prepare nearly any food of my choosing. My budget allows for memberships to fitness facilities, at times even a personal trainer, and a few pieces of equipment for my home purchased during lockdown. I would never grace the pages of a magazine, but I have undoubtedly benefited from the pretty/thin privileges, especially given that I was raised with the social mores to finesse my dress for all occasions, including job interviews, and can usually find clothes in my size, without the added burden of plus-size pricing or needing a seamstress.

How dare I applaud beautiful fat women without having their body confidence to wear a crop top or remind my new-mom friend that no one cares she doesn’t fit into her pre-pregnancy jeans while I can’t wear my own without a hefty leg-day workout first or convince my carb-conscious friend to “order the pasta if you want it! Life is too short!” while knowing I would punish myself for the same order or even click like on the meme about how we’re not alive to lose weight and pay bills.

How dare I exist in this world as I am and be unable to enjoy neither the world nor myself?

***

I am one week into a two-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, floating down the Mekong River on a boat with my newfound (in their 20s) friends from England. Having crossed into Laos the day prior after several days in Thailand, I’ve generally adjusted to the local cuisine which for a vegetarian is quite accommodating—rice or noodles and tofu and veg in varying recipes that are, to use a Thai phrase, “same same but different.”

But. It’s been a week since I was at the gym, so I’m fighting off a bad body day. It is obviously humid, which, coupled with being surrounded by women who still have gorgeous skin courtesy of an ample, youthful supply of collagen, has left me feeling gross and ugly and full of sludge. We lounge around, pausing every so often from our reading or chatting to listen to our boat guide tell us about the importance of the Mekong or various sites. I scroll through pictures from my travels so far and must use self-talk coping strategies to not delete several shots of me giving an elderly elephant a bath at a sanctuary, because I am (of course) in a bathing suit. I get angry with myself for worrying about what I look like bathing an elephant in Thailand because it is a waste of emotional space to give a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I flashback to the memory of the picture being taken by a stranger and how I strategically added mud to my already muddy body as dysmorphic camouflage. I simultaneously chide myself for these thoughts and admonish myself for chiding myself since I can’t help them and wrestle for a few moments with the knowledge that I have nearly 50 more days of this trip: the Southeast Asia battle of this incessant war.

The wife of the Laotian couple leading the boat tour announces it is time for lunch and reveals a magnificent spread of (you guessed it) rice and noodles and tofu and veg, alongside chicken and other meat dishes and salad. I help myself to the buffet and stifle the internal monologue about the prevalence of carbs, reminding myself that the iPad I’ve toted along as an e-reader cost about three months this woman’s salary and just shut up and stop worrying about your Western mental struggles, you ungrateful colonizer. It helps a little.

Later that same trip, now on an island in Cambodia, those same girlfriends and I go night swimming in water full of bioluminescent algae. We hiked that day, so I’m feeling good-ish about skinny dipping, letting the trails of faint green light swish around the path created by my arms and legs. For just a moment, I am free and light and astounded by the natural world and my absolute privilege to be exactly where I am, and how.

Hilary Brewster

Hilary Brewster is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Marshall University. Previous publications have been with Palgrave Macmillan, Sense, Two Cities Review, Cargo Literary Magazine, and Bookbird journals. Her poem “Am I Allowed Here?” appears in the 2022 Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and her article about pregnant stand-up comedians is forthcoming in the Journal of American Popular Culture.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

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!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Anxiety, Self Care

Floating

November 16, 2023
float

For weeks I sat on the edge of the pool, dangling my feet in the overchlorinated water. I watched as screaming kids executed cannonballs and underwater handstands.  My body ached with envy, but I couldn’t bring myself to jump in.  At seven-years old, I felt it was already too late for me to learn to swim.  Seven-year-olds, at least the strong, brave, competent ones, had been swimming for years.  My shame kept me firmly cemented on the ledge.

Each day, during those weeks, Dad would spread out a towel on the hot concrete and sit down next to me.  He would drape his muscular arm around my bony shoulder and whisper, “Are you ready?” Every day I would shake my head no.  Until one, particularly humid day, for some reason, I reluctantly nodded my head, yes.  That is when dad scooped me up and walked us slowly down the wide steps with the long silver banister into the shallow end of the pool at the Dolphin Swim Club.  I wrapped my goose-pimpled arms tightly around his neck and tied my skinny legs to his torso.

“We are going to start by learning to float on your back,” he said with a gentle smile.  “If you ever get into trouble or you get too tired you can always just flip over and float.”

Flip over and float.  He made it sound so easy.  But, stubborn with fear, I refused to let go.

“It’s okay, today we are just floating,” he whispered in my ear as he carried me through the water.

I clung tighter.

Dad lumbered around the pool with me glued to the trunk of his body for a long while.  He bobbed up and down, back, and forth.  When I finally relaxed my shoulders and loosened my grip ever so slightly, he cupped the base of my head in one hand and gently lowered it into the cool water.  He placed his other hand firmly on the small of my back.

“Now, just lie back,” he said calmly. “That’s all you have to do. That’s it, there you go, you are floating.  That is all you have to do.”

Dad’s voice was faint but soothing through the water. I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my checks.  My thin wisps of brown hair fanned out around my face.

“Ahhhhh, what a macheyeh,” he said, repeating the Yiddish word for joy.

I could feel his smile through his words and instinctively knew its meaning.  He didn’t do that thing that many parents do– unexpectedly letting you go and making a big show of how you are doing it all by yourself. Instead, dad kept a feather touch on my lower back just enough pressure so I knew he was still with me if I needed him.

Just when I felt like I could float like that forever, a sudden splash of water smacked at my face.  I panicked and flailed my arms and legs at the same time. I felt my body slip away from dad’s hand and start to sink.   The water splashed over my mouth and nose.  Dad scooped me back up in an instant.    But those seconds left me sobbing and gasping for air.

“Shhh, shhh, shhhh,” Dad said caressing my head, “you are okay, Peanut. That little boy over there just jumped into the water and splashed you.”

He pointed to a boy with white, blond curls and a mischievous grin.   I glared at the boy still sniffling.

“Don’t worry about him,” Dad said, “all you have to do is keep floating and you will be safe.”

I buried my face in the crook of dad’s neck for a long while.  He didn’t take me out of the pool.  He didn’t suggest we try again.  He just kept bobbing along with me until I calmed down.  Then I said, “Okay, let’s try again.”

Dad smiled. He looked proud. “Okay. Remember, no matter what happens just keep floating –don’t worry about what is behind you or in front of you. Just float. I will be here the whole time.”

Within weeks I was doing freestyle, cannonballing and even working on my underwater handstand, while Dad watched from the edge of the pool—there if I needed him.

Most importantly, that summer I learned to float.

***

Thirty summers later after dad taught me to float, I was living a life I convinced myself was perfect.  I was married to a man with whom I was deeply in love.  I had a beautiful baby boy and a job as a lawyer in one of Philadelphia’s biggest law firms.  And then within the course of three months, I had stepped on a trifecta of landmines that left me flailing and gasping for air.  My marriage began to unravel.  I suffered a health crisis that I could have never seen coming.  And I experienced a professional failure that left me wondering whether I chose the right career path.

During those sticky months, I somehow managed to get through my workdays and complete the maternal checklist of dinner, bath, book, and bedtime.  Then I would collapse into grief—lying on my couch, scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, crying, and eating the most comforting food Grubhub had to offer.  I wasn’t sleeping, my eyes were perpetually swollen, and despite the Grubhub, I was somehow losing weight.  I felt myself being pulled into a place I had never been before.  The identity I had spent so much of my life erecting had crumbled in the span of three months.  I didn’t know who I would be without the perfect marriage, the perfect job, and a healthy functioning body.

I had always learned that Jews don’t kneel, but one sleepless night in August I got up and for some reason found myself on my knees at the edge of my bed with my hands cupped in front of me, the way I had seen little kids pray on television.

“Please,” I whispered to a God I had never spoken to before, “please take this all from me.  Please help me.”

I stayed there on my knees for a long while.  I was waiting for an answer, a sign, some instructions about how to move forward.  There was no answer, no sign, no instructions.  God said nothing.  Still, I felt calmer for having spoken the words, lighter somehow. I got back in bed and just kept whispering to myself, “you are ok, you are ok, you are ok.”

Kneeling before my bed and asking for God’s help became my ritual that summer. The words “you are ok” became my refrain.  I repeated them to myself each time my thoughts pulled me into regret, anger, shame or overwhelm.  I repeated them when I felt rage rise in my chest and when I felt terrified of what was to come.

By September, I was sleeping better, crying less, reading more.  I was singing to my baby boy again. And at some point, that fall, I realized I was floating.

*This essay was originally published online at Philadelphia Stories. 

Tammi Markowitz Inscho is a reformed trial lawyer turned writer. Tammi’s personal essays have been featured here at The Manifest-Station and in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Tammi is currently hard at work on her first novel. She also leads creative writing workshops for youth and teens in the Philadelphia area. She lives in Center City Philadelphia with her husband and young son.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

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!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Grief

The Mourning Essay

November 13, 2023
Josh cemetery

Ghosts are supposed to be translucent, ephemeral. Mine are opaque, and permanent. Like the humidity on the Gulf Coast, ever present and palpable. If I could take a knife and cut a path through it, I would; I have tried. I’ve surgically removed myself, carving out limbs at a time until now, almost a decade removed, again, from living in Biloxi, I feel that mostly I am whole and present in the DC suburbs in which I live. It takes a long time, piecing oneself back together. After the traumatic death of a brother. After the rape and sexual assault from a friend. After heartbreak and disappointment and the wiping away of future plans. When I think of Mississippi, I think of pain and heartache. I think also of ignorance and backwardness and tremendous poverty. Of the final home of the first and last president of the confederacy. This monument to racism that stands and collects money, celebrating a history that is mistold, still. That flies not just one but hundreds of confederate flags, every day in 2022, and I am filled with dread. And yet for the sake of my children, and perhaps also for myself, this summer once again I find myself planning a trip back to the place where everything truly terrible in my life has happened. Because if I truly want to heal, I need to remember where I came from and how far I’ve come, and I want my kids to know more of the world than the haven their father and I have tried to create for them in suburbia. Because there is also beauty there, in Biloxi. Time moves slower and life is simpler. The Gulf beckons and pulls and reminds me of the possibilities in that murky water where the river meets the sound and the dolphins and stingrays play. And a day on the water in any kind of boat can heal almost anything. And so we go, every summer, and the ghosts and the mist envelope me and mine again.

But first, a memory.

The cool, dry air on my skin, driving my white mustang convertible, top down, through the hills and valleys of Northern California, the vineyards rolling past in waves of color, the smell of manure and compost and dreams permeating the air around me. The warmth of the sun and the endless possibilities in the open clean air of a California morning. That morning, so long ago, when California-me still believed it was possible to shake off my hometown.  It was 7:30 AM on January 12, 2006, and I was on my way to work at Napa High School when my friend Shelly Barq called from Biloxi. She was thousands of miles away and three hours ahead of me in time.  This morning in Napa, like every morning, the sky above was a brilliant blue punctuated with hot air balloons. The beauty of this adopted home astounded me daily. I loved that I needed a sweater in the mornings and could wear shorts in the afternoon. I loved the hills and valleys, the river and the endless cerulean sky. The gourmet coffee shops and grocery stores and boutiques I couldn’t afford.  In every possible way Napa was the opposite of where I had grown up in hurricane country. There was never even a cloud in the sky, not one.

“Is your brother ok?” Shelly asked.

I had no idea what she was talking about. My morning had consisted of an argument with my fiance, Jeff, and then a hasty exit to my car. He would be driving to Santa Rosa this morning to work at his mother’s office (supposedly) and then staying late afterward to play with his band—that part, at least, I could believe. That is all he did, really, pretend to be a rock star and smoke pot. The rockstar bit is part of what attracted me to him in the first place. There is nothing more romantic than sitting under the stars with someone who is playing the guitar and crooning a love song while staring into your eyes.

“Call your mom,” Shelly said, and I hung up with her and called home expecting my mother to tell me that my youngest brother Josh had perhaps broken his leg in a car accident.

“Pull over and park the car,” Mom said.

It was 9:30 AM her time, and 7:30 in Napa. Impatient and because I was almost to school, I told her I was parked even as I continued to drive.

“Your brother has been killed,” she said. “He passed away.” Stunned, I coasted into my parking space. I couldn’t understand what she was saying.

A memory.

Running laps at the park by our house. The oppressive heat and stings of mosquito bites. A desire to show off. Josh wanted to get into better shape for baseball, and he asked me to train him to run faster. I ran behind him and in front of him. I sang motivational songs, He was out of breath after 50 yards. His dark brown hair and little belly, the way he trudged rather than jogged. His body had never been the same after his surgery. When he was 10 he’d been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, and after a round of chemotherapy he’d had surgery to remove the tumor in his leg, and a surgeon had spliced the bones there together with another bone from his pelvis. He was a survivor; he was a fighter. That day at the running track though, he gave up after 2 laps, and I teased him endlessly.

Not possible that he was killed, that he had “passed away.” Passing away implies some sort of gentle crossing, and there is nothing gentle about being crushed by an 18 wheel truck.  He and seven of his friends had been driving back from a party about an hour north from our hometown, and in the back country roads of Wiggins, Mississippi, in dense fog and after too many drinks, they had gotten lost. Chris Rutland, the driver, did a 3 point turn in the middle of the highway, and in the 3 AM fog, his truck had been struck by an 18-wheeler going probably 80 miles an hour. Josh and five of his friends had been killed instantly.

How could he be dead? Why him? Had I not also been to a million parties in remote locations and driven with a driver who’d also had too much to drink? I don’t think I’m alone in this, when we are young, we are stupid. Most of us are pretty lucky and survive those mistakes. Josh and his friends didn’t. But I had just seen Josh when I was there for Christmas break. We had last talked a few days before, when I called to see if he’d yet gotten over the cold he had while I was visiting. I was feeling sniffly and wondering if I should visit the doctor for some antibiotics, or if it was, in fact, just a cold. He had told me he was fine. He is fine. No other option was plausible. Because if my little brother was dead, what did that make me?

Memories.

He was 6 and I was 11, and I was the only one he trusted to pull his loose tooth. I was his protector, his “Gigi” when he couldn’t yet say Angie properly.  His little arms around me when he’d had a nightmare and needed someone to hold him while he fell back asleep. The smell of Dove soap and toothpaste and the slight fear that he might pick his nose and put the boogers under the covers.

While home that Christmas, I had brought Jeff with me to meet my family. It had been a disaster. Jeff Fitzgerald did not in any way mesh with my southern Mississippi past and present. He had threatened at one point to walk to the airport and leave early because he couldn’t stand the… what exactly? I’m not sure. Now I think what he couldn’t fathom was the intimacy. This is what scares me too, now, at 42, when I think about visiting my parents and Bryan, my remaining brother, in Biloxi. I’ve successfully cocooned myself in suburbia, a thousand miles away, and I don’t want to open my heart back up to that place where it can be hurt again by those who knew me before. There used to be a closeness between my brothers, parents and me. There was no escaping it if I wanted to. Even as a 22 year old adult visiting with Jeff that winter, the strict curfews and rules were still in place because, according to my dad, “when you are under my roof you are under my rules.” I don’t think Jeff had any of this growing up; certainly there didn’t seem to be any structure in his life, any comprehension of the importance of honesty and even sobriety. That I came from a place where people couldn’t buy wine at the grocery store or liquor (or wine) on Sundays seemed unfathomable to him. That for one week only, he wouldn’t be able to begin his mornings with his customary glass of wine or token joint was unbearable to him. I see that now. I didn’t then. I was still enthralled by the easy orgasms that came when he was next to me and the sweet embrace of the ever flowing wine and sunshine in California. One night in Biloxi for Christmas break, we had played Trivial Pursuit. Jeff was impressed with Joshua’s ability to get every single question on the sports cards correct. I think that was the only real interaction between them. Jeff preferred my brother Bryan, I think, because he was closer to us in age, but also because Bryan shared Jeff’s love for cannabis.

So that morning in Napa, when I called Jeff to tell him he needed to turn back around and meet me at our apartment, the first question he asked after I screamed that my brother was dead was, “Which one?” This question maddened me. Did it matter? Of course it mattered, but to me at the time it seemed more proof that this man child I’d been dumb enough to saddle myself to seemed to think that question was relevant.

“It’s Josh,” I said. “Come home.”

Another night over Christmas vacation I had been sitting downstairs when, from upstairs, had come a burst of music. “I’m all out of love, I’m so lost without you, I know you were right believing for so long, I’m all out of love, what am I without you? I can’t be too late to say that I was so wrong.” Air Supply. Really? This was the song my brother was playing to pump himself up to go out for the evening? It tickled me. Who was the person he imagined when he listened to that song? I hollered up at him with the torment that comes from a big sister’s love, and the song was immediately changed. He must have loved someone, had someone who thought she might be the one, someone with whom he shared intimacies and kisses and dreams. Her dreams, like mine, were shattered that day. But my dreams were already cracked.

While in Biloxi for winter break I went with a friend to try on wedding dresses. I was standing in DeeDees Dress shop on the little stage reserved for brides, surrounded by mirrors. The lights were shining on me like spotlights and I was glorious. The dress was beautiful, with just the right amounts of lace, charmeuse, satin and chiffon. It was off the shoulder and in it, I was the princess bride I’d always dreamed of. But looking in the mirror in that dress I realized I was more excited about the dress than the man I’d be walking down the aisle to marry. In that moment, I knew I wouldn’t marry Jeff. But it took months before I was able to tell him that, compounded by the pain from Josh’s death and the desire to do anything but think of how I’d failed my family by continuing to exist when Josh was no longer here. It seemed I existed in the world so I could make my parents’ life better. I had to make it right, but how could I? There was no bringing him back. This was the first time I had ever encountered such a loss where there was truly nothing that could be done to fix it. There was just a hole, and nothing could fill it up. But I tried.

Back in Napa, in my townhouse on Silverado drive, I tried to fill it with every glass of wine I could afford. Drowning in alcohol and hoping for oblivion. When I was Josh’s age I had driven drunk or ridden drunk more times than I could count. How could I have survived when he didn’t? Not only him, but his five best friends also perished in that wreck. Why had I always been so lucky? There seemed to be two ways only to solve this problem: drink myself into oblivion or move back to Mississippi and be there for my parents.

A memory.

Plunging into a murky pond where an alligator lived on a dare. Swimming to the other side faster than I’d ever swam before or since because I’m not scared, I’m just as cool as the guys, my brothers will see that I am someone to look up to. Dreams of alligators chasing me and them, and always grabbing Joshua just in time to save him, or waking up in a cold sweat and never knowing if I made it in time. He was my responsibility, Mom always said. You are the oldest. Summer heat and play outside with your brothers, and I don’t care that Josh is 5 years younger than you, he needs to come too and you are in charge of keeping him safe. But I couldn’t keep him safe this time. I was in California, and he died. I didn’t protect him. I wasn’t the daughter or sister I was supposed to be.

The funeral and touching his skin. It was loose and cold and buoyant, even, like the cold bread roll sitting on the table with all the casseroles left by people who bring food to people who can’t eat. Eating means living, and I felt dead. The night before the funeral, Bryan and I were in Josh’s room, sifting through his things, and I found a letter to him from my mom. You are my favorite, she had written to him. Of my children, you are the strongest and the best and the closest to my heart. Another blow. Not only is my brother dead, but my mom loved him more than me, and I now had physical proof.  Flying back to California and back to Jeff. His arms around me and feeling sickened at the idea of fucking him now. Every touch reminded me of Joshua’s corpse. And so the only thing that really was keeping us together, ended too.

And when the school year was over, I pieced what was left of myself together. A burden had landed on my soul, and it would be years before I would be able to pull myself out from under it. Back in Biloxi, I sank even further into a depression that existed because of the death of my brother, yes, but also because I was trying to recreate a home for myself in a place that I had once promised myself that I’d never return to. For as early as I can remember, I always knew that I needed to leave Mississippi. The pressure of humidity in the air was a weight on my soul.

A memory.

July, 2006. Telling a new someone that my brother had just died, and the realization in his eyes when he discerned that my brother was one of those kids he read about in the paper. Warm arms around me and a soft, “I’m sorry.” That summer was heat and salt and sand and losing myself in everything and everyone so there would never be time to think. Trying coke for the first time just to feel alive. To remind myself that I was still alive even if Josh wasn’t. The weight of guilt and sadness and humidity.  Jumping on the trampoline at 3 in the morning, sleeping in someone else’s bed and waking up to salty air and more heat and the open breeze on the Silver Dollar or anyone’s boat who’d let me ride out to the barrier islands with them. Anywhere to pretend for a minute that I wasn’t landlocked in Mississippi, again.

I got a job teaching at a local high school, and tried to forget the dreams I’d had for myself. Tried to forget everything, really. My grief at losing my brother.  After a series of dead end hook ups and brief relationships centered around men with access to boats, I bought my own sailboat. Nevermind that I didn’t actually know how to sail. I’d spent years on boats, but always ones with motors and someone else in the captain’s seat. Still, I was taking charge of my life. If I was going to be stuck in my hometown, I was going to explore the best parts of it. I needed space from the oppressive love of my parents, from not knowing who I was anymore, and I looked everywhere but within, hoping that in the air off the coast my confined soul might fly free for a while. Later that year I met the man who would become my husband. Like me, he had called BIloxi home, but he also knew he was destined to settle elsewhere,which is what we eventually did, several years later.

Maybe that is it. I got out of Mississippi. And Josh never can. He died there, and they buried him a mile from where we grew up. He will forever be 21, stuck in the pictures my parents have posted all over the house. His face bloated from freshman 15, never able to grow into the man he might have become.

A memory.

September, 2005, just three months before Josh died. A flight from Sacramento into Jackson, Mississippi. Biloxi destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. All of the landmarks of my youth, wiped away in an instant. Watching events unfold from Napa was like listening to a friend tortured in the next room and not being able to do anything or even know what was happening. On CNN and every channel only New Orleans and levees and FEMA. I was at school the morning the storm hit, and Bryan had refused to evacuate. When you grow up around hurricanes, as long as you live on land above the flood zone and your walls are made of brick, you learn early that you don’t need to evacuate. And yet my parents who had never lived anywhere other than the Hurricane zone of the Gulf Coast, who had never in my lifetime left for a storm, had fled north. Josh was at college in north Mississippi, and so Bryan was the only one in my nuclear family in the danger zone. I was on the phone with him that morning and he was having a party with friends. Drinking and smoking and claiming his territory in his newly purchased home.

“Holy shit, my shed just flew by,” he said, and the phone lost service. I wasn’t able to reestablish service with him or anyone in my family for three days. All lines were down. But they were all ok, in the end. Until of course, they weren’t. So when Josh picked me up from the airport in Jackson, Mississippi, a week after the storm hit, as we drove down to the coast I marveled at how everything had changed. Landmarks I’d always known didn’t exist anymore.

“Shut up,” he said, “you can’t even see anything, it’s dark.” He was right, of course, but I wanted to make up for not being there when the storm hit. And the landscape had changed. Nothing would ever be the same. It had felt like a betrayal, watching from afar and then really only watching how the storm affected New Orleans. The media coverage skipped over Mississippi entirely, even though the eye of the storm had passed over the Mississipp Gulf Coast, not Louisiana. So I gathered tree limbs like crazy, sweeping and raking and busting my ass to help get my parents’ house and my grandmother’s house ready again for habitation, and I wheedeled my littlest brother, Josh, for not hustling enough to help. Working in my grandmother’s yard, he kept disappearing inside to do anything but manual labor, and I told him he needed to quit being lazy and get his hands dirty.“ He wasn’t the perfect person that my parents remember. He was just a boy. Sometimes lazy, sometimes stupid, sometimes selfish, just like anyone. He didn’t hustle enough. Or maybe I hustle too much. How can you be angry with a ghost? I guess I’m not angry with him but with my parents for loving that imperfect ghost more than me.

And here I am now, fifteen years later, fussing at my own son, Josh, for not hustling enough in the morning before school. For not picking up after himself. For not being the perfect version of a son I envisioned when I thought having him might somehow fill the hole that came to being when Josh died.

A memory.

A cemetery with a view of the Gulf of Mexico. Flat, sandy, ground filled with other brothers and sons, mothers and daughters, the bones and ashes of other dreams that died with the bodies buried in the earth. Sitting there on the massive stone bench on the meticulously maintained ground on the 5 plots my parents bought so we “could all be buried together,” surrounded by the stone angels and trinkets and his picture there, in the tombstone, staring at me. A promise to remember. To live a life worth living. To make up for his death, somehow.

“So you became a mother not because you wanted to, but because you felt you had to,” my therapist said many years later. I guess that’s true, and maybe why I clash so much with my now eleven-year-old son. Part of me thought that by bringing another Josh into this world I could somehow fill the hole created by the loss of my brother Josh. What a terrible burden to put on a small child, and now, years after that realization, I understand part of the anger I have for my parents. I left Napa to try to heal them. I made another Josh. And I’m still not good enough. My dead brother will always be better than me, because in their minds, he exists as the most perfect version of himself. The man he might have been is so much better than the person he was. In their minds, he will always be potential. I will never be good enough because I’m still alive. And I project that failure onto my sweet son, Josh. He is never good enough either because no one is. And maybe that is ok.

So I’ll take my children to visit their grandparents, and I’ll smile, because as hard as losing a brother is, losing a child must be a million times harder. Together we will wade into the Gulf, feeling the soft sand beneath our feet and between our toes and the warm water all around us.  We’ll climb onto Poppy’s boat and sit next to my mother and smile, and maybe this time the water will cleanse me of the guilt and the ghosts and the sorrow.  I’ll close my eyes and think of that other Josh who died long ago, and remember him singing Air Supply, in the bathroom. And when my son asks Poppy to put on some ridiculous pop song, I’ll smile again and tell Poppy to turn it up.

Angie Taggart is a high school English teacher who is more often grading papers than writing her own. She has been published in The Vanguard. We are thrilled to publish her work and look forward to reading more from Angie. She can be found on Twitter at @angtagwrites.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

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!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, postpartum depression

What Wraps Itself Around

November 5, 2023
time

A rare moment of solitude: the baby is napping, the oldest child is at school, the four-year-old is watching cartoons. You turn the water up as hot as you can and step into the shower. Close your eyes and lean your head back. Let the steady stream pummel into the thick layer of your anxiety. A layer so thick it feels like a crust.

You are lathering up when the bathroom door is swung open. In his tinny voice, your son announces that he needs to go potty.

“So go,” you bark, resentful of the intrusion. A few moments later, he whines, “Pull up my pants, Mama, pull up my pants, Ma-MA!”

You breathe in the steam, your mouth stretched tight while you try to ignore his insistent demands, as well as the small voice in your head reminding you that you always pull up his pants whenever he asks.

I don’t care, you say to the voice. He knows how to do it, and is one uninterrupted shower too fucking much to ask for?

His whining increases in volume and urgency.

Just pull up his pants, the voice says. It’ll take all of two seconds and then he’ll go back to watching TV. What’s your problem?

Immediately you bristle. Your problem? What is your problem?

This. Everything. All of it.

Especially that hard something lodged in your chest that is making you feel like you do. Unable to stop the anger as the whining voice of your child whom you love beyond words pierces you, drills into you, leaving a dark hole inside.

“Mamaaaaaa, pull up my paaaaaaaaants!”

The small voice in your head is stunned into silence as out of the hole something ugly erupts, and you thrust the shower curtain aside and stomp out of the tub, swearing, water and soap dripping all over the floor, and with your soaking wet hands you grab your son’s pants and yank them so hard you think you lift him off his feet just a little, and he cries harder but all you can do is yell that now he can go back to watching T.V.

You step back into the shower. You hear sniffling. Footsteps retreating. The drone of the bathroom fan.

In the tub you collapse and curl into yourself, and as the hot water flows over your back, you recall the fear on your son’s tear-stained face and you weep.

~

Was it after the shower incident that I googled the symptoms of postpartum depression? Perhaps. That spring, the days were mashed into each other like leftover Play-doh, with their endless procession of dirty dishes and laundry, school papers and diapers, the rhythmic whine of the breast pump and never enough sleep. The kids’ needs were unraveling me, pulling at the loose threads of whoever it was that I used to be. I was sucked dry. Stretched completely thin.

I’d been yelling a lot. Each time I did I felt shitty but there was something about it that felt like release, like the sensation of cigarette smoke entering lungs, acrid and burning yet somehow so satisfying. Once, I exploded at my eight-year-old son during breakfast, sounding like something straight out of The Exorcist. Seeing his wide eyes I forced myself to laugh about the whole thing, brush it off. Yes, it’s hilarious, seeing mommy lose control in this way. I should just stab myself in the eye because I don’t deserve these beautiful children. (Intrusive thoughts, as I learned, were a symptom of postpartum depression.)

This was not the mother I was supposed to be. These feelings, the yelling—none of it was anywhere in the blueprints for motherhood I’d had in my heart since childhood.

Yet there I was. Feral. A wild animal cornered.

~

Call your therapist, the small voice inside of me whispers. I scoff. What can she tell me that I don’t know already? That first I need to take care of myself so then I can do a better job of nurturing everyone else? I know this. I know I should go to bed early, drink more water, eat healthier foods, begin an exercise routine. I even have an elliptical machine down in the basement, bought off of Craigslist after my second pregnancy but used maybe five times, so what’s my excuse? Time? There is never enough of it. Or maybe I’m just terrible at organizing it. In the morning I want to sleep as long as I can so I’m rested at least, but if I don’t get up before the kids then forget having breakfast for at least an hour, never mind being able to take a shit on my own schedule instead of holding it in because that’s when the baby is crying and needs me.

See? Obviously you can’t figure it out. Call your therapist.

What, so she can diagnose me with postpartum depression and put me on meds? I don’t want to pump my body full of pills. I can deal on my own with whatever this is. Besides, it’s not like I can’t get out of bed. It’s not like the kids are dirty and hungry, neglected. I feed them good meals, for the most part, fruits and veggies at each, and make sure they have a consistent bedtime routine. I hug them each day and tell them I love them; we read books and play games and we laugh, even on the bad days.

And it’s not like I can’t bond with the baby or have thoughts of harming my children. (Unless you count the urge to spank my son when he’s having a tantrum and flailing his body about like he’s doing the Limbo.) Of course our children are safe with me, I assure my husband after telling him what I suspect I may be struggling with. I would never intentionally harm them. (But I do wonder what pushes some women over the edge. I’m secretly terrified that I have an edge, too.) So I’ve been extra irritable lately. So I’ve been yelling. What parent doesn’t? This is nothing, I’m fine. I just miss having fun. I miss laughing—really laughing.

So go see a comedy show. You’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?

Maybe you should tell one of your best friends.

And I almost do. We’re on the phone, talking about husbands and children and plans to meet up for a much-needed drink, and the words are right there, in my throat—I think I might have postpartum depression—but I know if I speak them out loud I’ll burst into tears, come unglued.

~

That spring, my husband’s friend, with whom he’d grown up together in the same village in Poland, invited us to Chicago for his fortieth birthday. I’m not sure why it didn’t even occur to me to put my husband on a plane by himself, to tell him to go, have a good time, enjoy the weekend alone. Instead, we packed up the baby, the kids, the breast pump and diapers, the jars of baby food and the playpen; we packed up the whole minivan and from the East Coast we drove to America’s heartland.

I thought a change in routine might help me.

Only now, three years later, do I understand what I was actually doing, going along on such a trip in that precarious state: I was trying to prove, once again, to myself and the world, that I was an excellent mother. See? Look at this heroic thing I am doing, driving halfway across the country while children whine and cry in the back, climbing over the bags to thrust my breast into the baby’s mouth as the armrest digs into my ribs and the mini-van speeds down the highway.

The trip, of course, did not help my depression.

~

On the third or fourth day of vacation, you and your husband take the children to the Willis Tower in downtown Chicago. The wait for the elevator to the observation floor is over an hour. The four-year-old keeps running around, trying to unhook the velvet ropes keeping everyone corralled in the line. The baby, strapped onto your chest in the carrier, begins stirring, and you begin doing the mom bounce. Knees bending, hips swaying, hand on the baby’s back. Not yet, not yet, please don’t wake up just quite yet.

A thrumming begins in your hollowed out core and spreads through the rest of your body, right underneath your skin, pulsing. Time grinds to a halt. You want to scream. How did you get here? Where’s the picture-perfect family vacation which somewhere, sometime, had been promised? By whom or what you cannot say. All you know is that you feel cheated. Betrayed. The inside of your brain feels like a roiling anthill.

Later, alone in the bathroom, you lock yourself in the stall. But still you can hear them, your family out in the hall, the kids pestering your husband for more coins to put in that machine which presses your penny flat and leaves it with an imprint of the skyscraper, or maybe of the cow that purportedly started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The arguing and yelling and crying shoots in underneath the closed bathroom door, assaulting you, drilling into you, and you lean against the stall, your shoulders heaving, tears flowing down and wetting your shirt, because you want to be somewhere else, anywhere else, you want to jump out of your very own skin and maybe even be someone else, like the type of mom who would never scream at her kids because she’d know some lame song off the top of her head which would help them behave. What if you walk out of this building and disappear into the crowd? What if you just…go? Steal quickly away?

The thought grips you, wraps itself around you, making you cry even harder.

~

Deep down I knew I wouldn’t actually leave my children, not then, not ever. But the very fact that I’d even allowed the thought to enter my head gutted me. Because what kind of a mother thinks such horrible thoughts?

Somehow, I pulled myself together and made it through the rest of that day, just as I’d been doing for the past several weeks. Getting through. Barely.

But what I didn’t, or couldn’t, admit to myself in that bathroom stall in Chicago was this: The thought of leaving made me cry harder partly because of how alluring it was, yet at the same time, how impossible. How utterly, achingly impossible. Like seeing a sliver of blue sky through the bars on a prison window.

~

On the way home from Chicago, we stay at an Airbnb on Lake Erie to break up the drive. We’ve been away from home for almost a week and our children, especially our four-year-old, are reaching their limit. Even now, first thing in the morning, as I let the door of the cottage fall closed behind me, their voices arguing over whose turn it is to pick a Netflix show chase me down the deck steps. The baby will probably be up from his nap soon, cranky because he’s teething and most likely sick of having to wake up in a new place every couple of days. I shake off the guilt and half-walk, half-run down the sidewalk. I’m sure my husband will somehow survive.

The sidewalk leads me past a few other cottages, and the bluish-gray water of Lake Erie in the distance beckons me. But as I near the beach, I hear a loud rumbling and grinding, followed by short beeps every few seconds. So much for a peaceful walk, I think, as I step onto the sand and see a Bobcat skid steer backing up and then noisily plowing ahead, its claw picking up large pieces of driftwood in what appears to be an effort to clean up the beach of debris. (Either that, or someone is planning some pretty big bonfires tonight.) I stop in my tracks, and my first thought is that my four-year-old would absolutely love to see this.

My spunky, wild middle child, who is obsessed with construction vehicles. Who sleeps in excavator pajamas and loader bed sheets, and drinks his morning milk from a mug with pictures of dump trucks and skid steers and backhoes. (Yes, I too know all the names now.) Who plays with his collection of tiny yellow machines in the sandbox, the bathtub, the grass, who exclaims and with eyes shining points through the car window whenever he spots any kind of construction vehicle out on the road.

I really should run back to the cottage to get him. This, for him, would be better than Christmas and Halloween and Easter combined.

But then I think back to our attempt to take a family walk on the beach the previous evening: my son digging like a dog and getting sand all over us, throwing rocks every which way, running around and constantly getting too close to the edge of the pier. To be fair, he had just spent eight hours in the car. But knowing that didn’t make it any easier.

I’m sure he’ll have plenty of opportunities to see a Bobcat in action. This is my morning. And god knows how much I need it.

I take two steps forward. Just then, the claw of the Bobcat picks up more wood and starts beeping as it backs up again, heaving its haul onto one of the piles. Without a second thought, I turn on my heel and rush back to the cottage. Screw it.

I burst in the front door, grinning widely.

“Sweetheart, come look! There’s a Bobcat on the beach!”

His whole face lights up and he jumps off the couch, abandoning the Netflix show he’d been dying to watch just five minutes ago.

We walk down to the beach hand in hand. As soon as the Bobcat comes into view, my son freezes, completely in awe. I crouch down next to him and gaze at his small face, his beautiful face, and I take several deep breaths, drinking him in—the way his eyes sparkle and his nose crinkles, his little white teeth peeking through his smile, his sandy brown hair tousled and falling into his eyes, and everything else slips away for a short while—memories of the tantrums and whining, his neediness, my anger. I’m here in this moment with my child. And seeing his pure, unfiltered excitement, his childish delight, does not feel like a compromise. It does not feel like putting my needs last once again. This, for me, feels like a gift.

The two of us spend the whole hour on the beach together, watching the Bobcat at first but then playing, exploring. A twisted piece of driftwood becomes my son’s excavator, of course, and I sit on some concrete steps and watch him playing, smiling at his creativity. We skip stones and find shells, we chase each other by the water’s edge, we discover a fort someone else built with the driftwood.

~

Not long after we returned from Chicago, I made an appointment to get a prescription for anti-depressants. I ended up not taking them, although in retrospect, I know I probably should have. Back then, though, you see, I was still tethered to the idea of perfection. Deep down, I ached to be the heroic mother, the myth, the legend, the one who could prove that you could indeed do it all. Figuring things out on my own and pulling myself up by the bootstraps was part of the trap of that myth.

Seven months later, the onset of the pandemic would strip me of whatever notions I may still have possessed that such a thing was feasible, or healthy, or even desirable. And of course, the pandemic would exacerbate the struggles of mothering three little humans, especially since it hit just when I felt like I was finally climbing out of the clutches of that postpartum depression. Fantasies about leaving would flit through my mind every so often—this time no longer so shocking. Because by that point, I knew they were simply a part of the landscape of motherhood.

~

On that spring morning, as we walked from the beach back to the cottage, my son’s little hand snuggled in mine, I found myself fully present for the first time in weeks. Later that day, challenging moments would come, I knew; I’d get angry again, yell, want to vanish. But right then, my frayed soul felt completely, utterly soothed. The time we’d spent together had been a balm.

And I realized how much I needed those kinds of moments, too. In that space which had become so hard to navigate during that difficult spring, that space of yelling and crying and my own guilt and fear, this was exactly what I needed: a small moment of joy with my child. I knew I needed to laugh more often with my kids, find ways to enjoy being with them, not to prove anything to anyone, but simply for my own sake. For theirs.

And so as we walked back to the cottage, both of us happy, content, I decided I would try to catch these small moments of quiet joy from now on, moments in which I’d learn to forgive myself. I would learn to sink into those moments, wrap them around me like a warm, weighted blanket—even if just for a bit.

Magda Bartkowska was born in Gdańsk, Poland and raised in western Massachusetts. Her writing has been published in Barnstorm Journal and The Tishman Review, among others, and most recently, one of her essays shortlisted in the Sonora Review Rage Essay Contest. Currently, she is working on a coming-of-age novel exploring how identity is pieced together at the intersection of immigration and girlhood, in a world that attempts to tame the wild out of girls. You can find Magda on Twitter @MagdaBart8 and at www.magdalenabartkowska.com.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

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!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, memories

Ramble On

November 3, 2023
love

Robert Plant was desire and fantasy. The quintessential rock god. Enrobed in snug jeans, his lean frame, gyrating hips jutting, shirt unbuttoned, tousled blond curls flashing as he strutted and commanded the stage. His keening, semi-orgasmic moans and melodies awakened something primal in me. And Jimmy’s galloping, rolling, guitar licks commanding my hips to move. Led Zeppelin was the soundtrack of my becoming. It kindled a fire in me that begged to be tended.

At the starting gate of my teens, I left every midnight showing of the concert movie Song Remains the Same at the Vogue Theatre only to return to my lonely room. I stared at the ceiling, wondering what it would be like for someone to sing for me, to dance for me. Even though Robert performed for legions of fans at enormous public arenas, I imagined this sacred bond between us, an inside secret only we shared.  At the end of the night, to have someone croon to me mournfully, magically, majestically, to be cradled in loving arms, head resting on a strapping bare chest, my man’s tender caress stroking my hair, my cheeks, tracing the line of my lips.

I wanted a Whole Lotta Love. Way down inside I needed it.

The creek behind my house smelled of earth and moss. I took my journal and climbed to a rock that jutted out over the water, my throne. I day-dreamed of a boy who would come along and see me on my cliffside perch, see my infinite coolness and fall instantly in love. He would demand to read my musings. I would demure, then hand over my dog-eared notebook. He would declare me a genius, and we would read the poems and entries, and talk about what they meant, talk about life, talk about dreams and desires, just talk, and maybe kiss a little, but gently.

I wasn’t sure I was worthy of something so magical. What I had known so far of love was secret and sinister, and made me feel desperate. I knew more than I should have about the needs of men, and I was already damaged goods. Somehow, I wasn’t meant to have anything so pure. Sex was my calling card. Men wanted my body and I wanted affection, and to belong to someone.

Being used and discarded was the price of admission. Mockery. Mortification. Shame. I didn’t understand how I already knew so much about what men wanted, and why I was vilified for pleasing, bringing pleasure. I kept hoping that someone would look beyond the blow job and see me, just see me and care.

Dudley was my first real boyfriend, a drummer, humble, humorous and unflappable. He was a much nicer guy than I deserved. My reputation preceded me He cared for me and defended me when others told him, who? Not her, man. She’ll do you wrong. Haven’t you heard her nickname, man?

But Dudley was most unconventional, a rare teenager who was a self-possessed, independent thinker and cared not at all what anyone else thought. He liked my fire, liked my weirdness, liked how my eagerness to embrace life made me act too bold, laugh too loud. He would write me sweet love notes, and I could feel his caring words warm me. He borrowed the words and I could hear Robert Plant’s soft voice singing to me as I read the poetry.

There were parties at the Pit, a crater-like fire hole where we built bonfires. It was a good 15-minute walk of bush-whacking deep in the woods behind the old fire station, virtually impossible to navigate after dark. If you had not been shown the way, or if you got too high or drunk, you would get lost. I knew this first hand.

Its seclusion guaranteed that, for a handful of us, the Pit was ours. Away from adult admonishments, we were free and invincible and open to our own goofiness. Dudley was my muse and my man. We had painted rocks with hearts and flowers and skulls and crossbones and decorated the perimeter of the pit and made pentagrams with sticks, pretending like it would scare intruders away. We took Ouija boards and played by firelight, trying to scare each other. We drank and drugged and our dramas played out — guys fought, and sometimes girls fought, and there were breakups every weekend.

There at the Pit, I listened to Led Zeppelin tell me the story of me in all the shades I was becoming —in brash, pulsing, empowering beats; in lacy, lyrical whispers of songs, in audacious, winking satires about plainspoken men and women with no regrets, in mournful my- woman done- me- wrong blues, and twangy, mystical folk, and complex story-songs with lyrics I dissected endlessly. Comfort and pain and seduction. Sublime.  And I danced, a one-woman whirlwind of buttocks and breasts and flying hair. Of course, it couldn’t last.

Glenn King was the name of my doom. To this day, I can never hear the song Tempted by the Fruit of Another without thinking of him. One of my best friend’s brothers, he was older by about four years. GQ handsome, his wavy dark hair, sexy green eyes and arrogant smirk exactly the bad boy recipe I couldn’t resist. Mostly, he didn’t give me the time of day as his little sister’s friend, but I had a serious crush on him One night after significant amounts of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill and half a Quaalude from my friend’s mom’s prescription, a bunch of us played spin the bottle in a neighborhood basement and the bottle spun to me and he kissed me, and then we kissed some more. I awoke from my reverie and bolted from the game, but it was too late. I tried to pretend it didn’t happen but there were too many “friends” there to witness my betrayal and Dudley found out. He was a laid-back guy but he had a code and I had broken it. I wept and begged and cajoled, told him Glenn meant nothing to me, but it was done. It would not be the last time my impulsiveness got me into trouble. I now knew I was exactly the girl everyone said I was.  The one boy who had seen through my image, my artifice, who saw my value was gone. Now, it didn’t matter anymore and I punished myself with self-destruction. I was back to the smart, socially awkward too-loud, inept girl who was the butt of jokes. Nights behind Rose Bowl bowling alley with joints and pills and wine to sweep away the snorts of laughter, the names, the rejection.

In freshman year of high school, in Mr. Paul’s Biology class, I traded my sister’s hand-me-down fringed leather poncho to Maria Niemann for her Led Zeppelin III album. I wonder what happened to Maria. We had bonded in our pariah-ness and our love of Zep and all things hippie. She wore combat boots with her uniform skirt. In sophomore year, she ran away from her abusive home – and school – with her biker boyfriend And I imagine her, wild brown hair and the fringes of the jacket dancing through the open window of a VW van adorned with Grateful Dead stickers.  She is free but a little scared. In her tough girl shell, she is laughing and drinking anyway. When I talk to old school friends about her, they don’t remember her at all, as if she only existed in my mind.

I have successfully lived long enough to forgive myself for the things I did looking to belong, looking for love.  I can cringe and laugh and marvel at the sweet girl, that rebel. I hope she is still way down inside me somewhere.

Holly Hinson is a writer and communications professional from Louisville, KY. Her poetry has been published in Louisville’s Literary Leo and in the literary anthology Calliope, and her journalism in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Business First, New Albany Tribune and Jewish Community Newspaper. She received an honorable mention for her essay Red Balloon in the 2016 Big Brick Review Essay Contest. Her website and blog is available at hollyhinson.com.

 

***

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

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!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

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.

*****

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

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!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Fiction

Human Resources

October 27, 2023
Cassie Las Vegas Skyline

Every time Cassie grumbled about her supervisor Miranda, she remembered the flight they shared on the way home from Las Vegas. The plane was full and Cassie squeezed between the man with a comb-over and her boss, a woman 15 years her senior with a perpetual squint, as if every interaction was an inspection of fine print.

And it was. It had been two years since Miranda took the helm of the hospital’s fundraising team and she still didn’t understand that Cassie hyphenated her last name. It didn’t matter, though, because in Miranda’s eyes, Cassie wasn’t a mother, a friend or a philanthropist; she was Communications Specialist, Classification II. A vessel for words that Miranda had to approve, one by one.

Except, perhaps, on that flight home. It was mid-afternoon and Miranda had insisted they leave the conference early. She navigated airport traffic in her rental car and spent 10 minutes on speakerphone with her administrative coordinator Janet.

“Just explain to Southwest that we need to get back for that donor dinner,” Miranda said as they weaved through the line of Ubers outside Harry Reid International Airport.

“The reservation is at 5,” said Janet through the speakers.

“Exactly.” Miranda leaned forward onto the car horn, startling Cassie. “Those assholes think they are the center of the universe.” She pointed at a sedan in front of them, where a bellhop was helping an elderly couple lift their bags from the trunk.

“Miranda?” Cassie asked. It had taken time, but she had learned to perfect her tone. Inquisitive, curious, non-threatening, with a feminine lilt. “It’s nearly 3 o’clock.”

Her boss pushed her sunglasses onto her forehead and faced Cassie. “That’s why we need the earlier plane.”

Cassie considered pointing out that the flight would take an hour, plus they’d need to budget time for security and boarding. Instead, she took a cue from Janet, whose nails they could hear clicking on her keyboard through the phone.

“Booked you on a flight at 4,” Janet said. “Emailed you the details.”

Miranda pulled forward into the spot vacated by the couple and smiled. “You are the very best, you know, Jan?”

Cassie winced. Janet, never one to mince words, had never liked that nickname. To her credit, she didn’t correct Miranda, perhaps because nobody did. “Fly safe,” she said instead.

Cassie followed Miranda through the airport, both of them dragging wheeled carry-ons. It helped that Miranda’s neon conference badge had flipped over her shoulder, making the small woman easier to find amidst a crowd of high school volleyball girls and the occasional hung-over bachelor party. Cassie held her breath when they reached the security line, which looped in a circle around the baggage claim. Unfazed, Miranda reached for Cassie’s bag and marched them to the very front of the line.

“This is why we pay extra for the security pass,” Miranda said, pulling a card out of her wallet. She either didn’t notice the men and women scowling at them from their places in line or didn’t care.

They made it to the gate with five minutes to spare. Cassie leaned over a drinking fountain, taking big gulps of water to make up for their airport sprint. Maybe Miranda learned to run in heels in her fancy MBA program. She wore a smart business suit with matching gray blazer and didn’t so much as glisten with sweat, while Cassie had already removed her sweatshirt and was fanning herself with a conference brochure that read “Tell stories that matter.”

That was why Cassie worked in fundraising: It was a way to put not one but two creative writing degrees to good use. That, and the allure of the infamous “golden handcuffs”—a solid pension plan and affordable healthcare, two qualities that she, as the mother of a kid with asthma, could not live without.

They had been at the conference two days, and despite being separated by thousands of other nonprofit fundraisers and administrators on other sides of echoey auditoriums, the whole trip had been claustrophobic. The conference had been Cassie’s idea, prompted by a discussion in their weekly one-on-one about professional development opportunities. She was surprised when Miranda approved her request, only to have her hopes dashed when she realized that her boss had bought not one but two conference passes.

“I love a good conference,” Miranda had said. “We’ll get in some good networking, chat up the keynote speaker, take advantage of the open bar…”

“And learn something?” Cassie asked.

“That’s what I was going to say!” Miranda smiled. “I knew there was a reason I hired you.”

And yet Miranda had not hired her. Had she forgotten that? Cassie pre-dated Miranda by three years—at least a decade in nonprofit time. Miranda had not hired Cassie and Cassie had most definitely not hired Miranda. Miranda had been “appointed” by a committee of executives after the previous associate vice president left under mysterious circumstances. This would have taken Cassie by surprise had she not worked in the industry long enough to understand when her opinion didn’t matter.

She followed Miranda down the narrow aisle to their row, where the man with the comb-over had already fallen asleep.

“I don’t do center seats,” Miranda said, gesturing for Cassie to squeeze past her.

Cassie acquiesced, bowing her head as she squeezed her tall frame into the seat. Miranda, meanwhile, waited for the man behind her to offer to lift her carry-on into the overhead compartment.

“Thank you,” she said, offering a pearly-white smile and placing one hand on her chest. Her signature move.

At long last, they were seated. Cassie was conscious of her elbows. God forbid they rub actual shoulders on this trip. Miranda scrolled through her email, oblivious to the way Cassie fidgeted in reaction to every swipe or click.

Cassie leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes with the hopeful thought that maybe if she pretended to sleep she’d be spared an hour of conversation. And then she heard it: A long, uninterrupted baby’s wail. Her eyes shot open, pulse quickening as she saw a man two rows up burping an infant in a green and blue checked onesie. Her anatomy betrayed her, a vise clamping over her heart as she took in those rosy cheeks, quivering as the little boy cried. Without meaning to, one hand fled to her breasts, suddenly tender. The baby looked to be about two months old.

Her son would have been that age.

Had things gone differently, she would be at home on leave, strolling him through the rose garden or bringing him to Mommy and Me music classes while Patrick took their daughter to soccer camp. She wouldn’t be chasing anybody through the Las Vegas airport. Yes, the miscarriage was months ago, but something about that mournful baby’s cry made her chest swell with phantom milk. Before she realized what was happening, tears were dripping down her cheeks and landing in fat drops on her clasped hands.

Without looking up, Miranda laid one hand over hers.

That was it. That was the moment.

Mortified, Cassie withdrew her hot hand from Miranda’s touch and rushed to rub the tears off her cheeks, but the floodgates had opened. The more she scrubbed, the harder they fell, especially when the baby’s cry climbed in pitch.

“Sorry,” Cassie coughed, one hand over her face. “I don’t know what came over me.”

Miranda clicked send on an email and looked at her. “I lost a child too, you know.”

Cassie was quiet. Flight attendants made their circuits of the airplane, checking to see that everyone was buckled in. The lights overhead turned off.

“I wasn’t as far along as you were,” Miranda continued. “But loss is loss. And it’s real.”

Cassie kept her eyes straight ahead. Maybe if she focused on the little boy’s face, she’d see that he was real and the one inside her was no longer. The thought made the lump in her throat larger.

“I—I thought I’d be over it by now,” she said, looking away from the baby, who seemed to have calmed down.

“You don’t get over it.” Miranda’s jaw was set. “Time passes. Other things happen. But there’s no getting over or past the loss of a child.”

Cassie took a risk and looked at her. Who was this woman?

“My daughter keeps asking where her brother went,” she said. “What am I supposed to say?”

Miranda shrugged. “He’s with her.”

Somehow, this felt right. Cassie leaned back, this time letting her eyelids close.

Cassie didn’t wake until the airplane touched down an hour later. She was startled to see Miranda attempting to extricate her Coach bag from the overhead compartment. Her thin arms wobbled for a moment before she stood on her tiptoes and pulled the bag down with a flourish, all the while her mouth didn’t stop moving.

“Now is it the Il Fornaio on North 8th or is it the one on Market?”

Cassie blinked, recognizing the blaze of the bluetooth in Miranda’s ear. She stood up in a rush, banging her forehead on the overhead light. Her boss was already striding down the aisle, calves flexing in nude pumps. Miranda didn’t notice that she’d dropped her conference badge, which lay face-up on the airplane floor, glowing chartreuse amidst a sea of arms and legs reaching for backpacks, purses and carry-ons. Cassie unearthed her messenger bag from its place beneath the seat in front of her and edged out of the row.

“This yours?” The man with the baby held the badge out to her. The boy had pink cheeks and long eyelashes that he was struggling to prop open. Cassie felt her throat catch.

“Thanks.” She reached for the badge, clutching it in her sweaty palms until the man and his son had eased their way down the aisle to the airplane cabin. She let other passengers slip in front of her as she tore the badge up into small, ragged pieces.

Julia Halprin Jackson’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in Mayday Magazine, Okay Donkey Mag, Cutleaf, West Branch Wired, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Fourteen Hills, California Northern and elsewhere. A graduate of UC Davis’ master’s in creative writing program and alumna of Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and the Tomales Bay Writers Workshops, Julia is the co-founder and publicity director of Play On Words, San Jose’s collaborative literary performance series, and a 2021-2023 Lighthouse Book Projecteer. See more of Julia’s work here

***

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

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!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change