Browsing Tag

loss

Guest Posts, Starting Over

A Tattoo Bleeds Life

July 20, 2024
tattoo pain

Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold. Zelda Fitzgerald

In November of 2018 I suffered from Broken Heart Syndrome. I wrote about it on an online blog for parents of kids with disabilities, implying that it could have been a collection of things; including the stress compounded by caring for a child with a disability. That was not completely true. I know what broke my heart. Though it was not a what, but a who.

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Valentine’s Day, 2019, one week before my 42nd birthday, I gave myself a gift. It was one of those passing time moments, between arriving back from taking my son’s service dog for a walk and leaving to pick the kids up from school. My phone had been charging as I held it in between my bed and the wall. I wasn’t even going to sit down. A tattoo artist popped up in my Instagram feed. She had drawn an anatomical heart in black, with peonies sprouting out of it. The skin on the back of my neck started rising and followed all the way down my arms to my legs, which hadn’t been shaved in months.

The drawing was reminiscent of Rupi Kaur’s sketch in a Sun and Her Flowers, placed beneath her poem

what is stronger
than the human heart
which shatters over and over
and still lives (109)

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My partner of twelve years cheated on me inconsistently over the course of eight years. Months of couples’ therapy could not repair the chasm between us that was necessary to allow them to explore their true, queer, self while I struggled to move along with them. Like the swing dance classes they had given me for my 40th birthday, in the dancing, first we moved closer and then we moved further apart.

Every morning in the shower through that fall and winter, I cried. I added another song to my Spotify Letting Go playlist. I held such a big space for the grief, and I needed to find a place to put it. I wanted the emotional pain to be physical. I wanted to mark up my body and transfer that pain because any physical pain would not have been as painful as this heart breaking.

***

When you have a deep seeded fear of abandonment, accepting that someone has left you is a difficult process. It’s much easier to do the leaving, as I did when I left the US over twenty years ago. No one could leave me, if I left them first.

Not so.

M would leave me one evening that November. They would stay overnight at their “friend’s” place, even though they weren’t exclusive, even though M and I – husband and wife at that time – were still sleeping in the same bed. Every couple has their own set of rules for an open relationship. That’s what we were trying to be, a couple. This was how we were trying to do it. Albeit unbalanced, as I was incapable of opening up my side of the relationship. I still held the mindset I domeans just us.  Forever.

I wanted to make it work. I wanted us to stay together. So, we (mostly I) made the rules and they tried to follow them.

First, and foremost, was no sleeping over. Next, the “date” needed to be in the calendar, at least two days ahead of time. In addition, M had agreed to check their phone once during evening dates, in case of an emergency/need, but otherwise I was to give them that space and time, without interruptions.

That night they broke all of the rules.

This would be “the day our marriage died.”

***

A couple months later, the following January, M would return “home” to Australia for a month to have the space they needed to decide how they wanted to live their life moving forward. While they were gone, I would have that same space, but in the home where all the memories had been created. I would also be managing said household, with two kids under the age of ten, on my own. During that month, I spent a lot of my evenings on the couch watching movies, i.e. escaping my current reality. Some films, like LA LA Land and Wild, were ones we had seen together, but this time I was watching them alone and with new eyes.

In Wild, when Reese Witherspoon is on top of the mountain on the Pacific Northwest Trail, re-enacting Cheryl Strayed’s journey to herself, it was me on that mountain. When she lost one boot and threw the other down after it, letting out a guttural howl into the ravine below, I felt a howl move up from my stomach, into my chest, where it became stuck. I wanted to know THAT letting go. I wanted to know the freedom that came with that letting go.

I would find it, though not for another month and not from a hike on a remote trail; but from the bench at a tattoo parlor in Midtown, Toronto. I laid back and stretched out my right forearm on the navy-blue cushioned armrest. The artist spoke more French than English; small talk was unnecessary and impossible. A friend I’d invited to join me cancelled. It was just me, the needle, the ink, the pain, and my thoughts. After we decided on the perfect placement, she placed the stencil on my right forearm and massaged it down. I heard the paper crackle, and my skin began to tingle in anticipation.

This would be my third tattoo. I knew the pain that would come with this gift etched into my skin, but I welcomed it. I’d had two babies’ worth of birthing pain. I could handle another tattoo.

The heart breaks for many reasons. Every single one is an immeasurable pain. I could not handle more heartbreak.

As she etched black lines on pale, smooth, untouched skin, I relaxed into the pain. With my eyes closed, a series of scenes flipped through my mind from the past ten months.

I was there in the shower, crumpling down onto my knees, tears falling in sync with the water pelting down from above. The only place where no one could see me or hear me cry. Dan Mangan’s music became the soundtrack of that season. Songs like Just Fear and Fool for Waiting became an embrace, a confidant to lean my weary head on. He understood. Well, at least his words said he did.

The first leaving. The return.

The second leaving. The return.

The slammed doors.

Dark, suffocating days.

Broken glass from wedding photos thrown, shattering across my bedroom floor.

Anxiety turned into panic attacks, quelled only by medication and therapy.

Harsh conversations. The weight of silence.

The taking. The breaking.

The images moved slow then fast, as the feeling in my arm moved in and out of numbness, like the days into nights that I had cried all there was to cry, and only emptiness was left.

I opened my eyes and glanced down as she broke to shake out her hand. I could see the image forming. The petals moving up into the black shading, around the edges, the curves, the muscle lines and valves of an anatomical heart. I’m ok, I thought. The sting was more than bearable against the backdrop of the emotional agony from the previous ten months. I wanted this. I wanted to channel emotional heartache into physical pain onto my skin. Then I wanted to let it go.

When she started etching on the edges of my forearm, closer to the inner crease where my elbow bends into itself, a bolt of pain reverberated through my body, I clenched my teeth and tightened my eyes closed. I saw myself there, on the mountain top, the one on the Pacific Northwest Trail. I was screaming. Screaming out all of the heartbreak from the previous year. Against my dark eyelids, I saw myself there: mouth wide, arms out, screaming with my whole body. Pushing it out. Transforming my broken heart into a recovering one. A heart in which new life has sprouted and will grow out of it. I began to feel lighter and the tenderness in my forearm dissipated.

***

Walking down the aisle at the grocery store, tattoo healed, the physical pain a memory, an employee in the freezer section, maybe even the meat section, looks me right in the eyes and says, “That is a sick tattoo.”

I smile. And think, yeah, it is. “Thanks.”

Our hearts do not take breaks, they must keep beating to keep us breathing. If they stop, we stop. I had to keep breathing.

There would be more tattoos; not be to transfer the pain, but to celebrate life.

Kara Melissa is a transplanted Torontonian and mama of two (teen and tween). An international teacher, turned SAHM when her son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She provides free writing workshops for folks in need, in addition to disability advocacy work. You can find her work in the The Calendula Review, Tampa Review, Drunk Monkeys, Today’s Parent, and elsewhere.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Nonfiction, from Antioch University LA. She is a 2022 recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Project Award. Visit karamelissa.com for more.
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Looking for your next book to read? Consider this…

Women, the exhilarating novella by Chloe Caldwell, is being reissued just in time to become your steamy summer read. The Los Angeles Review of books calls Caldwell “One of the most endearing and exciting writers of a generation.”  Cheryl Strayed says ‘Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.”  With a new afterward by the author, this reissue is one not to be missed.

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Our friends at Corporeal Writing continue to offer some of the best programming for writers, thinkers, humans. This summer they are offering Midsummer Nights Film Club: What Movies Teach Us About Narrative. Great films and a sliding scale to allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The conversation will be stellar! Tell them we sent you!

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Guest Posts, Grief

Canada Geese

September 12, 2023
Geese on Pond

I live in a leafy northern suburb of New York City, and I am blessed with trees and ponds, deer, chipmunks, and songbirds galore. There’s a big pond about a mile from my house. When my gym shut down in March of 2020, I resorted to walking as recreation, and I chose the pond as my almost-daily walk’s destination. Since I live in a warren of cul-de-sacs, there is no block to walk around, as in “take a walk around the block; you’ll feel better,” one of my late mother’s favorite bits of advice. So, at some point I have to simply stop, turn around, and head home.

The pond has become my turn around point.

It’s a big pond, maybe two or three acres big (I am terrible at estimating such things) and sits on town land, about ten feet back from the road. In good weather I sometimes stop for a bit and look around, feel the breeze in my hair, listen to the cardinals scolding, the woodpeckers and titmice chirping, the tree frogs chattering. There’s a bird that sounds like a rusty swing: seeee-saw, it whistles. I like to watch the surface of the water, looking for the wide mouth bass reputed to hide out in the shallows. Last summer a big bull frog would protest if I tossed a stone in the water, bellowing like a moose.

All through the first Covid year, I turned around at the pond, then the next. Now here I am again, two years later, spring 2022. I toss a pebble, and there is silence; the bullfrogs haven’t emerged yet from their muddy hibernation.

Yesterday, two Canada Geese greeted me at the near side of the pond. The pair waddled toward me a little, then stood silently, watching me pass by – I was aiming for the far end of the pond that day. I found myself wondering if they are the same pair who nested here last summer.  Two Aprils ago I wrote in my journal,

Little pond looks still

then tall brown grasses rustle—

a goose making a nest.

All through that first COVID spring, summer and fall I watched them. First just the pair, with their sleek brown-feathered bodies and black velvet neck and head, the wide white stripe near their eyes. There were several days when I saw only one goose, and I hoped that meant the female was on the nest, back on the far side of the pond, where a stand of tall, dried marsh grasses and cattails stood. And then came the day when I saw the adults leading three fuzzy goslings for a swim. By late summer five look-alike geese lolled at the near side of the pond, munching on grass or snoozing in the dappled shade from a nearby oak. For a couple of weeks midsummer, they were joined by an egret, who kept to him- or herself at the opposite end of the pond, a white statue posing motionless on a fallen tree trunk, which I bet made a great spot for locating fish. In early October, I counted seven geese. I suspected that my goose family had been joined by two northern relatives stopping by on their way south for the winter.

And then all seven were gone—off to the Carolinas, I supposed.

And then my younger sister Grace died, just as suddenly, struck by a burst aneurism while eating dinner. A seemingly healthy, happy woman., she was gone in less than five minutes. The quiet pond over the next few months echoed my feeling of emptiness. For most of the winter it wasn’t even cold enough to freeze over. When it did, we had a few days of kids ice skating. But various logs and tall grass stalks interrupted the icy surface every here and there, making skating difficult. The kids gave up before the ice did.

***

As the days move through the seasons, warming up, then growing cold then warming once again, the pond has become somehow a reminder of Grace. It seems to not change at all for weeks at a time, then suddenly after an absence of a few days, everything seems different. It has frozen over; it has thawed. The geese arrive; a heron visits for a day or two. The leaves on the trees turn red and gold. And Grace is not here to see any of it.

And now, it’s spring again. I wonder if the geese at the pond this spring recognize me. But, of course, all Canada Geese look alike; it could be any two random birds there. I am struck that we humans are interchangeable like that.

I feel bad about my sister’s life being cut short. I already miss her, with her sincerity, her astute observations on people; her love of laughter. Her coaching clients will miss her wisdom. Her grandson will miss his Grandma Grace and her annual visit from California at Thanksgiving. Her daughter, given up for adoption when Grace was just a teenager and lost to us for so long, will miss her new-found birth mother. When the eligibility age for COVID shots was lowered last year, I thought for a moment, oh good, Grace qualifies now. And then I realized that she won’t get to see the end of this pandemic. Sometimes I wonder if any of us will.

Grace died in October of 2020, and already she’s starting to blur. I sometimes get little snatches of memory –me back in high school, yelling at her because she’d been into my lipstick and mascara (we shared a room and she was four years younger) – or the time we entered a contest to win tickets to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium by drawing the biggest Beatle Picture – pasting together reams and reams of newspapers and drawing a copy of the Beatles album cover with Magic Markers. I climbed out on the roof of our house to take a picture of her standing next to it spread out on the grass. (We didn’t win.)  Or the way she looked sitting on my couch back in Buffalo, where I was in grad school. She was so young, seven months along, playing with the kittens someone had left on our doorstep in a big cardboard box. But now there’s no one to share those memories with.

Grace’s clients will find a new life coach. Her daughter will carry on as one of the elders now, someone with her own recipe for banana bread and her own methods to remove stains from carpets. Grace will fade to a distant, if cherished, memory. And I wonder, is there anything I have done in my life that will have made any sort of difference in this world? I’ll die or move on to an assisted living facility and a youngish couple will move into my house. They’ll change out the paint color in the living room and redo the kitchen. They’ll take their children for walks to the pond and try to catch the long-mythologized wide mouth bass. And it will be as if I never lived here. I’m just another Canada Goose, indistinguishable by my plumage, making a few last circuits of the pond before it ices over.

The days are getting longer. The forsythia have bloomed and cherry trees are showing off their pink and white blossoms. Still no sign of nest-making at my pond. The sun rises higher in the sky, and the water is still. I guess the geese have found a new home somewhere else. The rusty-swing, seee-saw-calling bird sings out from its hiding place, seee-saw, seee-saw. I turn and walk home.

Katherine Flannery Dering received an MFA in 2013 from Manhattanville College. Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir a Brother’s Struggle (2014, Bridgeross) is a mixed-genre book of poetry, prose, photos and emails about caring for her schizophrenic brother. Her poetry chapbook is titled Aftermath (2018, Finishing Line Press.) Her work has appeared recently in Inkwell, RiverRiver, Cordella, Adanna, Goatsmilk, Share Journal, and Landing Zone Magazine, in addition to The Manifest Station. Her website is www.katherineflannerydering.com.

 

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Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

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

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

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Grief

A Universal Language

July 3, 2022
language

Budoia, Italy 1983

I didn’t know their names, and barely spoke their language, but for months, each time the woman and her husband saw me, they would smile and call out, “buon giorno!”

It had been a week since I’d seen them, when I noticed the woman, dressed in black, standing alone in her yard. Her expression screamed heartache, so I went to her, mumbling “scusami.”

For the next hour we sat, her hands holding mine, her words pouring out as rapidly as her tears. On occasion I would nod, not understanding her words, but fully immersed in her grief.

Tom Gumbert and wife Andrea, live near an Adena Burial Mound in SW Ohio. A U.S. Air Force veteran, Tom was stationed in Italy in the early 80’s. He feels fortunate to have had stories published alongside those of his literary heroes.

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Have you ordered Thrust


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, memories

April and Eternity

June 8, 2022
tom

At the water aerobics class where I follow my doctor’s orders for low-impact cardio, the instructor plays music we used to dance to, the beats perfect now for my aging limbs.  “I Ran (So Far Away),” blares while we do a Suntan-Superman reaching out on our backs and then flipping to our stomachs, working arms and abs while splashing chlorinated water, salty from the ocean breeze. I remember back when you and I tried to find hidden meaning in the lyrics, stretching our minds beyond our South Phoenix neighborhood and parochial school education.

“Were they really saying, Iran’s so far away?” we asked each other.

In the hormonal, smokey and boozy haze of those years we were also figuring out that we didn’t belong together.

René, I remember your powder blue Chevy truck, the front seat long and vinyl, unsectioned so I could slide in the middle of the three of us, you, Michael and me, sometimes Tom too, my college brothers taking me out every Saturday night. You showed off your new sound system, turning up the thumping New Wave until we couldn’t tell the music from the outside traffic as we glided along Mill Avenue, next to the sprawling university that occupied our lives then. The music and the weed we smoked lifted us into our own planet. A blaring siren made us jerk our heads around as if the cops were pulling us over, but it was the sound that enveloped us, time-traveling in your truck.

I’d gotten so drunk at one party and tried to take a boy home with me, but you and Tom hid my purse so I couldn’t leave. You had heard this boy talking about me by the keg, anticipating the night he would’ve had if not for you, you and Tom. I hated you and loved you like the brothers I needed then.

I only wanted that boy that night to show Tom I didn’t care that he fell hard in love with my roommate, the petite and serious Janis, who shared her mother’s care packages from Hawaii with me. The smoked eel came in tins with a key to fold open. Janis would spoon steamed white rice into bowls, add the eels and sprinkle sesame seeds on top. We ate it with chopsticks, which she taught me to use. There were also boxes of macadamias, something I’d never tasted, covered in chocolate. Janis laughed when she saw me one day squeezing out every last bit of toothpaste from the tube. She had never brushed with baking soda.

After I introduced her to Tom, he didn’t see me anymore. Their blossoming took over our apartment, fragrant and wild. My escape was extra work hours, not for the money, well, always for the money, but to spare me their vibrancy and happiness.

That party, where I got drunk and you hid my purse, that was when I knew you would never want me either. Why it all came to me that night, I don’t remember all the details now. You asked me, as I tried awkwardly to put my arms around you, “What are you doing?” You stopped me and my breath left me. You would never want me like I needed you to then.

We kept our friendship, you and I. Of course we did. We had known each other since fifth grade, when we hid from the nuns behind oleander bushes in the playground at St. Catherine’s. We always thought we were in trouble, a symptom of our guilty consciences from having too much fun when we should have been suffering. Or praying.

We kept our friendship through college as we worked our way into our futures, sharing an  apartment one year until I got a summer internship in Tucson and you felt abandoned. I should have given more notice, but I didn’t know how things were supposed to work then. I was still learning and I knew you wouldn’t stay mad at me forever.

One year later, after college and in our adult jobs, I was living in Colorado and you bought your first house. You stopped returning my calls and ignored my letters. I didn’t know it then but you’d done that with all our friends. You’d gone deep into your secret life, the one I had one hint about when we were still at ASU, when you got arrested late one night in downtown Phoenix. You told me and Michael about it, a weed-induced confession but then you said you never wanted to talk about it again.

After another year had gone by, still in our adult jobs, you called one morning. I was at my job at a small newspaper in a small town where I’d moved not knowing anyone, like a rattlesnake that sheds its entire skin, leaving room for the new. I wrote about schools, sometimes police and courts and really everything else too. It had been so long since I heard your voice, so immersed in this new job and life, that when you said my name, it took me a few seconds to connect it to you, my long-lost friend.

“René?” I asked. “Who died?”

And then, no joke, you told me about the plane crash.

Phones rang in the busy newsroom as deadlines loomed, but the pinprick of an image of Tom falling from the sky shaded my vision. The news of the crash had already run on our front page, but I didn’t know any of the passengers then, not until you called and told me I did. Snot ran down my mouth and tears soaked my blouse as I printed out the passenger list of the Northwest Airlines flight. And there he was, our beautiful Tom Barberio.

I went to stay with Janis where she was living in LA after Tom’s funeral. They’d gotten engaged after I lost touch. Now, just a month after his death, she had started to see him in other men until the poor suckers fell in love and couldn’t be Tom for her anymore. She believed that Tom was guiding men to her, loving her from beyond. I tried gently to bring her back to the permanent reality of his death. I felt like the lowest creature in the desert, a red ant crawling for miles carrying a dead leaf only to be thwarted by a gust of wind, or a human.

“Tom’s dead.”

I felt a sliver of selfish relief that he had not fallen in love with me after all but instead chose her. My grief couldn’t come close to hers.

I heard she moved back to the island, abandoned her graphic design practice and became a teacher, Tom’s passion.

Five years ago, René, you told me you’d die on April Fool’s Day and I thought you were telling me something you already knew. It was one of those things you used to say at the end of our long talks when I’d visit Phoenix from wherever I was living, Tucson, Los Angeles, Long Beach. You’d say it casually, sometimes waving your hands, like swatting a gnat.

You came to my father’s funeral and my eyes widened suddenly when I saw your normally full, round face was now gaunt, skin sagging at the jowls and gray. Your eyes seemed tired but you told me it was nothing to worry about.

But then I learned you had multiple diagnoses, so far gone on the cancer stages and another diagnosis that was too far along. Throw HIV in there as well. Why not?

It was September when you talked about dying and April and Eternity were so far away but the following spring you kept your promise.

And now you’re gone too. You and Tom, my college brothers who made wild poses for my 35 mm camera like runway models on our balcony as I slid the film with my thumb to the next frame and the next, holding steady through my belly laughs. Your secret is no longer a secret to those who loved you and who flamed near the light that was you all those years ago.

This morning, once again in the pool, a mallard, his head more deep purple than green, flew onto the pool deck and plopped into one of the swimlanes with his plain Jane brown and gray partner, delighting the whole class.

The instructor wasn’t distracted. “Now do crunches with a twist!” she ordered while we watched the pair pick at each other and then climb over a lane divider, then another and another. I turned to them as they swam, flailing my arms and legs in the cool deep, the sun beaming through clouds, my heart racing up to the aurora that you created, a swirl of another life that you left for me all those years ago.

Mary Anne Perez has worked at newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and California as a reporter and edited websites. In the last four years she has written freelance articles for local newspapers and did a short stint interpreting legal recordings for an attorney. She is currently working on a family memoir, and other creative endeavors, including a fairy tale.

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Have you pre-ordered Thrust yet? 


“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts, moving on

The Man With the Dog

June 3, 2022

It wasn’t until he reached a town called Hempstead, Texas, just west of Houston, that Miles Paley realized Miss Snickerdoodle, his ex-wife Tara’s aging cockapoo, whom he had dognapped just a few hours earlier, had a serious flatulence problem. The eggy smell filled the cabin of his Jeep Cherokee with surprising speed, and when he opened the windows for the first time since they they’d left Austin three hours earlier, when the pre-dawn dew had obscured his side mirrors, the dog nearly leapt out to what would have been its certain, horrific death at 70 miles per hour on Route 290 East. One of the countless Ford F150’s that surrounded him blared its horn. The driver was a corpulent, pig-faced man, to whom he’d swerved so close when he’d grabbed Ms. Snickerdoodle by the scruff, he was able to make out the chaw that flew out from between his cheek and gum as he cursed wordlessly behind thick autoglass. The hate in his eyes shook Miles, so that his heart raced, and he pulled off the highway at the next exit.

“Easy, Hildy,” he said to the dog, more to reassure himself than it.

Hildy was short for Broomhilda, the name he’d wanted for the dog when she was just a pup they’d paid way too much to acquire from a breeder in Marble Falls. Presently, it was trembling, and letting out a sound that was somewhere between a cough and a dry heave every few seconds. Because the decision to take Hildy with him on his move to Florida was a last-minute one, there was no harness or leash, no treats, no food, and no water bowl. Miles picked up the animal and held its shaking body in his arms as he went into the Texaco convenience store.

“Hey there,” said a heavy-set and very pretty woman who resembled the actress Pam Grier, whom he’d had a crush on since seeing her on “Miami Vice” when he and his college roommate would do bong hits and watch that sort of thing.

“Morning,” answered Miles.

“Nice fur-baby you got there.”

“Yeah thanks.” Miles thought he saw something in the cashier’s eyes. A hint of hunger or loneliness, maybe. Were it not for his current situation, with this dog he’d stolen and with which he was planning to cross state lines in a couple more hours, he might have done his best to turn on the charm. Now, though, he felt perverse, like a drifter with a bad past, someone who ought not stay in one place for very long.

“What’s his name?”
“He’s a she. It’s Miss Snick – Hildy.”

Pam Grier eyed him with suspicion. “Hildy, huh? Why’s she shaking like that?”

“Little carsick, I think. Do y’all have leashes? Like for dogs?”

“Yeah I figured that’s what you meant. Let’s have a look-see.” She came out from behind the counter, and gave Miles a little sideways smile as she shimmied past him with a “Scuse me.” He followed her down the aisle, watching the little Santas on her seasonal yoga tights dance, and imagining her in a hotel room, disrobing slowly for him.

“Not sure we’ve ever had any leashes, but if we did they’d be over here, with the pet stuff,” she said.

Miles indiscriminately grabbed some dog food and some treats, as well as a couple of plastic bowls that had pawprints on them.

“Thanks,” he said, motioning for her to go ahead of him. The egg smell rose from the dog, and he could tell Pam Greer caught a whiff of it.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “It’s part of the carsickness, I guess.”

“Hers or yours?” she teased, with a backward glance over her shoulder that made Miles shake his head.

“You’re bad,” he murmured.

“Can be,” she smiled.

She made her way back behind the counter, and before he could ask her name, which would have been the clear next move, the dog heaved out a gob of bile that fell short of Pam’s yoga pants and landed squarely on the plexiglass, obscuring some scratch-offs and an ad for Skoal chewing tobacco.

“Oh shit!” Miles said, holding Hildy at arms length and away from the cashier.

“It’s okay, baby,” she said, deftly wiping up the mess with a wad of paper towels. “We good here.”

“I’m so sorry,” added Miles, the rejuvenating tingling in his groin now gone, replaced by sheer and utter mortification.

The Pam Greer lookalike shook her head and waved her hands in front of her, the paper towel dripping with mucous. The sexy glint in her eye was no more.

“We good,” she repeated.

“Here,” said Miles, awkwardly dropping a five dollar bill on the still wet counter.

“That’s not – okay. Bye now. Hope your baby gets to feeling better.”

After an awkward walk around the garbage-strewn parking lot, Hildy at the other end of the extension cord Miles purchased as a makeshift leash and knotted around her collar, Miles and the dog returned to the Cherokee.

“Nothing, huh?”

The dog was panting; even though it was mid-December, the heat and humidity from the Gulf were formidable. Miles felt it too, and as he mopped his brow, checking himself in the rear-view, he shook his head with a little laugh. During his brief flirtation with the cashier, he’d been picturing himself at 21 – slender, tan, with shoulder-length, feathered hair the color of sand dunes. This man, balding, paunchy, and perspiring, was a far cry from the Don-Johnson-in-Training he’d once imagined himself to be.

“Okay, well, we’re off,” he said to Hildy, who gave him a good-natured look, or so he thought. He’d felt they’d had a connection back in her puppy days. When she fussed, it was Miles who could calm her, by holding her close to his heartbeat. Tara had never had that skill with her, and he could tell she resented it.

“Don’t be jealous,” he said one night as they sat drinking wine under blankets, their back yard firepit warming them. Miss Snickerdoodle, as the pup had come to be known by this point, was nuzzled under Miles’s cover, her snout tucked under his arm.

“What?”  Tara was tipsy; Miles always knew. It was something in the timbre and tone of her voice. Not slurring exactly. It was almost like her speaking voice went down an octave. He’d always found it weird, but never said anything.

“It’s not something you should take personally. See dogs always imprint on an alpha.”

“Oh so you’re the alpha, then?”

“Damn right,” Miles said, appealing then to the sleeping puppy, in that goo-goo ga-ga voice people use with dogs. “Isn’t that right, HIldy?”

“MIss Snickerdoodle,” Tara corrected in that lower register of hers.

“Yeah right,” said MIles, ending the conversation there.

“Alpha. Ha,” said Tara, getting the last word.

It was snippy conversations like this one, often witnessed by the pup, that eventually led the couple to agree that their marriage had become loveless. They tried counseling, which only served to underline what was already obvious to them both: that a $2,500 dollar Cockapoo, though undeniably adorable, was not a substitute for the child they could not have together. Neither Miles nor Tara wanted to blame the other, but it was impossible to avoid. In the end, which came not long after Miss Snickerdoodle’s entrance into their lives, they went their separate ways. Tara kept the dog, and Miles moved to a rented cottage just off South Congress. Only a few miles away as the crow flew, but they rarely saw each other in the fifteen years since.

Miles’s phone dinged just as he merged onto I-10 East. It was Tara. The contact came up as “Maybe WIFE.”

“Oh Jesus,” Miles said aloud. Hildy, who’d been asleep in the passenger seat, swaddled by one of Miles’s dirty t-shirts, opened one eye and regarded him. The other eye appeared glued shut by a reddish film of some kind. It made Miles uneasy, and he looked back at his phone.

hey sorry to bother you but were you here this morning? early?

Miles gripped the steering wheel tighter, as he found a good cruising speed. Did she have one of those Ring home surveillance systems that everyone (except him) seemed to have these days? He didn’t see one. He certainly checked.

weird question i know. just had this feeling. now can’t find miss sd

A feeling? Okay, okay. A feeling is fine. A feeling won’t hold up in court.

A feeling.

Before he could finish telling Siri to text “WIFE,” his reply that he was driving and couldn’t talk, the phone rang. Almost by instinct, he hovered his thumb over the green “accept” button. (They’d made a pact never to let the other go to voicemail, and had kept that particular promise religiously.) He stopped himself, and let it ring instead. A minute later, the phone indicated a voicemail message, followed by a new text.

call me. please

About an hour and a half later, Miles found a Petco that wasn’t too far off the highway, and he bought the dog a proper leash and harness. He didn’t feel right tugging it around by the neck, especially not with an electrical cord. She was an old lady, after all. And for a short while, thanks to the harness, which actually fit correctly and was not unattractive, with a stylish black and white floral print, Miles felt at peace. He walked Hildy on the sands of a beach on the shores of Lake Charles; knowing he was officially no longer in Texas also lightened his heart considerably. Hildy moved slowly, but her other eye was now open, and she’d managed to groom herself free of the gunk that had been keeping it shut earlier. Even the unseasonable heat felt less oppressive here. This, he knew, was in his head, but still he took the moment to sit in stillness, enjoying it.

Again the phone rang, and the words “Maybe WIFE” appeared on the screen. As before, he let it go to voicemail. Then he pressed the playback button. The first message was a verbal version of the initial text. She sounded almost chipper: “Hey, I know this is weird, but did you come by early this morning? Just had a feeling. Call me. Thanks.”

He then listened to the message she’d left moments ago. None of the feigned friendliness remained, replaced by hysteria that put Miles right back to their early days in Texas, where they’d moved to raise a family. He hadn’t heard anything like it since the third time the IVF treatments failed, and the team at the fertility clinic provided them with materials about adoption as a next best option. In the car on the way home she wailed like a banshee. The sound of true, elemental, primal sorrow. Plain and simple. Their relationship couldn’t survive it. Nothing could.

“YOU’VE GOT MY FUCKING DOG, MILES! I KNOW YOU DO! I DON’T KNOW HOW I KNOW IT, BUT I DO! GIVE ME BACK MY FUCKING DOG! GIVE HIM BACK!”

Miles raised an eyebrow and traced the leash to the shade of a bush where Hildy lay on her side, looking more peaceful than she had the entire trip. It seemed as safe a time as any to do what he did next.

“Okay, Tara, okay. Take it easy,” he said over her screaming. She’d resumed it as soon as she picked up his call.

“TAKE IT EASY? Okay, I’m calm. Okay? But I know it, Miles. I just know it.”

“Slow down and tell me what happened.” Miles was being condescending, and he knew it. He also knew that Tara would have to back off of her assertion, because of how crazy it sounded. (Never mind that it was true.)

“She’s gone. Miss Snickerdoodle. I can’t find her anywhere.”

“Maybe she’s run off to the golf course, like that one time, remember? When they let us ride around on a golf cart looking for her?” That day, although forged in the same panic she was experiencing now, had actually turned out to be a good one for Tara and Miles. They bonded on that ride around the course, and felt pure joy when they found Miss Snickerdoodle, covered in mud, on the banks of one of the water hazards, a mangy looking mutt twice her size there beside her.

“What? No! She’s old, for god’s sake. She’s not going anywhere.”

Tara was no longer accusing Miles. She was asking for his help. Miles cupped his hand over the phone as Hildy stretched languidly, letting out a contented yawn.

“Listen, Tare, I’d love to come help you look for him, but I’m actually in the process of moving,” said Miles.

Tara was silent, and after a few seconds, Miles added, “I was going to tell you. I just…”

“No, no,” she answered. The forced cheeriness had returned. “End of an era, I guess, right? Where you moving to?”

“Florida.”
“Florida?”

“Of all places, right?”

More silence. This time it was broken by Tara.

“Our governor not crazy enough for you?” she joked.

“I think Florida’s got him beat,” Miles replied.

Satisfied that she’d given up on her intuition about the offense he’d committed, Miles suggested she might call one or both of her brothers for help.

“We don’t talk much anymore,” she said, sounding sad and lonely. Her tone made Miles feel guilty. He knew perfectly well that she and Jack and David were estranged. Mutual acquaintances had kept him in the loop over the years. He’d invoked them on purpose, to make her feel bad, and now he was sorry for it.

“Anyway, Tare, I gotta get back on the road if I want to make it to Florida by nightfall,” he said.

He heard his ex-wife sigh, her loneliness accentuated his own. “Right. Safe travels, and it was good to hear your voice after all this time.”

“Yours too,” he said, supposing he meant it on some level.

Hildy yelped loudly. Miles’s thumb was on the red “hang-up” button, which he pressed at that very moment. He cursed loudly, then bent down to tend to the dog, who held her paw gingerly off the ground. She yelped again when he pulled the barbed sandspur out of her pad. He gathered the dog up in his arms and carried her back to the car, where she drank some water from one of the bowls he’d purchased back in Hempstead. Miles’s heart was racing again, this time wondering whether or not Tara had heard her dog cry out in pain as they had hung up the call. He sat with his hands on the steering wheel, not going anywhere, waiting for her call. Five minutes passed, and he figured she’d likely have called him right back had she heard the yelp. Hildy settled back into the nest of Miles’s dirty laundry, and the two set off eastward towards their destination.

Thanks to light traffic, favorable weather conditions, and only one pitstop for gas and bathroom, the GPS guided them into Pensacola Beach just as the sun was setting over the gulf. The causeway lights came on as he was crossing, which felt to him like a good sign, like this move he was making would be a good one.

That changed when he saw Hildy. After having finally arrived at the hotel, and trying to rouse her from her nest in the passenger seat, he saw that she was trembling – spasming, more like – every few seconds, and that both of her eyes were now shut, and the rheumy stuff that sealed them formed a thick, leaky film.

Miles got back behind the wheel, and got directions on his phone to a 24-hour veterinary hospital that was a few miles away. It was dark now, and he made his way with caution down the unfamiliar roads. He had opened the windows, because the eggy smell had returned. The dog’s breathing had changed, and she appeared swollen somehow. The coughing dry heaves Miles had noticed coming from the dog way back in Hempstead were protracted now, so that the dog seemed almost to be moaning.

“Come on through,” the receptionist at the vet’s office said, as she made her way to open a swinging door that allowed Miles to carry the convulsing dog behind the counter. “We’ll get your paperwork later.”

The young woman, nondescript and professional in hospital scrubs and rubber shoes, led him through a door and into an examination room.

“It’s okay, baby,” the receptionist said as she stroked the dog’s head. “What’s her name?”

“Hildy. Or Ms. Snickerdoodle. She answers to both.” Miles felt ridiculous after he said this, and not just for the obvious reason: that a dog having two names is unnecessary and stupid. The other reason he felt idiotic was that this dog was clearly not going to answer to any name, in the condition she was now in.

“Okay sir, well you stay with…with her, and the doctor will be right in.”

Hildy’s body, though convulsing every few seconds with terrible tremors, as if an electrical charge were going through her, was otherwise still, flat as a bearskin rug on her belly, her four paws splayed in four directions. Without thinking about it, Miles  reached for his phone. The words “Maybe WIFE” appeared as the most recent call. She was so joyful the day they drove up to Marble Falls to bring Miss Snickerdoodle home. The dog, too, seemed overjoyed, but that could have just been due to the fact that she was a puppy, and puppies were joyful by nature.

The doctor was a large, handsome man with graying red hair and a Scottish accent.

“Oh you’re a sweet old girl, aren’t you?” he said in a melodious voice full of an otherworldly empathy that touched a chord in Miles Paley, who began to weep quite unexpectedly.

“I’m so sorry,” Miles said, as he reached for some tissues to wipe away the tears and snot that came suddenly and with force.

“Doc’s got it from here, sir,” the young woman, who had returned to the small room, said, taking Miles gently by the elbow.

“It’s okay, Linda,” the doctor said. He had a gloved hand on the back of the dog’s neck and was rubbing its scruff gently. “I don’t want this gentleman to have to wait.”

“Yes, Doctor,” the receptionist said, leaving the two men alone with the dog.

The doctor asked Miles a number of questions about the dog’s medical history, none of which he could answer, aside from the age. He chalked it up to how upset he was, and the vet said that he understood.

“Listen, I want to speak plainly. May I do that, please?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Miles.

“The swelling you’re seeing is severe edema. Her organs are failing, and she’s in a great deal of pain.”

The vet described treatments they could try, but Miles knew from the tone of his voice where the conversation was headed.

“I couldn’t tell you how close she is to passing naturally. All I can say is that however long it takes, it will be unpleasant for her, even with pain meds. It’s entirely your choice, of course,” said the vet.

Miles chose euthanasia. When the vet asked him whether or not he’d be staying in the room, Miles reflexively answered that no, he would be leaving. But just before he left the little examination room, through the door the vet was now holding open for him, he said, “No. I’d actually like to be here for her.”

The vet’s eyes brightened, and a smile came to his face.

“It makes a difference. To the animal. Seems silly, but I know that it does.”
“Yessir,” Miles said

The doctor explained that the procedure would be painless and humane, that Miss Snickerdoodle would lose consciousness very quickly, and would feel nothing other than the release from the immense pain she was currently in.

“Is it alright to hold her?” Miles asked.

“Of course,” the doctor said. “Just mind the tubing.”

MIles leaned over the chrome table, covering the dog like a blanket. Carefully, gently, he tucked her snout under his arm, as he had when she fussed as a pup. Now, as then, the dog settled. The trembling ceased, as did the dry moaning breaths.

With the doctor’s gloved hand on his shoulder, Miles stayed that way, draped over the dead animal for a few minutes. He was glad to have been there for this creature in her final moments. He was proud of himself for staying.

“Thank you,” he told the veterinarian, as he stood and reoriented himself to the changed world around him. “Thank you for everything.”

Dan Fuchs has published short stories in the Syracuse Review, TeachAfar, and Free Spirit. He lives with his family and a sweet, old German Shepard mix named Ally in Orlando, Florida.

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moving on, Grief, Guest Posts

Jimmy Five

May 15, 2022
jimmy

Every morning, I opened my bedroom door to find him just sitting there.

“We have to talk,” he seemed to say.

Spine erect, forearms straight under his shoulders, he appeared to want a serious heart to heart.

“Oh,” I’d say, “Good morning,” as I’d side step around him, and disappear into the bathroom.  On the toilet, I’d wonder why, of all the places there are to sit in this apartment, he’d sit there. And how long had he been sitting there, anyway? A few minutes? All night?

***

“We have to talk,” Jimmy would say on a nightly basis–his attempt to give me an order from behind the half living room wall where he was sitting in the dark. I had just gotten home from my late night’s teaching. How long had he been sitting there? A few minutes? All night?

“I’m tired, I’m going to bed,” I’d say. Sometimes I’d wake in the early morning hours to find him sitting on the chair by our bed, staring at me.  When we’d met 25 years earlier, he’d made me feel safe. Valued. Adored. I’d grown up in a family where I was none of those. Jimmy’s transformation from safe zone to potential threat jarred me.

I told him I wanted a divorce, after two decades of trying everything I could not to. After I’d finally put the word “divorce” out there, I began to feel hunted. Not where the hunter slays the prey, but where the aim is to capture, cage, and never, ever release. A few years later, when we were able to resume a semblance of our prior friendship, he would tell me that indeed he felt I was his possession. That he knew it was wrong, but men are animals after all.

***

By the time I’d finished in the bathroom, Five–named after Tank Five, the sewage tank at the Hunts Point treatment plant Jimmy had rescued him from—was poking around my bedroom, sniffing at specks of something on the floor. Until he sensed me returning, and scampered off.

***

“Jimmy, you read my journals!”

“I was looking for answers,” he claimed.

“You had no right!”

He suspected I was fantasizing about another man, like a woman who still hoped. His suspicions were correct, but he had no right to my fantasies.

I crouched on the floor, gathering the laundry–still our laundry–when I saw my journals had been moved and one was laying open.

I continued thrusting my hand into pockets, looking for loose change, receipts, lighters. I pulled out my underwear instead. From his shirt pocket, his sweatpants pocket. Was he hoping to hold onto a sexual connection by clinging to my intimate clothing? Our bodies had belonged to each other when the relationship was committed. His addictions severed that connection. Was this his way to try to tape it back together?

“I picked up your panties by accident,” he lied, his gaze veering out the window.

“They’re not panties,” I said, his desperation weighing on us both. “They’re underwear. I don’t leave my underwear lying around.”

He twitched his right shoulder and walked out.

***

I had put off telling Jimmy I needed a divorce for more than a decade by scrubbing the kitchen counters. Sweeping the floor. Putting random items back where they belonged, while simultaneously developing sonar to place Jimmy’s stealth-like disappearances into a bedroom or out onto the terrace. We were a family with two young boys we both adored. A family is all I’d ever wanted. When he’d disappear, I thought he was privately taking a few hits on a joint. Swallowing a pain pill. But I was there with him mentally draining the fuel from the lighter, preventing the bottle from opening. Willing him back to being with us.  When he did reappear, I kept my back to him. He’d wrap his arms around me from behind. Kiss my neck. I’d stiffen, though the kisses were sweet.

“Sit down,” he said. “Take a break.”

“I’m not done.” I pulled out of his embrace.

I wouldn’t stop until he stopped.

“Take a break,” he repeated, grabbing hold of my forearms. “Finish later.”

“No,” I said, jerking out of his grasp. “I’m not done.”

“You don’t know how to relax.” He left the room.

***

One morning, Five sat in his usual spot. Just staring. But as I passed him to go to the kitchen to make coffee, he swatted at my leg. He swatted again. Ran after me. Swatted again.

“Ok. I’ll pet you, I’ll pet you,” I said, leaning over.

It was our first petting session since he’d arrived in my home. Tentatively, I managed a few strokes on the top of his head, then wiggled a few fingers under his chin. He nuzzled into my hand. I made a fist as he dragged his mouth across my knuckles. His tail straightened and switched back and forth. Then he parted his pink lips to drag his long thin teeth across my thumb as though they itched and my thumb provided welcome scratching. When he took a gentle nibble of my knuckle, I pulled my hand away, afraid another nibble might turn into a bite.

He jumped onto his hind legs and wrapped his forepaws around my shins, batting at them, then hugging them, then batting at them again. A frenzied dance. Thankful for my pajama bottoms, I backed away and he ran off.

***

I had lobbied hard for a dog when our two boys were little. Our building didn’t allow dogs, but Jimmy was the co-op board president. “At least put a vote on the agenda,” I pleaded.

“Let’s just get a cat,” he always said. “They’re less work.”

The bottom line was, he wasn’t a dog guy. He was a cat guy. Unfortunately, I was a dog gal. We ended up with hamsters and guinea pigs, and a snake once. Even the boys agreed they were poor substitutes.

***

Jimmy asked me to police him when we first got together.

“Everything I’ve loved, I’ve lost because of my drinking,” he’d said after one of our first fights. “I’ll stop.”

And he did. Stop drinking.

I knew he continued smoking pot. I drank wine on the weekends, so who was I to tell him to stop pot, too? I didn’t realize how much he smoked. When I asked why I found lighters everywhere, he said, “For safety.” And the Visine bottles? “I’m a welder.”

I didn’t know about the pain pills. I knew he sweat a lot.

I saw the empty orange pill bottles with the labels scratched off, but didn’t connect the dots.  I thought he needed them and took them when he was in pain. Who was I to decide how much pain he was in? A bad back, a bad knee, and even bad teeth had parlayed into prescriptions from no less than five doctors:  his back doctor, his knee doctor, his primary care physician, his pain management doctor, and often the dentist. Opioid abuse had yet to make headlines with lawsuits and staggering statistics. I never saw all the bottles at once, only after they were empty. I’d taken codeine after surgery for impacted wisdom teeth and immediately felt nauseous. I completely missed, in the beginning anyway, that pain pills could be recreational.

***

For years, he left our apartment before 6 a.m. to get to a job that was a 15-minute drive away, and he didn’t need to clock in until 7 a.m. I finally realized he left early so he didn’t have to help with any part of waking two kids, feeding them, getting them dressed, their lunches made, their school bags packed, and off to their destinations.

When my son’s schedules changed so I had to get all of us out the door by 7 a.m., I demanded Jimmy help.

“Well, you know, Corinne, it’s a very busy time for me,” he responded immediately.

I stared at him. “Jimmy, you drink coffee, watch the news, then get in the car and drive to work.”

Even he saw the gaping hole in his argument. He took over making the lunches and packing the school bags. His lunches were much better than mine and he always drew a picture on the boys’ napkins of something each was into: surfing, soccer, holidays, then signed them, Love Mommy and Daddy, until one son reached his teens and finally asked him to stop. Not drawing on the napkins, just signing them Love Mommy and Daddy.

He had always been the parent in stressful times, too. He was the one who slept with them when they were sick and rubbed their foreheads, who held them while the doctor removed a cast or stitched a wound. I was the first to be sent away because I’d start crying, too, making things worse.

But day to day life, he preferred to slink away.

I’m not sure he ever realized how much it hurt me that he wasn’t instinctively by my side helping, how much it took away from my desire for him. I loved him as my best friend, but the childishness of running from responsibilities, viewing them as drudgery, rather than labors of love, killed desire.

It was simply not sexy.

***

Neither is nodding out, which as the boys grew older and needed less direct parenting, he did more frequently, and I was confronted with the reality that he did not take pills solely for pain. Watching Jimmy’s bloodshot eyes flap closed over his plate of chicken and pilaf one evening, I thought, Well, it’s not like he’s driving a car. The second I realized I was trying to put a positive spin on where and when one nods out, I knew the only option left was divorce.

***

You fuckin’ addict, I’d think, when he nod out tying his shoes, though I’d woken up that morning full of resolve to try something else to address this disease. It didn’t matter that I knew that was not how it works.

He stopped seeing himself, and I stopped recognizing us. He was exhausting and exhausted. Anger and sadness were the only emotions I had left. I did not want my boys to think this is who their mother is.

***

One evening we went to bed and both of us were on our backs staring at cracks in the ceiling plaster. I knew we both knew. It was over.

“Love me, Corinne,” I heard Jimmy say. “Please, just love me,” his voice weak and tender. I turned away from him, my silence devastating us both.

***

Jimmy replaced me with a shelter cat as soon as we split up. A few years later, our older son Seamus could no longer witness the abuse of the restaurant cat locked in the basement where he was a waiter. Jimmy drove his black van to the restaurant and waited for Seamus to emerge on his break with a cardboard box that emitted barely audible meows. When a woman friend of Jimmy’s needed a home for her mother’s cat after her mother had had to move into assisted living, Jimmy volunteered to take that cat, too. Five, his fourth cat, he’d literally rescued from drowning in shit.

***

At the same time he was collecting cats, he went back to drinking. He began a cycle of detox and rehab, although he only actually completed one rehab session. In between, he’d work, ride his bike, try to connect with old friends, even go out for dinner and a movie with me and our boys, but he’d always end up back at the beginning.

“What happened to me?” he’d ask on our drive to detox. Again. “Why do I do this? Was I molested? Did I block it out?”

“I don’t know, Jimmy. I can’t know. Only you can figure it out.”

“I’m terrified,” he’d say. He knew he was killing himself.

But figuring it out meant opening himself up after having spent years completely locking himself down. His inability to be vulnerable kept him stuck. Jimmy did things perfectly or he didn’t do them at all. His world grew smaller and smaller. Not feeling pain made joy a flatliner, as well.

***

Finally, after decades of taking Percocet, Oxycontin, Tramadol, and Hydrocodone, he came home from his final stay in detox, laid down on the couch, and opened another bottle of Hennessy.

He was dead within 24 hours. Maybe 48.

Day of death is marked as the day the body is found, not the actual time of death. We were married for 21 years, together for 23, enmeshed for seven more, and I don’t know exactly when he died. I do know he was alone, surrounded by his cats. Most likely, Five was close by.

I wasn’t.

I didn’t hold his hand. I didn’t rub his forehead. I didn’t whisper “I love you” over and over.

My consciousness became cloudy. Thoughts about work, or which son needed what, or what I needed to pick up from the grocery store were interlaced with, You killed him. You left him and he died. If you hadn’t left, your boys would still have a father. You’d still have the person who guided you, even if he couldn’t guide himself.

My dreams fueled my guilt. In one, he stood against a wall, his face and body screaming a silent anger. I thought it was at me, but maybe it was at death itself. Then his forehead started to cave in and I forced myself awake before I watched his entire body get consumed by invisible flames.

We’d had him cremated.

The man who entered my life as a protector, a guide, an emotional balance, and a source of so much laughter, had been eaten from the inside out by his addictions and was now in a jar. I’d told that jar how sorry I was. That I couldn’t help him. That he had died alone. Contrary to the saying, We are NOT born alone. Every mother knows that. No one should die alone, either. Not being there when he died, haunted me.

***

Five didn’t want to leave Jimmy’s apartment and I didn’t want to bring him to mine, but no one else wanted him or his rescued siblings. Shelters had long waiting lists and no guarantee to not put them down if they were not adopted swiftly. While the other cats adjusted easily to their new home, Five hid silently for weeks under my son’s bed. Then he started lurking outside my bedroom door.

***

When I discovered Five in my room in the middle of the night, sitting next to my bed, spine erect, forepaws straight underneath, looking calmly up at me after I had awoken from yet another disturbing dream, I began to grow suspicious. Five made me feel like I was living with Jimmy. In looks and actions. Impossible and weird, I know. This cat was hunting me, spying on me and it felt very familiar. Did he want to know if someone new was in my bed? Would he pounce if there was?

One morning, Five wasn’t in his usual spot. I thought he had moved on from demanding “We have to talk,” but then I saw him on the living room bench, his rear quarters hovering above the ground, his tail straight and elevated, unable to sit, unable to stand.

As sick as he was, he put up a tremendous fight as we tried to take him to the vet. Our younger son Liam had to wear Jimmy’s welding gloves to get him into the cat carrier. The vet injected a sedative through the carrier wall and tests revealed that Five had a thickened bladder wall, a chronic condition. He would need life-long pain medication and muscle relaxers. He was prescribed Buprenorphine for pain.

***

Buprenorphine was the last opiate Jimmy had been prescribed. He’d Googled Is Buprenorphine addictive? right before he died. Buprenorphine was supposed to be like Methadone–pain medication you take when trying to wean off of pain medication.

***

The woman who had become Jimmy’s close friend, although he had wanted more, came to my apartment for the first time on the anniversary of his death. We both needed to mourn the man we loved. Five cautiously entered the room. As soon as she saw him, she said, “Oh my god, he looks just like Jimmy.”

***

One morning, Five didn’t greet me when I opened the door. I panicked until I found him lying underneath a living room chair. I stroked his fur, and he looked at me calmly, but meowed nothing. When I returned home from work, he was laying on my bed with his head on my pillow, a place he’d never laid before. I laid down next to him and rubbed his forehead and stroked his chin. After dinner, he had moved to the carpet in my son’s room. At 3 a.m., my son alerted me that Five had been sick on the floor. By the time we got him to the vet, his kidneys were failing.

It was time.

Sedatives allowed him to rest with some comfort. The vet had placed his head on a pillow and wrapped him in a thick towel.  There’d been a sweat stained pillow under Jimmy’s head when Seamus had found him dead on the couch. Seamus wanted to spare us and told Liam and me not to come. He waited with Jimmy’s body alone until the police arrived. I understood and appreciated his protectiveness. Being spared though, that leaves a different kind of hole.

***

Liam and I held Five’s paw/hand and stroked his fur/hair and murmured loving words as Five left this world as every living thing should. And I thanked Jimmy for coming back as Five and allowing me to be there. This time.

***

I know this was Jimmy’s gift to me. Only he knew how much I needed it.

Corinne O’Shaughnessy is a retired New York City public school literacy teacher. Her essays have appeared in HerStry.com, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, reideasjournal.com, and DorothyParkersAshes.com. Her short fiction has been published in SurvivorLit.org and BookofMatchesLit.com. She also recently read “Five” at The Haunted gathering of Read650.org.

She currently resides in Mexico where she is trying to learn Spanish and become a better dancer. She is also the proud mama of two grown sons.

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If you liked today’s essay, check this out:

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

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Family, Fiction, Guest Posts, Marriage, moving on

In the Airport

April 15, 2022
lisa

When Lisa saw Dan her heart throbbed so fiercely she almost toppled over and out of her chair. She hadn’t seen her former husband for nearly forty years and certainly wouldn’t expect him to be waiting here, like her, for a plane’s arrival. He was standing before the large screen with its information about departures and arrivals. He shouldn’t have been in Portland. On the last envelope she had received—enclosed with a child support check—it had been postmarked in Houston. But that was back in 1983.

He’d be seventy-two in three months, May 9. She remembered the date: after all she made him a party nearly every year of their marriage—seven years altogether. No doubt he forgot the next day was her birthday. He probably forgot about her. He was tall and lanky, not quite as well built as in the past, and stooped slightly. His hair had been brown but was now white peppered with gray and swept back away from his forehead. He was clean-shaven but that didn’t surprise her. He had shaved off his mustache and beard soon after their marriage. He was nicely dressed in a corduroy jacket over jeans. She wished he wasn’t still handsome.

He turned away from the screen and she feared he’d choose a seat near her and maybe recognize her. She ran her fingers through her silver hair, which she hadn’t dyed in nearly a decade. It had been a natural auburn until she was forty, when her first gray strands appeared. She also gained twenty pounds since he last saw her. He remained standing at a distance, and fortunately a large family, including a man in a wheelchair, blocked him from seeing her.

Over the years, she was committed to hating him but when she’d look at the one photo she kept of him she’d be stirred with longing—even at her age. At UC Santa Barbara, girls had always turned their heads to look at him. Even the child she tutored back then had said, “He’s what we call guapo.” No doubt he remarried.

***

Lisa met Dan Hennessey while they both volunteered in the Children’s Project, sponsored by the university’s graduate school of education. She had first seen a notice about it on a kiosk near the student union. The project called for volunteers to tutor children in the near-by town of Carpinteria. They had come with their families from Mexico a few years earlier. She was an English major and hoped someday to teach on the college level but she believed she could effectively tutor a young child in reading and writing. She was idealistic and wanted to do something valuable in the community. She removed a pad from her handbag and wrote down the phone number.

From the apartment she shared with three roommates, she called the number. A girl with a perky voice gave her instructions about attending an important meeting. She would join other prospective tutors in Parking Lot Ten on Friday at three p.m. where there would be a van to transport them. Sure enough on that day Lisa saw a VW bus, with a sign Children’s Project in one of its windows.

As they traveled south on Highway 101 she saw the glimmering Pacific Ocean on one side and on the other, dusty brown hills dotted with sagebrush and chapparal. When they turned off the highway, they drove passed an orchard of avocado trees and a scattering of plain stucco houses in various colors and into the little downtown, the street lined with palm trees and Torrey pines. The van parked in front of a stucco building with a sign by the door, Carpinteria Community Center.

Parents crowded the room, all sitting on metal folding chairs that faced a podium. The front row of chairs was left vacant for the student volunteers. When everyone was seated the mayor, wearing a suit and tie, spoke about how much the community appreciated working with the university to help their children succeed in school. He then introduced Dr. Ed Franklin, a professor at the graduate school of education. He was a short, round man, wearing a too-tight striped jersey top over bell-bottom jeans. He looked like he should be swabbing a ship deck rather than discussing academics. He gave a quick speech about how happy he was that the university and the graduate school of education in particular could contribute to the community. Then he introduced the student coordinator for the volunteers.

That was the first time she saw Dan, who stepped up to the podium. He towered over the professor and the mayor and she noted he was stunningly handsome. The features of his face were perfectly proportioned and his neatly trimmed beard and mustache suited him. His brown hair was long, flipping slightly above the collar of his flannel shirt. His big dark eyes showed a seriousness of purpose. Lisa was riveted to his eyes.

The volunteer who sat next to her elbowed her and whispered by her ear, “He’s cute. I’ll do my best to bump into him.”

“He probably already has a girlfriend or maybe a wife,” Lisa said. “He seems so serious he might not even be interested in dating.” This possibility came to mind because she was reading Euripides’s Hippolytus at the time in her Seminar in Classical Literature. And Lisa felt like Phaedra—struck with instant love.

At the podium Dan explained that each volunteer would be assigned a child and would work with that child for the length of the college quarter. “This way you’ll get a chance to bond, which is essential for success.”

The following Friday afternoon the volunteers returned to the community center to get their assigned child. A graduate student, in a peasant blouse over a long sweeping skirt, was in charge and introduced Lisa to a small girl with long coffee-brown hair pulled back with barrettes and wearing a white blouse tucked into a skirt with ruffles, white ankle socks, and patten leather shoes. “Lisa, this is Clara Gutierrez, who’s eight and in the third grade,” the graduate student informed her.

Lisa showed Clara a wide grin and said, “I’ll remember your name because my sister’s name is Claire.”

Clara brought Lisa to her home, which was in walking distance from the community center. It was a simple stucco house, with bougainvillea creeping along a wall on one side. Rosebushes with withered roses lined a picket fence, and a drooping sunflower stood on the parched front lawn. When they stepped inside they entered a room with a massive oak dining room table surrounded by several oak chairs, which occupied most of the space. Many people probably lived in this small house.

Clara’s mother greeted them and offered Lisa iced tea. She accepted not just to be polite. It was a hot day and she was thirsty.

They then entered a living room with a sofa and several stuffed arm chairs. Lisa also saw a bookcase packed with books in Spanish. This gave her an idea. “Why don’t you read a favorite story in Spanish before we start a book in English?” she said.

Clara giggled. “You won’t understand it.”

“I might. I took five years of Spanish in school—mi escuela. I even read Don Quixote. And if there’s something I don’t know I’ll ask you.”

They sat together on the huge velvet sofa. Clara opened CenicientaCinderella. The illustrations were familiar: pretty stone houses, the relevant castle in the distance, and the usual depiction of Cinderella—or Cenicienta—with long blond hair.

Afterwards, Clara asked if she could show Lisa the beach just a few blocks away from her house. It was such a warm day Lisa agreed. After all, they would have many opportunities to read books in English and this would help them to bond.

Another way to bond was to allow Clara to be Lisa’s tutor as well. As they walked on a road without sidewalks Lisa said, “Please help me improve my Spanish. We’re going to la playa, right?”

Si, la playa.” Clara giggled.

She pointed to her blouse. “This is a camisa, right?”

Clara shook her head. “No, that means shirt. Blusa is the word for blouse.”

Lisa noticed Dan entering the road with a small boy. They were only a block behind her and Clara. She forced herself not to be distracted by seeing him. “Okay, let me try again.” She tugged at her pants. “These are pantalones.

This time Clara nodded. Then she pointed to Lisa’s big leather handbag. “Tell me what this is called.”

Lisa noted that Dan and the boy were catching up to them but she smiled at Clara and said, “I don’t know. Please tell me.”

Bolsa. It’s your bolsa.” She lifted her small pink vinyl handbag and said, “This is my bolsa.”

Suddenly Clara’s face brightened and she waved at the boy. The two were walking on the other side of the street, now parallel with them. “Luis, we read Cenicienta today,” Clara shouted to the boy.

He merely shrugged.

Dan and the boy approached them while Lisa did her best to subdue the fluttering of her heart.

He extended his hand to shake Lisa’s. “Hi, I’m Dan Hennessey, as you probably already know.”

When their hands touched his was pleasantly warm. “Lisa Turner.”

“Thanks for becoming a tutor, Lisa,” he said.

That same Friday just as she was about to step into the VW bus to return to the campus Dan rushed over to her and said, “Let me give you a ride back. I have my car.”

They dated every weekend since then and occasionally she slept with him at the apartment he shared with another roommate. She wondered why he chose her. Dan was often encircled with attractive grad students at UCSB who doted on him. Not only was he good-looking and charismatic he was the creator of the successful Children’s Project. Perhaps he was attracted to her—her roommates assured her she was pretty. She needed assurance.

One night while she lay in his arms after sex he said, “I’m excited about my chosen field, Lisa. I’ll make a difference to kids. I’ll help them achieve their goals in life.”

It was dark but she imagined that serious glow in his eyes as he spoke of his vision. She was in awe of him and said, “You’re amazing.”

Yet she wished he’d be more serious about her interests.

“Don’t expect me to read some boring as hell guy from the nineteenth century!” he had said to her when she suggested he read her favorite author, George Eliot. She didn’t bother to tell him George Eliot wasn’t a guy. Once she dared to read to him a poem she had written but afterwards he kissed her forehead and said, “No offense, but I’m not into metaphors. I only understand straight facts.” She never shared her poems with him again. Besides, her pursuits were frivolous compared to his.

On the Thursday morning of Thanksgiving, he called her at home in Glendale to invite her to dinner at his parents’ house in West Covina. “They want to meet you,” he said, “So they told me to ask you to come Saturday night around six. Please come, Lisa.”

“Sure, I’d love to,” she said but she dreaded going. They’d be accessing her, deciding if she was a fit girlfriend for their special son. She feared they’d be disappointed.

For the rest of that day, she was so jittery in anticipation of meeting his parents that she could hardly enjoy being with her relatives, including her cousin Judy, who arrived from Cornell, and meeting her sister’s new boyfriend, Brian. After she and Claire set the dining room table for the big meal, she grabbed her sister and brought her into her bedroom so they could speak alone. “Dan invited me to dinner at his parents’ house on Saturday,” she said. “I’m dreading it. They’ll expect me to be perfect—like Dan. They’ll be disappointed.”

“Don’t put yourself down, Lisa,” Claire said. “Dan’s lucky he met you: you’re adorable, you’re intelligent, you have a great sense of humor, and most of all you’re sweet and kind. What more can he want? Besides, I doubt he’s perfect. No one is perfect.”

“You mean not even you?” Lisa asked to be funny.

“Especially me. But I’m right about this. Stop putting him on a pedestal. You’re the one who should be on the pedestal.”

Nevertheless, Lisa had grandiose expectations about Dan’s family as she drove east on I-210 from her home in Glendale toward his in West Covina. She imagined a mansion on a slope with a view and a large backyard swimming pool. They’d be elegant and erudite people with an enormous library, packed with classics. Yet as soon as she drove through his parents’ neighborhood her notions altered: these were all modest tract homes. She pulled up in front of a plain ranch house, stucco with red brick trim. The lawn was mowed and in front of it were two squat palm trees.

As soon as she entered the house, his family didn’t dazzle her, which surprised her. His father was rod-thin, tall, and slightly bent. Like Dan, his sister had inherited his height and was a head taller than her rotund boyfriend. Dan resembled his mother yet her appearance was bland. Perhaps it was the clothes she wore: a beige jersey top over brown polyester pants and no jewelry. She showed only a slight grateful smile when she took Lisa’s gift, a box of See’s candy. His father gave Lisa a broader smile and said, “Nice to meet you.”

For her benefit, the main dish was vegetarian lasagna. She appreciated that Dan had told his parents she didn’t eat meat. She had feared she’s be forced to eat turkey leftover from Thanksgiving or maybe roast beef or pork chops.

His sister, named Amy, giggled with her boyfriend at one end of the table and they seemed preoccupied with each other. Amy had blond hair with brown roots and wore makeup too thick on her eyes, which were an icy blue. Her boyfriend had thin blond hair and lambchop sideburns that looked silly across his full cheeks.

Lisa braced herself for their many questions but none were forthcoming. Dan’s father stared at her but said nothing. Then his mother began, “We’re so proud of Dan and his accomplishments. Aren’t you, Lisa?”

“Oh, yes,” she said and smiled at Dan.

“He’s going to be called doctor by this summer. His grandparents and aunts and uncles are all so happy. Isn’t that an enormous achievement?”

“Oh, yes, it is. And his project in Carpinteria has done so much for the kids who live there.”

His mother brought a forkful of lasagna to her mouth then dabbed away sauce with her napkin. “Really?” She turned to her son. “What kind of project, Dan? I haven’t heard anything about it.”

Lisa was surprised that he hadn’t told his parents before about the important project. When they were back at school she said to him, “Why didn’t you tell your parents about the Children’s Project?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t see the point. They only care that I’m a success—that I’ll be called doctor.”

That June a new world was open to them. They both graduated, Lisa with a B.A. degree in English, Dan with a Ph.D. in Education, specifically in Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology. While they celebrated dinner at their favorite restaurant, Arnoldi’s Café, in Santa Barbara, Dan proposed to her and she accepted. Dan wanted the wedding to be small and Lisa agreed: they were poor, still without jobs, and couldn’t expect their families to splurge on their behalf—though Lisa’s mother wanted a big celebration and was willing to pay for it. They invited only immediate family and were wed in a small chapel in Pasadena. Dan’s community involvement strengthened his resumé so Lisa wasn’t surprised that he quickly acquired a position at Portland State University to teach at their education college, starting in the fall. She immediately applied to the university’s graduate program in English and was thrilled to be accepted.

They packed up their belongings and headed for the Northwest. Nearly two years later when she was finishing her Master’s degree, she discovered she was pregnant and they both were excited about having a baby. But in her third month she had a miscarriage. She was depressed for weeks but Dan was depressed for much longer. She had failed him.

***

Claire had to convince Lisa that she did take good care of herself while pregnant and she didn’t fail Dan. Claire had made the emphatic point that the opposite was true: he failed her. This thought renewed Lisa’s anger. She should pop up now and stomp over to him, shout for everyone around them to hear: he failed her—and their daughter. Yet at this late date she’d gain nothing by humiliating him—and herself.

A group of travelers were coming through the terminal doors. Claire’s plane wasn’t due for another twenty minutes. Lisa had checked about forty minutes earlier and discovered then that the flight would be delayed for an hour. But maybe it arrived sooner than expected. She dared not check the screen and have Dan see her. Yet now that she looked at the passengers, she noted that they were tan, several men wore bright shirts with blazing prints of palm trees and hibiscus flowers, and both men and women wore leis around their necks. These people obviously arrived from Hawaii. She hoped that whomever Dan was waiting for had been a passenger on that plane and then they’d be gone and he’d once again be out of her life.

But that wasn’t about to happen yet. As the group dispersed, she saw him sitting in a chair on the other side of the big screen. She could hardly breathe.

***

A year after her miscarriage Lisa was happy to discover she was once again pregnant. Dan was cautiously happy and kissed her. Then he said, “This time you might consider eating more protein. At least fish.”

He could never reconcile himself to her being a vegetarian. She had been a vegetarian since she was a high school senior. Her friend, Karen Ridley, became one first and had given Lisa a book about the horrors of the slaughterhouse. After only reading a few pages, she announced to her parents she’d no longer be eating anything that walked, flew, or swam. Her mother, a great cook who prepared a meat dish for dinner almost every night, wasn’t happy about this but said, “Then you’ll be cooking your own meals.”

Which Lisa readily did and learned from vegetarian cookbooks how to make tasteful dishes with tofu, various other bean sources, and nuts. Family members predicted this was a mere phase that would end, but they were wrong. During her first pregnancy Dan had made her ask her gynecologist if being a vegetarian was harmful to the fetus and the doctor had assured her it was fine as long as she ate nutritiously, balancing protein with vegetables and not eating too many fats and carbs. After the miscarriage she had called the doctor and asked, “Did it have anything to do with my vegetarian diet?”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I believe it had to do with your cervix. It’s what we call an incompetent cervix, which means it opens too early in the pregnancy. We’ll have to watch over it during a future pregnancy.”

Something about her had been incompetent but it hadn’t been her diet.

Lisa was nervous throughout her second pregnancy and times when she spotted blood sent her and Dan into a frenzy of worry. She was glad she had stopped teaching at Portland Community College. She spent much of the time off her feet either reading or watching television. Dan had even bought a stereo unit so she could listen to her favorite records.

Just as she began her seventh month of pregnancy she went into labor. She gave birth to a tiny baby girl, pruned faced and jaundiced but still beautiful. She was immediately placed in an incubator. Lisa hated leaving the hospital without her baby, whom she and Dan had named Jennifer Marie. That same night they returned and watched tiny Jennifer in the incubator and Dan moved close to Lisa and folded his hand over hers. She smiled at him gratefully.

When Jennifer was eighteen months old the pediatrician told them she had cerebral palsy. This didn’t surprise Lisa. The child couldn’t stand yet, dragged one foot when she crawled, toppled over when she sat, and thrust her arms out for no reason. She drooled and had trouble saying mama. She could not say dada.

Yet when the doctor had put the diagnosis into words this stunned Dan and he paled.

With tears in her eyes, Lisa said after the appointment, “I know how painful this is to hear, Dan, but Jenny is lucky to have you as her father. In your field, you know all about kids like her and how to help them.”

His dark brown eyes showed despair that troubled her and so did his silence.

When Lisa found placement for Jennifer, at aged three, in a special program for young handicapped children at Portland Child Growth and Development Center she called Dan at his office on campus. “The director is really enthusiastic and very supportive. She gave me a tour of the center. It’s an amazing place. They’re all special kids under the age of six. They’re being potty trained and learning to eat by themselves and how to do say words and do simple puzzles. They also have a staff physical therapist and speech therapist who will work with Jenny. You’ve got to see for yourself. Anyway, the exciting news is Jenny can start this Monday morning.”

His reply surprised her. “Don’t make me dinner. I’m working late tonight.”

After she had fed and bathed her daughter and put her to bed she sat on the living room sofa and sobbed. Her relationship with her husband was strained by this child coming into their lives. Maybe it was her fault—an incompetent cervix or her no meat diet. Yet she loved pretty little Jenny, who looked like her father, except that she had Lisa’s red hair. They could still be happy.

He gave her no eye contact when he arrived home that night. A somber look was on his face and he went straight to their bedroom. She remained on the sofa, a novel unread on the coffee table. She couldn’t follow him into the bedroom, as if a heavy weight pressed down on her. A sense of doom overwhelmed her and she felt chilled. She finally forced herself up and left for the kitchen to boil water for tea. She was pouring the water into her mug when she heard him say, “Lisa, please come in here.”

She returned to the living room and was shocked to see that he held a bulging suitcase. She trembled so badly she grasped hold of a side table to steady herself. “You’re leaving us?” she managed to say.

“I can’t stay here any longer. I’ll send papers for you to sign. And money. Please don’t contact me.” In a softer voice he added, “This is just too much for me.”

Through blurry eyes she looked up at him. “Don’t you love us at all?”

“I … I can’t deal with it.” He turned and left.

Stunned, mortified, and scared Lisa knew she needed to call her sister. Through sobs she managed to tell Claire what had happened.

That weekend Claire left her home in Canoga Park and her husband, Brian, and toddler son, Justin, to be with Lisa at her time of despair. “I’ll hunt him down and kill him!” she said that evening after Lisa put Jennifer in her bedroom to sleep. In a slightly calmer voice she added, “You’ll get the best divorce lawyer and make him pay up—the bastard!”

Lisa sank onto the sofa and sobbed in her hands. “He’s left us—me. And it’s my fault!”

Claire plopped down next to her and grabbed her chin. She lifted Lisa’s face and their eyes met. “This is not your fault. Never ever say that again!”

Claire was her savior over the years, even though they remained living at a distance. She visited when she could, especially during summers while they both weren’t teaching. Sometimes Brian and Justin came too. Brian would walk through the house looking to see what he could repair, rewire, or repaint and Justin would make some effort to entertain Jennifer.

Fortunately, Lisa received help with Jennifer from school and community programs so she was able to work fulltime, teaching at the Sylvania Campus of Portland Community College, not far from her home. The money was needed: Dan had stopped sending money after three years. As far as he was concerned, she and Jennifer no longer existed. Then Jennifer died of pneumonia when she was fifteen. Lisa’s parents and Claire and Brian came to her funeral. Lisa was crushed and only her sister and brother-in-law had saved her from driving her car off a cliff.

***

Claire was coming to help Lisa celebrate her sixty-eighth birthday. Regrettably, Brian wasn’t joining her. He had suffered a mild heart attack a few months earlier and explained apologetically on the phone that his fear of flying might trigger another.

It occurred to Lisa that if Claire spotted Dan she might rush up to him and slap his face—but she’d prefer to strangle him. Lisa would get some satisfaction.

Yet, so much time had passed since that day he left her and their daughter that there was no point in trying to punish him now. It had been a long time since she felt exhausted from caring for Jennifer and also teaching. Then for years she mourned the loss of her daughter and struggled with loneliness. She dated but never lasted in a relationship. She enjoyed her friendships and participated in a writing group and went to poetry readings. She continued to write poems and had managed to get a few published in literary journals. That was her life.

Her hands were sweaty and she felt so agitated she couldn’t remain in her seat. Besides, she no longer cared if she came face to face with Dan. She stood and headed toward the Starbucks next to the terminal doors. She could easily see passengers arriving.

She was standing on line to order when she heard, “Lisa?”

She recognized the voice. This triggered the heavy beating of her heart. She was about to turn to face him but then the barista said, “Ma’am, what can I get for you?”

“A twelve-ounce coffee, please,” she managed to say. Then she faced him. That serious glow in his eyes was gone and he managed a smile. Perhaps he mellowed over the years.

“How are you?” he had the nerve to ask.

With a trembling hand she gave the barista a five-dollar bill for a $1.85 coffee and told him to keep the rest. She forced her hand to hold her hot cup steadily. “Fine,” she answered, deciding this exchange was absurd.

He stepped out of line and followed her to the counter where she poured half and half into her cup then stirred it and stirred it again and again.

“I didn’t recognize you at first,” he said.

“It’s been a long time,” she said, not looking at him. “What are you doing in Portland?”

He let out a nervous chuckle. “I missed the wet weather so I came back. Actually, I live in Lake Oswego.”

That was an affluent suburb. He was doing well. “Which plane are you waiting for?”

“The United flight from LAX. My wife went to visit her mom in a nursing home in Long Beach. We’re going to have her move up here so we can keep a better eye on her.”

This information about his wife made Lisa’s stomach twist even though years had passed. No doubt he had a family, with healthy kids and grandkids, too. She didn’t want to know about them. “She’s on the same plane as my sister.”

“That must be Claire. How is she?”

“Fine—just like me.”

He didn’t mention the unmentionable.

These moments were unbearably toxic and she had to flee. She glanced toward the exit doors and saw some passengers coming through them. The plane had arrived. Claire would be here momentarily to save her— once again. She tossed the cup full of coffee into a trash bin. She glanced at him for the last time and said, “Your daughter died a number of years ago.” She rushed by him and toward the doors.

When she spotted Claire, pulling a carry-on suitcase, she ran to her and hugged her. “Dan’s here,” she said by her sister’s ear.

Claire hugged her tighter then released her and said, “It’s too late for murder so I have a better idea: let’s go to dinner and order an expensive bottle of wine. It’s your birthday so it’s my treat.”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

Hillary Tiefer has a PhD in English and has taught at various colleges. Her short stories have been published in Descant, Red Rock Review, Mission at Tenth, Blue Moon Literary Review, Gray Sparrow Journal, Poetica Magazine, Poydras Review, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, JuxtaProse, The Literary Nest, Smoky Blue Literature and Art Magazine, Five on the Fifth, and The Opiate. Her stories were finalists in contests for Folio, Hidden Rivers Press, Homebound Publications, and Glimmer Train. Her novel, Lily’s Home Front, was published in October 2018 (Moonshine Cove Publishing). Her essays on the author Thomas Hardy have been published in scholarly journals.

Guest Posts, Grief

Babyland

January 6, 2022
cemetery

By Kris Martinez

Though I’d barely known him, I’d thought about him off and on over the years. If anything, he came to me as a passing thought of the strange way seventh grade had begun with the announcement of our teacher’s death just after Labor Day. The memory was almost always accompanied by the vision of Joyce K. running around the playground at recess in her hand-me-down maroon plaid uniform, the warm September sun shining on her ratty reddish hair as she sang her song in soaring arcs. The old elastic of her graying white knee socks puddled down around her ankles and her arms spread wide as she flew across the blacktop and dashed over the lines of the basketball court, singing, “Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad! Mr. Le Vasseur is de-ad!”

Every time his memory knocked at the door of my brain I tried to will it away, telling myself I barely had any right to remember him. I didn’t know this man. His story wasn’t mine to tell. And yet, the more I tried to ignore it, the more insistent it became.

When I finalKris Martinez has over twenty-five years of experience as a marketing and advertising professional and has owned a digital creative agency near Chicago for the past sixteen years. Her company’s work has been recognized with dozens of industry awards and she is a member of several professional organizations. Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. In 2020, Kris will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.ly went looking for him after thirty-five years, there wasn’t much to find. He wasn’t married and didn’t have children. My research uncovered a brother, now deceased. He’d had a niece and nephew and was preceded in death by his parents. I’d long known he was from St. Charles, where we’d lived for the past fifteen years, which I considered a minor coincidence. But it never really occurred to me to look for his grave until the day I was suddenly consumed by the thought and couldn’t focus on anything else.

Union Cemetery on the east side of St. Charles was my destination, just north of town on Route 25, the north-south highway that runs adjacent to the Fox River, about thirty-five miles west of downtown Chicago. It would be impossible to count the times I’d driven past the cemetery, taking Harper to her Little Acorns program at the park district or picking up Maya from birthday parties and outings with the Girl Scouts. In the past thirty-five years that I’d been living my life, Mr. LeVasseur had been there in the ground.

As I drove north on Route 25, I passed the St. Charles Episcopal Church where I’d been to a few A.A. meetings early on in my recovery. On this day, I was happy to see they were proudly flying a rainbow flag with the words, “Everyone is Welcome.” It was a balm to see such an inviting message in a world that seemed to get more divisive by the day.

Across the street is Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where I’d desperately gone after I slipped up and drank again only to find that they were closed. As I dejectedly walked away from the locked doors that day, a woman in black glasses and grey sweatpants asked me if I was looking for a meeting. I said yes. She said it only took two people to meet, so we sat on a cement bench outside the closed doors of the church and she recited all the familiar words by heart. She said that alcoholics slip up all the time, but it’s getting back on the wagon and trying again that counts, so that’s what I did. It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever had.

As I drove past these two churches where I’d laid my sinful heart bare, I checked in with myself: it no longer hurt to remember these things. I needed every last drink to find my bottom. And it took every last meeting to get me on the path of recovery.

I arrived at Union Cemetery and pulled to the side of the paved lane to assess the grounds, not knowing where to begin. Fortunately, I had seen a photo of the headstone someone had posted online. It was a red granite stone, at a low angle to the ground. Newer, if thirty-five years is new. Which I guess it is in a cemetery.

It was a warm day, sunny and in the upper eighties with the humidity creeping towards one hundred percent. The grass was thick with moisture and clung to my flip-flopped feet as I worked my way methodically up and down the rows, training my eye on only the newer, red granite stones.

As I read name after name, the concept of a grave marker intrigued me. It contains only the barest of facts: a name, the dates of birth and death, and that’s usually about it. A veteran will typically have the details of his or her branch and years of service. Some people opt for a short poem or scripture passage, but not often.

I saw many headstones that had the word Mother or Father etched into them. The deceased’s children or family would have placed these stones and settled on this singular word to describe their loved one. But these people – they weren’t just Mother or Father. They were Son, Daughter. Friend. Sister. Aunt. Lover. At what point does one decide: now, forever more, she shall be known as Mother? Such a commitment to confining the dead to a single-word description in her relationship to others. How can one’s life be summed up on a single stone? And yet – isn’t it our relationships with others that matter most?

I came across several old St. Charles families I recognized, notable names like Baker, Anderson, and Norris. So many prominent people who’d had roads, parks, and hotels named after them like Beith, Farnsworth, and Dunham. These were distinguished people who’d made names for themselves in life and whose elaborate gravesites now served as permanent reminders of their lasting influence – or at least, their wealth. Now, they were all gone.

I thought of how all of these people had lived and died. What had their lives been like? Did they accomplish everything they wanted in whatever time they’d been given? What sort of pain and suffering had they gone through? How did they die? But more importantly: how had they lived?

I tried to peel my shirt away from the river of sweat that was now running down my back. The heat almost suffocated me as another elaborate stone jolted me with its familiar name: Swanberg, the country road near our home. It was to Swanberg Road I’d gone on the day I decided to end my life. After texting my husband and siblings goodbye and telling them to tell my kids I loved them, I’d planted my feet in the middle of Swanberg Road as a Mack truck barreled down on me, closing my eyes as I prepared for impact.

Swanberg Road was the site of my second suicide attempt, and I was here to visit the grave of my teacher who had died by suicide. I thought of this now as I stood looking at this headstone. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I listened to the insects buzzing nearby and felt the warm sun on my skin. I put my hand on my chest to feel my beating heart and the rise and fall of my breathing. I needed to remind myself that though these Swanbergs were gone, I was still here.

As I searched for my teacher, I thought of how he had lived. I realized again that though I knew nothing about this man, his death had continued to haunt me after all this time.

***

While I had been wandering through row after row trying to cover as much ground as possible, there was a young couple in the cemetery who had stayed in the same general area, hugging each other as they cried. I was mindful to keep my search at a respectful distance.

A groundskeeper walked over to talk to the couple. I overheard him telling them that he was a fourth generation caretaker: his great grandfather had been in the business, followed by his grandfather and father. Job stability, I thought. There’s always going to be death.

As my hunt through the headstones brought me closer to the couple, I realized the caretaker was consulting with them on different spaces that were available. The area they were standing in was edged by a well-manicured row of hedges, and the plots were much smaller and closer together than in the rest of the cemetery. Many of the gravesites had little toy cars or stuffed animals placed on them. One featured a blue ceramic Cookie Monster painted in a perpetual smile.

Unlike the headstones in the rest of the cemetery, many of these said “Our Baby” or “Infant Child.” These were people who would never have the chance to grow into or be defined by any other relationships; they would forever be Our Baby. Here, I had no need to be so judgmental of the choice of words selected by their loved ones. In almost all cases, these headstones had been chosen and purchased by the parents of a dead child.

I heard the caretaker say he had to head back to his office for a bit and told the couple they could stay as long as they liked. Realizing he could probably help me in my quest, I got back in my car and followed him to the old groundskeeper building.

“Can I help you find someone?” he said kindly. I noticed he didn’t ask if I was looking for a grave or a headstone. He didn’t even say just a generic, “Can I help you?” or, “Need some help?” He asked if he could help me find someone.

“I’m looking for a person who died in 1985,” I said, showing him the picture of the headstone on my phone.

“Aw that’s great someone posted a picture so you had something to go off of,” he said, looking at the photo. “I recognize him. Let me find him for you.”

I followed the lanky caretaker into his wood paneled office which was filled with a massive desk and a few folded American flags on a battered brown couch. I was thankful for the air conditioning unit that was trying mightily to battle the rising temperature outside; it felt good to catch a break from the heat.

He pulled a beat-up old map of the cemetery out of a closet cabinet. The ancient paper was mounted on a large board and protected under cracked plastic that curled at the edges. He opened a thick three-ring binder that listed the details of each burial plot and quickly turned to the L’s.

“LeVasseur…Delmar. There he is!” he said, marking a miniature map of the cemetery to help guide me in my search. “Looks like he’s in Babyland, right where we just were.” I was shocked to hear him use my teacher’s name, thinking, like a child, that teachers don’t have first names. It was uncomfortable to hear it; it felt too intimate. It made him human.

But it rattled me to hear him use the term “Babyland,” like it was an amusement park. It seemed too casual a name for the infant section, like the babies deserved something more respectful.

He pointed to the Babyland section on the map and I saw something that I hadn’t realized when I’d been standing there: the well-manicured row of hedges outlining the area was in the shape of a heart.

“Really? He was forty-two when he died,” I said, surprised that he’d be buried there.

He checked his log again. “Oh, I see what I did. No, Delmar’s over here,” he said, apologizing as he corrected my map for me. The grave I was looking for was on the other side of the cemetery and back toward the entrance; at the rate I’d been going, it would have taken me another two hours to find it. The whole process was so efficient, I wondered why I had let myself wander around for so long before asking for help.

“That couple I was just talking to? They had twins, and one didn’t make it,” he said, shaking his head. “Losing a child – that’s the worst way to go.”

My chest ached as I thought of the torment the parents of the deceased child must be going through. I’d been at the cemetery almost an hour, and they had been standing in the same place the entire time: under a tree near the manicured hedge as they tried to decide on the impossible.

“The man I’m looking for – he was a suicide,” I said. “Is he…I mean…you don’t have a separate area for suicides, do you?”

“No, no, we have them all over the place.” He laughed as he thought about how that sounded. “I just mean, they’re treated like anyone else. But that’s a terrible way to die. I mean, when someone’s in their eighties or whatever, that makes sense. But babies and suicides – that’s never good.”

I told him about the book I was reading on suicide and how not so very long ago, people who died by suicide weren’t allowed to be buried in a regular cemetery. In some societies, they often weren’t allowed to be buried within the city limits, and heinous things were often done to their bodies after death an in effort to shame them and make an example of them to everyone else.

“That’s terrible,” he said. “That’s a terrible way to treat people. It’s hard enough losing someone to suicide. Why would they put their families through that?” He went on to tell me that he’d lost two of his closest friends to suicide.

I thanked him for the map and his time and drove to the north end of the cemetery near the entrance, just on the other side of the golf course. I heard the thwack of a golf ball and saw golfers through the tree line making their way down the smooth, green course. It was a beautiful day for golf. A beautiful day to be alive.

I got out of my car and scanned the rows of headstones, my eyes now accustomed to searching out only red granite. I quickly zeroed in on two rows of red and made my way closer, but I was in no way prepared for how I would feel once I actually saw it: Delmar LeVassseur.

Seeing his name etched in red granite was so final. Reaching out to touch his headstone, I heaved as I traced with my fingers the year he had died: 1985. I pictured his brown corduroy jacket with the leather elbow patches, his neatly trimmed goatee. But it was his quiet demeanor and his kind, dark eyes that came to me now. I exploded in tears and collapsed to my knees as I cried in heavy, gasping sobs.

Embarrassed by my reaction, I chastised myself: why was I crying? I didn’t know this man. I didn’t know anything about him at all. Logic would say: move on. Forget it. It’s a non-thing.

But it wasn’t, to me. Something in me needed to understand what drove him to take his own life. After all these years, I needed to know more. I needed to know: what happened? What happened next? And here, finally, I had at least part of the answer.

What happened next was that his body was placed here in this cemetery, likely by his brother, and he’d been here ever since. What happened next was what happens after suicide: death. Forever.

I knew that he had been preceded in death by his parents not long before he had died, but his grave was alone, between two strangers. Where was his family? Why wasn’t he buried with them? I cried even harder realizing that he had been buried alone.

I knelt on the grass and cried as long as the tears would come, taking off my sunglasses to wipe my eyes. Streams of black mascara ran down my face and stained my white shirt.

After a time, I stood up to go and casually looked at the names on the surrounding graves and noticed two red granite headstones in the next row: Lee and Ann LeVasseur. I hadn’t seen them when I first found his grave; I’d been too overcome with emotion. I was relieved to see that he wasn’t alone after all.

I wanted to see his grave because I needed to know that he was real. He was more than just the way he died, more than just a troubled girl’s singsong hanging on the September sky.

He was a real human being who battled a lot of demons and lost. He mattered.

It wasn’t Mr. LeVasseur’s suicide that led to my first attempt to take my life five years later. Nor was it his fault when I made a second attempt twenty-five years after that. When I was seventeen, I’d already been living at the bottom of depression with notions of death for longer than I cared to remember. When I was forty-two, the same age he’d been, that same madness had returned, now compounded by addiction.

My seventh grade teacher wouldn’t be the last person I’d know to attempt or die by suicide, but he was the first. I didn’t know him, but I knew his pain.

As I got back in my car, I saw that the couple with the deceased twin was still standing under the tree, near the heart-shaped manicured hedge, putting off their agonizing decision as long as possible. My grief was no match against the awful reality of a dead baby; I could drive away, but for this couple, they would never escape the tortuous agony of losing a child.

And yet – grief is not a competition; we don’t need to compare. There is simply no limit to the amount of sorrow in this world. But allowing ourselves to feel what we feel is the only way to get through it and make our way back towards the light.

Kris’s work has appeared in Enterprising Women Magazine where she was honored in 2018 as an Enterprising Woman of the Year and currently serves as a Board Member and writer. In addition to being a speaker for Crain’s Chicago Business on entrepreneurship and fostering growth among women-led businesses, she has been a guest lecturer at several Chicago-area universities and served as a judge in marketing and advertising competitions. Kris completed her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Screenwriting from Antioch University Los Angeles. The essay Babyland is excerpted from Descent Into Light, her first book. She has also completed a feature-length screenplay of the same name. Kris and her husband live near Chicago with their three children.

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Family, Guest Posts, memories

Future Past

December 18, 2021
portland maine lighthouse

by Casey Walsh

I’ve been craving just one good beach day all summer, nothing to do but lie in the sun and gaze at the peaceful horizon. There’s something hopeful about looking out at the sea, as though you can see the past and the future, all there in the shimmering expanse of blue. Beyond the children on the sand and in the shallow water, past the more capable swimmers and surfers and the small vessels, ocean kayaks and canoes and catamarans, farther even than the cargo and cruise ships miles out, there is, at some point, nothing but sea and sky, no hint of a destination. No end in sight.

I’ve finally had the day I dreamed of—two of them in fact—at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, MA. My husband, Kevin, and I spent a couple of days there and two more in Newburyport, just what we’ve needed as fall closes in.  Now we settle in for a meandering drive home, including a planned detour north along the coast.

Leaving Newburyport’s historic downtown, I assume my role as navigator to Kevin’s as driver. When we first began this alliance, my task typically involved paper maps. Now, though, it’s a dance of devices. As we drive over the Merrimack River on Route 1, I plug the address into the dashboard GPS, and while it calculates, I alternate between checking the Maps app and the radar on my iPhone. Glancing up to admire the boats in the inland harbor, I plan our route and hope the weather will hold while we explore Portsmouth, NH.

For the past few days, I’ve been focused on local treks, how to get from our hotel into town or from one hotel to the next. But as we turn off onto 1a—the scenic road along the coast—I take a broader look at our surroundings. It surprises me we’re so close to Hampton Beach, the crowded honky-tonk seaside scene my first husband and I had thought was fun back in the dark ages, before kids, when we still believed we’d be together forever. It won’t take Kevin and me long to reach Portsmouth. We’ll get a feel for the city, browse the shops, and grab a bite to eat before heading home to Albany.

Scrolling up on my phone as we drive, I see the places where my high school friends spent yearly summer vacations with their families: Kittery, York, Ogunquit, Wells, Old Orchard Beach, places I only dreamed of. I scroll still more, farther up than I remember, and there it is: South Portland.

Suddenly, it’s fall 1997 again, and I’m driving east across Massachusetts, then up into New Hampshire with my oldest son, Eric. We reached the outskirts of Portsmouth, then ventured on into Maine, past exits for beach towns, and finally arrived in South Portland. I was instantly enchanted by this small city, with its cobblestone streets and cyclists and parks, as we drove along the mouth of the Fore River. I pictured Eric here in the fall, riding his bike to a job in town, making a little cash to keep him afloat.

Eric and I drove out of downtown and out toward the water, where the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse marks a dangerous obstruction on the west side of the main shipping channel into Portland Harbor. Like most lighthouses, its distinctive beam patterns, varied sequences of light and dark, not only warn sailors of hazards but help them find their position as well.

Beautiful as it is, the lighthouse was not our destination. We were here to see the campus of South Portland Technical College, where the lighthouse is located on a breakwater at the tip.

Earlier in the year, I’d ventured into Eric’s high school guidance office asking for information about colleges for him. While the counselors offered personalized support to top-tier students, they paid little attention to kids like my son—those who had caused more headaches than pride for faculty in recent semesters. Screw ups…I believe that was the technical term. I was fairly certain the only way we’d figure out the right direction was for me to show up in person, put my best intelligent, efficient foot forward, and ask all the right questions. Essentially, I would stand in for Eric: patiently navigate the information, lay out his options, and apply just the right spin to help him see all the world could offer outside of Cambridge, our small upstate New York village.

Predictably, the counselors were busy, busy, busy, but they could steer me to a computer with a program that allowed a filtered search. Carefully, as though his life depended on it, I entered my criteria, channeling Eric as best I could: Industrial Drafting and Design. Dorms. Intercollegiate soccer program. Bingo. South Portland Technical College it is, I thought, within driving distance yet far enough to allow him to see what’s out there.

I gathered materials and made my pitch. Eric was surprisingly enthusiastic, devouring the catalogs, and soon we were planning a visit. I remember the tour, Eric realizing he’d had such good preparation at Cambridge, having already taken many courses in high school not available to some of the other students on the tour. And the coach was bursting with enthusiasm for what Eric would add to the team. All spring phone calls and letters arrived from the college, encouraging Eric to keep up his grades and updating him on who had been recruited, what promise lay ahead.

“By the time I graduate, I will have made so many new friends, snowboarded on the toughest mountains, and played college soccer,” he’d said with his trademark grin, slipping into the future past tense that swelled with optimism.

“Ah, but first you have to do well on that chemistry exam,” I’d teased.

From Eric, in characteristic form: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

After years of guiding him through life closer to home, it seemed he, too, was ready to broaden his view to a world that just might include South Portland.

None of this would ever be. In the end, Eric settled on a local community college rather than leave his on-again off-again girlfriend, who had somehow completely drowned his ability to imagine a future on his own. That semester was a bust; partying and killing time killed all of his focus and enthusiasm for life. Afterward, he floundered for a while, searching for a path until he chose the Navy. He scored so well on the ASVAB that he was selected for aircraft technician school in Pensacola, FL, following completion of naval basic training in Illinois. If only he would stay the course.

Yet each of these options was somehow part of the tornado of trouble, the huge disturbance that had already begun its wreckage and was simply too big to fail. Though they offered brief glimmers of possibility, it was obvious even then that they were never to be. There would be stressors of a divorce that no amount of my own intelligence or efficiency could allay, adults who let him down, bad decisions and bad luck. There would be factors even I, the better part of two decades later, couldn’t begin to understand. Ultimately, a tragic crash would end his life.

Still, I remember so well how South Portland, where it all began, had a different vibe entirely. It seemed its lighthouse—which had protected seafaring travelers on Casco Bay from all sorts of dangers for more than a century—had the power to keep my son safe as well. But first he would have had to get there. Once Eric had turned away from that beam of hope, he lost his way. With nothing but sea and sky, no hint of a destination, there was no end in sight.

I squirm in my seat next to Kevin, who is oblivious to the places I’ve gone in my mind. Staring out the window at the sand and the waves, I feel the lump form in my throat, feel the tears form, hot and insistent. I let them wash over me. I’ve learned there’s no use in the fight, anyway. It’s a mystery to me, how I can feel so resolved at times, accepting of Eric’s life and of his passing as what was. What is. Then come days like this one, when everything is so present, invading my thoughts, refusing to share space with my current life, teasing me with visions of the life he never had.

I think of something I heard years ago—how sadness is missing what has been lost, but sorrow is missing what will never be—and I’m overcome with a rare wave of anxiety, something I haven’t felt in quite this way since the day Eric dashed out the front door that one last time. If only I could reach back and change one little thing, it all so easily could have happened for him. He’d been so damn close. I picture Kevin and me driving to Maine to visit Eric and his wife and outdoor-loving, risk-taking kids living out their happy lives in an idyllic seaside town. It tortures me.

I sit silently for a while as we drive along the coast, wallowing really, and fantasize about the student Eric could have been—living in the dorms, playing on the soccer team, making new friends on campus and in town, enjoying the ocean views that might have inspired him as they do me. Caught in the past, I’ve been exercising my best Google-fu, frantically searching for the online home of the place that had once drawn us in, frustrated that SPTC seems to have vanished along with the life I imagined for my son, and for me. Using the lighthouse as the beacon it was meant to be, I finally locate Southern Maine Community College on the web, the same campus anointed with a new name, another entity entirely. How like my own life, it strikes me, completely rewritten, though some of the old remains in different form. Still, the college will never again be what it was on that day, at that time.

And neither will I.

I notice we’re about to reach Portsmouth.  Kevin and I are on vacation, after all, and I owe it to him to at least attempt to come up for air. “Hey, listen to this,” I offer, feigning enthusiasm, hoping the feelings will follow.  “They even have a comic book on their website describing the lighthouse and its origins.”

Step Into History!  the title commands.

If only it were history, I think, not a future imagined but never fulfilled.

I close the app, drop the phone into my bag, and turn my eyes to the road ahead.

Casey Walsh is a writer and former speech-language pathologist living with her husband in West Sand Lake, New York. She writes about life at the intersection of grief and joy and embracing the in-between. Her work has appeared in The Good Men Project; Fresh.Ink, The Under Review; Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine; Barren Magazine; Brevity Blog; and ModernLoss, among others. Casey’s essays also appear at TheFHFoundation.org, an organization dedicated to the genetic cardiac disorder that affects her family. Learn more at www.caseymulliganwalsh.com.  Casey is currently seeking representation for her memoir, The Full Catastrophe.

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Guest Posts, Family, memories

Four Shots: Looking for Signs of a Life

August 14, 2021
white

by Suzanne Orrell

The black and white photograph you scanned that day shows your mother ­–– my would-be-mother-in-law. She is holding you on her jutted-out hip in waist high water at Lake Pontchartrain Beach. Her dark curls gather under a sun bright straw hat. Upturned crinkles smile at the corner of her eyes. The crook of your left arm is firmly clasped around her neck. Sunshine catches water droplets that linger before sloping from the fingertips of your right hand. Fred, your older brother, easily splashes beside you. The shot captures the roller coaster tracks of the Zephyr in the background as they arc skyward before sinking into troughs. You look certain that she, is

Your mother, guiding you down a playground slide. Your brother sits behind you, hands taut against your tummy. Both of you, dressed in plaid, short sleeved shirts patiently smile, not one hair out of place on either of your heads. This shot shows how the skinny white belt encircling the dark material of her dress accentuates your mother’s waist. Her hair looks freshly done. She has recently applied lipstick. She looks stylish, seems cheerful. The gleam in her eye is genuine given the low sky, broken by distant storm clouds. When you first discovered this photograph a couple of years ago, you called me in from the kitchen. Somehow, in all this time, it is one you’d not seen. “Does this look like her?” you ask. I couldn’t believe you weren’t certain that, she is

Your mother, tacking friction rubbed balloons to the wall for your birthday party. The black and white photograph proves it is your fifth because the number five is visible on the party-hat you are wearing. Neighborhood hat-wearing children gather with you around a large, unopened present. Even Jingles, the German Shepherd, wears a hat. Your mother wears one too. If there is a gleam in her eye in this shot, it is obscured from behind her cat-eyed glasses. Her hair looks flat, faded. She does not smile. She is staring down the barrel of the camera. If a look could kill. Her floral apron makes her look frumpy. “Has she put on weight? Or maybe, is it conceivable she’s pregnant with my sister?” you ask.

The final shot you scanned that day shows a tall glass lamp with a dark lampshade crowned by a belt of white ribbon. The lamp offers zero illumination. The black and white photograph shows off the lamp’s proportions visible in the long-necked taper toward the flared curve of the base. It is graceful, transparent, window-pane wavy yet impossible to tell whether the lamp is wired for a three-way or single wattage bulb. After the photograph was taken, your mother, custom fit tiny red pieces of tile to this lamp, little mosaic pulse points positioned in cement. Then, in one final action she extinguished her own life. Your mother is absent, missing, from all further photographs.

Today, the lamp sits in its final resting place, a monument on a waist high table in your stepmother’s house, surrounded by accumulated clutter, a melee of mail–some not even opened–magazines, mess. Despite its height, despite its grace, despite the red tiles, despite her handiwork, the lamp tends to go unnoticed amidst the chaos. It’s plugged in, but rarely, if ever, switched on.

You, forever her son, scan the documentation, search the long shadows in black and white, looking for clues that she, is your mother.

Suzanne Orrell lives and writes in Idaho. A former chef and caterer, she finds that writing, like cooking, requires patience, craft and honesty. When she’s not writing or dreaming up the next meal she enjoys taking long walks, playing tennis and travel.

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Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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