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Abuse, Guest Posts, Relationships

Love Thy Neighbor

March 3, 2021
told

By Kelly Wallace

Biking around my Portland neighborhood, I saw a moving truck with a good looking guy front of a house. He was photographing a Bianchi bicycle in front of the fence.

“Nice bike,” I told him as I cycled by. He was tall, thin, and looked Italian with dark curly hair.

“Thanks. I’m trying to sell it on Craiglist,” he said. “I used to ride it to my job. But since I retired a year ago, I don’t need it anymore.”

“Where did you move here from?” I asked. Up close, I noticed silver mixed in with his black bangs and sexy eyes.

“I was living in Florida,” he told me.

“Well, welcome to the neighborhood,” I said. “It’s a beauty. Good luck selling it.” Cycling to my exercise class, I made a mental note to try and strike up another conversation. It was exciting to have a hot new guy so geographically desirable.

He was often out in his front yard. I stopped to chat whenever biking by. We’d chat about cycling and his luscious garden. He’d managed to retire at 40 by never going on vacations, buying everything second hand and cooking at home, he said. He spent hours planting vegetables. As a 38-year-old, brunette business consultant, with fifteen years of recovery from alcoholism under my belt, I’d purchased my own two-bedroom bungalow but felt lonely living alone. An agnostic, I didn’t want marriage or kids. The only relationship I’d been in post college was five years with someone who couldn’t commit. As a survivor of sexual abuse, emotional intimacy wasn’t easy for me.

One night I asked him if I could try some cherry tomatoes from his garden. After the tomato tasting, he offered to make me dinner. We stayed up late talking. Within weeks we were an item. On Halloween we rode in the pouring rain to haunted houses, posting pictures of each other sitting on bales of hay. We sautéed Thai green curry with shrimp in his kitchen, then played cribbage on my sofa with my brown tabby Billie. He drank a beer here and there while he cooked but it didn’t bother me. My craving for alcohol had long since disappeared.

When I was sick, he made shakshouka, a middle eastern poached egg dish. He was a great cook and offered me tips, like the importance of having a good cooking knife. He taught me how healthy food was nurturing – something I needed after struggling with drinking and starving my way through college, another byproduct of my childhood trauma.

It was so awesome with him just a few houses down, not even a car, cab or Uber away. I loved popping into his place for dinner, snuggling up to watch old episodes of “The Jersey Shore,” then going home to sleep in my own bed. It felt like the perfect distance, the trick to finding love at last.

In June, during a city wide bicycle festival we road our bikes in the Bowie vs. Prince annual ride. We dressed up in David Bowie outfits, rode through town with hundreds of others and danced in competitions featuring the two iconic musical performers. On a rare Portland snow day, when the entire city shut down, we walked around our precinct, holding hands. We went to the mountain and tried cross country skiing, gliding along groomed trails, posting goofy pictures of ourselves with a frozen lake in the background on Facebook.

I invited him to my family Thanksgiving. Roasting cauliflower and delicata squash in the morning at his house, he prepared dishes to take to my dad and stepmom’s house an hour way. We feasted on turkey, mashed potatoes, and my stepmom’s famous lime green Jello salad. My dad and stepmom rarely drank. After years of not talking to them, we’d reconciled in therapy. On one visit, my stepmom and Dad sang “Walkin’ After Midnight,” by Patsy Cline in my beau’s living room while he accompanied on guitar. I loved watching him play, a remnant of his former life as a high school band teacher, before I knew him.

I was traveling a lot, mostly by myself. I went to the Women’s March in Washington, then to Atlanta to visit my cousin, renting Airbnb’s. I admitted that the owner of an apartment in Kyoto had invited me to go out for a beer, but I’d turned him down. Though I’d declined his invite, my boyfriend thought I was hanging out with him. I reassured him I wasn’t for hours over Skype.

“He seems too possessive,” my pal Julie said one night. “He’s sounds narcissistic.” She had a masters in vocational rehabilitation and knew about personality disorders. After a fight, I told him what Julie had said.

 “So Julie thinks I’m a narcissist? What did you say when she said that?” He asked while making parsnip puree at the hot stove.

“I told her I didn’t think it was true,” I said, but I had doubts, tucking away her observation.

A psychic once told me, “You are a loner in this lifetime.” At seven, I told my mom that I was being molested by my paternal grandpa. She believed me. My dad did not. At eight, I testified against my father’s father in a courtroom and his side of the family turned against me. They insisted I wasn’t telling the truth. He was found not guilty. I thought it was all my fault. I didn’t know sexual assault cases were incredibly difficult to prove in a court of law – the chances of conviction were less than 3%.

As an adult, I escaped to college 3000 miles away. Now, with my partner’s charismatic personality, he was a bridge to my paternal relatives, making me feel more protected and at ease around them. Besides, they had a four-month old border collie that he loved to play with and soon he got his own dog.

My boyfriend adopted a twelve-week old golden lab mix, Augie, and he watched YouTube videos to learn to teach him new tricks. At a special store that sold only organic pet toys, he bought the puppy a special synthetic tennis ball.

The puppy went everywhere with him. He bought a trailer for his bike to put him in and watched videos on how to get the canine to be comfortable in the carrier. We went out to dinner one night, biking with the Augie in the trailer as a test run and sat at a picnic table with us after we ate. “Take a picture of us,” he asked as he fed the dog the leftover pizza crusts. I uploaded it to Instagram. It seemed insanely cute.

Weeks later, I went to upstate New York for my college reunion. As soon as I landed, we argued over the phone. I didn’t tell my girlfriends what was happening. I thought I could follow what the relationship book I’d consulted said: keep the lines of communication open and try to make it work. My beau posted videos of himself training the pup. I was glad he had company while I was away.

On the last day, there was an event at a winery. Not knowing what to do with myself at the winery and surrounded by drinking, I followed my schoolmates, Melissa, Katie, and Tuesday, listening to their interchanges about their kids, and work life. All three were happily married. I broke down crying.

“What’s going on?” Katie put her arm around my shoulder.

“It’s not working out with my boyfriend,” I admitted. “We’ve been fighting all weekend.”

“Let’s go out the parking lot,” Melissa said. Tuesday followed behind.

“Your marriages are perfect and I feel like a failure in comparison,” I confessed. “But I feel stuck since he lives down the street from me and wants to be together.”

We stood in a circle like a college football huddle.

“We aren’t perfect,” Tuesday said.

 “But if you’re not in love and happy, you don’t have to stay,” Melissa said.

“He has his puppy,” Melissa reassured. “He’ll meet someone else.”

I finally realized I could put a stop to it, just like as a child when I told my mom what happened. I broke up with him calmly over the phone.

Now, entering my twentieth year of sobriety, we still live on the the same block. I see him walking his dog every day but keep my distance. We had some good times together and I don’t regret loving him but I’m relieved it’s over. I’m more comfortable being single. The only downside of dating a neighbor three houses down is I have to keep seeing him long after I stopped seeing him. But when I try out a new vegetable recipe I think of him fondly and all that he taught me about cooking and nourishing myself.

Kelly Wallace recently completed work on The Book of Kelly, a memoir, about her experience as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She previously had words in On Loan From the Cosmos and The Manifest-Station.

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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, Relationships

How to Fix a Bluey Heart

February 14, 2021
blue heart made of napkin time

By Dustin Grinnell

By my mid-thirties, most of my college friends had moved out of Boston to other cities. Many were married and starting families. While they bought homes and built families, I focused my time and energy on writing essays and fiction, trying to become the best writer I could be. I wasn’t making new friendships and I didn’t often see the friends I had. Devoting all my spare time to pursuing my goals, I dated casually, avoiding commitment. These were productive years for me, but I was disconnected and lonely.

Tragically, I didn’t see a problem with this dynamic. Not only had I forgotten the value of friendship—once asking a psychologist to “sell me on friendship”—but I also thought my happiness didn’t depend on others. This attitude came from growing up with my father and brother in a hyper-masculine household. In my father’s home, a “real man” is self-reliant. A “real man” pursues his goals without help from others. A “real man” doesn’t need support from friends or loved ones. If you’re dependent, you’re vulnerable, and a “real man” is never vulnerable. It took me years to realize that this was bullshit. Now I know that everyone needs care and support to flourish in life—yes, even men. Without nurturing, without love, we can wither. And I had been withering.

When I met Sam at 35, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted from a romantic relationship—to marry, build a family, live in the suburbs—but I knew what I needed. Casual dating had run its course, providing less and less fulfillment. I knew I needed someone who could satisfy my emotional needs, not my sexual desires. I needed someone to offer support. Someone to listen to me and validate my ideas. I needed someone to care.

Sam and I met in Boston, at an MFA program in creative writing. We hit it off right away at one of our program’s ten-day residencies, where all the students came to campus for workshops, classes, readings, and more. Since then, we’ve been inseparable. Together, we have visited beaches, parks, and bars all over New England and beyond. We edit each other’s work. We’ve met each other’s families. We constantly joke and laugh. Early on, I realized that Sam was the best friend I desperately needed.

We’re perhaps an odd pairing. I’m in my mid-30s from the mountains of New Hampshire who was living in Boston at the time. She’s in her late 20s from the beaches of Florida who had been living in New York City at the time. I studied science, she studied theater. I write science fiction, she writes young adult. But we’re similar in many ways. We both grew up lower-class. We both see the world’s absurdity and mock it. And we’re both writers—hungry to find our voices and make our marks on the world.

As a preschool teacher, Sam has the unique gift of being able to comfort tiny humans who can’t always tell her where it hurts. It’s a superpower she often uses on me. If I’m stressed or frustrated, Sam senses it. She listens to me when I’m disappointed. She tolerates me when I’m mad. And she does all of this without my asking for help from her. This is important because—due to my upbringing—I never ask.

Though I was already working , on it in therapy, Sam was unwittingly helping me reform my decidedly “jock” origins. Regrettably, in high school and college, I displayed a fair share of toxic masculinity. A “never show weakness” attitude in the halls and classroom. Ignorant jokes in locker rooms. Tough-guy behavior with friends. Anything else was wimpy or weak.

To be fair, my interpretation of masculinity was like most of the males who came of age in my generation. A man of my era never showed softness. A man of this time didn’t admit fault. A man of this time didn’t ask for directions if they took a wrong turn. We were adept at pushing away emotions and soldiering on during tough times. Therapy helped me unlearn this programming. But women also played a large part in my reeducation—working with them, loving them, sometimes hating them. Yet, it was Sam’s caring and nurturing that allowed me to drop the macho facade and be vulnerable, thereby helping me build a less repressed, more sincere view of myself and manhood.

It wasn’t just my dad who had predisposed me to having a troubled relationship with my emotions. During childhood, my mom could be emotionally distant and wasn’t adept at understanding my emotional needs. When I was upset, she struggled to understand the cause of my distress and didn’t always know how to take away the pain. I don’t blame her because it wasn’t entirely her fault. I’ve always sensed that my mom doesn’t quite know how to label her own emotions and console herself when she’s distressed. Instead, she avoids vulnerability and talking about her feelings, and often busies herself in distracting activity (or drinking). I also knew that in her teenage years, my mom went through a traumatic event that drove her further away from her own feelings. And so, in addition to inheriting my dad’s macho attitude, I got my mom’s habit of avoiding emotions, negative ones in particular.

It was Sam who helped me overcome this tragic handicap. First, she tunes into my emotional state. Then she gives me the nurturing I am too afraid to—or don’t know how to—request. She then holds space for me to be vulnerable—a medicine my parents didn’t seem to have.

To help illustrate Sam’s powers, it’s best to show and not tell how she works with children. Recently, Sam was babysitting an adorable six-year-old who grew upset when her parents had to work longer than usual in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Sam could tell that the little girl was feeling ignored. Knowing this “sweet little nugget just needed some lovin’,” Sam delivered a prescription of snuggles while the child wept in her lap and explained why she was sad. An hour later, they were on the playground and the nugget was crossing the monkey bars with confidence.

This is Sam’s gift and it’s been working its magic on me since we met. Her secret is what might be called “extreme empathy.” She feels everyone’s pain and is often willing to take it on to help. One of Sam’s favorite books to read to her students is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. She relates to the apple tree in the story that gives a little boy everything he needs while he grows older. Over the course of the boy’s life, the tree gives the boy parts of itself—apples, branches, and its trunk to make a boat—until the tree eventually becomes a stump. The boy returns to the tree as an old man. Only a stump by this point, the tree can only offer the man a seat. “The tree was happy.”

Like the Giving Tree, Sam often feels that she gives pieces of herself to others to relieve their suffering. When Sam wakes up in the middle of the night, more often than not, it’s because of her extreme empathy flaring up. Worrying about others, she sympathizes with a problem I’m having, thinks about how she can help her struggling sister, or how scared her students are at having to go back to school during the pandemic.

Like the Giving Tree, Sam gives pieces of herself to the people in her life and lets them empty themselves out in her presence. It’s what she did with that child she was babysitting and it’s what she’s done with me many times. Sam lets you vent if you’re frustrated or pout when you’re down. I can share an insight from therapy, an idea for a story, or a dream I had the night before. And when I empty myself, I feel full.

Early on as we got to know each other, I told Sam about a previous long-term relationship I had with a woman I’ll call Paige. With Paige, I felt like a lottery winner. I had found someone who satisfied my emotional needs and my desires for sexual fulfillment. We broke up six years ago and I told Sam that my heart had been “bluey” ever since. I had been dating casually but was emotionally unavailable for romantic partners. I had also developed the unfortunate pattern of looking for sexual fulfillment from women who I knew wouldn’t satisfy my emotional needs. It’s a painful trick I often play on myself. If I pursue someone who’s a poor fit, the relationship will ultimately fail. And when it fails, I don’t get hurt because I knew it would never work anyway.

Sam helped me patch up my bluey heart.

Spending time with Sam helped me realize I wasn’t reflecting on my relationship with Paige. Comparing Paige to Sam, I had overestimated how intimate I’d been with Paige. Paige wasn’t as attuned to my emotional needs as I had thought. The night before she moved to the west coast, we attended a Red Sox game. Distraught over her departure, I broke into tears on the subway on the ride home. Paige rubbed my back awkwardly, not knowing how to comfort me, as my mom might have done when I was a boy. Also, in looking back, Paige wasn’t much interested in my writing goals either. To be fair, it’s not that she didn’t care at all about my dreams. Rather, she was in her mid-twenties and didn’t have the bandwidth to focus on my self-discovery and evolution because she was learning and developing who she was at the same time.

As I spent more time with Sam, the loneliness and disconnection I had been feeling began to lift. It was a tremendous boost for me to talk about writing with Sam. Together, we stoked the fires of each other’s passion for the craft. We listened to each other’s ideas, helped nurture them into reality, and read and edited each other’s work. It’s not uncommon for one of us to text the other about a compelling premise for a story and then send a screenshot the next morning of the first page we’ve written. Sam was my sounding board for story or article ideas.

With more attention and dialogue around my passion, the quality of my work began to improve. So powerful was having someone interested in my ideas, it gave me the confidence to take creative risks in my work. During my MFA, I changed my style of fiction from a commercial to a literary style—from Dan Brown to Edgar Allen Poe. My writing went to another level and publishing opportunities started to roll in.

Meanwhile, if I ever became frustrated or confused, Sam held space for me to be vulnerable. It was the first time I had ever relied on someone and it felt good to be supported. When my head is in the clouds, musing over concepts or philosophizing over theories, I can neglect the mundane tasks of daily living. If I’m preoccupied, Sam steps in to remind me to update my iPhone. She’ll grab a broom and sweep the floor if it’s been neglected. She’ll help diagnose a computer issue if it’s driving me crazy. If I have a demanding workday approaching, Sam will deliver an iced coffee to my apartment.

In therapy, I continued to explore my failed relationship with Paige. It took a while, but at last I figured out why our breakup had destroyed me.

When I was about five, my mother left our family for a year or so, which confused my younger brother and me. For us, it was the incomprehensible nature of her leaving that was most traumatic. Another inexplicable loss occurred when my grandmother died of cancer when I was seventeen, which re-triggered the loss of my mom in me. So when Paige moved across the country, I once again felt abandoned by a woman for reasons I didn’t grasp. But I knew Sam wasn’t going to leave and that was good medicine for a bluey heart like mine. I once asked Sam where she thought she’d be in five years. “Wherever you are,” she said.

Over time, I recognized that though I had loved Paige, we met at the wrong time in our lives. I knew that if I didn’t follow her to the Pacific Northwest, I would lose her. And I did lose her. Selfish as it may seem, I didn’t follow her because I needed that time to focus on my writing. A young artist needed time—years of intense study. Misguided or not, I felt if I didn’t give everything to the craft in my thirties, I’d never become who I wanted to become. Again, perhaps this is self-centered, but writing gives meaning to my life and I’ve made sacrifices for it. I sacrificed someone I loved.

Two years into meeting Sam, I got the closure I needed with Paige. I got in touch with Paige and apologized for not moving across the country with her. She expressed her regret as well. She admitted that she knew I needed that time and that she wouldn’t be able to fulfill that supportive role that was essential to me. She needed that time to transition as well—to continue learning and understanding who she was and find her place in the world.

The medicine for trauma isn’t just talking, reflecting, and shedding cathartic tears. It’s also humor. Sam can be lighthearted and playful, and she sometimes giggles at my “serious” ideas about life and death. Without invalidating my ideas, Sam can make light of my criticisms about mindless careerism, the irresponsibility of the media, and the shortness of life. When Sam pokes fun at my seriousness, it lightens me. It reminds me to stop thinking about life and focus on living it. I became sillier and more fun-loving, especially with Sam. I’m still just as dedicated to my work, but I take the journey less seriously now. Thanks to Sam, I take myself less seriously.

Now, I would be remiss without revealing that Sam loves me hard. The love and affection that Sam shows me pales in comparison to anything I’ve experienced in previous relationships. Her love is so intense, it can’t be avoided or denied. I’m staggered and inspired by it. But are we “together”? Are we dating? It’s the question everyone asks. It’s a constant hum in the background of our companionship. I often think of Sam as my best friend, but she’s much more than that.

In the beginning, Sam expressed her desire for physical intimacy, but I have been holding that part of our relationship back. It’s not just that Sam doesn’t quite fit my “type,” which motivates how I choose sexual partners; it’s that our relationship provides something more vital to me. I wasn’t opposed to the possibility of these desires developing, but when they didn’t, I started to believe that we could continue our unique dynamic forever. Who cares if weren’t “boyfriend and girlfriend”? Given how emotionally satisfying our connection is, I could do without the erotic part.

Eventually, this logic broke down. I went on dates with other women and concealed them from Sam. Even though Sam and I aren’t in an official “relationship”, I felt disloyal when seeing other women. Whatever dating I did was short-lived anyway. I always came back to Sam because I enjoy her company the most. I have the most fun with her. I’m most fulfilled by her. I love her. And so, I stopped going on dates.

But this still didn’t address Sam’s desires. So I tackled that conflict by doing what Sam always gives me space to do: be emotionally vulnerable, a skill that took me years to learn and one that all men would be wise to learn in the 21st century. I divulged that I cherished our connection and intimacy, but was still uncertain about my desire for sexual fulfillment. I told her that our deep emotional connection is more important than the passing pleasures of physical intimacy, at least for now. I questioned whether our connection needed to be defined. Could we just keep caring and supporting each other with a label?

During this conversation, I confessed that meeting her was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I said that she had helped dissolve the disconnection that had found its way into my life in my thirties. I cherished the fact that she watched out for me and wanted the best for me. I had found someone I could laugh with, write with, and go on adventures with.

I had thought I won the lottery with Paige, but I struck gold with Sam. Meeting Sam helped me realize what was missing in my relationship with Paige. I was broken after Paige and Sam helped put me back together. Sam fixed my bluey heart. Now I know how to love again, and, in doing so, how to live again.

Dustin Grinnell’s creative nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New Scientist, Vice, Salon, Hektoen International, and Writer’s Digest, among others. 

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Verge, by Lidia Yuknavitch, is out in paperback. These short stories will grip your heart and mind.  The writing is sharp and the empathetic portraits of broken people will stay with you long after you finish the collection.

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Not Down this Road

January 29, 2021
water

By Jack Clinton

Although she said she didn’t approve, Anita was there on the dock, in the grey light, slipping a touring kayak into the green water, loading it with a fly rod and bags.  She like the richness of estuaries, so she didn’t complain, and it was not like there was a morning chill. It was tropical, and the cool of dawn was the only reasonable time of day.

Anita had her binoculars in hopes of spying rare birds flying out to hunt.   Always the dedicated husband, Tom watched birds with her for a few days, excited that she had seen some rare species like the roseate spoonbill and the anhinga, the snakebird.  He was glad she had seen them, and enjoyed birding with her.  But, he wanted more of a conquest than birding, so he came looking for game fish.  He wanted either tarpon or snook, and he had hooked both, but none were quite right— too small, or too many spectators.

“Well, that’s fine,” she said.  “It will give us another day.  I believe there are night herons in the mangroves and I want to be sure they’re not bitterns.”

“No hurry,” he said,  “The fishing is good, and all this takes time.”

“I know he’s an old friend, but Charlie isn’t stringing you along?”

“No, he has all the money he’s going to get.  He’s no choirboy, but he does what he says he’ll do. He told me to get my cast together, or he’d dump me and return the money.”

Anita gave her thoughtful grunt and said, “Well, you trust him, and I trust you.”

“You won’t lose the house to him.”

Anita snapped her head to retort, but it never left her lips. Instead, they stood quietly, one leaning against other in their identical sun shirts and broad-brimmed hats, turning as they heard the boat.  Tom could see it through the morning mist, running without lights. Charlie stood in the tiny cockpit, and Andy on the bow with a short bight of rope in his hands, surly, with a cigarette in his mouth. Charlie was Andy’s antithesis, with a warm smile, bright blue eyes beaming in the haze, saluting with a traveler of coffee in his free hand.

Charlie made eye contact with Anita, and she held his gaze as he brought his skiff to dock, both nodding mutually.  Andy looped the pier deftly and cinched the boat in smoothly.

“Tom?” She said with a catch.

“I know,” he said. “I know… all the discussions are done.” His voice hitched.

Tom kissed her, Anita clung for a moment, then he was aboard. The line slipped free, and they headed out with the tide.  Tom waved and put one palm to his heart.

“Tom,” Charlie shouted above the engine, “we’re going to the edge of the mangroves, the small barrier islands to fish for snook in the backwater.  We’ll only have an hour or two before the sun’s too high. Then we’ll probably go for tarpon along the drop-offs and flats, or we’ll go look for baits further outside.”

Tom knew it’d be a while, and so he took a seat out of the wind, on the cushioned bench behind the helm.  Andy was already in the bow working on the leaders and tippets for the quiver of fly rods. When he was done, he reverently slipped each rod in the plastic tubes fixed to the squat spotting tower above the cockpit.  Charlie was an excellent Capitan, and his boat was spotless and his gear very good.  Tom had seen better, but every piece of Charlie’s equipment simply fulfilled its function.

Tom watched the birds along the tidal river, wishing Anita could see them.  Egrets and herons rose from their roosts in the mangroves, and he saw an enormous wood stork and petite ibis pecking for fiddler crabs in the tidal mud.  Occasionally, quick clouds of gulls, terns, and pelicans dove for pods of baitfish that leapt and skittered across the swirling water.  Charlie pointed at the activity and shouted, “It’ll be a good day.”

As the boat ride lengthened, Tom remembered similar rides in his dad’s open skiffs, out where feeding fish sent anchovies and silversides leaping into the beaks of wheeling birds. His father was from a commercial fishing family in Maine, but he had come south after earning a degree in engineering. His mother had his sister, Cloe, but Tom was forever his father’s accomplice. He often worked with his father, rebuilding and selling used boats or painting houses. Tom loved listening to his father’s lively banter while bartering for parts and prime boat lumber, his father squeezing every dime when he found himself between jobs.

Whether in New York or Delaware, they always lived within a few blocks of docks or piers, where Tom grew up renovating and maintaining their modest sailboats and fishing skiffs. He waited all spring and early summer, watching for shivering skitters of bait fish on the glassy surface of the estuaries. He listened to fishing reports and harbor gossip for news of bluefish and striped bass coming close to shore.  That was the only time his dad would be “sick” from work, or even quit one job for the uncertain prospects of another.  Tom and his dad would always be there though, out with the frenzied shoals, in screaming clouds of herring gulls, casting plugs and live baits into the swirls of blues and stripers.

 

“Here,” Charlie said, rousing Tom blinking from his reveries.  “This is a good island. Cast along the current and then strip it through the dead backwater.  Let it sink to the dark blue.”  Tom could see it was good water.  His father would have been magnetically pulled here from miles away.  “Fishy water,” his father called it.

Andy passed the rod to Charlie, who inspected the leader and tippet rig, nodded and passed it to Tom.  “This is the place.”

Tom stretched as he clambered to the front of the boat and took his place on the casting platform.  Andy had tied on a standard streamer, green on top, white on the bottom, long and weighty.  He flipped the streamer forward and paid out a length of line, made a few false casts until he could feel the flex and action of the rod. He shot the streamer out to the nearer end of the current, stripped in a few feet of line then made a longer cast to the point of mangroves.  He saw a flash on one retrieve and then hooked up on the next.  It was a good fish.  He played it, and Charlie laughed, “This is gonna be a day.”

Tom brought a nice amberjack to the side of the boat.  Andy was there with his pliers and tugged to hook free and the fish disappeared into the deep blue.

“Good fish. Maybe we’ll keep a bigger one,” Andy said, slapping him on the shoulder.

“Good fish, Tom,” Charlie repeated, “a bit deeper on the retrieve.  The snook will already be looking for darker water.”

Tom worked the eddy line, letting his fly drift deeper before his retrieve.

He caught a small snook after a few more casts and then the water went dead.

They wasted no time pulling the anchor, motoring off to find another island with swirling waters and a good drop.

“The last hurricane really carved up these islands and dug some good trenches,” Charlie said.  “The island ahead was cut completely in half.  I’ve never fished it, but I noticed there’s deeper water. Sit and relax until we’re there.”

“It’s all good to me,” Tom said with his toothy grin.

They swung in downstream, and Charlie quietly dropped anchor, letting the skiff drift while Tom took his stance on the deck. Charlie hand-hauled the boat up the anchor line until they were within casting distance.  On Tom’s second cast he was into a great fish. Charlie and Andy were there beside him. “This is it, Andy, this is the one. Easy Tom, play him, let him run, use the rod, give him line! He’s heading to open water.”

Charlie pulled up the anchor to follow the fish.  Andy hung close behind Tom.

The snook came to the surface twice and they could all clearly see its great size. “I’m saying fifteen pounds!”  Andy spoke into Tom’s ear.

“It’ll do,” Tom shouted over his shoulder.

Charlie had his eyes on Andy.  “Lower the transom deck, “ he said with an air of gravity.  The fish was in the air once more, throwing spray across the sun, as Andy unfolded a tiny platform off the stern so Tom could bring his catch to hand.

A motor roared out in the glare of the morning sun, and shouting came from the starboard side. A rabble of tourists gave hoots and thumbs up from the deck of a bouncing charter heading to the deep water outside the islands.

Charlie and Andy rose from their crouched positions, shocked to have missed the motor in the silent morning.

“That’s it, Andy… That’s it…  We’ll go for another fish a little farther out.”

Tom was still whooping, lost in his moment as he stood on the transom platform, water sloshing up over his canvas shoes.

“Jesus,” Charlie said.  “That’s a big damn snook.”

“I haven’t seen many bigger,” Andy said, handing Tom his skinny hook pliers.

Charlie quietly supervised as Tom brought it to hand and worked the hook free,  stnding aglow in the early sun as the fish swam lazily away, stunned from the exertion it spent.

“That was perfect, just perfect,” Charlie said shaking his head.

“Charters,” Andy grumbled.

Tom turned, smiling, “No worries Boys, it’ll be a good day.”

 

Tom had turned pale from the exertion, sweat beaded on his brow and ran from his temples.

“Take some shade, Tom, there’s water in the cooler — eat some fruit.” Charlie moved to his side. “Easy,” he said with a hand on Tom’s elbow, “you gotta last all day.”

“Sure, I’ll take some shade,” he said to quietly to himself, ducking under the canopy, handing the rod to Andy.

Tom sat and thought of Anita and his father as the boat skimmed and bounced on the open water.  His father would’ve liked the diversity of the fish and birds, and the topography of the water.  The New England coast was so limited, and the fish were either Blues or Stripers, and the birds were either gulls or terns, and they never expected anything different.  But when surprised by the occasional heron or ibis, his father would stop and look up reverently, “Will you look at that, Tom! I’ve never seen one of those around here.”  That was the last thing his father said to him in the hospital, looking up from a nest of tubes and wires that sucked away his life, his savings, his house, and dignity.  “Will you look at that!” his father said.

That was the same fatal day his father told him, “I wouldn’t go if I were you Tommy, not down this road.” And then — like father, like son, there he was, fifteen years later, with his father’s cancer.

Instead of hospice, Tom was riding along on the deck of a small skiff, hiding from the sun, waiting for the next patch of good water.  He reached for his insulated lunch bag, resting its coolness in his lap. He pulled out the ice pack and settled it against his stomach for relief, and opened his pill organizer, swallowing a few of each.  Anita would be watching and counting if she were there.  Andy eyed the box hungrily, and Tom gave him one of the big, powerful painkillers, which Andy swiftly stashed in his shirt pocket.  A moment later Charlie was looking over his shoulder from the wheel.  “Go easy, Tom.  Don’t get goofy on me now.  There’s still a lot of water ahead.”

“Just staying even, Charlie.”

“Good.  Stay cool and drink water – A breeze will come up soon, maybe some cloud cover later on.  It’ll be cooler outside the shoals and mangroves.”

“Why are we going outside?”

“Because there’s good baits and birds.  Plus, the fish outside won’t be as picky as tarpon and snook.  Andy and I are gonna bottom fish a bit, put some in the hold to sell.”

“It’s all good.”

“The rods are all strung up, just stay cool till we find a good patch of water.”

Andy stood on the bow with binoculars in hand, watching intently, and then went up the tower.  He shouted down to Charlie, and the boat swung hard to the north.  Tom could tell it was north, even with his eyes closed.  He could feel the angle of the swells, the angle of the wind, and the angle of the sun.  All of them said north.

“Ok, Tommy boy, this is you!  They’re skipping on the waves!”

Tom opened his eyes and stood too quickly.   He swooned and staggered, falling hard against the hold.  Andy was there, concerned with the tumble.  Tom felt the sweat on his brow, and he saw blood on his knuckles.

“Give me a second.  I just got up too quick.”

Andy held Tom’s belt as he washed the blood from his hands in the sea, and splashed water on his face.  Tom focused on the water and saw the seabirds screaming and plummeting to the sea.  Pelicans dove off the bow and terns plucked smaller baits right off the surface.

Charlie was beside him on the deck, pushing the rod into his hands.  “This won’t last all day, Tom.  Come on, just start casting! Were right in the middle of ‘em!”

Tom was surprised by the size of the swells and the deep blue of the water. He was amazed at the boiling, slapping and snapping as larger fish pushed baits up into the mouths of waiting birds.  A large fish randomly launched into the air and cart-wheeled head over tail across the waves.

Tom was casting and Charlie yelled at him to keep it away from the birds.  He landed the streamer at the edge of the boiling water and felt the shuddering surge of a striking fish, and there was a tuna skipping across the water.

“Ho, ya got a Tunny.  Yeah, that’ll keep ya busy for a while.”  Andy shouted above the screech of the birds and the whine of the reel.   Charlie pursued the fish with the boat, careful not to crowd the feeding school.

Tom swooned with nausea in the open sun; its rays pierced him through and through, but fighting the fish was like holding on to lightning. He could feel every pulse of its tail and every thrust of its fins.  Tom shouted and whooped every time it came up tail-walking across the waves.

The birds had attracted other skiffs, and Charlie grew morose watching them approach.  They landed the fish and Tom gave his consent to have it dumped in the hold.  “Release three, keep one, that’s not bad.  That’s a bonito!  It’ll sell and keep Andy in beers tonight.” Charlie winked.

He took the rod from Tom and sent him to the shade of the cockpit.  Andy stowed the rod in a tube and they headed off away from the crowd.  When they found some space to themselves, Charlie anchored in deep water and handed out sandwiches and chilled fruit from the cooler. Andy bottom fished for a couple of hours, filling the hold with a grouper and several large snapper, which made them happy.  “That’ll all sell well,” Charlie said.

 

The sun was now in the west and Charlie stood on the tower.  “Birds are all gone.”  He said, lowering his binoculars.  “Those damn charters are just thick today.”

“I thought that bonito was it,” Tom said, standing, stretching, feeling better after food, rest and water.

Charlie and Andy looked at each other, considering his words.

“Well, let’s head back to the islands to fish the evening.”

Tom went up to sit in the cool wind of the tower, watching for dolphins and sea turtles as they plowed the chop on their way back towards shore.  He wondered where Anita had gone and worried if she had found any shade in the heat of the day.  Tom closed his eyes and pretended that his father was at the helm.  He thought of the white yarn and Christmas tinsel streamers his dad had tied to troll for the smaller blues that came up into the estuaries.

He remembered his dad standing on a skiff’s bench seat, telling Tom to take the helm while he fought a huge striped bass, the thick rod doubled to the water, the wind in his hair, flapping his shirt. “Come on Tom, we gotta chase this one!”

As they neared the green islands, Tom came down from the tower and took up his rod.  He looked at the tippet and the knot attaching the streamer.  He ran the line through his fingers to feel for nicks or abrasions.  He was happy with it and had finally shaken the residual miasma from his last chemo treatment.

“Tom, we’re gonna on keep moving.  I’ll pull within casting distance of the mangroves and let the engine idle as we drift by.  You know the water you want.  If you don’t get anything in a couple of casts, we’ll move on.”

He had good sea legs and cast well at any water that appeared to hold fish.

At the third island, he hooked a great snook and worked hard to keep it from tangling in the oyster-crusted mangroves, then it ran with the reel screaming.  Andy ran up into the tower and Charlie put a hand on his shoulder, “This is it, Tom, this is the one.”

“I know,” Tom laughed, “I know it is, Charlie.”

Tom whooped as the fish dove; the tip of the impossibly long rod dipped to the waves. “Let it be the last.” He laughed between deep breaths, “My arms are tired. My legs are tired.  I’m tired.”

“How is it out there Andy?”

“Were good!”

“Well, Tom, this is all you,” Charlie said dropping the small transom deck.

“Yes, this is me,” Tom said, but he wasn’t listening.  He had the reel resting in the palm of his hand, breaking against the long, steady runs, laughing like a child at the wild tail-walking leaps.

The fish turned and headed back to the Mangroves.  Tom held the rod high and palmed the reel hard to stop the run.

Finally, from the transom deck, he knelt panting and sighing beside the exhausted fish and he slid his hand under it.  He guessed that it was twenty pounds.  He got his hand firmly on its lower lip and pried up a bit to paralyze it while he freed the hook.  Some baits shimmered on the surface a few feet away and a tern floated just above the water to pick at them.  “Will you look at that!”

The two quick pops of Andy’s .22 were no louder than firecrackers snapping at the endless, darkening sea.  Tom floated face down in the water, a rose-colored halo spreading out from his gray hair.  Charlie hooked his belt with the fish gaff.  “That was great, Andy.  That was perfect.”

Andy flung the small, black pistol out into the blue water and then slid out of his t-shirt and deck shoes, dropping quickly into the warm water with a length of netting in his hands.  He wrapped Tom in it and cinched it down with short cords he had clenched in his teeth. Charlie fed Andy a length of heavy chain, to wind tightly around Tom’s waist, passing it tightly through loops of netting.  He pulled the last few inches snug and fixed it to a middle link with a length of wire. Then Charlie handed down an old thirty-pound anchor, which Andy fixed to the chain.

He hauled himself up back on the transom deck as Charlie pulled the body tight to the skiff with the fish gaff.  “Good job, Andy. Nice work.  That’s how it has to happen.”

“I know. That tern, just hovering right beside him…, kinda religious.”

“Could’a been,” Charlie said, passing the gaff to Andy.  “Hold him alongside ‘til we get into to the current of the trench.”

Andy nodded and surveyed the empty horizon, looking into the low, western sun, wondering if it had ever seemed so encompassing.  Charlie eased the boat until it caught the current of the green water and then into deep, deep blue, well past the tidal cut. Charlie nodded and Andy slipped the gaff from the netting.  Tom sank quickly in a subtle spiral, losing color and then definition, disappearing into the depths.

Andy held Charlie by the shoulder as he raised the transom deck.  Charlie nodded and crossed himself and then swung a bucket into the sea to swab the decks.

 

They motored up the tidal river until they reached the mangrove bay to pick up Anita who was sat unmoving in Tom’s sea kayak.  She stared straight ahead as they pulled alongside.  Andy dropped the transom deck and helped her aboard.  Her legs were stiff as she struggled while climbing over the stern.  “I had to wait quite a while.” She fought to control her voice.

“I know.  I ‘m sorry, Anita,” Andy said.  “It just takes as long as it takes.”

She patted his hand, which was still linked through her arm.

“It was beautiful, Anita.” Charlie said. “It might have been the best thing we’ve ever done.”

“I know that Charlie – I know that.  I know that it happened just then… Tom trusted you, and considered you a good friend.”

Charlie nodded silently, his forehead furrowed.  Andy looked west at the gold edge to the purple clouds.

She squeezed Andy’s hand at her elbow. “Thank you, Andy. You were so patient.”

“It was a pleasure Anita,” he looked timidly down at the water, avoiding her eyes.

 

The motor purred along at slightly more than an idle, moving the boat quietly, without running lights, towing the kayak to the drift of the falling tide. Andy tangled the fly line to a tiny deck cleat and dropped the rod in the cockpit with Tom’s life vest.  Anita took a vial of painkillers from Tom’s insulated bag and handed them to Andy, who then cinched the pack down to the kayak’s tiny cargo deck.  They considered the tiny boat for a moment, as if it were a manifestation of Tom. Charlie flipped it and let go of the line, letting the current take it to open water.

“Now I have to report him missing,” Anita sobbed a few times and wiped her eyes. “I have to go back home without him.”

After a long silence, she said, “I would like to see the colonies of glossy ibis some time.” Anita was nodding her head to agree with herself.  “Charlie,” she said, fixing his gaze, “I would like to see them come in to roost. If I were sick, you would take me? Would you do the same for me?”

“Of course, if there is the need,” Charlie said nodding. “When you call.”

Jack Clinton lives in Montana. He has written on environmental issues and has also on two fiction awards at a state level. Jack published my first novel, Clovis, which won the best LBGTQ novel at The American Book Fest.

 

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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.

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Guest Posts, Siblings, sisters

The Things I’d Tell Her

December 12, 2020
sisters

By Christine Meade

My sister is moving with her husband and my twin toddler nephews to North Carolina in two weeks. That’s 811 miles away from her family of origin. They’re moving during a pandemic and only four months after I gave birth to my first son and I want it to be about me and tell them not to leave, but I know that’s not how this works. I’m dreading the day–the one when we’ll have to say goodbye–and the ugly tears I’ll cry. I wanted her to have the chance to fall in love with my son as much as I did with hers.

When my grandmother and her sister–Rita and Ruth–bought their first homes in Somerville, MA, with their WWII vet husbands in the fifties, they found two-family, white houses that mirrored each other on the same street. They each had a slew of kids who grew up as close as siblings. They would spend hours chatting on the phone to one another just across the road, giggling with the coiled phone cord wrapped around a finger when they couldn’t be together in person. They only wore heels when out walking, pushing their prams and chatting. One time, a drunk man dangled out a second floor window and shot at them as they brought their kids for a walk. When I imagine this, I picture their heels first–stilettos in a bright green color–panty-hosed knees bent ducking behind a car with their children huddled like ducklings around them. No one was hurt, and they made the newspaper.

The grandmother I knew had toes that were curled and feet curved with bunions. She always wore stockings with slippers in the house. It’s from wearing those heels, she’d say, without a hint of regret. She lived across from her sister until she passed away in 2007.

When my sister was little, I had her drink out of the dog bowl on the floor when we played “dog.” I had her squirmy body sit through rigorous school lessons that she was far too young to understand when we played “school” and I, as teacher, would get frustrated when she’d get bored and drop out. She could only read my books if she used the check-out system and library card I had created for her. I bribed her to do things by offering to “be her best buddy” when she was little, which she couldn’t refuse. She followed me around and copied what I said and wore and wanted to be until she was too old to get away with it. In a home video we found recently of the two of us as little kids in matching Minnie Mouse shirts before our brother came along, I told her “I loved you even when you were ugly.”

And then we got to high school and discovered the joys of having a close sister friend. We were three grades apart and we’d steal each other’s clothes and walk the hallways together, looking nothing alike, but liking the way “The Meade Sisters” sounded on other people’s tongues. It’s hard to feel lonely when you’re part of a team–a team that you can never opt not to play for. We were the funniest people we knew. Our family started referring to us as Rita and Ruth.

I went to college and moved to San Diego and then San Francisco and spent the better part of my twenties in California and I wonder now if this is how she felt to be the sister that stayed behind. If it’s what I’ll feel when she’s gone, except maybe worse, because the missing extends beyond her to the two little boys she created who have big eyes and big foreheads and call me Nini.

While in California, we’d talk on the phone and call each other by our nicknames and she’d visit and I’d take her to the best beach bars and Alcatraz and the Muir Woods. We handmade matching Halloween costumes and danced until we were sweat-slicked and tired. On bad nights, with ex-boyfriends, I’d lie awake in bed until 3 a.m. so it would be 6 a.m. her time and I’d call her for consolation.

When I moved back to Boston we made our own new set of traditions. We’d go to Salem every October for my birthday and get our fortunes read. When we were hungover, we’d order egg sandwiches and watch Blue Crush for the 100th time, a movie we loved because maybe it was a life we imagined for ourselves one day–simple beachside living, surfing, and sisterhood. I read online recently that 2020 is the eighteenth anniversary of Blue Crush, which made me feel old. To celebrate the 2002 film, the movie’s stars met on Zoom, which made me feel sad because maybe that’s what all ocean-loving, free-wheeling sisters have to settle for now–a quick video chat to connect.

As an adult, my sister became a nurse and a wife and then a distance settled between us. She wouldn’t answer my calls, and text responses came through a day too late. She was wrapped up in love’s arms and couldn’t be bothered with the trivialities of others’ day-to-day. I resented her or maybe more so him, but maybe that is love, I thought, since I was single at the time and couldn’t quite remember the flavor of that word in my own mouth. Maybe I’d do the same, I thought. Maybe I’d leave my sister for love. But I didn’t think so.

Then she had the twin boys and her role shifted. She became a mom, this place I knew nothing about. In motherhood, however, she needed me again, if only for the companionship, for a salve to the loneliness, the exhaustion. It’s a circumstance I only now understand, baby in my arms, calling her or my mother multiple times a day just to fill the blank space between feedings and diaper changes. The companionship needed in motherhood goes far beyond a spouse or a partner, I’ve found, but rests in other mothers whose bodies have been torn by the ones they love most. It rests in those who’ve been so stripped of sleep, they need to talk to someone who understands when they don’t have anything at all to say. When I became pregnant, our roles shifted again, and I needed my sister because why did my nipples hurt so much? And was crying this much normal? And would I ever–would he ever–sleep again?

A few months after the birth of her twins, my sister’s husband was deployed for a year and I had her back, all to myself. I got daily video calls and we saw each other a few times a week. I had visions of our boys growing up like brothers, only a year and a half apart, maybe going to the same school. We’d wheel them to the park together in strollers, carrying our iced coffees, and gossiping about the rest of our family. We’d take turns babysitting for the other and share big meals over loud dining room tables, our kids wrestling in the other room like Rita and Ruth’s boys.

Now her husband is back and they are leaving just to try something new. It will be her first time living in a different part of the country and there’s so much that I want to tell her. That it will be harder living that far away from a family as close as ours than she realizes. I remember my first night away after moving, crying quietly on my blow-up mattress, missing my family, the only home I had known for so long. That missing all the birthdays and barbecues and holidays feels isolating in a way you wouldn’t expect. That no matter how nice the place you moved to is–sunshine, beaches, all the promise of happiness–nothing replaces those random Tuesday night dinners around our parents’ kitchen island, drinking good red wine and laughing and eating with your siblings, and feeling, if nothing else, grateful.

And I would tell her, most importantly, that I love her and will miss her.

Christine Meade is a Boston-area writer and editor and first-time parent. She is the author of the award-winning novel “The Way You Burn.” Christine has published articles and essays for Dow Jones Media, The Boston Globe, Writer’s Digest, HuffPost, and GirlTalkHQ. She can be found online here: www.christine-meade.com.

 

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Friendship, Guest Posts, motherhood, No Bullshit Motherhood

What We Remember: Epistolaries To Our Daughters

September 15, 2019
remember

By Jill Talbot and Marcia Aldrich

Water

You know that photograph, the one I’ve kept on the refrigerator of every Somewhere we’ve lived? The one of you—at maybe two or three—standing on the edge of a pool? You’re wearing a tiny blue bikini, the bulk of a yellow life vest snapped tight, one of your hands held to it. Are you checking it before you jump? Or are you gesturing, the way you still do when you speak, your arms floating up and down, almost flapping at times (like a bird). The water shimmers in the sun, and your short, blonde hair is wet, and there’s a puddle on the pool deck, so this must be jump two or three or ten. Your sweet knees bent, your tiny feet. There’s the dark blue tile at the water’s edge and three bushes line the flower bed behind you. Do you remember how Gramma would stand in her black swimsuit, moving the hose back and forth, back and forth over the bushes? Here, in this moment, she’s behind the camera, catching your joy. You’re all glee, giddy, but it’s the certainty that gets me every time, a pinch of tears in the back of my throat. Because I’m the one in the water, the one you’re watching. I haven’t always been something you can be so certain of, someone steady. I’ve told you this, but you claim not to remember. Your memory of those years an empty pool. Everywhere we’ve been, everywhere I go, I tack this photo on the fridge to remind myself—it’s my job to catch you.

Possession

When we moved back to Seattle, you had just turned two. I wouldn’t say the terrible two’s in the sense you didn’t throw regular tantrums, but you did have moments of supreme willfulness, and I couldn’t predict them for they came out of nowhere and caught me off guard. I remember one such fit staged in a public space to devastating effect. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, suicide, Surviving

Depression is Still A Duplicitous Asshole

August 12, 2018

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The world needs you.

By Angela M Giles

This weekend marks the four year anniversary of Robin Willam’s suicide. I still cannot watch anything with him in it, it makes my heart hurt too much. I know this is irrational. But it is real. Perhaps it is my fear of seeing a flicker of darkness cross his face, or perhaps it is hearing him say something that hits too close to his end that prevents me. I know how his story finishes, I want to remember enjoying his work.

Suicide is a complicated act, its shroud is depression and it is often accompanied by something else, another disease that really gives ideation heft. In the case of Robin Williams it was Parkinson’s disease, in the case of my father it was alcoholism. In my case it was a combination of diagnosed issues, packed in trauma, tied up in emotional abuse, both at the hands of a lover. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

On Dying and Little Dogs

March 5, 2018
time

By Gail Mackenzie-Smith

“Chuck just called. It’s not good news,” my husband says.

I fear the worst of course. That’s how I roll these days. I fear Chuck has cancer. His wife and my best friend Holly died eighteen months ago and isn’t that what spouses do—follow their dead husbands or wives to the grave—usually within a year? My mom died ten months after my dad. Chuck has passed the year mark but what’s six months when faced with eternity?

“He has an inoperable tumor in his throat.”

I know something’s going to kill me. Now in my 60s, every little ache and pain comes with thoughts of death. What’s going to finally bring the old bitch down? What nasty little tumor or incurable disease do I have to look forward to?

*

My 97-year-old aunt shuffles around her tiny apartment grasping the arms of an aluminum walker. She can’t leave the house. She can’t drive or grocery shop. She’s almost deaf. I call her but our conversations are one way.

“What’s up, Aunt Mary?”

“Yes, last week.”

I don’t want to live forever and I don’t fear death. And I certainly don’t want to be a prisoner in a decaying body. Outliving my husband and daughter is not an option either.

I’ve lost my mom, dad, brother, 15 aunts and uncles, several cousins, and a few dear friends who went early—whose deaths had to be mistakes they were so young.

But now is different. Now is two years away from my mom’s death from breast cancer. Now is watching younger friends reach their time before me. I have eight dead friends on my Facebook page that I can’t delete. I jump at every late-night phone call expecting to hear that my mother-in-law has died. At 85 she’s out-lived her husband and most of her friends. A few years ago six close friends died one right after the other. Seemed like every couple of weeks she was going to a funeral. These were friends from school—friends she’s known for over 70 years. I can’t imagine.

“How does that feel, losing so many people so quickly?” I ask her.

She changes the subject and I never get my answer. It’s a stupid question anyway. How do you think it feels, Gail?

*

I’m tucked in a corner away from the noisy death party. What do you call the party after a funeral? It’s not a wake. Wakes happen before. A celebration? Too forced—like Madison Avenue shilling for death. I Google it and find out it’s called a reception. What a vague, crappy word. The rite deserves better.

The room is filled with family and friends drinking and laughing. My favorite uncle has died and the noise grates. I want to scream, “Shut the fuck up!” Instead I sob alone in my corner. My aunt joins me, a look of gentle confusion in her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

“Uncle Vinnie died?” I say.

She nods calmly—a sphinx—unwilling to share her secret.

*

The cancerous mole on my husband’s temple has grown in size from a grain of rice to a dime. He’s been trying to cure it himself with various herbal concoctions.

“Relax,” he says, “It’s basal cell, not melanoma.”

“It’s getting bigger and it’s too close to your eye.”

“I’m taking care of it,” he says.

“And your teeth. Those abscesses. What about that ultra sound for your kidney stones? Did you get the results?”

“You worry too much. I’ll be fine.”

But he’s wrong. There will come a time in all of our lives when it won’t be fine. And that’s all it takes—that one time.

*

It’s said that to truly embrace life you must also embrace death. I give it a try. I walk with death. During fights with my husband, I imagine him gone forever. During happy times with my husband, I imagine him gone forever. I apply this technique to my dying dog—enjoying every single second I have with him—good and bad—knowing one day soon he will disappear.

I learn gratitude. I learn to appreciate more fully and forgive more easily. But I’ve become obsessed. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of loss. Death stalks me—not in a dark ugly way—like a buzz kill. No matter how happy I am, it lurks in a corner and watches me, a smirk on its face.

*

My dog dies and it hurts like a motherfucker. A year later it still hurts like a motherfucker.

*

Chuck will die when his inoperable tumor gets so big he can’t breath. I pull this image into my body and feel his terror. What will they do for him when his breaths shorten? What can they do? Will they medicate him out of his senses until that final tiny slip of airway closes and his heart stops? And how long will that take? A week? Two weeks? Thirty seconds is a lifetime—a minute, eternity.

Chuck says he’s researched assisted suicide in Oregon.

“I saw what Holly went through,” he says.

Excited, we tell him he can die here in California now—the laws have changed. Then we remember what we’re talking about.

*

My husband and I sit in Adirondack chairs watching the sun setting over a glassy lake. I don’t know where we are but there’s a clapboard house, old trees, and a grassy lawn that runs down to the water. I sense that my daughter lives in this house with her husband, three children, a dog and a cat.

My husband takes my hand. We sit quietly for a few moments then turn to each other. It’s time. We rise out of our bodies—glowing balls of light—and merge with the sun.

*

As I write this, my little black and tan dog is draped over my arm—his body warm, his fur thick and soft. Outside my window, bright crimson flowers bloom—the air fragrant with an unknown scent. The sky above is steel blue and dotted with tiny clouds. I touch the glass of my window and it’s cold. My little dog licks my hand with a tongue thin as a satin ribbon and my heart opens.

Gail Mackenzie-Smith has her MFA in Screenwriting and Fiction from UCR Palm Desert and has been writing a lot for Purple Clover this year. Her writing can be found here.

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

Dear Life., Grief, Guest Posts

Dear Life: Friends Disappeared After My Wife Died

November 8, 2017

Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column.  Different writers offer their input on ways to navigate through life’s messiness. We are all about “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by Kimberly Maier.

Please note: The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.

~~~~~~

Dear Life,

On 4 October 2014 the lights went out, the house suddenly became cold and someone switched the volume down. It remains as such today. The change is as shocking as it was dramatic. Yes everyone who could came to the funeral and they all spoke kind words and promised to come a see me and Rhiannon and help us through this dark period.

A week after the funeral and no one appeared at the door and no one phoned or even text but I put it this down to people maybe just getting over the shock and thinking that we might somehow want to be alone for a little while. Another week passed and more of the same. The nights were getting longer, darker and colder and the silence in the house was deafening. Rhiannon spent most of the time in her room and I sat downstairs looking sadly at photos and video footage of our last 25 years together. I really needed a visit from a neighbor or a friend at this point as I was becoming very low. Rhiannon found solitude on her Facebook Account and chatted to her friends that way but none of then came round to break the silence in the house that a few weeks before had been alive with light and laughter.

When I ventured out to the local shops I hoped to see some friendly faces but to my amazement people I knew did all that they could to avoid me including crossing the road and ducking into different isles in the shops. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, memories, Writing & The Body

The Arctic Front

June 26, 2017
arctic

By Tiffany Lee Brown

We were reshaping language. Making it fit better. Breaking it into chunks, discrete pieces. That’s what acid does: it lets you see all the infinitesimal pieces of everything, the air’s live molecules, the shivering motion of protons, electrons, neutrons as they fly through their individual atoms. At the same time, it lets you see the big things: the stars, the way the molecules connect all living creatures together, the breathing of trees against darkness.

We were reshaping language not just because it made us laugh, but because it brought new meaning to things, new clarity. And so the fire was no longer the fire. It was the Bright Flickering Orange Thing, as in: I’m freezing, but I can’t move right now. Would one of you feed the Bright Flickering Orange Thing? And someone would put a log—the Severed Guts of a Tall Being With Bark For Skin—into the big wood-burning stove with its open front, our only source of heat in this borrowed house.

All around us, Cold White Stuff muffled the forest and Cold Hard Stuff confounded the roads. It was twelve degrees Fahrenheit outside, in a region accustomed to mild winter days of low clouds and eternal drizzle. Every so often cold air—Arctic air—would come down from Alaska and get socketed in somehow. That’s what we were experiencing: an Arctic front.

Lee observed the Small Furry Clawed Mammals of the house and pointed out their qualities to me and Will. This grey one here, he decided, this grey one is named Steve. Check Steve out. He rules the world! Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Young Voices

Self-Care at the Hibachi on Hixson Pike, Because Sometimes You Just Can’t

June 2, 2017
text

By DeNeisha Stewart

“Girls night tonight! Me and A’Lauryn were thinking Hibachi at seven. That okay with you?” Kaylor asks. She stands at the changing table to take care of the second to last diaper of the day.

“That way we can get the rice to absorb some of the alcohol. I have to tell you about what happened with Brandon. She pulls Sophia off the table, making sure to keep on her glove to cover angry, red patches from the Hand, Foot, Mouth rash that Sophia has on her upper arms.

“Yes! Hibachi definitely works for me. Matter of fact, I’m gone get a Mai Tai to go with it after the week I’ve had. Between these summer classes and these kids and their diseases, I need a few drinks,” I say. I turn my head to look over at the seven kids watching ABC Elmo on the Ipad.

“Jacob, what did I tell you about hitting your friends? You use soft touches or you keep your hands to yourself.”

“Go find somewhere else to play,” I walk with his little fingers curling around mine to the library center. I plop him down dramatically in the child size blue chair and hand him Hands Are Not for Hitting.

“I definitely need a drink.” I say under my breath as I tilt my head back to rest next to Maxie, the green painted dragon, Kaylor drew on the wall. I lift up my left hand, roughly rubbing my forehead to dig into my eyebrow bone.

“Jesus Christ, Jacob, sit on you bottom in the chair. You know what, fall if you want. I don’t care.”

I hear my phone signaling a text message as I bend down to pull my black skater skirt up past my calf. After I finally get it up, tucking it firmly under my breasts, I see a notification from my granny, Dora, and then I notice the time, 7:00.

Shit, I’m already late and I really need tonight. Granny’ll have to wait.

I scramble to grab my black, low top Vans from under the desk chair; I sit down to slide them over my ashy feet as I stand to swipe the baby oil gel off my shelf. Squatting down, I quickly dab on some gel on the skin exposed to nosy eyes.

Picking up my keys, I look around, trying to remember something I’m forgetting. I grab for my purse on the foot of my bed and it falls, spilling stuff everywhere. Shit!

I slam stuff into my bag and toss is over my shoulder. I hear a PING as I rush through the living room and kitchen, running through the stench of my roommates’ leftover dead chickens and old breakfast tacos.

I really wish their mamas taught them how to take out the trash.

I notice the elevator closing, and I yell out for however was in it to hold it as I rush to get in. As the elevator, starts to sink towards the parking garage, before I open the text from Granny.

June 11th 7:10 pm
Text from Dora Hunter
He’s Dying. Dyson is dying.

“What?” I say to aloud, brows sitting low, nearly closing my eyes. What’s she talking about? I hear the rustling of fabric on jeans when the person in the elevator turns to be with a raised eyebrow.

“Nothing,” I say.

7:11
What’s wrong with the dog?

7:11
Text from Dominique Stewart
What happened?

I hop in the car, lip the ignition, and immediately put it in reverse. I plug in my IPhone to the auxiliary, cutting the bass up all the way, before I switch gears, I scroll to find the playlist I want before I look again at the text message, as I sit idle in the middle of the lane in the garage.

7:12
Text from Latonia Harris-Stewart
What’s wrong with him, ma?

Looking at my mother’s text message,

Thank God Ma is handling it.

7:12
Text from Latonia Harris Stewart
Ma?

I hit 40 in the 25 on Bailey Ave. merging left to hop on the highway to get to Ichiban: The Japanese Steakhouse in Hixson, TN.

7:14
Text from Latonia Harris-Stewart
MAMA? Text back or answer the phone. One.

On the highway, I hear another Ping. I reach down blindly; I pick up my phone hoping it is a text from my granny. Swerving close the street, I hear my tires bumping along as I cross over into the other lane by accident, jumping back over when I hear a car horn behind me.

“Shit!”

Thank you Jesus no one was there.

7:18
Text from Kaylor
Ok. Hurry up. A’Lauryn wants to know
about Brandon and I have to tell you guys at
the same time. Plus, they won’t seat us till you get here.

I look down at my phone quickly, sending out a text out a reply before I get to the turnpike. PING. Glancing down, phone in my hand I see another text from my grandmother. I wait to reply as I straighten the car, hitting 60 to try to merge as the car behind me speeds up to avoid letting me on.

You thought. Always want to speed up after the fact.

7:30
Granny? What’s wrong? Has he been sick?
Did a car hit him or something?

Finally at Ichiban, I hop out of the car to meet my co-workers.

I see Kaylor and A’Lauryn, sitting next to each other one, phones in hand. Probably Snapchatting.

Hey. She is going to seat us now. Come on! Snapchat can wait. Kaylor, you have to tell us about Brandon. What did he do this time?” I say.

I look over at A’Lauryn grey contacts under her false lashes, “How you been, Love? I haven’t seen you in a while. You still observing at the elementary school?” I ask.

“It’s good. I am working with 3rd graders at Brown right now. Still shadowing the teacher,” A’Lauryn replies.

“Do you like it?” I ask.

“Yea, its ok. I think I like high school better than elementary though. Yesterday, one of the little fuckers had the nerve to call me a bitch. And too my face, at that,” she says.

“Seriously, what did you do? ” I ask.

I hear her starting to respond as I sit down to the table for eight and hear another PING. I reply to the waiter, “Yes. Can I have water, please? With a lot of lemon?”

7:55
Text from Dora Hunter
I think it was cancer. He is has not been himself
the last couple of months. Not been eating.
He’s been sleeping a lot. That is just not my Dy-Dy.

“So, Kaylor what happened with Brandon?”

“Y’all my grandma’s dog is dying and she’s been texting me about it for almost an hour now,” I tell them.

“Really, what’s wrong with him?” A’Lauryn asks.

“She just texted me that she thinks it some type of cancer. Apparently he’s been sick a while. just never knew. He was fine when I saw him in March.”

“That’s so sad. I would be at home sobbing if Jim was dying of cancer,” Kaylor says. She looks over at me. “I bet your grandma is doing the same. How long has she had him?”

8:12
I’m sorry, Granny. Are you ok?

“He is about 8 years old. A Cocker Spaniel,” I tell her. “How long do they live on average, I wonder?”

“Google is your friend, my dear.” A’Lauryn says.

Typing Cocker Spaniel in my phone, I pull up the wiki page. “It says they live from 12 to 15 years. Well, shit.”

I look up to the waiter standing over me, before I give him my order, “Yes, can I have the steak and shrimp with fried rice? And can I get Broccoli and Mushrooms added to the other veggies? Thank you.”

I hear a PING.

8:23
Text from Dora Hunter
I am fine. Going to spend a little more time
with Dy.

“A’Lauryn, how is the boyfriend doing?”

This could not have happened at the worse time, I think to myself as Kaylor and A’Lauryn Snapchat the sashimi the waiter just dropped at the table.

I take my chopsticks and grab a piece of yellowtail and dip it into the soy sauce.

“So, Brandon?” I say, looking over at Kaylor, “What happened?”

“Hold on, I need to order a drink first,” she says. She raises her hand to get the waiter’s attention. “Can I get a Heineken and a lime, if you have it?”

“I want a Mai Tai.” “And, a vodka and water,” A’Lauryn and I say before the waiter can speak.

8:23
Ok, Granny. I’m out with friends, but
definitely let me know if you need me.

“I.Ds,” the waiter ask, hand out as we dig through out purses for wallets.

“So, basically, when I went home to Nashville, last weekend Brandon shows up on my mother’s front door step, high as a fucking kite on some molly trying to talk to me. We broke up like six months ago and ultimately, he end up busting the front window out of my mother’s boyfriend car when he tried to get him to leave. Anyways, the police showed up and he started crying a shit before the police could even ask us what happened. Then…”

8:36
Text from Dora Hunter
K.

“Sorry it’s my grandma again,” I let them know, rubbing the grease from my full face of make-up off my phone.

“So, what are you going to do about Brandon? Did you step-dad press charges?”

“Naw,” Kaylor says, “I told him not too.”

“Why, I would have had his ass arrested so fast. He disrespecting your mama’s house, that shows his lack of respect for you,” I tell her. “Don’t you think so A’Lauyren? That shit is mad disrespectful.”

8:38
Text from Latonia-Harris Stewart
Ma?

20 minutes later, the chef comes to the grill, steak, chicken, shrimp, scallops and veggies on the cart in front of him.

“Ok, people how do you want these steaks cooked?” he asks.

“Can I get that rare, please?”

“Rare?”

“Yes.”

“Ok,” He picks up a piece of raw meat from his cart and moves it towards my plate. “Here you go. It’s still mooing for you.”

8:52
Text from Latonia Harris-Stewart
Do you need me to come over there
with you, ma? Is someone with you?

Laughing, I say, “Toss it on that grill for about a minute and I’ll take it.”

He replaces the steak and begins to spread some oil over the grill.

“Ready? Watch your eyebrows people,” he says.

9:03
Text from Latonia Harris-Stewart
Let me know if you need me?

“Ok. People, I have sauces. Mustard Sauce?”

I shake my head, “No, thank you.”

“Hot Sauce?”

9:03
Text from Latonia Harris-Stewart
Ma?

“No thanks.”

“Ginger sauce?”

9:03
Text from Latonia Harris-Stewart
Let me know if you need me? Alright?
I’m serious.

Looking at him, A’Lauryn and my head shift side to side, as Kaylor says, “Please.”

“Ok, Folks. I have that white sauce for you.”

We all nod our head yes. “Please,” I say. “Can I get both trays of white sauce?”

I hear another PING.

9:03
Text from Latonia Harris-Stewart
Dora Hunter? Are you ignoring me?

Damn, Grandma, respond already.

I pick up my glass and take a sip.

Well at least Mama is trying tot take care of her.

The waiter then serves the fried rice and veggies. “Ok. So you wanted that rare, right?

I nod my head, before I dip my mushroom into the white shrimp and mayonnaise sauce.

“Hmmmm… Yummy,” I shift in my sit doing my happy food dance; lips puckered, shoulders rocking up one side at a time. I take my chopsticks and grab another piece, mouth open wide.

Thank goodness, Mama has her. I hate for my grandma to be sad, but I need tonight to happen. 

 9:17
Ma, HAVE YOU SPOKE TO GRANNY?
She hasn’t replied to me.
She hasn’t said anything.

I hit send, then moan as I take my first bite into that rare steak covered in that white shrimp sauce; my happy dance continues.

Then, ten minutes later, I hear a PING.

9:25
Text from Latonia Harris-Stewart
Yes. I am sitting over here with her now.

9:31
Multi-Media Message from Dora Hunter
“Goodbye, my friend. Dyson. I love you. Goodbye.”

I gag on a bite of steak as I realize what I am looking at. Oh My Shit, Grandma. I am looking at the photo she sent with her voice recording.

I see a picture of Dyson lying there. Head resting on a white towel, eyes blank and devoid of that teasing joy that he gets when he sees my granny’s face. White fur blending into the sandy brown coat. I can’t believe he is gone, but…but… wait! Why in the world am I looking at a picture of a dead dog?

“Hold on y’all. Remember about my granny’s dog? Look,” I say as I turn the phone around so they can see the picture and hear my grandmother’s words.

“Shit, Nesh. She is sounds so sad,” Kaylor says.

“Really? So looking at that ain’t weird at all for you?”

“No, her dog died. She’s upset. Its understandable,” Kaylor tells me.

“Fuck that, that was gross. I definitely need another drink. I can’t deal,” I murmur, as I look behind me to catch the waiter’s attention. “Can I please get another Mai Tai, extra rum?”

“DeNeisha, what’s wrong with you? I’ve never seen you like this,” A’Lauryn ask.

“I have two papers due in three days and I haven’t started with either. Then those sick kids and their ‘I don’t see their sickness’ parents. It’s exhausting. So, all I want to do is get drunk and forget about all of that for a couple of hours, “ I say, “ And plus, I didn’t even like the dog that much anyways. He was always knocking the trash over to dig through it and scratching up the carpet when I closed him out of my room and guess who get in trouble for the carpet being fuck up? My ass. He was just annoying and needy and I wasn’t here for that, but my grandma loves him. He kept her company when granddaddy is gone over night driving for Old Dominion, so I can see why she is sad, just maybe not tonight, ok?” I pick up my drink, place the straw between my lips and sip until it’s gone.

“DeNeisha, you are so rude,” A’Lauryn sighs, “Be nice sometimes.”

“You should you know. Be nice, I mean.  But come on let’s hop to.. I got a bottle of vodka and Crown Royal in the freezer. We can find ourselves in those,” Kaylor says, “ I have to tell yall what else happened that weekend after Brandon left.”

Two o’clock, the next afternoon, I roll over to rub the crust out of my eyes, and I can taste the sour remnants of puke as I yawn and feel the familiar pulse of nausea in my belly. I grab my phone and notice twelve new text and my eyes focus in on the last one.

June 11th 10:28 p.m.
Text from Dora Hunter
We are going to bury Dyson in
the backyard at 12. We are suppose
to say a few words so, I hope you can be there.

Jeez, why is she so dramatic? Ok, DeNeisha. Apparently, you are being rude. Let’s stop! Hold on! Think… Take a breath! DeNeisha, we are going to play nice. Let’s call granny and see if she is ok.

“Hello.”

“Hi, Love. Sorry for calling so late. You alright?” I ask her, voice rusty from rounds of drunken karaoke.

“Yes.”

“I am sorry about Dyson,” I say as I yawn once more and wince from the smell, “I hate for you to be sad.”

DeNeisha is a senior the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga studying Language & Literature alongside Creative Writing. Growing up, she found herself exploring the fictional worlds of J.K Rowling and Nora Roberts as a way of escaping into a world that was more liberating than her own. While adulting, DeNeisha immerses herself in the hysteria of toddlerhood as a childcare teacher. When adulting is over, DeNeisha likes to devote herself to a delicious meal and the occasional adult beverage. This is her first publication.

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

 

 

Join Jen Pastiloff at her signature workshop in Atlanta at Form Yoga on Aug 26 by clicking the picture.

 

Donate to the Aleksander Fund today. Click the photo read about Julia, who lost her baby, and what the fund is.

death, Guest Posts

Silent Witnesses: A Night at the Morgue

April 26, 2017
chair

By Nina B. Lichtenstein

There is a beautiful and ancient Jewish tradition of reciting Psalms while watching over a deceased person until burial. A few of us had decided to take turns sitting with our friend Philip’s body overnight. Philip was a handicapped man in our synagogue who was loved and admired by all. When Philip recently died, his death, as his life, brought some unexpected gifts for those close to him.

It was almost 12:30am and the air was thick with the humidity of balmy summer nights. After an eternity of banging on all the windows and doors of the seemingly empty funeral home, which also functioned as the Jewish morgue in town, I suddenly saw lights turn on inside. The door swung open and out stepped a bushy-bearded and bespectacled man with a sweatshirt hood covering his head. Not young, not old, wearing a pair of baggie, well worn, beige Dickies, he stood tall, like me, and cocked his head slightly to one side. Standing in the dim light, he said, “Yes? How can I help you?” gazing quizzically at me from under a knit hat, the kind fishermen wear. It was pulled down on his forehead, resting on a set of overgrown, gray eyebrows. He didn’t’ exactly look your clean cut funeral-home guy, but instead more like a version of the troubled poet John Berryman, or worse, Charles Manson. He was the night guard, or the shomer.  Continue Reading…

cancer, Guest Posts

This Is What Cancer Does.

March 6, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Nancy Conyers.

This is what cancer does: it makes your body unknown to you, an alient presence dragging 50lb weights on each ankle and around your neck. You are exhausted, so exhausted physically and mentally your brain can’t send proper signals to get your unresponsive limbs moving. One time, for three days, you couldn’t even wash your face because it was too much effort to lift your arms. When you couldn’t stand your own smell anymore you tried to take a shower. It wasn’t your own body odor you were smelling, it was the drugs you’d been infused with: TCHP, Taxotere, Carboplatin, Herceptin, Perjeta. They were seeping through your skin, through every orifice and the metallic medicinal smell was making you as nauseous as the drugs were. You turned on the shower but the weight of the water pushed you against the shower wall and you struggled to turn the water off. You sat soaking wet on the side of the bathtub until your spouse came to check on you.

“Honey, are you ok?” you heard her ask from the bedroom. When you didn’t answer she rushed in to the bathroom, saw the puddles of water at your feet, grabbed a towel and started drying you off. “You scared me when you didn’t answer,” she told you as she was drying your back. You knew she meant she thought you were dead.

You now spend hours on the internet trying to get more information about cancer, how you could have gotten it, what your chances are, but once you start reading you close your laptop because you don’t really want to know that the survival rate is only 70% five years later for your late Stage 3A aggressive breast cancer. What about 10 years or 20 years you ask, but nobody has those statistics. You don’t want to think in terms of surviving only five years. You don’t want to think that there is a 30% chance you could be dead before the five years are up. You look around your house in Santa Fe, the one you and your spouse bought for retirement that you don’t live in full time yet and you know that in five years she may not be ready to stop working. You want time here together when she retires, time to build a roof deck so you can sit and watch the sun set on the Sangre de Christos every night.

You’ve read all the other statistics about who gets breast cancer, the two most likely being you’re a woman and you’re aging. 77% of the women diagnosed with breast cancer are over age 50. Since when did age 50 mean you were aging, you wonder. Women who’ve never had children, who start their menses before age 12, who took oral contraceptives and who do hormone replacement therapy are at risk. Women who are overweight, drink excessive amounts of alcohol, who are physically inactive and exposed to environmental pollutants are at risk. You fit some of the categories but you never took hormone replacement therapy, you don’t drink excessive amounts of alcohol and even though you are overweight you are physically active. Back when you thought you were straight, you took birth control pills for five years. You’ve never smoked. Ever. In your mind only people who smoke get cancer, people who won’t or can’t stop smoking and take drags on their cigarettes from a hole in their neck while they’re hooked up to oxygen.

Cancer. This cannot be your life. This is not your life. This will not be your life. You do not want to understand what these medical terms mean, do not want to become comfortable with spouting out breast cancer vocabulary and treatment options, do not want to know that once your treatments are over the cancer could come back. Once this is all over even if you’re told you are cancer free, it’s only for the moment, that place in time, that snapshot, not forever. You want forever. Continue Reading…

Birthday, Guest Posts, Self Love

Happy Birthday To Me

December 22, 2014

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By Ellyn Oaksmith

I don’t know why I picked 47. Maybe, just maybe, I am getting wiser. This was the year I made my birthday about love. All kinds of love: sisterly, romantic and that most important love, that shores up women approaching the rocky shoals of middle age: my friends. My sister kicked it off by quietly asking me if she could throw a mid-week gathering for me. Wine and cake, six o’clock to eight o’clock. At first my mind scrolled through a list of motherly duties: homework patrol, soccer, carpool, piano lessons, riding lessons… How could I carve out time on a weeknight to drink wine with my girlfriends?

It was as easy as saying “Yes.” Keeping the guest list small was easy: it would just be a small group of women with many connections: book group, volunteering at the school, our children, all living on the same suburban hill. My sister baked a cake and opened wine. There would be cheese and crackers for those who would miss dinner. She’d keep it simple. I was surprised at how excited I was. Little did I know the reserves of joy this gathering would unleash.

Each day I logged onto the Evite.com to see who had responded, my heart warming with each yes. By the weekend every single woman who had been invited was coming. I was Sally Fields at the Academy Awards. “You love me. You really love me.” My inner eleven year old, terrified that no one would come to her party, was silenced. Bring on the cupcakes.

My birthday was on a Sunday, the party, the Wednesday before. By Monday I was aglow, smiling at strangers, buying treats for my kids at the grocery store, paying attention to the things I love about my husband, enjoying dinner together instead of living for lights out. I was Gene Kelley in “Singing in the Rain,” spinning my umbrella over my shoulder, enjoying the slap of raindrops on my face. Did I mention that I live in Seattle?

Continue Reading…