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Guest Posts, memories, Relationships

Camping Under the Influence

July 14, 2021
camping

By Carrie Friedman

I squint as I read the fine print of the disclaimer that says the campsite is NOT responsible for any coyote, snake, or bear bites or maulings. As I sign our lives away, I say, “This was a mistake,” loud enough for my husband to hear. Our daughters are already running free, up and down the meadow, like they’ve never seen so much open space, possibly because they never have in our crowded Los Angeles suburb. We have arrived at this southern California campsite for a whole weekend of “unstructured fun!” as the parent-email boasted, with other families from our daughters’ school. Our daughters begged us to go this year, so here we all are. “It could just be that you’re not in the right mindset,” my husband, who is one important notch more outdoorsy than I am, says.

He’s not wrong. Only hours earlier, I boarded a plane back to California, from my native Wisconsin. I was visiting my dad, who is in the late stages of dementia and Parkinson’s. Every time I leave him, I know that this could be the last time I see him. This slow-motion loss feels unscalable.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. I want our girls to have this camp experience.

I go to the campsite store and buy a bottle of wine and a bottle of pre-made, pre-mixed margaritas. I start drinking as soon as I find a cup. I drink to blur the edges.

I’ve never been the type of person who drinks in the wilderness, gulping the air like it’s a delicious treat, then says (and means) things like, “I love nature,” or talks about a higher being “creating this masterpiece for us.” But when I inhale the air at the campsite today, I feel a familiar ache. I’m reminded of why I hate camping: it makes me homesick. If the smells of evergreen, mildew, loneliness, and campfire were blended in a bottle, they’d be called Eau de homesickness.

I down a margarita as if I’m a marathoner at a pitstop.

When I was a gawky and overly sensitive 10 year old at summer camp in Wisconsin, my escape was red Kool-Aid that the camp rebranded “Bug Juice.” It was so sweet and concentrated you could chew the sugar granules. I was addicted to the sugar high it gave me: it helped me forget how much I missed my family back home, 90 miles from camp. It helped me feel less awkward around kids I didn’t know. The inevitable crash left me lower than before, sobbing all night in bed while my cabinmates slept. It was a gutting cry, a cry that physically hurt – replaying every fight I’d ever had with my parents or siblings, wishing I were back with them.

My dad, sensing my homesickness, would send funny letters, mailed to arrive by every day’s rest time. I’d read them as I scratched mosquito bites into scabs. His words always made things better.

I drink my way through the first half of the weekend – buzzed, friendly, seemingly carefree – having a drink anytime the ache, or a thought or memory about my dad tries to creep in, like a sad version of a drinking game.

People call this “Glamping” because we are in cabins with indoor bathrooms, not tents and outhouses, but there is nothing “glam” about it. Directly above our bed is what appears to be a hastily made loft with about 20 inches of crawl space and some crib-sized mattresses for our six and seven year old. A rickety metal ladder is propped precariously against a wooden railing that feels like it is as sturdy and well-put together as a shelf I constructed in shop class in third grade. My kids and husband sleep well. I stare at the cedar walls and ceiling all night, trying not to think but thinking nonetheless. If that was the last time I’ll ever see my father, did I say everything I needed to say?

The next morning, I admit to my husband that perhaps the pivot from emotional wilderness into actual wilderness was too much for me. He offers to pack us up and leave early. But the kids are having so much fun, we decide. They have already strapped on their bike helmets and taken off on their scooters with their friends for the morning.

The days are packed and noisy. There’s a hike and a talent show. And smores and drinks with other parents, as our kids don glowstick necklaces and bracelets and chase each other through the woods – streaks of neon as they run past and between the trees.

I buy and drink more wine. In the middle of the final night, dizzy from alcohol, I leap out of bed and vomit in our cabin toilet. As I’m about to flush, I spot a giant brown spider on the handle. I nearly vomit again, but instead scream into a towel, so as not to wake my family.

“I just killed a brown recluse spider in our bathroom,” I tell my husband. He rolls over in bed. I’m not expecting a parade but at least a little gratitude for saving his and our daughters’ lives would be nice.

“Really, Carrie?” he asks, dubious. “A brown recluse, with the violin shape on its back and everything?”

“Yes,” I whisper, a chill running down my spine. “Except it was so big it was more like a cello. This guy could have carried our suitcases. I’m done with camping,” I say.

“Glamping,” my husband corrects.

“I’m going to sleep out in the van.”

I wake up on the third row of seats in the back of the minivan to a blinding sunrise. It’s a new day. My pounding hangover headache feels like a nuisance, a distraction, from the real pain I’ve been trying to avoid. How quickly in the two years since my father’s diagnosis and rapid decline, had my drinking gone from a glass of wine after the kids went to bed to “take the edge off” to “mommy juice at a late afternoon playdate,” to a nightly necessity to numb or push out sadness, which I defended as “self-care.” If this is self-care, it’s not working.

Again, the smells of homesickness fill the air, and I remember things I don’t want to remember.

The letters my dad sent me when I was at camp were a funny serialized mystery he had written, in installments. Each chapter ended on a cliffhanger, and he timed when he mailed them perfectly: I always had a new letter, a new chapter, waiting for me in my cubby every afternoon for resting time. But my camp experience began to improve. I enjoyed horseback riding and canoeing and making lanyard bracelets. When I returned home after camp, my dad discovered his last three envelopes unopened in my suitcase. I tried to explain that I was too tired to read each day. My dad pretended not to care, but I could tell he was hurt.

With this memory, my gulping sobs shake the van.

Suddenly, I am starving. The campsite seems deserted at 7am. I walk to the restaurant/general store. Campfire ashes from the night before float in the air like feathers. My eye makeup presumably everywhere, I imagine I look like a raccoon walking on its hind legs.

I wander through the empty store/restaurant, looking at foods and offerings but not really seeing them. For awhile, I stare without realizing it at a woman making eggs in the kitchen. She has long press-on nails that wrap around the spatula and flip fried eggs and scrape scrambled eggs on the griddle. She has velvety Disney princess eye lashes that must take forever to glue to her eyelids.

I can tell by the way she’s looking at me that my eyes are swollen and red.

“Rough night?” she asks.

“Rough week,” I say. “Rough year.”

“What can I get for you, Hon?” she asks.

Her term of endearment makes me cry again. “Could you make cheesy eggs? They’re just scrambled eggs with cheese on top.”

“Of course, Hon,” she says.

She unwraps and slaps an orange Kraft single on top of the scrambled eggs. It becomes shiny with sweat as it starts to melt.

Cheesy eggs taste like what he used to make on Sundays when we were kids and teens. His variations on the classics, like applesauce pancakes, fried matzo, spaghetti pie, never tasted very good, but now, just thinking of them makes me crave them. The gooey applesauce, somehow still cold, oozed out from the otherwise cooked pancake. The nutty, charred edges of the matzo.

The cook hands me a Styrofoam plate with the eggs covered in cheese, then says, “I’ll ring you up. They’re a dollar fifty.”

Maybe she feels sorry for me and is giving me a discount, I think as I swipe my debit card. Nothing costs so little anymore, let alone a protein.

I sit at a picnic table in the woods, with the yellow scramble. The eggs taste like cheese flavored plastic, just like when my dad made them, and go down easy. Comfort food indeed.

Before I left the last time, he said two things that made sense. I was shocked by the clarity with which he said each, considering he barely speaks anymore and when he does, it’s usually gibberish. He said, “You never give up,” more as a command than a fact, and “I love you so much.” When I was a teenager, I had felt overwhelmed by his belief in me. At that time, I think he loved me more than I loved myself. I felt that way again, but stronger in the thought of losing him.

I can’t swallow anymore because of the lump in my throat. I’m remembering all the things I wanted to say to him, but didn’t, two days ago while I sat with him and held his hand: I’m sorry I didn’t open those last chapters of your story, I’m sorry we made fun of your creative Sunday meals. Thank you for writing those letters, thank you for your food and time and love.

I sit in the pain and really let myself feel it. Sober. At first it feels like I might suffocate, so I take slow, deep breaths while I cry. I cry because I miss my father, and I cry for the moments I have missed with my own children this weekend, blurry from alcohol when they could be sharper, more vibrant in the light of reality: my older daughter singing in the talent show, my younger daughter blowing dandelion fuzz every chance she could, strands of roasted marshmallows sticky on their cheeks.

I decide it’s time to stop multiplying my depressants, so I vow to quit drinking and camping, at least for a while.

“Well,” my husband says as we pack the car, “at least we weren’t mauled by any bears.” I laugh. I breathe in the last of the evergreen, mildew, and campfire smells. I’m relieved to be leaving, but to my surprise the wilderness and the loneliness follow me home.

Carrie Friedman lives and writes in southern California. She has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places. Her website is: www.carriefriedman.com

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Relationships

Daylight

July 11, 2021
love

This piece was written in response to Dustin Grinnell’s essay from earlier this year, How to Fix a Bluey Heart. We love the idea of publishing response pieces, so keep them coming! 

By Sam Cooke

The first playlist I made for someone came in the form of a mix CD that I’d burnt on an old Dell desktop computer. It was a summer mix, meant to be played in my best friend’s pink Sony portable CD player as we skateboarded and biked down the backroads of our small Florida town.

I liked the feeling of sharing music with people in my life. I felt a sense of vulnerability in showing someone “this is what reminds me of you”. This particular mix, carefully curated in 2003, covered everything from “Dip It Low” by Christina Millian to “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams. When the computer hissed—the sound it would make as it finished burning songs onto a CD—I felt a sense of completion. My work there was done, and my first playlist was born.

Music was also my biggest coping mechanism. It followed me through the most troubling times of my childhood. My father, the addict, provided little warmth and comfort to my two sisters and me. Perhaps the only fruitful thing he ever did for us in those early years was share his love of music. There was always a song playing, which meant that every emotion was always associated with music. My morning routine before school became second nature to me: wake up, turn on MTV’s music video hour, and have music videos playing in the background while I got ready for school. Then I’d put in my headphones on the iPod shuffle (the one that didn’t have a screen and didn’t let you choose what song you were listening to) and walk to the bus stop. I was the last of my friends to get a car, but I’d always come ready with a new playlist to listen to on the way to school. Each day, I’d fumble with their car stereos and press play for the ten-minute drive from my house to our high school.

In the age of iPhones and music streaming services, creating and sharing playlists became astronomically easier for me. When I got my first iPhone as a graduation present from my grandparents, the first app I downloaded was Pandora. Remember those days? It was a professional playlist-making service that recorded your musical interests and found songs that you would probably like based on said interests. My days of burning CDs slowly came to an end as cars began building models with AUX adaptors and Apple Music and Spotify took over. I tucked away my packet of blank CDs that were just waiting to be given a musical home and put my thumbs to work. The words “New Playlist” became ingrained in my brain.

I made playlists for myself as well: thirteen songs here and there that brought me back to a moment; a playlist of fifty-odd songs that inspired me to write; songs to listen to when I needed to feel pumped; songs to play in my ears when I was training to become a runner (that was a short-lived thirty songs). Songs were everywhere.

It wasn’t until my early twenties, though, that I realized that I wasn’t making any playlists about love. I didn’t have a high school sweetheart to remember with fondness—days spent at the beach, nights tangled up in sheets (a la “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” by Luke Bryan). And I didn’t have a first love who would haunt relationships that I’d enter into long after their scent was off my favorite pull-over hoodie. I was twenty-two and realizing, with a jaded and bitter heart, that I had never been in love.

That didn’t mean there wasn’t heartbreak. In 2013, I listened to the song “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift on repeat. Though I don’t have the exact data points, it’s safe to assume that the total play count neared at least five hundred. I’d scream along to it in my Nissan Versa on the way to work at a hospital gift shop. My best friend Jenna and I would listen to it in her Nissan Versa on the way to the beach. When I saw Taylor Swift in concert that year, I swayed with a beer in hand as I sang along to the words, “There we are again when I loved you so.” That was the product of my first true heartbreak, a story of unrequited love with someone I worked with.      The words “I don’t feel the same” were never said, I was just left with silence. For someone who constantly has music, silence is deafening.

I wish I could say that in the years that followed, my playlists were eventually filled with love songs. But they weren’t. Even after packing up and leavingmy small hometown for New York City, where I was sure I’d meet someone to fall in love with, I was met with more heartache. I went for drinks with men who looked at their phones. I walked down busy Brooklyn streets with men who thought it was “cute” that I was trying to be a professional novelist. There are various usages of the word “cute”, and these men were not calling me attractive. They pitied me. I was cute. And though I knew many of the men I’d met were simply not a right fit, at the end of the date I’d slip my headphones back in and take the subway home filled with a sense of sadness. I felt there was something about me that was missing. And so, I’d listen to my playlists. I’d play “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift, like I mentioned, but I’d also play deeply romantic love songs that made me daydream about falling in love. These included “If I Should Fall Behind” by Bruce Springsteen and “You Get Me” by Michelle Branch. I was lovesick, not for a specific person, but for the feeling that stirred inside me when I heard a great love song.

One day, I would make a playlist for myself of songs that reminded me of the person I loved so dearly, and I would be able to share that playlist with them. And though they’d laugh at the weird variety of it—everything from U2 to Usher—they would know that my love language was making playlists. They’d listen to it in the shower or on the way to work. They’d start a song over because of a certain lyric that hit in a way they could never describe. Maybe it would be a lyric that reminded them of me. Hopefully it would be a lyric that reminded them of me.

My lack of love song playlists allowed me to really dive into what my idea of love was. I had a skewed perception. My grandparents have been married for 67 years and their relationship started as an arranged marriage in the village of Lefkara, Cyprus. They grew to love each other, though, despite not having a say in the matter. My parents seemed to have married as friends, creating a family together that then fell apart because of addiction. The day my mom filed for divorce, I don’t think she even shed a tear as she accepted full responsibility for my two sisters and me and just went about her life. And then there were my two best friends, who both fell in love at a young age and married their high school boyfriends before we were twenty-five years old. Though there were different degrees of love around me, I’d never understood how to get from first-meet to forever. I wasn’t sure if there was a path for me, or even what that would look like. Come what may, I had my playlists and my books, so I could always slip into someone else’s love story and pretend it was mine.

Then I met Dustin.

Meeting him was one of those moments in life where I wish I had kept a written record of it; what I was wearing, what my hair looked like, what song was playing on the overhead speaker that surrounded us in the lobby of the college that housed our MFA in Creative Writing program. But I don’t have any of that. I assume the first thing we said to each other was “hi”, as we were being introduced. He was one year into the program, writing fiction, and I was the new girl, starting my first semester as a writer for young people. I was in the program to write and to hone my craft, because if I wanted to be on track to be a New York Times bestseller before I was thirty, I still had a lot of learning to do. And after five minutes of talking to Dustin, I could tell he wanted the same thing. He was articulate and intelligent, and he had a sarcastic edge that went underappreciated by our classmates.

We took to each other pretty quickly. We’d eat lunch together and sit next to each other in classes. We were just on campus for ten days, as was how our low-residency MFA program worked, but in those ten days we spent hours together. One afternoon, when we both had no classes to attend, we got into his car and drove into Boston. We walked the streets of downtown and talked about everything from how different it was from where I lived in New York City, to the intimidation we felt when reading books by our favorite authors; Michael Crichton for him, Morgan Matson for me. We sat at a high top in a bar and I told him about a best friend from high school who had died the summer before, and how guilt followed me around because I hadn’t spoken to him in years. He did whatever it took to make me laugh, a trait he still brings to our dynamic two years later.

When I left Boston at the end of the ten days, I knew that what we had was special. He quickly became the person I wanted to tell the best parts about my day to and the person who would help me through the worst parts. And it was easy. To me, it felt like a no brainer that we would end up together. We had identical goals, similar personalities, and care for one another  that was deeply rooted. I should be clear that very early on we said we didn’t know what our relationship was. Some days I imagined passionate physical encounters where he’d make my body feel a way it never had before. Some days I thought about what it would be like to introduce a boyfriend to Dustin, have them get along and become friends. Most days, though, I thought about what it would be like to spend my life with him.

As the months of togetherness went on, the insecurities that had been following me around my entire life were on full display. In our early months of friendship, I’d hear about women he’d loved before. Beautiful, petite women with successful careers and wealthy families. The self-image issues that I had tried so desperately to push to the back were front and center again, and instead of trusting that I could share these with him, I ignored it. When I would come to Boston for a weekend to visit him, I would pretend that I didn’t see the notifications on his phone from dating apps or other women. I began to look at myself in the mirror and outline all the reasons he didn’t love me: I wasn’t thin enough, I wasn’t on a secure career path, I was dirt poor growing up, I wasn’t girly enough. Of course he didn’t want to be with me romantically. These were the insecurities that haunted me from men in the past, and now he was paying for it, whether he knew it or not. The assumptions that love could only look like the beautiful woman he’d dated in college settled in on me, and again, I started curating playlists about heartbreak.

Again, though, I was good at holding onto hope. I was growing tired of New York City and wanted a change of scenery. As a preschool teacher, I could find a job pretty much anywhere. So without much thought, I set my sights on Boston. I found an apartment on Facebook marketplace with three other women my age, and Dustin and I celebrated the prospect of us living less than thirty minutes away from each other. I made a playlist.

Living so close together felt like a fairytale. We would meet at a coffee shop and work on our stories over iced coffees and spicy egg sandwiches. At lunch, we’d go to the bar next door and get margaritas and nachos. We’d watch a movie together every Saturday night. Some nights, after the movie, I’d sleep on his couch and we’d make breakfast together the next morning. It felt deeply confusing and deeply fulfilling at the same time. I was so confused how I loved this man as hard as I did, but still felt like a visiting buddy from college when he’d pass me an extra pillow and blanket. And we talked about it constantly. While there were times where we did get physical, the majority of our time was spent talking, often late into the evening and continuing early the next morning. With each day that passed, I knew I was loving him harder than I’d ever thought I could love someone. We were happy.

Just a few months into me living in Boston, the coronavirus pandemic hit hard. I was sent home to teach preschool aged children a few times a week via Zoom, and Dustin worked from home as well. We had an unspoken agreement that we would still find a way to see each other. I’d ride my bike to his studio apartment or he’d pick me up and we’d bring my laptop to a park near my apartment. Without words, I began packing an overnight bag on Saturdays and we’d spend every weekend together. Everything in my life was uncertain. I didn’t know what work looked like, and with one year left in my MFA program, I had no real clue about what publishing would look like in the post-pandemic world. Dustin and I would sprawl out across his living room, me laid back in a tan recliner and him with his legs up on the couch, and we’d ponder the meaning of a writing life. We’d spend hours watching a true crime documentary, and then quote the absurdity of it all.  Slowly—painstakingly slow, actually— my insecurities were at bay. They would sneak up sometimes when I’d wander deep into my brain about the type of woman that Dustin should be with. When I eventually started sharing these insecurities with him, he told me I had every part of him. When I told him I was terrified he was going to leave me, much like my father had when I was a child, he told me he was my rock and that he wasn’t going anywhere. In the past, when I’d get lost in dark or deep thoughts, I never had a way to escape them. He notices when I start to have spiraling thoughts, whether they’re about us or a worry about my future, and he grabs my hands and pulls me out of the darkness. He’s constantly pulling me into daylight.

In my years of listening to love songs, it was implanted in me that when you meet the person who brings out a joy in your life that you didn’t know existed, you would feel it right away. You’d instantly make plans to run away with that person, surely ready to commit your life to them. Mornings would be sun shining through the window, lighting the silhouette of your soulmate perfectly. I was positive that’s what love was, that this was the only way love looked. With Dustin, I was learning that sure, love does look like that, but it also looks like the person who will hold you when you’re crying over having missed saying goodbye to your students. Love looks like knowing someone is out of K-cups and ordering them Dunkin’ Donuts on Uber Eats so they don’t go without. Love looks like bike rides along the Charles River and getting into an argument because one of us (me) can’t jump fences. Eventually, without a word of recognition, our Saturday nights turned into me lying next to him in his bed. We’d talk through the darkness, him once remarking that it felt like summer camp. He’d hold me for a little while, until one of us said goodnight and rolled over.

In our two years in each other’s lives, we taught each other what love looked like for us. I never called him my boyfriend, yet every time we left each other for the day, we’d exchange an “I love you”. And I do. I love him on a level that love songs never prepared me for—because it’s not a show. Loving him is not over-exaggerated for a good rhyme or a beautiful melody. Loving him exists on the days that feel so good I might explode, and the days that feel so bad I don’t want to get out of bed. Loving him is there when I stumble over not calling him my boyfriend and when he tells me that I helped fix his heart. “You fix it, you keep it,” we joked on Valentine’s Day.

And so, I made him a playlist: “Daylight” by Taylor Swift, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd (which was his addition), “I Choose You” by Sarah Bareilles. But there were sad songs, too, because we were learning that love wasn’t always the perfect melody. Sometimes we would piss each other off and sometimes our feelings weren’t affected by each other at all. But we both kept our promise. We stayed put.

I’d spent my entire life thinking that love existed only in a love song, and only in the way that it was painted. You either loved someone forever or never thought of them again. It was only love if you loved them with such a physical passion that you couldn’t see straight. Love was either ‘this’ or ‘that’. To quote the song that Dustin and I both fondly say reminds us of each other, “I once believed love would be black and white, but it’s golden. Like daylight.”

And it is golden. He’ll do anything to make me laugh. He’ll challenge me when I’m being stubborn. He’ll poke me to open up, instead of going into “sad town”. He’ll tell me at all hours of the day that he believes in me, that he’s proud. With him, I have the home I always searched for and the companionship I always dreamed about. There are moments of darkness, sure, but the majority of our life together is daylight.

Sam Cooke is a Boston based writer and educator. Her fiction and essays have been published in Sad Girls Club Lit, Bluing the Blade and Prometheus Dreaming.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Book Excerpts, Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Stranger Care by Sarah Sentilles, an excerpt

May 2, 2021
trees

A couple of weeks ago we told you about an incredible writing opportunity available if you preorder Sarah Sentilles Stranger Care. Read more about how to join us in a generative writing workshop here. Sarah was kind enough to give us an excerpt, so if you are like me and can’t wait for the release of the book on Tuesday, here is a taste of what the buzz is about.

Excerpt from Stranger Care, by Sarah Sentilles

trailing spouse

I always imagined myself a mother. I kept a list of possible names for my future children, pictured myself pregnant and listening to fast fetal heartbeats, looking in wonder at the image on the screen. But I had reservations. I’d absorbed the messages in the cultural ether that framed motherhood as both holy work and trap. My ambivalence grew.

When Eric and I married in 2004 we agreed we’d eventually have a child, but we were busy doing other things—­writing dissertations, writing books, chasing academic jobs around the country—­and by the time we started talking in earnest about becoming parents, I was in my midthirties, and Eric was close to forty.

We moved to Southern California in 2007 and lived in a townhouse subsidized by the university where we both taught. Eric had been hired for his first tenure-­track faculty position in a graduate school of education, preparing teachers for public school classrooms. I was the “trailing spouse,” language that reminded me of the signs along some California highways that show an adult holding the hand of a small child who appears to float in the wind, feet not touching the ground.

Eric liked our life as it was. He liked our freedom, the ease of escaping to the Sierras to backpack and to the Alabama Hills to climb, the unfettered time for activism, for work that might make a difference. We could turn our attention and our resources toward all children, he reasoned, not just our own.

“You’re enough for me,” he said. “I’m okay if it’s just the two of us.”

My friends had desperately wanted to be pregnant, and many had been willing to do anything to make pregnancy possible—­take hormones, give themselves shots, find egg donors, buy sperm, endure IVF procedure after IVF procedure, go into debt, hire surrogates. Their certainty threw my uncertainty into relief.

“I don’t know what I want,” I said.

“Figure out what you want,” he said, “and we’ll do whatever you decide.”

I’d struggled for most of my life to name my desire, separate it from other people’s expectations. To know my answers to even the smallest questions—­pizza or burrito, hike or bike ride, comedy or documentary—­I had to meditate, write in my journal. And when I did manage to figure out what I wanted, it was hard for me to say it. I didn’t trust my knowing. Especially when someone else wanted something different.

Eric does not suffer from indecision. He knows what he wants, and he isn’t afraid to say it. For him, this isn’t about control. It’s about integrity and honesty. It’s about not making other people read your mind. He says what he needs, and he trusts I will do the same.

But I didn’t do the same. When it was time for us to figure out if we wanted to have a baby, I hadn’t been saying what I wanted for years. And Eric was always so sure. If I didn’t know what I wanted for dinner, then why not eat what he wanted to eat? Why not watch what he wanted to watch? Why not hike where he wanted to hike?

These little deferrals accumulate.

I imagine it feels good to be married to someone who accommodates, especially if you don’t know that’s what’s happening. It makes it easier to say “We’ll do whatever you decide” because past experience indicates we always agree.

Until we didn’t.

Until I wanted a baby, and he did not.

the biggest gift

I wanted a baby, but I’d also swallowed whole the story that being a mother would ruin my writing, ruin my life. If I have to play with trains for one more second, a friend texted me, I’m going to shoot myself. Everyone I knew who had kids complained about it. There wasn’t enough money. There wasn’t enough sleep or sex or play. There wasn’t enough time to paint or write or read. There wasn’t enough time alone or time off or time, period.

“Work, kids, marriage, health,” Eric said on repeat after he read some article in some magazine about parenthood and its demands. “Choose three.”

I didn’t believe that scarcity narrative, but I couldn’t point to anyone’s life where it wasn’t true.

Sometimes when we shopped at Target, we’d see tired parents wheeling carts filled with plastic through the aisles, kids running behind them. “Why do you want to be a mother?” Eric would ask me while a toddler screamed and threw himself on the floor next to shelves and shelves of detergent.

“Because I want to” was all I could muster.

Eric didn’t want to have a baby because of the stress parenthood would bring, but there was a deeper resistance, too. Eric loves the earth and hates what people do to it. He follows me around the house turning down heat, turning off lights. “When did you two become vampires?” a friend asked when she came over for cocktails and walked into our dark kitchen. The environmental argument against making another human was a logical one for him to make, an ethical extension of his worldview. “We’re a cancer,” he said and emailed me article after article about overpopulation and melting ice and the great Pacific garbage patch and how much an American child consumes compared to a child born somewhere else. “The biggest gift I can give to a planet under stress is not creating another human,” he said.

Knowing that Eric thought having a baby would cause the earth harm made it harder for me to admit my longing for one. How do you pit personal desire against planetary destruction?

the wisdom of mother trees

In the forest, underground, there is another world. In a single footstep, hundreds of miles of fungal networks are buried in the soil. The ecologist Suzanne Simard studies how trees use those networks to talk to each other, to communicate their needs and help their neighbors. These pathways connect trees, allowing the forest to behave as if it were a single organism. Through the fungal threads, trees share carbon. They send warnings and distress signals to one another. And they look for kin.

Scientists have mapped those underground grids, which look like our brain’s neural networks. The trees are the nodes and the fungal highways are the links. The busiest nodes are called hub trees or mother trees. A mother tree might be connected to hundreds of other trees. She nurtures her young, the new growth of the understory.

Simard wanted to know if mother trees could tell the difference between their seedlings and seedlings from other trees. And if they could, did they favor their offspring? She did an experiment. She grew mother trees alongside both kin and stranger seedlings. And it turned out mother trees knew their offspring. They colonized their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks than they did the stranger seedlings. They sent them more carbon. They even reduced their own root competition to make room for their young. And when the mother trees were injured or dying, they sent carbon and defense signals to their seedlings, messages of wisdom that increased the resistance of their young to future stresses.

But trees also help strangers. They cooperate and share. As the climate changes, as the earth heats up, ponderosa pine, a lower elevation species, will replace Douglas fir. In a greenhouse, Simard and her team grew Douglas fir and ponderosa pine seedlings. They then injured the Doug fir that was acting as the mother tree. When the mother fir was injured, she gifted her carbon to the ponderosas. She also sent them a warning, information that gave the ponderosas an advantage as they took on a more dominant role in the ecosystem. She shared what she knew about the warming world with the trees that would take her place.

brave enough to have your heart broken

Eric and I met in divinity school in 1999. I was studying to become an Episcopal priest; he was studying to confirm that if people think they know God it is not God they know. Radical agnostic read the bumper sticker on his car. I don’t know and you don’t either. In school, instead of Does God exist? we were taught to ask What do our ideas about God do? Whom do they harm? Whom do they help? We learned to engage not whether someone’s belief about God is true—­because how could you prove it?—­but rather the ways faith affects people’s lives. That can be measured, observed, evaluated, changed.

Humans play a crucial role in creating the world in which we find ourselves, its beauty and its terror—­about this, Eric and I agree. We understand that the world is made and believe it can be unmade and remade to be more just and life-­giving for the most vulnerable among us.

But Eric thinks humans, as a species, will never choose to do that.

And I think we might.

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her next book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, will be published by Random House in May 2021. Her writing has appeared in The New York TimesThe New YorkerOprah Magazine, Ms., Religion Dispatches, Oregon ArtsWatch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She’s had residencies at Hedgebrook and Yaddo. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale and master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. She is the co-founder of the Alliance of Idaho, which works to protect the human rights of immigrants by engaging in education, outreach, and advocacy at local, state, and national levels

*Excerpted from Stranger Care by Sarah Sentilles Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Sentilles. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, poetry

Morning

April 5, 2021
morning

By Eric LaFountain

Slower mornings are so much better than those

track race mornings, when the gun went off and the

sprinting began in a frantic a.m. rush.

I can’t sprint anymore,

I don’t know where that sprinter went,

I prefer if he never returns.

I’ll take my coffee in bed on a Wednesday.

Please don’t rush me or expect a prompt response.

I’m busy smelling the fresh brew now (it has notes of pecan and milk chocolate).

I like resting the warm mug on my naked

stomach and the phrase “mocha java,” the way it sounds

said aloud, how it makes my mouth water.

Are you seriously still trying to reach me?

The deadline has passed and everything is okay.

Our world is closed, our world opened, our world closed again.

I barely noticed.

Coffee beans should be oily, fragrant, decadent.

And the morning should be wide open and roomy to enjoy all of those sips.

I already told you I’m not on your timeline.

I already told you I’m not up to task.

You’re too loud, and I don’t like the sound of your voice.

It’s a bus fume voice, there are so many

bus fume voices, bad for the health, bad to be near and breathe in.

Someone told me once about Hunter-Gatherers, how they only

hunted a couple hours a day, at most, then spent the rest

relaxing in rivers and napping and having sex.

So can’t you see I’m a Hunter-Gatherer?

What’s so hard to understand?

Can we maybe try this again, start over?

Do you like the smell of my coffee?

Would you like to have some and lay in my bed?

Just climb in already, get comfortable.

I’m sorry but I forgot what we were talking about.

I forgot if the world is closed or opened or has closed again.

Eric LaFountain lives and teaches in Miami. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Potomac Review, Jabberwock Review, Hobart, and Pleiades. He’s currently working on a YA novel about an abandoned boy and abandoned cat. You can follow him on Instagram @eric.lafountain.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

A Four Way Stop (is a conversation)

March 22, 2021
traffic

By Tanya Ward Goodman

Many years ago, fresh out of college and broke as an egg in a bakery I took a job teaching traffic school. I dutifully learned as much as I could about the rules of the road and then, a few times a week, I talked for nearly eight hours straight in a series of hotel conference rooms. In addition to a much needed paycheck, the main perk of overseeing this detention for grown ups, was my access to a group of adults, most of whom were happy to answer my questions about “the real world.” I taught them the regulations of a four-way stop and reminded them who has right of way on a hill and, in return, they gave me their opinions on everything from cheap health insurance to the best Dim Sum.

I’ve been thinking about this class lately as I drive around Los Angeles. In the twenty-five years I’ve spent in this city, traffic has become increasingly congested. My old secret, speedy routes are flooded with Wazers and every four-way stop seems to have been reduced to a hair raising game of “Chicken.” Nearly everyone seems to have one eye on the road and one eye on the screen. At stoplights, heads are bent over texts and emails and status updates.

During the lunch break at Traffic School we all ate pizza because it was included in the price of the class. Because these classes usually took place in a corporate hotel in some far flung suburb, everyone stayed together. Because no one had the opportunity of turning their faces toward the tiny screen of a phone, we all looked up and into the eyes of the person across the table. As a result of these conversations, I wound up with book recommendations, casserole recipes and once, even a date with someone’s recently divorced nephew.

A four-way stop is like a conversation. It is an exchange that requires awareness and patience and the desire to take an interest in the lives of your fellow human. At a four-way stop, the first person to arrive has the right of way. If two or more people arrive at the same time and are travelling a perpendicular route, the default always goes to the person on the right. If there isn’t a person directly to the right, the turn passes to the right of the empty space. In this way you alternate between east west traffic and north south traffic. It’s a loose and imperfect system and one that was developed when there were less cars and fewer distractions. It’s a system that relies upon eye contact and careful attention.

At the beginning of every class, I’d go around the room and ask my students what brought them to traffic school. I knew there were two ways to answer that question. It was truthful to say “because I don’t want the points on my record.” It was also truthful to say “because I was driving 85 miles per hour in a school zone.” Both answers revealed something about the student. Both answers spoke to the commonality of the group. No one argued about whether or not they belonged in traffic school. Everyone accepted the fact that they’d broken the rules. Some people may have disliked the rules or disagreed with them, but we all believed in the existence of the rules.

As I drive around my city, there appears to be less and less belief in the existence of the rules. The streets, which belong to all of us at once, seem considered by some drivers to be private property. Rules apply only when deemed convenient or without burden. The conversation of the four-way-stop has turned into a shouting match or worse, the concentrated, willful obliviousness my children call “ghosting.” From some, there is no response save the gunning of the engine and the squeal of tires.

What separates us on the streets is mostly paint. There are yellow stripes between lanes and painted shapes and words on signs to guide us and keep the peace. When I was just out of college and teaching traffic school to a room full of adults, I was moved by our general acceptance of the power of paint. That we would drive at high speeds in opposing directions separated only by a line the width of my palm seemed a shared acknowledgement of both our vulnerability and our courage. Our human bodies are soft and cars are hard. This fragility can also be applied to the rules of the road and the whisper thin strands of humanity that connect us all.

Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of “Leaving Tinkertown,” (University of New Mexico Press 2013.) Winner of New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Best Book, Best First Book and Best NM Biography. Winner of Sarton Memoir Award and New Mexico Presswomen’s Zia Book Award. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Family Magazine, The Orange County Register, Alligator Juniper, Perceptions: A Magazine of the Arts, the “Cup of Comfort” series published by Adams Media, Literary Mama, The Huffington Post and Brain Child Magazine and is a blogger for the TheNextFamily website.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Abuse, Guest Posts, Relationships

Love Thy Neighbor

March 3, 2021
told

By Kelly Wallace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We stood in a circle like a college football huddle.

“We aren’t perfect,” Tuesday said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Relationships

Revenge Outfit

February 24, 2021
roger

By Amy Turner

“Always be dressed like you’re going to run into your ex” was a maxim a friend trotted out recently and I had an urge to fight it. But could also not help thinking about Roger. Roger was a man I dated. A stylish, bitter, brilliant man. A Goop kind of man. Which at a certain age, is appealing. Until there are too many lip balms and you want to be the vain one. The other thing he had was impeccable taste. So, when I began shopping, after we’d broken up, I’d stand in the mirror, looking at a blouse and think: would Roger like this?

It was awful. His ghost floated in the mirror behind me, squinting, the way he had during our relationship. Judging my taste, body, all of it.

Was this the height of low self esteem? Yes!  But sometimes the universe pinches with one hand and provides with the other. Because Roger had no qualms about buying the perfect thing. Whereas I was nothing but qualms, which resulted in piles of ill-fitting bargain dresses.

Until we broke up: and in a fit of rage, I spent money. I will never be superficial and unkind, I promised myself, purchasing a Marc Jacobs blouse. I wore the blouse to an editor’s fashion launch and when I was told I looked fantastic it was true.  Good silk did look fantastic. Previously, I would go to events like that, in a sad poly blend singing out in defense, I am an artist, I am not materialistic! Then I’d walk in and a wave of shame would render me mute. Which is not helpful for writers even if you do go to a lot of therapy.

That ex-boyfriend knew clothes were armor. He knew people thin slice. I remember asking him, why do you judge people externally? Saves time, he said with a laugh. I burned. What a garbage person. What an absolute cretin. But he had asked me to dinner five years earlier I was wearing a safety orange t-shirt, Levis, and combat boots.  So, unless he was turned on by highway maintenance workers, his theory needed work.

Thankfully, we broke up and my re-active era of fancy clothes waned. Sure, it felt nice. But it also felt like a bid for value.  I began looking around my world for a gentler person to put in my dressing room with me. I kicked Roger out and I decided on… my hair colorist, G. Good colorists are prime visual movers and I appreciate healthy tricks/support.  She’s a master of subtle improvements and looks like Los Angeles cool plus health. (If my hair salon doesn’t intimidate me, I’m not interested.) So, now I think would I go see G in this.  I know that if I would feel comfortable wearing it to see her, I’m keeping it.

The things I’m not keeping? The pile on the floor that says: You could wear that skirt to a luncheon, if you could find a matching sweater (What luncheon? Where is the sweater? Is Nixon president?). This dress is an Around The House Dress (Because the print is vile and it is okay to torture people in the house?). Those pants are not the right length but good for work. (Work is asexual, be a corgi! Who cares!)

It is how a lot of people shop. It is not bad, per see. But it leads to purchases that require justifying.  The way my relationship with Roger needed justifying. He is good at constructing drinks involving espresso and tequila. He is not good for going to your folks for Thanksgiving. He is good for making jokes. He is not good for revealing tender dreams. He is good for doing 60 down Beverly in a Bavarian twin turbo engine. He is not good if you want to feel safe. We had a lot of caveats in our relationship, namely I couldn’t talk about my feelings. It’s seemed all his feelings were funneled into the latest Paul Smith shirt he bought. Worn to coffee, the beach, and meetings. Until I ended things and he cursed me for longing for mediocrity/wanting to go the speed limit/feel safe.  But I could not place my heart in a shirt.  Fancy or otherwise.

Now, my clothes can be from anywhere. Zara, Target, or the vintage store on third where I got the Marant blouse that was still too expensive, but they must feel beautiful.  I would be happy to run into my ex in these outfits. Happy to have made it through mimicking his extravagance in my thirties, learning what I value. Which was not what he did.

The adage ‘women dress for women’ is more true for me now, despite being a woman who dressed to run into her ex-boyfriend for a few years. I’m not mad. It tamped out my I’m-a scrappy-art monster-who-will-never-invest-in-herself attitude.  But it’s a relief to not have him hovering in my closet.

Recently, we ran into each other on the street.  He looked me up and down, just like the phantom I’d imagined in my mirror.

When he asked me to dinner, I said no.

Which felt so good, I can’t even remember what I was wearing.

Sometimes, boundaries are the cutest.

Amy Turner lives in Los Angeles and writes in TV.

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Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

Dan Chalmers

January 21, 2021
dan

By Christine Heuner

“He’s doing it again,” Gianna reported at lunch, looking across the cafeteria at Dan Chalmers, his eyes fixed on Rachel.

Gianna nudged Rachel. “Hey,” she said. “Look.”

Rachel flickered her eyes to see Dan’s eyes on her. When he caught her glance, he looked away.

“See,” Gianna said. “Told you.”

“Quit it,” Rachel said, looking down at her anatomy notes.

In anatomy class, Rachel and Dan, both high-school juniors, were lab partners. He took the lead in dissecting a cat, and she was grateful.

She hadn’t noticed him looking at her until hawk-eyed Gianna picked up on it. Gianna also heard from Allison Levy who heard from Owen Lehrer that Dan had a crush on Rachel, and Owen was always a steady, reliable source. The only interaction Rachel had with Dan other than the cat dissection was when she bumped into him in the threshold between the hallway and classroom. They moved to get out of each other’s way, but ended up shifting in the same direction. They smiled; Dan might’ve said he was sorry.

But Rachel couldn’t dedicate her thoughts to Dan. Only weeks ago, she and her best friend of one year, Val, had taken off their clothes in Val’s room while Val’s parents were out. Facing each other in Val’s bed, they made each other feel good. Rachel had never been attracted to another girl, and her lingering feelings about Val confused her. She tried to find other girls attractive, focusing on the swell of their breasts, their curves. She fixed her attention on eyes, lips, hair, but only Val’s dimpled smile, her full, glossy lips, brown eyes, and shoulder-length blond hair, loose and curly, snagged Rachel’s attention. Rachel noticed how good Val looked in her leggings. Her cut-off shirts revealed her belly button and light skin. When Val spoke, she gestured with her hands. Her laugh was as bright as her costume jewelry.

Rachel was excited the next time she and Val were alone in Val’s room; she sat closer to Val than she usually did while Val sketched and Rachel painted with watercolors. When they watched a horror movie, Rachel leaned closer to Val, put her head on her shoulder, and held her hand. They rested their arms on Val’s thigh. Rachel hoped Val might change her position, lean in and kiss her, but she didn’t. Rachel assumed Val was anxious about her parents coming in her room, but another day when Val’s parents were both out to dinner, Val didn’t come closer as Rachel hoped she would. Val never asked to touch her again, and Rachel wondered if Val thought their moment in her bed was a mistake or a distraction from boredom. Rachel’s stomach lifted when she thought of them together, and then fall with shame for what she wasn’t supposed to feel.

Rachel tried to keep a distance between her and Val. She lazed around the house, muddled through chores, watched romance films with tidy endings. She attended to her grades as a distraction and to keep her parents off her case. She memorized the limbic system, math formulas, irregular verbs. She fed and walked her dog Cinnamon, played with her ferret Stella, went out on two dates with Jonas Martino, a senior. He made good money at his part-time construction job and flashed his thick wallet, bulging indiscreetly from his back jeans pocket.

After dinner and a drive through the mountains, where Jonas pointed out his favorite estates, he parked his Jeep in a dark parking lot and pressed his tongue in Rachel’s mouth. He tried to go up her shirt. She pushed him away. “Stop.”

His eyes narrowed in hostile impatience. “If that’s the way you want it,” he said.

She wanted a slow kiss from soft lips, gentle fingers, hair on her cheek, the smell of lavender shampoo, vanilla and honeysuckle. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” she had told Val. “Don’t stop.”

Unable to restrain herself, Rachel cried.

“Holy shit,” Jonas said. “Sorry.”

Rachel wiped her cheeks in quick fury, snapping, “I’m fine.”

As Jonas drove her home, she recalled Val scratching her back, laughing as Rachel murmured, “That feels so good.”

Rachel shivered; chills raised bumps on her arms.

I’ll never be free of this.

I don’t want to be free.

Rachel hung out a few times with Gianna, but only felt an aching emptiness when they sat in her dull blue-gray room, listening to music, gossiping about bullshit. She imagined kissing Gianna, but the thought enticed her as much as kissing her own hand.

Tuesdays after school, Rachel stayed late for Key Club. Her mother wanted her to join more activities, and this was Rachel’s compromise. While she waited for her mother to pick her up, Dan Chalmers approached her in the near-empty parking lot.

“I fixed up my Corvette,” he said, tipping his head vaguely to the right. “Do you want to go for a ride?”

He was the only red-head she knew. He had small eyes and flecks of acne on his cheeks. He smiled hesitantly, as if the wrong word from her might destroy him.

“Sorry. I’m busy. I have all this homework.”

“Maybe we can study together then.”

“I don’t think so.” She shifted her backpack straps.

He came closer to her with surprising quickness. His body was long and lean. “I like you a lot, Rachel.”

She shook her head.

“I think about you all the time.”

“You’ll get over it,” she could have said, but he had been kind to her, slicing into the cat’s chest cavity while she gagged, giving her his notes when she was absent with strep throat.

“Won’t you give me a chance? I’ve had a crush on you for so long.”

And yet she had not noticed it other than what Gianna reported. Now, she wondered if Mrs. Moss, their anatomy teacher, knew about this crush and assigned them as lab partners, hoping for the best.

“I’m sorry. I really am.”

“Is there someone else?”

Unbidden, an image of Val, laughing, dimples pressed into her cheeks, rose to the surface. She shivered, remembering Val’s fingers on her skin.

She shook her head. “I’m just not ready.”

He kicked at the pavement with his black Nike sneaker. “Do you think you could ever be ready?”

“I don’t know.”

He exhaled a labored breath and slouched his shoulders. He was too thin. “Can’t we just go for a drive? The car is great. You’ll love it.”

She couldn’t tell if his persistence was more exasperating than her consistent refusals. It pained her to see his cheeks flushed, the acne more prominent.

“I can’t.” Why was her mother so late?

“You mean you won’t.”

“I guess.”

“Will you at least think about it?”

She nodded, but his expression fell, his hope gone.

As her mother drove home, Rachel imagined telling Val and the rest of her friends about Dan, but decided to keep his agony to herself. Another thought of Val intruded: They got out of Val’s bed that day, naked, a little shy with each other. They handed each other their clothes and dressed in silence. It was a complete moment, a fulfillment of a desire they’d hidden or didn’t know they had. But Val, somehow, stuffed it away. Rachel’s heart sank as if, instead of Dan, she were the one rejected, left alone to suffer.   

Val continued calling Rachel, asking to get together. Finally, Rachel gave in, accepting Val’s request to go to the Halloween bash as zombies. Val had been practicing makeup techniques online. “I can do wounds,” she said. “I’m perfecting the weeping sore.”

Rachel and Val spent hours in Val’s room getting ready. Rachel’s mother, Kate, came to take pictures.

“This is absolutely disgusting,” Kate said, wincing at the bruise on Rachel’s eye, the oozing gash on her cheek.

Rachel gave her mother a look.

“I mean it in a good way,” Kate said. “You’re talented, Val. You should do makeup for Hollywood.” Val beamed. Her lipstick, the deep-red of blood, made her lips look kissable.

At the Halloween bash in the school gym, all the chaperones made Rachel and Val pose for pictures in their ripped flannels and jeans and boots, their hair wild, teased with a comb and hair sprayed. Everyone agreed that if zombies walked the earth, this is what they would look like. The principal created an award for Val, giving her free cupcakes and snacks. She took her fairy godmother wand, a shimmery silver baton with streamers, and handed it to Val.

“Here, my dear,” she said. “You’re queen of the apocalypse.”

 Val laughed and took the wand. “Not sure you want me to be in charge, Mrs. Cullen, but okay.” She pointed the wand at her friends. “Now, who am I going to turn into a frog?”

In spite of the music, played at normal volume, not many people danced; Rachel and Val gathered with Gianna and Gianna’s friend Tara by the bleachers. Rachel startled to see Dan Chalmers, dressed as Pennywise the clown, by her side.

“You look really creepy,” Rachel said. “Who did your makeup?”

“My Dad.” Rachel imagined that Dan came from an intact family like her own. He might have told his father about her, plied him for advice about how to ask her out.

“Your dad did your makeup?”

“Yeah. He has a steady hand. He paints model airplanes and boats.” Dan rocked back and forth on his heels. He would have a good father. That sounded right.

“So,” Rachel said. What else could she say?

“You did a great job on your makeup,” he said. Val, seated not far from Rachel, looked up.

“It’s all Val,” Rachel said. Val turned and smiled. Rachel’s felt a warm pressure in her chest.

“Awesome job, Val,” Dan said, raising his voice and leaning in.

She acknowledged him with a wave of her wand. “I did it by magic.”

“Huh,” he said as Rachel felt herself grow warmer. She knew Dan wanted to speak to her, erase the rest of them.

Rachel noticed that Tara made eye contact with Gianna, opened her eyes wide and tipped her head to the left. Gianna gave a quick glance over her shoulder at Dan and said, “Hey, guys. Let’s get something to drink.” She still had a soda can in her hand.

Only Val looked back at Rachel, shrugged her shoulders, mouthed “I’m sorry,” and, swinging her wand, jogged to catch up with the others.

“That was subtle,” Dan said. Rachel had to smile.

“I didn’t mean to take you from your friends. I just thought I’d come say hi. How are you?” He had to raise his voice a little to talk over “Thriller.” He leaned in toward her, smelling vaguely of Axe. She wondered if he’d put it on, hoping to see her. To impress. He’d helped raise her grade from a ‘C’ to a ‘B+’ in anatomy, and she was grateful, but standing beside him all she wanted to do was escape. She wanted to be with her friends.

“I’m good,” Rachel said, looking away. It was hard to look at the clown makeup without feeling uneasy.

“So, maybe… I was wondering if you might like to go out sometime.”

“Dan—”

“It doesn’t have to be like a date. We could just go as friends.”

But we’re not friends. “I don’t know.”

His voice tensed. “What does that even mean?”

His eyes, black-rimmed, looked cruel; the red slivers of makeup, sharp against the white background, ran vertically from his forehead to the edges of his mouth like ribbons of blood. This and his red hair, thick on top, looked menacing.

“I don’t know,” she said again; sweat gathered on her forehead.

“You think I’m a loser, don’t you? You think I’m pathetic.” His voice was flat; dull.

“No.”

“I am, maybe,” he said, looking down. He tapped his black Nike sneaker against the base of the bleacher. “You know I’m crazy about you. I’ve made it so obvious.”

She looked down at her nails, painted black. Val had decorated her completely.

Crazy about you.

When she didn’t answer, he said, “This is going to sound stupid to you, but I feel like we belong together.”

“How could you possibly know that?” she said, an arch rising in her voice. “You don’t even know me that well.”

He spoke methodically, as if reciting a list: “I know you love animals. I know you’re a good friend, especially to Val. You work hard, you listen well. I like your clothes. Your hair—”

This hair?” she said, pointing at her ragged head, the raised strands stiff with hairspray.

He smiled, but she sensed his latent annoyance at being interrupted. He shifted his position and cracked his knuckles.

“I notice you. I notice everything about you. You’re beautiful, Rachel.”

There was no way to make her escape. She felt dizzy. Trapped. Yet she had an impulse to kiss him on his white, unblemished cheek. She almost smiled, thinking of the silly image: this zombie and clown sharing a moment of affection.

“I don’t like you that way, Dan. I just don’t. I’m sorry. And I can’t go out as friends, pretending… you know. Why waste your money on me?”

He gave her an actual smile. Combined with the painted-on grin, he looked like he wanted to rip her head off. She shivered.

“It wouldn’t be a waste. I’d be honored.”

She shook her head, knowing how ridiculous she must look with her weeping wound and her teased hair, so messy and fake amidst all this gravity.

“I’ve got to go,” she said. She turned around, walked a few paces, then turned back. “I just want to tell you: You’re the bravest person I know.”

After the Halloween bash, Val and Rachel waited outside the gym for Rachel’s mother to pick them up. Val told Rachel she had a boyfriend named Clay who she met online.

Rachel’s head spun and temples throbbed. “Online? Where online?”

“He follows me on Instagram. Does it matter?”

Rachel pressed her with questions: How old is he? Where does he go to school? What does he look like?

“He’s almost twenty-one. He works for a towing company. He has brown hair, brownish eyes. They’re light brown, sort of like maple syrup.”

Rachel looked at Val’s dark lips, the fake blood smeared on her cheek; it looked almost like a bruise under the streetlamps.

“What?” Val asked. “I thought you’d be happy for me.”

Rachel’s chest burned; her stomach lurched. She felt hot; even her scalp prickled. “What about that day with you and me in your room? What about that?”

Val looked away; Rachel could not sense of Val were angry, sad, or simply indifferent.

Rachel touched Val’s arm gently. “Val?”

“It was good,” Val said, though her expression belied her words, her mouth pulled down, her eyes askance. “But you know it can’t be more than that. I—”

“Why not?” Rachel spoke with a new confidence, born of anger. Good wasn’t a strong enough word. She pressed against it.

“Because we’re not gay, Rach. That’s why not.”

Rachel felt dizzy; nausea gripped her. “You know what, Val? You can just fuck off.”

She stepped away from Val just as her mother pulled up in her Escalade. Rachel got in the passenger seat, left Val to sit by herself in the backseat.

At Val’s house, Val said, “Thank you, Mrs. Downey,” and gave Rachel a weak good-bye that she did not answer.

“What is it?” her mother said as soon as Val closed the door. “Oh, sweetie,” she said. “Come here.”

Rachel shook her head; her mother handed her a tissue. Rachel wiped her face, the tissue smeared with red paint that looked like bright blood. Rachel shivered, recalling Val’s fingers on her skin as she applied the make-up, her warm breath on her cheek.

She imagined Val kissing over-aged Clay, her tongue in his mouth, her satisfied smile as she pulled away, gazing into his maple-syrup eyes. Rachel wished she could recall the feel of Val’s tongue upon hers, the taste of her, but she could not. It was as if the entire moment was a fantasy, fake as the costumes Val conjured for them.

When Rachel got home, she ran to the bathroom, stared at the face Val had created: the damaged cheek, the hollowed eyes surrounded with blue-and-purple shadows as if she’d been punched.

At the cafeteria the following Monday, Rachel approached Dan Chalmers at his lunch table, asking quietly if they could talk. He had just taken a bite of a whole-wheat sandwich. She could feel all of his friends looking at her.

“What’s up?” he asked as they stood by the vending machines.

“I’m ready to go out… I mean, if you still want to.”

He paused as if he hadn’t heard her correctly.

“You mean it?” he asked. “This isn’t some bet?”

“Of course not,” she said. “I’m sorry I put you off before.” She noticed his acne had cleared a bit. He wore a dark green Henley that accentuated his light green eyes. He looked almost handsome.

In the dark movie theater, Rachel settled close to Dan. He was hesitant, holding her hand like an egg. He told her she smelled good.

Rachel thought all night about whether or not he would try to kiss her.

In her driveway, he leaned toward Rachel in his Corvette, a barely perceptible motion. She moved in, uniting their lips, touching her tongue to his. She closed her eyes, and she was in Val’s room, Val’s bed.

It was Val’s lips she kissed.

Christine C. Heuner has been teaching high-school English for over twenty years. She lives with her family in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Philadelphia Stories, Flash Fiction magazine, and others.

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Guest Posts, Self Care, Self Image

Resistant as F*ck, part 2

January 14, 2021
body

This is part two of a two part essay.  Read the first installment here.

By Melody Greenfield

Drew agrees to come back later in the week. In preparation for his arrival, I light some candles, curl my hair in loose, sexy waves, and down the requisite two glasses of wine, just like I’d done at the bar. Just like always. I’m uptight by nature, and a bit of vino helps me to relax the way that, years later, yoga nidra meditation will.

Greeting Drew at the door, I feel confident and uninhibited. I go to give him a long kiss, then lift up his shirt and run my hands against his strong, warm abdomen. He tenses up instantly.

“I don’t usually do things like this—sex on the first date,” he confesses in his smooth, sexy voice as he takes a seat in the overstuffed chair. “And now, I don’t know if we’re good together anywhere but here,” he motions over to my bed.

I sit on the ottoman facing him and reach up for his face. I try to pull it towards mine in an effort to comfort us both, but he backs away again—resisting my touch, my advances.

“Stop trying to distract me with your eyes and your feminine wiles,” he warns me. “I know what you’re doing. Focus for a minute. I want to talk to you.”

I attempt to seduce him the way I do every man—with a look that will be his undoing—but he sees right through me, even though he’s half blind.

“Sex too soon…” his voice trails off. “It ruins things. I mean it.” He is opening himself up to me, but I want him to open me up, instead. I decide that if I refresh his memory on our compatibility in bed, it will prove, somehow, that we work well everywhere. “Seriously,” Drew says. “You’re so beautiful and way too smart to be doing these kinds of things. Why do you do them?”

I get quiet for a minute. “I don’t know,” I sigh, looking down. I refuse to say out loud what I already half-intuit. That I want to feel powerful, desired, sought after. That I hope his physical yearning for me will translate, miraculously, into love. That at the same time, I am too scared to delve into something real, for fear I’ll get hurt. My childhood babysitter was right: I do have walls up all around me.

I can stand naked before this man, but I can’t expose more than flesh. That would be riskier than the unprotected sex we’ve already had. Here in this moment, I don’t want to face reality. Or my patterns. So, I lift my chin back up and give him a puzzled look like I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. I suspect though, that by being inside my body, Drew has somehow gained access to all of these answers; to my psyche; to the stories I hold tight in the core of me; to the secrets I bury between my legs. And, of course, this makes him the exception. He may be the first person since the babysitter, who knew me well, to read me in this way. He is that rare soul—unusually perceptive and sensitive to those around him—who picks up on things that others shrug off, just like I’m doing now in hopes of barring him from the truths of me.

It’s not working though. He wants answers. I make my mouth go all pouty and give him my best distracting, sultry stare. Think Blue Steel from Zoolander, only sexier. Maybe that will do the trick, I think, but it’s no use either.

“I’m not going to sleep with you tonight, you know,” he says, disappointed at my blatant attempts at seduction. “We really have to start over if we’re going to do this right,” he continues, softer.

But I have a different idea. Reliant as ever on my sexuality, I wrap my legs around his body and plead for him to touch me. I convince myself that I can make this man love me without so much as knowing me. (To his credit, I should probably know and love myself, first.) I convince myself that a purely sensory experience can open his heart, as I believe it has mine. I convince myself that I’m good at convincing, but again, Drew is the outlier.

“I should go,” he says brashly, the upset visible on his face, in his eye, even in the candlelight.

“Don’t leave,” I plead, my buzz wearing off quickly. I tell him, as I’ve told so many others before him, that I hate it when you go. I yearn, instead, to feel that release, that human connection and contact that drives me. But I don’t share that. Nor do I share that there is a part of me that goes through the motions of sex for the afterward, when the guy pulls you in close and falls asleep with his nose in your hair. Or that listening as a man’s heartbeat slows to a normal rhythm, your ear to his chest, is the closest thing you can get to a real connection with a veritable stranger. Or that watching my partner close his eyes peacefully in my bed is, for me, the ultimate feeling of security.

I never get the chance.

“You left your jacket here,” I inform his message machine and type to his phone mere moments later. “Do you want to come back to get it?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer. Suddenly nauseous, I realize that he isn’t going to reply, that I have sabotaged another potential relationship, alienated another partner, and I am to blame. His forgotten belonging, his fleecy overcoat, serves as the sole reminder of what we shared: the passion, the intensity, the feel-good endorphins I confused for real emotions; the connection I futilely hoped would extend beyond the physical. Alone in the bed we so recently shared, I breathe him in with a pang of regret. If I can’t have him beside me or inside me, at least I can have his sweet scent. I cling to his sweatshirt pathetically, leaving a trail of salt in its soft hood—a realization which makes me think of his manhood and our lovemaking all over again.

***

“We’ll always have real estate in each other’s important zip codes,” Drew tells me some months later, after I’ve informed him of my impending move, and he’s decided there are no hard feelings. I’m not entirely sure what he means by the real estate comment (he often says things that go over my head, and I chalk it up to a mismatch in intelligence—he’s lightyears ahead of me, despite having no formal education beyond the twelfth grade), but he claims it’s a good thing. Something no one can take away from us. Something as resistant as tear stains on a jacket, or so he jokes, after I sheepishly out myself. We’re both giant (albeit good-looking) nerds, and his smart sense of humor endears me to him even more. Fortunately, Drew remains open to texting and talking occasionally. I even manage to convince him that we should celebrate his thirty-first birthday together. He’s not typically one for celebrating, he says, but I insist. I like making a big deal over people to let them know how much I care.

I bring a personalized cake over to his place, a studio apartment in Burbank. I bring his jacket, too. He’s grateful but doesn’t beg me to stay—that night or in the country—as I’d hoped. Instead, after he blows out his candle and makes a wish, he offers to walk me out to my car. I stall by petting Rowdy. That’s a good girl, I say to her, even though I’m totally clueless when it comes to animals. (My parents gave the dog away when I was a baby, and I haven’t had one since.) I’ve always hated leaving, hated being left. But this goodbye is especially tough—especially poignant—because it’s final. In just a few weeks’ time, I’ll be Canada-bound.

His parting words to me: “I really could have loved you, if only you’d let me.”

 ***

I think of Drew occasionally, even now, three-plus years into a happy marriage. That last sentence specifically—more than the smell of him or his touch or the way he saw into my soul— sticks with me. At the time, it gutted me. During quiet, reflective moments, I’ve been known to mouth a silent “thank you” or two into the ether. I like to think he sparked a resistance inside of me—a revolution of sorts. Though we hardly knew each other, despite a physical connection that felt transcendent, even spiritual, the way he cared for my body, loved my body, made me want to care more, too. By the time I met my now-husband Eric, a few months into my international move, I was ready to believe what I now know to be true—that my body is a fucking masterpiece. And it was Drew who laid the groundwork, the foundation.

Ironically, in older homes, like the ones you’ll often find in less-affluent Canadian suburbs, foundations are built of brick as opposed to concrete. Brick—the very material I envisioned when my childhood babysitter told me I had walls up all around me. Drew strengthened the foundation, but he also began to chip away at those walls, brick by brick. Why do you do it? he’d asked about the way I mistreated my body, the implication being: Why don’t you love yourself the way I could have loved you? Maybe it sounds cruel—how he put the onus all on me. But we’ve kept in touch, very loosely, over the years. A “happy birthday” here; a “you were a beautiful bride,” there; and, most recently, an encouraging nod about my writing: “The vulnerability you write with is a gift. More people should be able to read your beautiful words,” he said after clicking on the link to a published essay I’d posted on social media. I know he had the very best of intentions. That he faulted himself for sleeping with me “too soon” as much as he blamed me. We both met our b’sherts—the life-partners we were destined to be with—after we almost-loved one another. It comforts me to think that we launched each other into loves that are an even better fit.

***

If I rewind back to my childhood, I’m confronted by my own fragility: I had a high resistance to, a low tolerance for, heartbreak—despite the hard façade I presented to the world. I feared that men would leave, like my emotionally-absent father already had, so I gave them my body—my amazing, beautiful body, my chef- d’oeuvre—without having to earn it. I was resistant to change this pattern because it had become comfortable, routine. What’s more, I resisted the truth about my own body—its inherent greatness—because acknowledging it would have required a shift: I’d have to start caring for myself the way it cared for me. The way Drew cared. The way Eric still does.

I never had to pray for Eric’s love—he gave it freely, the way I gave myself to the ninety-three men who preceded him. His gestures, his lightness—they reminded me of Drew. Of what might have been but never was. This is intimacy, I thought on our first night together. This is what people do when they care. This is how bodies care. How they love: gently, with small caresses. I want to respect your body, he told me, and he showed me with his actions too, looking deep into my eyes—blue-to-blue. He saw my body as something sacred. As the foundation to build his love upon. The very foundation that Drew had strengthened and simultaneously dismantled.

But I had to do the inner-work necessary to believe him. To believe them: Eric and Drew and all the bedfellows prior. If talk is cheap, pillow-talk is cheaper. Through my Pilates practice, I learned the importance of opposition. In Pilates, we stretch in two directions at once. We press down to go up. Reach forward but pull back. I was learning to be two things at once, too. I could strengthen my bones and muscles—harden my core—without also hardening my insides. I could be as emotionally pliable outside the studio as I was physically pliable on my mat.

In college, I’d written a children’s story about a turtle named Sammy with a tough exterior but sweet interior. I didn’t even know I was writing about myself. A sixth-grade student aptly pointed it out to me after I read the story aloud. (I dabbled in teaching English before ditching the kids and books for adults and Pilates equipment.) Ms. Greenfield—you’re Sammy. You’re the turtle! Strong center, soft heart-center: of course, I was. It was an opposition as true as the Pilates ones I still preach. How obvious it seems now in hindsight.

To some extent, although my walls are low enough for a wolf—big, bad, or otherwise—or a genuine suitor, like my husband, to get in, I wrestle with my Sammy-like tendencies, even today. But I know there’s been a shift, an easing. What protects me aren’t bricks or a turtle shell anymore so much as the physical body I’ve built for myself. (Think: less plaster, more abs of steel.) But it’s not physical perfection I’m after, either. This pièce de resistance is perfect in its imperfections, the stretch marks and scars proof of where I’ve been and how far we—this body and I—have come.

“MELODY GREENFIELD” has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. The LA-native and Pilates instructor has been published under this pseudonym in The Los Angeles Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and forthcoming in HOOT. Her work can also be found under a different name in Brevity, Lunch Ticket, Annotation Nation, and Meow Meow Pow Pow. She enjoys reading CNF, furthering her Pilates practice, and occasionally curling her hair and getting out of stretchy pants to enjoy this pandemic-life with her aforementioned husband. Melody can be found here on Facebook and as @melodygreenfield_writer on Instagram.

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Guest Posts, Self Care, Self Image

Resistant as F*ck, part 1

January 13, 2021

Photo credit: Peak Pilates

This is part one of a two part essay.  Read part two here

By Melody Greenfield

My body is a masterpiece.

Sacred.

A pièce de résistance.  

An amazing doer of all the gerunds: twisting; bending; reaching; rounding; arching; fucking; praying.

But for so long I didn’t regard it as such or even so much as respect it. As a pre-teen and teen, I deprived my body of food. I chided myself for the way I stored fat on my cellulite-ridden thighs. For the way I resembled my pear-shaped, chef-mother. The photos, however, tell a different story: I was thin enough to slide through a fence; I was simply developing faster than other girls my age. What I thought was fat was actually just my new womanly shape (hello, hips!). What I thought was cellulite could only be seen under a microscope if I pinched and squished and otherwise manipulated and contorted my skin. I exercised compulsively (if there was an informercial for it, I owned it), then went through rebellious periods where I was completely sedentary. This pattern continued on into my twenties, when I doubled-down on misusing my body—sleeping with too many men, often unprotected. My type (aside from tall, dark-haired, bespectacled, and Jewish) was whatever was new. Fortunately, my body was resistant…to STIs.

My heart did its fair share of resisting too—always looking to dodge suffering. My childhood babysitter once told me, on a walk around the neighborhood, that I had walls up all around me. I was about seven at the time. Even then, I was suited up in armor to resist hurt and heartbreak. I think she was trying to warn me that, later on, if I continued to keep my guard up, it would be hard to form lasting relationships, which was exactly the point. I pictured a brick structure when she spoke. Think: the indestructible third house in The Three Little Pigs. Impenetrable. Resistant to wolves. I wore those walls proudly for decades because change is hard and scary, hence my resistance to it. The walls kept me safe. If no one could get in, no one could leave, either. Likewise, if my body never changed, I would never become my Jenny Craig- and Weight Watchers-going mother. May Mom never fit into my pants was a secret mantra of mine that I recited even at her thinnest when, on occasion, she tried (and failed) to borrow my jeans.

Judaism teaches that each morning when we wake, we should take the time to appreciate our bodies, aloud. In reciting the Birchot HaShachar blessing, we thank God for the miracle of our bodies—these complex machines that work so hard to keep us alive. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those evenings that I willingly went to bed hungry, ignoring the empty feeling in the pit of my already-flat stomach. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those times that I exercised obsessively—doing jumping jacks on the school yard and then coming home to pop workout videos into my parents’ VCR. Two favorites were The Firm Aerobic Workout with Weights (Volume 3) and Kathy Kaehler’s Strong Legs; she was Michelle Pfeiffer’s personal trainer, and my hope was that she’d make my legs not only strong, but also skinny and cellulite-free. If only I could have conjured this prayer to mind all those nights that I treated my body as so much less than a gift when I gave it away to men who didn’t care, who wouldn’t stay. Your own father doesn’t love you, or so I believed. Why on earth would they?

Since taking up Pilates nearly a decade ago and especially since teaching it for the past six-plus years, I’ve learned to love myself a bit more. To treat this God-given vessel, this container that expertly stores my equally-worthy insides, as something special. To show it a modicum of respect. To celebrate its splendors. Interestingly, in Pilates when we work with the apparatus—complex machines (like our own bodies), designed to stretch and strengthen the limbs—we are often resisting the springs, pushing back against them. Take the Leg Springs series on the Cadillac: We push our legs into the straps, and the attached springs try to bully us—woman versus apparatus—but we don’t let them win. We are the machine. They’re strong, but we’re stronger (especially after years of that Kathy Kaehler routine). Other times, we’re asked to lean into the springs. We allow them to give us feedback. To support us. Take Airplane on the same piece of equipment: We press our feet into the straps and our hands into the metal poles behind us in order to sail through the air. The springs help us levitate. This is how I see my body now—as this magnificent structure that quite literally soars. But what a journey it’s been to get to that place. For far too long, rather than lift myself up, I was the damn bully-spring, fighting myself.

***

December 2013: North Hollywood, California

It isn’t my body but the road I’m focused on as I rush, in my bite-sized electric Chevy, to meet Drew—my date. We’ve been texting for several weeks since both swiping right on Tinder, and tonight we’re meeting face-to-face at a dive bar in North Hollywood, which I’m speeding to straight from a bad day at work. I’m in a new job as an admissions assistant at a small private school, just down the street. This is our busy season with prospective parent tours, so no more leaving the office when there’s still daylight to burn. Stealing a glance in my light-up sun visor, I confirm—to my horror—that my hair, which I’ve deepened for the fall, is having a worse day than I am, even resisting the quick finger-combing I gave it. I also confirm, via the car clock on my dashboard, that I’m seven minutes late for our date. Crap. It always embarrassed me as a kid when my mom ran late, so I try my hardest to value other people’s time.

With the help of street lamps, I can make out a tall, lean Drew—his back against the bar’s entrance—from my parking spot across the street. He’s dressed for the occasion in dark denim and a button-down shirt, which makes me suddenly self-conscious of my own attire: wrinkled corduroys and a sweater that isn’t as figure-hugging as it was when I put it on early this morning. Aware that he’s been waiting for me, I quickly touch up my burgundy lipstick, blot with a tissue from a to-go pack in my purse, check the mirror once more to make sure no tissue bits have stuck on, then dart across Magnolia. The air is brisk in that LA-winter way that feels more like East Coast fall, and I go in straight for the hug (remember those?), hoping to warm up. I’m also convinced that physical contact is the surest way to make my date warm up to me, and it seems to work, too. He pulls me in close, surprising me; so close, in fact, that I can smell the musky cologne on the nape of his neck. When I take a step back, I can see that his pleasant face matches his profile pictures. Delicious, I’m still thinking as we take our seats. I’m drunk on the idea of him—heady and dizzy and floaty-feeling—and this is all before I’ve taken so much as a sip of booze.

Sitting across the table from him, I can finally inspect Drew, close up. He’s thirty to my twenty-nine and six feet tall to my five foot seven. He has even, honey-colored skin and a warm smile. He’s put together, well dressed and groomed. His voice is sexy and soothing, as deep as it is gentle. I find myself admiring his strong, capable hands and the way he effortlessly strings words together. I love an articulate man. What holds my attention most though is not his vocabulary or the timbre of his speaking voice but his eyes. Even in the dimly-lit bar, I can tell there is something off about them—I just can’t quite put my finger on what.

Just then, our waitress whizzes by, creating a brief breeze, and I catch another whiff of that yummy musky man-scent that got my juices flowing and made my head all spinny a few minutes ago. When she swings back around the corner again, I order a glass of Pinot Grigio, then another. Just be normal, I say to myself. Quit staring. I try to distract myself by prattling on nervously about my crappy work day. I’ve had so many of them in this new role, and I’ll have many more before I’m eventually laid off in June, which, I learn, is Drew’s birthday month. Typically, Gemini men and I don’t mix, but I already find myself hoping: Maybe he’ll be the exception. Incidentally, Drew will soon be let go too, only neither of us knows this yet. Nor do we know that sixteen days after his June 9th birthday, I’ll surprise us both by moving in with friends across the globe in Toronto.

In between crisp, fruity sips, I explain that my boss makes me feel incompetent, which, in turn, makes me act incompetently (the ol’ self-fulfilling prophesy at work); I’m worried that too many more days like today—when I was admonished for alphabetizing the touring parents’ nametags in rows instead of columns and slicing the bagels unevenly—and I’ll be sent packing. Of course, I’m right to suspect as much, but Drew does his best to reassure me. Isn’t it possible you’re being too hard on yourself? It’s probably not as bad as you’re making it out to be in your own head (except that it is). I divert his question with humor—“No non-Jewish person should ever correct a Jew when it comes to handling bagels. Am I right?”—then deflect by asking about his job, instead. As it turns out, he’s been a glove designer at the same company for eleven years now.

“Holy shit,” I say. I tell him I admire his ability to stay put and wonder silently if this means he might stick around with me, too.

“I’m blind in one eye,” Drew blurts out. Talk about a non sequitur. “I’m sorry to cut you off. I just needed to say something.”

Crap. He must have noticed me staring. “That’s okay,” I assure him, both about interrupting me and being part-blind. “If you’re willing to share, I’d love to learn more.”

“Well, I wasn’t born blind, but I didn’t get the care I needed, not soon enough anyway. It was too late to save my vision by the time I finally saw a doctor. Please don’t feel bad for me,” he says in response to my doe eyes. “That isn’t why I told you. I just sensed you were wondering about it. It’s no big deal that you were curious. Everyone is.”

I’m ashamed to admit this, but rather than go to a place of empathy or outrage over his negligent upbringing, my mind goes instead to a place of curiosity. To him, I may look concerned, wounded, even horrified, but I’m actually determining where to affix my gaze—that intense look that gets me into exactly the kind of trouble I seek. I’m also worrying that, in staring at his one eye all night, I’ve failed to send out those come-hither signals with my own. I take his hands in mine, tell him I’m sorry about his sucky vision, his suckier parents, and my blatant staring, then invite him back to my apartment to make it up to him.

 ***

Comfortable on my own turf and emboldened by the liquor (which I’m not as resistant to as I like to believe), I begin to kiss Drew. Like my car, the kissing is electric—all tongue and lips. It’s the kind that leaves you lightheaded and that happens when two people either really like each other, have an undeniable physical connection, or both. Hoping for option C, I run my fingers through his hair voraciously. I’m hungry for more of him, greedy for the high that sex brings.

Drew unbuttons my blouse, as I likewise busy myself removing his clothes. This is a man who works with his hands, I think to myself as he expertly undresses me. I am startled, but not revolted, by his many tattoos—a tiger on his chest (my husband has a nearly identical one in the same spot); a symbol of some kind on his left shoulder; a star below his waist; and a quotation written across his ribs—In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king—he tells me later. Gently, Drew licks and breathes on each of my nipples until my entire body warms and responds. He holds me close, and his intoxicating scent—part man, part cologne—fills my nostrils once more. Tenderly, he makes his way down my torso and in between my legs, licking me softly, then sucking on me more aggressively, drawing a figure eight with his tongue.

“Mmmmmmm. You taste so good,” he says, as he reaches his left hand out for my larger breast, and my legs begin to quiver. I pull on his hair, and my body unfolds, submitting to him, wholly. Finally, the build-up becomes too much to bear. I’m cumming!” I shout for the first time that evening but not the last. Before I know it, I am tasting my own sweetness in his mouth and putting his hard condom-less penis inside of me.

“Oh my God,” he says, his hood gently massaging me. “You feel amazing.”

“Yeah?” I ask innocently. I’ve heard this countless times before but never tire of it. Compliments are my crack. I grab onto his firm butt cheeks, moist with perspiration, as he holds onto my face, seeming to see all of me, if only with one eye.

“You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever been inside of,” he whispers sensually in my ear like he knows it’s a portal to my soul. “Your body is perfect,” he goes on as he slides himself in and out of me more gently than any one-night stand has before. Men always praise my physical form—my hourglass figure—but I’m still a few years away from believing that what they say is true.

It does occur to me, for an instant, that Drew is being genuine, but the thought is fleeting, my inner-skeptic loud. I force myself to quiet the noise, to stay present. I kiss him hard, and the shock I feel courses through us both. “You feel amazing too, baby” I tell him, and I mean it. In this moment, as I glance up at him, and we move in sync together, we are utterly connected. It’s like he was made just for me.

“I love fucking you,” he tells me as we near climax, but I hear what I want to hear instead, mentally subtracting one word from his sentence. He is making love to me; he can love me. I am sure of it. In fact, touching me in ways no one ever has before—brushing the wispy, chocolate brown tendrils from my too-pale, too-trusting face; cupping my head with his gentle hands; tickling the tops of my ears; looking deep into me, his thumbs against my now-messy brows—he already is loving me, or so I reason.

Drew places one arm under the small of my back and pulls me in close as he hardens and contracts inside of me. Together, we surrender to the building sensations. I feel hazy and clear-headed all at once. In control and out of it. My heart and groin clamp onto him with equal intensity and, magically, our bodies shudder in unison. He moves to pull himself out of me just then, but I reach for his penis and put it back inside of me, as a rush of semen fills me and makes me whole.

I know it’s dangerous, which is part of the allure. It gives me the kind of stomach-dropping thrill that roller coasters used to until I became terrified of them, without warning or reason. I’ve been on birth control since before my seventeenth birthday, so pregnancy isn’t my concern, but there are diseases out there that, HPV aside, I’ve been lucky enough to dodge. (Thank you, resistant body!) But that’s just it. Taking chances—even big ones—is habit at this point, and I am hooked on it the way I’m now hooked on this beautiful man. On the way he strokes the soft spot behind my ears and uses the tips of his fingers to trace a line from my jaw down to my neck. There is no denying that this is different. That he is different.

We fall into a blissful sleep: Drew’s stomach against my back, his hands wrapped around my small waist (a family trait). Some hours later, he turns towards me—our bodies two crescent moons making a full one—and softly kisses me. It’s late, or rather early, and my date has to leave on account of his pit bull Rowdy. I turn to look at my nightstand and see that the green numbers on the alarm clock read 4:03 a.m. That means his dog has been alone for at least nine hours, and now I’ll be alone, too. He kisses me again on the lips, and this time, it means goodbye.

I don’t feel contemplative or regretful about our night. I’m on autopilot. Groggy and still naked, I take out my list of sexual partners, which by now is thirteen years old and several pages long, front to back. Even in the dark, I can see that my lopsided C-cup breasts are also thankfully round and perky (another genetic win). My nipples, quarter-sized and peachy-pink, harden as my bare feet touch the floor. I’m grateful for the faux marble, which I’ll take over ugly apartment carpeting any day. When I stare down at myself, I don’t love how I look, but when I’m standing upright in front of my closet’s (slimming) full-length mirror, I don’t hate the curves I see, either. Yesterday morning I weighed in at 130.5 pounds—half a pound more than I’d like. I’d jotted that down on a Post-it Note. Now, grabbing a pen from the kitchen, I neatly write Drew’s name down beside the number eighty-five on my ever-growing list. (May my body not follow suit!)

85) Drew M.

I like the way this distinct combination of letters and numbers looks on the page—round and clean—and how his initials, DM, like direct messaging, remind me of the way we first communicated: with words instead of bodies. I like the way committing this act to paper feels—the “8” in 85 conjuring to mind the figure eights he drew on me with his tongue a few hours ago (word-play always makes me smirk), and how writing it down solidifies the experience, makes it real. This really happened. He really happened.

As a teenager and young adult, I kept detailed food journals, cataloguing everything I ingested. A page from seventh grade might have looked something like this:

 

Weekday:

Breakfast: Half a plain bagel and 1 pack of Sour Punch Straws (blue raspberry) from the food truck

Snack: 3 Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine – gave the rest away

After-school: Half a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (blue box)

Saturday:

Breakfast: 2 bowls of Life cereal with nonfat milk

Lunch: 1 Yoplait yogurt cup (peach)

Dinner: Half a chicken tender and a Shirley Temple at Michael’s bar mitzvah

Then, with equal precision, I kept track—am still keeping track—of the men I put into my body: 7 Mikes, 6 Adams, 5 Matts, 5 Jon/John/Jonathans, 4 Dans, 3 Jeffs and a Geoff,

3 Joshes, 21 J-names, 15 M-names, 60 Jews, 40 men from the Interwebs. I like that there’s never been another Drew—just two Andrews and a Dru surname. As I play the night’s happenings back in my head, I shiver. I need socks, and another dose of this man.

To Be Continued…

“MELODY GREENFIELD” has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles. The LA-native and Pilates instructor has been published under this pseudonym in The Los Angeles Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and forthcoming in HOOT. Her work can also be found under a different name in Brevity, Lunch Ticket, Annotation Nation, and Meow Meow Pow Pow. She enjoys reading CNF, furthering her Pilates practice, and occasionally curling her hair and getting out of stretchy pants to enjoy this pandemic-life with her aforementioned husband. Melody can be found here on Facebook and as @melodygreenfield_writer on Instagram.

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Guest Posts, Relationships

Crazy Ex-Lawyer Meets Happily Ever After

December 20, 2020
life

By Jennifer Lauren

It’s four years ago, and I’m obsessed with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

When my husband’s in the bathroom, I repeatedly rewatch the cheaply animated introduction and smile at a wide-eyed Rebecca ch: successful New York lawyer, makes a fortune, corner office, crying her eyes out. She has it all, but she doesn’t want it.

Enter Josh Chan, her never-forgotten high school summer camp love. He’s leaving New York to go home to West Covina, California. As he waxes poetic (“two hours from the beach, four with traffic”), he keeps saying “happy.”

Happy. The word follows Rebecca, mocks her from billboards and commercials. She’s not happy. She should be, but she’s not.

I laugh, then clamp my hand over mouth because my husband is still in the bathroom, and it’s that laugh. You know the one, the half hysterical, teary eyed, holy shit laugh that’s just a little crazy. Because I’m Rebecca. Hell, every woman I know is Rebecca. She’s us after too much wine, in the middle of the night, bewildered by our perfect-on-paper lives and asking, is this it?

“Why isn’t this enough?” women all ask at some point, and then every Tuesday. The rest of us shrug. Because it’s not enough for us either, so we offer a hug and more wine. It’s not like we can do something about it.

I love Crazy Ex-Girlfriend because Rebecca does something about it. She quits the New York job and moves to West Covina. Because she thought she could be happy there. Maybe. Even though she’s kind of chasing a boy.

We call her crazy.

“Wait, no I’m not,” she says. And we laugh at her obliviousness.

Except I don’t think she’s crazy. I’m like – whoa. That would be so cool. I am a successful lawyer. I have the perfect-on-paper life. And I totally want to ditch it and move to West Covina. Well, at least California. Or anywhere sunny. I want to get a dog and walk in the sun and write books. I want to quit my job.

But I can’t, because I have everything.

“You should quit your job. You should write,” my husband says one night when I’ve had a couple mojitos, since I’ve never been much of a wine person.

I think of Rebecca, and I say ok. I put in my very long notice two weeks later. It’s rainy and cold and we don’t have a dog, but I’m happy. I start a novel. I ignore the raised eyebrows and tight smiles I get when I say I’m leaving law.

It’s Christmas Eve.

We are putting cookies out for Santa with our ten and seven-year-olds, and my husband calls me from the bathroom. I’m irritated. I want to get the cookies out and the kids to bed. I want to do the present thing so I can collapse into bed.

He can’t move his left arm. I tell him to sit and he lies down on the floor at my feet.

The doctors can’t believe my marathon-running, kale-eating, 35-year-old husband had a stroke. They run more tests, but they say the same thing. He video conferences into Christmas morning with the kids long before Corona was a thing.

But he’s lucky. The kale-eating, marathon-running thing probably saved his life. He’s fine. No residuals. He goes home the day after Christmas.

The doctors and nurses keep using the words “life changing.” I don’t want my life to change. I quit my job. I’ve changed it enough.

“Some people come away from this full of fear,” one doctor says. “Others decide they will finally live the way they’ve always wanted to live.”

I choose fear. I ask for my job back. I stop working on the novel. I obsessively research stroke recurrence rates. I stop sleeping. Eating. I lose 25 pounds in three months.

After a year or so, I break down completely. Like an overloaded car that can’t go any further, I just stop. I’m afraid I’m going to die. That I’m already dead, having lost some essential part of me forever. In that hospital room. In too many courtrooms. In the moments between doing when I caught my breath and realized I was missing my own life.

It’s two years later when I come up for air, blinking against the rare Seattle sunshine. There’s no magic moment, no Josh Chan on the sidewalk, but slowly, subtlety, “happy” begins to follow me around like a puppy.

I get a puppy. I quit my job. Again. This time I don’t ask for it back. I take yoga teacher training. I decide to finish the novel.

It’s early March, 2020, and a new virus erupts in the nursing home down the street. My daughter’s girl scout troop leader, who works at the elementary school, says schools may close. I startle. That seems extreme.

They close the next day. First for two weeks, then for two months, then for the rest of the year. Then everything else follows. My husband’s office. Shops. Restaurants. Yoga studios. Like the world itself had too much to carry and broke down like an overloaded car.

Now there’s stillness. Like the stillness between the beats of busy that used to make me wonder if I was missing my own life. But I’m not willing to miss anything anymore.

I try to stop watching the news. Instead, I look at houses in sunny cities. Pretty mission style homes near California wineries replace Trump briefings. McMansions by the beach in Florida distract me from daily death counts. I spend my quarantine dreaming of sunshine. Beauty. Living somewhere it doesn’t rain ten months of the year.

I’ve always wanted to live somewhere warm. It’s the last item of my trifecta.

It’s two months into the pandemic. I’m sitting with my husband, noticing the stress lines disappearing from his face. The way he listens more, smiles larger. Working from home is working for him.

I take a breath, remembering when he told me to quit. To write. I don’t expect to say anything, my voice surprises me.

“You can work remotely. Forever. It makes you happy, I can see it. What if we moved somewhere warm? Not when the kids are gone, not when you retire, but now. Because we can.”

I don’t say, because we don’t know how much time either of us have left. Maybe the next time it’s my arm that goes dead, or maybe you’ll lay on the floor and never get back up.

I don’t say this because I don’t have to. It hangs in the air between us. The choice between living with fear and living the life we’ve always wanted.

It’s today, and we’re moving. I tell myself it’s a trial run: we’ve rented a house for three months in Austin, Texas. We can come back. But I don’t think we will.

In the series finale of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca is surrounded by friends. She’s quit law. Taken a break from chasing men. Took singing lessons and written songs. The camera cuts as she opens her mouth to perform for real. For the first time.

My eyes tear up, because I never expected a happy ending for either of us. And here we are, me and Rebecca Bunch, doing something crazy. Slowly putting together the puzzle pieces until we’ve formed a life we actually want. A life we have no right to demand.

It’s ridiculous. Selfish. Stupid. Impossible. Crazy.

Jennifer Lauren is a recovering attorney moving from Seattle, Washington to Austin, Texas. Ever since she wrote her first masterpiece, The Creature, when she was five, Jennifer wanted to be a writerBut life happened, sidetracking her with pesky bills and peskier children. She’s worked as an award-winning reporter at a nationally recognized newspaper; fundraising director for inner city schools; and civil litigator for 13 years. In May 2019 she had a mid-life crisis and quit her day job to write, teach yoga, travel, and chase her dreams. The travel dreams proved ill-timed when the coronavirus hit the U.S. two miles from her home. Check out her blog, Crazy Ex-Lawyer, at jenniferlauren.net.

 

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Guest Posts, Marriage, memories

Find My

November 23, 2020
phone

By Abby Frucht

I’m in bed under the covers, my phone in my hand, my eyeglasses on, locating you. The little bullseye thing twerking I invent a way to feel it in the palm of my hand, green throb with slow glow, the map of back roads and main drags so near to my face I might trace them with my tongue, disentangling them. In my hand your route stabilizes, agitates anew, then blurs to a stop at the dead end curb where that couple once parked to have sex in our yard. In a blend of moon and lamplight they stumbled out of their car and knelt on a spot of grass to fuck. It was three in the morning, just like now, so I sat naked at the window and cranked it open to watch them going right at it, their limbs paler than worms, half in and half out of Bermuda shorts. Undisturbed by their cries, you twitched in your sleep, dreaming of tennis. Later you were grateful I didn’t rouse you to join in spying on them, and so was I. It would have been like the two of us watching a movie, one I liked but you didn’t. It was way too predictable, you would say. It took forever to get there but you knew all along what was going to happen.

You’ll turn seventy three a week from this morning.

You like to joke about death, especially now, including me in the bargain.

“G’night,” I might say. “See you tomorrow.”

“Hope so,” you’ll say.

“Let me know what we should order for curbside pick-up.”

“Bones,” you’ll say.

The little cursor reconsiders and makes its way to your parking place in our driveway. To see it blinking there fills me with panicked rage. My own pulse climbs, as it did last night and the night before. My feet turn cold. I don’t like to be tricked. I don’t trust this app. There are all sorts of ways for someone smarter than me to make fools of the rubes on the opposite end of it. Even if I get up and prowl barefoot outside to see your truck where it belongs, I won’t believe what I’m seeing. I’ll feel cheated, let down, since you’re not out and about in the midst of this scourge, so I can’t stalk you any longer, follow you around. Instead I shut down the phone, then turn it back on and start the whole app up all over again, provoking myself, stoking my adrenaline in preparation for catching you clicking shut the truck door, backing out of the driveway, gliding away.

Locating… the phone confides.

It works more quickly this time, more confidently.

Oshkosh

Now

Careful not to make a sound, I snake my arm through the blankets to set my glasses and phone atop some books on the night table. My head still undercover I shimmy sideways until one of my feet meets yours. I jerk it away, then slide my whole leg nearer and sneak my toes between your ankles to get them warm.

You keep on snoring.

You in our bed.

Our bed in our room in our house on our street in this town in this world.

Now.

Abby Frucht is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and most recently, poetry. She has been published at Narrative, Virginia Quarterly and in Brevity. Her writing has received a Best of the Web citation as well as the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. She has published nine books, the most recent of which, Maids, is a collection of poetry.

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Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

AND HERE WE ARE AGAIN, DANGLING

November 6, 2020
his
Hi! Jen, Angela and I are thrilled to welcome you to Fiction Fridays!  On the first and third Friday of each month, we will feature fiction, so take a break from all the chaos and read a story or two as you head into the weekend. You’ll be happy you did, we’re sure of it.   TGIFF!  –Francesca

By Francesca Louise Grossman

I sit crisscross applesauce on our shag rug, balancing a cup of cold coffee on my thigh. Emily, my two-year-old, is sitting next to me on the floor eating weeks-old Cheerios she unearthed from the couch. My first thought is thank God I don’t have to get up to get her breakfast. I know in my heart this is wrong, she deserves new Cheerios at least. But Emily woke up at 4:40am this morning and my limbs are lead. I have no more energy to give and it is only 9:30 am.  

But still. In many ways, this morning is a vacation. Until my husband and son return from their church camping trip, I am off my usual incessant duty. Emily I can handle, even with her ghastly wakeup times. She is sweet, calm, often docile. She’ll watch Dora or Wonder Pets and give me thirty minutes of peace. She contrasts so drastically from my son Ethan, who, at six, has been diagnosed with ADHD and simply can’t sit still. And she exists in deep contrast to my husband, Benjamin, who hasn’t been calm one day in the twenty years I have known him.

Aside from Emily’s chewing, the house is mercifully quiet. 

I lean my head back on the couch cushion. The wonders of motherhood include being able to sleep sitting up with your eyes slightly open. 

My phone buzzes and my awake-nap is interrupted. Of course. 

“Hello, Heather, hello?” The voice sounds vaguely familiar, but honestly it could be my mother. 

“We called you before but it went straight to voicemail,” the woman continues. 

Who is this? 

“I have called Benjamin’s cell phone a number of times,” she said. 

I think it is the church lady, the woman who is running the camping weekend. Oh lord, what has Benjamin done now? 

I look at the time again and realize they should be on the bus home by now.

“What’s the problem exactly?” I put my coffee on the coffee table and heave my body up onto the couch. 

“The problem, Heather…is that your husband and your son have not returned to camp, and we have been waiting over an hour. It seems they are…missing.”  

I laugh out loud at her delivery. “Is this like a murder mystery game or something?” 

I’m not kidding. An elaborate real life player game would be right up Benjamin’s alley. Driving everyone crazy would also be. 

I can’t see her but I swear I can hear her eyes rolling. 

“Maybe it’s the reception?” I say. “Maybe you could try calling him again?”

“The reception here is fine, Heather.” She is saying my name too many times. “I’m honestly not sure what to do, the bus has to leave. Benjamin knows this.”

The church lady is right. Benjamin knows that the church trip started on 10 am on Saturday and ends on 10am on Sunday after one night of camping in the woods. 

“A full 24 hours!” he had said to Ethan, trying to convey how exciting that was. “We’ll have so much fun!” 

I remember thinking, a 24 hour break from their frenetic energy, God IS Good. 

“Well you can’t leave them there.” I say. 

I try to remember what this woman looks like. She’s the family coordinator of the church, and in my memory, she looks exactly like she should. A little plump, wavy brown hair to her chin, glasses on a chain against her very ample bosom. High mom jeans. Keds. 

“Heather, we are not planning on leaving them here. We called the police.” 

“The police?” This seems aggressive to me. “I don’t think that’s necessary. They probably just wandered off.” 

The woman (maybe her name is Janice?) sighs and I understand. 

“He was drinking?” I ask.

At first she doesn’t say anything, but after a few moments she replies. “All of the adults had some wine and beer last night,” she says. “I didn’t partake.”

“Please don’t protect him,” I say, pinching the skin between my eyes. 

Now I see that things might be as bad as she suggests. He had promised. He had said he wouldn’t even bring anything to drink. 

My mind goes from annoyed to worried to livid. I’m sure he’s just sleeping somewhere, probably with Ethan curled up in his lap. How many times am I going to have to get Benjamin out of trouble? How many times am I going to have to come save him? 

But then my stomach sours. What if they aren’t just sleeping somewhere? What if something is actually wrong? 

My palms sweat and the back of my neck erupts in goosebumps. I fume and worry simultaneously. I know this feeling. This is the feeling of being married to Benjamin. 

 

Janice sighs again. “Well, I think Benjamin had quite a lot. He was singing well after the kids and most of the adults went into their tents. I had to poke my head out twice to shush him. No one saw him this morning. No one saw either of them.” 

“Dammit. Are the police there yet?” 

“On their way.” 

“OK…”

Emily has squirmed away from me, her two year old body wriggling in between the couch and the wall. She likes to do this when she’s nervous. She must hear the frustration in my voice. 

“So when will you be here?” Janice asks. 

“Be there?”

“Yes, I’m going to stay behind. The bus is going to take the rest of the families back to the city. You need to come here to talk to the police.” 

Of course. I hadn’t really thought it through, but of course. I have no doubt that by the time I drive the hour and a half to the campsite, Benjamin and Ethan will be sipping juice boxes and catching spiders, but clearly I can’t say no. 

“OK, I’ll be there.”

“Good.” 

I pull Emily from her slot and she reacts by bowing her back and screaming. My 4:40 am brain pulses in pain and I drag her to the kitchen to grab random snacks that I’ll throw at her as we drive into the low mountains outside of Boston. She’ll sleep most of the way. I’ll do my best not to. 

When we arrive, the rain has started, the world outside of the car blurry and surreal.  I hear dogs barking up the hill. Those can’t be…police dogs?

I unstrap Emily and hike her onto my hip. Benjamin, I think, what have you done? 

I run as well as I can with a toddler on my hip up the muddy hill towards the crowd. I almost barrel into a police officer who looks more like Smokey the Bear than anyone from Law and Order. 

“Hello Ma’am, I’m Officer Bugg. You’re the wife?” 

“The mother,” I say. “And the wife. Heather Marlow.”

“We’re doing the best we can. It’s raining, which makes things harder. We’ll find them.” 

“So you think this is serious? I mean…it’s really a problem? They’re like actually missing?” 

“That’s how it looks, yes.” 

My mind spins as I recalibrate my experience. My baby is missing. Ethan!

“What can I do?” I ask and Emily starts to whine, upset I yanked her from her dreams. 

“Well. A few things. Questions. Does this happen often?” Officer Bugg asks.

Which part? I think. The part where Benjamin drinks so much that he goes off to who knows where and comes back who knows when? Or the part where he takes Ethan with him? 

“No,” I answer.

“One other question…and I have to ask. How are things with you and your husband? Would there be any reason for him to take off with your son?”

The question smacks me across the face. Things with Benjamin have not been good. They have not been anything, if I’m honest, for quite a while. He drinks, I duck out of his way until he sobers up. He makes promises, like he will not drink on the church camping trip. He lies. I forgive him. There have been periods of our relationship when this happens. But it always straightens itself out. He gets sober. Sometimes for months and months. One time it was over a year. In those times we eat breakfast together, he makes the four of us eggs and pancakes. His long hair stays tucked behind his ears. He rubs my feet, thanks me for sticking with him, tells me how much he loves me. But lately we are in a slump. A bad patch. One that has me sniffing his coffee cups in the middle of the afternoon.

“We’re fine,” I lie. 

He would never hurt me on purpose. He would never take Ethan away from me. He would never do anything more than what he always does: punish himself for the sins he believes he can’t help but make. 

I put Emily down on the ground, even though it is muddy, and let her squish the wet earth in her fists. I see Janice a few yards away but I don’t move towards her. She glares at me with what feels like the wrath of God. My head pounds and the dogs bark louder. I close my eyes. 

Benjamin. 

It took him exactly one minute to win me over at an off-campus party in our college town in upstate New York. He strode across the room towards me and I pretended not to have been watching him. His gangly frame navigated the space with such elegance. I remember thinking, that man must be a dancer. He all but sashayed in front of me, his cheeks red, his hair sweaty, and handed me a beer. He tipped his bottle and his head in my direction. 

“Benjamin Marlow,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.” 

There was something about the way he said that, like he was truly pleased, along with the smile he offered through his green squinted eyes, that made me pay attention. We danced that night in a sea of sweaty friends of friends, Benjamin’s hand holding me by the small of my back, one of my arms resting on his shoulder, my head thrown back in endless laughter. 

When he asked me to get out of there, I went. His gaze ignited something in me, a do-good midwesterner with only two boyfriends in my past. I couldn’t get enough. I didn’t want to. I still don’t. 

But sometimes…

After we had been dating for about six months Benjamin told me he had given up cocaine and hard liquor the year before we met. We were lying in bed, polka dot sheets in a mess at our feet. 

“But you still drink,” I said.

“Beer.” 

“That doesn’t count?”

He smiled and shrugged. “Seems to be OK.” He turned over so we were both facing the ceiling. 

“What made you quit?” 

“I became stupid,” he said, and dove at me, covering my questions with his mouth. 

I later learned he had crashed his car into a storefront. He spent five months in jail, did community service for eighteen. 

“I never would have forgiven myself if I hurt someone,” he said, crying. 

“Or if you hurt yourself,” I said. 

He leaned over and kissed my head and I drowned in the heat of him.

Over the years Benjamin’s addiction has been another person in our relationship. It lives next to us, always leering, waiting for Benjamin to tip his head in its direction instead of mine. I do everything I can to keep it at bay, but I am not strong enough for both of us. Especially since we had children. I love him, but I can’t always love him enough to stop his pain.

People believe that loving an addict is wrong. That it’s important to let them go, fight their own demons, live with their own bad decisions. 

“Heather? Ms. Marlow?” 

It’s clear the detective is getting annoyed with me for drifting off into my mind. This is how I think—in tangents and circles, even in stressful times—but it doesn’t seem the moment to explain.

“Yes, sorry.” 

“The dog found something.” 

I turn to see a dog in a navy blue vest racing through the trees. I don’t think, I run after him. 

“Ms. Marlow!” I hear the detective yell at me, but I don’t stop. 

“Watch the baby!” I scream to him, and I look back for a second to see her trying to climb up his leg. 

I fly through the trees behind the dog. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, Ethan I say in my head to the beat of my feet. I slip and slide around in the muddy leaves on the forest floor. Somehow I stay upright and keep running. 

Abruptly, the dog stops. I slow down and watch him, as he sniffs at the bottom of a tree, one with a straight section of bark right at the bottom. They were here, I think. Benjamin would have led Ethan to rest here. This is a perfect resting tree. 

The dog sniffs more, takes off again. We go in the direction of the lake. 

We run to the edge of the water, the majesty of the foggy hills trying to make its way into my psyche, but all I can hear is the labored breathing of my mantra. Ethan…I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

The dog splashes into the water and I follow, quickly waist deep in the murk. I can’t see the bottom but it feels mushy and uneven under my boots. The rain pelts the lake water around me like tiny bullet holes. The dog swims in a circle. My brain starts to understand what it means that I am in the lake with a German Shepherd barking and police stampeding and my son and my husband are missing. 

I hear a wail from somewhere that feels like the core of the world, but I realize it’s from my stomach. I have abandoned anger and have landed in full blown terror. I start to swim, and I make it a few feet before my arms and legs give out. Someone grabs me from behind and I buckle. 

They drag me out of the lake. The dog stops barking. The air falls silent. 

“What does that mean….the dog…. did he find something?” I’m pleading with the officer who dragged me out, pulling on his jacket with two hands. Another officer is behind us holding Emily, muddy in his arms. I take her, bury my head in her hair. She smells like baby shampoo and sweat. Someone has wrapped a wool blanket around her, and now they lay one on my shoulders as well.

  “It doesn’t mean anything. It ran cold. The rain makes it hard,” the officer says. 

I squeeze my baby tighter and shut my eyes. In a million years I will never forgive Benjamin for this. I will never let him back into my house. And if the lord in heaven keeps Ethan alive, I’ll spend the rest of my life serving only him. 

I hug my daughter, as if squeezing her compensates for me allowing my son to go missing. 

“Mama,” I hear, and squeeze Emily. “I know you’re cold baby.” But I look at her, and she has fallen asleep on my shoulder. 

“Heather, we should go back, the dogs will keep going if they can…” Detective Bugg is talking, but I’m not listening. 

“Mama,” I hear it again. Quiet, a breeze of a word.

“Shh, wait, do you hear that?” I ask. I put a hand on the detective’s arm to quiet him. 

“Hear what?” 

I shift Emily to my other side and listen into the air. Are the trees mocking me? Am I starting to hallucinate? 

“Mama?” 

No, that’s real. I can hear that. It is not in my head. I turn, scanning the crooked forest. The rain blurs the trees in front of me, but the voice is clear. “Mama!”

A small square of yellow pokes out behind a pile of brush about fifty feet from us. Ethan? I stumble toward the yellow square and it moves, showing me a little more of a t-shirt I know well. I have washed this t-shirt a thousand times. 

“Ethan!” I scream and sprint towards the brush, Emilly bouncing against my shoulder. Ethan! He’s there, he’s alive. Oh thank God. I’m going to kill Benjamin. 

I skid into the wet leaves and hook myself around my baby boy, wet and shivering. I kiss his head and open my blanket, wrapping the three of us into our own world, as things should be. 

“Oh Ethan baby, I’m so happy to see you.” I hug him until he winces. I lighten up. 

“Honey where were you? Where’s Daddy?” 

“He saved me,” Ethan says. 

“Saved you from what?” 

Ethan is small, but not too small to explain things. 

“Saved you from what, baby?” I ask again. 

He starts one of those endless sentences little kids say. “There was a monster and it was chasing us last night through the forest and we came here and hid but I slipped and fell into the lake and he saved me from the lake.” 

Ethan can’t swim. Benjamin can’t swim much either. 

The officer comes up behind me, squats to our level.  

“Good to see you buddy. Let’s get you guys all warmed up and checked out,” he says, putting a hand on my back. 

“But what about my… he could be…” I scoop my baby boy into my arms and stand up, both of my children velcroed to my skin. 

“We’ll keep looking.” 

We walk back to the campsite very slowly because I carry both my children, Emily sleeping soundly, Ethan coughing lightly. 

“Ethan,” I ask again. “Where’s Daddy now?” 

 “Maybe he’s fighting the thing.”

It takes much longer to get back than it took to get there—the weight of the kids, the mud caked into my boots, and the fear. The fear that Benjamin is gone. 

I want to kick myself. I let my guard down. Maybe I just love him too much. The problem with loving someone who disappears all the time is not that they let you down, it’s that you let yourself down. Every single time you think it’s over, it has just begun. It doesn’t matter how healthy they become, how self-righteous, how strong. It doesn’t even matter if you believe them. It’s what it does to you to love something that isn’t true. That’s the hardest part. When you sit there with their broken pieces talking to your broken pieces. And here we are again, dangling. 

I exhale a breath I have apparently been holding.

When we get back to camp I lie my children down inside a makeshift tent the police have raised. The EMTs want to check Ethan, so I rouse him but he won’t let go of my hand. I lie down next to him.

“Ethan, where did Daddy go?” I ask him again.

He shrugs again. He doesn’t seem scared, just confused, and I realize that’s a better state for him to be in for the moment. 

One time I found Benjamin swaying next to a canyon on one of our hikes. 

“Step back you idiot!” I called. 

“What would I do without you?” he answered, backing up, but I swear I saw a little bit of wistfulness in his eyes.

It’s hard to think that the person you’re married to would rather be dead than be with you. 

I need to focus. He saved Ethan. I believe that. Was he thinking he was a superhero or a failure? Those are Benjamin’s only two modes. Did he jump in because Ethan was really in trouble? Or did he think he’d learn to swim like a fish in the time it took for him to hit the water? Like a chick can all of a sudden fly?

My children are sleeping again. 

“He’s in a bit of shock, and has a low grade fever, we’d like to watch him at the hospital,” the EMT says, picking Ethan up and laying him on a cot. 

As if from above I see myself nod, scoop up Emily, follow the gurney into the ambulance. “Where’s my husband? I ask the air, but no one answers. 

The trip down the mountain is fast in an ambulance. Ethan is fully awake now, excited by the speed. The EMT even blares the siren for him, and Ethan beams.

“Daddy will love this story,” he says. 

We get to the hospital and I fill out paperwork. Somehow my parents are there though I don’t remember calling them. They hug me and take Emily. 

“We’ll hold onto her tonight,” they say. 

I follow Ethan into an exam room. He’s still wet, and they give him a johnny to wear while they check him. He finds it hysterical that it is a dress with no butt. He tells me again how much Daddy is going to love this. 

I check my phone incessantly. Will they call me if they find his body? Will they come tell me in person at the hospital? How do these things work?  

I jump whenever anyone enters the room, sure it is an officer, delivering the fate of our new lives. 

They want to check Ethan internally. It was stormy, things were flying around in the water, just in case. They sedate him to do an MRI, they say that’s the best way to do it. As I watch my son go under, I see the face of his father fade away from me too. 

I sit outside the MRI room to wait for my son. My parents call to tell me Emily is fine, playing with the duplos they bought her, about to have supper. Someone comes up behind me, I can feel them standing there, waiting to tell me something. A doctor. A police officer.  If I don’t turn around, it will not be true. 

I turn around. 

Benjamin stands behind me, an arms length away, like he knows I might hit him if he comes any closer. 

“Heather,” he says. 

I look at him. His clothes are rumpled and off center, his hair is slick down on one side and standing up straight on the other. His face is creased, his eyes squinting. A familiar, musky smell of last night’s alcohol wafts off of him and straight into my nostrils. But it’s his hands I focus on. They are twisting a yellow tissue around one finger, cutting off the circulation, then letting it go, wrapping it around another finger, doing the same. I know this tic. This is the tic of my husband when he is right on that edge. He’s squeezing his fingers, but he’s imagining his throat. 

“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I don’t know what happened.”

The air feels so heavy. “Yes you do,” I say. 

Benjamin nods, rocking himself back and forth on his heels, nodding with his whole body, twisting the color out of his hand. 

“We were having fun. Things were fine. And then, he went in, and I went in and I don’t know.” 

My rage boils up and over and I push Benjamin with two hands against his chest. He falls easily, like he was being held up by reeds. 

“You DO know!” I scream. “You almost killed our kid, you piece of shit!” 

I look for somewhere to go but I’m waiting for Ethan to come out of the MRI, so I can’t go far. I walk to the other side of the room, sit on an orange plastic chair, cross my legs, folding myself into the smallest ball I can. 

“You’re right Heather,” Benjamin says. 

There’s no one else in the small room, and it’s as if his voice is everywhere. 

“I know I’m right.”

The door opens and they wheel Ethan into the hallway, beckoning me to come. Benjamin tries to follow us.

“Go home Benjamin,” I say. 

He nods. 

I follow the nurses and Ethan. Ethan is OK, nothing major is broken or punctured or collapsed. I breathe smoothly for the first time in hours. 

“We’ll watch him tonight, then he can go home with you in the morning,” the doctor says. “Why don’t you go home and get some things, we can bring in a cot for you.”

I nod and somehow get myself home in a cab. 

The house is dark. 

I walk in through the garage, flipping lights as I go. I can’t remember the last time I ate anything. I see a box of granola bars open on the counter and I grab one, bite it open, scarf it down. 

“Benjamin?” I call into the silence. 

He doesn’t answer. A chill starts at the back of my neck and zips down my spine. He’s here. I can feel him here. I can smell him. I listen for the shower and hear nothing. 

I tiptoe through the house, turning on lights, my throat closing.

Please God. I can’t do this today. Please let him not have done this. 

Every step of the staircase amplifies my worry and also my fury. No Benjamin, don’t. But I’ll understand. The two truths that eat at me always. I’ll be lost if he kills himself and I’ll also be relieved. I have never said this aloud before, but it is the truth. 

I reach the top of the stairs and it’s silent. Oh Benjamin. I tiptoe down the carpeted hallway, leaning against the wall, sliding towards our open door. The door would be closed, if he…wouldn’t it? 

I find him on the floor of our bedroom, sitting with his back against the bed. 

“Heather…” he slurs when I walk in. 

Somehow in the hour since he’s come home, he has gotten fall-down drunk again. I wonder if he was drunk at the hospital and I just didn’t see it. 

“Heather…” 

I hate hearing my name in his mouth when he’s like this. I can’t reason with him now. It’s not worth the fight we will have, my throat that will be raw from crying and yelling. Most likely he will remember none of it. 

“Go to bed Benjamin,” I say, shoving some clothes and my pills into an overnight bag. A hairbrush. One less thing to deal with, I hear my mind saying, and I am so ashamed. 

He looks at me, his eyes bloodshot, his face blotchy. He has not showered. The smell of murky lake mixes with the stench of sweaty scotch and it’s enough to make me gag. 

“I’ll never forgive myself Heather,” he says, and he’s crying now, his face crumbling into a mask of despair I have seen so many times before. 

I can’t go to him and hug his head to my chest like he’s my child. I have an actual child to take care of. I can’t always save him. 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive you either,” I say. 

He reaches out a hand and I know he expects me to grab it. I know that when I leave, he might not be able to pull himself out of this. I walk by his outstretched arm anyway.

I pack a small bag for Ethan and grab my phone charger from the hallway outside our room. I hear the whimpering from the bedroom but I keep going down the stairs. I love him and I hate him. I want him to be OK and I want him to drink himself to death right there on the rug. 

I go to the garage. My van is still in the woods somewhere, I realize. I go back in and get Benjamin’s keys, listening for something major. A yell or maybe even a shot, but the air is silent. He’s probably sleeping, drooling onto the rug.

I climb into Benjamin’s 80’s Volvo, a car that should have died long ago but somehow keeps on. I take a breath and it smells like my whole past. Peppermint gum, sunflower seeds, scotch, beer, cigarettes, air freshener, tulips, pine, babies, cheerios, construction paper, glue. I feel him around me, his strong arms hugging me from behind, resting his chin on my head. It always hurt a little when he did that. 

I could get out of the car. I could go upstairs and fold myself into Benjamin’s body, rub his back, help him throw up. I could promise him things I don’t believe. 

I sit in silence for what seems like a very long time. 

Eventually I turn on the ignition and pull slowly out of the garage. I have someone else to take care of. 

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest Station, Ed Week, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, and The Huffington Post among others. She runs writing retreats and workshops internationally, and leads an annual intensive workshop at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and a Doctorate from Harvard University in Education. She has written an acclaimed instructional manual: Writing Workshop; How to Create a Culture of Useful Feedback that is used in universities and workshops all over the world. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband and two children and is currently working on a memoir and a novel. Francesca is an editor at The ManifestStation.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Relationships

Dear You Who Now Hates Me

October 15, 2020
daughter

By Caroline Leavitt

Today, after two years of silence, an email arrives from you and my hands are shaking when I read it. I despise you. You are dead to me. I want nothing to do with you. I hope you have a miserable life and you know the same brutal suffering you have caused me because you are evil. You are pathetic and unlovable.

As always, you put your words in all angry bold caps, each one carrying an embedded sting, meant to hurt. You think I have done something unforgivable, something horrific to you. But I’m not certain what it is and why I am the target of your ire. All I know is that your personality has totally changed and I don’t know how to be with you any longer.

It wasn’t always this way, was it? You and I grew up together  as sisters, you three and a half years older than me, but we were more than that, more than friends. We both were big readers and we both wanted to be writers, and we walked all the way to the Star Market and back to buy big block pads that we would write in together and illustrate, novels, we called them, always about a girl who had adventures at camp, or at boarding school or on a schooner. We worked on our stories all the time because hey, we planned to be famous, cool authors. As we grew, so did all the adventures we had together, going to movies and sneaking into double features, walking to Belmont to go to Filene’s and shop. You were the one who taught me how to iron my curly hair, and dress cool in lace-up the leg sandals of yours I got to borrow.  And you were the one who protected me from my father’s brutal moods, his screaming, who kept me from my mother’s endless rages about how I was too fresh, too independent, too messy and ugly and of course I didn’t get in the school play because who would put someone who looked like me on a stage? I never knew why, but our parents left you alone, so I stayed closer to you, so maybe they would leave me alone, too. And they did.

***

As teenagers, we were so joined at the hip, that you invited me on your dates with your boyfriends, introducing me to clubs and fancy restaurants, letting me wear all of your clothes, which were much hipper and cooler than anything I had in my closet. You made me feel special and a part of your world. When men stopped you on the street because you were so beautiful, you ignored them, focusing on me.

But then things changed dramatically, and I couldn’t figure out how or why. They say a personality change can start at adulthood and maybe that’s true, maybe that’s what happened to you. You, who could have had any guy you wanted, dropped out of college one credit shy of a degree, and married at 19, a dull, critical boy who was so wrong for you that I wept,  “Don’t do this,” at your wedding right before you stepped onto the alter and bonded your heart to his. And then boom, boom, boom, you moved to a stomach cramp of a town away from Boston and boom, boom, boom, you got pregnant, with a son and then a daughter. And when I came to visit, beaming, happy to see you, the air felt charged. You were different, overwhelmed by motherhood. The spark was gone and worse, you wouldn’t speak to me. You snapped and asked me when I was going home. You yelled when I picked things up in your apartment to look at them. “Put that the fuck down,” you said. Later, you said, “I’m just unhappy.” You told me you never should have married, that the kids overwhelmed you. “You can leave,” I told you. “You can live with me or live with our mom.” You shook your head. “No,” you said. “I can’t.

Okay, let’s be honest here. I didn’t really realize the depth of your unhappiness back then. No, I was busying being young and selfish and wild at college, sleeping my way through the alphabet at Brandeis because I was so astonished that here were men who not only liked me, but wanted to share my body. You didn’t approve and said I should be more stable, but you didn’t approve when I moved to New York City, either, which you said was dirty and dangerous. You didn’t like it when I experimented with drugs and you and your husband both yelled at me. “I’m disappointed in you,” you said. “You never used to be like that.” Your disapproval stung.

I stayed away from you after that, still young and selfish, I admit, until your daughter went into third grade and suddenly there was a story she had written in my mail box, about a lonely little girl who goes to see her “crazy aunt in New York City,” and who is rescued by a mouse. “Is this me?” I asked you, wondering what you had told her about me, why you used the words crazy. “Of course not,” you said, “the mouse is the hero, not you,” but still I wondered. I called your daughter to tell her how I loved the story. Her voice was soft and shy, and I heard you yelling at her not to tie up the phone. Poor little sweetie, I thought. Maybe I should get to know her.

But I was still busy being wild, and I didn’t want to come to your small boring town. I wanted you to all come visit me in Manhattan, but suddenly, you who had been so brave, so adventurous, were afraid of everything. You wouldn’t fly or drive or travel. You wouldn’t even pick up the phone for food to be delivered. You who had once been a stellar teacher now couldn’t hold down jobs and were fired for what you said were mysterious reasons, but you wouldn’t say what those reasons were. One by one by one, your friends fell away. “They betrayed me,” you said, but you couldn’t tell me how. You began to snipe harder at me, your casual cruelty about my looks, my writing.

I tried to help, to make you happy, to try and fix things, but none of it went over well. When I sent you books I loved, imagining you pouring over them, lost in their worlds, you told me they all stunk. When I sent you clothing, you tore up silk shirts and linen pants with scissors and then mailed them back to me with notes that said: you like this, I don’t. I had a necklace designed and made for you, and you tied it into knots and threw it in an envelope to me. One day on FB, you attacked all my friends over a discussion about how much we all loved thrift stores. You called them stupid middle-aged bitches who should get jobs. When people protested or tried to explain, you used all caps to tell them to all go fuck themselves because you would not be silenced. But you were, because I blocked you then, and that made you furious, too. “Why are you so angry at me?” I cried.

We didn’t speak for months after that time. Not until my fiancé died, and I fell apart and called the one person who had always been my anchor when I was so young: you.  I begged you to come and be with me, you said you couldn’t, that your daughter had a slight cold. It wasn’t until our mother, still alive then, got on the phone, her voice sharpening, that you did come, but you stayed for just half an hour, and then, while I was crying for you to stay, please stay, because I needed you, you got your coat and took a plane back home. You didn’t come to the funeral or call me or even talk to me for a whole year while I drowned in grief, and in the end, because I missed you, I still loved you, I still wanted a relationship with you, I called you. You listened on the phone, but you never apologized. Instead you blamed me because you said I  hadn’t been appreciative enough that you had come at all. You said only, “I’ll try to do better.” I loved you, so of course I believed you.

You didn’t do better for me. But surprisingly, inadvertently, your daughter did. When she was fifteen, she called asking if she could visit me and my new husband Jeff. “My mom says it’s okay,” she said, which surprised me. When she arrived, her face tense and miserable, her hands thrust into an old army jacket that I recognized as mine. Of course we took her in! She was your daughter, wasn’t she? Of course we fed her and let her stay all that long weekend, checking in with you to make sure it was okay, and after a day or two, she got relaxed enough to tell us the part of your story we didn’t know. She told us how unhappy she was, how she was supposed to act as a conduit to you, even when she was little, calling people you were unhappy with. She took the blame for the things you did wrong. You shouted at her constantly and berated her. She couldn’t go anywhere, have any friends, make any decisions.

Why had you let her come here? Did you feel better about me? Did you actually love me? Your daughter shook her head. It was because you wanted time alone. That was when Hillary told me how you talked about me. I was no good, you told her. You actually used that word: evil. I was selfish and cruel to you and Hillary should have nothing to do with me because I was a terrible influence. She told us she wanted to be a writer, but you wouldn’t let her touch your computer because you said it was your thing, and she should find something of her own, but then again, you weren’t writing anymore. You didn’t like the way she looked and you called her loser, idiot, worthless piece of slime. You told her not to be a slut  because she was dating. You told her she was just like me. “But maybe that’s a good thing,” your daughter said quietly, and I hugged her and stroked her hair.

Your daughter went home. I spoke to you on the phone, aghast, but you denied saying any of the things that Hillary had said. You denied that she was unhappy. “She lies,” you insisted. But that sorrow of hers was palpable.

Suddenly, your daughter and I were like two lonely planets thrown out of your orbit, adrift in space, and we began to feel each other’s gravitational pull, to use it as a safety harness. Sometimes it felt like we were the only two who knew what it was like to grow up in your company, where everything was our fault, a world of screaming and sniping and gaslighting—and that was the thing we clung to, the thing that seemed to save us and keep us steady. You’re not crazy, we told each other. It’s going to be okay. Things don’t have to be like this. We began writing each other, getting closer, as if at we recognized something in each other. The way we were both afraid all the time, the way we were desperate to be liked, to know this wasn’t our fault. The way we were always terrified around anger, especially when it was uncontrolled. The more I helped your daughter, the more I was really helping me.

And that was when you screamed, “you need to step away from my daughter.” When you called me and slammed down the phone repeatedly. When you told me you had a heart attack and it was my fault, even though our mother later told me it was a panic attack, that was all. You called with dire medical reports that turned out to be nothing, with reports of a head on car crash that had never happened. When you hacked into your daughter’s email and read the messages we sent each other, you demanded they stop because they were all lies, because nothing I said had ever happened. But how could I stop connecting to the person who was saving me who made me feel valuable because I was, in my own way, saving her?

But it wasn’t just your daughter you didn’t want me to see. When your daughter married and then had babies, you wanted me kept away from them as well. Your daughter and I refused to listen and we met up at Ocean City where you called me, furious, screaming into the phone. You acted as if we had committed a crime. Did I think you were a fool that you didn’t know what I was scheming to take your daughter away from you, you screamed? I invited you to come with us, I tried to explain, but you hung up the phone.

I am a Pollyanna. It’s true. I have always been the fixer of the family, the one to make things right when there’s been discord, to try to help. I tried with you. I begged you to see a therapist because I wondered if it was some sort of illness that could be helped with medication, and you said you would.  I offered you writing classes. I would help the people I loved.

That included your daughter, especially when she shyly asked if she could show me some writing. Of course I said okay. Or course I didn’t think much would happen. She had told me only that you hadn’t wanted her to write, that you had insisted she had no talent, that it would be a waste of time and money. “My mother says I’m totally untalented,” she told me. “She says I’ll never amount to anything.”

“You know that’s not true,” I said.

“No, I don’t.”

I read the novel in one swoop, gobsmacked. I could have written it. It was as if we shared the same DNA. When I told her how good it was, she shook her head. “No, No, I’m really awful,” she insisted. So I showed her that she was not, pointing out gorgeous passages, showing her the pages that had made me cry out loud. I took the novel to my agent, who never looked at any one’s work that she didn’t cherry pick herself, who had only once before taken on someone I had suggested. My agent called me within a day. “I want this,” she said. And it’s now out on submission.

“Tell your mom,” I urged her. I imagined how happy you would be, and how happy that would make me. I imagined we’d all get close again, but instead, you shouted. You accused me of writing it, not your daughter. You hung up the phone, your voice curt.

“She doesn’t see you anymore,” my husband told me. “And the person you loved growing up isn’t here anymore. Let go. You cannot make someone love you who doesn’t.”

“Why can’t you?” I said.

***

It’s been two years now, and you have not seen or spoke to me or your daughter or your grandkids. You refuse to answer my calls, my emails. Yes, it’s terrible and tragic and painful every day. When the occasional angry email messages come, less and less these days but always like little electric shocks, I don’t have to explain the pain, the longing to your daughter because she knows and has experienced it all herself, and when your daughter calls me upset from a snipe you made to her, or a nasty blaming email, I get to help her, to empathize, to tell her she’s been conditioned to think it’s true, but it’s not.

So this is it, the end of our story, maybe.

I lost you.

But I found your daughter.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

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