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The Haw Eaters

April 23, 2021
greg

by Bruce Meyer

My college roommate, Greg, kept a box of papers in the bottom drawer of his desk. He opened the box one night and told me his entire life was made of paper. There was an adoption record – no former names, Christian or surnames, stated – and a newspaper clipping from the Toronto Star where a sad-looking child, his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him was featured as ‘Today’s Child.” That was Greg.

He stared at the neatly snipped rectangle, yellowing and growing brittle with age, and said simply, “That’s the only picture I have of my childhood. You see? My white family took the trouble to scratch out my real name. They wanted me to be their Gregory. They wanted me to be someone else. And so, I obliged them. It was better than going back to the residential school.”

I wondered how he could go through life, at least to this point, a high achiever on both athletic and academic scholarships, someone with a big ‘He’s-going-to-be really- someone’ sign hanging around his neck, yet remain humble, fun to hang out with, considerate. He’d become the sort of guy who brings you chicken soup when you have the flu.

Yet for everything he is, he had no idea who he was.

I wanted to feel his pain, but I couldn’t fathom what that pain could be like. My grandparents and parents had gone to the same college at the university. I was simply falling in step, as was expected of me. I was not merely part of a lineage: I was white privilege.

“How did you…”

“Cope? Stay sane? I had to live with it. Hard as it is, I figured what is just is. I didn’t know a different life. I knew mine was mine no matter what they called me.

“Imagine,” he said, “if someone came into your house when you were four or five and ripped you from the arms of your mother or grandmother. How would you have felt? At night in St. Bartholomew’s School I’d lie awake in the dark and listen to the other children in the rows of white iron cots as they sobbed into their pillows. Sobbing was a good sign. It meant you still had something to miss, something to live for. Those who stopped sobbing would be found hanging in the basement of the school or frozen in the forests beyond the school’s grounds.”

“Do you have any idea where you’re from?” I asked him as he folded the clipping, set the papers in order, and put the lid on the box.

“Not a clue. I have memories, though. An old woman. I can’t even see her face clearly. She is standing beside a lake and she’s staring at an island across the waters. It isn’t a large lake, and the island in the middle of it isn’t all that big either. It could be anywhere. This whole frickin’ country is made of lakes and islands. I keep going back there in my dreams. I keep trying to talk to her, to ask her questions, but because we only meet in dreams, the sounds won’t come out of my mouth. She does speak to me sometimes, but it’s in a language I don’t understand, and that makes her seem farther away than she really is. I’d love to know who and where she is. She is old in the dream and has probably passed on by now.”

Everything in Greg’s dreams, he told me, happened by moonlight. He couldn’t see where the light was coming from. Then he’d get playful and ask, “Who the hell lights our dreams? I mean, is there a gaffer pulling cables and setting the blue flood just right so we can see where we’re going and not bump into the more solid illusions?” He’d laugh, but I could tell that the laugh was masking a very deep pain. It wasn’t a happy laugh.

Greg was my closest friend at university, my spirit double, if there is such a thing, someone for whom I’d be honored to be a shadow. We’d talk about anything, but mainly about how we know or don’t know who we are. Greg knew what he wanted to become. He was fascinated by the law. He’d ask me why it was legal to kidnap a child, and I’d tell him I had no idea, and that I thought all kidnapping was illegal. He’d agree. What was wrong was wrong, he’d insist, and he’d say that someday that wrong would have to be undone.

He got accepted into law school.

“I’m not as happy as my folks.”

He never called them his family, only his “folks.” He said he never felt completely a part of their lives but was more of a good deed they felt they were doing, a project that was coming to fruition like pulling the last thread and watching a ship pop up in an empty bottle, the way he described it.

“I’m going on to law school because it is another step on the road back to where I need to be.”

After graduation, we lost track of each other until I ran into him as I was going into one of our old lunch haunts near the campus and he was coming out. We talked for a few moments. When he said, “family law,” there was something emphatic about the word ‘family,’ as if he felt that the law was a means of turning back the clock to find what he had lost. In the chapters of parliamentary acts and statutes, there was a blood connection he was seeking.

He asked me if I had a week off this summer. I did. “We can do the buddy thing and drive north and look for the island.”

“Good luck in that,” I said.

“No, I mean it, man. Besides, I don’t have a license and you do. The Griffiths told me I had to earn a car, and I can either have wheels or I can pay my fees. There’s more future in my fees. Besides, I need you to be Tonto to my Lone Ranger. You can sense your way to the lake with the island. I trust your instincts.”

When I picked him up at his apartment in the stillness of the pre-dawn damp I told him we were going to start with the biggest island and then work down to the smallest. It seemed logical.

The biggest island on a lake is Manitoulin, a belt of limestone that rises out of the waters of Georgian Bay and defines the meeting point between the three Great Lakes of Superior, Huron, and Michigan. It is the Niagara Escarpment after it has drowned off Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula and risen to life again to the north.

I’d read a travel magazine in a dentist’s office where the writer said the island had been destroyed by an enormous forest fire around the time Shakespeare lived, and that after the War of 1812 it had been resettled by indigenous peoples who remained loyal to the British and got the raw end of a treaty. The writer described Manitoulin as a Chinese puzzle box of islands.

“Imagine,” said the traveler, “the largest island in the world on a freshwater lake, and one that island is the largest freshwater lake on an island, and in the middle of the lake is the largest island on the largest lake on the largest island on the largest lake in the world.” Once I sorted out the knot of that sentence I felt that the best place to search for an island in someone’s mind is to begin with an island of dream-like anomalies.

As we drove north following the shoreline of Georgian Bay where we stopped every twenty miles to look at islands only to have Greg shake his head and say, “Not that one,” we arrived in Rainbow Country. We didn’t see any rainbows. Greg shrugged and looked out the window. “Just a lot more rocks and trees,” he said. “I feel as if we’re trapped in a Group of Seven painting.”

But as we turned along the North Shore and headed west toward the Algoma Region, the hard, rugged terrain of marshes and mountains, the landscape became the dream-like terra incognito described by the magazine writer. Granite outcrops rose up from drowned pockets. Bulrushes and beaver lodges emerged from glistening rivers that snaked between sharp granite clefts. We passed through the White Fish Nation and Greg said he was feeling strange, as if something in the pit of his stomach was trying to make him ill. We pulled over and he threw up into a ditch or marsh marigolds that are commonly known as Urineworts because they bloom like lotuses in stagnant water.

“So what hit you?” I asked.

“I feel a lot better. I don’t think it was anything I ate because you ate the same coffee and doughnuts back in Parry Sound. I think it was something I feel I had to get rid of, something in my gut that wanted to come out. I’ve never had a feeling like that before.

“Up ahead,” Greg said, “just on the edge of the res, there are rocks. They are stranded on flats where the granite becomes a road of limestone.”

“That’s a good start,” I said. “More where they came from, I’ll bet. How do you know there are rocks?”

“I don’t know. In one of my dreams the rocks were singing. Weird, eh?”

“Yeah, weird. I’m driving you around to look for an island that could be any island in a country that boasts several million islands and you remember singing rocks. Remind me again that you never dropped acid.”

“Man, I know it’s crazy, but they’ll be there.”

Within a few miles the topography changed again to low, flat limestone, and on the exposed bedrock surface sat enormous blue stone boulders and nothing grew around them. They looked as if they had just dropped from outer space.

“That’s them!” He shouted. “Those are the rocks!”

And electric sign by the side of the road announced that the iron swing bridge to Little Current on Manitoulin Island would only remain open for another ten minutes. If the single-lane span swung open, it might remain open for an hour or more to let the sailboats of wealthy Americans pass from Manitouwaning Bay to the North Channel above the island. I explained this to Greg.

“Good you’ve done your homework.”

“Just read a map and a guidebook,” I said. “Do you want to stop at the rocks?”

He looked at me as if I was daft. “I don’t feel up for a sing-along.”

“You really are sure they sing, eh?”

“It was just a dream. You can’t get blood or a good tune out of a rock.”

It was ten a.m. when we arrived in Little Current, the biggest town on Manitoulin. A policeman waved us off the main road to a detour and as we turned he halted us and leaned in the car window.

“Parking’s over there for the festival.”

I pulled into the first empty space.

“Wanna go to a festival?” I asked.

Greg shrugged. He didn’t care one way or another and because we were driving nowhere in particular he got out and we walked back to the highway into town. A parade of floats pulled by red an orange tractors was inching its way toward a field at the end of their procession. Girls on the floats were waving and shouting to the crowd. A high school marching band, off-key, with a very noticeable glockenspiel, tramped by. On another float the local Junior B Hockey team was pointing to the crests on their jerseys and raising index fingers to tell everyone they were number one. The end of the parade was a cortege of Provincial Police cars, an ambulance, a firetruck, and the Mayor holding up a fluttering town flag as he sat on the back shelf of a red convertible.

“Canadiana at its finest,” I said.

An old man in a red and black bush shirt walked up to us and handed us each a palmful of red berries.

“Be a haw-eater!” he shouted.

There was a woman standing next to me. Her white hair was pulled back behind her head and fastened by a leather barrette with a stick through it. Her shirt was embroidered with a dreamcatcher – a stick bent into a circle and woven with gutting and beads on the threads to catch the sad and insane imaginings of a sleeper as they pass from the conscious world to the inside of a dreamer’s head. I’d seen dreamcatchers for sale in one of the occult shops near the campus and had thought of getting one for Greg but didn’t when I thought he might think I was joshing him about his nocturnal habits or his indigenous roots. I asked the woman what the berries were.

“Hawberries. They only grow on the island, and appear only during a July full moon, a time when the face of the old woman shines down on Turtle Island. Food of the Great Spirit,” she said and smiled.

The hawberries were about the size of Saskatoons which I’d tasted out west in a golf course parking lot in a coulee near Regina. But the hawberries were softer like blueberries and blood red. They were as sweet as blueberries but with the aftertaste of pomegranates. I was about to tell Greg we should buy some to eat in the car, but when I turned away from the woman to speak to him, he was staring into the berries in his hand.  His eyes were wide as if he had discovered a wound in his palm.

He picked up the first one, rolled it in his fingers, and set it in his mouth. He didn’t hear me when I said his name, but just stared at them as if looking into a clear lake and trying to see the rocks on the bottom through the ripples of the surface. Then he ate another, and another, before he sank to his knees, and began to weep and beat the ground with his other fist.

“I need more,” he said.

I found another lady who had been selling small baskets of them on a table by the road, and I bought her last pint. Greg was now bent over, grabbing at handfuls of dirt on the shoulder of the road and tossing them in the air. He was freaking me. People were standing around him, kneeling, asking him if he was all right. Someone wondered if he was having a seizure. He couldn’t reply. His shoulders were heaving as he sobbed.

“I need to find my grandmother,” he said, looking up, his eyes full of tears. “I need to find the old woman. These berries are the taste of her spirit.”

The woman who sold me the berries bent down and laid a hand gently on Greg’s shoulder.

“I think I know why you are here. You are one of the searchers, aren’t you. You are one of the lost who has come home. I know it. I see it in your face and in your eyes. I can see through your tears. The Truth and Reconciliation Report called to you. It awoke old dreams in you, dreams that you thought you had buried or had lost on your journey. You are coming home, though you are not all the way there yet.”

Greg looked up at her. I could see in his eyes the suffering pouring out, a terrible pain he had kept bottled up inside. This was not the Greg I knew, the Greg who always had a quick quip, a good story, or a ‘you gotta see this’ experience he found on the web. He was a dream caught in an invisible dream catcher, the prey of a tormenting spider into whose web he had stumbled. This Greg was someone else – the person I had heard talking in his sleep, the person who woke, weeping, and asking for his grandmother and trying to describe the island he had seen in the distance of those dreams.

The berry woman put her arms around Greg and began to rock him as if he was a child. Then she spoke. And what she said startled me. The words were those I had heard Greg speaking in his restless dreams, the words I wished I had recorded and played back to him the next morning.

She looked up at me and said, “Can you take him to Wiiki? I mean, Wiikwemkoong?”

She explained that part of Manitoulin had never been ceded in a treaty and remained an independent nation within Canada. I had no idea such a place existed, a place within the nation that was not part of the country.

“Go down the highway. When you get to Manitouwaning, turn off but don’t go all the way into the town. There’s a road that will take to you Wiikwemkoong.”

“What will we be a looking for there?” I asked.

“Someone who might be able to help him. I’ve been whispering Anishinabek to him and he understands what I am saying though he can’t reply in the language.”

The woman and I helped Greg down the road to the car.

“Are you sure you’re up for this, bud?” I questioned. Greg nodded though he fought in his throat for every word.

“Yes. I want to go there now. It isn’t far.”

I thanked the woman for her kindness. She said it was not kindness but what family does for its own. I asked if she was related to Greg, perhaps a cousin or an aunt, and she shook her head.

“We are all brothers and sisters,” she replied and turned back up the side street to the main road where she vanished..

As we drove past the outskirts of Little Current I asked Greg what the hawberries had done to him.

“It’s not what they did but what they said. When I was a little boy, before the scoop, the old woman fed them to me. I ate them from her hands and when her hands were empty I walked up to a bush and ate them fresh off the branch.”

Down the highway, we saw the sign and the turn off for the Unceded Independent Nation. The sign told us we were leaving Canada and that the nation had its own police force. It advised us to drive carefully.

“I know this place,” Greg said as we approached a small building with a shaded porch out front. In one corner, a woman listening to a radio was seated in front of a sign offering bannock for $2.00. An old woman sat at another table. When I approached the bannock seller, she pushed a pamphlet toward me that listed all the things we could do in Wiikwemkoong – the theatre, the ruins of an old residential school, selected places to fish if a license was obtained from the band office, and a map showing where the road became a dotted line and vanished into the bush. “Drive slowly,” she said.

Then she looked at Greg and put her hand over her mouth.

“You, you look like my grandfather. You stand like him. You have his eyes. My sister had a grandson who was taken. We all have known those who were taken. My sister and I were taken but we returned. She was old enough to remember who she was and where she was from and the first chance we had, we came back. Oh, if you are who I hope you are, you have come a great distance and learned great strength to be here. I can see it in your face. But do you know who are you or are you among those who only remain here in their dreams?”

Greg began to sob. I put my arm around him. The woman came around to the front of the table and opened her arms and embraced him as I stepped back.

“I don’t know who I am,” he said, fighting back the tears. “I only know that in a dream I am standing by a lake with an old woman. The moon is full. The light is breaking on the water, and she feeds me hawberries. I had forgotten how they tasted until an hour ago when a woman, her grey hair pulled back and a dreamcatcher on her shirt gave me some to taste, and the taste brought back the pain, the pain of leaving, of being torn away from my grandmother’s arms.”

“Are there any records?” she asked.

Greg said no. All he had was a clipping, and the name in the clipping from the newspaper had been scratched away because his new family wanted him to forget who he had been.

“I want you to be my guests for the night,” the bannock seller said. “I have a place just down the road. Not much of a place. If you have bedrolls you can spread your gear on my floor. I’ll have some friends over and you can talk about what you’re going through because they’ve been through it, too.”

We ate a huge dinner. I was hungry. After eating I thought I’d never have to eat again. Everyone brought something. Greg and I fell in love with cedar tea and we emptied several jugs of it. Fresh salmon from South Bay. Venison. Fiddlehead greens someone had frozen two months before when the ferns were tight. They’d been cooked in butter and wild sage.

I didn’t want to say much. I wanted the evening to be about Greg. He had so many questions, yet they had so few answers. I could feel their empathy for him. Empathy was something I’d never know in those proportions from my own family. I envied him. I marveled at the love they expressed for him. It had nothing to do with duty or traditions or keeping up the family name. They spoke of the spirit.

An old man turned to me and asked what I knew about ‘Indians.’ The gathering laughed and slapped their knees when he said the word ‘Indians.’

“You know, he said, the people. What do you know about the people? We’re not from India. We’re from these parts.”

“I’m just the driver,” I said. “I’m driving my friend to look for an island in a landscape of islands as he searches for his past. It’s the least I can do for him.” Greg grabbed my knee and shook it and smiled.

“But you must have had some experience with the people,” the old man said. “We’re here. We’re not invisible. We don’t just live in movies.”

“Well, this isn’t much of a story,” I said, “but when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a hockey player. I found out there are two types of hockey players: good ones and bad ones, and I was one of the awful ones. I got invited to a hockey college out west, just south of Regina in a little town called Wilcox. The college is Notre Dame. They produce guys who go to the NHL. The college gives them a solid education, but when I got on the ice with players who really were hockey players, who you could point to and name the team that would likely draft them, I was out of my depth. I didn’t get accepted and it was probably a good thing because my family kept telling me they weren’t going to buy me new teeth. Part of the experience, though, was when the coaches took a van load of us up to a bison ranch in the Blue Hills about ten kilometers south of the school. I looked at the hairy, fly-infested bison and they looked back at me, and I thought, ‘so what.’ Then I wandered off.”

“At the edge of the ranch, on a promontory of the hillside, the ground was covered in wild sage and fell away steeply on three sides. I could see, spread out before me, Estevan, Weyburn, Moose Jaw, and Regina way off in the north, and the small towns of Avonlea and Wilcox at the foot of the Blue Hills. It was breath-taking. I was amazed how far I could see, how the whole world, perhaps even the universe spread before me, and when I looked down, I realized I was standing in a medicine wheel.”

“The wheel had a center stone of domed white marble, a polestar, and round it was a ring of other white stones set in constellations – the Big Dipper, the Great Bear, Orion’s Belt – the whole the sky was laid out in stones. I was standing in the center of the universe, maybe in the heart of eternity, and I felt as if I existed yet didn’t exist because I was part of everything around me as far and maybe farther than I could see. The wheel was a map of forever. Then I thought, I’d better get out of this. I felt as if I was violating something sacred without realizing what I was doing.”

Everyone at the gathering nodded, especially the elders. The old man spoke up, “You ought to take your friend Greg here to Dreamer’s Rock tomorrow. If you came in by the Swing Bridge you probably drove right by it without realizing it. If you saw the Bell Rocks you went too far toward the island.”

“The Bell Rocks?” Greg asked. “Are those the singing rocks? I have recollections of them from my childhood.”

“If you tap one with a piece of hard stone all the others will ring. They are made of the same stone as that Stonehenge thing over in England. I saw that when I was stationed in England during the war. I wanted to tap the Stonehenge but a man there said I couldn’t.”

“I said, ‘why not,’ and the man said, ‘because you will break it.’”

“What is Dreamer’s Rock?” Greg asked eagerly. “I’ve come this far to find the old woman who lives in my dreams. Will I see her if I go there? Is it a place to dream?”

The old man was silent for a moment and folded his hands.

“Maybe you are just looking for the lake of the old woman, Mindemoya. Good haws grow there. But Dreamer’s Rock? To go there,” he said, “means a person has been called to find who they really are. It is a place of the spirit quest. You must climb as high as you can go, and then go higher, ascending the bleached white skull of the world, and then lie down in a hollow made in the shape of the people. Only you can go there,” he said, looking at me. “I mean, you can go along to make sure he doesn’t fall off the slope on his way up and land on his death, but the final height is something only he can attain.”

So the next day, I drove Greg to Dreamer’s Rock and made the long climb up with him. I went with Greg as far as a natural vestibule near the top where white rock formed natural benches. He took off his shoes and socks, removed his belt, and set his wallet and pocket belongings on the stone shelf. I saw him scramble up the side of the dome and for a moment stand at the top, teetering and looking as if he was dizzy. He called down to me that there was no perspective up there, nothing but clear blue sky above him while below he could see Lake Superior to the west, Lake Huron to the south, Georgian Bay to the east and the tip of Lake Michigan to the southwest. Then he lay down in the niche the old man had told him about and I could not see him.

When he came down, sliding on the rock face as if he had just been born out of the sky, he said everything had changed for him. He said he lay down in a hollow. The natural dip in the white stone was the length of a person’s body, a cradle. As he lay there, all he could see was the blue, cloudless sky – no treetops, no horizons – only the emptiness of eternity, the place a mind goes when it holds nothing. It was like being catapulted into forever. He told me he left this world as the sky embraced him and drew him up.

“I’d always known there had to be a better world somewhere, and the old woman from my dream was waiting there with her arms extended. The old woman had to ask a question, but the only one who could answer it was a spirit on the island in the lake. The Great Spirit lived there. She shouted and I couldn’t hear. So she whispered, and the Spirit answered her.

I was there. I was there with my grandmother. And I understood what she said.  She called me by the name I thought I had forgotten and I know who I am now and where I come from. I could see the faces of people I knew long ago, the elders, the loved ones, returning to me as if out of the moonlight breaking on the lake. And when I asked the old woman who she was she answered and took my hand and led me into the fire circle with the others who were waiting for me to join them. We watched the embers rise up and fill the night sky with stars. She took my hand and I felt her life flow into mine, and told me we’d always be one blood.”

Bruce Meyer is author of more than sixty books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and non-fiction. His stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international prizes. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Paper Lessons

March 5, 2021
gran

By Maggie Bucholt 

Loretta watched her mother loading packages of toilet paper into a huge cardboard box, then folding yards of wrapping paper patterned with hot-pink roses around the monster parcel. Her mother’s lips twisted in a hateful way as she taped the seams and tied the box with a purple ribbon so dark it was almost black.

“Mom, it’s…” Loretta folded her arms across her chest, wondering if Frances had forgotten her pills—or swallowed too many. She frowned, searching for the right word. She was about to say mean, but thought better of it. “Why not give Gran a nice pocketbook?” She nibbled a cuticle on her thumb. A drop of blood appeared, and she licked it away.

Frances—as Loretta had started referring to her mother in her head—signed her name to the card. Gran’s birthday was Saturday, three days away. Frances tucked the card under the ribbon when she was finished. Skinny arms stuck out of her short-sleeved blouse, and there were deep circles under her eyes. Watching TV news images of wounded soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam kept up her up at night.

Loretta was desperate to leave for college in August, ten months away, ready to start her own life; she had put in her time taking care of Frances. But all she could think about was how her mother would fare when she left. She would have to convince Gran that Frances could live on her own and not have to return to that horrible place. The nurses with their plastic smiles and their squeaky orthopedic shoes, the padded rooms behind the corridor’s locked doors. The first time when Frances had gone away for a “rest,” she had come back subdued. After she returned this time, she had been acting weird, as if they had fried all the normal parts of her brain along with the sick ones.

Ignoring her, Frances stood back and examined her work. “The lady in the Hallmark store said the gift was a hoot. Maybe I should get a job on Newbury Street wrapping fancy presents.” Frances removed the bobby pin from her stringy hair and repinned it. Then she laughed, without joy. Ha, ha, ha. “It’d probably pay more than my job at the card shop.”

“You’re working?”

A job. Proof that her mother was doing well, despite the ridiculous gift. Loretta seesawed between hope and doubt that this job would last any longer than the others Frances had had in the past three years since the last hospital stay. She ticked the jobs off in her head: Saleswoman at Jordan Marsh in Boston, and cashier at the five-and-dime, waitress at the diner on the main street of their suburban town. Frances argued with everyone—supervisors and co-workers, her own mother, and Loretta. She found fault with the downstairs apartment in Gran’s two-family house and brought up every injustice, present and past: the broken change machine at the Laundromat to Gran’s refusal to let her prune the rosebushes to her husband dying young.

“Why not?” Frances said.

“I’m glad, Mom, really.”

“You should be. The sooner we start saving, the sooner we can leave, just you and me, the way we planned.”

“Don’t you get tired of saying the same thing every year?” The walls in the living room were as bare as the day they moved in ten years ago, after her father’s car accident. Don’t bother to hang anything up, Frances had said. We won’t be here long.

Her mother whipped out a large manila envelope from the drawer under the white Formica counter. She waved it near Loretta’s face. “What’s this, huh?”

Loretta snatched the envelope and glanced at the return address. The brochure from the university in Colorado. Would be a good fit, her art teacher had said. “That’s my mail. You know what it is.”

“Still dreaming, are you? Well, stop, because you’re not going. We’re leaving here together.”

“Gran is paying the tuition, paying for everything.”

“Did she tell you what to study too?”

“You never say anything nice about Gran.”

“Because there is nothing nice to say.”

“What about her letting us live here without paying rent, taking care of me when you were… away.”

“You’ll see.”

They glared at each other. Frances was the first to look away, and a moment later the tension lines around her mouth deepened. “Oh, go on. Get to your room. You spend enough time studying in there anyway. Brush your hair, will you? And stop biting those nails.”

“At least I wash my hair.” Loretta ran her hand over her thick, long hair that never lay flat. “At least, I… ” Worry about what will happen to you.

Loretta closed the bedroom door, grateful to be alone. The last of the sunlight filtered in between the blinds, casting dark bars onto the beige rug. A car horn beeped twice, a sharp sound that echoed down the street. She peeked through the blinds. Old Mr. Tierney pulling his Buick out of his driveway. The beeps were his farewell before driving to the VFW to drink away the pain of losing his son in Vietnam. Oh, she hated this crummy neighborhood, and especially Mr. Tierney’s mousy wife who asked in a pitying tone, “How is your poor mother?” as if she were ready to hear the truth. That gossip would murmur something falsely reassuring before turning away, like everyone Loretta had tried to confide in.

Father Donovan, she avoided too; he pretended not to understand her predicament, and whenever he stopped her to talk about faith or about the children’s art program where she had taught the previous two summers, his breath smelled as though he hadn’t brushed his teeth for a week. No, the faith she had was in herself, and the only thing she liked about mass was watching the votives that burned as insistently as her desire to leave home.

She set the college materials on the blue-gingham quilt and went to the bureau. Under the bottom drawer, she felt for the fat envelope taped there, savings from her two summers of working and from birthday gifts from Gran. Eight hundred and fifty dollars and twenty cents. The bills were crisp, new, like the life she envisioned far away from Frances. She replaced the money and slid the college materials under the mattress with the others before fixing the sheet, hospital cornered, the way Gran had taught her.

In the living room, Frances had her legs tucked up under her on the sofa, transfixed in front of the TV. Her cigarette case rested on the lace doily that hid the threadbare arm. A plume of smoke from her cigarette wafted up toward the ceiling.

“Where you going?”

“Upstairs.”

**

Loretta entered her grandmother’s apartment without knocking. The living room smelled of lemon polish, and the crowded apartment had everything Loretta and her mother’s didn’t: gold-framed bucolic scenes on the walls, heavy red-brocade drapes on the windows with sheer curtains underneath, a china cabinet with Waterford crystal, and a grandfather clock with handsome Roman numerals, Loretta’s favorite.

“Gran?”

“In the bedroom, sweetheart,” her grandmother called.

Her grandmother sat at a dressing table with a three-paneled mirror, smoothing cold cream over her plump cheeks and under her eyes, lifting, then straightening her silver-frame eyeglasses. The bottom of Gran’s tent-like, navy-blue dress, the kind that hid her fat stomach and thighs, grazed the carpeting.

“You hungry?” Gran said. “I was about to start dinner.”

“Mom’s making spaghetti,” Loretta said, not meeting her eyes. She hated to lie, but it was easier to let Gran think that her mother was able to boil water.

Loretta ran her fingertips over the polished dressing table with its little atomizers of fragrances, the cobalt-blue Evening in Paris bottle, and the tubes of lipsticks on a glass tray. The thought of seeing Paris, especially the Impressionist paintings, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, that she had read about in books, made her smile. It was a dream she hadn’t shared with Gran yet.

She perched on the edge of the bed and leaned back, resting on her hands. The deep green comforter was silky beneath her palms. Watching the rhythmic strokes of her grandmother’s hands putting on lotion was a soothing ritual that had started in her childhood. Gran would pick up Loretta’s small hand, press it to her lotioned cheek, then to her lips for a noisy kiss. It made Loretta laugh when she wanted to cry. Everything will be fine, Gran seemed to say. It was Gran who sewed the ripped shoulder of her Raggedy Ann doll, and washed and ironed the small dress and white apron. Gran who had helped her with homework. And it was Gran who had given her the little booklet after Loretta noticed pink spots on her underpants when was she was twelve.

Gran told her a story she had heard a gazillion times, and Loretta wondered if her grandmother would begin forgetting more and more things, the way old people did. It was the story of how Gran survived the death of her young husband so many years ago. Unlike Frances, Gran was quick to remind her, she had found a job in a factory, at a time when not many women worked. Eventually, Gran had met and married a widower, the grandfather Loretta knew, before being widowed again.

“I had to do what was best for me.” Gran gazed at Loretta over the tops of her glasses. “You, too, have to figure things out, think of yourself.”

“Yes, Gran.” Loretta started to chew on a fingernail, before her grandmother gave her a warning look. She dropped her hand.

“Because no one else will.” Gran turned this way and that in the mirror, examining her wrinkled face before wiping the excess cream from her misshapen arthritic fingers. “How are things at school?”

“A’s in English, history, and biology.” Loretta plopped back onto the bed, pleased that her grandmother listened carefully as she talked. But an A- in math. She vowed to study harder, when she wasn’t taking care of Frances—she didn’t do sports or afterschool clubs. “I asked each teacher what was expected for me to get an A, and then I made a list and completed the extra assignments.”

She never mentioned she ate alone in the cafeteria or the bitchy girls who never invited her to their tables. She imagined the way they saw her: a too-tall girl who kept to herself and painted posters for school plays. Instead she talked about the library book with the glossy photos of the works of Monet.

Gran nodded approvingly. “You’re serious, not like your mother, marrying your father before she graduated. She could have finished college, if she let me help her. Stubborn, too stubborn she was. You know, your mother was always… different. I suppose losing your father was too much. Goodness, the shock was too much for me.”

“Mom is making an effort,” she said, feeling hopeful. It wasn’t as though she didn’t love Frances; her mother was the only parent she had left, not counting Gran. “Mom’s ….” She stopped. She would tell Gran about the job at the card store only if it lasted more than a week.

Loretta jumped up and from behind, wrapped her long arms around her grandmother’s bosomy frame, conscious of her height—tall like her father, Gran always said. She put her cheek to her grandmother’s and rocked her back and forth, eyeing both their reflections in the mirror. Gran, her short gray hair done up at the beauty parlor every week; and she, Loretta, with hair ballooning around her thin face, was about to start the rest of her life.

“Oh, you’re being so cool, Gran, about college and all.”

“I want you to begin your life the right way. Plenty of good colleges close by, in Boston.”

“Around here?” Her voice faltered. They had never talked about where she would attend college, and she was taken aback. “A university out west is what I was thinking. I’ve never been there, of course.” She was excited by the prospect of studying in a place she had never been, of traveling to Paris after college graduation. “I don’t know about Boston.”

“Think about it.” Gran patted her arm.

Later, Loretta sat on the back porch steps with the sketchbook and charcoal pencil for the preliminary drawing of the cardinal. A lone leaf zigzagged toward the ground. The bird in the denuded maple tree cocked its head, as though it were waiting for her to begin. A sketch for her senior art portfolio. Focus. She inhaled deeply. Focus. Empty your mind, the art teacher said, when she struggled with a sketch in the art room. Let your hand work its magic over the paper.

But she was unable to draw, her thoughts ricocheting from dissuading Frances on Gran’s present to convincing Gran about Colorado to improving the application essay so she would be accepted. Tomorrow she would show Gran the brochure and talk up the Art History major. Long after the cardinal flew away, she stayed where she was, staring into the autumn twilight.

**

The following afternoon, Loretta was home from school late, and when she heard Gran’s voice in the living room, her insides somersaulted. Gran’s birthday was two days away. Why was she here? She jabbed her jacket onto the brass hook. Gran hadn’t been inside the apartment in months.

Frances was on the sofa, legs crossed, the couch springs squeaking in rhythm with her wobbling foot. She had on a flower-print dress that Loretta hadn’t seen her wear in a long time. The red lipstick, smeared outside the natural contour of her lips, looked as though it been applied by a three-year-old. Frances’ tremulous smile was so wide, Loretta thought her face might crack.

Gran, her posture straight as a knife, sat on a kitchen chair; the sofa was too low for Gran. Gran shot Loretta an accusing look. Why didn’t you tell me?

“Loretta sweetheart, isn’t it nice your mother is working again?”

Frances turned to Loretta and raised an eyebrow. The eyebrow almost reached the uneven part in her hair.

“Yes, it is.” Loretta glanced nervously at the mammoth box with the dark-purple ribbon on the TV console. She still had to figure out what to do and quickly. She tugged down the hem of her sweater and perched next to Frances on the sagging seat, smoothing her plaid skirt over her knees.

“You feel up to doing this, this job?” Gran grasped the strap of the big black purse in her lap. She snapped the clasp open and closed, open and closed. Click, click. Click, click.

“She’s doing fine, aren’t you, Mom?” But Loretta could see her mother didn’t appear fine at all and, worse, Gran could too. Frances’s gaze darted around the room, and she pressed a folded piece of paper into her lap.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise, Mother,” Frances said, a slow flush spreading up her neck to her face.

“Now Frances, I didn’t mean anything by it.” Gran winked at Loretta. In her own way, Gran was trying.

  “Don’t start, Mother,” Frances said. “That’s not why I invited you in.”

“No, then why did you?” Gran gazed at Frances over her glasses that had fallen to the middle of her nose.

Frances’s foot bobbed faster. And Loretta tensed. She leaned over and whispered, “Don’t give Gran the present. Please.” Her mother struggled away from her.

“To say that we will be moving out as soon as I save some money,” Frances said.

Loretta groaned inwardly. She had heard the argument many, many, many times before. But at least she hadn’t given her the birthday present. Don’t say anymore, Mom. Don’t.

Gran seemed to consider this without rancor and adjusted the purse on her lap. “I see. And what apartment do you think you can afford, on a card-store salary?”

“Here’s the budget,” Frances said, her tone triumphant. She unfolded the paper and dropped into Gran’s lap. “An apartment’s for rent a few blocks from here.”

“Mom.” A flare of hope sparked in her chest.

Gran adjusted her glasses and made a show of studying the numbers. “This isn’t going to work.” Her words sliced the air.

Frances’s lipsticked mouth worked, but no sound came out. She sank onto the sofa and crossed her legs, staring into space. Loretta could tell by her grandmother’s stricken gaze that she knew she had gone too far and didn’t know the way back.

“Gran, come on, it’s a start,” Loretta said quietly. “You could help with a plan.”

Frances shot up, and before Loretta could whisper in her ear that this wasn’t the right time, Frances snatched the huge birthday present from the console and placed it at Gran’s feet. Frances’s smile was as gleeful as a mischievous child.

“For your birthday, Mother,” Frances said. “A couple of days early.”

“Why, thank you, Frances,” Gran said. A look of astonishment, then happiness flickered across her plump cheeks.

Loretta slid her moist palms down her skirt as Gran tore off the dark ribbon and wrapping paper. Gran sorted through the packages of toilet paper as if she were searching for something. Was there a real present hidden among the paper that she was missing?

  “A little joke. Right, Mom?” Loretta, her face hot, tried to laugh.

“I don’t see the humor.” Gran’s thin lips pursed.

“You get what you deserve, you mean old thing!” Frances started laughing, the same mirthless sound as when she had wrapped the toilet paper.

“Mom, stop.” Loretta tried to put her arms around her thin shoulders, but Frances pushed back in an irritated way, a smirk on her face.

Gran stood up to leave, trembling.

“Gran, wait.” Loretta was desperate to do something, anything to lessen the animosity. She ran to her bedroom for the bright yellow box with the black fancy script, the Jean Nate gift set she had bought, and at the last moment stuffed the university brochure into her skirt pocket.

“Happy birthday, Gran.” Loretta handed her the present. “I, I didn’t get a chance to wrap it.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” Gran swayed a little, holding her purse and the yellow-and-black box. “You’re a good girl, a very smart girl.”

Gran had fixed her gaze on Frances, and Loretta stiffened. “Gran, let’s go.”

“Which is why Loretta will do well at college,” Gran said.

“Mind your own business, Mother.”

“Won’t you do well, Loretta?” Gran said, turning to her, with fiery eyes.

Loretta wished she were outside sketching the cardinal. Or unpacking her things in the dorm at the university in Colorado. Or painting the long view of the Eiffel Tower from the banks of the Seine.

“Come on, I’ll walk you up,” she said, and steered Gran toward the door.

Upstairs, she stood near the grandfather clock and trimmed a fingernail with her teeth. For once, Gran didn’t scold her about biting her nails. Gran moved slowly to hang her coat in the closet. Neither of them spoke. Gran seemed to collapse into the dining room chair.

“Mom’s doing OK, she does have that job.” Loretta hoped she sounded convincing.

Gran sighed and opened her arms, and Loretta moved in for an awkward embrace. She could smell Gran’s lavender-scented lotion.

“Did you think about what I said? About Boston?” Gran ran her hand over the polished surface to the table, brushing away imaginary crumbs.

Loretta pulled out the colorful brochure. “Colorado, see for yourself. The college has an Art History major and I…”

Gran shook her head. “Come now, sweetheart, did you think I wouldn’t be the one to decide? I will be paying for everything.”

“I didn’t realize that meant I couldn’t go where I want.”

“Look at you, getting all upset. I’m your champion, sweetheart. All I’m saying is that the college has to be closer to home.”

Loretta shifted from one foot to another, feeling miserable. “Because that’s best for you, Gran,” she spat. “That’s not fair.”

“Not for me, either.” Gran gave her a wan smile. “I can’t take care of her forever. I’m not getting any younger.”

Back downstairs, Loretta emptied a can of tomato soup into a pot and added water, trying to swallow the panic that stuck in her throat. The blue flame flickered under the pot. She had fooled herself into thinking she would be free, first at college, then after graduation. Free to do what she pleased, live wherever she liked. The realization that she could not left her cold. She stirred the soup with a wooden spoon. The soup sloshed over the sides. Mom had to eat something, had to feel better. She hoped the aroma would lure Frances into the kitchen. At the table, she opened her loose-leaf and turned to the unfinished college essay for Colorado, the one giving her the most trouble, perhaps because it was her first choice. Empty your mind, focus. But she couldn’t shake off the dread. Of course Gran expected her to take care of Frances when Gran no longer could. There was no one else.

“So what do you talk about with your grandmother when you’re up there?” Frances stood in the doorway, one hand on her hip. Loretta was surprised that Frances seemed fine, as though all she needed was a few moments rest to clear her head and change her vengeful mood.

“School, stuff.” She shoved the essay into her loose-leaf. She had gotten good at hiding the truth. The soup gurgled and the tomato-y scent filled the kitchen, and she stirred the pot. She had expected shouting, angry words from her mother, not this. An argument she could deal with. A self-pitying mother, she couldn’t.

Her mother lit a cigarette and shook the match until the flame died. She inhaled deeply, and smoke shot out of the side of her mouth. “You’re going to leave, aren’t you?”

Loretta didn’t answer. She got out two white bowls from the cupboard, ladled steaming soup into one, and set it on the table. Frances slipped into a chair and balanced her cigarette on the lip of the glass ashtray. She dipped the spoon into the soup. Halfway to her lips, she dropped the spoon back into the bowl, splashing soup all over the table.

“Mom, you’ll do fine.” Loretta wiped up the soup with a wet sponge. Another lie. Shame washed over her. “You can save money like you said and move, if that’s what you want to do,” she said, wishing she could believe her own words. “You don’t need me.”

Frances sucked on her cigarette, eyeing Loretta. “That store needs a better manager. I told the woman she could ask me whatever she wanted, that I’d help her run the place. She got all huffy.”

Loretta filled a bowl for herself and tasted the soup. The soup had a bitter, metallic taste, as if she had boiled nickels along with the tomatoes. She listened to her mother complain about the smart-alecky salesmen and the lumpy grilled cheese sandwich she had for lunch at the diner where she used to waitress. At last Frances stubbed out her cigarette, and all Loretta could feel was relief that the terrible moment, when she feared hearing the words I do need you, had passed.

**

At lunchtime the next day, Loretta shifted in a hard-seated chair at the guidance counselor’s office, one of two chairs that faced Mr. Crowley’s desk. The desk was cluttered with pens, pencils, forms, and a half-eaten, smelly tuna sandwich. Piles of college catalogues were lined up with precision on the floor.

“I’m having trouble with this essay for Colorado, my top choice.” Loretta pushed the two-page draft for the university in Colorado across his desk. “Could you take a look at it?”

“Certainly, give me a moment,” he said. He was a short man with a round face and a snub nose. The kids called him Porky behind his back. He jotted notes in the margins. After a few moments, he reviewed the essay, point by point, and suggestions to add why sketching and painting were so important to her.

“I have no doubt you’ll be admitted to a good college with your grades.” As he talked, he rubbed at a stain on his green-striped tie. “Have a backup plan, besides Colorado. Did you want me to review the other essays and applications?”

“I’ve already finished three.” Loretta tucked the essay into her loose-leaf. “They’re at home.”

“Good girl. I know they’re lengthy.”

“You, ah, said something about financial aid, when I came in before. My grandmother offered to pay but I’m not sure about.…”

“It can’t hurt to apply for financial aid, no matter what your resources. Colleges offer grants based on aptitude as well as need.”

He handed her a thick packet, and she listened carefully as he explained the different federal grants and work study. She thanked him and stuffed the daunting paperwork into her loose-leaf, hoping she wouldn’t have to fill out those applications too; she still hoped to persuade Gran about Colorado.

“I tried telephoning your mother, so she could be here.” Mr. Crowley nodded at the empty chair.

“She’s working, Loretta said quickly. “She won’t have time.”

“I can help you start filling out the aid forms, if you like. Just come in again.”

Back home after school, Loretta opened the front door and heard the soft, unmistakable sound of weeping coming from Frances’s bedroom. She dropped her bag and struggled out of her jacket. Disappointment knifed her insides. Frances had been fired. Why else would her mother be home before five o’clock? She ran down the hall and pressed her ear to Frances’s door. She knocked lightly.

“Mom?” She tried the doorknob. Locked. She waited, resting her forehead against the doorframe. “It doesn’t matter,” she said through the crack, willing herself to sound upbeat. “You know I love you, right?”

The wailing turned to loud sniffles.

“You can find something else. Mom?”

In the kitchen, she sipped a glass of milk and nibbled an Oreo. She would have to help Frances get past this setback, find the right job. Only she didn’t know how. The scribbling on the pad by the telephone caught her eye. An enormous X crossed out Mr. Crowley. A panicky feeling swept over her, and she hurried to Frances’s door. She stood outside, biting a nail, contemplating what she could say, something to soften the truth. But nothing came to her. She sighed. Frances would have to hold her own when she was gone.

Loretta opened the door to her own room, bent on making Mr. Crowley’s suggestions to her essay, and flipped on the light switch. She stood stock-still. Her sketches were torn from the wall, her dresser drawers emptied and left half open, her sweaters and underwear strewn on the floor, along with the blue-checked quilt. Balled up in the corner were her bed sheets, and her mattress hung off the box spring at an odd angle.

A pile of cut-up paper and the kitchen scissors were on top of the naked mattress. She picked up a sliver of paper with her name still visible. The essays and carefully filled-out applications had been shredded into millions of pieces. Her heart banged against her ribcage. She rushed to the bureau and pulled out the bottom drawer. The thick envelope with the money was still taped to the bottom. She shoved the envelope into her waistband of her skirt. She ran down the hall and pounded on Frances’ door with her fist—bam, bam, bam—until the side of her hand ached.

“How could you?” she shouted. Her pulse drummed in her ears. “I’ve always helped you, been on your side.”

No answer. She rattled the knob in frustration, picturing how Frances, her face blotchy red with rage, had overturned everything, cut all the paper with the same expression of gleeful revenge she had worn when presenting Gran with the monster package of toilet paper.

She flew up the stairs to Gran’s, her chest heaving, but at the top, she stopped and stared at the closed door. A college closer to home, Gran had said. I will be paying for everything. She gripped the banister, sick at heart and frightened. When had she ever been able to change Gran’s mind about anything? Gran would expect her to stay after graduation, too, find a job, and do what she had always done to keep Frances out of that dreadful place. Loretta turned and started downstairs as though she were sleepwalking.

In the apartment, she picked up the sketchpad and charcoal pencil and went out to the back porch. The sun was low in the sky and she gulped the cold, fresh air. She sank onto the wooden steps. From the Tierneys next door, she heard the grating sound of a metal rake and the rustle of brittle leaves. She glanced over. Mrs. Tierney was focused on clearing a path to the street. The lifeless leaves had been raked into organized piles.

The envelope in her waistband pressed into her side, and she placed a protective hand over the money for a moment, her mind churning with everything she had to do—she would ask Mr. Crowley for help with the paperwork—and the lies that she would have to tell until she left. She would learn to forgive herself for leaving Frances, the way she had learned everything else that Gran had taught her.

She opened the sketchpad and smoothed a new sheet of paper. The solitary cardinal appeared, bright red against the maple’s dark bough, and seemed to watch her. She assessed the cardinal, making tentative strokes at first. The strokes became bolder, deeper as the image of the cardinal took shape on the page. The body, the sharp beak, the unblinking black eyes. Then she drew the bird’s legs, fragile but strong.

Maggie Bucholt a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and was awarded a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to work on her novel. A story, “Deer’s Leap,” was a finalist in the Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture fiction contest. Her credits include an essay, “Rhyming Action in Alice Munro Short Stories,” in The Writer’s Chronicle, and “Death and the Desire to Live Deliberately,” in Desire: Women Write About Wanting, published by Seal Press.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts

Gene(s)

December 28, 2020
gene

By Julianne Ho

“They have the best pork katsudon,” I told Gene, as if I were a true food connoisseur. We were walking through the prepared bentos section of Sunrise Mart, this tiny Japanese market on Stuyvesant Street. Conveniently situated across from my NYU dormitory on 3rd Avenue, it was one of my favorite places to grocery shop.

Our fellow dorm resident Eugenia, who had grown up in Japan, had vouched for their katsudons a month prior.

“Really?” he replied.

Perhaps Eugenia had already mentioned that to him too?

I looked past Gene’s handsome face, past his inquisitive brown eyes, which seemed to match his sandy brown hair, and his mouth, forever curved into a smirk when I was around, and squeezed into the cramped grocery aisles. I grabbed a package of nori and placed it gently into my shopping basket next to the bag of rice. It seemed like something Eugenia would have bought. I thought I caught him watching me, as I feigned interest in the various brands of bonito flakes before I decided to just check out with the nori and rice. I only knew of one dish that I can make decently with bonito flakes anyway, and I barely liked its taste.

***

Gene and I saw each other around NYU’s Alumni Hall, occasionally ran errands together, but we never went on a proper date. Once, he asked me to join him at Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village for pierogis, but I declined. I really should be studying, I told myself, instead of thinking about food or dating.

Every day during the spring of my junior year, I would bring my books to the dormitory TV lounge to study, and Gene would be there. Neither of us had TVs in our rooms. I knew studying in front of the television wasn’t the most effective use of my time, but I couldn’t help myself. I loved spending time with him.

“I can read the subtitles out loud while you study for the MCAT,” Gene offered one night from the couch in the TV lounge. “I love this movie. I want you to watch it with me.”

I was sitting at my regular study table near him. I’d just gotten back from a Kaplan MCAT Review session, but I still felt a compulsive need to study. The MCATs were coming up in a few weeks. As a pre-med student who was trying to enter medical school, I constantly felt guilty about how I spent my time. Any moment not spent studying led to extreme anxiety. Gene’s ability to watch foreign movies at ease seemed like a luxury to me.

My left ear itched so I scratched it absently as I answered, “Thanks, but I won’t retain anything from the movie or the MCAT books if you’re reading the subtitles out loud.”

I eyed him from the table where I sat with my books, and then compulsively gave my right ear a scratch for balance.

He read five minutes of subtitles for “The Vanishing” before giving up and watching the movie quietly as I worked on the practice test questions. I found his presence comforting.

***

“Eugenia is working on oil paintings today,” Gene informed me. “She offered to paint our portraits.”

I had heard that Eugenia and Gene were probably dating. Since they were just rumors, I had allowed myself to believe that they weren’t. Plus, Gene and Eugenia never indicated to me that they were seeing each other.

Eugenia’s father owned a successful appliance company in Asia that did business with major companies in the U.S. She had extra canvases, like the lots of other extra things that she owned. And she was also habitually sweet and generous. She had suggested that I paint something also. I was too self-conscious about my lack of artistic ability so I painted some leaves. I told her I didn’t want to waste her canvases. I had trouble finding storage space for her finished pieces so Gene offered to store them in his dad’s office in the city. I declined and ended up shipping them back to my parents’ house.

***

Gene and I were standing next to each other in an elevator packed with people. I could smell the faint scent of the little clove cigarettes he liked to smoke. It was the end of my junior year, and my backpack was sitting uncomfortably on top of my shoes as we tried to cram in even more passengers.

He had recently told me that he had a TV in his room this whole time, and that he just enjoyed hanging out with me in the TV lounge.

“I’m thinking about transferring to McGill in Montreal,” Gene told me, his voice muffled by the head of the man in front of us. “What do you think?”

Stunned by his sudden news, I held myself still, then shifted my weight, and the forgotten backpack at my feet tumbled a little bit as I mumbled, “McGill’s a good school. And you’ll be closer to your family.”

I couldn’t be honest with him. I couldn’t tell him I didn’t want him to go. I stooped a little in order to fumble with my backpack. Why were there so many people around? Couldn’t they mind their own business?
I suspected that some of the people in the elevator were watching so I stuck out my hand for a handshake instead of hugging him good-bye. Maybe some of the eavesdropping elevator passengers murmured, but I couldn’t be sure as I had kept my head down, trying to seem distracted by my backpack. Gene looked surprised, shook my hand, and when the elevator doors opened onto his floor, he said goodbye. I never saw him again.

***

“I think they are out to destroy my medical career,” I whispered to my mother. We were standing in a terminal at LAX airport where this distinguished, elderly couple had been seated across from us for a while. I had just graduated from college in May 1999 and hadn’t gotten into any medical school. Two had waitlisted me but ultimately rejected me. I was sure the couple were spies who had plotted with those medical schools to end my potentially prestigious and promising career, as I would later be convinced that the solo passenger seated behind us on the plane had done. As I filled my mother in on their plot to destroy my precious career, I switched to a different Chinese dialect to throw off the suspicious-looking couple and glared, since they had been staring at me.

I hadn’t slept nor showered for two weeks. My exhausted mother nodded. By then, she would have said anything to get me on the plane headed to the Pittsburgh, to the home of my dad’s psychiatrist colleague and good friend. My parents didn’t want me to see the psychiatrists in Los Angeles. If I were hospitalized in the Los Angeles community my dad practiced medicine in, people might gossip.

I didn’t know what a psychotic break was or whether the doctor in Pittsburgh was right or wrong about me. All I really wanted was for him to help me figure out whether people were really out to ruin my career or whether I just needed to study harder.

***

I had gained about forty pounds within a month or so of taking a combination of various prescription medications. At twenty-three years old, I had been rejected by twenty-five different medical schools in two sequential admissions cycles.

Despite my parents’ efforts, I was eventually hospitalized in Los Angeles in the year following Pittsburgh. But even before my hospitalization, I had started using food as a salve. My mother would watch me in disapproving silence whenever I sat at my parents’ table for dinner and shoveled noodles into my mouth.

“I’m already fat,” I would say, if she dared suggest I’d had enough. “Just let me eat what I want before I die so that I can have a little bit of happiness in my life.”

My mother looked alarmed and pained, but she still refused to ask me the obvious question: Do you really want to die? Because for me to verbalize my suicidal thoughts could mean that they could actually happen.

So she watched me eat so many excessive dinners in disapproving silence that, seven years later, by the time I was thirty, I was morbidly obese: 5’1” and well over 200 pounds.

***

Several years ago, I found Gene’s profile on Facebook and sent him a friend request. He did not recognize me from my profile picture because of the weight I gained. He sent me a message to ask whether I was the long-lost friend who painted the three beautiful portraits of him that still hung on his wall.

I told him that was Eugenia. I painted the leaves.

I thought about reminding him about me, his friend who studied like a maniac for the MCATs and pretended to know a lot about all sorts of foods, but I couldn’t find the right words. Instead, I told him that I missed him and appreciated his friendship, but he didn’t reply. Maybe because my confession came decades too late, I failed to become part of the memories of his time in New York. Maybe he forgot me because I never did anything that was worth remembering. I wondered if he really forgot, or if my memory was faulty. I wondered whether my perception was really so far off from reality.

***

When I returned to the NYU dormitory for my senior year of college, I had made a beeline for the TV lounge. I wanted to see Gene there, hoping that maybe he had forgotten that awkward handshake incident in the elevator, or perhaps had decided not to go to McGill. That maybe he would stay at NYU and finish out the following year with me. I waited and waited, but he did not appear.

That was also the year of the first round of medical school rejection letters. I thought about Gene and was grateful for his presence, the way he helped keep me calm, happy, and sane the year before all those rejections, the year before I felt like I started to lose everything, including my own sanity.

I thought about what my therapist said about how most people are not out to hurt others; that they were just doing the best they can. I thought about my own mistakes—my moods, flaws, and regrets – protracted silences, refusal to attempt portraiture, ignoring movie subtitles read aloud, and my cold elevator good-byes, and I realized that what my therapist said had been true.

***

Last fall, I went back to New York City for my 20-year college reunion. I had been residing in Los Angeles since college, with only occasional jaunts to the city. I knew I wouldn’t see Gene nor Eugenia at the reunion as they didn’t graduate with my class, but I would often think of them whenever I visited. On the last day of that reunion trip, I stopped by Washington Square to listen to the street musicians play their instruments by the fountain. I ambled by my old NYU dormitory to admire the building’s orange and gray façade, watched as the crisp autumn leaves fell from the surrounding trees, and then stopped into Veselka in the East Village to eat a plateful of potato and cheese pierogis. And by the time I flew back home to Los Angeles, I finally felt like I had said a proper good-bye.

Julianne Ho lives in Los Angeles and is a first-generation Taiwanese-American. She works as a financial manager for UCLA and enjoys arts & crafts and watching Hulu. Being solitary these past months and having those fears realized, it has helped her see how strong she can be and that being alone is not so bad.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, love, Travels

I Never Want to Leave Here

October 24, 2016
love

By Jillian Schedneck

At 21, it was stomping through the streets of Bath under a perpetual pissing of rain, reading the obscure poetry of Anne Finch and Lady Mary Montagu, hanging around pubs in between class waiting for English men to talk to me. It was liking myself more than I ever had before. I had left Boston a shattered, friendless virgin, but after only a few weeks in England, I was rapidly turned into someone new: a version of myself I’d only dreamed of. I spoke up in class, made my new friends laugh, and managed to capture the attention of English men, at least for a little while. And this was only the beginning.

I fell in love with waking up in Bath, blinking into the light from my bedroom window. I fell in love with ravenous lunches of Cornish pasties or brie and ham sandwiches, sitting on a bench in the Abbey Square with my knees pulled up, a book resting on the curve of my thighs, listening to the clipped accents of tour guides. I fell in love with Great Pulteney Street, a long stretch of limestone colored terrace houses that I liked to imagine myself living in one day.

My body felt different, lighter, as if I stepped on springs, as if the great knot of tense energy that had once existed in my chest was now unraveling. What had taken me so long to get away? After all, I stood on the same earth, breathed the same air, and lived by the dictates of the same sky. And it was so much better here; more than that: it was as if life, my now luminous life, happened only here, and the rest—before and after—could only be grey, dull filler.

Strolling the streets of Bath, I saw myself following in the footsteps of the eighteenth century women writers I’d so admired last semester in my survey of British literature course. I had improbably recognized myself in these women—countesses and literary hostesses, austere wives and the scandalously single—and their struggles to write. I hadn’t read Alexander Pope or Samuel Johnson in this personal way, but as old men in wigs, penning polemics that never stuck with me. But when I came to those women’s poems and diaries, I wondered, what would I have done in their places? If writing meant I would likely appear foolish and incompetent in the world of men, would I have had the courage? I didn’t think so.

That unnamed fear nettled me, made me pause and finally decide that on this fleeting, life-altering study abroad, experience was key. I had to gain that courage. In order to create worthwhile stories, I told myself I needed the insight that come from chance encounters, longing and love. And I wanted to see my see my transformation in the eyes of another, this new version of myself reflected back at me. So one night, when an older man asked if I’d travel to Barnstaple with him the next day, I said yes.

He approached my friends and me as we sipped black ciders at our local pub. “Smile for me please, ladies!” I squinted up at him and flashed a smile.

He was in his early thirties, barrel-chested, with hazel eyes and thick lashes. “I thought so! You are American. I had a bet with my mate.” I glared at him, confused. “Because you all have perfect teeth! Most of us English haven’t been so fortunate.” He let out a roaring laugh. I was the only one to join him.

My friends quickly found other men to talk to, and soon it was just the two of us. Aaron didn’t ask me the usual: how long I had been in England, my impressions so far, or where I was from in America. Instead, we made fun of each other’s accents, sang along to cheesy pop songs playing in the pub, and ordered several more rounds. I learned he was a regional salesman for LazyBoy furniture, and when I said I was studying eighteenth century women writers, he looked at me with a kind of wonderment.

After half an hour of chatter, he put his hands on my shoulders. “Listen, I’m going to Barnstaple tomorrow for work, so you might as well come along. See a bit of the country while you’re still here.”

I took a step back. Was he serious?

“Don’t you fancy me?”

“I don’t know!” I shouted. But I did like the way he was looking at me, determinedly, willing me to fancy him. “Ok,” I said, figuring simultaneously that this was just the kind of invitation I was hoping for, and that I could change my mind in the morning. “I’ll go.”

“Brilliant.” He grabbed my waist. “Can I kiss you?” Then he leaned in, soft lips on mine, hands pressing into the small of my back.
The next morning, I couldn’t work out if I was being romantic and adventurous, or insane and duped. But he exuded a kind of light, an effervescence. I liked it. Why make things complicated? I nearly skipped down the steps and waited outside in the bright, fresh morning for Aaron to pick me up. Wearing the new red coat I had bought in London, I felt pretty, magnanimous, in love with the turn my life had just taken.

A white hatchback slowed and then stopped. Aaron stepped out of the car, handsome in the daylight wearing a dark grey suit.

“Happy to see me? Or do I look too old for you now?” He said, squinting at me.

“You look fine,” I said, rising and walking to the car, and then worried that sounded wrong. “Good!” I shouted. “I think you look very nice.” Aaron laughed as we got into his car and gave my thigh a big squeeze.

Then he tossed a spiral bound book of road maps onto my lap. “You’re in charge of directions.”

For the whole day, we drove around the English countryside, visiting quaint towns. His job seemed cursory and cruisy. He checked in on furniture stores nearly as an afterthought. Aaron even made a house call, fixing an ailing chair in an old woman’s living room. Throughout the day, I learned that he was thirty-one, a vegetarian, and, crucially, that he lived in a flat in Great Pulteney Street. I couldn’t believe he lived on the most beautiful street in the world and he wasn’t even famous.

By the time we got home that evening, the sky was deep pink and the sun was falling beyond clusters of brown roofs. I wished we could remain just like this: anticipating our entrance to the stunning city below and marveling at the night ahead. A great sense of possibility overwhelmed me, and I saw myself following in the footsteps of some of those bold eighteenth century women writers, Hester Thrale and Lady Mary Montagu, who wrote diaries and letters about choosing love that would defy their worlds. Like them, I was a woman who could fall in love deeply, recklessly.

“I never want to leave here,” I said.

Aaron glared at me, his hands perfectly still at the wheel. “You can stay with me.”

And so I did. Even when I cooked at home with my roommates or went out for pizza, Aaron would pull up at my corner of North Parade when I was through, and we would travel the short distance to Great Pulteney Street. It was always a relief to slip into his car, his green eyes flashing, his laughter booming.

We spoke of a life of travel. Aaron wanted to take me to the Canary Islands, Majorca, the Maldives, places I had never heard of. For my graduation, he said we would ride the ferry over to Calais, in France, and drive through Belgium, Germany and Holland. England suddenly seemed so ordinary.

When the semester ended, we had a tearful goodbye at Heathrow airport. But I saw Aaron a few months later, when he visited me in Boston that summer. Suddenly there he was, my connection to Bath, the embodiment of my transformation into someone desirable and worldly. While lazing in the Public Gardens, we solidified our plans: I just had to get through my senior year at Boston College, and then I would move into his flat in Bath. It sounded like a dream, to live on Great Pulteney Street, to wake in Aaron’s apartment every morning and take ruminative walks in Victoria Park with notebook in hand, teaching myself to write a novel.

When the new semester started, Aaron and I emailed and talked on the phone regularly. What in the world did we tell each other? The papers I wrote, the dramas of my roommates? Footy scores and his loneliness without me, driving through the Southwest of England alone? He went for broke on calling cards and visits to Boston, and paying for my flights to England. I was continually elated that someone who lived in Bath wanted me to return there as badly as I did.

Did I mention he was barrel-chested? A big frame, overweight: fat. Even now I cringe at the word. On his first visit to Boston, my twin sister wondered what I was doing with him. Her gay best friend sneered and asked why I was with a fat guy.

“He’s not fat,” I replied, exasperated. But he was. He was vegetarian, but not the kind who ate tofu wrapped in lettuce leaves. He consumed cheese and onion flavored crisps, pasta and pizza and veggie burgers with plenty of chips. He purchased a can of Coke wherever we went. His only exercise was a jaunty walk to the service station to pay for petrol. But I never tried to change his habits. I could overlook anything when it came to Aaron.

He was my first. We had sex on his first visit to Boston, on my summer sub letter’s bed, to the background rumble of the T on Commonwealth Avenue. I wasn’t very impressed with the whole thing, and just happy to get it over with. I figured we wouldn’t have to do that again for a while. But of course, it was only the beginning.

I woke to his entreaties for sex one morning in Spain—a trip we took just before my graduation. He told me to stop checking my emails and become more dedicated to our sex life. I was waiting for notification of a writing award from my university, and had begun to correctly presume that I hadn’t won. I wasn’t like those 18th century women writers—Hester Thrale, Lady Mary, or Anne Finch, and the many others I had admired. I wasn’t gutsy or talented. I didn’t have a vision that went beyond my years, let alone my century. I hugged Aaron and said I would do better. My chance encounter, my longing and love, had achieved the opposite intention. Instead of increasing my courage, I decided that Aaron was all I had.

That spring, I bought a one-way ticket to Bath. It seemed inevitable, the fruition of my worldly transformation, and my lack of any other plan. I didn’t envy my classmates and all their worries about jobs and moves after graduation. They were only staying in America, and their concerns seemed so small. I convinced myself that I had everything sorted for a life of love and adventure abroad. Once I got on that one-way flight, everything would truly begin.

Yet something twisted inside me as my roommates spoke about their nascent careers. In contrast, I imagined my post-graduation life, spending every day with my fat boyfriend in his small, drafty flat. I wouldn’t have a job; I hadn’t even organized a work visa. My favorite professor encouraged me to approach a local US newspaper and write a column on my life in England, but I couldn’t imagine who would want to read about my cruisy life in Bath. I began to envision my immediate future as a failure, trudging around Bath alone, totally dependent on Aaron: financially, emotionally, socially. This dream life I had concocted suddenly seemed utterly boring and unproductive. It became crystal clear that this situation was intolerable.

Still, I hesitated putting this decision into action. Quite frankly, Aaron had spent a lot of money on our relationship, and I felt I owed him for that. But what did I owe him exactly? Another year? A few months? The idea of translating his financial investment in our relationship into days and weeks began to seem so preposterous that one night, a few weeks before my flight to England, I called Aaron to say I wasn’t coming. I didn’t think I would actually do it until I had dialed his number and said the words: “I’m not getting on that plane.”

I was back at my mom’s condo in New Hampshire by then, suitcase open in my old room, filled with the clothes I had planned to take to Bath. Aaron pleaded with me to use my ticket, promising to buy my return flight whenever I wanted to leave. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t go to Bath and then leave again. If I went, I would end up staying.

I cried for a few weeks, and then moved back to Boston for the summer. I spent my days waking at 530am to work the early shift at Starbucks, taking afternoon naps in the Boston Commons, and dating a sweet guy who showed me what great sex really was. When the summer was over, I moved to London on a student-work visa with my friend Katie, a wonderful girl I had roomed with in Bath. I got a job editing ad copy in a poorly lit office. Katie and I went out every night with the aim of finding British boyfriends. We found a few. But for me, Aaron was always in the background. I met him all over England, wherever he was headed for work: Nottingham, Brighton, Dorset.

On the trains to meet him, I would take out my notebook and write about the surprising pleasure of looking for a London flat, visiting all those otherworldly pockets of the city and imagining my life in each one. I wrote about the guys I kissed in bars. When they asked me to come home with them, I would just laugh at their proposals, because I had only slept with two people and the idea of having sex with a near stranger seemed hilariously preposterous. I wrote about how different it was here than in Bath, only a ninety-minute train ride away. Those trips, watching the dark English countryside zoom by as I headed toward the first man who ever loved me, are still the purest memories I have of the thrill of writing.

Whenever I arrived back in London after another weekend with Aaron, I would remind myself that this was the grand city of pleasure, enchantment, temptation and vice from the eighteenth century novels and plays I had studied. This had been the glittering, magical world of gardens and palaces and concerts, beautifully attired young people dancing at assemblies under golden lanterns, strolling arm in arm through the mall in St. James Park. This was where the women writers had lived, where they wrote their letters and diaries, treatises, novels and plays, and this was where they had fallen in and out of love. This was that same chaotic place where Katie and I had arrived, jetlagged and useless, where we had gotten our laptops stolen in the first flat we rented, where we shared a two-pound kebab sandwich every night. Our lives in London were neither enchanted nor disappointing, but real, and I was grateful to be there, with or without Aaron.

The last time I saw Aaron was three years later, when I was twenty-five and in graduate school in West Virginia. On my way to a summer course in Prague, I flew through London. He picked me up and we travelled to Cornwall for a few days. Even though he had moved out of Bath by then, I still fell in love with him once more as we strode through the streets of Newquay and ordered a pizza. It had been four years since we first met, and already that person reflected in Aaron’s eyes had changed dramatically.

I was no longer dependent on him for my connection to the wider world; he no longer served as a reflection of my worldly transformation. In a few years, I would move to Abu Dhabi for a teaching position; I would write a book about my life there. At 30, I would move to Australia to do a PhD in Gender Studies, and fall in love with an Australian man. All of this was ahead of me, and when I looked into Aaron’s eyes I saw a love for the soggy streets of Bath and the old dream that that would be enough.

Jillian lives in Adelaide, Australia with her husband and daughter. She runs the travel memoir writing website Writing From Near and Far, and is the author of the travel memoir Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights. She holds an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in Gender Studies. Her writing has appeared in Brevity, Redivider and The Lifted Brow, among others.

Join Lidia Yuknavitch and Jen Pastiloff for their signature “Writing & The Body” Retreat in Portland March 17-19 by clicking photo.

Join Lidia Yuknavitch and Jen Pastiloff for their signature “Writing & The Body” Retreat in Portland March 17-19 by clicking photo.

courage, Guest Posts, Racism

The Last Pep Rally

October 23, 2015

By Jane O’Shields-Hayner

It was during that last, fragmented year of college when I found myself standing, once more, in a hot and rowdy crowd at what would be my last pep rally. My sorority required my attendance, to demonstrate support for the next upcoming football loss.  My school lost pretty much all the time in those days and I had no real interest in football.

This was my fourth year of college and I was twenty-one years old.  This semester I had registered for fifteen units of classes, and not attended a single one. Without a conscious thought, I had devised a simple way to sabotage my life.

My life was college life, and college was the vehicle I used to meet my whims. As a student, I could stay up late and hang out every night. I could dress in magazine fashions and boogie at the kind of parties where everyone drank as much alcohol as their gut would allow, then smile for photographs holding a paper cup while the blue light from the photographer’s flash bulb ignited and smoked.

I wasn’t new at slacking, but this year I had pushed slackhood past the point of no return. I dressed and drove my car from sorority row each morning while my friends left for class. Instead of parking at the main campus, walking inside a limestone building and facing one of the many professors I had never seen and never heard, I drove off in one of several other directions. I pointed the long nose of my yellow Mustang toward the highway, pushed on the accelerator until my toes touched the floor and dreamed I was flying. Three hundred horses of power propelled my wagon of yellow steel toward the horizon and then I was free. With a thrill in my heart, I raced past the contradictions, troubles and lies of my scrambled and misdirected life.

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Abuse, Binders, courage, Guest Posts

Fuck Us Harder.

March 10, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88

By Cade Leebron. 

TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contain information about sexual assault and/or rape which may be triggering to survivors.

the prequel

survivor. I don’t feel like a survivor of anything. Sometimes I think that one girl died on a bed in a dorm room on her third day of college; she died in his bed while he was fucking her, raping her, whatever. Another girl was born in her place and she rose, gasping, like a phoenix and ran from the room. She was a virgin. Nobody had ever fucked her, raped her, whatever. She was brand new, and she stumbled to a different dorm room and collapsed on the floor and then eventually crawled into the dead girl’s bed and fell asleep and in the morning she took a shower.

testimony

Three and a half years later, in April of my senior year, it still feels like a lie to call myself a survivor, I still don’t feel like I survived at all. I’m sitting on a carpeted floor, the institutional carpet leaving an imprint of its texture on the bottoms of my thighs, and I look around and start to speak to the people on all sides, unsure of which way to look. It feels wrong to start my sentence with as a survivor, but I say it anyway.

We are here, at this meeting of the Wesleyan University Student Assembly, to have a community discussion regarding sexual assault on campus and the role of fraternities, if fraternities should be dismantled or co-educated in order to combat rape culture, if fraternities contribute to rape culture at all. I turn to look at the back of the room and I see rows upon rows of massive men, fraternity brothers. They are just so much bigger than me that it is shocking. Why do they get the chairs? How did they get so big? I have seen them in the dining halls, their plates piled high with what would be several meals for me, but they didn’t seem so large then. Now here they are, massive men sitting in comically small chairs, perhaps those chairs were meant for small and fragile people like me who are instead down here on the floor. I don’t usually feel small. And I do know why they got the chairs, it is because they got here first, and I know what this must look like: they care more, we the women don’t care enough, we showed up a little late. The truth is that we didn’t show up late, we were here, wandering around the student center and avoiding entering this particular room, getting coffee and pretending to text, doing anything to not come here until the last minute. We were hesitant, maybe a little afraid, they were not. But we are here now, I am here. And so I say things, I add my voice to this war that’s happening very politely in this room, I say, according to the transcript, to the members of fraternities: if you care about women, why don’t you want to share this with them?

I’m sure that’s not how I said it, I know I said something about how siblinghood can be just as meaningful as brotherhood, how coeducation is a viable option, and something about how as a survivor, I feel safer in co-ed spaces, but I don’t remember exactly how I said it and the transcript is available online. It’s accurate enough.

I know that in the context of the world, a big place almost entirely full of crime and genocide and war and hatred and dead or abused children and terrorism, if you believe CNN, this is a very tiny little battle in this carpeted room. This is a group of college students at an extremely liberal liberal arts college arguing over whether or not men get to have clubs and call them fraternities and not let women join. And if we the women don’t fight against it, if we let these fraternities continue to exist, let men be together in this way, are they more likely to rape us? And are there enough of them for it to matter? Only three campus fraternities own houses. This whole situation feels artificial and surreal. We are having a conversation facilitated and policed by members of the student government and the administration. We are not allowed to laugh at each other or speak out of turn. A woman speaks, she says that the president of a fraternity called her a slut at a party recently. In response, the president of that fraternity introduces himself and then calmly attempts to explain it away, he says she was dancing inappropriately at his fraternity and that’s why he called her a slut, she was just dancing that way, dancing like a slut. As if this is justification. As if we should not notice that he is white and she is black and he is policing her body and the way it moves in his privileged space. We are shushed by student assembly members for booing him and then we sit quietly, chastised, waiting our turn, as the meeting continues. The minutes make no mention of this incident. The administrators, the supposed adults here, sit in a row of chairs against the windows to the right, they are silent. My campus therapist is among them, sometimes we make eye contact and then look away. This is a very orderly kind of pain. And it has become the reality, the vocabulary of my life. I’ve gotten so sucked into it, using these words, triggered, survivor, rape culture, so easily that someone might think it’s what I actually mean.

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Anonymous, Eating Disorders/Healing, Guest Posts

The Turning Point.

January 24, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88

By Anonymous.

I’ll never forget the first time someone called me “little” during my teenage years. It was my sophomore year of high school, during our One Act Play festival. I had just won an award for best director and my opponent’s mother fondly referred to me as “that little Erin girl”. She did not say this to my face, of course. But my mother informed me that she’d overheard it. When my mother repeated it, she said it with a hint of bitterness. But I romanticized the idea, the thought that I was this tiny force to be reckoned with, a warrior in bows and ballet flats.

Shortly after this, I developed my eating disorder. Since my reputation as tiny was solidified, my obsession with keeping it began. I shed invisible tears over the size of my stomach, the slowly growing pile of white that barely puckered over my jeans. “You’re tiny.” I’d tell myself this as I ate increasingly smaller portions, to the point where I sometimes ate nothing at all.

My boyfriend called me little too. “You’re so tiny,” he’d tell me, wrapping his hand around my wrist to illustrate his point. I confided in him that I thought I might have an eating disordeI confided in him that I thought I might have an eating disorder while on the phone with him one night during my freshman year of college.

“I’ll tell your parents if it gets bad,” he said. I wondered what bad had to be, if the ritual of purposely not eating for days whenever I got stressed didn’t apply.

When that boyfriend walked out of my life, I told myself that I’d stop starving myself. If ever there were a trigger to that habit, this was it. But, not again, I promised myself. The boy who gave up on me was not worth it.

Flash forward to a few weeks later, post-breakup. I’ve left to study abroad in the Netherlands. I’m living in a castle and making fast friends. And yet, the self-loathing that I’ve struggled with since high school sets it, tainting everything around me. All I can see is the stick legs and thigh gaps of other girls.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

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Guest Posts, Life

Not The Living Proof Girl.

December 23, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Karen Dempsey

We piled into a long, rented passenger van. Two of the juniors, Dan and Mike, had already claimed “driver” and “co” and instituted the rule that driver chooses music, setting us up for sixteen solid hours of Phish.

I crunched in next to a wiry kid with a mess of black hair.

“Benjamin.” He grinned, showing off a shiny retainer. “Freshman.”

I was a college sophomore headed out on a road trip from Boston to Savannah with a dozen kids I didn’t know. It was a Habitat for Humanity volunteer trip—not exactly MTV Spring Break. But, for me, that wasn’t really the noteworthy part.

I don’t need an introvert/extrovert quiz to know where I fall on the spectrum of personality types. I’ve always been a person who lingers most comfortably near the edges of things, enjoying the view from a distance. Even at nineteen years old, my ideal break would have looked more like a low-key trip with a good friend, or week at home in Buffalo with the people who knew me best.

But some small part of me had pushed to try it for once: fall fully and inescapably into the center of something unfamiliar, with a whole group of people I didn’t know pressed in close. And I’m being literal here, because, as I settled into my seat, Benjamin the freshman was making the case that he should be allowed to sleep on me.

“I know we just met,” he said. “But you’re going to know me really well by the end of the week. It’s a long drive. And if I can’t lean on you, I’ll never get any sleep.”

The drive was long. With Phish cranked up and Benjamin nuzzling my shoulder, sleep wasn’t really an option. So I spent the ride trying to catalog the other volunteers by the things they said, the way they interacted.

By virtue of being a senior, Cindy had earned some kind of a supervisory role on the trip, a designation quickly challenged by several of the boys. She was enthusiastic but wavering, an unforgivable combination among ruthless twenty-year-olds. But she had two smart, solid girlfriends with her, and they shored up her confidence. You could see they wanted her to succeed. Eventually, the rest of us would, too.

Anthony from Staten Island was an RA on campus. He had signed up with his friend Eileen and a kid from his floor named Rob. From the moment we all introduced ourselves, Rob began working the refrain, “Come on, Eileen,” a la Dexys Midnight Runners, into every conversation.

There was the soft-spoken, fair-minded guy who was treasurer of student government. The amazing pianist who would spend his junior year studying in South Africa. The pretty, smiling girl who was active in a Christian youth group on campus. There was Beth—alternately friendly and harsh, caught in the push-pull of wanting to fit in and pretending it didn’t matter.

And then there were Mike and Dan. Pushy, I thought. Kind of jerky. But they were the type of kids who pulled the outliers into their jokes instead of making them their (easy) targets. Also? They were really, really funny.

Along with being an introvert, I was a person known to develop crushes on smart, funny boys. Driving across those ten states, as we neared the end of our drive, I was falling hard for Mike.

Like the children we still were, we found ways to debate everything from seating arrangements to whether beef jerky was an acceptable snack choice. But there were long, quiet spells where no one said anything at all. And there were discussions about things that mattered, too, like the fact that we were getting a chance to help build a house that an actual family would live in.

A few hours into the drive, someone brought up the subject of abortion, and the exchange got heated, fast. Beth’s voice trembled. She seemed about to cry. Cindy and her friends exchanged a look, and stopped talking. The silence hovered there in the thick air of the van. Then, carefully, someone started a new thread—something light. And someone else picked it up. And just like that, we were a group of people who looked out for one another.

We passed a hand-lettered, misspelled sign on the road: “Acers of land for sale,” someone read. “Ace – ers of land.” And then someone screamed, “Yeah! We made it! We’re in the south!”

The house we were to stay in was a mustard-colored ranch set up with several rooms of bunks for Habitat volunteers. I was glad when Anthony called to me, “You wanna bunk with us?” He, Rob, and Eileen had kept up a steady stream of lighthearted bantering and bickering since we’d all met in the van. They were easy to be around. All I had to do was laugh.

The work would start Monday, but first we had the rest of the weekend, beginning with a night out in Savannah. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, so we planned to head downtown to a popular Irish bar. I was glad I’d packed a little makeup along with my work jeans and tee shirts.

“Is that my brush?” Eileen asked, as Rob checked his hair in the mirror over the bedroom’s one small dresser.

“Oh, come on, Eileen,” he shouted back.

We drove into the city and found parking; we weren’t even through the door of the bar when a beaming blond girl flew into Mike’s arms out of nowhere. A girlfriend. Of course. She—Amy—and her friend were sailing the friend’s dad’s boat (I know) down the coast for spring break. They had run into us coincidentallywe were assured, with no previous planning between Amy and Mike, on our one night out in Savannah.

“Man!” Mike said. “Can you believe this?”

No. I really couldn’t.

  • ••

One night later in the year, my roommate Caroline went out to see a popular band—Living Proof—that was loved mightily for its covers of new wave songs. Disappointed she couldn’t convince me to join her and her new beau, Caroline went to the show dragging her feet a little. But she came home effervescent. Drunk on keg beer, she gushed about this beautiful nameless girl, who had spotted her not having fun and pulled her out on the dance floor, turning her night around.

Caroline called her The Living Proof Girl, which became shorthand for the enviable, carefree spirit who approached college—and life in general—with a seemingly effortless upbeat attitude. Be charming and pretty! Dance with strangers! Infect the world with your happiness!

Soon after we went to see the campus improv comedy group, My Mother’s Fleabag. Caroline said, “It’s her,” at the same moment I thought it. We both recognized the girl on stage for different reasons. The star of Fleabag was The Living Proof Girl. Who was Mike’s girlfriend. Who was Amy freaking Poehler.

(“You’re funnier then she is,” my friend Kim said recently when I told her this story. “But I think she’s got you beat in the tits department.”)

  • ••

My heart sank a little as Mike melted into Amy’s hug. But I had only known him for a matter of hours. I swallowed my Guinness and made myself start conversations with the other volunteers. I even tapped my Irish American upbringing and requested songs from the band. The singer asked where I was from, then gave our group a shout-out into the microphone. I had fun.

  • ••

The next day, Sunday, we had planned to drive to Hilton Head. But Anthony wanted to go to church first, and we had only one van.

“Guys, I haven’t missed Sunday Mass my whole life,” he said. “You can’t wait an hour?”

There was grumbling. Silence. He looked around at the group, pleadingly.

“I don’t think we can make someone miss Mass for the beach,” I heard myself say. Anthony had pulled me into his little crew when I was apart from the crowd and I owed him one.

It turned out Anthony had gotten the time for the service wrong, so he would miss Mass after all. But he seemed grateful we’d made the effort, and I was glad I’d spoken up.

At the beach I sat taking in the view of the Atlantic, seeing it for the first time from a place other than from the New England Coast. It was chilly out, which didn’t stop some of the girls from peeling down to bikinis. People swam and screamed and splashed each other. I was happy to sit on the beach and watched, wiggling my toes in the sand, wondering what else the week held.

In the morning, the alarm sounded early.

“Ugh!” Rob groaned. “Come on, Eileen.”

We were putting up the framework of the house. When had I held a hammer before? To hang cheaply framed posters over my bed? The nails bent at odd angles or went in sideways. Wood splintered. I was sweating, and my shoulders ached. Jack, a guy who lived on the property in a trailer with his dog and managed the volunteers, walked around offering guidance. I swung the hammer. Thwack thwack thwack. When a nail bent or broke I wrenched it out again. Eventually, I could set those nails in perfectly and my beams came together, part of a wall that was part of a house that a family was going to live in.

Mike and Dan walked over with a sledgehammer.

“Ma’am, this wall is going to have to come down.”

“This is going to hurt us more than it hurts you.”

“Don’t laugh, ma’am. You should probably look away.”

We watched the walls go up. We filled them in. Jack handpicked the best workers to hang the drywall. We screamed and cheered because, at that age, when you accomplish something big, you can still do that.

One morning there were gnats—no see-ums, people called them. They descended on you and filled your nose and mouth. I was near tears. Bug spray didn’t work, the nets on your head helped but obscured your view, and no one else was wearing them. I snuck back to the house, made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and used the house phone to call my sister. “Why did I do this?”

I pulled myself together. Back outside, a little rain descended and drove the bugs away. We celebrated.

Another day, Beth cut her hand using the table saw and Jack had to take her for stitches and a tetanus shot. While they were gone, we lazed around a bit. There was chalk on the worksite and Mike splayed across the ground and had me trace his outline like a body at a crime scene. Then he called Jack’s dog and coaxed it to lie beside the tracing so that he could trace the dog too. Laughing, I took a picture of their two empty outlines.

Our last night in Georgia, Cindy hooked up with the freshman.

“Tell me you didn’t have sex with him,” one of her friends fumed.

“She would,” Beth said acidly.

And the confirmation was written in the grin on Benjamin’s face.

Mike gave me a wide-eyed, open-mouthed look of exaggerated shock and I had to leave the room and laugh.

  • ••

Back at school, I mailed off my rolls of film and when they came back, I bored everyone I could with photos of the house going up. I slipped the crime scene picture into an envelope, carefully wrote out Mike’s address and dropped it in the mail. And soon after I got an envelope from him—an invitation to the party he’d promised us all he’d throw at his off-campus apartment.

I went alone. The Savannah group came, in pairs and with roommates or on their own.

“That picture was so great,” Mike said to me.

I walked around his apartment and saw a picture of him with Amy and then, eventually, the real Amy, hanging out and laughing in a hallway.

I stood next to Beth, watching Mike laugh with a group of his friends.

“I had such a crush on him,” I said.

“Who didn’t?” she answered dismissively.

There wasn’t a lot for us—any of us—to say to each other now that we were back on campus. But somehow, that seemed okay. It seemed, in fact, exactly right. The experiences we’d shared together, and whatever we’d learned about ourselves as individuals, weren’t the kind of things we needed to say out loud.

Content to leave it that way, I finished my drink and slipped out without saying goodbye.

  • ••

Junior year at a football game, I was walking through the stadium with a boy when I saw Mike and Dan in the crowd, running toward me.

They spotted me, whooped, and each grabbed me in a hug, and I felt like my face would break from smiling. I introduced them to my boyfriend and they shook his hand because we were in that strange world where adulthood and childhood, job interviews and football tailgates, collide. Mike, who was then a senior, put his hands on my shoulders and leaned down.

“You’re good?” he asked, while the crowd roared around us. “You’re good?”

“I’m good!” I grinned back, and he squeezed me in a last hug.

“Good luck,” we called to each other, and laughed. And headed back toward our futures.

  • ••

Twenty years later, I’ve discovered via the magic of the web that Mike is even handsomer than I remembered, with three equally photogenic kids hanging off of him in his Facebook picture. Dan is a New York Times bestselling author who has been interviewed on all the major news shows. Amy Poehler continued to pursue her interest in comedy. And the guy who shook hands with Mike and Dan at the game? He’s my husband, and we have two (adorable, hilarious, introverted) kids.

  • ••

KAREN DEMPSEY has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at kdempseycreative.com or follow her @karenedempsey. This essay originally appeared at Full Grown People.

 

Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it's magical.

Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it’s magical.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

A detoxifying, weight loss, energizing, strengthening superfood blend. The Green Dream was the first superfood blend I created. "Green foods" are one of the least common foods consumed, yet they are the most nutrient-dense and most important! I wanted to find a way to get these incredible foods into your body without compromising flavor or convenience.  Green Dream is high in plant-based protein, so it keeps you full for longer and helps burn fat. Unlike other protein blends on the market, there are no "fillers" to extend the blend:  Green Dream uses only superfoods as ingredients, thus providing abundant, concentrated nutrient power with each teaspoon you consume.  Green Dream cleanses as its pure ingredients break down toxins and ushers them from the body. And Green Dream is energizing: it provides a natural, caffeine-free power boost every day as it sets the stage for sustained energy while your body releases old materials and rebuilds with precious new fuel. This blend also supports the body in weight loss, if needed: when your every cell is nourished from the clean protein, good fats, and detoxifying green power it provides, the body gives itself permission to let go of unneeded material.  By feeding your cells only the best, Green Dream makes being healthy and fit easy... like a dream.

A detoxifying, weight loss, energizing, strengthening superfood blend.
The Green Dream was the first superfood blend I created. “Green foods” are one of the least common foods consumed, yet they are the most nutrient-dense and most important! I wanted to find a way to get these incredible foods into your body without compromising flavor or convenience. Green Dream is high in plant-based protein, so it keeps you full for longer and helps burn fat. Unlike other protein blends on the market, there are no “fillers” to extend the blend: Green Dream uses only superfoods as ingredients, thus providing abundant, concentrated nutrient power with each teaspoon you consume.
Green Dream cleanses as its pure ingredients break down toxins and ushers them from the body. And Green Dream is energizing: it provides a natural, caffeine-free power boost every day as it sets the stage for sustained energy while your body releases old materials and rebuilds with precious new fuel. This blend also supports the body in weight loss, if needed: when your every cell is nourished from the clean protein, good fats, and detoxifying green power it provides, the body gives itself permission to let go of unneeded material.
By feeding your cells only the best, Green Dream makes being healthy and fit easy… like a dream.

1798X611

Abuse, Guest Posts, Women

16 Year Old Girl On a Mission to Keep College Girls Safe.

December 16, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

 

By Emma K.

“The fact that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while in college should frighten all of us.”

California Congresswoman Jackie Speier said this recently in a letter to her constituents when she and Pennsylvania Congressman Patrick Meehan submitted new proposed legislation on the subject of improving campus safety standards.

Question to parents: Would you send your daughter to college if the statistic was that 1 in 5 women would be mauled by a bear? And that 80% of the mauling’s would happen to your daughter while she was a freshmen or sophomore? My guess is that the answer would be a sudden decline in enrollments across America accompanied by a spike in online college education.

Earlier this year President Obama created a task force of senior administration officials to make recommendations on how to involve the federal government in the process of raising awareness of the issue and getting colleges to step up to the plate and take responsibility for these crimes on their campuses.

Tough laws and penalties already exist for colleges that don’t conform to the reporting guidelines and many have already been hit with fines: Yale ($165,000), Eastern Michigan ($350,000), University of Montana (undisclosed), to name a few. The even tougher laws and penalties under discussion may or may not solve the problem, but I believe the root of the problem can be solved by Engaging with college students, Educating those students about the problem and Empowering those students to think and act differently.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) employed similar tactics when it was formed and I think successfully drove drunk driving fatalities down over a ten year period. It wasn’t easy to retrain people’s thinking on why it was a really bad idea to drive drunk, but it worked there and I believe it can work here. I heard a TED talk recently and the speaker was talking about how the best new technology was “disruptive”. Well, we need to disrupt the norm in order to effect change and keep college girls safe. We need to be confident and patient about our ability to effect true social change. Nelson Mandela waited 27 years in jail, to effect true social change in his country. Now that’s commitment and patience! He said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. We will not have to wait that long. Through education and action, we can get college students to take a different view on things.

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