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Divorce, Guest Posts

She Cannot Make It Out

September 22, 2020
water

By Stina French

He isn’t grieving but she imagines him grieving. Maybe he’s grieving. She dreams he is talking to others about her as if she is dead, though they are only divorcing. He says she loved the moon. She loved the moon so much she told our daughter her first word was moon. Though it maybe wasn’t. It made for a good story, and she loved a good story. A lot could be spared with one good story. He says she loved to swim. She loved to swim so much everyone said she was a mermaid. She loved the moon and she loved to swim so much that sometimes she would swim in the ocean at night. He says I was never so brave. He says she cried and cried. Sometimes she cried so much I thought the water she swam in was her tears. She knows he is no poet and would not speak this way.  But maybe in her dreams he is a poet. Maybe he would speak this way if she were dead.

In the dream, she is swimming in a vast sea cave. Other women swim with her. Some girls, some grown.  One watches her jealously or with desire. One doesn’t watch her at all, a small girl. Not her daughter but someone else’s daughter. Someone else’s mother, maybe one day. Surely, she will cry waters of her own making. Some breaststroke in straight lines, some backstroke in circles. This is what they know to do–to cut the water with their bodies. To make the water with their bodies.

She cuts the water with her body as if she could swim a story across and wide.  A story she could live inside. He is on the shore saying I wish I knew what to do. I wish I knew how to help her stop crying. And she is shrinking now hearing these things. She would rather hear him talk about her love for the moon again. The way she is cutting the water with her body. He is holding their daughter. Their daughter she made herself with her body.

The daughter is laughing. He has given the daughter this, and she has given the daughter story. Story does not come without cost. Laughter is free and easy, as he is free and easy. She wonders why she wants him so badly to sink. And though he could not keep her afloat, he wants her there on the surface. He would not begrudge her a view of the moon, from any angle. He wants her alive and happy even if it means swimming alone without him under the moon at night. He does not understand the ocean under the moon at night because the things in the water at a certain depth scare him. He is on the shore saying more things about her as if she is dead, but it is so far now and she cannot make it out.

Now, there is only the story of water. It sloshes, dividing and rejoining. When she left him, maybe she was just parting the water. Maybe all these bodies in the water are parts of herself dividing and rejoining. Water fingers her hair, tugging tendrils into rays, a corona wet and waving. A crown for the Queen of the Unconstituted, Beloved Dissolved. Fluid surrender, shapes spells the moon could cipher if it were watching. Her pulse beats blood in ear canals, her red tide internal. She dreams she is not dead, only swimming. Only swimming beyond bereft, beyond the leaving of a life.

Stina French writes mystery, magic-realist memoir, flash fiction, and poetry. She has featured in many venues in Denver and Boulder, Co., and her work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Punch Drunk Press, and on the podcast Witchcraftsy. She is scratching at the window of her body, writing poems like passwords to get back in. To get forgived. To get at something like the truth. To get it to go down easy, or at all. She wears welts from the Bible Belt, her mother’s eyes in the red fall. She’s gone, hypergraphic. Writes on mirrors, car windows, shower walls. Buy her a drink or an expo marker. She’s shopping her manuscript, Also Arc, Also Offering, a Southern-queerdo memoir in flash non-fiction and verse.

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Guest Posts, Relationships, Sexuality

Wreckless Abandon

August 16, 2020

By Kevin Wood

It was the second car accident and third hospitalization that spelled the end. We’d known each other six months, had sex many times, but never spoken on the phone. Now we never would.

Last summer, I connected on a hook-up site with a guy I’ll call Daniel. On the evening we agreed to meet, I was late. I arrived to find him sitting at the end of the bar. He was in his late-thirties, a few years younger than me, cuter than his photos—a rarity. I remember thinking he looked profoundly lonely. The kind that shows up in slumped shoulders, staring into an empty glass, circling with a straw, as if to stir up a connection with the world. I walked over and we greeted awkwardly, then I sat down and ordered a drink.

Before meeting Daniel I’d decided to give dating a break. I was two years out of my last relationship. I’d thought I wanted to find another. But a few dating stints had followed, and several firsts, none going anywhere. I reasoned that, for now, just sex was less frustrating or complicated.

It was clear Daniel and I were into each other. We made small talk a while, then left. The bar was closer to my place than his, the understanding from the start that’s where we’d go. He lived with a cousin who doesn’t know he’s gay. When we got there, we each drank half a beer before we locked lips and clothes started coming off. Afterward, we talked a few minutes. Then he jumped up, seized by a furious need to leave.

Just like that, he was out the door.

Daniel came over again the next day. We went at it again, and he left just as suddenly. He was going to the Dominican Republic later that week, where he’s from, staying with his large family for a month. We agreed to meet when he got back. I wasn’t sure that would happen and wasn’t particularly concerned.

A week after he left, I got a text from an unknown number. It was Daniel, using a phone with better reception wherever he was. “I can’t stop thinking about you,” he wrote. This surprised me. That he’d made the effort, the forthrightness that contrasted with quick, silent exits, that he felt that way at all. I’d thought about him too, though not as often as he claimed. The next time we messaged, he said sometime he’d like to take me to a place as beautiful as where he was. This also seemed strangely intimate.

Right after he got back, Daniel and I were in bed again. Afterward we lay in the dark. I had my hand on his leg. His body was as stiff as it had been relaxed minutes before. He seemed consumed with shame. We talked a while, stilted, incongruous to his expressiveness in tiny words. Then he abruptly wanted to leave, just as before.

“That’s cool,” I said, casual, instead of betraying the disappointment I felt. After he left I began to realize I recognized his behavior. That was me before coming out.

*

The sweet and flirty texts continued. Despite thinking I didn’t want it, I found myself starting to develop feelings for this person. The next time Daniel came over, I asked him to stay the night. “I wish I could,” he said. “But I can’t.”

“It’s complicated,” he added. I didn’t push it. We stuck with quick visits, and quicker exits.

Daniel was surrounded by family who lived local all the time, just as he said he’d been in the D.R. He mentioned his mom frequently. Aunts, uncles, other cousins. More than once he cancelled our plans last minute because he ended up with family and didn’t know how to duck out. He always apologized. Still, the back and forth grew wearisome.

We sometimes bickered as if we were an actual couple—over text, of course. Passive aggressive, snarky even. We always found a way back, neither able to maintain a petty argument on our respective ends. The intimate affection would return. It was becoming the most relationship-like non-relationship I’d ever experienced.

A couple of times, Daniel disappeared for a week. He didn’t initiate contact or respond. This upset me more than expected when it happened the first time. I wasn’t yet willing to admit how much I’d started to like him. I excused the inconsistent behavior as “complications.” Knowing that for him our relationship—if you could call it that—was illicit only contributed to my denial that he meant something to me.

It turned out, that first time, Daniel had been in the hospital for a back injury he didn’t explain. This wouldn’t be the last. He seemed to exist in constant chaos. Doctors and hospital stays—his or family; he might have to move suddenly; a car accident; a new job quit after three weeks; a torn knee ligament; a real estate scam in the D.R. And on it went.

I recognized this too, chaos that had engulfed my own life while hiding in a shrinking closet, down to repeated car accidents. Constant distraction, preoccupied with something, manifesting in how I operated in the world. But as the boomeranging continued, Daniel’s inner turmoil became my anguish. I thought about him constantly and never knew what to expect.

*

For two months, Daniel didn’t come over. We stopped contacting each other, though neither explicitly said it. For my part, I decided the whole thing was too big a struggle. I deleted his number, which of course only suggests finality, as if reversing it isn’t simple. But thoughts of him hung around, like mosquitos you just can’t seem to swat away.

Then, he surfaced again. Annoyance was almost overcome by the excitement I felt. The un-named number got its name back. “Why are you contacting me?” I said, then immediately worried this was too dismissive. “I wanna see you,” he responded. It took a while, but this time I said no. I fancied this cutting off an act of self-preservation. He honored the break, apart from a couple more texts and me finally saying no more communication.

Less than a month later, I gave in and contacted Daniel. A moment of weakness, I told myself. Friday night, jet-lagged, home alone. He replied right away. “I just can’t get you out of my mind.” Of course, I invited him over. A lot had changed since we last got together. I had moved, started a new job, he had another new job. When we saw each other, it was if no time had passed. I think we were both surprised by how strong the chemistry still felt. After the hottest sex yet, Daniel threw his leg over mine and scooted next to me—a casual affection he’d never exhibited before.

For the first time, he stayed and we talked. For hours. Next to each other, naked, my hand on his back, his on my arm. It was mostly about family. Each of us with a very Catholic mother. His father’s lost battle with alcoholism. It was then Daniel told me he was married, to a woman, with two young kids, in the process of getting divorced. I was stunned but pretended not to be, worried if I made a big deal out of him being in my bed he might never be again.

He hadn’t told his wife he’s gay—nor anyone in his family—and insisted no one knew. As we talked, his phone across the room repeatedly rang and dinged with texts. He tried to ignore it, which became difficult. “My cousin thinks I’m at the gym,” he said, tone completely flat. His eyes darted back and forth from me to the phone, unsure which way to go, body positioned between two worlds, equally powerful in that moment, each in its own way.

The inevitable side won. Conversation dropped off, as it always had. Agitated, he went and looked at the blue screen glowing in the dim light. “I have to go,” he said. Once again I affected a lax, sure that’s cool response. After he left, my mind rolled back over our interactions, now, with this new information. Some things made more sense, others led to bigger questions.

*

We had plans for Daniel to come over the following Saturday. He cancelled last minute—in the hospital, another car accident. He was clearly shaken. I had my coat on, ready to go, worried he was there alone. Then he said an aunt was with him. In other words, don’t come. We checked in after that. His pain lessened. We agreed he’d come over soon.

I never saw him again.

A few days after the accident, I got a long message from Daniel. He said it had caused him to re-evaluate who he is and what he wants. He made a vague reference to feeling lost, and a relationship to God and faith. He needed to recover his life, he said. In short, he couldn’t see me anymore. He apologized twice, which felt unnecessary, once “for all the chaos he had created.” His use of the exact word I’d been using for months to describe his life felt telling.

I sat at my desk in silence and re-read his note, work spread in front of me, suddenly unable to concentrate. With this decision to will a piece of himself away, I wondered, what would happen now?

I went out and wandered the streets a while—a gray sky fittingly somber—feeling almost breathless with sadness. At first I thought it was all about the situation of Daniel’s life, the inner battle I’d recognized, how his body would claw its way to connection, then seize with shame and flee. And the chaos he himself had called out. That familiar, relentless, brutal chaos that can engulf a life with such conflict within. Representations of how we resist living as we’re meant to, at odds with how we believe we should.

But the sadness lingered for weeks after. “Why are you so sad about his life?” a couple of friends asked.

It took me a while to recognize I was using Daniel’s situation to obscure my own. Til the end I struggled to accept I’d developed real feelings for him, beyond the bedroom. I felt foolish. Romance from a distance is essentially fantasy. And I’d told myself from the start I wasn’t looking for a relationship, knew this would never be more. But maybe that’s what made those feelings possible. Opening my heart was somehow safer than when trying for a lasting relationship. After multiple burns, I have to admit I’ve struggled with that in recent years, which I suppose contributes to why new ones don’t last.

I’ll never know the true nature of Daniel’s feelings. But what I know to be true is sad. Meeting Daniel reawakened me to how insidious homophobia can be. I haven’t been naive to the fact it still exists. But I’d forgotten what it feels like so close to the skin.

On one of our last exchanges Daniel had just bought a new car, soon battered in an accident. He sent me a picture. I said I hoped for a ride one day. “Definitely,” he said. More banter, then I signed off with, “Don’t be a stranger.” I had said this before, though never to Daniel. The lightheartedness is always overshadowed by the suspicion you will forever remain that. Maybe I already knew.

His immediate response, a single word: Never.

I hope when it comes to discovering a relationship that feels right the subtext of that word doesn’t prove true.

This essay was originally published online in Litro Magazine.

Kevin Wood is a freelance writer, writing coach, and contributing editor for the online publication Good Men Project, where he focuses on social justice and queer issues. A former teacher, he also works with college students training to be educators. Kevin holds master’s degrees from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and the School of Education at NYU. Previous work has appeared in The Washington Post, Fast Company, Litro Magazine, American Chordata, Thought Catalog, and Elephant Journal, among others. He was a finalist for Sequestrum Literary Journal’s 2019 Editor’s Reprint Award. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.

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Guest Posts, motherhood, parenting, Self Image, Self Love, Women

The Pink Wig

July 24, 2020
wig

By Tricia Stearns

I have more regrets than Amazon has distribution centers. Still, one regret I do not have: buying a pink wig for my middle daughter.  At age 10, she was the self-appointed influencer for her brat pack, as well as her sisters. If she decided it would be cool to cut up their designer jeans and make them purses, they would have stripped and handed her the scissors.

While I chauffeured them through childhoods I wish I had experienced, Daughter Two commanded the CD selection for the ride to school and taught her sisters backseat dance moves to Brittany Spear. From fashion to food to music, she navigated her world as if she was the CEO of Me, Inc.

Her zest for extra-curricular activities kept me spinning a schedule of dance lessons, theater rehearsals and private singing lessons. I couldn’t count on child support, but I could count on the sun rising and a new performance idea from Daughter Two. Kitchen clean-up doubled as a re-cap of dance class or a reprise of the opening of “Newsies.” Bedtime stories were told with a theatrical flair and always included happy endings.

She scrimped her allowance to buy the acrylic pink bob only to learn that her school dress code banned wigs. After a few rounds of letters to the school board failed to change the rules, she threw it in the Prop and Future Halloween Costume bin.

When Daughter Two decided to wear the wig on a rare outing for pancakes, it did not surprise me. The smell of bacon and maple syrup thickened the air as our waitress sugar-pied us up, and we ordered. We gave no further thought to Daughter Two’s accessory, accepting the pink wig into everyday wear. However, pink wigs were rare in our southern suburb, and breakfasters’ glances soon fell into stares.

The girls and I folded our straws into pretend people and created a story, positioning the ketchup and salt and peppershakers as props. My voice rose trying to drown out the chatter from a four-top of older ladies going to a Baptist bake sale, or maybe on their way to bingo.

“I never.”

“…should know better”

“Bless her heart. ”

Daughter Two’s mouth pursed. She wiggled in her seat. She twiddled her straw.

She stared right back at them. She re-arranged her fork and knife on the menu.

“Why in the world…”

We started a new play; our straw characters already tired. Daughter Two surveyed the restaurant, meeting the looks of a family of four wearing matching soccer jerseys and the chatty ladies closest to us.

She slapped her napkin down and plowed by our waitress carrying a load of pancakes.

She’d be back, we assured the waitress who volunteered to keep her plate warm. We slathered on butter and syrup, and wondered about Daughter Two camping out in the toilet. Perhaps, there was a line.  Daughter Two’s chair sat empty. The glob of butter now melted over her pancakes, cold.

We found no line in the bathroom, just a weary traveler, adjusting her snowman sweatshirt, preparing to wash her hands. Outside a stall, I tried to coax Daughter Two with bathroom humor. The lady nodded toward the last toilet.

The girls and I shifted, peaking through the cracks. Daughter Two perched on the edge of the toilet, her blonde hair flattened, her small hands wringing the wig.

With eyes red and big tears raining, she declared she would never eat a pancake ever again, and to leave her alone. Forever.

“No pancakes for the rest of your life?”

“Can I have what you ordered?” asked Daughter Three.

“Hush.”

“Can I have your bacon?” asked Daughter One.

Elevator music looped, toilets flushed.  Women moved in and out, offering looks and opinions. “Yes, thank you.” “NO, thank you.” “Bless YOUR heart.”

My youngest squatted down in the corner of the bathroom, looking up and under the door begging Daughter Two to come out.

My mom genes kicked in. There was more at stake than a little restaurant embarrassment. I had to get it right.  I felt the weight of the moment: The rock of my daughter’s soul was tumbling down a dark hole and she might never be the same.

I needed time, to figure out how to pull the knife of doubt out of her heart, to stop the bleeding and convince her she could love the identity she created; at the bare minimum to re-enforce her natural strengths and beg her not to question her ability to pull off a fashion statement. She needed assurance it was okay to trust her truest self.  If she couldn’t trust herself then I had failed as a mother, as a fellow female.

No longer was I standing in the bathroom of an interstate pancake house. No longer were we just using a coupon for pancakes before it expired. I was kneeling in a forest next to a hole freshly dug by a beautiful human, my child. She had sunk into a deep space carrying her childhood comforts: cookies, nuts, a blanket. She smoothed out the tattered edges of her childhood lovey questioning her place in the world.

I looked through the crack of the door. Her puffy eyes met mine. And in that moment, she knew I knew that place, too. She made room for me under her blanket.

I wanted to tell her, it gets easier, but judgment is timeless. Judgment is a relentless foe. We all stood in silence. Swoosh, another toilet.

I knew when I gave birth to a bevy of girls what I wanted for them. I also knew it would be difficult to teach. I was still trying to figure it all out: How to be myself in a world ready to tell me who I ought to be.

The real battle, the battle for one female to get it right, was right before me.

“You know, I don’t know a lot, but I do know if you wear a pink wig, you will get stares,” I said, with a calm assuredness. I held her gaze through the crack of the door, leaning on the door.

“ You got to be ready for it. If you wear it, you can’t care.” I paused, not knowing what I was going to say next, praying for the right words to come out of my mouth.

 

“Wear it. Don’t wear it. You decide. But if you do wear it, wear it with guts.

But be ready. You do not need permission to be yourself.”

Stillness. We sat in stillness. No one walked in or out for a moment.  Daughter One sat down and grabbed Daughter Three’s hand. Moments passed into a future memory that I hoped would become a point of reference for my girls.

Daughter Two straightened and smooth out the pink wig and opened the bath room door. We walked out and into the world, feeling altogether different. Altogether better, all together.

Tricia Stearns has been published in Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bloom, Loose Change literary magazine, and wrote a weekly column for five years for  the Fayette Daily News. In this column, Tricia dcumented how she started a farmers market and built the largest community garden in the Atlanta metroplex. She is currently working on a personal narrative essay collection. Tricia can be found on twitter as @tstearns2014 and on instagram as @triciastearns.

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Guest Posts, healing

Clay Glue

March 22, 2020
glue

By Ali J. Shaw

When the halls cleared out, I went into the art room and let my backpack slide off my shoulder onto the floor. Mr. Evans nodded quietly to acknowledge me, but he focused on whatever was on his computer screen. I turned the combo on my locker and glanced at the clock. Robbie would be here any minute, so I used both hands to heft the plastic-wrapped block of clay out of its cubby and onto the table. For my last assignment—vase making—I’d made one only half as tall as my classmates’ so I could conserve my clay.

“It’s for wildflowers,” I’d told them when they smirked.

Now I had a good-sized chunk left over to give to Robbie. “Hey!” Robbie yelled at top nine-year-old volume when he came into the room. I startled, and he laughed dramatically. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Okay, okay, come on over here.” I waved my hands. “New haircut?” He beamed. “Buzzzzz.”

Robbie and I had had a rough start. I’d signed up for the Buddy Program because I’d always wanted a younger sister. Visions of teaching jump-rope songs to a little girl had flooded my imagination. Then came time for the first Buddy Program session. The elementary school counselor who had facilitated the high-schooler and elementary-schooler pairings handed me a slip of paper, where I saw his name: Robbie. A boy. There was no time to brood on it, though—I could already hear kids’ shuffles and giggles coming toward us in the multipurpose room. While the other kids ran to their high school buddies, slapped high-fives, and laughed, Robbie slumped into a chair next to me.

“Hi, I’m Ali.” I was not good at making awkward situations more comfortable. Robbie’s eyes glassed over, and he whispered, “Hi.”Before long, I learned that his grandpa, who’d been living with him and his mom, had died the night before. I felt paralyzed. My “I’m sorry” sounded empty, and it seemed so unfair that we were sitting in a room full of raucous children and teens scribbling colorful answers on their Getting to Know You worksheets. Robbie and I spent that first hour-long meet-up mostly silent. I didn’t know if he’d show up the next week, but he did. And the week after that. I never figured out how to talk about his grief, but just being there with him seemed to help.

Before long, his teacher asked me to come by on Tuesday afternoons to help tutor Robbie on telling time and counting money. Two years later, we were still meeting weekly with the whole Buddy Program and an extra day one-on-one doing some other activity—tutoring if he needed it; art if he was caught up. I took a deep breath as I thought about the transition over the years but turned my focus to prepping the clay for him. The outer edges of the block had dried out a little, a result of the used and reused plastic bag that had accumulated tiny holes and let air seep in. With my finger and thumb, I pinched off the hard bits until a ball of soft clay remained.

“Hey,” I said to Robbie and held the ball in front of him, squeezing until it squished out through my fingers. “I’m strong, huh?”“Not as strong as me!” He reached for the clay and mimicked me.

Somewhere around the end of the first year, I gave Robbie a model house I’d built, and he gushed, “That’s so cool!” So we started building things together—mostly in the art room. At the end of each session, he’d take home his creation.

“You know that smiley face painting we did last time?” he asked me now as he dug one finger into the center of the clay wad. “Mmmhmmm,” I mumbled, rolling out coils from my less-pliable clay. “I used it for target practice with my mom’s boyfriend’s darts!” I laughed.

The first time he’d told me about his nearly immediate destruction of something we’d made together, I—as someone who had formed a sentimental bond with every object I’d ever owned, especially gifts—couldn’t hide my cringe. But for Robbie, things were no good collecting dust on a shelf. You had to make experiences with them! And so every week, we created, he destroyed, and then he told me the story. He grunted in frustration, and I stopped rolling coils to see why. He had formed a softball-sized glob and several smaller ones, one of which he was trying to press to the side of the big one.

“Oh, hey, there’s a trick for that.” I lay my coil down and held out my palm. “Can I show you?” When he handed me the small ball, I demonstrated scoring the soft clay with a sharp tool that left jagged cuts on one side of the little ball, then the big ball. “Then you have to make slip, which is a weird word, but it’s basically clay glue.” I tore off two inches of my coil and put it in a bowl with water. “Here, put your fingers in here and mush it around.”

Robbie’s cheeks tightened skeptically. I’d looked that way at my older brother nearly every day of my childhood, trying to gauge if he was tricking me. I’d never tricked Robbie, but obviously someone had.

“Really, come on.” I nodded and plunged my fingers in.“Ew, it’s slimy,” he yelled when he tried it. Mr. Evans looked up disapprovingly. “Shhhh. You know what else is slimy?” “What?” “Glue.” I winked as I dabbed some slip on my fingertip and then onto the scored clay and pressed the two balls together. “Tada!” I sang when they stuck. Robbie made what had become my favorite sound since I’d met him.

“Whooooooa!” From our first meeting, something had seemed familiar about Robbie. Did I see myself in him somehow? No, we were opposites in nearly every way. Rowdy/quiet, destructive/creative, easily bored/could sit in one activity for hours. But below those surface behaviors, there was something similar. Something broken. When I’d tutored Robbie, sometimes his body shook in tiny convulsions. “Are you okay?” I’d slide the flashcards to side of the desk and line my face up with his. Robbie would stare down, his eyes lost in the wood grains of the desktop, or someplace far beyond. But part of him was still with me. In a thin voice, he said, “Just cold.” I took off my fleece jacket and wrapped it around his shoulders.

“Should we take a little break and draw?” I used to say color instead of draw, but he finally informed me that only girls color—boys draw, and only in black. But maybe sometimes yellow or red. Before he answered, I pulled paper and a black marker out of my backpack. For about a year, Robbie drew only round yellow faces in a variety of expressions, shockingly similar to today’s emojis. Sometimes they smiled, but mostly they expressed pain or fear, and he laughed at his creations. I was sixteen, trained only in art and writing and basic math, never psychology. I never knew what it meant. I still don’t. But I knew that drawing stopped the trembles and brought his eyes up from the void, his smile back to his face.

So I gave him more paper, more pens, more time. Eventually trees and dogs with wagging tails and even flowers started to appear in his drawings too. And I knew that time with Robbie meant less time at home for me. I could delay getting into my rusty red pickup and shambling home to my father’s frigid trailer. Every moment with Robbie was a moment less with my father’s unpredictable rages or over-the-top professions of love and “Family is the most important thing. Don’t you ever forget that.” Robbie’s and my time together became a sort of glue that kept us both from fracturing.

We spent the rest of the hour gluing small clay shapes onto his clay softball. We left it in my locker to dry before he took it home the next week. The week after that, he told me it was the perfect size for launching from his catapult toy into the fields behind his house.

“I did it over and over until it broke into three pieces,” he said with a shrug.

“I guess we better make something else,” I said as I laid out Popsicle sticks, glue, and paint.

Robbie and I were buddies for three years, until I graduated high school and moved away. I have a single photo of us together. We’re at my graduation party, and he’s trying to stand up straight in my letterman’s jacket, weighed down by the running medals I sewed onto it. Our faces are round and red, laughing about something.I keep the photo in a pocket of the jacket, which collects dust in a closet, where I hope neither will ever be destroyed.

Ali J. Shaw has Rocky Mountain air in her blood, but she calls the Pacific Northwest home. Her nonfiction has been featured in r.k.v.r.y., Hippocampus Magazine, VoiceCatcher, and the Get Nervous reading series, and was a finalist for the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writer Prize. Ali is an editor who collects typewriters and rescue animals.

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Divorce, Family, Guest Posts, motherhood

Coda

October 20, 2019
affair

By Erin Branning

It was the day after Mother’s Day that Myles, my then twelve-year-old son, started questioning me. The night before, he’d gone to dinner with my husband alone – I forget now why I agreed to this on Mother’s Day – and the next afternoon on the drive home from school the questions began. “Mom, tell me what really happened, tell me the real reason you and Dad are getting divorced.”

“We told you,” I answered, praying to god the questions would stop, reciting the lines that the therapist had given us.

“The adjustment of your dad being back in Chicago after working in New York has been difficult.”

“We’ve tried very hard to work things out, but we can’t.”

“We love you and we promise to make this as painless for you as possible.”

My husband and I had agreed there was no reason for our children to know the specific conditions of the dissolution of our marriage. They’d simply know that things had been bad and now they were going to be better. This was the only truth they needed to know. This was what I told myself, what the therapist had said and what I thought my husband felt as well.

But all the things that sounded so good in the therapist’s office now sounded ridiculous and hollow. They weren’t answers and Myles knew it. He wouldn’t stop probing, wanted specifics. I stayed to the script. This went on for a few days until my husband called me a few minutes after I’d dropped the children off at school.

“I told Myles the truth at dinner the other night,” he said.

“The truth?” An emptiness, a pit, opened up below my heart.

“I told him you’ve been having an affair and I was willing to forgive you, but you had decided to choose him over our family.”

“You told him what?” I felt lightheaded, like the ground had given way. I gripped the steering wheel and pulled over.

“That you’re having an affair and that’s why we’re getting divorced. And I’m going to tell the other kids too. There’s been enough lying.”

Our other children were ten, seven and three.

“The therapist said not to tell them. You promised me you wouldn’t.”

“A marriage is a promise to stay faithful. I wouldn’t bring up promises if I were you.”

***

The truth was this: A few weeks earlier, while I was out at breakfast with our four children, he went through my computer and found texts and emails with a man who had become the love of my life, the person I could not imagine living without.  Matt was my chiropractor but his methods encompassed everything – the full range of body, mind and soul. We connected on music initially – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy—and then books. At some point I realized every book I had read over the past year that wasn’t required as part of my MFA program, was recommended by him.

During the winter, Matt and I, who had always confined our communication to his office, slipped into texting. A lot. First daily, then a few times a day, then hundreds. It was a numinous relationship, one therapist said. Numinous – spiritual, divine. Of course, it was meant to be. Never mind the fact that at the time my husband discovered our correspondence, we had not done so much as kissed.

The texting made it all too easy – the distance and time to be witty and use innuendo, to share thoughts, photos, articles, music. An entire consciousness can be sent through a phone. Of course, I couldn’t just delete the messages as they came, I had to save them by sending them to myself. I needed proof of what was happening. My inability to let things go into the ether was ultimately how my husband found out about our emotional affair. Since my divorce, I’ve had friends tell me about phone flirtations because they know I won’t judge. I have a hard time telling them to walk away. For me, my virtual relationship with Matt was a lifeline – what ultimately what got me out of something I’d been very unhappy in for a very long time.

In the weeks leading up to Chris’s and my separation, when I was in the throes of my texting with Matt, Myles played “Layla” on repeat in the car. I wondered if he was reading my mind, if he knew what was going on with me and if that was why he constantly played a song about an affair, about longing, about forbidden love, about betrayal.

When I used to hear stories of people cheating on their spouses I would think: how awful; if you can’t stay faithful, don’t stay married, and certainly don’t have kids. What I used to think about Eric Clapton and “Layla” was that he was a terrible person for falling in love with his friend’s wife. But when Myles played that song I thought, what incredible art. Clapton knew.

***

So why didn’t I leave earlier if it was so bad?  We had four kids, a full life, lots of friends. I adored his family. He had a high-profile job that “needed” a wife. How could I abandon him? Marriage was supposed to be hard and I wasn’t trying hard enough. I always thought I should be able to do better and my husband constantly told me so. For years, I thought the despair I was feeling was because of my own failing at love.

I never told anyone how suffocated I felt. My husband told everyone how much he loved me, all the time. But behind closed doors he loved me so much I couldn’t see friends if he was in town, couldn’t speak on the phone if he was home, couldn’t have male friends. When we moved to Beijing for his job, he asked me why I was making friends – wasn’t he enough? I read old journals. Five years before, as the movers were packing up our apartment in Beijing for a move to Tokyo, I had written – I don’t know if I can move to Tokyo with him.

I told my children and friends that I wasn’t leaving my marriage for Matt. I said falling in love with someone else was just the final thing beating me over the head telling me to leave – something I’d felt I had to do for a long time but been too scared to. And I wonder whether I let the marriage end as it did so that he wouldn’t be blamed, so that he could look like the “better person” and whether I was performing a service I had done for most of our marriage -protecting him at the expense of myself.

***

So, the narrative of our divorce became this: I was solely responsible for the end of our marriage because I had an affair. Chris told the children and anyone else who would listen that he was the victim and I was the victimizer. I imagined my children thinking of me kissing this man, wasn’t sure if they imagined sex too. At twelve, Myles certainly might have been, but I didn’t know about the others. I told them nothing physical had happened when their dad found our texts, but what did this mean to them? To them, their mother had fallen in love with another man while married to their father and wasn’t able to stop it, couldn’t walk away, was reckless with their lives and her own. In committing infidelity, emotional or otherwise, I’d lost all standing, not just as a wife, but as a person – especially as a mother.

And, while I felt shame standing in front of my children, I also felt relief. The worst thing I could have imagined had happened – my husband telling my children I’d had an affair – and yet, I was oddly okay. It clarified everything; I knew couldn’t go back. Every day I steeled myself for the children’s questions: What did Dad do to you that’s worse than cheating? Why do you want a divorce if he wants to forgive you? Why don’t you love Dad anymore? In my best moments I would say: I’m not going to talk badly about your dad.  And in my worst moments: God help you if you think this is the worst thing that could ever happen to you.

***

One afternoon in July, two months after Chris and I had separated, Myles and I were driving to a Jay-Z/Beyonce concert.

Shortly into the drive he looked up from his phone and said, “You’re not wearing that to the concert, are you?”

I was wearing a black motorcycle jacket that I’d recently bought, edgy, unlike anything I’d worn before I left Chris.

“You look stupid. Take it off.”

“I’m wearing it. I like it.”

“I’m not going into the concert with you then.”

“Look at me and apologize right now,” I said.

“Apologize for what? I’m allowed to have an opinion.” He said this, looking down at his phone.

And I suddenly felt overwhelming rage – rage that this night with my son already felt ruined, rage at my own impotence in the face of my son’s anger, and rage at the fact that I knew this argument wasn’t about my jacket. We were sitting at a stoplight and I ripped his phone out of his hands.

“Give it back!” he shouted at me.

“Not until you apologize.”

“You know the family is ashamed of you, right? You know that Dad’s family hates you and that even your own mom sent Dad an email saying how you made her sick.” He screamed at me, his face red now and contorted in pain. His words came at me:

Nothing is worse than what you did.

You’re a cheater.  

A liar.

I hate you.

And without even thinking, in my own blind rage, I slapped him. His hand went immediately to his face and he looked at me, shocked. “And now you hit me? Good job. Wait until I tell Dad.”

And I started to cry and knew I couldn’t take it back, couldn’t take anything back I’d done to hurt him. The agony on his face in that moment – my heart breaks every time I think of it.

***

Recently, Myles, now seventeen, and I were walking down Michigan Avenue and passed by Lowry’s Prime Rib.

“That’s where your dad and I met,” I said. I remembered what I’d been like that day – so young and hopeful, filled with the excitement of new love.

“What would you say to yourself now if you saw your younger self standing there with him?” he asked. I understood what he was really asking. He wanted to know if my marriage to his father had been a mistake, if I’d take it back if I could. The relationship with Matt had been short-lived, did I think that I’d broken up my family for nothing?

“I would say that you’re going to have a full life together for many years and many adventures. And have four amazing children.”

I wanted to add, “and it won’t be forever and that’s okay.” I wanted to tell him what I’d come to feel – that what I’d done was extremely painful and difficult, but that that didn’t mean it was wrong. I wanted to say I’d struggled and was still struggling to know who I was and what I wanted and how to love, but that didn’t make me bad. I wanted to say what is rarely acknowledged, that as humans – even as adults, even as mothers – we are all just figuring it out.

But that moment in front of Lowry’s I couldn’t say it was okay. I felt his pain and that of his siblings and knew that for them our divorce might never be okay. I felt overwhelmed and heartbroken by what we all had lost. So I said, “and it won’t be forever and I’m so sorry for that.”

He nodded and said, “I know Mom, its okay.”

I turned to look at him, tears threatening to spill down my face, and hugged him.

***

Layla has a coda – a piano solo that contains a shift, a calmness and peace in contrast to the rest of the song that precedes it. Not long ago, I asked Myles how that coda made him feel. He said it was like rebirth. New life.

Erin Branning holds an MFA from Northwestern and lives in Chicago with her four children. She is working on her first novel.

 

Upcoming events with Jen

****

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Relationships

Notes From A Sentimental Hoarder

August 30, 2019
feelings

By Monica Garry

Ok. I admit it. I’m a sentimental hoarder. That took me a long time to realize. You’d think I would have figured it out when I stopped being able to shove things in the box in my closet that held everything from the condom wrapper from when I lost my virginity and the hundreds of letters to exes that I never sent to the pen that I used when I signed my first lease and an ice cream spoon that I don’t even remember the sentiment behind.  Although I’d be a very good candidate for Queer Eye, it wasn’t the memory box that brought to light my toxic need to hold onto the past, it was a showing for an apartment.

So, before I admit one of the crazier things I’ve done in my life, let me give a little back story. It’s nothing huge or enlightening or monumentally romantic…it was just a girl — a girl I loved who chose to stop loving me back. Now, I’m going to say the shallow horrible truth that we’ve all felt at one point or another and have always been too nervous to share with a crowd: I only loved her when she stopped loving me. Come on, admit it. We all have that person. The one we conveniently kept around for years because even though we broke their hearts time and time again, they stayed. It fed our ego, made us feel memorable.

Even if we didn’t do it consciously, we threw back that big glass of ego boosting love like a cold beer during a real bad hangover. You may not even know you’ve had a person like that – chances are, if you called things off with them, you’ll never realize they were your self-esteem boosting medication, because they never truly mattered. That sounds horrible doesn’t it? I mean, we’re talking about real people here, with real feelings. Well, guilty as charged.

I was one of those chronic people-users, until this one particular girl shed light on my horrible grotesque rat hole of insecurities that I had been so desperately trying to keep closed. It had been about 2 years of back and forth, I would reach out, see her for a couple weeks, and disappear. Then she’d drunkenly call and text me for weeks after saying I was the only one she’d ever love. Eventually, I’d get bored with my life, play into her feelings, and repeat. You’d think I wouldn’t be surprised when she began to pull away, but you’d be wrong.

I was utterly shocked. I call it PESD – post empowerment stress disorder. She adored me and that empowered me, so the second she was gone, the rat hole that I’d kept covered up for years began to uncover itself. And the only way I could make sense of all those fearful emotions was simple at the time, “I can’t lose her because I love her.” Wrong again. What I should’ve said was, “She gave me the attention that poured dirt on top of my rat hole; she put me on a pedestal. But now that she can see my flaws, that means I have to see them too. Whoa. I sure as hell don’t like that.”

So, in the midst of my desperate and unflattering attempts to gain her admiration back, she left. Just like that, she packed her bags and moved across the country without so much as a text goodbye. As I’m sure you can imagine, I went insane. I actually thought about flying to New York to ask her to marry me. MARRY ME! (I know what you’re thinking and, yes, I have since been going to therapy.) Luckily, either the small amount of logical thinking I had left, or my bank account, convinced me to not do that. Instead, I did something less, but nonetheless, crazy. I set up a showing at the apartment she’d just moved out of. I was sure I needed closure. We’d had no form of goodbye, so I thought seeing her empty apartment and bidding my dramatic farewells would heal me.

I needed some sort of ritualistic way to let go; to gain my power back. Now, I would love to tell a grand story of how a stranger said something oddly philosophical to me that made me turn around that day, that made me realize I was still desperately trying to cover that damn rat hole. But it’s a much less interesting story. I woke up the day of the showing and decided to go grocery shopping, and it wasn’t until 15 minutes after the appointment time that I remembered I had even scheduled it. I didn’t laugh or cry or have a come-to-Jesus moment, I just shrugged my shoulders and proudly wrote in my diary that I didn’t do that crazy thing I said I would do. And as I wrote, I began to realize that I didn’t feel bad about not being able to say goodbye, I just felt bad that she had seen my rat hole and decided to leave. She had seen the horribly selfish part of me that only I knew existed, that was a result of my chronic need to deny and cover up my deeply rooted insecurities.

I began to realize that I had held on to all of these memories and souvenirs and feelings because, on the contrary, I in fact didn’t want to feel. I was so scared of losing who I was in those moments because I hadn’t yet felt them or made sense of them. All of these feelings and dramatic attempts to hold onto the past were really just my own messy way of covering up some pretty ugly truths. So, I threw it all out – the condom wrapper, the letters, the pen, everything but the spoon. I kept that damn spoon. Because it has no meaning, and I think that’s kind of the point.

Monica Garry is a recent Psychology graduate from St. Catherine University, currently working at a Nonprofit organization in Minneapolis as a case manager for adults experiencing mental illness and homelessness.

Guest Posts, Relationships

Measuring Worth: Notes From A Surgeon’s Wife

August 21, 2019
surgeon

By Autumn Hope Gallagher

Positive. Christmas Eve five years ago. We were expecting our first sweet baby. It was terrifying. Joyous. Heartburn-inducing. Then my husband got accepted to medical school. All those feelings were rinsed and repeated (including the heartburn – because pregnancy, y’all). Soon after, we came to the difficult agreement that once school began, I would be a SAHM. We did enough research to know that the strain on our family would be high during med school and residency, especially while raising a baby. We also chose to lump the majority of our living expenses onto what we jokingly called “Uncle Sam’s Tab” (aka racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt).

Fast forward through four years of medical school and the births of our two children. Our boys are charismatic, beautiful, and healthy. We relocated to a state we never considered moving to: South Dakota. We’re here because of the Match, a computer-generated pairing between a physician-in-training and residency program. Some people get matched to their dream location, many do not. The bottom line is you go where you match. The resident has some influence, but almost no choice. In my husband’s case, the program is five years long. He is training as a general surgeon which is, in fact, his dream job. I am so proud of him that I well up when I think about it for more than a few seconds. We have been through so much these last five years, but challenge often brings growth. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Relationships, Young Voices

Fruit

May 20, 2019
fruit

By Katie Simon

On my first trip to Italy, I ate kiwis. They were soft as lips, the ones I wasn’t kissing—my boyfriend Michael’s back in New York. After three years together, I relished the feeling of a kiss from anything other than his lips.

The kiwis I ate in the morning at my B&B tasted tangy, enticing, unlike my breakfasts back home. The memory of their flesh slipping between my lips scratched at my mind for the rest of the morning and followed me as I went on long afternoon walks outside Verona.

One day I climbed a hill to a monastery and in its chapel I wrote myself a letter full of questions. Is it worth staying with Michael, despite my doubts? He was my first boyfriend, and I wondered what else was out there.

I wrote only questions; I already knew the answers.

My stomach grumbled. I walked down the hill.

I called the owner of my B&B for a ride from the bus station. It was hot, I was wearing jeans, unprepared for the heat of the trip.

“My son comes and get you,” she said.

I slid into the passenger seat of his car and felt a whoop in my stomach, like rushing sweet liquid. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, spirituality

Anomalous Events that Rattled My Skepticism

April 4, 2019
amma

By Marlena Fiol

“Why are we even together? All we ever do is fight.” I sat in a heap on the floor at the foot of our staircase. Ed stomped down the stairs, passed me without stopping, and left the house.

I heard his car back out of the garage. “I hate you!” I yelled at the walls.

We had met three years earlier, when I interviewed for a position at the University of Colorado. Shortly after I joined the faculty, our bodies found each other. We were complete misfits. I loved to sing; he couldn’t hold a tune. I loved to cook; he had no interest. He spent money without a thought; I saved money for that rainy day. He was a health nut, addicted to aerobic exercise of any kind, especially riding a bike; I had never owned serious sneakers in my life. Red high heels were more my style.

Our bodies didn’t care. Just being in the same room with Ed sent shivers up and down my spine. We sat through faculty meetings, casually pretending to be distant colleagues, but all the while, I fidgeted in my seat, trying unsuccessfully to ignore his electrifying presence across the room. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, infertility

Platter of Oranges

March 17, 2019
oranges

By Amy Sayers

I notice it right away, the platter of oranges. Big juicy naval oranges with pock marked skin. Thickly skinned. A few of the leaves, oval and glossy make a mandala on the red plate. Sandra, the architect in New York, potted orange trees in her loft. The scent of the white flowers were dazzlingly fragrant.

Oranges. Highly valued for their vitamin C content. Maybe they’re snacks for later. I could just peel one and put the peelings in my glass of water and savor the potent oil resting in the glands of the skin. I wonder if they’re organic but they had no stickers and I’m hungry and salivating over plump and juicy orange sections.

Twelve other people sit around the table, chatting noisily. All couples. Most of them have smooth ivory skin, one woman is black. Clearly I am the oldest woman. I pull on my chin to erase the lines drawn down to my mouth and fidget in my chair.

“Today we’re going to talk about the treatment. From biology to process and what to expect.” Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Pregnancy, Relationships

Someday, Baby

September 26, 2018
fire

By Alayna Becker

It’s wildfire season in Spokane, so I’m stuck inside Crosswalk, the teen homeless shelter where I work. I’m the summer employment specialist, hired to help the homeless kids in my group learn to get a job and hopefully keep it. 12 kids are supposed to show up, but only two, Jessica and Reya are here and a third, Makayla is on her way.  Usually we go outside to do the job the city gave us a grant to do – measure the slopes and accessibility of streets all over the downtown area, but today the whole city is obscured by the haze from fires on the edge of town. Walking feels like wading through a swamp.

My title, employment specialist seems ironic because for the past couple of years I’ve been pretty much unemployed. Mainly I participated in medical studies while co-conspirator roommate sold her plasma. I had a job working for a place that did digital investigations on people that were accused of looking at child porn, but when I accidentally saw a picture of a little girl in her pink underwear over the shoulder of one of the other employees, I left and never went back. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Pets, Relationships

A Doghearted Thing

March 23, 2018
dog

By Jenna Clark Embrey

After a year and a half of dating, my boyfriend Steve and I decided to sign our first lease together and adopt a dog. It was the first time either one of us had lived with a significant other, and the idea of a pet went hand-in-hand with cohabitation in both our minds. This step forward felt like a promise, as if taking care of living thing together meant that we could tangle our lives together permanently. We had talked about marriage and children, but always in slightly dreamy, slightly ambivalent terms. I thought Steve’s enthusiasm to get a dog meant that his ambivalence had turned into something more concrete. It didn’t occur to me to ask him.

Steve and I first gravitated toward each other because of our similar natures. We were both relentless in our ambitions yet also deeply indulgent during our rare moments of relaxation. We loved margaritas and vodka sauce pizza and 24-hour news networks. We celebrated birthdays and holidays with day-long extravaganzas. From the earliest days of our relationship, we felt like a unit that was solid and sure.  Steve and I wanted to widen this circle just a bit, just enough to include a creature with four legs.

When we went to an adoption event near our new home in Brooklyn, I saw a large black pitbull who was standing still while people and animals swirled around her. When we came up to pet her, she sat down on Steve’s feet, and the connection between the two of them was immediate. I felt in my gut that this was the right dog for us, and I told him so. Steve had always trusted my instincts. Two weeks later we brought the dog home. I suggested that we name her Roz Doyle, after the character on the 90s sitcom Frasier, which I had been recently binge-watching on Netflix. Our Roz quickly revealed to us that her favorite things were eating, running, and sleeping, which luckily mirrored our own priorities for relaxation. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health, Relationships

Tub Stories: Sex Ed

November 13, 2017
tub

By Dru Rafkin

I stared at her soaking in the tub.

“I don’t know what’s wrong,” I lied to my mother’s face without looking at it. “I just feel really cranky and sad.”

I sat on the edge of the toilet in her tiny bathroom, my knees fist distance from the edge of the tub. I wanted so badly for her to be soft with me, to comfort and advise me. I was 18 and had just lost my virginity the night before to my 23 year old boyfriend, Tom.

Tom worked at the corner gas station near our old apartment. My father was disappointed in my choice of a motorcycle-riding-gas-station-attendant boyfriend; my mom really liked him. Tom was charismatic, kind and protective. After a year of making out I knew he’d waited long enough.

I craved the closeness and warmth of kissing him, being near him and holding his hand, but our frequent make out sessions had always left me feeling dirty, used up and violated; I thought I loved him but felt no connection from my body to his. I wanted to want to have sex but, really, it only seemed like the next necessary step to having a real relationship. When he lay on top of me, kneading my breasts with his rough hands and kissing my neck I felt like a mountain that was being climbed – my body provided the route of handholds to get him to the top.  Afterwards he would climb down, elated and spent. I’d feel remorseful and sick to my stomach, wishing I could set the clock back an hour each time I gave him access to my parts. I had hoped that having sex would provide the missing link to my feeling connected to him and to myself, but now I only felt more alone, vulnerable, disconnected and ashamed. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Relationships, Starting Over

At the End There Might Just be Peace

November 12, 2017
shame

By Sarah Cannon

Remember the mindfulness training you felt cynical about back when Matt was hurt? It was and was not a long time ago. It’s like a lifetime has been squished into less than a decade. Or how about David, do you remember him? He was the counselor you were seeing before the accident, then again afterward. He had perpetual pit stains on his pastel button-ups and always asked you what you were doing with your anger. This was back when your focus was driving Matt to out-patient rehab sessions twice a day then showing up to feed, clothe, educate your children, and also work for money. You gave David a blank look and said something petty with a hanging question-mark sound at the end, like, “I don’t know, probably running around the block makes me feel better?” Then you didn’t pay him and he had to fire you.

Remember before the accident, when you had that dorky ‘wish’ cork board? You spent a whole Sunday gluing inspirational pictures and words and pinned it to the ceiling above your bed. It had a numerical figure written on a physical dollar in the center to symbolize the salary you wanted in five years. Matt poked good-natured fun at you, and you defended it, saying it was your five-year plan. You liked your poster so much that you called up Hannah and the two of you crafted a woman-specific plan you were convinced Oprah would buy the rights to. Want More, was the theme. You tore the poster down and threw notes for the Want More program into the fire after the accident.

“Isn’t it a miracle?” everyone kept saying after Matt nearly died. Then they began saying, “Things will get bet better,” when they saw you weep. And you wanted to say, “Everyone keeps saying that,” but you mostly smiled your gummy grin and hoped they were right. Continue Reading…